Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Remember That We Suffered

The mantra of “Remember that we suffered”
is most fortunately somewhat buffered
by the famous Jewish sense of humor
which, when the goy is the consumer
and finds the jokes the Jew tells funny,
will often earn the Jew a lot of money,
thus proving some have not just suffered but
have found that being of their jokes a butt
makes Jewish pain a profitable way
not just to pay their debts but blow away
the suffering they did not themselves endure,
born after men found for its cause a cure,
which is assimilation that reduces,
just as a mohel can reduce prepuces,
the rationale for suffering of the Jews,
except of those whom racist liberals accuse
of being Zionists, which justifies
their suffering as much as ancient lies.

Inspired by a song which was televised in an episode of “My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” which Linda and I watched the night before I wrote this poem:

The heroine of the sitcom is portrayed by Rachel Bloom who brilliantly portrays the role of a Jewish , Harvard-educated attorney

1/15/17 #17724

Monday, January 16, 2017

What Do I know

Montaigne's questioning “Que sais-je?”
reminds me of the melted neiges
whose absence Villon's verse lamented,
by ignorance disoriented,
all things that I've forgotten like his snows,
having melted in a mind that froze,
and, however much I try to seek 'em,
to me as sweet as vintage Michel Eyquem,
they've gone forever, just like Villon's snow,
and never will be something that I know
as well as what I know will fall around December,
but unlike last year's neiges I can't remember.

Inspired by Adam Gopnik's article in the 1/16/17 New Yorker “Montaigne on Trial”:

French writers of the airier, belletristic kind used to enjoy pointing out that Michel de Montaigne, the man who invented the essay, was born Michel Eyquem, in Bordeaux in 1533, and that the family name and estate survive to this day in the name of Château d’Yquem, the greatest of all French sweet wines. The connection feels improbable—as though there were a Falstaff Ale that really dates to Shakespeare’s Stratford—but also apt. Montaigne’s essays can seem like the Yquem of writing: sweet but smart, honeyed but a little acid. And, with wine and writer alike, we often know more about them than we know of them—in the wine’s case because it costs too much money to drink as much as we might desire, in the writer’s because it costs too much time to read as much as we might want.

“Que sais-je?” “What do I know?” was Montaigne’s beloved motto, meaning: What do I really know? And what do we really know about him now? We may vaguely know that he was the first essayist, that he retreated from the world into a tower on the family estate to think and reflect, and that he wrote about cannibals (for them) and about cruelty (against it). He was considered by Claude Lévi-Strauss, no less, to be the first social scientist, and a pioneer of relativism—he thought that those cannibals were just as virtuous as the Europeans they offended, that customs vary equably from place to place. Though some of his aphorisms have stuck, both funny (Doctors “are lucky: the sun shines on their successes and the earth hides their failures”) and profound (“We are, I know not how, double in ourselves, so that what we believe we disbelieve, and cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn”), he is not really an aphorist. He is, we think, a philosopher, and somehow accounted the father of modern liberalism, though he was aristocratic in self-presentation. We think of him, above all, as we do of Thomas More: a nice guy, an ideal intellect. S. N. Behrman, the American playwright and diarist, began but never finished a heroic play about Montaigne called “The Many Men,” which might have sealed him as the man for all seasons before the other guy got there.

Philippe Desan, in “Montaigne: A Life” (Princeton; translated from the French by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal), his immense new biography, dryly insists that our “Château d’Yquem” Montaigne, Montaigne the befuddled philosopher and sweet-sharp humanist, is an invention, untrue to the original. Our Montaigne was invented only in the early nineteenth century. The Eyquem family, in their day, made no wine at all. They made their fortune in salted fish—and Desan’s project is to give us a salty rather than a sweet Montaigne, to take the Château d’Yquem out of his life and put the herring back in. Montaigne, to Desan’s dauntingly erudite but sometimes jaundiced eye, was an arriviste rather than an aristocrat, who withdrew into that tower out of fear as much as out of wisdom, having ridden political waves and been knocked down by them in a time, in France, of unimaginable massacre and counter-massacre between Protestants and Catholics. His motto was safety first, not solitude forever. That new form, the essay, is made as much from things that Montaigne prudently chose not to look at or evasively pretended not to know as from an avid, honest appetite for experience. We confuse him with the truly engagé Enlightenment and Romantic writers who came long afterward, as they came to confuse his briny Bordeaux with their winey one.

The idea of a salty rather than a sweet Montaigne follows the contemporary academic rule that all sweet things must be salted—all funny writers shown to be secretly sad, all philosophical reflection shown to be power politics of another kind. Desan has many crudely reductive theories—the most insistent being that Montaigne wrote essays about the world right now because he was covering up the truth that in the past his family were merchants, not lords—but he is a master of the micro-history of sixteenth-century Bordeaux. He lists all the other recipients of the royal necklace that Montaigne was proud to receive in midlife, signifying his elevation to the knightly Order of St. Michael, and no one, we feel assured, will have to go back and inspect those records again. At the same time, Desan suffers some from the curse of the archives, which is to believe that the archives are the place where art is born, instead of where it goes to be buried. The point of the necklaces, for him, is to show that Montaigne rose from a background of bribes and payoffs; he doesn’t see that we care about the necklaces only because one hung on Montaigne.

1/16/17 #17727

Sunday, January 15, 2017

A Very Reluctant Fan of Optimists

You need to be an optimist when you encounter difficulties
prepared to let all pessimists who' re not occult tease
you for you not facing, as they claim to do, reality,
regarding optimism as a sign of subnormality,
but always should remember that those who are not Jeremiahs
are, if they're not  dependent on fake news quite frankly liars,
and that the survival rate of pessimists is greater than
that of most optimists, of whom I wish I were a fan.

Margalit Fox's  obituary of the inventor of Pinyin, Zhou Youguang, appears in the 1/14/17 NYT:

Zhou Youguang, known as the father of Pinyin for creating the system of Romanized Chinese writing that has become the international standard since its introduction some 60 years ago, died on Saturday in Beijing, Chinese state media reported. He was 111.

In recent decades, with the comparative invincibility that he felt great age bestowed on him, Mr. Zhou was also an outspoken critic of the Chinese government.

“What are they going to do,” he asked bluntly in an interview with the BBC in 2012. “Come and take me away?”

In fact, they had already done that once before, long ago.

Adopted by China in 1958, Pinyin was designed not to replace the tens of thousands of traditional characters with which Chinese is written, but as an orthographic pry bar to afford passage into the labyrinthine world of those characters.

Since then, Pinyin (the name can be translated as “spelled sounds”) has vastly increased literacy throughout the country; eased the classroom agonies of foreigners studying Chinese; afforded the blind a way to read the language in Braille; and, in a development Mr. Zhou could scarcely have foreseen, facilitated the rapid entry of Chinese on computer keyboards and cellphones.

It is to Pinyin that we owe now-ubiquitous spellings like Beijing, which supplanted the earlier Peking; Chongqing, which replaced Chungking; Mao Zedong instead of Mao Tse-tung; and thousands of others. The system was adopted by the International Organization for Standardization in 1982 and by the United Nations in 1986.

Yet for all Mr. Zhou’s linguistic influence, his late-life political opposition — in 2015, the news agency Agence France-Presse called him “probably China’s oldest dissenter” — ensured that he remained relatively obscure in his own country.

“Within China, he remains largely uncelebrated,” The New York Times wrote in 2012. “As the state-run China Daily newspaper remarked in 2009, he should be a household name but is virtually unknown.”

It took Mr. Zhou and his colleagues three years to develop Pinyin, but the most striking thing about his involvement was that he was neither a linguist nor a lexicographer but an economist, recently returned to China from Wall Street.

But because of a fortuitous meeting at midcentury, and a lifetime love of language, he was conscripted by the Chinese government to develop an accessible alphabetic writing system. It was a turn of fate, Mr. Zhou acknowledged afterward, that may well have saved his life....

Today, Pinyin is used by hundreds of millions of people in China alone. Schoolchildren there first learn to read by means of the system before graduating to the study of characters.

As a result, the country’s illiteracy rate today is about 5 percent, according to Unicef. Pinyin is also part of the standard pedagogy for foreign students of Chinese around the world.

In the interview with Agence France-Presse in 2015, Mr. Zhou articulated the philosophy that he said sustained him through his years in the labor camp. It seems a fitting ethos for his long life as a whole.
“When you encounter difficulties, you need to be optimistic,” he said. “The pessimists tend to die.”

1/15/17 #17723

Friday, January 13, 2017

Liberal and Conservative Doom

Some people wear their liberal hearts upon a sleeve,
but conservatives will often wear theirs in a part
of them that's hidden, since their liberal friends believe
that views  that  are conservative impart
to those supporting them a  character from whom
they must as they would from fiend depart,
designating him to PC doom.
Views that are not on the liberal chart
have trumped them recently, and boom.
Instead of falling from the appplecart,
they please a lot of people who consume
what liberals all reject as being far too tart.

I wish someone could find a modus viv-
endi between those with a liberal heart
and those who're cardiacly conservative,
so neither need be CPR'd.
Brain death has often been a problem from which both
have suffered but perhaps they could restart
their heartbeats, leading to their brains' regrowth,
if they were far less smug and far more smart.

Inspired by  the reference by Shai Secunda,  Jacob Neusner Associate Professor of Judaism at Bard College, to the liberal hearts of the curators of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum (“Jerusalem 1000-14000: Every People Under Heaven”) in an article in the Winter JRB  (“Bling and Beauty: Jerusalem at the Met”):

What are we to make of Jerusalem’s multitudes? Curators Barbara Drake Boehm and Melanie Holcomb wear their liberal hearts on their sleeves, imagining that the city’s crowds might yet be resurrected as a convivial medieval pluralism. There is indeed evidence of cooperation and even genuine caring across ethnic and religious borders. Muslims introduced Jewish pilgrims to some of the area’s less-known holy sites and, in an enactment of Abraham’s hospitality, dished out hot lentils from gargantuan soup pots to hungry pilgrims, regardless of persuasion. Symbols of other traditions were acknowledged and sometimes appropriated in surprisingly ecumenical ways: Christians called the Islamic Dome of the Rock “Solomon’s Temple,” Jews fittingly referred to it as Midrash Shelomo (King Solomon’s Study Hall). Even when a religious community was forcibly banned from the city, there was almost always a saving grace. Saladin’s expulsion of Christians from Jerusalem was incomplete, as he decided to allow Eastern Christians to remain. Some years later, Jerusalemites even saw a power-sharing arrangement between the two otherwise clashing faiths. And yet, the fundamental set of dynamics during the four centuries on display was one of bloody conquest, banishment, repossession, and reconstruction.

1/13/17 #17718
Visions That Are Metaphysically Infused

Visions metaphysically infused
often leave observers most confused,
but their reports, although of course confusing,
should be considered as amusing
by those who who do not take them
seriously, and for sense mistake them,
which unfortunately those without
a sense of humor do, without a sense of doubt.

Kate Symondsen, a researcher in late nineteenth century and twentieth century literature, reviewing Victory by Joseph Conrad, The Selected Letters of Joseph Conrad and Joseph Conrad Among the Anarchists  by David Mulry, Professor of English, Arts and Humanities at the Coastal College of Georgia  in “Hearts of blankness: Joseph Conrad: Polish, French writer of 'idealist English literature,” TLS, 1/6/17, writes:

There is no shame in admitting that reading Joseph Conrad is a challenge. Despite canonizing him as one of four great writers who defined English literature, F. R. Leavis complained of Conrad’s “insistence on inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery”. Instead of the Victorian preference for pellucid – almost pedantic – hardened detail, mist shrouds and encircles Conrad’s fiction. His narratives move seamlessly, almost imperceptibly, between different perspectives and voices. Dramatic scenes – explosions, collisions, shipwrecks, gunshots – are experienced as sensorial derangements, as they “happen”. We only come to understand what exactly has happened after the event. Conventionally held opposites collide, elide and even exchange in what Conrad refers to as “the incomprehensible alliance of irreconcilable antagonisms”. He makes it impossible to fix to any one understanding, or to see anything directly.

According to Leavis, Conrad’s incomprehensibility tended to “muffle” rather than “magnify”. But his metaphysically infused, hazy vision inexhaustibly fascinates readers. The abysses, the darkness and the unspeakable horror that pervade so much of his writing are strangely productive. They are not im­penetrable; rather, the chasm-like quality of “what isn’t said” creates a space to be filled by the reader. The recent Penguin Classics edition of Victory celebrates the multivalency that Conrad’s mystery provokes. When it was first published in 1915, Victory proved very popular. For some, though, this popular appeal was a major failing of the work. William Lyon Phelps voiced his distaste, writing that the story “reads as though it were intended to gain for its author a wider audience, as though he had tried to write in a ‘popular’ manner. Despite many fine passages of description, it is poor stuff”. Some felt weathered by the melodrama, or patronized by the heavy-handed allegory; others were disappointed by the scant characterization. It is one of the few instances where Conrad tackles what many consider his weakest subject, romantic love. In Joseph Conrad: A Life (2007), Zdzislaw Najder suggests that Conrad generally steered clear of this because he was anxious that it would detract from his other “weightier” concerns. There is something discomfiting about the romantic strain of Victory, as the protagonist Axel Heyst’s philosophical anxieties jostle with the novel’s other “identity”, as a psychological thriller.

David Mulry's response on 1/13/17:

Dear Gershon,
Thanks for your note, and for the thoughtful response to the Synondson review.  I hadn't known it was being reviewed there, so that was a pleasant surprise.  The fact that you were prompted to write your own poem in response, was even more pleasant.

Thanks for sharing your intricate word play and wry humor.
Best regards, David

1/11/17 #17714
Redemption While Stockpiling Sin

For redemption we may search
while we also stockpile sin,
hoping in the synagogue and church
that the Lord accepts our spin.
Opium and booze don’t stop
worshippers who throng the chapel,
asking for a lollipop
while like Eve they share an apple.

It’s very hard to drop belief
in God for someone who believes.
It would cause the sort of grief
Wodehouse would get by dropping Jeeves,
a man whose speech was just as stiff
as drinks he served his master who
would fall off wagons but no cliff
as drinking men so often do.

Martin Nolan writes about Graham Greene’s book “The Quiet American”.  Greene’ books were the source of more movies than any other 20th century writer.  The runner up was Rudyard Kipling.  Nolan writes:

The current version is not anti-American, Sir Michael insists, but “anti the 300 to 400 people who started America's entry into the Vietnam War." Sir Michael describes himself as "the most pro-American foreigner there is." The same could not be said for Fowler who, in the book, recalls explaining to Vigot the sarcastic title used to describe Pyle: "He's a good chap in his way. Serious. Not one of those noisy bastards at the Continental," he remembers saying, mentioning the hotel where the United States correspondents gathered. ‘“Quiet American.’ I summed him precisely up as I might have said, ‘a blue lizard,’ ‘ white elephant.’”
Greene's characters, in their staggering search for redemption, often stockpile sin. While Fowler wallows in opium, booze and brothels, he is uninterested in nationalism, imperialism or Communism. For Greene, God and guilt always trump politics and its affectations.
"Be disloyal," a troll-like guru rants at a boy in "Under the Garden," an autobiographical Greene short story of 1963. "It's your duty to the human race. The human race needs to survive and it's the loyal man who dies first from anxiety or a bullet or overwork. If you have to earn a living, boy, and the price they make you pay is loyalty, be a double agent — and never let either of the two sides know your real name. The same applies to women and God. They both respect a man they don't own, and they'll go on raising the price they are willing to offer. Didn't Christ say that very thing? Was the prodigal son loyal or the lost shilling or the strayed sheep?"

Fowler tells Pyle, "I wish sometimes you had a few bad motives, you might understand a little more about human beings." Greene occasionally wandered toward good intentions himself. In 1953, he told Waugh that he wanted to "write about politics and not always about God." Waugh waspishly replied: "I wouldn't give up writing about God at this stage if I was you. It would be like P. G. Wodehouse dropping Jeeves halfway through the Wooster series."

This poem anticipates “Dropping God,” which I wrote on 1/5/09:


“It’ll be a great relief,”
said Graham Greene, “not writing
about God.” Belief
he found quite unexciting,
although he’d written lots
about it, every novel
mainly based on plots
against God by the devil.

Evelyn Waugh replied
“I wouldn’t, were I you,
drop God as if He’s died,
for if you do you’ll rue
the action. God’s the booster,
believable as Jeeves
whom Wodehouse knows that Wooster
can’t drop since he believes.”

I  added the final quatrain of “Stockpiling” after reading the 1/6/17 TLS  review of Highballs for Breakfast: The very best of P. G, Wodehouse on the joys of a good stiff drink edited by Richard T. Kelly, by y Sophie Ratcliffe, who teaches at the University of Oxford, where she is a Tutor in English at Lady Margaret Hall. She writes:

Richard T. Kelly’s enjoyable book sources a wide range of Wodehouse’s writings on drinking, from his early journalism through to Blandings and Mr Mulliner. Against a backdrop of country houses and English pubs, we brood on beer and wine, while New York offers a fresh world of “green swizzles” and “lightning whizzers”.

An opening survey of Wodehousean euphemisms, from “stewed to the gills” to “tanked to the uvula” feels a touch more route march than pub crawl, but Kelly’s selection soon finds a gentler pace. Generous extracts put a frame around some of Wodehouse’s particular gifts. Wodehouse, of course, knows about alcohol’s downside. Bertie Wooster’s “research” into the varieties of nauseous experience is reassuringly precise (“there are six varieties of hangover,” he tells his friend Claude Cattermole (“Catsmeat”) Potter-Pirbright, “the Broken Compass, the Sewing Machine, the Comet, the Atomic, the Cement Mixer, and the Gremlin Boogie”). But Wodehouse offers us a narrative in which all is never lost – pain always has the possibility of cure. Jeeves, after all, first “floated” into Wooster’s life “noiselessly through the doorway like a healing zephyr”. His employment as Bertie’s valet, and the beginnings of one of fiction’s greatest partnerships, depends on the timely provision of “a glass on a tray” to help “a morning head”:

1/31/03, 1/13/17 #2968


Partisanship can become a crimper
of trust in stories  on the internet that can't be verified.
Their bang may turn into a  wimpy whimper
for  those who even by a terabyte of data are not terrified.

The new normal is now what's abnormal,
 the climate of opinion changing in a way that is so drastic,
that it---though you with facts willy be becoming warm--- 'll
be irrelevant for partisans who believe what's quite fantastic.

Amanda Taub (“The Real Story About Fake News Is Partisanship,” NYT, 1/11/17) writes:

In his farewell address as president Tuesday, Barack Obama warned of the dangers of uncontrolled partisanship. American democracy, he said, is weakened “when we allow our political dialogue to become so corrosive that people of good character are turned off from public service, so coarse with rancor that Americans with whom we disagree are not just misguided, but somehow malevolent.”

That seems a well-founded worry. Partisan bias now operates more like racism than mere political disagreement, academic research on the subject shows. And this widespread prejudice could have serious consequences for American democracy.

The partisan divide is easy to detect if you know where to look. Consider the thinly disguised sneer in most articles and editorials about so-called fake news. The very phrase implies that the people who read and spread the kind of false political stories that swirled online during the election campaign must either be too dumb to realize they’re being duped or too dishonest to care that they’re spreading lies.

But the fake-news phenomenon is not the result of personal failings. And it is not limited to one end of the political spectrum. Rather, Americans’ deep bias against the political party they oppose is so strong that it acts as a kind of partisan prism for facts, refracting a different reality to Republicans than to Democrats.

Partisan refraction has fueled the rise of fake news, according to researchers who study the phenomenon. But the repercussions go far beyond stories shared on Facebook and Reddit, affecting Americans’ faith in government — and the government’s ability to function.

In 2009, Sean Westwood, then a Stanford Ph.D. student, discovered that partisanship was one of the most powerful forces in American life. He got annoyed with persistent squabbles among his friends, and he noticed that they seemed to be breaking along partisan lines, even when they concerned issues that ostensibly had nothing to do with politics.

“I didn’t expect political conflict to spill over from political aspects of our lives to nonpolitical aspects of our lives, and I saw that happening in my social group,” said Mr. Westwood, now a professor at Dartmouth.

He wondered if this was a sign that the role of partisanship in American life was changing. Previously, partisan conflict mostly applied to political issues like taxes or abortion. Now it seemed, among his acquaintances at least, to be operating more like racism or sexism, fueling negative or positive judgments on people themselves, based on nothing more than their party identification.

Curious, Mr. Westwood looked at the National Election Study, a long-running survey that tracks Americans’ political opinions and behavior. He found that until a few decades ago, people’s feelings about their party and the opposing party were not too different. But starting in the 1980s, Americans began to report increasingly negative opinions of their opposing party.

Since then, that polarization has grown even stronger. The reasons for that are unclear. “I suspect that part of it has to do with the rise of constant 24-hour news,” Mr. Westwood said, “and also the shift that we’ve unfortunately gone through in which elections are more or less now a permanent state of affairs.”

To find out more about the consequences of that polarization, Mr. Westwood, along with Shanto Iyengar, a Stanford professor who studies political communication, embarked on a series of experiments. They found something quite shocking: Not only did party identity turn out to affect people’s behavior and decision making broadly, even on apolitical subjects, but according to their data it also had more influence on the way Americans behaved than race did.

That is a sea change in the role of partisanship in public life, Mr. Westwood said.

“Partisanship, for a long period of time, wasn’t viewed as part of who we are,” he said. “It wasn’t core to our identity. It was just an ancillary trait. But in the modern era we view party identity as something akin to gender, ethnicity or race — the core traits that we use to describe ourselves to others.”

That has made the personal political. “Politics has become so important that people select relationships on that basis,” Mr. Iyengar said. For instance, it has become quite rare for Democrats to marry Republicans, according to the same Westwood/Iyengar paper, which cited a finding in a 2009 survey of married couples that only 9 percent consisted of Democrat-Republican pairs. And it has become more rare for children to have a different party affiliation from their parents.

But it has also made the political personal. Today, political parties are no longer just the people who are supposed to govern the way you want. They are a team to support, and a tribe to feel a part of. And the public’s view of politics is becoming more and more zero-sum: It’s about helping their team win, and making sure the other team loses.

How partisan bias fuels fake news

Partisan tribalism makes people more inclined to seek out and believe stories that justify their pre-existing partisan biases, whether or not they are true.

“If I’m a rabid Trump voter and I don’t know much about public affairs, and I see something about some scandal about Hillary Clinton’s aides being involved in an assassination attempt, or that story about the pope endorsing Trump, then I’d be inclined to believe it,” Mr. Iyengar said. “This is reinforcing my beliefs about the value of a Trump candidacy.”

And Clinton voters, he said, would be similarly drawn to stories that deride Mr. Trump as a demagogue or a sexual predator.

Sharing those stories on social media is a way to show public support for one’s partisan team — roughly the equivalent of painting your face with team colors on game day.

“You want to show that you’re a good member of your tribe,” Mr. Westwood said. “You want to show others that Republicans are bad or Democrats are bad, and your tribe is good. Social media provides a unique opportunity to publicly declare to the world what your beliefs are and how willing you are to denigrate the opposition and reinforce your own political candidates.”....

Already, partisan bias is undermining confidence in the last election. “We saw some symptoms of that in this last campaign,” Mr. Iyengar said. “You begin to have doubts about the legitimacy of the election. And you begin to view the outcome as somehow contaminated or tainted. And you had all of Trump’s comments about how he would not concede if the election went to Clinton, and then you had all the people demonstrating.”

Now, “you have quite a few people who are willing to call into question an institution for centuries that has been sacrosanct,” Mr. Iyengar said.

Mr. Westwood was even more pessimistic. “The consequences of that are insane,” he said, “and potentially devastating to the norms of democratic governance.”

“I don’t think things are going to get better in the short term; I don’t think they’re going to get better in the long term. I think this is the new normal.”

1/12/17 #17716

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Shining City on the Hill

The shining city on the hill may well stop glistening
unless all of its citizens desist from listening
to music they think rocks  and start listening instead
to Bach and Mozart and men like them who  are dead.
And, instead of focusing on the their devices,
which burn their brains and make them melt as Arctic ice,
all citizens shoud take steps to make sure they shine by reading,
closely, not to messages sent them by texting heeding,
great  poetry, like that of Frost, who was  invited
by JFK to his inauguration. Blighted
by music that's its poison, not its penicillin,
and verse that's rubbish--- if it isn't by Bob Dylan!---
the shining city has completely lost its luster,
all leaders in this Little Big Horn like a Custer.
The city, having lost its glamour, will not never glisten
again until its people make sure that they listen
to music and to poetry that is uplifting,
and  will not end ice and fire but like snow flakes drifting.

John Williams, reviewing How To Be Bored by Eva Hoffman (“Feeling Blah? There's a Book About That,” NYT, 1/8/17), writes:

The most philosophically vexing problem she recognizes is “the temptations of plenitude and the problems of freedom.” We’re led to believe that we have a paralyzingly large number of prospective romantic partners or career choices or recreation options. And we face these forking paths without a compass; the acceptance of increasingly diverse lifestyles and values leave us with “few common criteria for making important life choices.”

So what about boredom, again?

It’s best to stop expecting the book to be about that. Ms. Hoffman does.

She barrels ahead into solutions for our paradoxically harried ennui, including close listening to Mozart and keeping a diary. She also strongly suggests we get off the devices. Technology, a mixed blessing to be sure, is here a towering straw man, responsible for much of our unhappiness.

“Our coexistence with digital devices has affected our patience and shortened the span of our attention,” runs a typical sentence. She bemoans “the segmentation of thought encouraged by digital technologies,” “the constant barrage of external stimuli,” and the “virtual knowledge” we get from “the flat spaces of computer screens and via abbreviated communications.”

She’s a fan of “authentic human contact,” but worries that by texting and Facebook messaging so often, “we may be losing track of what such contact is, or how we can achieve it.”

Robert Frost inspired the last line:

Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

1/9/17 #17703


Yiddish music now is mesmer-
izing with the sounds of klezmer
Mexicans who are not Jewish,
perhaps because it sounds a little blueish,
and Mexicans who have the blues
now feel a kinship with the Jews,
which hardly is surprising since a lot
have Jewish blood,  although they're not
aware of this. Conversos whose
escape from Spain as hidden Jews
may well have been the ancestors
not just of some conquistadors
but of these klezmer loving Mexicans who
to unknown ancient roots are true,
patronizinig, more than they do mariachi,
klezmedr, thanks to their patriarchy.

Robbie Whelan writes in the 1/8/17 WSJ  (“That’s Jewish Folk Music You’re Hearing—in Mexico”):

On most days, weather permitting, Juan “El Maestro” Pérez packs up his clarinet and his accordion and descends to the city’s main plaza to play music for tips from tourists.

But El Maestro doesn’t look or sound like other street musicians here in Puebla—a Spanish colonial city known for its ornate pottery and dozens of churches—who mostly play mariachi guitars and sing romantic Mexican songs.

Instead, Mr. Pérez wears a long beard and dresses in the costume of a Hasidic Jew, complete with a wide-brimmed black hat, high-collared white dress shirt and a black cardigan. He quotes folksy Yiddish expressions and punctuates Romanian dance melodies by shouting “hey!” at key moments.

His band, El Colectivo Klezmorino, a rotating cast of friends and conservatory dropouts toting violins, a bass, percussion, brass and other instruments, all of whom he recruited and trained, is devoted exclusively to playing klezmer, the raucous, up-tempo Jewish folk music common to weddings and bar mitzvahs in the Yiddish-speaking shtetls of Eastern Europe in the early 20th century.

Mr. Pérez, 28 years old, isn’t Jewish, and neither is anyone else in the band. He grew up in Xicohtzinco, a tiny village in the Mexican state of Tlaxcala, he doesn’t speak Yiddish, he has never set foot in a synagogue and he has never traveled outside of Mexico. He spends his days playing Jewish folk music, and dressing the part, mainly because he loves it, he says, and because it was easy to learn.

“I feel like with klezmer, for me it’s not just the music, it’s a small summary of all of life,” he says. “Here in Mexico—not just Mexico, but in many countries—we believe that life isn’t just joy or sorrow. There are difficulties, but the happy and the sad exist at the same time in life.”

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Burqa here, burqa there, shariah for all

“Burqa here, fatwa there. Shariah for all,”
Aravind Adiga writes in his book.  It isn't cricket
when this occurs, but even those who call “no ball!'
can't win by  spinning on this sticky wicket.

The ball has been dropped on boundary lines and in the slips,
while umpires are asleep in councils of security,
and spectators aren't quite ready for apocalypse
in a game that's nearly over, sans futurity

Dwight Garne, reviewing Selection Day by by Aravind Adiga (“An India Seen Through the Wickets, Soulful Yet Harsh,” 1/3/17, writes:

What do Indians want from their novelists? That question is taken up, like a scimitar, by a worldly cricket fanatic in “Selection Day,” Aravind Adiga’s powerful new novel.

What they want “is not literature at all, but flattery,” he says, at least in those Indian novels written in English. “We want to see ourselves depicted as soulful, sensitive, profound, valorous, wounded, tolerant and funny beings. All that Jhumpa Lahiri stuff.”

This man continues his train of thought, with bravado and morbidity, as if distilling the essence of profane things. “What are we, then?” he asks. He answers his own question: “We are animals of the jungle, who will eat our neighbor’s children in five minutes, and our own in 10. Keep this in mind before you do any business in this country.”

“Selection Day,” Mr. Adiga’s third novel, supplies further proof that his Booker Prize, won for “The White Tiger” in 2008, was no fluke. He is not merely a confident storyteller but also a thinker, a skeptic, a wily entertainer, a thorn in the side of orthodoxy and cant. There’s little “Jhumpa Lahiri stuff” in “Selection Day,” yet his characters manage to be soulful indeed.

“Selection Day” is a cricket novel that maintains a running critique of that pastime. (“Lunch break! Nothing that stops for lunch can be called a sport.”) It’s a book about fathers that has few good ones on display. It’s a book about language that cannot decide among many. It’s a book about bargains in which no character makes a wise one.

It’s a book about religion and its tribal cruelties, and it bears bad tidings. A cricket columnist in Mumbai, an atheist, worries as he watches “young women in all black follow the young men in all white.” He fears that “the fecundity and the fundamentalism together were going to bake a nice big Christmas cake for India in about 20 years. Burqa here, fatwa there. Shariah for all.” Mr. Adiga’s take on the world often makes you consider what the apocalypse might sound like as reported by the BBC’s Hindi service.

Yet who are Muslims, this book asks, if not the most passionate of cricket fans? Can this sport save humanity? “Have you ever tried to kill someone with a cricket bat?” another man thinks. “All but impossible. The deep and intrinsic silliness of cricket, I think, all that fair play and honorable draw stuff, makes it ideally suited for male social control in India.”


after us the flood

Nations which, abhorring bloodshed, are not willing to shed flesh and blood,
relying on the weapons they create with high tech all ignore
the fact that they are destined to become the flotsam of a major flood
in which they'll drown with all the ideology that they adore.
"Après nous le déluge" said Madame de Pompadour,
and sadly she won't be the last to say this, I am sure.

Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown University, reviewing Gorged Through Fire bya John Feerjohn & Frances McCall Rosenbluth, writes in “Democracy is Dependent on War” (WSJ, 1/6/16):

Some books should come stamped with a surgeon general’s warning: “Likely to cause discomfort,” perhaps, or “Not suitable for romantics.” The political scientists John Ferejohn and Frances McCall Rosenbluth have written such a book: “Forged Through Fire: War, Peace and the Democratic Bargain” is not for the faint of heart.

It begins with a paradox. “Humans have inflicted untold horrors on each other through wars,” Mr. Ferejohn and Ms. Rosenbluth write, but these wars have also been responsible for fostering one of our “most cherished human values”: modern democracy, with its unique combination of universal suffrage and property rights.

This isn’t the story we’re taught in high-school civics. But it’s a compelling one, powerfully told by two scholars with mastery of their subject. The authors walk the reader through 2,500 bloody years of Western history, from the Peloponnesian wars to the war in Vietnam, highlighting, again and again, a brutal trade-off: The emergence and consolidation of democracy depends on warfare, and a particular kind of warfare, at that.

A prison bigger than Western Europe; the brawler behind ‘Mustang Sally’; the eight flavors that unite American cuisine; why democracy is dependent on war; the extraordinary woman who wrote ‘Good Night Moon’; Vikings on camels in Baghdad; and more.

Here’s the logic: The rich and powerful prefer to remain that way, and are, as a general rule, disinclined to share either wealth or political power with the poor. Only when elites are faced with external military threats do the poor become valuable to the rich. This is so because armies have traditionally required bodies—and plenty of them.

This, the authors argue, is the awful “alchemy of iron and blood” that produces democracy. Manpower-intensive forms of warfare require the large-scale mobilization of the population, which forces elites facing external threats to grant political concessions to the common man. Mr. Ferejohn and Ms. Rosenbluth are not the first to chart the linkages between warfare and the evolution of the modern democratic state, but their magisterial volume makes the case in persuasive and explicit detail.

We begin in Athens, where the shift from aristocracy to democracy was driven by the need to defend the city against foreign invasion. In 508 B.C., Cleisthenes “promised to turn political power over to the Athenian public in exchange for their help in repelling Spartan intervention,” and the great age of Athenian democracy was born.

It might soon have died, too, but for the existence of near-continuous external threats during the Peloponnesian and Persian wars, and the fact that Athenian naval supremacy soon came to require the active participation of tens of thousands of ordinary men. “Whether they liked it or not,” note the authors, “Athens’ wealthy and conservative citizens seem to have understood that the city’s survival rested in the hands of thousands of commoners who rowed the triremes.”

Similar dynamics led Rome’s elites to grant freedom, land, citizenship and the franchise to an expanding body of commoners and ultimately to residents of far-flung colonial outposts. As in Athens, “Roman military accomplishments rested on wide manpower mobilization rewarded by . . . political voice.”

But not all wars produce democracy. In medieval Europe, feudal lords were able to rely mainly on small forces of heavy cavalry to sustain their power, not on large-scale mobilization of the poor, and this mostly eliminated the need to offer political concessions to the masses in exchange for military service.

Later, in early modern Europe, “the effective use of gunpowder decisively tipped the balance away from the cavalry-dominated militaries of the previous 500 years and in favor of mass armies . . . shifting political power upward to leaders who could finance and maintain such large armies.” Even so, for a time most European governments were able to finance armies with plunder from the New World, “or, where necessary, through exchanges of favors with merchants that were less destabilizing than the bargains [monarchs] would otherwise have had to strike with the poor.” As a result, pressures to democratize remained minimal and episodic. “As long as monarchies could buy armies with money, blood did not buy voting rights, as it had in Athens and Rome,” the authors write.

It was only in the 19th and 20th centuries, Mr. Ferejohn and Ms. Rosenbluth observe, that conditions once again became favorable for the widespread expansion of democracy. The French Republic’s levée en masse set the stage: Mass mobilizations required both an effective administrative state and eventually a more egalitarian approach to politics. By the end of the 19th century, both France and Germany had “enormous standing armies” and “both had adopted representative government,” with universal suffrage placating the masses, counterbalanced by protections for property rights to assuage the concerns of the wealthy.

In much of Europe, however, the interests of the wealthy and the working class remained at odds. It “took the white-hot wars of the twentieth century, which required both money and manpower, to hinge them into a single coalition in favor of representative democracy,” the authors write.

When it happened, it happened quickly. Norway and Sweden initiated universal military conscription at the beginning of the 20th century; within a decade, both had also granted universal male suffrage. In Britain, conscription did not begin until 1916; by 1918, universal male suffrage had also been granted. By the end of World War II, 60 million people were dead, but democracy had become the norm throughout the West.

“Forged Through Fire” is full of grim lessons. One lesson: warfare, as the authors of this book soberly remind us, has been a near-constant throughout human history. Those inclined to take solace in the post World War II decline of interstate wars might pause to consider that 70 years is, in the grand scheme of things, not a very long time. Another lesson: Those with power have rarely been inclined to relinquish it voluntarily. Only fear and threat have driven the rich and powerful to share—grudgingly—with history’s have-nots.

A third lesson—perhaps the hardest to swallow—is that our most cherished modern liberal political values would likely never have triumphed without war and its multiple horrors, and even the democratic gains produced by centuries of war were “neither easy nor inevitable.” Democracy depended upon a unique combination of circumstances: technologies favoring manpower-intensive forms of warfare; the lack of external sources of wealth that might have enabled governing elites to purchase military power, rather than coax it from their citizens; and so on. Even with all these conditions present, coercion and propaganda were sometimes sufficient to thwart the development of democracy. Russia and China, for instance, have managed, so far, to buck the trend.

All this leads to an uncomfortable question. Wealthy modern states can once again increasingly outsource their security to private contractors, and in any case, the emergence of new military technologies is again reducing the need for mass armies. Drones, surveillance technologies and cyber-warfare make it possible for states to achieve war’s traditional ends without much need to mobilize their citizens, shifting the balance of power away from ordinary citizens and back towards governing elites.

“When armies no longer need flesh and blood,” wonder Mr. Ferejohn and Ms. Rosenbluth, “what can take their place to stabilize democracy?” In other words: forged through war, can democracy survive peace?

1/8/127 #17700



Recently there's been a recognition
of the cognitive abilities of dogs.
They've given them a name, and now dognition
is being written up not only in dogs' owner blogs,
but in scientific articles, and in center   
in Yale that's trying to find out how they're so smart.
Taking their skills seriously, one documenter
of every one that she's observed is my sweetheart,
not my wife, but of my middle son the spouse,
but when this son, who 's as pro-canine as his wife,  
told me their smartest dog had swallowed their pet mouse,
I was horrified to find out that I am pro-life.
I had thought that I was pro-choice, and never felt
attached to mice till I learned of this muricide.
Concerning canine smartness there's a rat I've smelled
concerning dogs and those who march with canine pride.
Although my son may be as smart as dogs and my dear daughter-
in-law perhaps even smarter, I'm not willing
to prioritze their smartness. To cut a long tale shorter:
I'm pro-life when it come to mice, and contra canine killing

This poem is based on a true story that occurred on Broadway, in the Upper Westside of New York City, and in Central Park. My son and his lovely wife prefer to remain anonymous.

Jan Hoffman (“To Rate How Smart Dogs Are, Humans Learn New Tricks,” NYT, 1/7/17) writes:

Pam Giordano thinks her dog is quite intelligent, and she has proof: Giorgio, an 11-year-old Havanese, has diplomas stating he has a bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. from Yale. The bumper sticker on Ms. Giordano’s car announces, “My dog made it to the Ivy League.”

The honors were bestowed on Giorgio and Giuliana, his sibling, for participating in the university’s Canine Cognition Center. “I wanted to know how much they know and how smart they are,” Ms. Giordano, a real estate broker in Branford, Conn., said. “I think Giuliana really just goes for the treats. But Giorgio rises above it. He is very bright. I would say he knows over 100 words.”

The Yale researchers are on to something. They have figured out how to tap into the willingness of dogs’ human companions to support their studies. Enthusiastically.

Suddenly how smart your dog is seems to matter — an aspiration that has also not gone unnoticed by the commercial pet industry. Walk into any pet supply chain, such as the aptly named PetSmart, and take in the toys, gadgets and foods advertised as optimizing a dog’s intelligence. Or just do an online search for “brain games to play with your dog.”

The swelling interest, eagerly amplified by the pet industry, has given a boost to the relatively new academic field of canine cognition, with research centers sprouting up on campuses across the country. In the fall, the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science devoted an issue to the topic.

At Yale, the three-year-old canine cognition center has been barraged by humans eager to have their dogs’ intelligence evaluated, volunteering them for research exercises and puzzles. Some owners drive for hours.

“People like their kids to be smart, and they like their dogs to be smart,” said Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology who directs the center. “Some people will call and sound apologetic, saying, ‘I’d like to bring my dog in, but he might be too dumb.’”

(By the way, here’s a bubble-bursting secret: Smart dogs often aren’t that great to live with, precisely because they’re too smart.)

1/8/17 #17701

Thursday, January 5, 2017

if you do not love him you can't play him well


"If you do not love him you can’t play him well,"
said Maurizio Pollini, just talking about
the playing of Chopin, but if you should doubt
that you love your lovemaking will not cast a spell
on your lover, for though you may have great technique,
he will sense in your lovemaking your fatal flaw:
though you think you are playing him well, he will seek
and not find in you what you lack, esprit de corps.

In a recording of an old interview with Maurizio Pollini broadcast by Dennis Bartel the pianist stated: “If you do not love Chopin well you
can’t play him well.”

I recalled this poem when Dennis Bartel broadcast a performance by Maurizio Pollini of Chopin's Polonaise "Military" in A Op 40/1 on 1/5/17. Maurizio's 75th birthday.  Dennis pointed out that Arthur Rubinstein once said of him "That boy can play the piano better than any of us." In an interview that Dennis broadcast, Maurizio said that while he loved Chopin's music, he did not want to be regarded as a specialist in any composer. Rubinstein would probably have felt the same, although he was widely regarded as a Chopin specialist.

not needing to recite romantic poets backwards


While walking along the unblue Danube in the early morning, in order to forestall boredom
Patrick Leigh Fermor used to recite Romantic poets like Keats backwards.
I don't need to do that since I fortunately never lack words
while walking, remembering those I've strung together when I reach my hard disk, where I hoard 'em.