Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Family Feud

The authors of science zines must spend much time reading one another, because they often carry similar stories even when nothing special in the news has prompted it. If one zine carries an article on, say, border clashes between tribes of chimps in Angola, simply because the subject interests one of the writers, other zines are sure to follow in the next few days with similar articles.

This must explain a recent spate of articles in science zines about how closely all humans are related. None of the zines cite any significant new paper in any major journal. Nevertheless, the point is an interesting one though it is nothing new. It long has been the consensus that it is mathematically necessary, due to the doubling of direct ancestors with each generation, for every person now living to be descended from every person in the world who was alive no further in the past than 7000 years ago who left a still intact line. This is so even if very conservative assumptions about human movements are applied. The number is closer to 5000 years if more liberal and more likely assumptions about migration are used. Even a tiny rate of infiltration by travelers over the steppes, the deserts, and the seas ensures this universal relativity - and migration was often anything but tiny. Also, all living people, no matter how remote, share at least one direct common ancestor by 3000 years ago (more likely 2000).

There is something neat about this. A person may not think of himself as hailing from the banks of the Chang Jiang River or the grasslands of West Africa if his great great grandparents sailed to the US from Ireland in 1849, but it seems that he does. His ancestors hauled stones to Giza too. They quite likely besieged (and defended) Troy. It is worth an occasional thought, while claiming this rather than that heritage, that those other folks are cousins too. Cousins, of course, don't always get along, but it is still worth a thought.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Karma Curmudgeon

85 years ago, in separate incidents, Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner slew their boyfriends. Allegedly. Both were acquitted. Beulah didn’t actually deny shooting hers; she simply said she acted in self-defense and not at all because of his intention to dump her. After the shooting she played a foxtrot record while waiting for the fellow to die, which he did 4 hours later. Then she called the police. Belva never admitted doing anything. Sure she was in the front seat of her boyfriend’s car where he was killed by a gun found on the seat next to him. Other people had seen her there. Sure she owned guns. Other people had seen her with those too; a girl had to be careful of robbers, she said. Sure she was still covered in her boyfriend’s blood when the police arrived at her apartment. But she had been drinking, you see, and for the life of her couldn’t remember what happened in the car. She sincerely doubted she had anything to do with her boyfriend’s death though.

These became celebrity cases. The juries bought the defendants’ stories and both walked free. Beulah’s husband stood by her through the trial, but after it was over she dumped him and married a boxer.

If all this sounds familiar, it should. Maurine Dallas Watkins wrote a play based on the events called Chicago which ran on Broadway. It was made into a movie in 1927. The movie was remade in 1942 as Roxie Hart with Ginger Rogers in the title role. It returned to the stage in 1975, renamed Chicago, this time as a musical. The best known version is probably the 2002 movie adaptation starring Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

I’ve never seen the straight original play, but I’m fond of the 1927 version (the scene where Roxie is being coached by her lawyer is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-zYAd5FdBE ), the 1942 version, and the Broadway musical. My fondness reinforced a resistance to seeing the 2002 movie that I had anyway. It long has been my opinion that stage musicals rarely translate well to the screen; they never turn out better on screen, despite all the superior stagecraft and fx possible, and sometimes achieved, with film – it’s just not the right medium. On a recent sleepless night, though, I finally watched it. It actually isn’t bad. I much prefer Broadway, but it isn’t bad.

I’m not sure what about this kind of story catches our attention so much in real life and in the movies. It may be wonderment that karma really doesn’t balance things out. What goes around doesn’t come around – unless we decide to make it do so. Even then, we often get it wrong.

Friday, June 12, 2009


Author Ray Bradbury, who will be 89 this August, once remarked that when he was a boy, a visit to the relatives meant a visit to the graveyard. It was a pre-birth-control era of large families, and it was unlikely that all of one's siblings would make it to adulthood. Modern medicine in 1920 was just beginning to make to make serious headway against common diseases and infections, and something curable a quarter-century later with simple penicillin could very well be fatal. He said the greatest changes in social attitudes in his lifetime have come from the increasing insulation of modern life from everyday connection to death. Violence in video games doesn’t count, since we know that is as much a fantasy as the aliens and zombies shooting back at our avatars in the games; if anything, it adds to the sense of detachment. We no longer expect to lose friends and relatives in real life before they are old. It happens, of course, for any number of reasons, but we no longer expect it. We often forget about our own mortality altogether, until blindsided by some event that that forces our awareness.

This surely has much to do with the abundance of Peter Pans and Wendys running about with graying hair. If life is neverending, there is not much need to look at the clock to see what time it is. Perhaps paying attention to time is a definition of maturity. I know I didn't begin to grow up until I started to lose those close to me, and I haven't finished the job even at this late stage. Fortunately, having avoided taking on such adult responsibilities as were avoidable (fatherhood being the big one), I've been able to dodge most of the dire consequences of a Never-never-land existence so far, though no doubt I've missed some benefits too.

This is not entirely a bad thing. Perhaps the old saw "Live each day as if it were your last" should be modified to "Live each day as if it were your first." After all, it probably won't be your last and you'll be stuck paying for the party. Nevertheless, perhaps we also should remember, at least occasionally, that there really is a clock. None of us knows to what time the alarm is set, but we often can make an educated guess.

In another week or so on the summer solstice, nature's clock, I’ll sit out back and toast time – if I remember to look at the calendar. How about you?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Something Wilde

I haven't learned very much in my years on this planet, but I have learned (the hard way, of course) enough to know there is a land mine inside this excerpt from an Economist article:

"Americans expect a lot from marriage. Whereas most Italians say the main purpose of marriage is to have children, 70% of Americans think it is something else. They want their spouse to make them happy. Some go further and assume that if they are not happy, it must be because they picked the wrong person."

Another person cannot make you happy. Let me repeat that. Another person cannot make you happy. It is trite to say (annoyingly, most truths are), but you have to find happiness inside yourself.

On the other hand, another person can make you miserable.

In my observation, there are two basic sets of people: 1) those who are naturally happy unless especially bad things are happening to them, and 2) those who are naturally unhappy unless especially good things are happening to them. If you're one of the former, you don't need to look for someone else to cheer you up. You’ll be just fine whittling on the porch by yourself. If you're one of the latter, no one else ever will supply you with enough good times to keep you smiling. Attempts to extract enough out of your companion merely will add to you own disappointments while making him or her miserable.

Type 1s almost always marry type 2s. Type 2s almost always marry type 1s.

Said Oscar Wilde, "I always give away good advice. It never is of the slightest use to myself." So, here goes. Just try to find someone who doesn't make you miserable. At least he or she won't get in the way.