Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year!

Different cultures observe their New Years at different times of the year. Generally, the New Years dates are linked to seasons, solstices, or equinoxes.

The celebration of January 1st as the start of the new year for consular service was established by the Romans around 153 B.C. Julius Caesar kept January 1st as New Years day when he instituted his Julian calendar in 45 B.C. We in the West have adhered to this New Years date for over 2000 years, long after the Roman consular service ceased to exist. (Bureaucracies may die but their influence lives on.)

Jewish New Year

Rosh Hashanah (literally, head of the year) is a fall New Years and was observed on September 21, 2009.

Chinese New Year or Lunar New Year (also Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese New Year)

Chinese New Year usually falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice. For this year, the date is February 14, 2010 (year of the tiger).

Persian New Year

Nowruz marks the first day of spring and the beginning of the year in the Iranian calendar. It is celebrated on the day of the astronomical vernal equinox, which usually occurs on March 21.

Indian New Year (various)

Most parts of India observe a spring New Year around April 14th. Other parts (especially the Gujarati area in the northwest corner of India) observe a fall New Year in October/November.

Blogging Goal for 2010

For 2010 I plan to move my blogging emphasis toward journalism. The goal will be to favor longer, more formal articles instead of the offhand commentary and literary tidbits of 2009.

Too often this past year (including tonight) I have had to eke out topics in a frenzy to make my monthly quota of posts. This turned a pastime into a burden. I want to avoid late nights hunched over the keyboard to meet a self-imposed deadline.

The world is full of interesting things. I will be searching out my little corner of the world for meaty subjects. But I'll probably still indulge myself from time to time with quips and funny photographs and little stories as well. Onward!

Blogging during 2009

I have achieved my goal of averaging 16 blog posts per month during 2009. One can quibble that some of the posts were skimpy, but that is no matter: I did not specify a standard for length or quality.

I did a quick survey of the post titles during 2009 and found that the great majority of posts fell into the following categories.

Things that I observed on local walks, on vacations, and at concerts: 90 posts
Book extracts and news items that interested me: 50 posts
Posts relating to my own opinions, preferences, and quirks: 15 posts
My younger son's music career: 12 posts
Work-related topics: 11 posts
Religious subjects: 5 posts
Short fiction pieces: 4 posts

I had hoped for a great groundswell of attention and acclaim for my blog in 2009. This did not occur. However, I was pleased to garner one blog follower.

Two of my posts, both posted on July 19th, attracted minor notoriety. The first post (Domestic Engineering) showed a picture of a grocery sack taped to an air conditioning vent in my kitchen. The purpose of this jerryrig was to help cool off the old refrigerator's heat exchange coils during the hot summer days. A link to this post was given in an on-line engineering magazine.

The other post (Advice for General Motors) was my biggest hit of the year. The post compared Tom Swift's 1910 electric runabout to the new Chevrolet Volt. The post was first referenced in an automobile blog. From there the post was picked up in the daily topics column of an on-line automobile magazine called Then, for one day, the automobile section of Business Week's website carried a link to my post. It was the zenith of my blogging career.

I intentionally downplayed short fiction this year and only wrote 4 pieces:
The Man Who Spoke in Paragraphs 12/28
Tinker Bell takes a job 11/28
Dirty tricks in the health care biz 10/13
Fear Not 6/16/09

All in all, blogging during 2009 was pleasant and gave me a useful taste of writing discipline. I now have a heightened respect for columnists. If I myself had to meet unending weekly deadlines, I would soon be out of ideas and out of a job.

Social Cohesion and the News

From Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America (1840):

When men are no longer united among themselves by firm and lasting ties, it is impossible to obtain the co-operation of any great number of them unless you can persuade every man whose help you require that his private interest obliges him voluntarily to unite his exertions to the exertions of all the others. This can be habitually and conveniently effected only by means of a newspaper; nothing but a newspaper can drop the same thought into a thousand minds at the same moment. A newspaper is an adviser that does not require to be sought, but that comes of its own accord and talks to you briefly every day of the common weal, without distracting you from your private affairs.

Newspapers therefore become more necessary in proportion as men become more equal and individualism more to be feared. To suppose that they only serve to protect freedom would be to diminish their importance: they maintain civilization. I shall not deny that in democratic countries newspapers frequently lead the citizens to launch together into very ill-digested schemes; but if there were no newspapers there would be no common activity. The evil which they produce is therefore much less than that which they cure.


The more equal the conditions of men become and the less strong men individually are, the more easily they give way to the current of the multitude and the more difficult it is for them to adhere by themselves to an opinion which the multitude discard. A newspaper represents an association; it may be said to address each of its readers in the name of all the others and to exert its influence over them in proportion to their individual weakness. The power of the newspaper press must therefore increase as the social conditions of men become more equal.

I think that de Toqueville's assessment is fundamentally sound. Democracy requires social cohesion; social cohesion requires a shared national perspective among the citizenry.

Today there is no mass medium that speaks for the common weal. In most cities the major newspapers are nearly bankrupt and reduced to the level of USA Today in mainly reporting on sports, weather, and celebrity scandals. The handful of news magazines worth reading (U.S. News and World Report, for one) reach few households. Television news programming, to the extent that it can even be said to cover news in the form of fragmented segments, is partisan and untrustworthy. Worse yet is the lowbrow entertainment of talk radio.

As the old foundations of social cohesion -- religion, Western culture, and objective news reporting -- lose their influence, we should expect increasing divisiveness and volatility in politics and increasing disregard for civility in everyday life.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Goose stepping

Yesterday I was out for a walk in a nearby park and saw twenty geese with their heads all buried in the snow, scratching at the grass underneath for food. The scene would have made a perfect photograph for the old Grit farm newsletter of years past. The caption might have read:

Geese take a tip from the ostrich

Or perhaps:

A goose needs to keep a cool head

Or, in a macabre vein, alluding to recent reports of cattle mutilations:

Goose heads taken by strange visitors from space?

Unfortunately, I had left my digital camera at home yesterday and lost my chance to take the shot.

In hopes of a second chance, I took the camera with me to the park this afternoon. When I arrived, I was pleased to find a hundred geese assembled. I moved up the sidewalk slowly (to avoid disturbing the geese) and carefully (to avoid the abundant droppings). I took several practice photographs (one provided above) and then planned my move out into the field, to where the snow hadn't been trampled and the geese were still able to bury their heads in soft snow.

A middle-aged woman came power-walking up the sidewalk behind me. I turned, smiled, and said, "Watch your step."

She snapped, "I intend to." Then she shot past me -- head up, arms pumping, and hips rocking -- heedless of the goose poop. She instantly spooked the geese. They squawked, lifted white-feathered wings, and took flight. My photo shoot was ruined.

As I watched her march into the distance, I treasured the compensations of solitary bachelorhood.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Man Who Spoke in Paragraphs

The little hall was packed with fifty people, mostly weedy young men and badly dressed young women inclining to untidy hair. They were the city's artistic set, the college-educated paupers that stocked shelves and waited tables by day and then flocked nightly to dingy venues for experimental rock music or poetry readings. Tonight they had flocked to see a man who was creating a local sensation. He spoke in the old style: using complete paragraphs.

The lights dimmed. The man walked to center stage, sat on a chair, and began to speak. "A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me.' So he divided unto them his living."

Twenty cell phones lit up. Quick fingers tapped out tweets and posted them to the internet. The tweets were variations on "Early inheritance speeds the exchange of wealth between generations." The twenty people left the hall, happy to have received an insight without a burdensome investment of time and attention.

The man continued, "And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country and there wasted his substance with riotous living."

This provoked another twenty tweets. "Foreign travel and getting wasted can be a real riot." And these twenty additional people vacated the hall in favor of more lively amusements.

The man continued, "And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land, and he began to be in want. And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed his swine. And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat."

Six more tweets were uploaded to the internet: "It's important to get outdoors and enjoy nature. Also, get plenty of fiber in your diet." The six twitterers slipped from the hall.

All that remained was a remnant of four people at the back. Evidently, these four were out of step with the pace of modern life. They stayed behind and listened to every paragraph.

* * * * *

The description of "weedy young men and badly dressed young women inclining to untidy hair" was lifted from Chapter 2 of Mr. Standfast, John Buchan's action novel published in 1919. The description is still apt, although now the attribute of untidy hair applies equally to both sexes.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Peripatetic Blogging

I have neglected my walking of late and have consequently fallen behind in my blogging. The walking and the blogging are tightly connected. If I don't get out and walk, I lack things to observe and comment upon and, more importantly, my mind has difficulty seizing upon ideas. When I sit quietly, my mind goes blank. But as I walk in the world, ideas mysteriously come to my consciousness like bubbles rising to the surface of a pond from the shadowy depths.

The relationship between perambulation and cogitation has a long history. In 335 B.C. Aristotle founded the peripatetic school of philosophy, so-called from the walkways or colonnades (peripatoi) of the Lyceum gymnasium in Athens. Aristotle, according to some later histories, would conduct his lectures while strolling with his students.

The dependence of thought on sensory impressions was recognized by St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. From the teachings of the peripatetic philosophers, Thomas Aquinas adopted the Peripatetic Axiom: "Nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses."

In the modern era, there have been divergent opinions about how walking affects thinking. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) saw the value of observing nature during a walk but discouraged deep thinking and mulling over ideas. Rather, he saw walking as a way to give the mind rest. He summarized his views in an 1785 letter:

"The object of walking is to relax the mind. You should therefore not permit yourself even to think while you walk. But divert your attention by the objects surrounding you. Walking is the best possible exercise. Habituate yourself to walk very far. The Europeans value themselves on having subdued the horse to the uses of man. But I doubt whether we have not lost more than we have gained by the use of this animal. No one has occasioned so much the degeneracy of the human body. An Indian goes on foot nearly as far in a day, for a long journey, as an enfeebled white does on his horse, and he will tire the best horses. There is no habit you will value so much as that of walking far without fatigue."

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) held a differing opinion. He asserted, "All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking."

I fear that I have to depart from the great Jefferson and side with Nietzsche on this matter, although in general I find Nietzsche's philosophy distasteful and wish that he had done a great deal more walking before he put his thoughts to paper.

In my experience, walking awakens the mind and begets ideas. At least those are my thoughts right now after a short stroll to the post office. If I had walked farther, I would probably have better insights to share.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Puritan Christmas

This year my Christmas festivities were very modest, comparable to Puritan practice in seventeenth-century England.

Puritan political influence made Parliament pass the following law in June 1647:

Ordinance for Days of Recreation, in Lieu of Holidays.

“Forasmuch as the Feasts of The Nativity of Christ, Easter, Whitsuntide, and other Festivals, commonly called Holy-days, have been heretofore superstitiously used and observed: Be it Ordained, by the Lords and Commons in Parliament assembled, That the said Feasts of The Nativity of Christ, Easter, and Whitsuntide, and all other Festival-days commonly called Holy-days, be no longer observed as Festivals or Holidays, within this Kingdom of England and Dominion of Wales."

The Puritans sought to ban Christmas because of its Roman Catholic associations (as Christ's Mass) and because of the season's scandalous, carnival-like revelry that fostered drunkenness, gluttony, and fornication. For the Puritans, Merry Olde England had gotten a bit too merry under the reign of Charles I.

My own sedate Christmas observance was not a reaction against either Roman Catholicism or excessive partying. The day was cold and snowy, and it was simply more convenient to have a quiet dinner at home with my younger son. In keeping with the New Testament origins of the Christian Church, we dined on simple Jewish fare: lentil soup and Hebrew National hot dogs.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A slip on the ice

As I was crossing an icy street yesterday, my feet slipped and I went down hard, flopping on my right side. After I got my wind back, I carefully regained my feet. There was no damage done, but I found myself in the grip of the following phobias:

Agyrophobia : Fear of crossing the street
Ambulophobia : Fear of walking
Barophobia : Fear of gravity
Basophobia : Fear of inability to stand
Chionophobia : Fear of snow
Pagophobia : Fear of ice or frost
Traumatophobia : Fear of injury

Perhaps I'll take ski poles with me on my next walk.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Another dash of Ambrose Bierce

A little gem of a fable by Mr. Ambrose Bierce:

The Overlooked Factor

A Man that owned a fine Dog, and by a careful selection of its mate had bred a number of animals but a little lower than the angels, fell in love with his washerwoman, married her, and reared a family of dolts.

"Alas!" he exclaimed, contemplating the melancholy result, "had I but chosen a mate for myself with half the care that I did for my Dog I should now be a proud and happy father."

"I'm not so sure of that," said the Dog, overhearing the lament. "There's a difference, certainly, between your whelps and mine, but I venture to flatter myself that it is not due altogether to the mothers. You and I are not entirely alike ourselves."

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Fearful Symmetry

I have never been happy with William Blake's use of the word "symmetry" in his poem The Tyger from his 1794 Songs of Experience:

"TYGER, tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?"

I think that he means proportions instead of symmetry. The word "proportions" would louse up the meter, it is true; but even a mystic needs to observe accepted word definitions.

This symmetry/proportions confusion was perpetuated in the Doc Savage pulp fiction series (1933-1949) by Lester Dent, writing under the house name of Kenneth Robeson. Doc Savage was described in the first novel:

"The big bronze man was so well put together that the impression was not of size but of power! The bulk of his great body was forgotten in the smooth symmetry of a build incredibly powerful."

Or am I doing Lester Dent an injustice? Perhaps he was making a subtle literary reference to Blake's tyger in describing the Man of Bronze.

At any rate, mere bodily symmetry of man or beast is unlikely to provoke fear, as in: "Horrors, that man's right side is the mirror image of his left side!"

However, slavish pursuit of symmetry in architecture can produce, if not fear, at least a sense of coldness and sterility. I have been considering what new domicile I might purchase next year and am not inclined to choose one that looks like the architect designed half the building and then got lazy and did a cut-flip-paste using his computer software to finish the design. If I purchased one of the left-side townhouse units in the above complex, I worry that I would be expected to live like the person in the corresponding right-side unit. A fearful symmetry indeed!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A dash of Ambrose Bierce

The Oxford Book of Essays included a short comic essay by Ambrose Bierce that I had never encountered. The essay is called Disintroductions. I enjoy Bierce's style, which manages to be both highfalutin and peppery. Here is the first part of the essay:

The devil is a citizen of every country, but only in our own are we in constant peril of an introduction to him. That is democracy. All men are equal; the devil is a man; therefore, the devil is equal. If that is not a good and sufficient syllogism, I should be pleased to know what is the matter with it.

To write in riddles when one is not prophesying is too much trouble: what I am affirming is the horror of the characteristic American custom of promiscuous, unsought and unauthorized introductions.

You incautiously meet your friend Smith in the street; if you had been prudent you would have remained indoors. Your helplessness makes you desperate and you plunge into conversation with him, knowing entirely well the disaster that is in cold storage for you.

The expected occurs: another man comes along and is promptly halted by Smith and you are introduced! Now, you have not given to the Smith the right to enlarge your circle of acquaintance and select the addition himself; why did he do this thing? The person whom he has condemned you to shake hands with may be an admirable person, though there is a strong numerical presumption against it; but for all that the Smith knows he may be your bitterest enemy. The Smith has never thought of that. Or you may have evidence (independent of the fact of the introduction) that he is some kind of thief -- there are one thousand and fifty kinds of thieves. But the Smith has never thought of that. In short, the Smith has never thought. In a Smithocracy all men, as aforesaid, being equal, all are equally agreeable to one another.

That is a logical extension of the Declaration of American Independence. If it is erroneous, the assumption that a man will be pleasing to me because he is pleasing to another is erroneous too, and to introduce me to one that I have not asked nor consented to know is an invasion of my rights -- a denial and limitation of my liberty to a voice in my own affairs. It is like determining what kind of clothing I shall wear, what books I shall read, or what my dinner shall be.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Casino Night

My employer held the annual Year End Employee Recognition Event (aka Casino Night) last Friday. Apart from a few secular Christmas tunes such as "I'll be home for Christmas" from the combo playing light jazz background music, the yuletide spirit had been completely expunged from the central plaza at the Marriott and replaced by the Las Vegas spirit. The craps table was mobbed by my fellow workers and their spouses. Every seat was filled at the poker and blackjack tables. These merry gamblers were playing for points rather than cash, and whoever had the highest point total at the end of the night stood to win a cheap gift card. Despite the paltry payoff, gambling fever ran rampant, followed closely by intoxication. One colleague, already deep in his cups at the start of the festivities, reached over to give me a friendly pat on the back, missed me by a foot, and nearly toppled to the floor. He mumbled something about dark suits and optical illusions before wishing me well and drifting away into the crowd.

Here is a saying worthy of note: If you stick around long enough, you see everything there is to see. This is why I left the party at 9:30 p.m.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Early stages of house hunting

Mortgage rates are low and housing prices have sagged. It is a good time for me to shop for a house, but I am bewildered by all of the alternatives and considerations.

I tend to over-think the process. For me, a house is the stage scenery for my life, conducted as an ongoing amateur theatrical production (typically more comic than dramatic). I want my house to provide the right setting, the ideal being Sherlock Holmes's bachelor quarters with a few discreet modern enhancements such as central air. As an actor of limited range, even in my own autobiographical show, I depend on my surroundings to complete my image. Put me in an Italian villa, I can toss off bon mots like a young William Powell. Put me in a nondescript suburban townhouse (that is, right here) and I have trouble constructing complete sentences. With so much self image riding on the choice of the right house, it is no wonder that I get stagefright thinking about it.

I browse the internet realty sites and puzzle over whether I want a shack in the upscale zipcode area or a 3000 sq. ft. fixer-upper in the high-crime zipcode area. Given my longtime antipathy to yard work, do I really want a single-family house? On the other hand, given my experience with apartment neighbors that have been noisy or, even worse, obsessive about enforcing perfect silence, do I really want to share a common wall with another homeowner? I have no idea what to choose, and I can easily work myself into an existential crisis over it.

My younger son is lobbying for a house with vaulted ceilings. He says that a spacious living room with wall surfaces at irregular angles is the optimal space for recording music tracks with violin, guitar, or bass. He would be content living in an aircraft hangar, a medieval chapel, or a hall of mirrors.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


I attended yet another retirement party this evening. I stopped by a local restaurant to sample some buffet food (including jalapeno poppers with a bite that bordered on the radioactive) and to join my fellow employees in wishing a colleague a bonny departure from the company.

The occasion didn't have the gravity of an old-time retirement sendoff, which traditionally was an important milestone on the way to senescence and decline. The retiree, a relative youth of my own age, was taking early retirement to cash in on a lucrative pension lump sum (i.e., pension money distributed in the form of a single present-value amount rather than as a monthly annuity) before hopping back into the workforce as a consultant. Still, it was fitting to honor his years of service.

At my company, about two dozen workers my age have yanked the retirement ripcord during the past two months. This exodus was provoked by a lump sum calculation modification that goes into effect on January 1st and drops the payoff by about 15%. My own financial circumstances make early retirement unappetizing, so I hope to continue in my current job for another decade or so. I have run the numbers a hundred times and am convinced that is the best plan for me. All the same, when I see all these people my age leaving the company, I feel a bit like a student being held back to repeat a grade. The urge to conform with the behavior of one's age group is very powerful.

I will have to get used to being a corporate Methuselah.