Monday, December 20, 2010

A new approach

My blog has run out of steam. (Picture a Victorian steam engine wheezing and shuddering to a halt.) I have lost interest in posting scenic snapshots and excerpts from books that I find clever or original. Going forward, instead of using the blog as a kind of scrapbook, I intend for the blog to serve as a kind of haphazard literary journal, where I post nothing but my own humble writings -- short stories mostly, but perhaps also some essays, parodies, journalism (if anything interesting is happening in my locale), and light verse.

Postings will be irregular. Instead of being a web periodical, the blog will be an aperiodical. My work schedule for 2011 will likely be hectic; and in the interest of avoiding blood pressure spikes, I need to avoid saddling myself with stringent goals for frequency or content of blog entries.


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Recovering from a long November

The blog ground to a halt this month while I was occupied with editing a blitz proposal at work. The exhaustion and the stress drove every creative thought out of my head. With me, elevated blood pressure correlates quite closely with dullness.

I'm hoping that a relaxing walk each day at noon will revive my literary powers.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Dragon's Grandmother

I am reading G.K. Chesterton's Tremendous Trifles (1909), a compilation of his sketches published in the Daily News (a London newspaper founded by Charles Dickens in 1846).

In the essay The Dragon's Grandmother, Chesterton gives the account of meeting a young man who claimed not to believe in fairy tales. This claim caused Chesterton to become perplexed and indignant. He upbraided the man as follows:

"Can you not see that fairy tales in their essence are quite solid and straightforward; but that this everlasting fiction about modern life is in its nature essentially incredible? Folk lore means that the soul is sane, but that the universe is wild and full of marvels. Realism means that the world is dull and full of routine, but that the soul is sick and screaming. The problem of the fairy tale is--what will a healthy man do with a fantastic world? The problem of the modern novel is--what will a madman do with a dull world?

"In the fairy tales the cosmos goes mad; but the hero does not go mad. In the modern novels the hero is mad before the book begins, and suffers from the harsh steadiness and cruel sanity of the cosmos.

"In the excellent tale of 'The Dragon's Grandmother,' in all the other tales of Grimm, it is assumed that the young man setting out on his travels will have all substantial truths in him; that he will be brave, full of faith, reasonable, that he will respect his parents, keep his word, rescue one kind of people, defy another kind, 'parcere subjectis et debellare,' [to spare the lowly and overthrow the proud - Virgil's Aeneid] etc. Then, having assumed this centre of sanity, the writer entertains himself by fancying what would happen if the whole world went mad all round it, if the sun turned green and the moon blue, if horses had six legs and giants two heads.

"But your modern literature takes insanity as its centre. Therefore it loses the interest even of insanity. A lunatic is not startling to himself, because he is quite serious; that is what makes him a lunatic. A man who thinks he is a poached egg is to himself as plain as a poached egg. A man who thinks he is a kettle is to himself as common as a kettle. It is only sanity that can see even a wild poetry in insanity. Therefore these wise old tales made the hero ordinary and the tale extraordinary. But you have made the hero extraordinary and the tale ordinary--so ordinary--oh, so very ordinary."

I am sympathetic to Chesterton's literary criticism here.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Let Your Motion Be Your Medicine

I have been keeping irregular hours of late and have had difficulty maintaining my prescribed schedule for taking blood pressure pills. When I slip up, the symptoms of a spike in blood pressure soon overtake me: headache, poor concentration, and a general feeling of being disconnected from the world, as if I were looking through the wrong end of a telescope.

Fortunately, I have found a reliable palliative: a brisk thirty minute walk. I can usually get a 25 point systolic drop from a constitutional around the nearby park.

One last colored tree

One could contend that I have been photographing quite enough colored trees this month. However, I could not resist this bright red specimen.

I spotted the tree as I returned from the early service at church. The sun's light was coming from a favorable angle, making the tree look like it was aflame but not consumed. (Moses would know what I mean.) I rushed to get my camera and record the striking sight. But, alas, the camera was unable to capture a sense of the miraculous; it only managed to turn photons into pixels. You can't depend on mere photons to show you the deeper things of life.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Life: A User's Manual

I am reading the marvelous novel Life: A User's Manual by Georges Perec (1936-1982). The writing is reminiscent of Borges's for its intricate structure and rich detail. In the novel Perec constructed a world around a Parisian apartment building: every flat and every tenant's life is described in dispassionate yet curiously beguiling prose. Here is a sample. (under 400 words to avoid abusing fair use)

Let us imagine a man whose wealth is equalled only by his indifference to what wealth generally brings, a man of exceptional arrogance who wishes to fix, to describe, and to exhaust not the whole world – merely to state such an ambition is enough to invalidate it – but a constituted fragment of the world: in the face of the inextricable incoherence of things, he will set out to execute a (necessarily limited) programme right the way through....

In other words, Bartlebooth resolved one day that his whole life would be organised around a single project, an arbitrarily constrained programme with no purpose outside its own completion.

The idea occurred to him when he was twenty. At first it was only a vague idea, a question looming – what should I do? – with an answer taking shape: nothing. Money, power, art, women did not interest Bartlebooth. Nor did science, nor even gambling. There were only neckties and horses that just about did, or, to put it another way, beneath these futile illustrations [...] there stirred, dimly, a certain idea of perfection.

It grew over the following months and came to rest on three guiding principles.

[In summary, the principles were that the programme had to be simple (albeit challenging), amenable to strict planning, and self-extinguishing.]

Thus a concrete programme was designed, which can be stated succinctly as follows.

For ten years, from 1925 to 1935, Bartlebooth would acquire the art of painting watercolours.

For twenty years, from 1935 to 1955, he would travel the world, painting, at a rate of one watercolour each fortnight, five hundred seascapes of identical format (royal, 65cm x 50cm) depicting seaports. When each view was done, he would dispatch it to a specialist craftsman (Gaspard Winckler), who would glue it to a thin wooden backing board and cut it into a jigsaw puzzle of seven hundred and fifty pieces.

For twenty years, from 1955 to 1975, Bartlebooth, on his return to France, would reassemble the jigsaw puzzles in order, at a rate, once again, of one puzzle a fortnight. As each puzzle was finished, the seascape would be "retexturized" so that it could be removed from its backing, returned to the place where it had been painted – twenty years before – and dipped in a detergent solution whence would emerge a clean and unmarked sheet of Whatman paper.

Thus no trace would remain of an operation which would have been, throughout a period of fifty years, the sole motivation and unique activity of its author.


Sunday, October 24, 2010

Fall colors

I enjoy looking at the various colored trees in my nearby park. To sound more highbrow, I suppose I should say that I enjoy looking at the deciduous chromatic melange.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Orange tree

The fall colors in Denver have been marvelous this year. Unfortunately, I got dragooned into writing a proposal at work and have had no free time to snap pictures of trees.

The photograph above was a striking tree located a block from my parents' home in Davenport, Iowa. A lot of orange in eastern Iowa this year.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Let the Greening Begin

A friend at work tells me about his conversation with one of our company's personnel managers.

"They intend to green the work force," says he.

"Make us more energy efficient?" say I.

"No, make us younger," says he.

I expect the Green Gestapo to round up us older workers any day now.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The First National Bank

Yesterday I returned home from a week's vacation in Davenport, Iowa. Spending time with family was the preeminent benefit of the trip, but I also found a few idle hours to walk around downtown and enjoy the landmarks. After visiting a very fine used-book store, I made my way to the First National Bank, a grand old building built in the flush times before the Great Depression. US Bank is the current tenant.

The bank's entrance dazzled me in my youth. It was obvious that any bank decorated with Roman sculpture must be a safe and secure place to store one's wealth.

The classical figures in the bronze screen above the door are especially interesting. They are conducting business. However, the violence of their gestures suggest that a war or an orgy could break out at any moment.

On each side of the door are statues showing the primary occupations of antiquity: art, philosophy, agriculture, labor, etc. The place of honor -- right side, very top -- is given to banking. Naturally.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Knowledge Lust

This weekend I became obsessed with learning how to play George Harrison's song While My Guitar Gently Weeps as arranged for guitar by Eric Schoenberg. I had seen some YouTube clips of guitarists playing Schoenberg's arrangement and I became fixated on finding the sheet music.

Now even while I was in the throes of this obsession, one part of my mind remained objective and understood that there was nothing urgent or crucial about learning to play Harrison's 1968 song in the style of Schoenberg's 1999(?) fingerstyle guitar arrangement. After all, nobody was clamoring to hear me play it. But what should have been a passing whim had me in a powerful grip. I was suffering from a flashback of knowledge lust, an affliction that had often troubled me when I was in college, so long ago.

Back in my college days, I would frequently find myself overpowered by the desire to suddenly and intensely research arcane subjects that were far removed from my engineering studies. This would lead me into weekend knowledge binges. Examples of topics: the linguistics of Noam Chomsky, the deciphering of ancient Mayan script, the frenzied reading of every novel ever published by comic writer Peter De Vries (see his characteristic wit in Comfort Me with Apples and his sensitivity in the poignant masterpiece Blood of the Lamb). After spending every waking moment of Saturday and Sunday in exhaustive (and exhausting) study, I would return to my engineering classes on Monday with bleary eyes and a head buzzing with poorly digested ideas. While I never drank as an undergraduate (more owing to poverty than temperance), the sleeplessness and over-concentration associated with a knowledge binge produced damage comparable to a severe hangover. During one Monday morning class I remember being groggy to the point of near incoherence, prompting the professor to upbraided me for partying too hard over the weekend. Being labeled a rake and a womanizer in front of my fellow engineering students was such an improvement over my customary nerdly reputation that I was not inclined to correct the professor's misconception.

Anyway, for most of the weekend I searched and searched the internet until I found a PDF file of an simplified tutorial adaptation of Schoenberg's arrangement of While My Guitar Gently Weeps. Then, after only six or seven hours of practice, I succeeded in playing a half-speed version of the song that more or less resembled the Schoenberg arrangement.

At last the binge was over; the knowledge lust departed. I was left with sore finger tips and a sour feeling of dissipation at having wasted an entire weekend on a Beatles song with a pleasing melody but some of the most insipid lyrics in pop music. Curses on whoever gave George Harrison a rhyming dictionary:

"I don't know how you were diverted
You were perverted too
I don't know how you were inverted
No one alerted you."

Dreadful. At least Harrison didn't force "blurted", "flirted", or "squirted" into the lyrics.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Rethinking Herbert Hoover

I have been sampling Herbert Hoover's memoirs and discovered that he was a very able man with a lively intellect. Pity that his presidency was obliterated by the Great Depression. Here is an excerpt from Chapter 9, Family Living and Extra-Curricular Activities 1908-1914:

"For some years I had been interested in the older literature of engineering and applied science generally. I had formed quite a collection of fifteenth and sixteenth century books on early science, engineering, metallurgy, mathematics, alchemy, etc. One of these — Agricola's De Re Metallica — a folio published in Latin in 1556, was the first important attempt to assemble systematically in print the world-knowledge on mining, metallurgy, and industrial chemistry. It was the great textbook of those industries for two centuries and had dominated thought and practice all that time. In many mining regions and camps, including the Spanish South American, it was chained to the church altar and translated by the priest to the miners between religious services. No one had ever succeeded in translating it into English, although several had tried. My own study of Latin had never gone beyond some elementary early schooling and a few intermittent attempts to penetrate further into that language and literature after I left college. Mrs. Hoover was a good Latinist after she brushed up a little, and we found we could work it out. The problem of the "untranslatable" Agricola fascinated us both, and finally in 1907 we resolved to translate it jointly. There were formidable difficulties; for while Agricola's Latin was scholarly enough, he was dealing with subjects the whole nomenclature and practice of which had developed hundreds of years after the Latin language ceased to grow. He did not adopt into the text the German, Italian or English terms for the operations or substances he described, but coined or adapted Latin terms for them. It was thus obvious why Latin scholars had failed in translation into English. It had been translated after a fashion into both German and French by persons unfamiliar with the arts described. For this reason, their work had failed also.

The job involved finding out — either from the context, from German, French, Italian, or other fragmentary literature of the times, or from study of the processes themselves — what he meant. Mrs. Hoover's ability to read German and some French helped greatly. Sometimes the task amounted more to scientific detective work than to translation. Material A might start as an unknown substance but in different parts of the book Agricola would state its varying reactions when treated or combined with known substances B or C. Thus I could often have the meaning of his terms worked out in our laboratories. Often enough, when we discovered the meaning of a term we found that there was no modern word to express it because that particular process had been long abandoned. In any event, we grappled with it sentence by sentence, during our spare time, month after month, for over five years. We lugged the manuscript all over the world for odd moments that would be available for work on it."

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Dangers of Photography

Lately I have been plumping up the blog with photos. This is a lazy man's way to fill space.

Fortunately, a chastening spirit from Italy came to my aid when I read an early short story by Italo Calvino entitled The Adventure of a Photographer. In this story Antonino, a reserved and philosophical young man, initially holds photography in disdain. In his words:

"The minute you start saying something, 'Ah, how beautiful! We must photograph it!' you are already close to the view of the person who thinks that everything that is not photographed is lost, as if it had never existed, and that therefore, in order really to live, you must photograph as much as you can, and to photograph as much as you can you must either live in the most photographic way possible, or else consider photographable every moment of your life. The first course leads to stupidity; the second to madness."

As the story progresses, Antonino gives in to the photographic obsession (a photogenic girl leads to his downfall) and he becomes quite deranged. By the end of the story, he has become a camera fiend, so alienated from reality that he is reduced to taking photographs of photographs.

Thus far, I myself have experienced little, if any, photographically induced derangement (knock wood), but I must be watchful lest too many photographs creep into my blog and dissipate its literary intensity. Of course, the only thing worse than a blog plumped up with photographs is a blog plumped up with quotations from other (and better) writers.

Saturday, September 25, 2010


I stopped to admire these flowers at the entrance to a nearby park. In addition to the flowers with white and violet blossoms, the garden is packed with a rare variety of flower with ultraviolet blossoms. Invisible to the naked eye, the ultraviolet blossoms can give you a nasty sunburn if you get too close.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Among the Nymphs

This afternoon I journeyed to a forest to attend a free-form dance performance by college dance students. The performance was billed as a "site specific offering", an ungainly academic coinage denoting that dance segments were staged at different locations in the woods and that the choreography for a particular location was adapted to that location's trees, boulders, rock ledges, or meadows. I enjoyed both the dancing and the scenery.

Free-form dance - or "creative dance", as it is called at the college - hasn't changed much from the days of Isadora Duncan. It's still all about nature, emotion, and spontaneity. Today in the woods, the young female dancers portrayed a mystical union with Nature and generally comported themselves like nymphs. The dancing was graceful and expressive.

Some college boys may have attended with the hope of seeing hippie chicks frisk about in the woods or, hope of hopes, witnessing a full-blown bacchanalia. These fellows probably thought that the performance more resembled a slumber party, without pillow fights. However, they appeared to enjoy the dance segment featuring pairs of dancers rolling over each other in slow motion.

Three musicians provided an ethereal Celtic-flavored accompaniment. My younger son played the fiddle. His two friends played the cello and the harmonium.

To begin the performance, the audience was led from the parking lot along a forest trail. We passed over a bridge where a nymph was holding a smooth, flat stone in her hand. I failed to grasp the significance of this action.

The audience then went through some brush and debouched into a clearing. There we were treated to the sight of a nymph sitting high above us on a sawn off tree trunk. This serious and contemplative nymph reminded me of St. Simeon Stylites, the fifth-century Christian ascetic. (The comparison only works one way: nobody ever saw St. Simeon and was reminded of a nymph.)

Now the performance began in earnest. A bevy of nymphs were posed on the rock ledges up ahead. They seemed to be personifying the invertebrate branch of nature. One by one they eased themselves down to the ground. Their slow, sleepy motion reminded me of rubber chickens.

Now this action shifted to the top of a twelve-foot high boulder. An agitated nymph rolled and lunged near the boulder's edge. Behind her on the boulder, the fiddler (my younger son) provided a dire minor key accompaniment. Satyrs are often found with nymphs; but my son, though frequently satirical, is not a satyr.

The next dance segment featured nymphs rolling down hills. The sweet music of a harmonium (a sort of pump organ) was the accompaniment. It is a fine thing to see a harmonium player enjoying himself.

The next dance sequence was a striking tableau of nymphs cavorting at three elevations upon a tall rock face. All three musicians joined forces to create an appropriately grand sound.

Now and then a nymph would feel the need to portray an intimate bond with Mother Earth.

One nymph specialized in graceful hula-like arm motions. In antiquity, nymphs were often associated with trees. Why not palm trees?

Finally, after a dance segment in which the nymphs covered themselves with dirt and a dance segment in which the nymphs frantically raced from tree to tree, the curtain fell. Or rather, as there was no curtain in the forest, the nymphs themselves fell.

The performance was over. As I took the trail back to the parking lot, I reflected on all I had seen and heard and was pleased to have experienced such artistry. I was also pleased that I had not been accosted as a dirty old man for taking snapshots of the nubile young dancers.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Anti-Gazebo

Walking downtown last week, I saw the small pavilion (above) that I call the "anti-gazebo". This description is not to be understood in the nuclear sense: I'm not saying that if a gazebo and an anti-gazebo were brought into close proximity, they would annihilate each other, releasing a blast of energy. Rather, an anti-gazebo is a structure that excludes the normal function and benefit of a gazebo, which is to provide shade, shelter, and a place to rest while viewing the surrounding scenery.

The anti-gazebo shown above is specifically designed to make people avoid standing under it. The anti-gazebo has a ledge that rings the inside of the dome, providing a perfect place for pigeons to roost. In fact, the word has apparently gotten out to the pigeon community, and a dozen pigeons can be found roosting inside the anti-gazebo at any given time. According to established pigeon custom, a pigeon is permitted to release droppings at will, without bothering itself about the target area. Consequently, the floor of the anti-gazebo is subject to a constant drizzle of guano.

I put myself at risk of being befouled while investigating the construction of the anti-gazebo. I can only hope that my blog readership appreciates the lengths to which I will go to provide journalistic thoroughness.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Visiting the rich folks (nearly)

I just returned from a four-mile walk to the library downtown. My feet feel roughly the size, temperature, and flatness of pizzas fresh from the oven.

On the advice of my younger son, I departed from my customary route today. I drove to a lightrail station, parked the car, and then started my walk. After three and a half hours I arrived at the south end of downtown, browsed three of the used bookstores, and then traveled a mile north to the library. The library public address system announced that the library would close in thirty minutes, so I rushed through the stacks and picked out two books: a collection of Isaac Babel's short stories and a history of Western Civilization. (Just as the West is jettisoning its civilization, I seem to have developed a nostalgic fascination with its history.) Then, a quick walk to the shuttle bus, a ride to the lightrail stop, and soon I was whisked away on rails of steel to my waiting Swedish motorcar.

What about the photo above, you ask? During my walk, I passed through a high-dollar part of town where the polo people and country club folks live. Their elegant houses are protected by eight-foot brick walls, close-set shrubbery, and dense trees. If an owner fancies a mountain view, one window might peek west over the ramparts; otherwise, typically all that the proletariat is permitted to see is the roof and the featureless rear of the house. And don't think that you can go driving inside the neighborhood to admire the swell architecture. Signs are clearly posted that all the streets are private property and that trespassers will be prosecuted.

The wealthy folks in Mexico City's gated communities would feel right at home here. All that is lacking are those pretty shards of colored glass embedded in the tops of the walls and a smartly dressed platoon of guards with submachine guns.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Metal Plate Bossy versus the Grass of Doom

The mad scientists of urban horticulture have developed new mutant grass species and are strategically placing them around the city. I spotted plants that were fully eight feet tall (photo 1) on my great two-hour Labor Day stroll. They didn't seem actively carnivorous, but I was careful to keep my distance all the same. Other grass mutants (photo 2) looked suspiciously reminiscent of the barrel-shaped pods in the movie The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Fortunately, Mother Nature has a way of counteracting mankind's schemes. I was relieved to see a newly evolved cow (photo 3) that should be more than a match for the mutant grasses. Metal Plate Bossy will put the environment back into balance. (Milking may be a challenge. Reinforced work gloves and a crescent wrench are recommended.)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Hot time in Fort Collins

Yesterday I drove to Fort Collins to see my younger son play in a band at the Bohemian Nights festival. The drive was aggravating because I was forced to keep the car's speed below 59 mph. Any faster and the steering wheel shakes violently. I must either get the alignment fixed or start doing exercises to strengthen my grip.

The day was a scorcher. The temperature climbed to the high 90s. I made my way through the thousands of sweaty revelers to the Library Stage, which I was relieved to find next to the library. (Ironic names are always a danger in a college town.) After checking the relative positions of the sun and a nearby shade tree, I put posterior to some shady ground that would remain shady throughout the afternoon. I was ready for the show.

The prologue to any concert with electric instruments (or, in my son's case, an authentic wooden fiddle equipped with an electric microphone gizmo) is the obligatory fifteen minutes of tedium wherein worried-looking sound technicians try to get all the equipment powered up and sound balanced (first photo). Then the band finally steps up and starts cooking (middle photo). In the case of yesterday's concert, the cooking was literal. Under the stage lights, the temperature was about 120 degrees Fahrenheit (nearly 50 degrees Celsius).

Stringed instruments drift out of tune with the heat. Guitars go flat. My son's fiddle goes sour in its own peculiar way: the highest string -- the solid metal E string -- goes flat; the lower strings, of wound construction, go slightly sharp.

Toward the end of the concert my son was called forward to take a solo (last photo). You can see the concentration on his humid brow as he works to compensate for his frying fiddle's wayward strings.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Don't give me a home where the buffalo roamed

I took the long way to the library on Saturday and passed through some of the prairie land surrounding the state reservoir. As the top photo indicates, this land encompasses many acres of undisturbed nature. I like to look out over the expanse of wild grass and imagine that I have returned to the days of the great buffalo herds.

It is a blessing to have nature in the wild a mere fifteen minute walk from my house, so I hope that the state never gets so strapped for cash that it decides to sell the land to developers. The world doesn't need another trendy subdivision. (Come to Buffalo Ridge Estates! Golf where the buffalo roamed!)

I also enjoy nature when it is cultivated and orderly. On my walk I passed a park with the large and carefully tended flowerbed shown above.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Colorado Blue Spruce

I walked to the library this morning. I hoped to have an insight along the way or some blogworthy experience. No dice. The only thing of interest was this Colorado Blue Spruce. As the unretouched photo shows, the tree's needles are glaucous (a fancy word meaning bluish-green). In fact, this tree is as conspicuously glaucous as a blue spruce gets.

Its scientific name is Picea pungens 'Hoopsii'. Picea (pitch) refers to the tree's resinous sap. Blue spruce sap was formerly used as chewing gum by Native Americans. They now prefer Trident, I believe. Pungens (sharp) refers to the tree's pointy needles. 'Hoopsii' refers to the Hoops Nursery in Germany where this cultivated variety of the Colorado Blue Spruce originated.

This concludes the Uneventful Saturday Morning Review.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

G.V. Desani sample

It seems to me that my discerning readership would benefit from a taste of the richly comic writing of G.V. Desani, from his 1948 novel All About H. Hatterr.

Early in the book, the irrepressible H. Hatterr seeks the advice of his bookish Anglophilic pal Banerrji on dealing with his dhobin (Indian washerwoman) who has conceived a crush on him.

'Damme, Banerrji,' I confided in my pal, 'I am in a hell of a trouble!'

'Is in the morning the pharoah's spirit really troubled, as the Good Book says? I am deeply sorry.'

'Damme, old feller, you don't understand! I am in a hell of a mess. A woman is enamored of me!'

'I don't mind, Mr H. Hatterr. Good luck to her. Whereas, I deplore and deprecate sensual Leda-and-Zeus love, I am wholeheartedly for romance. Is her name Priscilla, or is it Daphne? Is it a boy and girl affair? I am anxious to know if you could concur with the bard Walt Whitman, and sing to her, As I lay my head in your lap, camerado? In other words, do you reciprocate her kind regards?'

'I loathe the very sight of her. I have told her so.'

'Undaunted? She has my sympathy. On her part, excuse me, it might be a genuine Darby and Joan feeling. If so, Mr Robert Bridges rightly protests, Quit in a single kiss?'

'Damme, Banerrji, a woman of her age ought to know better! I place her nearer sixty than fifty.'

'Does she suffer from a morbid fascination of the male-sex anatomy? Is she an Elephant?'

'Kindly explain that interrogation, old feller. I have lived a sheltered life.'

'Well, Mr H. Hatterr,' said my pal, 'as an Indian, and a Hindu student-gentleman, I am deeply attached to the ancient classics. According to the sages, all women can be summed up and recognized under four species. In other words, the Lotus, the Art, the Sea-Shell, and the Elephant. These are the four sorts of Woman. The Lotus-woman is A1 vintage. She has a face as pleasing as the Moon. She is lovely as a lily. She launches a thousand ships, as Mr Marlowe says. Her complexion is fine and her eyes are beautiful. In fact, the lady is worth washing in asses' milk. She is dainty, like a rose. She eats little and sleeps lightly...'

'Thanks for the enlightenment. You know what a heavy sleeper my wife is, don't you? And she is no rose either.'

'I am gradually coming to her, Mr H. Hatterr. Let me now sound you on the Art-woman. She is middle height, her body has the scent of honey, and she is a light sleeper as well. The Sea-Shell, on the other hand, is hard-hearted, fault-finding, and she prefers scarlet colour to any other. Her sleep is also disturbed. Lastly, may I refer you to the Elephant-woman? Excuse me, I don't like her. She has male contours. She is narrow of hip, broad of shoulder, and her voice is tenor. She is short, stout, and a glutton. Her walk has no lithe grace of a serpent. Instead, she rolls her hips. She sleeps very soundly, as you said, and perspires a great deal.'

'Thank you! My perspiring, hip-rolling, and soundly sleeping wife thanks you! Where I come from, man, we recognise only two kinds of Woman. The good and the rotten. This dhobin woman is rotten.'


Hasten to the bookstore and buy this wonderful book before it goes out of print again!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

All About H. Hatterr

I am reading the brilliant work of comic fiction All About H. Hatterr published in 1948 by G.V. Desani (1909-2000). In the book, the character H. Hatterr tells of his rough and tumble search for Enlightenment, employing a richness of expression -- from Shakespearean cadences to pop philosophy to Hindi street slang -- that rivals the linguistic ingenuity of S.J. Perelman at his most fanciful. The wordplay is dizzying.

In his detailed criticism of his estranged wife, the "waxed Kiss-curl", H. Hatter makes reference to a bill passed by the British Parliament in the 1770s:

"All women of whatever age, rank, profession or degree, whether virgins, maids, or widows, that shall impose upon, seduce, and betray into matrimony any of His Majesty's subjects, by scents, paints, cosmetic washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, high-heeled shoes, bolstered hips, shall suffer the penalties of witchcraft, the marriage standing null and void." (Spanish wool was a kind of rouge.)

I searched the Internet and found that this bill crossed the Atlantic and became law in the State of New Jersey during colonial times. Later, the language of this bill was appropriated (and somewhat softened) at the time of the Civil War by Cocke County (Tennessee) Representative J. H. Randolph, who appended a facetious amendment to a bill to protect the property of married women during the Thirty-Fourth General Assembly in Memphis:

"Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Tennessee, That all women of whatever age, rank, profession or degree, whether virgins, maids or widows, that shall from and after the passage of this act, impose upon, seduce, and betray into matrimony any male subject in the Confederate States of America and particularly in the State of Tennessee, by means of scents, paints, cosmetics, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, high-heeled shoes, or bolstered hips shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction shall be fined in the Sum of One Hundred Dollars and imprisoned at the discretion the Court trying the Cause."

With the addition of several cosmetic surgeries to the list and an upward adjustment of the fine to account for 150 years of inflation, this bill would be ready to submit to the U.S. Congress.

Hummingbird Moth

This evening, as my younger son and I were walking home from a nearby Mexican restaurant, we spotted a diminutive hummingbird hovering above a flowerbed. But the creature had antennae! My son conjectured that we were looking at a moth. He dug into his pocket for his iPhone and took the blurry picture above.

My son was correct. According to Whitney Cranshaw, Specialist in Entomology (Colorado State University Cooperative Extension), we had spotted a "hummingbird" moth (family Sphingidae), also known as a "sphinx" or "hawk" moth. (A glamour shot of the moth, courtesy of Mr. Cranshaw, is provided above.) This moth is a retiring fellow, waiting until the quiet dusk to do its nectaring.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Georgetown Loop

Last Sunday I took a ride on the Georgetown Loop narrow-gauge railway. The vintage steam engine pulls three tourist cars: one of them covered and the other two open to the drizzling mountain rain. I was in the first open car. Although I got cold and wet, I remained cheerful.

Robert Burton's book The Anatomy of Melancholy guided me to focus on things that drive away melancholy:
- Good food (an organic tofu burger at the Happy Cooker restaurant in Georgetown)
- Good surroundings (fresh mountain air and the beautiful forest valley)
- Good exercise (a relaxing walk to visit an abandoned silver mine)
- Good company (cheerful friends)

Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Neighbors' Pond

The houses across the street are more expensive than my own and have more landscaping and a nifty pond. I would need to be fifty percent more wealthy to afford one of them.

Whenever I take a walk to the east, I like to take a peek at the pond. I think that this does no harm. After all, when I enjoy the scene, I am not robbing the rightful owners of their own enjoyment. Neither am I breaking the tenth commandment. I don't covet the pond. Coveting involves possession, and possession involves upkeep. A quick peek is enough for me.

First Melancholy Cure

Tomorrow I am having lunch and taking a train ride in the mountains with some friends from work. No doubt we will also find time for a stroll in the woods. I expect to satisfy four of the six curative categories from The Anatomy of Melancholy:

Diet: good food at a mountain inn
Air and environment: cool mountain air and scenic beauty
Exercise of mind and body: an invigorating stroll with pleasant companions
Rectification of passions and perturbations of mind: cheerful conversation


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Medieval Chinese Hospitality

Marco Polo mentions two radically different customs of hospitality in the China of the thirteenth century. In a province in the far west, a stranger was treated to excessive hospitality:

"A man does not think it an outrage if a stranger or some other man makes free with his wife or daughter or sister or any woman he may have in his house. But it is taken as a favour when anyone lies with them. For they say that by this act their gods and idols are propitiated, so as to enrich them with temporal blessings in great abundance. And for that reason they deal with their wives in the following open-handed fashion. You must know that when a man of this country sees that a stranger is coming to his house to lodge, he immediately walks out, telling his wife to let the stranger have his will without reservation. Then he goes his way to his fields or vineyards and does not return so long as the stranger remains in his house. And I assure you that he often stays three days and lies in bed with this wittol's wife."

In the south of China, a stranger was treated much differently:

"If it happened that a gentleman of quality, with a fine figure, or a 'good shadow', came to lodge in the house of a native of this province, they would murder him in the night, by poison or other means, so that he died. You must not suppose that they did this in order to rob him; they did it rather because they believed his 'good shadow' and the good grace with which he was blessed and his intelligence and soul would remain in the house."

I suppose that both of these medieval Chinese customs have died out during the past seven centuries. All the same, if I ever visit China, I think that I'll stay in a hotel.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Kubilai Khan (You bet he khan!)

I'm about a third of the way through the Penguin Classics edition of The Travels of Marco Polo.

Marco Polo began his journey to the court of the Great Khan, Kubilai, in 1271 and returned to Venice after twenty years. Later, in 1298, Polo was a prisoner of war in Genoa. He was evidently incarcerated in the thirteenth century equivalent of a minimum-security prison, because he found sufficient leisure to collaborate with a romance writer named Rustichello of Pisa in writing down his memories of the Near East, Persia, India, and Cathay.

Polo's account of his actual day-by-day travels sometimes tends toward the formulaic. He took a practical businessman's notice of the distances between regions, the classes of inhabitants -- mainly distinguished by religion -- and the products marketed within the regions. A sample:

"Let us turn next to the province of Yarkand, five days' journey in extent. The inhabitants follow the law of Mahomet, and there are also some Nestorian Christians. They are subject to the Great Khan's nephew, of whom I have already spoken. It is amply stocked with the means of life, especially cotton. But, since there is nothing here worth mentioning in our book, we shall pass on to Khotan, which lies to the east-north-east.

Khotan is a province eight day's journey in extent, which is subject to the Great Khan. The inhabitants all worship Mahomet. It has cities and towns in plenty, of which the most splendid, and the capital of the kingdom, bears the same name as the province, Khotan. It is amply stocked with the means of life. Cotton grows here in plenty. It has vineyards, estates, and orchards in plenty. The people live by trade and industry; they are not at all warlike."

Rustichello, realizing that this material needed punching up, periodically injected fanciful digressions taken from legends or popular Venetian romances. These enhancements probably bolstered the book's marketing appeal back then but generally annoy the modern reader who is in search of historical accuracy and insight. However, at times during their collaboration Rustichello seems to have prodded Marco Polo to mine his memories for more detailed description or a deeper analysis of a foreign culture. Some wonderful narration resulted. A sample:

"He [Kubilai Khan] has many concubines, about whom I will tell you. There is a province inhabited by Tartars who are called Kungurat, which is also the name of their city. They are a very good-looking race with fair complexions. Every two years or so, according to his pleasure, the Great Khan sends emissaries to this province to select for him out of the most beautiful maidens, according to the standard of beauty which he lays down for them, some four or five hundred, more or less as he may decide. This is how the selection is made. When the emissaries arrive, they summon to their presence all the maidens of the province. And there valuers are deputed for the task. After inspecting and surveying every girl feature by feature, her hair, her face, her eyebrows, her mouth, her lips, and every other feature, to see whether they are well-formed and in harmony with her person, the valuers award to some a score of sixteen marks, to others seventeen, eighteen, or twenty, or more or less according to the degree of their beauty. And, if the Great Khan has ordered them to bring him all who score twenty marks, or perhaps twenty-one, according to the number ordered, these are duly brought. When they have come to his presence, he has them assessed a second time by other valuers, and then the thirty or forty with the highest score are selected for his chamber. These are allotted, one by one, to the barons' wives, who are instructed to observe them carefully at night in their chambers, to make sure that they are virgins and not blemished or defective in any member, that they sleep sweetly without snoring, and that their breath is sweet and they give out no unpleasant odour. Then those who are approved are divided into groups of six, who serve the Khan for three days and three nights at a time in his chamber and his bed, ministering to all his needs. And he uses then according to his pleasure. After three days and nights, in come the next six damsels. And so they continue in rotation throughout the year."

Notice that the Great Khan's rating scale for feminine beauty topped out at the "perfect 24". Modern man settles for the "perfect 10". This coarsening of standards during the past seven hundred years reflects poorly on Western civilization.

The Great Khan knew what he wanted and he knew exactly how to get it. The sophistication of his three-stage concubine evaluation process is comparable to that of the finest quality control processes used nowadays in building satellites. If the Great Khan insisted on a "20", nobody was going to fob off an "18" on him.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

A taste of world history

To prepare for reading The Travels of Marco Polo, I have been quickly traversing world history from the paleolithic to the rise of Venice. By this I mean sampling the history of early Indo-European migrations, ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, ancient India, ancient China, Classical Greece, the Roman Empire, the rise of Islam, the Byzantine Empire, and finally the Mongol empire. I nibble on a few facts and a few key dates and then move on. This is the hors d'oeuvre approach to history. I'm not proud of being a historical dabbler, but at least it keeps me away from the television.

As my primary reference, I chose a book called History of the World by J.M. Roberts of Oxford University (1993). The book is a historical survey written with clarity and perspective and livened by flashes of dry British humor. I can illustrate this humor with a brief excerpt in which Roberts discusses the persecution of Christianity by the later Roman emperors:

"Christians noted with some satisfaction that their persecutors did not prosper; the Goths slew Decius and Valerian was said to have been skinned alive by the Persians (and stuffed). But Diocletian did not appear to draw any conclusions from this and in 303 launched the last great Roman persecution."

Monday, July 19, 2010

Balancing work and family

I have had conversations with several young men on how to strike a healthy balance between work and family. These young men, all of them engineers, find that their work schedule tends to expand and crowd out the time that their families deserve. I have offered them two defensive strategies to protect family time.

The primary defense I suggest to a young engineer is for him to take ownership of his schedule. This requires him to plan out a detailed, day-by-day work schedule for the coming three weeks or so. This schedule should be sane and have enough margin so that family time will not automatically be sacrificed if any of the usual office mishaps or snags pop up. This schedule should then be updated each week. As part of the scheduling process, it is good for the engineer to discuss this planning with his wife and agree upon goals for family time during the coming three weeks. (These discussions generally help to reduce wifely surprise and aggravation and the resultant nagging.)

Some engineers, whether from timidity or laziness, passively wait for their boss to hand them a schedule instead of actively influencing the scheduling process. This is a mistake. A good engineer should be a problem solver, not a lackey. The first step to solving a problem is to define the problem properly. The engineer needs to define his schedule problem in terms of getting the work done while still protecting family time.

Once the engineer has created his three-week schedule, he needs to explain/sell this schedule to his boss. If the detailed schedule is reasonable and supports the overall project schedule's delivery milestones, his boss will usually concur. After all, his boss has plenty of headaches of his/her own and will likely be grateful that the engineer is taking responsibility for planning his own work. The boss's concurrence yields the happy result that the detailed schedule now becomes the basis for the boss's expectations. If snags arise, the detailed schedule gives the engineer a credible way to quantify consequences and propose mitigation (e.g., adding manpower, reducing scope of the effort, or using some of the schedule margin held by management to avoid a day for day slip of the final delivery date). In the absence of a detailed schedule, there is less accountability. A boss could insist on keeping the final delivery date fixed and expect the engineer to donate his free hours (family time) to overcome the snag. This is often expressed in the tiresome words: "You're a professional. We expect you to do what it takes to get your work done."

The detailed schedule is not a perfect defense. There are sometimes legitimate crisis situations that call for extraordinary effort: viz., urgent proposal writing to capture new business, meeting the final deadline for a system delivery, and responding to major calamities. These crisis situations are typically short and intense, a matter of several exhausting weeks. The engineer ought to do what is necessary to deal with the crisis. However, if an engineer finds himself continually working in crisis mode, it is a clear sign of management incompetence or an industry in trouble. (I worked in perpetual crisis mode right before the synthetic fuels industry collapsed in the 1980s. My copious amounts of donated time profited me nothing.)

The second defensive strategy to protect family time is to inform your boss of family plans and obligations ahead of time, such as: "I'm taking the family on a boat trip next weekend." The idea is to define a discrete period of family time and remove it from consideration as open time that work can spill into. Most bosses will hesitate to ask you to work extra hours if it means explicitly telling you to cancel your plans.

All in all, the key to life balance is valuing family time enough to intentionally preserve room for it as you arrange your work schedule. Scheduling becomes a bit more difficult but the rewards are great.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Mr. Valiant-For-Groceries

I went shopping at the nearby grocery store and filled my shopping basket with a gallon of skim milk and three packages of marked down kosher wieners. With such a small number of items, I decided to use one of the self service checkout stations. I ran my customer discount card over the laser scanner and thought I heard the automated greeting say, "Welcome, valiant customer." This was a fine compliment. It made me lift my head and stand tall. I thought of the noble Mr. Valiant-For-Truth in Pilgrim's Progress, who bravely fought the highwaymen Wild-head, Inconsiderate, and Pragmatic.

I was deflated when I remembered that the automated greeting was actually the humdrum message: "Welcome, valued customer."

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Invisible Cities -- coda

At the end of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, Kublai Khan expresses his fear that the future of his empire is tending toward ruin and corruption. He speaks of an emblematic destination that he calls the "infernal city".

Marco Polo answers:

"The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space."

These two ways of escape -- either accommodation or else resistance by promoting pockets of good within the inferno -- strike me as Stoic responses. Each is a means of enduring in spite of the power of the inferno. While most people view resistance as more noble than accommodation -- and I offer all honor to those trying to improve social conditions -- even resisting the inferno tends toward pessimism. The world as inferno ultimately exhausts and overpowers individuals, even the Great Khan of the Mongol Hordes. Pockets of good are often squeezed to extinction.

Christianity provides a different view of the world as inferno and offers its own guidance on how to respond. Accommodation is ruled out. This is seen in Paul's description of the cowardly Demas in 2 Timothy 4:10: "For Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world, and is departed unto Thessalonica." Also, according to my understanding, resisting the inferno by making the best of a bad situation and encouraging pockets of good within the inferno is also ruled out. Instead, the Christian is to be separate from the world in order to transform the world. The defining statement is from Christ's prayer in the Gospel of John (John 17:14-16):

"I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth. As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world."

There is more here than I can fathom, but at least this much is clear: the christian, while too weak to contend with the world inferno by his own strength, is protected from the inferno's destruction, fortified with the truth, and then sent into the world as an emissary.


I'm fond of this big hummingbird sculpture. (It's hard to tell from the photograph, but its wings are nearly three feet long.) The bird makes me cheerful and doesn't burden me with extraneous associations. It doesn't cause me to think of the Decline of the West or modern suburban life or aesthetics of folk art or any other dreary intellectual stuff. It just is what it is. And that's mighty fine.

Invisible Cities

I just finished reading Italo Calvino's marvelous book Invisible Cities, wherein a young Marco Polo converses with Kublai Khan and tells him fantastic tales of the cities he visited during his travels through the Great Khan's empire.

The city descriptions are vivid as a dragonfly's wings and light as the slight breeze on the steps of the Great Khan's palace, where the conversations take place. Marco Polo's words are poetic and could just as well have been shaped into short cantos of verse.

Fifty five cities are described. Each city is given a woman's name, generally an exotic name: Diomira, Isidora, Dorothea, Zaira, Anastasia, Tamara, Zora, etc. My cousin Phyllis's name was given to a city of bridges and canals.

Here is Marco Polo's description of the city of Isidora:

"When a man rides a long time through wild regions he feels the desire for a city. Finally he comes to Isidora, a city where the buildings have spiral staircases encrusted with spiral seashells, where perfect telescopes and violins are made, where the foreigner hesitating between two women always encounters a third, where cockfights degenerate into bloody brawls among the bettors. He was thing of all these things when he desired a city. Isadora, therefore, is the city of his dreams: with one difference. The dreamed-of city contained him as a young man; he arrives at Isidora in his old age. In the square there is the wall where the old men sit and watch the young go by; he is seated in a row with them. Desires are already memories."

I wonder what Marco Polo would have thought about my own city, which sometimes fills me with a feeling of unreality when I take the short stroll to the nearby park and look west (photograph above). I live on the rim of an expansive office center where architects – or, more accurately, geometers – have designed huge cubes and pegs of glass and steel to efficiently enclose accountants and financiers for the engineering industry. I find it oddly appropriate that simple geometric shapes, in place of real human architecture, contain workers that manipulate words and numbers, which are the tokens representing the sweat and dirt of real industrial production in far-off mines, oil fields, and construction sites. My city seems more sign than substance.

My city is for adult office workers. Other human life isn't invited. No children laugh and chase each other along the pathways between the office buildings. No young lovers promenade among the carefully tended shrubs and flower beds. No old men sit and reminisce in the shining lobbies of glass and chrome.

My city is more connected to the great financial centers of New York, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Houston than it is to nearby traditional, full-service cities a short drive away. When I consider this, I imagine a great spiky four dimensional hyper-city complex that materializes upon the surface of the Earth as a set of individual, widely separated cities. (Picture this in three dimensions like a tangled mass of clothes hangers touching a table top at isolated points.) I imagine my city as one fractional piece of this hyper-city that has happened to materialize near my townhouse.

A long park was built to give the office workers a refreshing view of greenery on their way to and from the office. When I walk in the park at dusk, I often feel that I'm an interloper. After all, I'm not one of the workers in the hyper-city. I just chose to live here because the area is safe, clean, and pretty. In some ways I'm like one of the innumerable rabbits that have made their home in my neighborhood and laze about enjoying the lush grass.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Summer Solstice Tidings

The etymology of "solstice" was a puzzle to me. The "sol" part refers, of course, to the sun. No problem there. However, I had to look up the derivation of the "stice" part.

"Stice" comes from the Latin word for stopping or standing. Therefore, a solstice means a stopping of the Sun. In particular, the summer solstice marks the northernmost extreme that the Sun reaches in the sky before the Sun appears to stop and reverse its direction.

The "stice" part of the word seemed unfamiliar to me until I realized that the word "armistice" means the stoppage of arms or armed conflict during a war.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Mourning Doves and SUVs

Today when I parked my Volvo at the office, I looked at the row of cars in front of me and noticed a mating pair of mourning doves perched on a Chevy SUV. One was on the roof; the other was balanced on a side mirror. As I sat and watched, the dove on the mirror grew restless, hopped to the SUV's hood, and went skittering along the hood's smooth surface. This was unsatisfactory footing, so the dove left the hood and flew down the row of cars to land on the roof of a Toyota SUV, passing en route over a sedan, a pickup truck with a topper (relatively SUV-like, you might suppose, but not close enough to please the bird), and a sports car. After a minute the dove grew lonely on the Toyota SUV and flew back to join its mate on the roof of the Chevy SUV.

I have seen many mourning doves in my life, but I have never seen one perch on a vehicle. Moreover, I would not have guessed that a dove would prefer SUVs over other vehicles. There seems to be a lesson here but I'm not sure what it is.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Quigley on the Rise and Fall of Civilizations

I am impressed with historian Carroll Quigley's commonsense economic framework for explaining the rise and fall of civilizations. Applying his analysis, I would place the current development of Western Civilization at the cusp of Quigley's Age of Expansion and his Age of Conflict, when the wheels start to come off.

From The Evolution of Civilizations
The pattern of change in civilizations presented here consists of seven stages resulting from the fact that each civilization has an instrument of expansion that becomes an institution. The civilization rises while this organization is an instrument and declines as this organization becomes an institution. By the term "instrument of expansion" we mean that the society must be organized in such fashion that three things are true: (1) the society must be organized in such a way that it has an incentive to invent new ways of doing things; (2) it must be organized in such a way that somewhere in the society there is accumulation of surplus -- that is, some persons in the society control more wealth than they wish to consume immediately; and (3) it must be organized in such a way that the surplus which is being accumulated is being used to pay for or to utilize the new inventions. All three of these things are essential to any civilization. Taken together, we call them an instrument of expansion.


Inventiveness depends very largely on the way a society is organized. Some societies have powerful incentives to invent, because they are organized in such a way that innovation is encouraged and rewarded. This was true of Mesopotamian civilization before 2700 B.C., of Chinese civilizations before A.D. 1200, and of Western civilization during much of its history.


"Accumulation of surplus" means that some persons or organizations in the society have more wealth passing through their control than they wish to use immediately or in the "short run." This is so necessary to expansion that it means that some persons must have more than they need, even if others must have less than they need.


This surplus-creating instrument is the essential element in any civilization, although, of course, there will be no expansion unless the two other elements (invention and investment) are also present. However, the surplus-creating instrument, by controlling the surplus and thus the disposition of it, will also control investment and will, thus, have at least an indirect influence on the incentive to invent. This surplus-creating instrument does not have to be an economic organization. In fact, it can be any kind of organization, military, political, social, religious, and so forth. In Mesopotamian civilization it was a religious organization, the Sumerian priesthood to which all members of the society paid tribute. In Egyptian, Andean and, probably, Minoan civilizations it was a political organization, a state that created surpluses by a process of taxation or tribute collection. In Classical civilization it was a kind of social organization, slavery, that allowed one class of society, the slaveowners, to claim most of the production of another class in society, the slaves. In the early part of Western civilization it was a military organization, feudalism, that allowed a small portion of the society, the fighting men or lords, to collect economic goods from the majority of society, the serfs, as a kind of payment for providing political protection for these serfs. In the later period of Western civilization the surplus-creating instrument was an economic organization (the price-profit system, or capitalism, if you wish) that permitted entrepreneurs who organized the factors of production to obtain from society in return for the goods produced by this organization a surplus (called profit) beyond what these factors of production had cost these entrepreneurs.

Like all instruments, an instrument of expansion in the course of time becomes an institution and the rate of expansion slows down. This process is the same as the institutionalization of any instrument, but appears specifically as a breakdown of one of the three necessary elements of expansion. The one that usually breaks down is the third --application of surplus to new ways of doing things. In modern terms we say that the rate of investment decreases. If this decrease is not made up by reform or circumvention, the two other elements (invention and accumulation of surplus) also begin to break down. This decrease in the rate of investment occurs for many reasons, of which the chief one is that the social group controlling the surplus ceases to apply it to new ways of doing things because they have a vested interest in the old ways of doing things. They have no desire to change a society in which they are the supreme group.


The process that we have described, which we shall call the institutionalization of an instrument of expansion, will help us to understand why civilizations rise and fall. We shall divide the process into seven stages, since this permits us to relate our divisions conveniently to the process of rise and fall. These seven stages we shall name as follows:

1. Mixture
2. Gestation
3. Expansion
4. Age of Conflict
5. Universal Empire
6. Decay
7. Invasion

Every civilization, indeed every society, begins with a mixture of two or more cultures. Such mixture of cultures is very common; in fact, it occurs at the boundaries of all cultures to some extent. But such casual cultural mixture is of little significance unless there comes into existence in the zone of mixture a new culture, arising from the mixture but different from the constituent parts. The process is a little like the way in which a mixture of chemicals sometimes produces a new compound different from the mixing chemicals.


If the new society born from such mixture is a civilization, it has an instrument of expansion. This means that inventions begin to be made, surplus begins to be accumulated, and this surplus begins to be used to utilize new inventions. Eventually, as a result of these actions, expansion will begin. The interval before such expansion becomes evident, but after the most obvious mixture has ceased, may cover generations of time. This period will be called the Stage of Gestation. It is Stage 2 of any civilization.


The Stage of Expansion is marked by four kinds of expansion: (a) increased production of goods, eventually reflected in rising standards of living; (b) increase in population of the society, generally because of a declining death rate; (c) an increase in the geographic extent of the civilization, for this is a period of exploration and colonization; and (d) an increase in knowledge. There are intimate interrelationships among these four. Increase in production is aided by expanding knowledge; the growth of population helps to increase production as well as to extend the geographic area of the society; the exploration and colonization associated with this extension of the society's geographic area is made possible by the growth of production and the growth of population, both of which permit people to be released for what are, at the beginning at least, nonproductive activities such as exploration; the same factors allow people to be released to seek knowledge of various kinds or to engage in nonmaterial activities such as artistic or philosophic activities, while the geographic expansion in itself leads to substantial increases in knowledge. This period of expansion is frequently a period of democracy, of scientific advance, and of revolutionary political change (as the various levels of society become adapted to an expanding mode of life from the more static mode of life prevalent in Stage 2).

As soon as the rate of expansion in a civilization begins to decline noticeably, it enters Stage 4, the Age of Conflict. This is probably the most complex, most interesting, and most critical of all the seven stages. It is marked by four chief characteristics: (a) it is a period of declining rate of expansion; (b) it is a period of growing tension of evolution and increasing class conflicts, especially in the core area; (c) it is a period of increasingly frequent and increasingly violent imperialist wars; and (d) it is a period of growing irrationality, pessimism, superstitions, and otherworldliness. The declining rate of expansion is caused by the institutionalization of the instrument of expansion. The growing class conflicts arise from the increasing tension of evolution, from the obvious conflict of interests between a society adapted to expansion and the vested interests controlling the uninvested surpluses of the institution of expansion who fear social change more than anything else. Usually there is a majority of the frustrated struggling against the minority of vested interests, although usually neither side has any clear idea of the real issues at stake or what would give a workable solution to the crisis. All programs for sharing the surplus of the few among the discontented many are worse than useless, since expansion can be resumed only if the three necessary elements of an instrument of expansion are provided, and the dissipation of surpluses among a large mass of consumers will not provide any one of these three necessary elements. On the contrary most revolutionary programs, aroused by the failure of the third element (investment), will merely make the crisis more acute by destroying the second element (accumulation of surplus).

The only sensible or workable solution to the crisis of the civilization would be to reform or circumvent the old institution of expansion by establishing again the three basic elements of any instrument of expansion. Since the disgruntled masses know nothing about such things, and since the vested interests do not know much more and are usually concentrating their energies on an effort to defend their vested interests, a new instrument of expansion, if it appears, usually does so by accident and through the path of circumvention rather than by reform. If a new instrument of expansion does come into existence, the civilization begins to expand again, the tension of evolution and the crisis subside, and the civilization is once again in Stage 3.

The Age of Conflict (Stage 4) is a period of imperialist wars and of irrationality supported for reasons that are usually different in the different social classes. The masses of the people (who have no vested interest in the existing institution of expansion) engage in imperialist wars because it seems the only way to overcome the slowing down of expansion. Unable to get ahead by other means (such as economic means), they seek to get ahead by political action, above all by taking wealth from their political neighbors. At the same time they turn to irrationality to compensate for the growing insecurity of life, for the chronic economic depression, for the growing bitterness and dangers of class struggles, for the growing social disruption and insecurity from imperialist wars. This is generally a period of gambling, use of narcotics or intoxicants, obsession with sex (frequently as perversion), increasing crime, growing numbers of neurotics and psychotics, growing obsession with death and with the Hereafter.


When a universal empire is established in a civilization, the society enters upon a "golden age (Stage 5)." At least this is what it seems to the periods that follow it. Such a golden age is a period of peace and of relative prosperity. Peace arises from the absence of any competing political units within the area of the civilization itself, and from the remoteness or even absence of struggles with other societies outside. Prosperity arises from the ending of internal belligerent destruction, the reduction of internal trade barriers, the establishment of a common system of weights, measures, and coinage, and from the extensive government spending associated with the establishment of a universal empire. But this appearance of prosperity is deceptive. Little real economic expansion is possible because no real instrument of expansion exists. New inventions are rare, and real economic investment is lacking. The vested interests have triumphed and are living off their capital, building unproductive and blatant monuments like the Pyramids, the "Hanging Gardens of Babylon," the Colosseum, or (as premature examples) Hitler's Chancellery and the Victor Emmanuel Memorial. The masses of the people in such an empire live from the waste of these nonproductive expenditures. The golden age is really the glow of overripeness, and soon decline begins. When it becomes evident, we pass from Stage 5 (Universal Empire) to Stage 6 (Decay).

The Stage of Decay is a period of acute economic depression, declining standards of living, civil wars between the various vested interests, and growing illiteracy. The society grows weaker and weaker. Vain efforts are made to stop the wastage by legislation. But the decline continues. The religious, intellectual, social, and political levels of the society begin to lose the allegiance of the masses of the people on a large scale. New religious movements begin to sweep over the society. There is a growing reluctance to fight for the society or even to support it by paying taxes. This period of decay may last for a long time, but eventually the civilization can no longer defend itself, as Mesopotamia could not after 400 B.C., as Egypt could not about the same time, as Crete could not after 1400 B.C., as Rome could not after A.D. 350, as the Incas and Aztecs could not after 1500, as India could not after 1700, as China could not after 1830, and as Islam could not after 1850.

Stage 7 is the Stage of Invasion, when the civilization, no longer able to defend itself because it is no longer willing to defend itself, lies wide open to "barbarian invaders." These invaders are "barbarians" only in the sense that they are "outsiders." Frequently these outsiders are another, younger, and more powerful civilization.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Carroll Quigley and Institutions

I recently read The Evolution of Civilizations by Carroll Quigley (1910-1977). Quigley was a brilliant Georgetown University history professor with the contrary outlook of a feisty Irish Catholic in an academic setting dominated by Protestant Anglophiles. His gift was the ability to analyze how civilizations work in very practical terms. I enjoyed his concise comments about how human social instruments harden into self-serving institutions.

I have wandered through academia, the energy industry, and the military-industrial complex and have observed many instances of "empire building" where an institution diverts most of its resources to self perpetuation at the expense of carrying out its original mission.

(with minor editing)
[The gamut of human needs may be] divided into six levels, in a rough and approximate fashion. These divisions are arbitrary and imaginary, and even the order in which we list the levels is partly a matter of taste. These levels are, from the more abstract to the more concrete: (plus the needs that these levels address)
(1) intellectual - the need for understanding
(2) religious - the need for psychological certainty
(3) social - the need for companionship
(4) economic - the need for material wealth
(5) political - the need to organize interpersonal power relationships
(6) military - the need for group security

To satisfy these needs, there come into existence on each level social organizations seeking to achieve these. These organizations, consisting largely of personal relationships, we shall call "instruments" as long as they achieve the purpose of the level with relative effectiveness. But every such social instrument tends to become an "institution." This means that it takes on a life and purposes of its own distinct from the purpose of the level; in consequence, the purpose of that level is achieved with decreasing effectiveness. In fact, it can be stated as a rule of history that "all social instruments tend to become institutions." The meaning of this rule will appear as we discuss its causes.

An instrument is a social organization that is fulfilling effectively the purpose for which it arose. An institution is an instrument that has taken on activities and purposes of its own, separate from and different from the purposes for which it was intended. As a consequence, an institution achieves its original purposes with decreasing effectiveness. Every instrument consists of people organized in relationships to one another. As the instrument becomes an institution, these relationships become ends in themselves to the detriment of the ends of the whole organization. When people want their society to be defended, they create an organization called an army. This army consists of many persons with different duties. Each person takes as his purpose the fulfilling of his duties, but this soon leaves no one in the organization with the purpose of the organization as his primary purpose. The purpose of the organization — in this case, to defend the society — becomes no more than a secondary aim for everyone in the organization. Defense becomes secondary to discipline, keeping authority in channels, feeding and paying the troops, providing supplies or intelligence, and keeping visiting congressmen, or the people as a whole, happy about the army, the personal comforts of the soldiers, and so on.

Moreover, as a second reason why every instrument becomes an institution, everyone in such an organization is only human and has human weakness and ambitions, or at least has the human proclivity to see things from an egocentric point of view. Thus, in every organization, persons begin to seek their own advancements or to act for their own advantages: seeking promotions, decorations, increases in pay, better or easier assignments; these begin to absorb more and more of the time and energies of the members of an organization. All of this reduces the time and energy devoted to the real goal of the organization and injures the general effectiveness with which an organization achieves its purposes.

Finally, as a third reason why every instrument becomes an institution, the social conditions surrounding any such organization change in the course of time. When this happens the organization must be changed to adapt itself to the changed conditions or it will function with decreased effectiveness. But the members of any organization generally resist such change; they have become "vested interests."


This situation appears in every social organization. Workers join together to get better pay and working conditions. The organizations they form, labor unions, soon take on a life of their own, and the workers begin to wonder if they are not now as much the slaves of the union as formerly they were slaves of the management. The kings of England, long ago, created a representative assembly to consent to taxation. Soon that assembly (Parliament) took on life of its own and ended by decapitating, removing, and ruling kings. A political party was organized in 1854 to protect freedom in the United States and to prevent the extension of slavery. By 1868 it was an organized machine of vested interests, a functioning spoils system, whose chief aim was to perpetuate itself in office and whose chief method for achieving that aim was to end the freedom of the whites in the South. A church is organized to bring men psychological security by linking them with the Deity. A century later it has become a vested institution with wealth and power, and its chief aim is to preserve and expand these valuable prerogatives. A college is organized to train youth in practical and humane achievements; later it has become a whole tissue of vested interests in which standards are lowered and admission qualifications relaxed in order to secure a flow of tuitions that go to meet the institution's expenses. Within its hallowed walls, professors intrigue for promotions and appointments for themselves and their disciples, while a condition of undeclared war goes on between departments and schools to get larger student enrollments in their courses and thus justify bigger slices from the annual university budget.


When instruments become institutions, as they all do, the organization achieves its function or purpose in society with decreasing effectiveness, and discontent with its performance begins to rise, especially among outsiders. These discontented suggest changes, which they call reforms, just as we see happening in American elementary and secondary education today. When these suggestions are not accepted or are rejected by the established groups who control the criticized organization, conflicts and controversies begin, the discontented seeking to change the organization, while the vested interests seek to maintain their accustomed methods of operation.


The strain between the two groups engaged in a struggle such as this will be called, in this book, "the tension of development." From this tension and its ensuing controversy, there may emerge any one (or combination) among three possible outcomes: reform, circumvention, or reaction. In the first case, reform, the institution is reorganized and its methods of action changed so that it becomes, relatively speaking, more of an instrument and achieves its purpose with sufficient facility to reduce tension to a socially acceptable level. In the second case, circumvention, the institution is left with most of its privileges and vested interests intact, but its duties are taken away and assigned to a new instrument within the same society. This second method is much used by the English. The king was left covered with honors, but the task of governing England was taken over by Parliament and ultimately by a committee of Parliament.

When an institution has been reformed or circumvented, there is once again an instrument on the level in question, and the purpose of that level is achieved with relative effectiveness. But, once again, as always happens, the new instrument becomes an institution, effectiveness decreases, tension of development rises, and conflict appears. If the outcome of this conflict is either reform or circumvention, effectiveness increases and tension decreases. If the outcome is reaction, ineffectiveness becomes chronic and tension remains high.