Wednesday, December 28, 2011

By the Book

Practically all the books I own are the old fashioned kind made of paper and ink. I no longer shelve every book as soon as it is read. It has to be “shelfworthy.” I sometimes thin out the existing books on the shelves by asking the question, “Would I ever read this again, even in principle?” You know what I mean. We all own books we most likely never again will reopen, but which we at least can envision ourselves reopening if we had enough time. I keep those, and you probably do too. The ones I wouldn’t reopen no matter how much time is available get tossed.

Nevertheless, the number of books in the house still shows a net gain each and every year. Last night I tried cramming some Stephen Baxter (the Manifold trilogy) on a shelf where there was no room. There was no choice but to push Zola to the right on the very last shelf and then start shifting books from left to right and shelf to shelf all the way back to Aesop. Baxter thereby got the needed space, but Aristotle literally fell on my head in the process, and he was on my mind the rest of the evening.

The rules of logic we still use (occasionally) were formalized in a text written by Aristotle in the fourth century BC. This was a profound achievement. Unfortunately, Aristotle didn’t stop when he was ahead. He wrote on every imaginable subject from zoology to physics, and he got most of it wrong. There is no shame in that. At such an early stage of scientific inquiry, it would be far more surprising if he got very much right. Yet, sometimes he was so very wrong – weirdly wrong – that it forces us to wonder what he was thinking.

For example, Aristotle claims that thought occurs in the heart. The brain, he says, merely cools the blood. Outside the walls of the Capitol building, this is false. Aristotle says that women have fewer teeth than men. I’ll give him the benefit of a doubt on this one: maybe he counted in the mouth of a woman who had fewer teeth, at least at the point in time when he looked. A larger sample, though, quickly would have proven this wrong. He tells us that a heavy object falls faster than a lighter one. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him to try it. He got the laws of motion wrong. An arrow, he explains, is impelled by the air rushing in behind it after it leaves the bow; in a vacuum, he says, it would just fall to the ground in front of the bow. He says that the earth is the center of the universe, and that the sun orbits the earth. In fairness, this was the mainstream opinion of his day, but some ancient astronomers disagreed with it; Aristarchus wrote that the earth and other planets orbit the sun while only the moon orbits earth. Copernicus credited Aristarchus when he revived the idea in 1543. 

Still, once again, there is no shame in making mistakes. The shame belonged to Medieval scholars who relied mulishly on Aristotle rather than do any independent research of their own. Science was stalled for centuries by their acceptance of his authority.

There is something to be said for intellectual authority. All opinions are not equal. When experts clash with laymen, the experts almost surely are right – especially in matters of science or engineering. “Almost surely” is not quite the same as “surely,” however; in more humanistic matters, it is not the same at all. There are cases when the crackpots turn out to be right.

It doesn’t ever hurt to recall Aristotle’s rules of logic (which – amazingly, considering his track record – he got right) and give any topic some independent thought of one’s own. The brain is not just for cooling the blood. Remembering that might even make a good New Year’s resolution. I hope I’ll have more success with it than with some of the others in years past.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Festive Us

Today, December 23 is the day mentioned in the TV comedy Seinfeld as Festivus, a holiday for those who don’t ascribe to any of the traditional ones for this season: “Festivus for the rest of us.” The script writers may or may not have been aware that the 23rd was the last day of the Saturnalia, the weeklong period of feasting, rabble-rousing, and gift-giving that the pre-Christian Romans so enjoyed. It was, of course, originally a solstice celebration. The solstice marked the onset of winter in the Northern hemisphere; everywhere it was celebrated with rituals and feasts. Cattle and other farm animals commonly were slaughtered at this time so that they wouldn’t have to be fed through the winter months; accordingly, more meat for the feasts was on hand than at any other time of year. Besides, in those days, fattening up for the winter wasn’t such a bad idea if you could do it; some lean months might loom ahead.

In 46 BC Julius Caesar somewhat arbitrarily calibrated his new calendar so that the solstice fell on December 25, but no one bothered to adjust the date of the Saturnalia. When a sun cult (Sol Invictus – the unconquerable sun) came to prominence a couple centuries later in what was still pre-Christian Rome, though, December 25 was chosen for the celebration of the Dies Natalis (birthday) of the sun. It was also the birthdate of Mithras, demigod of a martial cult of Persian origin popular with the Roman legions. The Christians, sensibly, often chose existing days of celebrations for their own holidays, and December 25 was a natural for Christmas. For these and other reasons, the Puritans who settled New England did not celebrate Christmas, claiming (with some justice) it had pagan origins – they waged the first “war on Christmas,” to borrow a phrase currently in the news. The Puritans didn’t begin to ease up on this until the 19th century, and some never did.

Julius’ calendar wasn’t quite accurate. It calculated the year at 365.25 days instead of the more nearly correct 365.242; so, it drifted out of synch with the solar year by three days every four centuries. In the 1500s, the scholar Aloysius Lilius devised a simple formula to correct the problem: leap days are dropped from years evenly divisible by 100 unless they are also evenly divisible by 400. So, 1900 was not a leap year but 2000 was. Pope Gregory adopted it in 1582, also chopping 10 days from that year’s calendar so as to re-set it to Roman times. Yet, for some reason, he chose not to reset back to the original 46 BC start date of the Julian calendar (which would have been 13 or 14 days) but to the Council of Nicea of 425 AD. Why is anybody’s guess, but it is possible, at least in part, that he wanted to dissociate Christmas from the solstice. The Puritans, unsurprisingly, rejected the Gregorian calendar. Other Protestants resisted for a while also, but by the 18th century they by and large grudgingly accepted it for its greater accuracy; the British Empire, including the American colonies, switched over in 1752.

A dozen or so friends are stopping by my home this Christmas. Whatever the day’s origins, and whatever personal or religious meanings any person chooses to associate with that day or this time of year, I’m just happy to have another excuse to get together with friends, exchange a few presents, and overeat. I’ve shed the extra pounds from the turkey at Thanksgiving, and it is time to put them back on.

There is one Saturnalian tradition I would like to revive, however, and I’ll see whether the idea goes over. One of the party (convivium) attendees was chosen by lot to be prince (Saturnalicius princeps). He or she could issue commands, which generally were prankish: dance on the table, dump a pail of water on another guest’s head, sing in a squeaky voice with a bag on your head. That sort of thing. On second thought, considering the usual line-up of guests at my parties, maybe that’s not such a good idea.

Festivus Pole


Sunday, December 18, 2011

AB Negative (or The Jingle Brawl)

Last night the Jerzey Derby Brigade at Inline Skating in Morristown hosted a charity all-star women’s roller derby bout, pitting skaters from all over New Jersey against skaters from all over Pennsylvania. The bout benefited Toys for Tots. Non-coms from the Marines and Navy were on hand to accept donated toys. The event was a double header, with an A-Team and a B-Team from each state. Rather than skate two complete bouts one after the other (standard playing time for a bout is two 30-minute halves with a halftime break), the two pairs of teams alternated halves on the track (A-B-A-B).

The teams were in seasonal colors of red and green. Immediately upon entering the rink, I resolved which team was which by identifying a familiar skater by her favored face scarf:  Jerzey Derby Brigade skater Criss Catastrophe was in green. PA skated in red. The toy collection was successful – the boxes filled – but audience attendance was no more than moderate. Regularly scheduled home matches sometimes pull bigger crowds. Those who passed it up missed a fun bout.

It always is interesting to see if all-star teams are as good as the sum of their parts. Since the players haven’t had much time to practice together, coordination that is second-nature with usual teammates can be a challenge. All four teams did surprisingly well. Of the two pair, the A’s were most evenly matched.

In the very first jam of the A teams, PA’s Roxxy Fox blew through the pack and scored the first points of the bout. It was a feat she would repeat again and again throughout the evening as one of the outstanding jammers. In the second jam, Ozzie Clobberpot scored a grand slam (5 points) for NJ. Those two jams set the pattern for the two very competitive teams, both of which were able to score points against the other. A slight edge in defensive blocking, however, allowed PA slowly to build a lead. (For neophytes, jammers score points, blockers try to block them; see video clip at end of Wheel Appeal for more info: .)

The B teams were another matter altogether. PA absolutely dominated this second part of the bout. While not discounting the other skaters (who otherwise were pretty well matched on the NJ and PA sides), Pennsylvania’s advantage owed a lot to two skaters: Shenita Stretcher and V-Diva. Both had skated for Team USA, the all-star team that won the Gold medal at the Roller Derby World Cup in Toronto earlier this month in which teams from 13 countries participated; Team USA bested second-place Canada 336-33. The two skaters were on their game in Morristown last night. Shenita was formidable whether blocking or jamming. V-Diva was all but unstoppable. “Amazon” is not always a flattering word, but in this case I mean it to be; think of it with all its best possible connotations. V-Diva was as comfortable skating backwards as forwards, and frequently did so, which made her an extraordinarily tough blocker while giving extra power to her whip assists to her own team’s jammers. When skating as jammer herself, she pushed through the pack of blockers pretty much at will.

Several other skaters deserve mention. Well, all of them do, and they are listed below. For special mention though, A Bomb jammed gamely for NJ against the very tough PA B team defense. Yoshi Ground Pound and Superstiches stood out for NJ. For PA, Happy Feet, Mj Slamher, and Roxxy Fox drew attention.

PA’s A Team prevailed against NJ 113-61. PA’s B ruled 211-24 – considering the score up in Toronto mentioned above, that’s not so bad for NJ.

The Lineups

 V-Diva in her Native Habitat

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Dating by Numbers

A popular NJ radio station is WKXW-FM (101.5), with an all-talk format on weekdays. (On weekends it plays oldies music.) I’m often tuned to it while driving. On weeknights Michelle Jerson hosts a call-in show called After Hours, on which she asks such relationship-oriented questions as (these are taken from her page at the station web site) “How do you break up with someone?” or “Did you (or would you) take your husband’s last name?” or “Do modern men like aggressive women?” and so on. What always surprises me is how persistent the traditional gender divide remains in the answers even as the socioeconomic realities shift – it’s enough to make an economic determinist despair. To be sure, there are always unconventional callers, but this would have been as true in 1956 as today.

As an example, while I was driving home a couple weeks ago, Michelle asked listeners if they would consider dating someone who was unemployed. The unemployed are, of course, a sizable population in today’s economy, and the downturn has hit male workers especially hard. She predicted a gender split in the answers and she got it. Only a handful of women callers were willing to consider an unemployed man, and even those few usually qualified the answer with something like “if it’s clearly a temporary condition.” Most simply ruled it out. Men callers, on the other hand, by and large couldn’t have cared less if a prospective date was employed, or, if so, at what. They had their minds on other assets.

This is exactly the same division I would have expected half a century ago, despite the radical changes in wages and employment since then. Male wages, for example, peaked in real terms in 1973 and since have collapsed 32%; in the same time, female real wages rose 44%. The result, though, was not to reverse traditional patterns of attraction (most men are still drawn by looks and they still attempt to draw with status), but simply to make larger numbers of men undateable. In her Atlantic Montlhy article “All the Single Ladies,” Kate Bolick remarks, “Recent years have seen an explosion of male joblessness and a steep decline in men’s life prospects that have disrupted the ‘romantic market’ in ways that narrow a marriage-minded woman’s options: increasingly, her choice is between deadbeats (whose numbers are rising) and playboys (whose power is growing).” Perhaps partly in consequence (though plenty of other factors are at work), more of us of either sex just remain single.

The persistence of the old ways is also demonstrated by the ongoing success of Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider who made a splash (and a fortune) back in 1995 with All the Rules, a book of dating advice for women. The advice is unabashedly traditional. “Make him work for it” is the gist. The authors dismiss widespread criticism that their rules are relentlessly un-PC; they work, they say, and that is that. All the Rules still sells well 16 years later. I have no idea whether the Rules really work or not. Nor do I know if complementary advice aimed primarily at men works – e.g. the column by Jeremy Nicholson, the self-styled “Attraction Doctor” who blogs at Psychology Today. I always approached the whole business in a far more haphazard fashion than that, which may explain why I’m single.

Fein and Schneider do not advise on whom to apply the Rules. Nor does Nicholson, so far as I’ve noticed. Given Ms. Bolick’s complaint, this may be an important question. Actually, there is an optimal strategy for making this choice that was published as long ago as 1966. It was first brought to my attention in a blog by evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa, but since he is in the publishing doghouse for having posted an amazingly ill-considered blog, I’ll bypass him as a source and go directly to the original article by mathematicians John Gilbert and Frederick Mosteller of Harvard: “Recognizing the Maximum of a Sequence,” published in the Journal of the American Statistical Association ( ).

I don’t pretend to follow all of their analysis of the so-called “beauty pageant problem,” which applies not just to pageants, but to choices among dates, jobs, movies, or just about any other multiple offering. However, the strategy that emerges from it is simple enough. Start with a fixed number of candidates. (Yes, you need a fixed number, but it can be anything that suits you – ultimately it may be the maximum number of people you are willing to date before giving up altogether.) Next, 1) Reject the first 37% out of hand, and then 2) pick the very next date whose qualities are better than anyone in the first batch you’ve already rejected. That’s it. You’ll have a 37% chance of getting the best candidate. 37% sounds like lousy odds, but no other method produces a better result. The strategy assumes, probably correctly, that you can’t return to someone you passed over – that he or she will have moved on.

The strategy is mathematically sound. Nevertheless, it seems to me that if you’re coolheaded enough to play it, maybe romance isn’t your game anyway. I suggest counting cards at Blackjack instead.

The Beauty Pageant Problem

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Lenny Bruce Wasn't Funny

Lenny Bruce (1925-1966) wasn’t funny. Oh, everyone is funny occasionally, but he wasn’t funnier than the average person. Maybe less so. Is this opinion a personal quirk of mine or perhaps a reflection of changing tastes? Was Lenny funny in his own day? I don’t think so, and I’m old enough to remember his day. He was, as Harlan Ellison said, “a pain in the ass.” Don’t take my word for it. Look up his routines on youtube. A relatively un-scabrous (but typically dull) one is below.

A lot of comedy is timeless. Mark Twain still amuses; Oscar Wilde’s wit still cuts; I Love Lucy is permanently in reruns. Topical humor has a tougher time of it. The political routines of Mort Saul from the 1950s, for example, make sense only to historians or to those who remember the Eisenhower Administration. Only hard-core classicists understand Aristophanes. Nevertheless, if we are properly informed, we still get Mort’s and Ari’s jokes. Sexually edgy humor is a constant, but what qualifies as “edgy” varies over time. In the 1950s the most risqué material was confined to burlesque houses, and it is no surprise that these were where Lenny Bruce got his start.

Lenny was controversial, and that is the reason he won a following (largely of people celebrating their own hipness). Being controversial is not without merit, but it isn’t the same thing as funny. Lenny was famous for getting arrested. He even got arrested in burlesque houses where the standards were pretty lax. Vocabulary was the ostensible reason for most of his arrests. Today, it is hard to imagine anyone being arrested for using four-letter words in a night club act. Nor were all of the arrests in the US. Lenny’s Australian tour was cut short after a grand total of one sentence.

In truth, he might have gotten away with his word choices if it weren’t for the actual content of his routines – the gibes about religion, politics, and basic values. Many folks found them offensive, but offensive views were not illegal. So, those wanting to shut him down had no choice but to use laws that did exist: the ones against obscene language. In the end, the obscenity laws fell, as judges remembered the existence of the First Amendment. Lenny’s many arrests and court cases therefore were important as part of the social revolution of the 60s. No night club comic in the US has been arrested over spoken obscenities for forty years.

Are Lenny’s views still controversial? Yes. His contention that pornography should be provided to children because it is healthier than what they learn about sex from parents, school, and Hollywood, for example, is still outside the mainstream. No one would think to arrest him for saying so, regardless of how he expressed it though; it is even a rare case where he was funny. Some of his antics still might have legal consequences. In one burlesque venue a young lady completed her strip routine with the minimum garb required by local ordinances, so Lenny defied the ordinances by walking out and doing his stand-up act totally nude. Not only could this still get him arrested today, depending on the precise venue, but it might put him on a sex offenders list. Yes, in the 21st century we have become a nation of potty-mouths, but, for all that, a fundamentally puritanical streak remains in us. I’m sure Lenny would continue pointing it out to us if he were still here. He might find few listeners though. Other comics today say it far better.

It is hard to like Lenny. He really did defend and extend free expression by violating the taboos of his day, and we owe him something for that. It’s just too bad he wasn’t funnier while he was at it. A comic is, after all, what he billed himself as being.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Of Apes and Men

“That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Yes, but if the name were “red stinkweed,” I doubt the flower would be a common gift on Valentine’s Day.

In politics, partisans attempt to influence opinions with names all the time. Was the 1980s weapons program the Strategic Defense Initiative or Star Wars? Is it the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare? Are we discussing cutting the Payroll Tax or cutting Social Security funding? It depends on what you’re trying to promote.

In the case of newborns, parents always wonder whether to name a child a common name or an unusual one. When growing up, is it better to fit in or to stand out? Few parents are as fearless as Bill Lear who named his daughter Shanda, but then he left her Lear Jet Corporation (among other things), so I suppose that made up for it. There is some evidence that unusual names cut both ways: bearers of them are likely to benefit and suffer in equal measure.

We do know that first names affect career choices, living locations, and even spouses in peculiar ways. There are more geologists named George and dentists named Denise than you would expect by the odds. Women named Georgia are more likely to move to the state. We slightly more often date someone with a similar name (e.g. Raymond/Ramona) than chance would dictate.

Ironically suitable names are called aptronyms, and they are quite common, e.g.
Richard Smalley—nanotechnologist
Lake Speed—NASCAR driver
Jules Angst—psychiatrist, writer of books about anxiety
Novella Carpenter—author
Bob Rock—rock music producer
Ekaterina Gamova—volleyball player, often called Game-Over
and so on.

One influence with which I’m personally familiar is the Junior effect. It gives added emphasis to certain identity and parental issues which are present anyway, with a result similar to the effect of unusual names. Juniors are over-represented in prison and in high office – sometimes both, as in the case of E. Howard Hunt, Jr. and James McCloud, Jr., who led the Watergate break-ins, a crime investigated by Senators Sam Ervin, Jr. (D) and Howard Baker, Jr.(R). That, of course, led to the resignation of Nixon, who was succeeded by Gerald Ford, Jr. and then by Jimmy Carter, Jr. Technically, George W. Bush is not a Junior (his dad is George H.W.) but his family called him Junior, as do many folks in the media. Four of the first seven astronauts were Juniors (Shepherd, Glenn, Cooper, and Shirra). However, let’s not forget John Gacy, Jr., his fellow serial murderer Elmer Henley, Jr., or Jim Jones, Jr. (the Jonesville massacre guy). Some Juniors choose not to mention it, such as Gore Vidal, whose birth certificate says Eugene Vidal, Jr., and Tom Wolfe. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., however, stuck doggedly with it. How much were George S. Patton, Jr. or Martin Luther King, Jr. affected by the nominal appendage? It’s hard to say. Shakespeare probably was onto something, though, when he gave Hamlet (son of Hamlet and therefore a Junior) a conflicted identity crisis.

Now the entire human race is facing a struggle over nomenclature, as readers of anthropology news articles likely have noticed. Once upon a time, among the anthropoids there were hominids (humans and their ancestors) and simians (apes). No more. Now humans are listed among the Great Apes while chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans have joined the family as hominids. What formerly were hominids are now hominins, considered a subset of the hominids. Some classifiers are not satisfied even with that, and have included chimps as hominins along with humans while using the word hominan for humans and their ancestors as a subset of hominins. One can’t help but see something here that goes beyond a strictly disinterested taxonomic discussion. The dispute over names appears to be a proxy for a broader (ultimately more philosophical) argument over the place of humans in nature and among the animals. The question is just how special we should consider ourselves.

I don’t really have an opinion about this classification dust-up, beyond a minor annoyance at having to learn new terminology all the time. It’s OK by me if the new terms stick though. I’m not averse to going a little ape.


Thursday, December 1, 2011

You Are What You Speak

A facility with language remains the distinguishing feature of humans (a few hand-signing chimps notwithstanding), and language is at the core of every human culture. What better way, then, to discern cultural trends than to look at new words and usages? For the English language there is no equivalent to L'Académie français, which dictates what is proper French and what isn’t. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is as close to an “official” dictionary as exists, and it doesn’t lay down rules so much as struggle to keep up with evolving usage by educated speakers. Every year it adds new words and definitions while it deletes some others.

There is not a very high hurdle for a word to jump in order for it to be added to the OED, but there is a hurdle. OED researcher Graeme Diamond explains, “A rule of thumb is that any word can be included which appears five times, in five different printed sources, over a period of five years.” Longevity matters more than frequency, so flash in the pan slang rarely makes it.

What new words leapt the hurdle this year? Over 900 new words (about average) joined the pre-existing 600,000 retained in 2011, and some, in my opinion, aren’t even words, which really does say something about the culture. The newly added “<3”, for example, means “heart” or “love” (look at it sideways), as in “I <3 the band Nickelback so much.” (I don’t <3 Nickelback, by the way, though I don’t actually stab at the radio’s pre-set buttons when one of their songs airs.) LOL, a number of other texting abbreviations made the grade, including “LOL” (lots of laughs), “BFF” (best friends forever), and “IMHO” (in my humble opinion). “FYI” (for your information) dates back at least 70 years in common use, but the OED didn’t add it until this year, I suppose because it seemed to be three words rather than one; if “BFF” is a word, however, there was little excuse to continue to exclude “FYI.” (While admitting that some acronyms do become words, e.g. the 70-year-old “snafu” [situation normal, all fouled up], I prefer to consider most alphabet-soup combos to be merely abbreviations of words rather than words in themselves, but I’m not employed by the OED.)

Lest we forget that the compilers are ivory tower academics, the dictionary adds this commentary on texting abbreviations: “The intention is usually to signal an informal, gossipy mode of expression, and perhaps parody the level of unreflective enthusiasm or overstatement that can sometimes appear in online discourse, while at the same time marking oneself as an ‘insider’ au fait with the forms of expression associated with the latest technology.” Uh-huh.

“Sexting,” “cyberbullying,” and “mankini” (man’s bikini) were added to the OED, which all look as though a distracted typist missed a few keys or the spacebar. Also new are “jeggings” (tight non-jeans that look like jeans) and “retweeting” (forwarding a tweet – “tweet” in its social network sense was added in 2009). Well, wOOt for that! Yes, “wOOt” (hooray) was added, too.

I’m a little bummed that the OED deleted “cassette tape” this year, though. Hey, I still own and play cassette tapes.

On Text-Speak

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Bird Is the Word

I’m usually ambivalent about official or socially mandated holidays. “You shall celebrate XYZ on such-and-such date” prompts the response, "I'll celebrate what or whom I please in my own time for my own reasons, thank you." As a practical matter, though, there is an advantage to observing the conventional days: other people are more likely to be off from work, and so are much more likely to show up to your party. Besides, in the case of Thanksgiving, I actually like turkey.

For the past decade, I’ve had Thanksgiving at my house. It is the one major meal that I personally cook – the turkey, one other critter (lamb or ham usually), and a couple of sides anyway: I buy some additional items pre-prepared. Obviously I’m not vegetarian, though invariably one or two guests turn out to be, so I make accommodations for them, too. I thereby maintain a reputation as chef when in fact my oven gets little use the rest of the year. The stealthy way to be cheap is to be lavish on rare occasion. It is really vastly harder and more admirable to cook on a small scale daily than to go large scale once per year; I appreciate those who do, but I just don’t want to work that hard.

Conventional families are less common than they once were. I don’t have one (anymore), and neither do most of my friends, so an eclectic bunch of a dozen or so always shows up at the table. This year the guests ranged from ages 20 to 80 and hailed from five countries (US, Canada, Lithuania, Morocco, and the UK). Two I met for the first time on Thursday (great to meet you, Amanda and Michelle, and I expect both of you back again), and two (hi, Aunt Diane and Tim) actually are extended family. Oddly enough, the mix worked socially, and a post-meal game of Scruples revealed our various ways of looking at things. This is the new normal. It’s rather nice, too, even if Norman Rockwell never painted it.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Internecine Battle

In their intra-league roller derby bout last night with the Corporal Punishers, the Major Pains, the one-year-old B-team of the Jerzey Derby Brigade based in Morristown, NJ, again proved they have come of age. To be sure, the Pains lost to the veteran A-team Punishers, but this time it was no walk-away. When up against the Punishers last spring, the inexperienced Pains took a 203-63 beating. (See my April blog Wheel Appeal .) The team continued to struggle, and had its worst night when it endured a 351-16 crushing at the hands of the Long Island Roller Rebels. Practice and perseverance paid off, though, and the Pains scored their first win (a solid one at that), against the New Brunswick Hellrazors two weeks ago. Last night the two Morristown teams were almost evenly matched – more so than is really reflected in the 156-106 final score in favor of the Corporal Punishers.

Syd Deuce (#2) again showed herself to be an exceptional jammer for the Punishers, not only exploiting holes in the opponents’ defense, but moving very fast when in the open and circling around to meet the pack again.. In the very first jam she broke through and quickly picked up 4 points for the Punishers, a feat she would repeat. Maggy Kyllanfall (#187) gave her usual strong performance for the Pains, in one jam racking up points on three passes through the pack. ASSault Shaker (#AK-47) and Inna Propriate (#8008) were notably effective and hard-hitting blockers for the Punishers as were Texas Bulldoz-her and Ginger-Ail for the Pains. At one point the Punishers employed the star pass, a tactic which is fairly obscure, but allowed by the rules: when in the pack the jammer can pass off the star helmet-cover (which indicates who is jammer) to the pivot (the lead blocker), a move which can confuse or bypass the opposing team’s blockers. ASSault Shaker, who started as pivot, took the star and went on to score points.

The Pains’ biggest weakness in the past had been blocking – individual skaters were fine but they often were scattered by opponents, leaving holes for the opposing jammer. That has been corrected. While the Punishers still had a slight edge with their defense, the walls, blocks and hits on both sides were well coordinated and none-too-gentle. Syd Deuce, while skating with her usual speed, took a particularly solid hit while overtaking the pack; she went down hard, slammed into the wall, and stayed down. Play halted while the paramedics attended. She was back on her feet in a few minutes but was out of the bout as the paramedics escorted her out, showing once again that, for all its theatrical elements, roller derby is a full contact sport. (I hope you’re OK, Syd.) The bout resumed and continued to be fought hard through the last jam, ending in a victory for the Punishers that had not been gained easily.

On a more personal note, when I was in school in the 60s (yes, the decade was real), I always watched professional roller derby, which regularly was broadcast on local stations (typically WOR or WPIX in the New York area). In 1972 I caught Kansas City Bomber in the theater, which remains my favorite Raquel Welch movie. (The wrist splint she wears in the movie is not a prop, by the way; Raquel broke her wrist in a skating fall.) Derby also was at the Coliseum in DC during my college years. I was sorry to see the professional leagues shut down when economics turned against them – Leo Seltzer, inventor of the sport, blamed the ‘70s fuel crisis and the associated transport costs as the final nails in the coffin.

What was the attraction of the sport? Well, partly it was the attraction of any spectator sport, and derby is a particularly fast-paced and exciting one. I would be lying, though, to deny that the rough-and-tumble playfulness of the derby girls had – and has – a special appeal. While in 2011 I may be just a bit superannuated to chase them (besides they’re awfully fast on quad skates), I still enjoy watching them on the track more than I do watching 280-pound men struggle over a football. The current revival in derby owes much to it being an all-women’s sport. (There are men’s and mixed leagues, but they haven’t gotten the same traction as women’s roller derby.)

Last night was the last bout of the season in Morristown, but I look forward to 2012.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Sodium Chloride

All times are uncertain times (even without invoking Heisenberg). Nevertheless, a parlous world economy and another insanely drawn-out US election have added to the usual sources of head-scratching. So, professional fortune-tellers – most describing themselves as pundits or experts – are having a profitable year as they opine about the future to us avid listeners. I’ll refrain from repeating a shopworn Yogi Berra quote (you know the one), but here are just ten past predictions or evaluations by very smart people.

“The major part of the US military task in Vietnam can be completed by the end of 1965.” Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense.

“You ain’t going nowhere, son. You ought to go back to driving a truck.” Grand Ole Opry manager Jim Denny while firing Elvis Presley in 1954.

“No woman in my time will be prime minister.” Margaret Thatcher, 1969.

“Transcontinental mails will be forwarded by means of pneumatic tubes.” Felix Oswald, on the future of communications, 1893.

“I don’t need bodyguards.” Jimmy Hoffa, 1975.

“Rod will stay with me forever.” Britt Ekland on husband Rod Stewart in 1976. Forever lasted a year.

“I want to be an old-fashioned lawyer, an honest lawyer who can’t be bought by crooks.” Richard Nixon, 1925.

“You will never amount to anything.” Teacher to ten-year-old Albert Einstein.

“No matter what happens, the US Navy is not going to be caught napping.” Frank Knox, Secretary of the Navy, December 4, 1941.

“Inventions reached their limit long ago and I see no hope for further development.” Julius Frontinus, 80 AD.

It would be easy to extend the list to thousands. There are so many more ways to be wrong than to be right that the odds are any expert opinion will be the former. It doesn't hurt to listen, but keep the salt-shaker within easy reach.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Dala Gala

When it comes to contemporary music, I like major headline performers as much as the next person, and accordingly I have spent my share of evenings at Roseland, the Nassau Coliseum, and Madison Square Garden. More often, though, I like cozier venues and lesser known acts.

Kurt Vonnegut once said that the globalization of modern media has been a little hard on the majority of creative folks. Thousands of years ago, in the typical ancestral village of 150 people, he observed, the best artist was regarded as a Picasso, the best tenor as a Caruso, the best dancer as a Pavlova, and so on. With urbanization later in antiquity, the competition among poets, musicians, painters, philosophers and the like stiffened but remained pretty lean. Even in such a major cultural center as ancient Athens, which attracted talented people from all over the Mediterranean, while it was very hard for an artist to rise to the status of Number One, it wasn’t so very hard to be a respectable Number Ten. The populations of preindustrial cities simply were not large enough to have many more than ten outstanding performers at anything: fifth century BC Athens – big by ancient standards – was about the size of Fargo, North Dakota. (This makes the Classical artistic achievements all the more remarkable, it must be said.)

In the modern world, all this has changed. Today, any new artist of any type is judged (and self-judged) against world champions, all of whom are readily available on demand on electronic audio and video. In most small towns and suburbs, the most prominent local musician most likely plays in a corner bar, if in public at all, and few even of the patrons know his or her name.

Nevertheless, a lot of the lesser-knowns are very good, and seeing them in smallish venues is closer to the ancient (or primordial village) experience. Their concerts are frequently more satisfying on that level than are big blow-out stadium affairs, and it is always easier to get out of the parking lot afterward.

Fortunately, one friend of mine (hi, Ken) is a lot more social and club-oriented than I am, He frequently seeks out live music multiple times per week, and often gives me a heads-up when some local event is especially worth attending. When I’m not in grumpy/solitary mode, I sometimes go. Yesterday he recommended a show presented by The Folk Project at the Unitarian Fellowship in Morristown: the show was an opening act of songwriter/performer Anthony DaCosta followed by the main act Dala (the duo Amanda Walther and Sheila Carabine). Although yesterday, the 11th, in addition to being Veterans Day was Metal Day (as in “these go to 11”), not Folk Day, I went. I’m glad I did.

Identifying Dala (from AmanDA SheiLA) as “lesser-known” is not entirely accurate. They are fairly well known in their native Canada and they’ve attended folk festivals in the US for years, but it is fair to say that most folks in this country haven’t ever heard of them. It is worth hearing of them and hearing them, preferably in a smallish venue while that is still possible. They play and sing mostly their own material, but mix in a few covers (Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now, for one). They are charming, clever, and talented. If you are open to easy-going contemporary folk, give them a try. If not, I urge setting aside the digital media for an evening and attending in person the live performance of some other lesser known. Getting in touch with one’s primordial village side is refreshing.

Global media have effects beyond elevating world champions to a fame that overwhelms local talent, of course. They also allow for the rise of stars (as on "reality" shows) who are famous for no other reason than being famous – but that is a subject for another blog.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


A few weeks ago, while cleaning out clutter from the corner of my garage, I noticed a dried muddy footprint which for years had been covered by clutter of the sort that fills corners of garages. It was a work boot print a size smaller than mine, which means it was made by my dad who died in 2000. There is something about a footprint or a handprint. It brings a sense of immediate presence in a way that photographs or autographs just don’t – it is why film stars still set them in concrete in Hollywood.

Perhaps the most famous footsteps on this planet (thereby excluding Armstrong’s on the moon) were set in a dusting of volcanic ash in Laetoli Tanzania by human ancestors (or close relatives of human ancestors) 3.7 million years ago. There are plans to build a museum around them. When first discovered in 1976, the prints were interpreted as belonging to three individuals, with one (perhaps a child) deliberately stepping in the prints of another. (Why? Playfulness? Was the undisturbed ash hot?) Recently, some scientists have argued that there were four individuals – the evidence consists of what may be three discrete big toe marks in the overstepped prints, though the case for this is unsettled. No one knows for sure to what species the amblers belonged, but the prints show a posture and a gait identical to those of modern humans. Researchers have duplicated the tracks simply by walking barefoot.

I’ve never seen Laetoli in person (the prints currently are buried anyway in order to preserve them), but I have met Lucy, the 3.2 million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis who must have been very much like the print-makers, if not actually one of their species. There is disagreement among anthropologists over whether Lucy was a hominin (direct human ancestor) or a non-ancestral hominid (a larger group including hominins). Either way, she is family; if she is not a great great grandmother, she is something like a great aunt. I met her twice, actually: once during a visit her fossil made to the Museum of Natural History and once again a few years ago at the Discovery Times Square Exhibition in NYC.

Lucy’s celebrity has been upstaged lately by Ardi. Ardi is the nickname of a 4.4 million-year-old female Ardipithecus ramidus described in Science magazine in 2009. However, Ardi is 110 fragments that don’t look like much of anything, no matter how you arrange them. Lucy is complete enough to be satisfyingly recognizable. (Yeah, I know: just like a man to prefer the younger woman.)

Viewing Lucy evoked a curious sensation that was not quite nostalgia, but something like it. It was something akin to handling a quilt sewn by a family member who died over a century ago.

What is our legacy from Lucy? How much of her nature remains our own? It’s hard to say, but perhaps we have more in common with her than we commonly acknowledge. It’s a long way from Laetoli, but, for well or ill, we all still walk in Lucy’s footsteps.

Laetoli Prints

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Reign of Pain

It’s nice to see a struggling team come together. That why movies like the The Bad News Bears not only get made but remade.

Regular readers will know that a personal quirk of mine is a fondness for live roller derby, and I rarely miss a home bout by the Morristown-based Jerzey Derby Brigade. The Brigade has two teams, the Corporal Punishers which (albeit with a name change) has been skating since 2007. The second team, Major Pains, was formed last year, largely from neophyte skaters stiffened by some veterans shifted from the Punishers. 2011 was the first actual season for the Pains. Understandably, the Pains had growing pains, and endured roughings-up when up squared against experienced teams; opposing blockers were often able to scatter the Pains’ blockers. One loss followed another, the most recent being a crushing 351-16 romp by the Long Island Roller Rebels.

Last night, assisted by a decision to push the veteran skaters on the team to the fore, the Pains came together in a tough contest with the New Jersey Hellrazors that was marked by solid hits, pile-ups, tight defenses, and very aggressive jamming on both sides. (For brief basic info on derby play and terms, see an earlier blog Wheel Appeal .)

This bout looked different from the moment the Four Old Farts (a barbershop quartet) finished the National Anthem. In the first four jams, the Pains’ jammers (Heinz Catchup, Maggie Kyllanfall, Miss USAhole, and Voldeloxx) quickly broke through the pack as lead jammers. Despite firm opposition – Voldeloxx took a particularly solid hit from the Hellrazors’ A-Bomb (#235U) – they racked up an early lead. The Pains narrowly kept the lead through most of the first half, but the Hellrazors closed the gap and, by halftime, had nudged ahead with a score of 52-49.

The half-time break included dancers and a children’s Halloween costume contest; all the participants seemed to have fun. I spoke to Cherry Mercenary of the Hellrazors at halftime break. She told me the team is from the New Brunswick area, and plans to add more bouts to the next year’s schedule with Morristown and Skylands (Hackettstown). Sounded good to me.

In the second half, Morristown clawed back the lead. The blocking was effective on both teams. The Pains refused to be scattered this time; at one point, for example, Doom Hilda and Sid Deuce obstructed the Hellrazors’ Thiza Glory long enough to restrain her point gain when, since the Pain’s jammer was in the penalty box, she was threatening grand slams. The blocking of A-Bomb and Cherry Mercenary stood out for the Hellrazors. Morristown’s jammers were consistently good throughout the bout; Heinz Catchup had the best multiple lap of the evening. For the Hellrazors, Jen-O Go-Go did well, but Turtle of Death was just superb, and was declared MVP after the bout. In the final minutes Morristown expanded its narrow lead into a broader one, with a final score of 122-88, the first ever win for the Major Pains.

As always, it was an altogether enjoyable evening, and I recommend doing a quick internet search for derby bouts near you. You, too, might find the sport addictive.

Monday, October 31, 2011

October Sigh

It has been years since I’ve had any trick-or-treaters come to my door. I keep a bowl of candy on hand just in case, but, in truth, kids think it is just too much effort for too little payback in my neighborhood even in the best of conditions. There are all of 19 houses on my mile-long street (2 miles if you plan to walk up one side and the back down the other. A short hop away in downtown Mendham, kids can score 200 houses in the same distance – and without passing all those scary dark woods full of snorting deer, cackling raccoons, and the occasional (rare but real) black bear. So they go downtown.

It’s not just the kids, of course. It is too long and scary a walk on my road for their parents as well. In my day, so long as we went in a group, our parents shoved us kids out the door and let us fend for ourselves. (In 2011 this is probably considered child endangerment, but then it was the norm.) Nowadays the parents are right there along with the kids, at least until the teen years.

Tonight is hardly the best of conditions. The biggest trick this weekend was played by weather. Snow in October is uncommon in NJ, and seldom amounts to more than a dusting even when it happens. The day before yesterday, a foot of snow dropped on us. In January, a foot would be a major annoyance, but not crippling. On Saturday, the storm wreaked more havoc than Hurricane Irene did back in August. Leaves were the culprit. The trees are full of leaves, most of them still green. All that heavy wet snow clung to the leaves and brought trees down in their thousands, smashing wires and cutting power to millions (including my home). The roads are an obstacle course, and JCP&L makes no promises of restoring all power for a week.

The storm, as always, brought out the admirable and not-so-admirable in folks. In the midst of the snowfall, for example, a lady friend of mine called me from her cell phone. She was stuck just below a bend on a hill on Hilltop Road in Mendham, about a mile from my office. I went over in a Jeep to lend a hand. About a dozen cars besides hers were stuck at the bend (anything with 4WD was fine). A tree was down on the road, but one lane remained open. Several men from the neighborhood were there helping out, and doing a good job. By pushing the cars by hand we could get the 2WD cars past the bend. Four other men and I helped push my friend around the bend. She told me afterward that three of them asked for her phone number, which I suppose was flattering if untimely. (Come to think of it, only the women drivers received any pushes as far I recall.) I hadn’t thought of using the circumstances as a dating opportunity myself, which might show a lack of imagination. Perhaps “Shall I push your car?” works as well as the time-honored “May I buy you a drink?” I haven’t tried it.

In any event, most drivers were grateful for the help, but a few tempted us to push them the other way. One driver in particular was raging because she was blocked by cars in front of her in exactly the same way she was blocking cars in back of her. "You f_____ morons! Idiots!" [Apparently they were idiots for being in the exact same fix as she, but in front instead of behind.] "This is too much! I just can't deal with this!" she shouted at us, as though we all had conspired to make her in particular stuck and miserable. Even though the whining made us all hope a tree would fall on her car, we pushed her up around the bend anyway. Once around the bend, she pumped a self-satisfied victory fist without so much as "thanks” wave. Well, maybe a tree fell on her later.

So tonight, I imagine I’ll be in my dark house (the power is still out) with my black cat. While I’ll keep a bowl of sweets handy, if there is a knock at the door, the candy-seeker most likely will have a fine fur coat, claws, and bad breath.

Where Are the Children with Candy?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

How Do You Say Isqoutm?

On the 3 ½ mile trip between my office and home last night, I counted 53 pumpkins on the lawns and porches of houses. (A couple houses each had a bunch, it is true.) I’m sure I didn’t see them all – I do watch the road sometimes. I haven’t bought one this Halloween season, but I might yet.

Seeds at archeological sites tell us that pumpkins have been part of the American diet for at least 7000 years. The word comes from early English colonists in Massachusetts who couldn’t pronounce the local word isqoutm, so they mispronounced pompion (melon) instead. Pompion derives from Greek pepon (melon).

Pumpkins are used in a variety of dishes ranging from stews to waffles, but most pumpkin recipes are desserts, and pie is the most common of them. I rather like the modern variety of pumpkin pie, though I didn’t acquire the taste from my mom who was revolted by it. She grew up on a dairy farm, and she said the look, smell, and consistency of pumpkin pie was much too similar to cow patties. The original colonial recipe for pumpkin pie, as described on a University of Illinois website, was quite different from the modern one: carve open the top of the pumpkin; dig out the seeds; pour in milk, honey, and spices; stick the top back on; and bake the whole thing in hot ashes. I’ll pass on that one.

Nowadays, anyone who buys a whole pumpkin more likely has artwork than dinner in mind. Carved pumpkins often are said to be an American adaptation of squash lanterns carved by Scots and Irish on Halloween. Historian David J. Skal disagrees:

“Although every modern chronicle of the holiday repeats the claim that vegetable lanterns were a time-honored component of Halloween celebrations in the British Isles, none gives any primary documentation. In fact, none of the major nineteenth-century chronicles of British holidays and folk customs make any mention whatsoever of carved lanterns in connection with Halloween. Neither do any of the standard works of the early twentieth century.”

Halloween did arrive in North America with Scots and Irish, but carved pumpkins in particular seem to be a fully homegrown tradition. When did they first turn up? The pumpkin thrown at Ichabod Crane by the Headless Horseman in Washington Irving’s Halloween-appropriate 1820 tale The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is usually depicted in modern illustrations as a jack-o-lantern (see a clip below from Disney’s 1949 version), but in the short story Irving makes no mention of a carved face. (The tale, by the way, strongly implies the horseman was Brom, Ichabod’s rival for the hand of Katrina.) Pumpkin jack-o-lanterns aren’t mentioned in print until the 1860s. One suspects they originally were the work of some sly Yankee farmer with a surplus of pumpkins.

Thanks to Halloween, billions of pounds of pumpkins are grown each year, and 80% of the American crop is sold in October. It’s a harmless enough tradition, but, given the ridiculous mark-ups on them in supermarkets this time of year, the jack-o-lantern visages are really the faces of smiling retailers.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Beyond 42

A few days ago, The Dark at the End, the latest and penultimate novel in the “Repairman Jack” series by F. Paul Wilson, arrived from Amazon. There are a couple dozen Repairman Jacks, depending on how you count (the same characters turn up in novels and short stories that are not strictly part of the series). The final one, Nightworld, is due in the spring, and I’ll pre-order it as soon as it is offered. Repairman Jack is an urban mercenary of sorts, though very selective about his clients. Rather against his will, he finds himself working for an otherworldly client; over the course of the series he discovers there is a larger reality “behind the veil” of the everyday apparent one, and some of it is terrifying. Jack’s trans-dimensional universe is very reminiscent of that of H.P. Lovecraft. F. Paul Wilson sports a much more readable writing style, though, and he winks at the reader with dry humor. Even if horror/scifi isn’t normally your brand, I recommend picking up The Tomb, the first book of the series; you might find yourself addicted.

One appeal of the series to many readers, I think, is the “behind the veil” postulate, even though Mr. Wilson himself seems quite the skeptical sort in his nonfiction writings. “People will accept any how, provided they have a why,” Friedrich Nietzsche once remarked, while discussing the problem of value and meaning in a secular era. (I went through a Nietzsche phase back in the 70s. I think a lot of young men go through a Nietzsche phase despite some of his embarrassing shortcomings – Fred generally swam in such a deep pool of wisdom that he really didn’t have a right to wade through shallows as he did in some places.) He had a point, and it may explain why so many folks eagerly glom onto the most amazing conspiracy theories regarding the Kennedy assassinations, Princess Di’s death, the Illuminati, the World Trade Center, flying saucers in Area 51, and what have you. The thought that there is some purpose behind it all, even if it’s a malevolent purpose, is less disturbing than the proposition that events, life, and nature are randomness and chaos, with no real purpose at all – that, for all the petty and conflicting schemes of individuals, no one is really in charge. My personal favorite conspiracy theory (see video below) is David Icke’s dead serious argument that alien reptiles are running everything behind the scenes. Repairman Jack’s universe, with its largely unseen motivators with secret purposes of cosmic proportions, is an enjoyable one into which to escape.

I’m a chaos man, as you might have guessed. While there are plenty of real conspiracies in the world, few of them are very secret and even fewer succeed at much of anything. I don’t think alien reptiles or other unseen forces are manipulating us behind the scenes. As for human schemers and motivators, secret or otherwise, even the most powerful would-be puppet-masters are more often pulled by the strings they hold than the other way around. Just ask, for example, the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve whether they whelm more often than they are overwhelmed. The problem they face isn’t the Illuminati undermining their plans either – it’s simply a universe where, just by the odds, there are far more ways for things to go awry than to go right.

Fred’s answer to “why,” by the way (later taken up by the Existentialists), is that, if you don’t believe the universe has an inherent meaning, you have to make your own purposes. If this is unsatisfying to some readers, there is another answer available from science. According to Caltech cosmologist Sean Carroll, "The purpose of life is to hydrogenate carbon dioxide.” Well, there you go then.

The Reptilian Conspiracy

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Lousy Theory of Hair

As far as I know, my bathroom mirror isn’t magic. I never actually tested the hypothesis by asking it who is the fairest of all, which is just as well either way; if it had an answer, no doubt it would break itself laughing before saying it. The glass needed no magic, though, to reveal a trip to the barber is in my immediate future. In a way, this is one small thing for which to be grateful. A modest majority of my head hair is still there, and from a distance still looks dark brown. On my last barber visit, however, I couldn’t help noticing that the falling trimmings on balance were lighter than they once were.

“Am I going blond by any chance?” I asked.

“No,” she answered simply.

The reflected shagginess this morning raised a couple questions in my mind, however, for which I can find no definitive answers in the books on my shelves or in internet searches. There are plenty of speculative answers though. It is currently fashionable among anthropologists to classify humans (and all extinct hominids/hominins) among the Great Apes. Why are we the only members of that family with a mane that, uncut, will grow to the waist or longer? Why, at the same time, did body hair all but vanish?

In truth we don’t know. The most common answer for the mane is “sexual selection” – rather like the peacock’s tail. Any peacock that can keep its life-threatening encumbrance of a tail looking good must be healthy and a good catch, so the argument goes, and so the flashy-tailed bird attracts more mates and has more offspring; good lustrous hair says much the same about a human. Maybe. When did the trait develop? Did Neanderthals have long tresses? Homo erectus? We have no idea, but it is rather fun to picture them that way.

There are competing (perhaps complementary) ideas about body hair. Two lead the pack. One, once again, is sexual selection, though it is hard to see what (originally) would have been so attractive about hairlessness, either in a positive way or in the peacock tail encumbrance way. Another possible reason is thermal regulation. In combination with our exceptionally abundant sweat glands, hairlessness lets us shed heat far more efficiently, which would have been a daytime advantage on the hot African savanna. On the other hand, it would have been a nighttime disadvantage. Besides, our baboon cousins live in the identical environment, and are both hairy and maneless.

Didn’t hairlessness just put us to the trouble of making clothes? Apparently not for quite a while: Doctors Rogers, Iltis, and Wooding make a good argument in Current Anthropology that hairlessness dates back at least 1.2 million years. Clothing, on the other hand, may be no more than 70,000 years old. How do we know anything about the timing of clothing? Our friends the lice tell us. The various species of lice are very particular about what species they infect and where. They are specialists. In the case of humans, there are three separate species of lice who enjoy our company: head, pubic, and body. They are related to each other, and using a DNA clock (the mutation rate) we can make a good estimate about when they diverged from each other. Body lice are not really body lice: they infest clothes. They snack on their hosts, but live in the clothes. They diverged from head lice only 70,000 years ago, which strongly implies there weren’t any clothes before then; lice would have adapted to the niche soon after it became available. This is also close to the time modern humans left Africa for chillier climes where the clothes would have been handy, despite the little bugs.

The million years of nakedness and the lice suggest another possible advantage to hairlessness: a million years without body lice. It would have reduced the spread of disease significantly, and disease always is a bigger killer than all the predators, accidents, and wars combined. Is that the real message when people flirtatiously show skin? “Hey look! I’ve got no bugs on me!”

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Curse of Verse

Since the skies they are ashen and sober and the leaves they are crisped and sere (and it is night in the lonesome October of my most immemorial year), it is time to break out Edgar Allen Poe. If you don’t mind, though, I’ll pass on visiting the dank tarn of Auber, in the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir. I’m, of course, stealing from Ululume. I don’t revisit Eddie much these days, but Halloween time simply cries out for him. So, once per year anyway, I blow the dust off my 1967 edition of his essential stories and poems, open it up, and let the raven jump out to croak his favorite word.

In doing so once again, a tangential thought occurs. I can’t help wondering what has happened to make poetry so much less significant in the culture than it once was. Oh, there is a vast quantity of it being written. (For the record, my sister, not I, was the poet of the family.) Plenty of young writers know their anapests from their dactyls and have something to say. Their trouble is finding anyone to listen. Literature departments of universities still take (some) new verse seriously, but, outside of this isolated niche, contemporary poetry has little currency. Once upon a time, poets were rock stars. Tennyson, Eliot, Kipling, Coleridge, Browning, Whitman, and their like were famous in their own lifetimes not just in Academe but in the marketplace. Common folk knew who they were. W.B. Yeats was so lionized by the Irish in the 1920s that they made him a Senator despite that little pagan quirk. (How much luck would an announced pagan have running for the Senate in the 21st century USA?) The mystical philosophy of Aleister Crowley, Yeats’ competitor for control of The Order of the Golden Dawn, would not have received a tenth of the attention it did had he not been a recognized poet.

By the end of the 20th century all this had changed. The last time contemporary poetry has had a broad cultural (actually, countercultural) impact was the oft-parodied Beat era. Who was the last U.S. Poet Laureate selected by the Library of Congress whose name a majority of Americans would recognize? I’d venture it was Robert Frost, and that was half a century ago.

The current Poet Laureate, by the way, is Philip Levine. I think I’m being generous with the guess that maybe 5% of the adult American population is in any way aware of him, despite the fact that he is an 83-year-old master of the craft whose published collections have been critically acclaimed for decades.

On the (rare) occasions when I raise this subject in company, I’m sometimes told that modern poets have become songwriters – that the current poetic rock stars are, well, rock stars. I don’t buy it. The 19th century and early 20th century had popular music, too. While the best of it is very good indeed, it’s not quite the same thing. If it were, the lyrics should stand alone as literature, but by and large they don’t. Nor should they. They are intended for a related, but nonetheless different, purpose – though I’ll admit to blurring at the boundaries (some of Bob Dylan, for instance). Song lyrics with musical accompaniment target emotions in a much more immediate and primal way than literary poetry. In an early Tonight Show episode, Steve Allen brought this home in funny fashion by reading Be-Bop-a-Lula as poetry: .

What has changed in the modern era? I suspect it is that we have ways of expressing ourselves today that simply weren’t available a century or two ago, the movies for instance, and that these fill some of the same role poetry once did – after all, Scorsese, Kubrick, Tarantino, the Coen brothers, and so on are recognized by the public in the same way leading poets once were. Perhaps they do the job better, too, hard though that is for anyone of bookish bent to admit. Well, the old-fashioned versifiers still exist for those who prefer them, so there is little to bemoan in this – unless you happen to be someone trying to make a living from your poetry sales.

Actually, I have a few Halloween flicks lined up for my DVD player, but, just for now, I’ll rejoin Ed among those Bottomless vales and boundless floods, And chasms, and caves, and Titan woods, With forms that no man can discover For the tears that drip all over.

Philip Levine

Friday, October 7, 2011

October Stein

October is chock full of holidays. Among the many are Columbus Day, Leif Erikson Day, and Coming Out Day (that’s the 11th if you’re interested). There is World Vegetarian Day, World Teachers Day, Skeptic Day, and Chocolate Covered Insect Day. The 28th is both Mother-in-law Day and National Chocolate Day (Celebrated how? Buy a box of chocolates and don’t give it to your mother-in-law?) It all culminates in Halloween, which, in the US, polls as the second-favorite holiday of the year. Additionally, there are month-long observances including Hispanic Heritage Month, Polish-American Heritage Month, and National Book Fair Month. Incongruously, it is both National Pork Month and Vegetarian Awareness Month. Not least, it is National Collegiate Alcohol Awareness Month.

I suspect collegians are aware of alcohol every month, despite the 21-year-old drinking age. The insistence by older adults that under-21s should abstain is not taken at all seriously by the younger group. It is silly to expect that it would be. On the contrary the demand is counterproductive. Abstinence is a fine choice for some individuals in this as in other matters (I’m a near teetotaler myself), but we run into trouble when we try to impose it by force. When we turn something ordinary into an offence (say, drinking a single beer), we provoke “in for a penny in for a pound” excess instead.

When I was 18, the drinking age in the US varied by state or district. In NJ it was 21, in NY it was 18, and in some places (e.g. the District of Columbia) beer and wine were 18 while hard liquor was 21. By the end of the freewheeling 70s, the age had dropped to 18 almost everywhere. In NJ, a major motive for the drop was to discourage teens from getting drunk in NY and driving back. All this reversed in the 80s, and 21 is now the rule nationally. Raising the drinking age to 21 was intended to reduce alcohol-related road fatalities among young people, and proponents of the change point out that teen road fatalities indeed have dropped significantly since the 80s. The flaw in their argument is that teen road fatalities have dropped by the same amount in Australia, Canada, and the UK where the drinking age is still 18. Stricter traffic enforcement, harsher penalties, and safer cars rather than the legal drinking age appear to deserve the credit.

The prohibition of alcohol to 18-20 year-olds is counterproductive in ways that go well beyond auto safety. Precisely because alcohol is not readily available at any time, the young are very inclined to binge drink (defined as 5 or more drinks at one sitting) when they do get their hands on it. This is the pattern of drinking that is the most likely to lead to accidents, health problems and alcoholism. Bingeing actually was less prevalent than today in my college years when I legally could buy bottles from the liquor store literally next door to the dorm. That observation may be dismissed as anecdotal, but here is one that is not. There is an inverse relationship between consumption of alcohol and alcoholism at national levels; in other words, countries where people drink more per capita (e.g. Italy and France) have fewer alcoholics than countries where people drink less (e.g. Sweden, Russia, Ireland, and the United States).  [See] The reason is that binge-drinking is common in low-consumption countries and rare elsewhere. Two, four, or six glasses of wine will cause no problems if you spread them out over an entire day every day (the Franco-Italian manner). If, on the other hand, once per week you knock back six drinks at once (the Russo-American manner), you are loaded. A 200 pound man will be triple the legal limit to drive.

People are better off when they develop sane and safe drinking habits, but in the US we don’t give young people the opportunity to do it. I understand the reason. There always will be a connection between alcohol and tragedy. There is no getting around that, and it is natural for the rest of us to want to “do something,” even if it is the wrong thing. But Prohibition really is the wrong thing, as much for 18-20s today as it was for everyone else in the years 1920-33. Rather than unintentionally training young people to drink in the worst possible way as we do today, thereby making tragedies all the more common, we’d do better to encourage a healthier and less intense relationship – at a younger age – with the world’s favorite intoxicant.

Sunday, October 2, 2011


Dr. Timothy Jay is a formal expert on cursing – yes, there really is such a thing. (See his webpage at .) He says that children are swearing earlier and more often than in previous decades: "By the time kids go to school now, they're saying all the words that we try to protect them from on television." He attributes this to the rise of casual cursing by adults – especially by parents.

This comes as no surprise. I'm old enough to remember when cusses were heard on construction sites, in army barracks, and in locker rooms, but hardly anywhere else. This wasn’t because we consciously restrained ourselves. We didn’t have to. Cussing just wasn’t part of our habitual speech in general company. It didn’t occur to us to do it, any more than it occurs to people today to give the finger in casual conversations. Everyday speech started to coarsen in the late 60s, and the trend has continued ever since. Nowadays the vocabularies of high school girls at the mall and of Marines on drill are essentially the same. OK, not quite: the Marines are politer. As a friend recently complained to me, apparently with no irony intended, “People have gotten so fucking crude, man.”

We now are at the point where cursing is so normal and expected that euphemisms actually have greater impact. A common term applicable to Oedipus, for example, is used, as often as not, neutrally or even affectionately, while the mild “jerk” is almost always an insult.

My own speaking habits remain rooted in the transitional 60s (my “groovies” are long gone, but the occasional “far out” still escapes my lips), but I don’t take offense at the presently prevalent profanity. In art-forms of a certain type, the profanity is an improvement. There is something both silly and distracting in 1950s war movies when, for example, some enraged GI at the front utters no harsher adjective participle than “ever-loving.” Post-60s films such as Scarface or The Big Lebowski sound ludicrous when shown on a free TV channel that replaces all the cusses with innocuous words. The original language of the scripts is appropriate to the characters. If Rapunzel ever gets similar dialogue in a Disney flick, I’ll object, but only because that would be as silly as the speech of the ever-lovin’ 1950s soldier.

My only real reservation about the modern reliance on cuss-words is that the words lack subtlety: they crowd out a richer lexicon with nuanced meanings. They thereby encourage simplistic thought, and we have quite enough of that already. You may recall in Orwell’s 1984, the super-state Oceania is in the process of simplifying English into Newspeak, “the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year.” The purpose: shrinking the dictionary shrinks the ability of individuals to think and to express themselves in complex (possibly treasonous) ways. Without any push from the state, we are doing it to ourselves.

Rolling on Three River

The Jerzey Derby Brigade’s A-team, The Corporal Punishers were back on the track in Morristown NJ last night, facing Three River Roller Derby from Elkton MD. Both are experienced teams and well-matched, which made for an exciting bout.

Morristown started out strong. #27 Criss Catastrophe broke free and lapped the pack in the first jam and #157 Maggy Kyllanfall followed in her tracks in the second. For the next few jams the Punishers seemed set to dominate the bout, but Three River soon got its footing and came back strongly with #187 Li’l Red Riot Hood bringing in a grand slam (5-point lap). From there to the end of the bout the score teetered back and forth, sometimes favoring Elkton and sometimes Morristown.

Both teams showed well-coordinated defensive play by the blockers, with Criss Catastrophe frequently playing strongly for Morristown as pivot. Jammers on both teams showed their stuff with grand slams (sometimes multiple) a frequent occurrence. Outstanding for Morristown were Maggy Kyillanfall and Syd Deuce, with Syd at one point lapping the pack three times. For Elkton, #1001 Daizee Haze and #K80 The Green Harlot stood out, with Harlot bringing in grand slams at key moments.

At the end of the second half, with only enough time on the clock for one jam, the score stood at 111 to 101, Three River in lead. This was close enough for Morristown to overcome, and, as the whistle blew, Morristown’s jammer broke through in an effort to close the gap, but the jam was halted as refs called a false start. The jam restarted but this time the clock ran out before additional points were scored. Final score: 111-101, favor Three River.

Morristown's second team, The Major Pains, will be up against the New Jersey Hellrazors on November 5. I plan to be there.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Happiness is a Kilimanjaro Snow Cone

I seldom turn on music radio these days except when driving, and I don’t commute more than a few miles. I do make a deliberate effort on those short trips to tune to stations with contemporary formats in order to keep minimally conscious of current sounds. So, I’m not totally clueless about this aspect of popular culture, just nearly so. I certainly cannot recite lyrics to any of 2011’s Top Ten hits, or tell you what they are, though at least I might have heard a couple of them. The tracks played on the oldies station that provides the background music at my local supermarket are another matter; I could karaoke nine out of ten of those – if I ever were to karaoke, that is, which, fortunately for potential listeners, I won’t.

On this morning’s drive, however, after a particularly cacophonous three minutes of squawking from my speakers, a caller to the station requested the Janis Joplin version of Me and Bobby McGee. I know that one. Yes, I admit it, I sang it, but there was no one else in the car, so nobody suffered for it. It seemed an odd request, though. Then I remembered: Janis died around this time of year. Most likely, the caller was aware of it. Once at my computer, I checked Wiki: Janis died on October 4, 1970. Close enough. I posted about Joplin around this time last year ( ) so I won’t repeat those remarks. I do notice, however, in the comments to last year’s blog, Ken mentions that Amy Winehouse is like Janis in some ways. How prescient is that?

Both Amy and Janis had problems with depression as well as drugs and alcohol. Depression is a common problem that doesn’t exempt successful people. It is often associated with substance abuse, though not always. Jim Carrey and Woody Allen, as examples, have been open about depression but have avoided substance problems. Winston Churchill certainly drank to excess, but not so much as to impair his effectiveness. Others self-medicate prodigiously and self-destructively in an effort to feel better.

As I whistled the Bobby McGee tune one more time while walking from my car to my door, I wondered what was missing in Janis’ life that she needed to fill the hole with Southern Comfort and heroin. Why are some folks who seem to have it all still miserable? You got me. “Chemical imbalance” some say, though that is more of a description than an explanation. For people facing immediate threats to their lives, limbs, or (for that matter) finances, it can be a little hard to sympathize with the wealthy and healthy. Yet, it is plain that depressed folks (whatever their circumstances) are not just being self-indulgent. They would turn the mood off if they could. Some opt to turn it off by an extreme solution. Ernest Hemingway, for one, had wealth, fame, fortune, family, and a critically acclaimed body of work. He also had alcoholism. At age 61 he decided enough was enough and ended his life in gruesome fashion.

Why? Again, I don’t know. Nothing about Hemingway’s early life jumps out from his biographies as a source of future pain. There is no big Rosebud moment. If anything, he seems to have been pampered by his upper crust Oak Park family. He was dumped by his first love, but isn’t everybody? Ray Bradbury once contemplated the matter and concluded that Hemingway lived too long – he outlasted his ability to do the things that were important to him. In a 1965 short story The Kilimanjaro Device Ray arranges for Hemingway to die in 1954 on an adventure while at the top of his game. A character in the story explains, “Most of us don’t have brains enough to leave a party when the gin runs out.” Ray Bradbury, it is worth noting, is now a cheerful and productive 91-year-old, still very much alive. I guess he keeps his gin well-stocked.

By the way, I am not the biggest of Hemingway fans. (Reading the collected short stories frankly became a bit of a chore, though I do like several of them and also the novel For Whom the Bell Tolls.) Kurt Vonnegut wasn’t much of a fan either. In his play Happy Birthday Wanda June the lead character Harold Ryan is a parody of Hemingway – not Hemingway the writer but Hemingway the man. Harold Ryan’s blustery macho ideas of manliness are portrayed as ultimately a form of cowardice. The characterization is funny, harsh, and a bit cruel, but perhaps not altogether unwarranted. (Vonnegut didn’t like the movie version, but, despite what it says on youtube, he did like the play.)

In the end, what is there to say except that some folks have trouble being happy? If you're not one of them, be happy you’re not. If you are, well, hang in there, and do as Ray does, not as he says.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Go Ask ALA

Tomorrow begins Banned Books Week, which was started in 1982 by the American Library Association (ALA). It is always the last week of September. The week is intended to call attention to ongoing efforts to defend against censorship in libraries.

With all the electronic media about which to fuss these days, you might think concerned parents would have lost sight of libraries. You’d be wrong. School and public libraries remain under constant pressure to ban books, or at least to age-segregate them more rigorously. Organizations such as Family Friendly Libraries object to Banned Books Week itself for belittling "requests made by citizens in local libraries for books to be relocated to a section aimed at older readers or removed due to objectionable content."

I trust the “or removed” did not go unnoticed. The ALA keeps count of objections from parents and parents’ groups, and publishes lists of the books that receive the most complaints. The Top Ten list varies from year to year, but the reasons for the objections remain pretty constant: sexual content, homosexuality, insensitivity in matters of race or gender, religious viewpoint, and offensive language. For 2010 (the most recent available year) the Top Ten targets were these (Source: ALA website):

1. And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson
2. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
3. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
4. Crank, by Ellen Hopkins
5. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
6. Lush, by Natasha Friend
7. What My Mother Doesn't Know, by Sonya Sones
8. Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich
9. Revolutionary Voices, edited by Amy Sonnie
10. Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer

The Top Fifty most targeted classics were the following:

1. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
2. The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
3. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
4. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
5. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
6. Ulysses, by James Joyce
7. Beloved, by Toni Morrison
8. The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
9. 1984, by George Orwell
10. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
11. Lolita, by Vladmir Nabokov
12. Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
13. Charlotte's Web by E.B. White
14. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
15. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
16. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
17. Animal Farm, by George Orwell
18. The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway
19. As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner
20. A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway
21. Heart of Darkness by Josphe Conrad
22. Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne
23. Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
24. Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison
25. Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison
26. Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
27. Native Son, by Richard Wright
28. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, by Ken Kesey
29. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
30. For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway
31. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
32. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
33. The Call of the Wild, by Jack London
34. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
35. Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
36. Go Tell it on the Mountain, by James Baldwin
37. The World According to Garp by John Irving
38. All the King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren
39. A Room with a View by E.M. Forster
40. The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
41. Schindler's List by Thomas Keneally
42. The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton
43. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
44. Finnegans Wake by James Joyce
45. The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair
46. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
47. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Frank Baum
48. Lady Chatterley's Lover, by D.H. Lawrence
49. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
50. The Awakening, by Kate Chopin

Forty-two of these were on my required reading list in high school.

I’ll concede that there is a place for children’s sections of libraries and that librarians need a modicum of common sense when stocking them. But the major issue is really “reading level.” The lists make it clear that the broader stacks are being targeted, too.

Of the Top Ten for 2010, I’ve read only Brave New World (a high school freshman assignment, as I recall). The other nine were published well after my tween-time, but is even one of them actually inappropriate? Judging from Huxley, I doubt it. Should it be banned if it were? The banning itself surely is more inappropriate (as an act and as a lesson) than anything in the book could be.

As for Hemingway, Faulkner, and Orwell, I’d high-five any 10-year-old who sought them out and read them. I’d recommend him or her for a scholarship.

So, be a rebel this week: read a library book.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Save the Semicolon!

The semicolon gets no respect; it gets no respect at all.

Imported into English from Italy in the Elizabethan era, the semicolon reached its high-water mark in the mid-18th century when sentences were wont to meander lengthily and majestically to the sea of understanding. The revolt against it began about the time of the American and French Revolutions (coincidence?) and has gathered force ever since. In 1848, Edgar Allen Poe said he was “mortified” that printers used so many semicolons. In 1865, grammarian Justin Brenan gleefully announced, “The semicolon has been gradually disappearing, not only from newspapers, but from books—insomuch that I believe instances could now be produced, of entire pages without a single semicolon." More recently Kurt Vonnegut harrumphed that the only reason to use a semicolon is "to show you've been to college."

I believe all three esteemed gentlemen would be happy to learn that, in the 21st century, not just entire pages but entire books are published without the offensive dot and squiggle. I take minor issue with Mr. Vonnegut’s analysis, however. I think the semicolon’s use should show you've been to grammar school – and there is the rub. Schools gloss over so many of the basics these days in pursuit of grander theories of education that many students graduate grammar school, high school, and then college without ever learning to use semicolons. Consequently, they don’t, even when the graduates start to write for a living.

Yet, the mark is a handy one. A classic example from the 1885 edition of The American Printer notes the difference between “Charles the First walked and talked half an hour after his head was cut off” and “Charles the First walked and talked; half an hour after, his head was cut off.”

It is true that a period can serve in that example, too. In modern text, a period probably would be used, but it really doesn’t serve as well. Knowing when to stop is important in writing as in life, and most punctuation is intended to tell us just that, much like road signs. However, “slow,” “yield,” and “stop” signs on roads are not all one and the same; commas, semicolons, and periods are not interchangeable either. In principle, it is true, all yield signs could be replaced by stop signs, but this would impede the smooth flow of traffic. In principle, all semicolons between independent clauses could be replaced by periods, but this would impede the smooth flow of prose.

The humble punctuation mark always has had its defenders, which is why it still clings perilously to life. In 1943, an article in The Times bemoaned “the war that is being waged in some quarters on the semicolon." The author blamed pulp fiction, in which the action favors simple, short, rat-tat-tat sentences on pages rife with periods. “The semicolon is the enemy of action; it is the agent of reflection and meditation." So it is.

So, for anyone who has forgotten, the rules for its use are as follows:
1. Use between closely related independent clauses not conjoined with a coordinating conjunction (i.e. don’t use “and” or “but” to begin the second independent clause). Example: “I ate the burger; the dog ate the bun.”
2. Use between independent clauses linked with a transitional phrase or adverb. Example: “Maureen is gorgeous; moreover, she is rich.”
3. Use in a series containing internal commas. Example: “He owned three cats: one was long, black, and thin; another was short, white, and fat; and the last was calico and trim.”

Be aware, however, that obeying these rules might single you out when you are trying to be anonymous. In 1977 police were taunted by notes from the perpetrator of the Son of Sam crimes; one of the clues to his identity was his proper use of a semicolon.

Marilyn’s Punctuation