Friday, April 30, 2010

Old Doggerel, New Tricks

I declared to myself, Self, You're out of your mind
If you think that a dame of the rich widow kind
Would check out your style and get all come hithery.
You need more pizazz and less live-and-let-livery.
So I took my own counsel and searched far and wide
For a debonair fellow to serve as my guide.
I chose William Powell from '33/'34
(Though my years surpassed his by nearly a score).
I would remake myself as the next Philo Vance,
And no longer resemble an aging salesclerk at Macy's selling corduroy pants.
I envied the sonorous Powell baritone.
My voice? Part carnival barker and part saxophone.
As my audible was risible,
I turned to my visible.
I pomaded my hair and got a fedora.
But my upper lip needed pencil-thin flora.
To work straight I went and produced a nice stubble,
But the 'stache that soon sprouted was just miserubble –
Sparse, prickly, off-white – like crushed Shredded Wheat.
I reached for the razor; it was time to delete.
Well, I've thrown in the towel.
I'm no William Powell.
And if rich widows won't look at me twice,
Let poor ones suffice.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Crab apple blossom time

The crab apple tree right outside my back window is all red buds and pink blossoms today. It's a cheerful sight as I am walking downstairs to the garage.

Fructifying Advice for the Young Swain

"By their fruit ye shall know them" are words that apply
When fresh blooming damsels dazzle your eye.
To help yourself live ever after happily,
Remember bright blossoms can end up crab applely.

Monday, April 19, 2010

With apologies to Ogden Nash

After reading a collection of Ogden Nash's poetry and watching two of the Thin Man movies, I felt foolhardy enough to attempt a Nash-like poem.

Nick Charles (Bill Powell) I do admire,
Though not for sleuthing prowess, nor his elegant attire,
Nor his mustache's pencil thinness (despite my own crayola smudge),
Nor the way he shoots a gat or throws a pundge,
Nor even how he set the suspects at the dinner party fidgetin'.
(Though I confess I envy this a smidgetin,
For I lose track of what each clue meant,
and would be tongue-tied at the denuement.)
I covet not his savoir faire
Nor Asta his fox terriaire.
But I would be a beamish boy
To have his Nora (Myrna Loy).

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Fountain engineering

Early this afternoon I took a long walk to the library and stopped to admire this carefully regulated array of fountains. What grace and order! A Roman emperor would have been proud to put such fountains in his Imperial villa on the Isle of Capri.

As I gazed upon the fountains, my engineering interest quickly elbowed aside my aesthetic interest. How were these increasing fountain heights engineered?

I surmised that, for the sake of economy, all of the fountains were fed by a single submersible pump located right below the pond surface. The maximum height of each fountain would be predominantly determined by the flow resistance, expressed as pressure drop, across each fountain's nozzle. (Specific piping resistance to the water flow would slightly reduce fountain height.) For a given flow rate, a nozzle giving the smallest pressure drop would output the lowest water velocity, resulting in the lowest fountain height. This is not just my opinion. Daniel Bernoulli described how water flow is affected by changes in pressure and height back in 1738.

Therefore, if you want progressively higher fountain heights, you would need progressively more restrictive nozzles. A few piping tweaks here or there would be sufficient for fine tuning.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

More Ogden Nash

Brilliance from Ogden Nash's collection I'm a Stranger Here Myself (1938)

[I added a few underlines to overcome the primitive blog editor's insistence on eliminating extra spaces for when the line carries over.]

Seated one day at the dictionary I was pretty weary and also pretty ill at ease,
Because a word I had always liked turned out not to be a word at all, and suddenly I found
___ myself among the v's.
And suddenly among the v's I came across a new word which was a word called velleity,
So the new word I found was better than the old word I lost, for which I thank my tutelary deity,
Because velleity is a word which gives me great satisfaction,
Because do you know what it means, it means low degree of volition not prompting to action,
And I always knew I had something holding me back but I didn't know what,
And it's quite a relief to know it isn't a conspiracy, it's only velleity that I've got,
Because to be wonderful at everything has always been my ambition,
Yes indeed, I am simply teeming with volition,
So why I never was wonderful at anything was something I couldn't see
While all the time, of course, my volition was merely volition of a low degree,
Which is the kind of volition that you are better off without it,
Because it puts an idea in your head but doesn't prompt you to do anything about it.
So you think it would be nice to be a great pianist but why bother with practicing for hours
___ at the keyboard,
Or you would like to be the romantic captain of a romantic ship but can't find time to
___ study navigation or charts of the ocean or the seaboard;
You want a lot of money but you are not prepared to work for it,
Or a book to read in bed but you do not care to go into the nocturnal cold and murk for it;
And now if you have such symptoms you can identify your malady with accurate spontaneity;
It's velleity,
So don't forget to remember that you're velleitous, and if anybody says you're just lazy,
Why, they're crazy.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The young Ogden Nash

I just took a long stroll to the public library and returned with treasures from the 1930s: the first two Thin Man movies, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, and a poetry collection containing the early works of Ogden Nash.

Archibald MacLeish wrote the introduction to the collection and recounted Nash's beginnings as an poet:

In 1930 Mr. Herbert Hoover's Plateau of Permanent Prosperity had collapsed into the Great Depression carrying a generation with it -- most painfully, a generation of the young. Nash was twenty-eight, a failed prep school teacher, a failed bond salesman, and a failed sonneteer, supporting himself, if that is the term, by composing advertising copy for a New York publisher. He was approaching the age at which a young man's commitment to art can no longer survive on hope. After thirty, failure begins to taste of finality and it becomes harder and harder to try again. But as one approaches thirty things have a way of happening. And they did for Ogden Nash in his grubby office on that 1930 afternoon. He found himself -- or, if not precisely himself, then a form of language he could speak. It fell into half a dozen more or less rhymed couplets, which he might well have called (but didn't) "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," and it changed his life. It ended the failure, began a considerable literary success and, more astonishing than either, altered -- or began to alter -- the relation of his contemporaries to the time in which they lived:

I sit in an office at 244 Madison Avenue
And say to myself You have a responsible job, havenue?
Why then do you fritter away your time on this doggerel?
If you have a sore throat you can cure it by using a good goggeral...


Ogden Nash's first poetry volume Hard Lines (1931) showed his art fully formed. In addition to his poetic breakthrough quoted above, entitled Spring Comes to Murray Hill, the volume includes the seven arguably best-known words in poetry:


Is dandy
But liquor
Is quicker

The volume also includes one of my favorite short Nash poems, a touching poem that Nash wrote in a rare somber vein.


People expect old men to die
They do not really mourn old men
Old men are different. People look
At them with eyes that wonder when...
People watch with unshocked eyes;
But the old men know when an old man dies.

Here are two characteristically sprightly poems from his volume The Primrose Path (1935). The second poem totally befuddles my computer's spellchecker.


A mighty creature is the germ,
Though smaller than the pachyderm.
His customary dwelling place
Is deep within the human race.
His childish pride he often pleases
By giving people strange diseases.
Do you, my poppet, feel infirm?
You probably contain a germ.

* * *

There was a brave girl of Connecticut
Who flagged the express with her pecticut,
Which her elders defined
As presence of mind,
But deplorable absence of ecticut.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The First Microphones of Spring

Microphones can appear in any room of the house when you live with a musician, composer, or producer (or, in the case of my younger son, a three-in-one amalgam). Yesterday, the first microphones of Spring migrated upstairs from my son's basement sound studio.

My son wanted to record some violin tracks and set up two widely spaced microphones to exploit phase differences (or some such technical mumbo jumbo). He placed one microphone in the living room of my new townhouse (see photo above). The living room is currently barren of furniture (and likely to stay that way until my bank account heals from the bruising it took last month from kitchen furnishings and car repairs) and its cavernous space provides a nice echo delay, adding warmth to the sound of a solo instrument or small ensemble. The second microphone pointed down vulture-like from the upstairs railing.

Microphones in the living room do not trouble me. But if my son develops a hankering for the snappy reverberations of my master bathroom, we will have a talk.

Peace and security in my lifetime

Lately my mind has been drawn toward Malthusian economics. Perhaps dismal thoughts are needed to counterbalance excessive cheer about the future, the which arose from my recent purchase of a comfortable townhouse at a favorable 30-year interest rate.

Two centuries ago, the Reverend Thomas Malthus, to debunk the boundless optimism of his contemporaries Godwin and Condorcet concerning the perfectibility of man and society, applied his cool and rigorous intellect to examining the checks on human population growth. From Chapter I of An Essay on the Principle of Population (First edition, 1798):

It has been said that the great question is now at issue, whether man shall henceforth start forwards with accelerated velocity towards illimitable, and hitherto unconceived improvement; or be condemned to a perpetual oscillation between happiness and misery, and after every effort remain still at an immeasurable distance from the wished-for goal.

Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will shew the immensity of the first power in comparison of the second.

By that law of our nature which makes food necessary to the life of man, the effects of these two unequal powers must be kept equal.

This implies a strong and constantly operating check on population from the difficulty of subsistence. This difficulty must fall somewhere; and must necessarily be severely felt by a large portion of mankind.

That population cannot increase without the means of subsistence, is a proposition so evident, that it needs no illustration. That population does invariably increase, where there are the means of subsistence, the history of every people that have ever existed will abundantly prove. And, that the superior power of population cannot be checked, without producing misery or vice, the ample portion of these too bitter ingredients in the cup of human life, and the continuance of the physical causes that seem to have produced them, bear too convincing a testimony.

This natural inequality of the two powers of population, and of production in the earth, and that great law of our nature which must constantly keep their effects equal, form the great difficulty that to me appears insurmountable in the way to the perfectibility of society. All other arguments are of slight and subordinate consideration in comparison of this. I see no way by which man can escape from the weight of this law which pervades all animated nature. No fancied equality, no agrarian regulations in their utmost extent, could remove the pressure of it even for a single century. And it appears, therefore, to be decisive against the possible existence of a society, all the members of which, should live in ease, happiness, and comparative leisure; and feel no anxiety about providing the means of subsistence for themselves and families.

In 1970, latter-day Malthusians in the Club of Rome think tank commissioned MIT researchers to construct a mathematical model of how population growth interacted with four other parameters describing a world system: industrialization, pollution, food production and resource depletion. The researchers – Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, Dennis Meadows, and William Behrens III – used their model to examine a variety of possible future scenarios for population growth. Exponential population growth was shown to quickly overwhelm linear growth in resources, as Rev. Malthus claimed.

Most scenario outcomes foretold misery and deprivation: spiking population was followed by collapse and eventual oscillation about a diminished population level sustained by the damaged resources of a depleted Earth. (The movie The Road Warrior depicted one of the more gloomy scenarios.) The range of model outcomes was summarized in the 1972 book Limits to Growth, which made the bestseller lists and provoked a noisy backlash from conservative scientists. oil executives, and pro-growth politicians.

The research was revisited and expanded in 2002 and summarized in A Synopsis of Limits to Growth: The 30 year update by Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows. Population overshoot, collapse, and oscillation were still prominent in their scenario outcomes, but the time scale had contracted. Horrible things were fast approaching. Their conclusions:

Using the World3 computer model, Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update presents 10 different scenarios for the future, through the year 2100. In each scenario a few numbers are changed to test different estimates of "real world" parameters, or to incorporate optimistic predictions about the development of technology, or to see what happens if the world chooses different policies, ethics, or goals. Most of the scenarios presented in Limits result in overshoot and collapse – through depletion of resources, food shortages, industrial decline or some combination of these or other factors.

Under the "business as usual scenario," world society proceeds in a traditional manner without major deviation from the policies pursued during most of the 20th century. In this scenario, society proceeds as long as possible without major policy change. Population rises to more than seven billion by 2030. But a few decades into the 21st century, growth of the economy stops and reverses abruptly.

As natural resources become harder to obtain, capital is diverted to extracting more of them. This leaves less capital for investment in industrial output. The result is industrial decline, which forces declines in the service and agricultural sectors. About the year 2030, population peaks and begins to decrease as the death rate is driven upward by lack of food and health services.

Upon reading these sobering words, I find myself performing an ignoble mental calculation and thinking, "Yes, tough luck indeed for the human race, but the next twenty years should be relatively good. That gets me almost to my 80th birthday. And various stopgaps and compensations will surely be made along the way, such that the inevitable collapse will likely be delayed until after 2050. I won't be around to face it."

This kind of selfish attitude is nothing new, of course. Consider 2 Kings 20:16-19:

Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, "Hear the word of the Lord: The time will surely come when everything in your palace, and all that your fathers have stored up until this day, will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left, says the Lord. And some of your descendants, your own flesh and blood, that will be born to you, will be taken away, and they will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon."

"The word of the Lord you have spoken is good," Hezekiah replied. For he thought, "Will there not be peace and security in my lifetime?"

(I hope that I am not misreading this passage and unfairly bringing Hezekiah down to my level.)