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.)