Sunday, December 20, 2009

Fourth Annual Holiday Spectactular

It's that time again. Every year at Xmas, without rules or forethought I celebrate the season and year. As usual, I start off with little inspiration, no direction and hope to rally as I go. You'll forgive (read: "be grateful") for my brevity this year.

Favorite deisenberg.blogspot.com post

These are self appointed awards, so compose your spleen and hold your venom for something else. I admit I am biased towards my history blogs, although they are clearly not the favorites of others.

10. The awe inspiring - 7/23/09 - My take on who is the most dominant athlete we've known. The winner, one of several exceptional wrestlers covered, is truly awe inspiring.

9. Endlessly Fascinating: The Civil War - 8/2/09 - What happens when I peruse my library for sticky notes I left as reminders, all connected to interesting little tidbits from The Civil War.

8. Boo! 9/27/09 - My visit to the ghosts of Gettysburg. Still don't believe, but it is almost as much fun as UFOs.

7. WWII Trivia - 10/31/09 - From James Bond to TV comedians, this trivial pursuit of THE war is fun.

6. The Death of the West - 6/20/09 - What would we be like today without the Golden Age of Athens and how close we came to that on numerous occasions.

5. Fun with POTUS - 8/20/09 - Stories and writings from the lives of our presidents that will definitely surprise.

4. Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence - 3/27/09 - Once again, I bash my arch-historical nemesis - TJ - by watering down the importance of his primary claim to fame. And, I'm right. It is over-rated.

3. I just like these stories - 8/29/09 - Bear's favorite post ever, I believe. Stories about entertainers connected in a loose chain of events.

2. Cheerful News for the Brothers Grimm - 11/27/90 - a memorial to two preeminent humanists of the 19th century who so rarely get the credit they are due and are usually mis-represented these days or valued merely as story collectors.

1. Fulfilling Edith Hamilton's Prophecy: J.R.R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings- 5/14/09 - This one got some comments from outside the regular circle. I tried to show how you can not over-estimate the value of Tolkien, but easily under-estimate him, and think I might just have succeeded.

Best of the New Miss Malaprop

In April 26, 2007's post I introduced you, dear reader, to the new Miss Malaprop, an engaging New York woman with whom I am acquainted. Every once in a while she comes out with a new beaut and I shall report this year's crop here and now:

The idiom: Referring to a dumb move by a friend, she saucily stated: "He really dropped the bucket on that one."

The Shakespearean hero:: Accompanying me on a visit to New York's Rockefeller Center recently to watch the skaters, she spoke of an acquaintance who desired to skate there in public too: "Who does he think he is, Scott Hamlet?"

The almost idiom: This one took me a few seconds to understand, but when I did, I saw the usual genius - so close, you know it means something familiar, but what? While I drove, she was describing a place we were looking for and I couldn't see it on the street we were on: "I don't think you and I are on the same street," she said. "What?" Ah, same page. Got it. Well, she was right. We weren't on the same page. But, we were definitely on the same street.

A new television show?: She was trying to explain to me that she was going with her girlfriends to see one of those people who can talk to those in the afterlife. "You know, a . . . a mediator."

Yep, that's it. A mediator.

What would I do without you? Good night, Gracie.

History's Greetings. Indulge my interests, a little here. These are a few excerpts from literature mentioning the Christmas or the Winter Solstice. There's something similar about all of them when you think about it.

This one is from General Xenophon, which passages reminds me a little of the "There is a season" passage in the Bible (but, it's not)"

Think again how the sun, when past the winter solstice, approaches, ripening some things and withering others, whose time is over; and having accomplished this, approaches no nearer, but turns away, careful not to harm us by excess of heat; and when once again in his retreat he reaches the point where it is clear to ourselves, that if he goes further away, we shall be frozen with the cold, back he turns once more and draws near and revolves in that region of the heavens where he can best serve us.

From Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus:

IN December, about Christmas in the Citie of Wittenberg, were many young Gentlewomen, the which were come out of the Countrey to make merry with their friends and acquaintance: amongst whome, there were certaine that were well acquainted with Doctor Faustus, wherefore they were often inuited as his guests vnto him, and being with him on a certaine time after dinner, hee led them into his Garden, where he shewed them all maner of flowers, and 1 fresh hearbs, Trees bearing fruit and blossomes of all sortes, insomuch that they wondered to see that in his Garden should bee so pleasant a time as in the middest of summer: and without in the streetes, and all ouer the Countrey, it lay full of Snowe and yce. Wherefore this was noted of them as a thing miraculous, each one gathering and carrying away all such things as they best liked, and so departed delighted with their sweete smelling flowers.

From Shakespeare's Love's Labours Lost:

Well, say I am; why should proud summer boast

Before the birds have any cause to sing?

Why should I joy in any abortive birth?

At Christmas I no more desire a rose

Than wish a snow in May's new-fangled mirth;

But like of each thing that in season grows.

So you, to study now it is too late,

Climb o'er the house to unlock the little gate.


Top Three Xmas Villains:

No. 3: Winter Warlock. This frozen evil giant has redemption in Santa Claus is Comin' to Town, a wonderful animated work featuring as Kris Kringle, Fred Astaire, who wooes the giant from his evil ways with a song I still play every Xmas, Put one foot in front of the other:

[Kris Kringle]: Put one foot in front of the other
And soon you’ll be walking cross the floor
Put one foot in front of the other
And soon you’ll be walking out the door

You never will get where you’re going
If you never get up on your feet
Come on, there’s a good tail wind blowing
A fast walking man is hard to beat

Put one foot in front of the other
And soon you’ll be walking cross the floor
Put one foot in front of the other
And soon you’ll be walking out the door

If you want to change your direction
If your time of life is at hand
Well don’t be the rule be the exception
A good way to start is to stand

Put one foot in front of the other
And soon you’ll be walking cross the floor
Put one foot in front of the other
And soon you’ll be walking out the door


[Winter Warlock]: If I want to change the reflection
I see in the mirror each morn
You mean that it's just my election
To vote for a chance to be reborn


Number 2: Burgermeister Meisterburger. This tight fisted angry little animated ruler is from the very same animated feature. And, he hates, just hates toys. And they hate him. So - he bans them. Which is why, of course, young Kris Kringle comes to town.

Not only was Burgermeister Meisterburger a great character, but he has one of the great names of all animated villains right up there with Felix the Cats' Rock Bottom, Rocky and Bullwinkle's Boris Badenov and the Dalmation's Cruella DeVil. Just brilliant. Is there an Emmy for great names?

No. 1: Scrooge. Even though he too finds redemption at Xmas, there is no greater Xmas villain than the mean spirited and greedy Scrooge, who Dickens' created in 1843's Christmas Carol.

Who was Scrooge really based on, if anyone? No one knows. But there are lots of theories. I find most credible a characterization of a real person Dickens' himself has referred to at least in letters, one John Elwes, an 18th century British parliamentarian, who, although a wealthy heir himself, to save money would, among other things, not use candles at home, wore poor man's clothes including a wig he found in a bush, and allowed his house to become dilapidated to the point the rain would come through the roof throughout the home. He was sometimes portrayed by cartoonists as clutching his money bag. Now who does this sound like?

Who was the best Scrooge? Well, I haven't seen them all, nor even the new one portrayed by Jim Carrey (so I won't include him), my votes go to:

Number 3: Alistair Sims in the 1951 production I think is sometimes called Scrooge and sometimes A Christmas Carol.

Number 2: Bill Murray's hysterical Scrooged (1988) still makes me laugh. This was before Murray could prove he was an actor as well as comedian, and I'm glad, as his snarky over the pompous charicature which he is synonymous with, fit perfectly. p.s., Jamie Farr, of Corporal Klinger fame, played Marley to Murray's Scrooge and Karen Allen of Indiana Jones fame was his love interest.

Number 1: Ah, that would be the great Jim Backus (aka, the Millionaire, Mr. Howell, on Gilligan's Island) in Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol. I was three years old in 1962 when it came out, and for me, the funny nearsighted old man was Scrooge. That's the way it goes.

Top ten holiday or Xmas Songs: I've probably ranked them before, but I'm doing it again, and I care not if it is consistent at all. I just love holiday music (and, of course, this is perfectly consistent with my Jewish background, as nobody does Xmas like the Jews):

10. Snoopy's Christmas by The Royal Guardsmen (1966).
9. Put one foot in front of the other. As I said, above, from the great animated feature Santa Claus is comin' to town featuring Fred Astaire.
8. Zat you, Santa Claus? The only version I know is the Louis Armstrong classic. May no one ever try and duplicate this unique and memorable piece.
7. Joy to the World. The Whitney Houston version is tops. She cannot be beaten when she chooses a song these days, even by Mariah Carey. Still, there are many great versions.
6. Christmas Canon. Germany's Johann Pachobel must be pleased he can atleast be seen with the Bach family in heaven thanks to the discovery this century of his brilliant Canon in D major. The Trans-Siberian Orchestra version is my favorite.
5. Do they know it's Christmas by Band Aid. A recent work, but magical in it's own way. Stick with the original.
4. The Carol of the Bells. I like the Mannheim Steamroller version but there are also many good ones for this. Did you know this is a Ukrainian piece based on a folk tune?
3. Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow! I go with Dean Martin's version, although there are a bunch of good ones.
2. Baby, It's cold outside. I give the Doris Day/Bing Crosby version the nod, although I like the fairly recent Zoey Deschanel/Leon Redbone version on the Elf Soundtrack. Not surprising I like the song, which was written by the composer of my favorite musical, Guys and Dolls, Frank Loesser, and performed by him and his wife at parties for four years starting in 1944 before it was ever put in a movie, after which it was in many.
1. All I want for Christmas is you by Mariah Carey. In my mind, her best song of all. In fact, her Xmas album is the only one I own or want.

Okay, that's it for me.

Feliz Navidad!

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Mo' Potpourri

According to a recent imaginary survey of my readers, 79% of you prefer the autobiographical or random potpourri articles to the ones where I try and make a point or analyze something. As my genie name is Asyouwish, I am happy to oblige (at least this once).

Snow

It’s snowing here in Buchanan, Va. as I write this and as with much of the precipitation in my mountain valley, it is a breathtaking show - huge descending crystalized flakes descending like a million paratroopers on a celestial d-day, the meadows, the mountains, the reedy slopes on the sides of the streams, the berry tipped evergreen trees and bushes and the red tin roofs blanketed with a thin crust of puffy whiteness. Admittedly, that's just purple prose and I've never been good at it. Let'd just say I find it pretty here when it snows. But, I've also been somewhere that one might call the Mt. Everest of snow, and it's not Mr. Everest.

In 1987 I visited Paradise, Washington, a spot on Mt. Rainier. It averages - It's hard to believe this - roughly 676 inches of snow a year. For those of you without a calculator handy, that's over 56 feet. Nearby Mr. Baker gets almost as much per year and set the record for one year with 1140 inches (I've seen varying amounts for all these stats, so they are rough) or 95 feet, snapping Paradise's reign by a bit. But, the next snowiest place after those two is Valdez, Alaska, which gets less than half of Paradise's average - a mere 326 inches a year. Juneau, Alaska gets only an average of 101 inches a year. Most places in America, of course, get far far less, from none to a few dozen. Even in the Spring, the snow is amazing.

I got the full blash of Paradise, but not in the Winter as you might expect. I was there on a beautiful Spring day, drove up the mountain to Paradise. My windows were down as I drove there and I enjoyed the beautiful forest, as pretty as I've seen anywhere in the world. But, as I ascended, things began to change. Snow, everywhere. As I drove up towards the main center at Paradise, the hard packed white walls on each side of the road was in my estimation twenty feet high or more. It leaves an impression on you.

History

When it comes to history, I’m always on the hunt for trouble, like a woman having a dinner party and asking her boyfriend to help with the dishes (yes, I am projecting). If I hear something that doesn't sound right and it's one of my interests, I'm on the job. It is ironic, the internet, which may some day be the death of paper and leather books, has greatly enhanced my ability to chase down facts.

Recently, a friend asked me if I knew of a historical figure named Chevalier d’Eon, whose biography he was reading. d'Eon didn't ring a bell with me. But, according to my friend, he was a fascinating 18th century character – a French spy, diplomat and swordsman, who spent half his adult life as a man and half as a woman. For a time in the 1700s there was actually betting in England on the Stock Exchange as to whether he was one or the other. While living in exile in England he insisted that he was a man, had himself inspected by a group of chaste women to settle, but who determined only that they were undecided. He threatened to challenge to duel by fencing anyone who said he was not a man, and remove all doubts. Despite his uncertain sex, he was such a gifted fencer, that he had no offers. When he went back to France, King Louis XV decided that he must dress as a woman, which he did.

All that was fine and good, but according to the biography my friend was reading, Benjamin Franklin had known d’Eon as a woman and tried to seduce him. This struck me odd. I have read more biographies about Franklin than any other dead white guy, and many other books in which he played a role. I couldn’t remember ever reading about this fascinating man/woman D’eon in any of them. It seemed highly unlikely to me that had the supposed seduction been even possibly true, some biographer or other would have found it worthy to write about it, and just as likely, all of them. I raised that to my friend, who sent me the author’s four sources via email (he never told me the author, by the way).

I first perused my own library. Not one of the five Franklin biographies I currently own mention d’Eon. Then I had another idea. I checked an old book on my shelves (1961) that I had on the 18th century London Hellfire Club, not surprisingly titled The Hellfire Club. I remember not thinking much of the it because there were no foot or endnotes, but flipping through it now, I see that I had indeed once read about d'Eon (the book actually opened to that page), and just forgotten about him. He was fascinating, but not that historically relevant otherwise. The Hellfire Club mentioned d'Eon twice, but confirmed only that there was good evidence that Franklin and he knew each other. P.S., when d'Eon died, it was learned that he actually had diminutive male genitalia, possibly from some disease or another. He was a man.

Of all of the founders I most revere Ben Franklin, who may arguably be the greatest American who ever lived. But, I will make that authoritative declaration another day, after careful consideration. Just now, I wanted to rescue my hero from scurrilous attack by a careless historian. The game was afoot.

Sure enough, the internet led me immediately to three of the four sources, and within a mere ten minutes, I found my answer. The fourth source I couldn’t find, but it was not contemporaneous, and therefore didn't matter much. However, of the three, the first of them was the actual French account which was the only basis for the biographer’s seduction supposition. But, there were two problems with it. The lesser of the two problems was – there was absolutely no seduction at all reported in the account – just some drinks between two friends. Any seduction hypothesis was an absolute stretch. But, much more important – it was a known satirical work with no truth to it at all. No one is even sure who wrote it. The second source I found was a modern work which just refers to the contemporaneous source, and which acknowledges its satirical nature.

The third and last source I found was a collection of letters which contained the only known correspondence between Franklin and d’Eon. That letter only showed that D’eon had stopped by when Franklin was out and he had drinks with the family living there.

Which lead me to my two points. The first one bothers me. The biographer whose book my friend read did not even do his homework or he would have known this in a matter of minutes, just as I did. With so much garbage history being out there in the world, I would appreciate it if historians really checked their facts. If they aren't sure, well, at least they can say that much. If that was good enough for Herodotus, it’s good enough for his heirs.

This is far from the first time I have found historians, even great ones, making mistakes like that simply because of their failure to read whatever they themselves cite as sources. But, like all professions, excepting bloggers and ice cream vendors, they are fallible.

My second point is obvious, merely the amazing power of the internet that has revolutionized the dissemination of knowledge as nothing has since the printing press. What I can do now, what anyone who puts his mind to it can do now, is locate historical materials in minutes, whereas even a decade ago, it would have taken many trips to libraries, possible thousands of miles apart. Moreover, many of these sources are in a foreign language, but you can read them in English, from some of the oldest to the newest. Who but a professional would even bother? Certainly not me, curious as I can be. For one thing, who has the time or money? Fewer and definitely not me.

Digital Age Etiquette

What do you think of this? Recently, I was thinking of contacting a friend from school. It’s been over a quarter of a century since we spoke. I found her on facebook, but I myself am invisible and accept and ask for no “friends”. But this person required you to become accepted as her friend to contact her. Now, I could hardly blame her for screening out people who aren’t “friends,” as I screen out everyone.

So, I was discussing this problem with a friend at the gym the other day and she asked a simple question – “Why don’t you call her?”

My answer sounded weird even to me. With email and facebook, etc., being available, I felt as if calling up someone I was not real close friends with out of the blue after so many years, was a little too forward, almost as if I just showed up at her house. I'm just not comfortable with it. I’ve run that past some others and they seem to agree. But, it feels strange to think that making a call is being too forward. That’s why I sometimes argue that in some ways the digital world has made it a lonelier place than it used to be. Even a telephone call is a little much.

We just got the internet a few years ago. Yet, it has not only changed the pursuit of knowledge, but our very culture down to the simplest interractions.

This is a true story

Years ago, my daughter was living with her mother in a little condominium cul de sac. A neighbor across the street we’ll call Grace had two girls about my daughter's age. Grace was a second mother figure to much of the neighborhood and my daughter would very often be there when I came to see her at night. So, I would climb the stairs to Grace's apartment and hang out for a while, even when the girls were outside playing (yes, we use to let the kid’s play outside without adult supervision – horrors) I’d sit and chat. My daughter’s uncle was living with them for a while and he started dating Grace. We’ll call him Uncle Carl. He was a very nice guy, but he had suffered many emotional trials when young and was admittedly very insecure. Fortunately, he was not the jealous type at all and had no problem with me hanging out with Grace.

One day I came to the little community and walked up the stairs to Grace's apartment when Uncle Carl was just about to leave. We said hello but he said he had to walk across the little street/parking lot to go home to bed as he had to get up before dawn. I went into the bathroom and came out very shortly thereafter to see that he had indeed left.

A few seconds later the phone rang. It was the type of home where a guest could pick up the phone, and as Grace was busy, I did. It was Uncle Carl. He said “Why did you curse at me?”

“What do you mean?” I responded.

“Why did you scream at me from Grace's house that I was a fucking liar?’”

“Oh, wait a minute” I said, a little puzzled. “That does sound kind of familiar. Hold on a sec. Grace, do you remember hearing me scream out ‘fucking liar’ a minute or so ago?”

“Sure,” she said. “Every time you come over, you go into the bathroom, step on the scale and scream out ‘You goddamn fucking liar!”

I had trouble consoling Uncle Carl, because I was laughing so much, but the poor insecure guy had been walking across the street when he heard me curse at someone (really something) and looked back over his shoulder to see my grimacing face through the bathroom window. I’m laughing now just thinking about it.

The death of shaving cream

I did an experiment today for the benefit of mankind. I have been pleased by the great advances that have been made in razors since the technological breakthroughs just a few years ago that have led to triple and even quintuple blades on the market. Whether it is the multiple blades or the sharpness of the blades that makes the difference - or both - they really are greatly superior to those made even ten years ago. So, I made a discovery that I would humbly say puts me up there with Newton, Einstein, Edison and Bill Cosby (who discovered that having the cast dance one at a time while your television show's theme music is playing will add to its ratings).

So, this morning I shaved without shaving cream. I know you are wincing and thinking I've finally made the swan dive off the board of sanity, but, guess what - it was easy. Except for the moustache area, I noticed no difference between shaving with cream and without. And for under the nose, all I needed was a few drops of water and I didn't need cream there either.

The only proviso I would put is that this was done with one day's growth. I wouldn't try it myself with two (or - sudden gleam in my eye - will I?)

I do realize that this is just one more thing in my life that will give me weirdo credentials and that I will be forever arguing about this with people - like the arguments I find myself in about whether you can swallow gum (sure, once you put your mother out of your mind) or swallow pills without water (do it all the time - careful with powdery aspirin though), read while driving (don't blame me if you try this and fail though) and use soap for shampoo (Einstein himself said - "One soap for everything").

There will be one possible cultural or even theological effect from my discovery. Years ago, reading a list of national sayings about God - you know - God is great, God can move mountains, God is all - that type of saying - I came across one from Poland that had me in stitches - "God can shave without soap". Out of all wondrous things people believe their God can do - create the universe even - the one the Polish people apparently were most impressed with was shaving without soap.

Well, now, it's not so amazing, is it? We can all do it. And, when someday, my discovery is accepted as fact by the world, Polish culture they will have to abandon the expression or face ridicule.

And I shall call it Eisenberg shaving. Wonder if the name will catch on.

Montaigne

Did I mention Montaigne before. Not really a big fan of his. Sure, he had a few things to say about democracy, back in the days when saying something unpopular could still get you burned at the stake (16th century), but I don't see him as a great philosopher, and sometimes really just a pompous ass. But, no doubt he had a way with words.

Here’s Montaigne on women, lending some credence to the view point that some things about the battle of the sexes are universal:

Wives are always disposed to disagree with their husbands. With both hands they grasp at any pretence for contradicting them; any excuse serves as full justification.

And, I love this little gem on kids. It starts out so nice too.

I would try to have gentle relations with my children and so encourage in them an active love and unfeigned affection for me, something easily achieved in children of a well-born nature; of course if they turn out to be wild beasts (which our century produces in abundance) then you must hate them and avoid them as such.

We all know the following guy or gal he describes.

But I fall out with anyone who is too high-handed, like the one man I know who laments the fact that he gave you advice if you do not accept it and takes it as an insult if you shy at following it.

I like the following concept, although it was buried in a paragraph demonstrating his supposedly impervious ego and indifference to being proven wrong.

I can go on peacefully arguing all day if the debate is conducted with due order.

I know he lived in a different time, but this bit of information just freaks me out.

I mention nanny-goats because the village-women where I live call in the help of goats when they cannot suckle the children themselves.

And, last, his epitaph on self praise –

Yet, when all has been said, you never talk about yourself without loss: condemn yourself and you are always believed: praise yourself and you never are.

Do fetuses dream?

In case any one was wondering, fetuses apparently dream, having REM in their sleep. What do they dream about? Give it 20 years, maybe less, and the neurologists might will be telling us.

Tigers aren't monogamous

If you look up tigers on the internet or an encyclopaedia, it will tell you that it is monogamous.

Tiger Woods, of course, is taking a beating as woman after woman comes out of the closet. Here's my call on the subject.

Sure, like every other married person, he's supposed to obey the rules. Like so many men and almost as many women, he didn't. Most of us have friends who have acknowledged cheating one time or another and we tend not to beat them up about it too much. Why then is the media beating up on Tiger? Answer: Of course, because it's a good story. Not good enough for me.

I hate to say so what? but so what? There's a reason adultery is almost never prosecuted as a crime. It may be hurtful and culturally wrong most times, but it is not like he was caught robbing a bank, beating his kid or hiring Kelly Ripa to co-host a show. Tiger's wife and maybe his kids, and even her family might have a right to be mad at him, but everyone else should drop it.

On top of my wish list,I wish that every media personality that writes or talks about him to have to own up to whether they've ever cheated and if they know anyone else in the media or entertainment world who has, and haven't told on them. After all, just because he got caught shouldn't mean he alone should get piled up on. And I would be gleeful when anyone who reports on the story gets outed, just like I was gleeful when a number of political figures who were beating up on Bill Clinton when he got outed, got caught themselves.

I feel for Tiger and his family that this is public. It shouldn't be. However, I admit that I don't feel as sorry for his wife as many claim to. I am one of those people who believes when women (men too, but mostly women) marry a rich famous person, they must know that their spouse will face terrific temptation to cheat constantly. In marrying them, they made the trade for the fame and the money. Although, sure, I think it is possible that they love the person, and are entitled to have obligations kept to them too, I am cynical enough to believe a whole lot of that love is related to the person's fame and fortune. And rich famous people cheat more just like they buy more cars and have more house servants - because they can. Someone recently said to me - where's your proof of this? Don't feel I need more than common sense and life experience on this one. I don't even know Tiger Wood's wife's name, but, like with Princess Diana, who married a crown prince, I can think of other people to feel sorry for. What did they expect? You could argue with me that most people don't fall in love or marry for any better reasons than they did, but then again, they didn't marry someone who was going to face those constant temptations either. It's like living in San Francisco and complaining about earth quakes. If she had married him when he was just a homely nobody, I'd feel different.

Naturally, no one has thought about whether he had a reason to cheat, and, in my book, there are a few good reasons. I cast no aspersions on her. She may be the best wife in the world, but apparently no cares whether she is or not, because it's so much easier to judge without nuance. What if it turns out she became asexual after they had children, or is abusive to him, or even threatens him that she will kill him if he leaves? What if she cheated on him? All of that makes a difference to me. Remember Warren Moon. He was a pro football player arrested for beating his wife. Finally, after he was pilloried in the press for his behavior, she admitted, it wasn't him, it was her. I'm not suggesting that Mrs. Wood was the one who had affairs with those girls, just suggesting that only Mr. and Mrs. Woods (and maybe their maids) know what went on in their lives, and the rest of us are just speculating - unfairly at that.

Of course, there two people who are grateful to him. Mark Sanford and David Letterman.

Grinder

Does anyone else find this weird? Gay people have an i-phone application where they can look at the location of all other gay people who are signed up so you can know when another gay person is near you. The main point of this is apparently so you can "hook up" and have sex.

Immediately, of course, when I heard of this (from a user) I wondered when will be the first time that an angry homophobe (perhaps even a gay one) will use it to track down gays. I don't know - pick any quality you want - I'd rather not put online where I can be located at all times. You may not be asking for it, but you are making it easy.

I suppose, if they don't have it already, the same technology will still be used by every sexual variation, from fetishists to players. New world. Not sure I'm going to like it as much as the old one.

Susan Boyle is ugly

Susan was in the news again recently. I have nothing against her at all. Great voice, nice story and I was moved by it. But, there are other talented people with beautiful voices who don't get her celebrity. Know why? They aren't ugly enough. By cheering her so, by going wild, weren't the crowds really saying, "Oh, Susan, isn't it wonderful you can sing so beautifully when you are so ugly?"

We all do that. It is no different than when a young child has a great voice or other abilities beyond their age and we think - they shouldn't be able to do that - and are impressed. With Susan, we are surprised someone so homely can sing so well.

And it really shouldn't surprise anyone as social scientists have long confirmed what should be obvious. Conventionally good looking people have certain advantages in life. People assume that they are smarter, nicer and more competent. But sometimes, it works to the advantage of people who are completely without these qualities such as very large or small people or even very ugly ones, provided they strike the right tone of humility. Susan Boyle fits into this category. Of course, you do have to be able to sing like that too.

Physics predictions

I’m hoping that in my life time some of the following predictions might get settled for no other reason than I'm curious to see if I'm right about them. I am uniquely unqualified to make these predictions on physics, never having taken it in high school, and in college only a freshman course called Western Civ 0/Physics 0, which discussed very little Western Civ and even less physics.

- Time is a function of motion and perception and is no more real than unicorns and the ether. Naturally, this sounds extreme and counter intuitive. But, to feel that way, we must all politely forget that the leading scientists of the 19th and even very early 20th century virtually all believed in the ether and universal time, even though they could find no evidence of it, until Einstein blew it all out of the water.

- Dark matter and energy is a misunderstanding of the nature of the universe. They are never going to find proof of it any more than they found the ether.

- The same goes for what is sometimes known as quantum weirdness, i.e., at sub-atomic dimensions the cause and effect and logic we expect at the macro level disappears, and is just random. I agree with Einstein when he said “God does not play dice with the universe” (but not when he said “Maybe he does.”)

- String theory will be replaced by string cheese theory and then discarded as just one way to look at a set of physics problems.

- And, in a related issue, it may turn out that some form of life recognizable to us exists on every planet that has an atmosphere and has been around for a few million years. No life on such a planet will prove the exception rather than the rule. Intelligent life at least on our mammilian level will prove plentiful too, as will intellects far superior to ours, but naturally, not as frequently.

And, because it is physics we are talking about, I’d like to add this one little non-sequitor about when the WWII Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, met the brilliant and eccentric Danish scientist, Niels Bohr, a father of modern physics smart enough to go at it head to head with Einstein about the nature of the universe (and many think won).

According to science writer, Tim Ferris (if you have any interest in this stuff, he is probably the best writer to read), yet another famous physicist, Abraham Pais, wrote about the Acheson-Bohr meeting as follows:

"The meeting began at, say, two o'clock, Bohr doing all the talking. At about two thirty Acheson spoke to Bohr about as follows. Professor Bohr, there are three things I must tell you at this time. First, whether I like it or not, I shall have to leave you at three for my next appointment. Secondly, I am deeply interested in your ideas. Thirdly, up till now I have not understood one word you have said."

Hoping you aren’t thinking the same thing about this post – see you next week.

Friday, December 04, 2009

I'd like some more money, please

The purpose of this article is to frighten you.

I will fail.

Suppose that tomorrow the government decides on a new monetary policy. From now on, money is no longer represented by a green slip of paper that fits into your wallet. It is represented by a number 1 that goes into a computer database. The government will assign you that number based on a list of attributes you have.

The system they’ve devised is admittedly imperfect, but it is said by them and accepted by you that it will work. It is, of course, rife with fraud. For example, the bureaucracy of workers who service “the computer” have an advantage. Grandma in Minnesota needs some help, so, worker X, her granddaughter, sits at the database and Grandma suddenly has enough ones in her account to pay the heating bill. A politician does not support his leader in a congressional fight. So, a series of favors are called in and suddenly politician Y finds that his ones, once substantial, have been replaced by zeros. Now, politician Y’s account is too low for him even to get to Washington, D.C. to try and change the law. He doesn’t have the ones necessary. But, when he tries to log into the one way to contact the money creator located at an unpublished address his computer is not acknowledged by its online portal, as the site doesn’t recognize his password. He can’t by food or get gas for his car. He can’t even go to the emergency room when he has a breakdown.

But, we accept all the fraud, because every government institution we've dealt with is shot through, if not totally dependent upon, fraud. Still, this all presents such a problem that the government decides to allow us to replenish our accounts by simply requesting more ones. We all do so, everyone going to their computer each morning and downloading as many ones as each person thinks he will need.

For the first time in our history, perfect equality is achieved. The man whose father’s father’s father was an indentured servant or slave can afford to eat at the same restaurant with the woman who’s mother’s mother’s mother got the monopoly on ferrying people across the Mississippi River in Missouri. The graduate of the Advanced Institute for Knowledge, created by the government in the same sweeping set of laws used to change the monetary system, can apply with confidence to the same job as the graduate of Stanford University, because their degrees have been rendered equivalent. Should anyone prefer the Stanford graduate, they will have discriminated, and the number of ones in their account will be restricted, pending review.

The government also decides in the Revised Constitution, passed according to the old constitution (which, is now kept only in digital form, and now subject to amendment by the government when its law appear out of step) that it can pass laws retroactively such that when something appears unfair, which means it has been applied to some person or entity with sufficient connections to government, it can be fixed digitally. Phew. Imagine, for the first time in our history we are freed from the tyranny of the law.

At the beginning the government rations the amount of ones that you can have, but soon they realize that this isn’t sufficient for the demand and double it, then they triple and quadruple it. And then, they make it unlimited, because after all, what’s more important than economic freedom. Price no longer matters. Hotels multiply the price for a nights stay to a billion dollars a night and a woman who used to be homeless can now afford to stay there because she has enough ones in her account. Her husband, suddenly freed of the need for the relationship, charters a jet for Hawaii and buys a resort where he can indulge himself. But, no one wants to work there because they want their own resort. His volunteer slave girls realize they too can make money effortlessly and leave, ruining his fantasy.

In fact, the problem no longer is that people don’t have enough money. It very quickly becomes that there are no longer sufficient assets in the world to satisfy all the demand. Everyone wants jets and resorts and sex and i-phones. Suddenly, as quickly as everyone became rich, they become poor, because a bunch of greedy people who got their first are hogging all the real stuff. Those who steadfastly increased their accounts to the highest amounts took as much as they could and now sit upon their dragon’s hoard. They have no reason to accept more ones than they paid for it because if they sell their resort, they won’t be able to buy a new one, because there are no more for sale.

So, the government decides the only thing it can do is regulate again the amount of ones and zeroes in everyone’s account. First, everyone’s accounts are reduced to zero and then a small amount is given back, except that such institutes or persons the government believes are important or too big to fail, get a lot more. A LOT more. Astonishingly, it turns out that the same group of people who had the money before, have it again. Get out of the resort and go home. If you have a home, that is.

Finally, to avert a panic, the government issues a statement saying, essentially, everything is okay. Go back to sleep. And we do. Because we know that very, very smart people, have fixed everything. They’ve told us so, and they would know. Right?

The reason none of us are frightened by this scenario is because we have grown up in the precursor for it all of our lives, and we are conditioned to it. If it actually happened like that, folks would adapt to it, so long as it remained doable, just as we have adapted to the system we already have.

Think about it. How much money do you have? In the “old days” the only answer you have ever known is that society’s appointed money-keepers, the banks, have printed it out in a “bank book”. These numbers came from a record they kept and shared with you. If you went up to a bank window, you could present a book and that book would have a number typed into it. You could withdraw that amount of money.

Today, you don’t need the silly paper book. Kids don’t even know what that is. You go online and your computer, attached to other computers, tells you what is available for you. Suppose you need more money than that. You ask the bank for a loan. If the bank wants, it adds to the number of ones you have by typing it into the computer. But, where does the bank get the money? It doesn’t have an equivalent amount of little green slips of paper or, perish, the thought, gold, in its vaults to back it up. It has a promise from the government to make good on the ones if necessary. That’s how you bought your house, isn’t it? You didn’t have to show up with a suitcase of money anywhere did you? It was just represented on paper how much money you were lent, and then that paper was sold to another company of which you never heard, or ultimately Fannie Mae or the like, and you will try to pay it back. And when Fannie Mae failed, the government just printed the money to pay its debts and take it over.

Of course you are not scared by my scenario. You already do all this. Suppose you decide you want to own a company, or a part of it. You go into your Schwab account (like I do) and you digitally purchase your share. You don’t even send a check anymore. A computer tells another computer that you have enough ones in your account. Or, the computer says that it will let you buy it on margin (by increasing your ones) and you have to repay it. If you can’t repay it, you file for bankruptcy and, not only can you keep the most important stuff, but all your minus ones or zeroes are digitally wiped away.

The Dow Jones Index was at 14,000 in 2007, went down to under 7,000 last year and is now over 10,000. Sophisticated traders (not me) make money going up and down, but most people lost their shirts, in some cases changing their lives. We are used to it.

Your whole lives, you have never had to think about the value of the piece of paper you call a dollar. That dollar used to be a representation of an actual thing – an amazing metal which was not only beautiful, but incredibly malleable, and strong at the same time. Obviously, I mean gold. Silver too sometimes. This system has existed since we first began to write things down in symbols. But not so many moons ago we changed all that. Over the course of the last century, and last in 1971, we severed our connection between dollars and gold or any commodity and began a system where the government just decides how much money is worth. You probably don’t even believe that, do you?

You think the real system is less ridiculous than the one I suppose here? What if I told you that for many decades, instead of the government adding zeroes to your account, it has simply increased the number of dollars in the system. Because it is certainly true. At first, they did this with some restraint, but very soon, WWI required much more, so it was printed. And, then WWII. Now, when we have a recession, or a depression, depending on what you call it, we just print more and more money without rhyme or reason. Money now has almost no value. The difference between that and a 95 percent tax over the same period of time is non-existence. And, of course, on top of that, we pay taxes that are actually called taxes too.

Don’t believe me, right? Because you can still buy stuff, right? How could they – the smart people in the world who run our government (please note the sarcasm here) let this happen anyway? It’s not possible. Really? Did you know that last year the government increased the monetary base by a factor of je ne sais quoi (honestly, I am working on completely understanding the difference, if any, between monetary base and money supply, but very safe to say, the Fed has increased the amount of circulating dollars by an astronomical amount and plans on more). Really? How’d they do that? Why, by adding ones to digital accounts and printing out slips of paper which represented them. Oh. But, who is getting those dollars? Not me. Not you. Oh, we can rest easy. It was given to banks, owned by a handful of people who decide what to do with it, and to the biggest companies in the world. Where'd the government get the money from - well, by selling securities to China and other countries. After all, the government won't default, it will just print more money. That's why, my portofolio these days is just gold and securities.

But, you have been told your whole life that stuff like this doesn’t matter (starting to sound like The Matrix, isn’t it?), because the former great fear, inflation, has been conquered by the banking system, which juggles its book or adds to the cost of money by manipulating the interest rates, and therefore regulates it. So, everything is okay, right? Alas, were that true.

Want to see something really scary? Go to www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0001519.html and see how much value a dollar has now compared to 1913. Almost none - less than 5%. What cost 1 dollar in 1913 now costs $21.57 cents. What do you care? Because money has become make believe, and so plentiful, there is no need to worry. Alas, yet again.

When we came to the head of our crisis last year, the government decided to rectify it. It let all the banks which had made mistakes fail. It let the companies and people that irresponsibly borrowed money fail. New people came in and swept up the carcasses of these companies and banks for a song, re-employed the workers, entered into new and more rational agreements with each other, and saved our system, putting our national debt onto a downward tract and balancing the budget.

Except, of course, we did none of that. Starting under Bush and then greatly increasing under Obama, we did the opposite. The government ignored all the existing laws, that is, the rules under which we all must play. The Federal Reserve and other federal agencies simply increased the amount of ones available, as I said, doubling the supply (based on nothing substantial), and gave it to the companies and banks that had made the biggest mistakes or committed the biggest frauds or were the most irresponsible, and magically increased their purchasing power, greatly reducing yours. They did this so that there would be money available to the smaller businesses and individuals to get credit – the system we’ve devised based on us all spending money we don’t have.

I wonder what the value of a dollar will be in say 2012 or 2020, because at some point people have to wake up and see that the Emperor has no clothes and neither do they. That will be scary.

But, you are not frightened, are you? That’s because you have always lived under a similar system. In fact, the children born into the internet age are the least frightened, because everything is just a matter of ones and zeroes on the computers they’ve grown up with. Money is no more or less real than the games they play. All of this is merely a consequence of the fiat money system, that is, a system where the government dictates the value of the medium of exchange rather than a market based on the value of a central commodity like gold or silver or a cow. And, it changed our lives way before we were all born (well, not my Aunt Tess, but I assure you she doesn’t care).

Even knowledge for most of us has been reduced to ones and zeroes. I like to refer to Google and Wikipedia as the sum of all knowledge, a fulfillment of the imaginary Encyclopaedia Galactica imagined by Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series of books.

When people have a question, they just put the question to Google (what I do too) and look it up in Wikipedia, the encyclopedia that anyone can change. No thought or analyses is required. A few years ago, for example, I was told I lost an argument about whether bas-relief (look it up on Google and Wikipedia if you don’t know what it is) was two dimensional or three dimensional. You can tell it is three dimensional simply by running your finger across it, but even conceptually, bas (or low) relief, by definition, means it has depth, i.e., it is three dimensional. However, my adversary, a woman I worked with found some Google entries saying it is two dimensional (which is easy to find, because many people believe it is two dimensional – the cool thing about bas-relief is that because the relief is so low, it has characteristics making it appear two and three dimensional at the same time – but, it is “low” relief, not “no” relief). I soon learned that thinking was not required or even permitted in the argument. You just finding a supporting webpage on Google and you win.

Just as another example, earlier this year, I had an argument with a friend over whether Governor Rod Blagojevich had been indicted. I knew he had not, but was immediately shown by a bewildering number of Google hits that he had been indicted. I admit, I was stunned because I was so sure. One Google squib could be wrong, but so many? Actually, yes. When I went to the webpage created by the actual U.S. Attorney who would be indicting him, he wrote that despite the fact that so many news outlets had reported Glagojevich was indicted, he wasn’t yet, merely arrested (he has since been indicted and will likely be tried next year).

At least, with my debating partner there, my one authority was more convincing than his many and he acquiesced. I am not always so lucky.

But, again, these are examples. I have had this same problem many times. So have you. In fact, though aware of it, Google and Wikipedia are my first visits when I am wondering about something and if the article appears authoritative, particularly Wikipedia, I usually believe it, although I am much more cynical by nature than most and do spend a lot of time fact checking. That's because they are, in fact, wonderful tools.

To be sure, I'm not damning the internet here, which has brought me personally in contact with knowledge from texts and works of art to which in my whole life I never would have been able to have access to otherwise.

It may seem to you that I have wandered far afield, from money to knowledge. But, money I define slightly differently than dictionaries do, as the medium by which we manage the exchange of goods and services in our society by substituting a standard for knowledge of value and other knowledge. Because if civilization means anything (and definitions vary), it must contain some agreement on the way we manage our lives and the economy. When that fails, everything fails.

This has happened before when technology or situations changed the world faster than people or society could assimilate. One example of monetary failure in the past is eerily similar to that which we are now experiencing. During the Civil War era the Southern States, dedicated to individual state power, in some sense set up the first all-powerful central government in America, predating what our victorious central government would do in 1913 by forming the Federal Reserve Bank system. They set up their own system of money, and because they did not have the gold or other accepted unit of trade backing it, they just kept printing more and more until it was essentially valueless. The Confederate economy collapsed.  It is the reason the Confederacy could not survive against northern aggression (for you Confederate-philes, that is not a discussion of who started the war, but a description of most of the action).

Right now in congress, one senator from New Hampshire, Bernie Sanders, an independent but essentially left-wing socialist, and Ron Paul, a Republican congressman, but essentially right-wing conservative/libertarian, are both demanding some accountability and transparency of the Federal Exchange, the giant bank that creates money and does whatever it wants, as if it were a monarchy unto itself, unbothered by either the administration or congress, who can merely change who runs it, but not moderate or control it under prevailing rules. It is now the most powerful branch of government, never having been conceived at all by the forefathers in the constitution.

So much for a representative government.

I’ve read Paul’s End the Fed, and, despite a couple of quarrels I have with it as to his solutions (essentially, go back on the gold standard, get rid of the Fed, the FDIC and the like) it is an important and very easy to understand book. For me, who enjoys dancing on the precipice of our cultural norms and shouting out “The emperor has no clothes,” it is a simple rendition of our national (and to some extent, world wide) fantasy as to the meaning of money that I’ve been haltingly and poorly trying to understand since the late 80s. For others, who prefer the sanity of believing every thing will be fine and who do not engage in windmill chasing, his book might be a little too much of an eye opener and frightening. Better to classify it and him as crazy as did his opponents in the presidential debates last year. Paul does not claim to have originated any of his claims, but he is an exponent of the Austrian school of economics which I have written about here a little in discussing Friedrich von Hayek (just put Hayek into the search box above for the articles mentioning him), who himself was a student of Ludwig von Mises.

No, this is not an anti-technology screed. But, it is a warning that the societal agreements we have as to money in particular, is in danger of becoming untenable as the government strays farther and farther from the rules and restrictions that has governed it and stretches our willingness to suspend disbelief (which is immense) to the breaking point.

I said at the outset of this post that I would try and frighten you and that I would fail. Thus, at least, I have succeeded in my failure, one of the great benefits of pessism so often overlooked.

Call me Cassandra and then go back to sleep, Neo. Everything will be fine.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Political update for October/November, 2009

It is so very hard for me, when writing on politics, not to leap into the same few issues dear to my heart – in general, the negative effects of partisanship on our collective ability to find reasonable solutions to problems and the mistake of both parties in believing that spending money we don’t have in the hopes of creating a sustainable economy (value) is sustainable.

So, I’m going to try, really, really try not to slip down those paths, and just cover the topics of the past month or so for which I hope to have something to say you can’t read in the millions of other blogs out there.

Khalid Sheikh Mohmmamed

Presidents rarely do anything I like. Obama is no different. In fact, based on what I have seen so far, I suspect I may conclude someday that he is a worse president than even Bush II. Bush was in my opinion, the worst president of my lifetime, and yes, I am including Jimmy Carter. He was handed a golden if bitter opportunity for greatness when 9/11 occurred, but, instead of being Churchillian, he just tried to sound Churchillian, or his writers did, and he led us into two very badly run wars and much other nonsense I won’t go into here. I started blogging at a time when Democrats were regaining some power in government, and thus at a time when Bush was less powerful and therefore having his better years in my opinion, save the last few months of his administration when he engaged in the economic madness that I am trying to avoid discussing (and which Obama/Congress has multiplied fourfold). I have yet to chronicle Bush's eight years and might some day. No, he was not, in fact, up to the job, and I was not even then proud of my 2004 vote for him, which, had the Democrats put up someone other than Kerry, in my opinion one of the worst characters in politics, would not have been necessary for me or many others.

With Obama, I can find few things his administration has done (or not done) which either satisfies me or I find wise. Just thinking of the stimulus package, the continued bailouts, the looming health care fiasco, the parade of apologies on foreign soil, the middle east situation, the Iran situation, the Russian situation, the continued empty blather about what he is going to do for the middle class or gays in the military, etc., I can come up with little positive. Perhaps, as far as I know, the administrations efforts to keep the Mexican drug war out of the U.S. was successful. Given the state of the media - I am prepared to be disappointed.

So, it should be no surprise to me that he has decided to try Kalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) in a United States District Court. It is much like the apparent decision to warn combatants taken prisoner of their “rights”. A big mistake that must lead to problems down the road. The conservative criticism that liberals want to "criminalize" war is an accurate one.

There has been so much written on this already from people with a similar viewpoint to me, that I don’t want to go down that path to far. In short, it’s not a good idea, because it breaks with our law and our tradition that, at least, foreign combatants captured on a foreign battlefield, do not get the benefit of the U.S. judicial system. The trials should be held wherever our military or the commander-in-chief think best, and, arguably, when the conflict is over, or earlier if desired, be held before a military tribunal with the defendant given an opportunity to defend himself against charges of war crimes. Terrorism, obviously, is deemed a war crime by every nation. Indeed, even were KSM caught on our soil, the same rules should apply. In no manner do I understand how the Geneva Conventions might apply (although the Supreme Court seems to think so) except that I believe the prisoner's should not be tortured or abused (and I'm not engaging the incredibly rare, if ever, ticking time bomb situation here).

Whatever special rules are set for KSM's case, I fear we can count on a few things. The trial judge will almost certainly be on the prosecution team throughout the trial. Expect all but harmless rulings to go the defendant's way. The trial will likely be a show trial, made to have the trappings of justice, but few of the risks.

However, I do not believe (maybe I should have said hope) that the government would have decided on an Article III trial if they did not have rock solid, non-confessional evidence of KSM's guilt. But, someone, perhaps Obama and the AG, should have to write "Murphy's law is real" one hundred times on the blackboard, because something will certainly go wrong. There will be the inevitable fight over the defendant's constitutional rights. Indeed, if I were one of KSM's attorneys, I would raise every single constitutional defense I could think of including excessive bail (they couldn't take the chance he'd ever make it, even if a billion dollars).

There are two bad outcomes - a show trial of the type that found Saddam Hussein guilty or the O.J. civil wrongful death case, both of which were embarrassment to the legal profession, or, a bizzare acquital for lack of evidence and KSM being kept a prisoner anyway - something our legal system cannot countenance, but in his case, must. Even if his being convicted and sentenced to multiple murders is a more likely possibility, these are not risks that need be run. Other suspected terrorists have or are being tried under military courts, there is no good reason to try him otherwise. But, given sufficient reason to believe someone is Al Quaeda, they should be held indefinitely until AQ or its derivatives and imitators have largely ceased to operate. Admittedly, that will be difficult to tell, but this is a war they have chosen and we have to defend it.

At the very, very least, trying KSM in a military court would be a much better solution. I'm not suggesting that he not be given an opportunity to defend himself, and the notion that a military court has to be a kangaroo court is unfair and untrue. The rules should be clear and fair.

Carrie Prejean

Why is Carrie Prejean on my radar again? Are we serious? Do we really want to spend time wondering why a teenage beauty queen might have sent her boyfriend salacious images? It was bad enough when I heard her say at a speech that God had chosen her to say that marriage is between a man and a woman. At least God has a good eye for the chicks, I guess.

I've said this before, so I'll be brief. Carrie Prejean took, seemingly with humility and appreciation for hurt feelings, the same position as Barack Obama takes - marriage is only between a man and a woman. I disagree, but am greatly outnumbered by my fellow citizens who routinely defeat every opportunity to change the law. Her being denied the Miss America crown was wrong in my book - if you can get past how silly the whole contest is - but her lionization by the right is even sillier.

Her performance as a conservative speaker is, to be kind, an embarrassment to the conservative movement, and, were I Newt Gingrich, or Sarah Palin, I wouldn't want to be on the same stage with her. In fact, I'd be embarrassed.

But, of course, this is exactly the type of stuff that fascinates America. So, we are stuck with her for a while. At least she's nice to look at - but if we want beauty queens, we only need to turn on FoxNews.

Sarah Palin

When John McCain chose Sarah Palin for his running mate, I was surprised only because of the ongoing ethics investigation regarding her brother-in-law (which eventually went away). But, the public had made it clear that they were not interested in things like that or Jeremiah Wright or other side shows this election. I thought she was a good choice, in that she was a fresh face, and despite the unfamiliar accent, and colloquialisms, she spoke better than any of the three men in the race, much freer of wacky mistakes, if not as soaringly as Obama. I liked her anti-spending position and the fact that she wattacked people in her own party. Those both gets bonus points with me.

That was a first impression, of course. She wilted under the media attention. The Katie Couric interview was a disaster that just didn't have to be. Watching it made me think of the Titanic, if the captain had in fact seen the iceberg, but kept drifting towards it anyway. Could you not think of one newspaper or magazine? No doubt, she was following her handlers' advice. This is often a mistake for both presidential and vice presidential candidates, but one that is inevitable in our scripted phony times.

I do believe there has never been a worse roasting of a major candidate than the press gave Palin - it was never fair, and ridiculous rumors about her, it seems mostly, if not all untrue, were given credence by both the media and the left. My opinion - if everything about her was the same except she was pro-choice, the media and the left would have loved her and the right would have dismissed her. Such is the power of the abortion issue in American politics. Everything is colored by it even when it is not a campaign issue itself.

I have heard a number of people say they decided to vote for Obama after McCain had chosen her. The people I've met anyway, who say that, have in most cases never voted for a Republican candidate for president anyway. The polls show she had no more impact on the race than Biden did. People voted for Obama because they hated George Bush or because of the economy or because they wanted the ill-defined "change". Also, I think, because of the horrible campaign run by McCain's team who tried to help him win the election - unfortunately, it seemed like that election was the 2000 Republican primary.

I believe very few of the negatives I hear about Palin. I have never, for example, seen any indication that she wants to force people to be Christians, although I've certainly heard that from people on the left (in fact, it is just moronic). Nevertheless, her post-campaign existence has far from impressed me. She has been full of excuses and recriminations, won't acknowledge a mistake (even that she was awful in the Couric interview), and, she gave up her governorship to be a media personality and cash in on her memoirs.

It is not clear whether she will be a candidate in 2012. Right now, many on the right seem enamoured of her, at least social conservatives. I don't understand why they believe the crucial independent block will vote for her for president. Yes, Obama also had very little experience when he ran for president, but now he has experience few people in the world have had and none of them will be candidates. But, she quit halfway through her first term as governor for no explained reason. In fact, the speech she made to explain it may best be described as double tongued, cross-fingered gobbledy goop. There's always a second act in American politics, but the right is making a mistake if they adopt her in 2012.

For the far right, she will be a vindiction of what they believe in most - pro-life and pro-christian values, states' rights and Hayekian economics. Even independents and moderates who believe that Obama has not performed well will stick with him rather than vote for someone who gave up her one ticket to the show.

The truth is, as I pointed out ad nauseum during the campaign season, neither Republicans nor Democrats really care about experience - they care the candidate agrees with them on a few core issues. Governing experience is, in reality, no more important than most political rhetoric.

The Health Care Police

There are so many issues with health care it is a virtual blogging embarrassment of riches. Two stand out with me. First, the suggestion that health care will pay for itself by reducing fraud and waste is so laughable, we need to all stop and give a collective hardy har har har har har. If that were true, the good news is that we will be able to make medicare, medicaid and social security solvent again the same way. Imagine, no more problem with the defense budget. There's tons of fraud and waste we can collect there. Okay, joke over. Not funny. Health care reforms will add to our budget and our deficit. The truth is, few politicians on either side of the aisle have ever cared about the deficit, believing we will eventually grow our way out of it. That, after all, is what the Reaganites were saying back in the 80s.

The problem is, our deficit now far exceeds all prior deficits for the last century, except for the time period of the two world wars. Far, far, far exceeds. In fact, even in the 80s, the highest deficit/gdp ratio was far less than half of what it is now.

And what of the threat in the pending bill - pay for health insurance or go to jail. Probably you've seen the video where Nancy Pelosi said that this was fair. It doesn't seem fair to me. Those backing her suggested it's like the requirement in many states that we buy car insurance. Except, that's only for people who want to own and drive a car. No one else has to do it.

But, opponents of the provision make too much of it as well. They even claim it is unconstitutional to do so, forgetting that the government could, constitutionally, tax 100% of your income and has since almost the beginning required things of its citizens which would make the founders spin so fast in their graves we could probably use it for a renewable power source. The belief that this provision is unconstitutional goes along with the frequent absurd notion that if people don't like something, it must be unconstitutional, and if they do like it, it is. Of course, the constitution has become so divorced from the original meaning and intentions, it is as much an unwritten constitution now as a written one. Perhaps it always was. This notion of mine is not too popular, but I think, rationally, it is inarguable.

If the federal government wants to, it can draft you, and no one now would seriously claim that as being unconstitutional. It can force farmers to grow what it wants them to grow and regulate pretty much anything it wants to, tax you to paupery, make civil fines where criminal ones aren't available, criminalize normal activities, forbid you from the most personal of choices. If the government can force you to wear a seatbelt, tell you you have to racially balance hiring, require you to go to school, it can certainly require you to buy health insurance.

We don't have to like it.

Marijuana

I really don't know much about marijuana. If you put some tobacco in front of me along side it, I probably couldn't tell the difference. About 15 years ago, a date of mine was in stitches because I referred to a joint as "a marijuana cigarette". Just never been interested in it.

But, as much as the whole marijuana culture turns me off - the "oh, wow man," mentality always left me cold, and I could never figure out what it was people were getting out of it to begin with (I do realize I'm a "fag" and you are all laughing at me), I still do not understand why pot is illegal and alcohol is not. Forgetting for a minute that driving while under the influence, which I'm fine with, give me a choice between a road filled with drivers high on pot or alcohol, and I'd rather every one light up instead of drink up. Frankly, I think we should do away with most crimes of possession for personal drug use, but I'll be happy if we start with pot, even if it's not for me.

Don't get me wrong. I generally think it's bad for you. But, just as Prosac and the like has improved many people's lives, maybe some people need pot for the same reason. Shouldn't we be free to screw up our lives as we see fit, like I do by ingesting large amounts of refined sugar, bread and McDonalds whenever I break my diet. When they make that illegal - then comes the revolution.

California and a few other places have had medical marijuana available for a long time but the federal government didn't care and arrested people anyway based on federal laws. When the matter came up to the Supreme Court, it ruled that since federal government laws trump state laws and the feds had the right to raid and arrest (Gonzales v. Raich [2005]). That's certainly a correct decision legally, but, given the innocuousness of the "crime," it just seemed ridiculous to many people like myself. The Obama administration justice department has reversed the previous policy and has announced it will no longer enforce its laws against medical marijuana sellers and users in state's where it is legal. And the Supreme Court itself has turned down a recent appeal by a California anti-marijuana county. I applaud that. Not only is there greater liberty, but it means more tax revenues and we sure need that. Will California turn into a state filled with pot smoking morons? Maybe, but maybe it will be hard to tell the difference.

Burn the Witch

I'm not a Nancy Pelosi fan. I'm not a fan of most politicians. But, the recent decision by the tea-baggers not to burn her in effigy was a good one. Seriously, what were they thinking? Do I really need to blog on this one, or will all of you at least give me on pass and just say "Amen"?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Holy Moley

Today I’d like to look at two court cases, one which was recently argued in front of the Supreme Court of the United States and one which was recently decided in a high court in England.

The first amendment states in part – “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof". The first part is called the establishment clause and the second part the free exercise clause. If you can’t figure out why, read it again.

That seems straightforward enough, and I’m pretty sure the founders thought that it would be easy to work with. After all, at the time, it applied solely to the federal government, and the states were free to establish and prohibit away, although they tended even by then towards the same principals in their own constitutions or laws. They just didn’t want an American version of the Church of England.

Of course, nothing is as simple as it looks. There were, actually, very few establishment or free exercise problems in America, and few Supreme Court cases too, until the 20th century (actually, the first Supreme Court opinion concerning religion and government finance was in 1899), when the federal government gained even greater powers and began to spend in such a manner that interaction with religion became unavoidable.

With spending came the problem of what happens when the government does so in a way that effects religious institutions or practices. This has been handled by the Supreme Court in such an inconsistent and juridically schizophrenic manner as to satisfy no one and offend practically everyone at one time or another. But, the way they handle financial issues is methodical and astute compared to the way they handle government use of religious symbols. The last major religious issue – prayer in school – has actually been handled somewhat more consistently – although this is probably the most controversial issue of all.

The question of the wall has been central to the dichotomy of interests in this subject. By wall, I mean the “wall of separation between church and State,” conceived by Jefferson as a metaphor for the first amendment religious clauses in a letter to a New England congregation. And, although his little buddy, Madison, probably thought deeper and wrote more about governmental religious interaction than Jefferson, it was the renowned Sage of Monticello (I will not take this opportunity to bash Jefferson, as usual) who has captured the public imagination on it as well as that of many judges thanks to his ability to turn a phrase.

The “Wall,” some protest, is not enshrined in the constitution, and inaccurate. However, the concept has come up in many constitutional cases and virtually always with approval, the first time in 1878 (I count 25 instances in Supreme Court cases). However, nothing in the law is ever so rigid as not to admit of exceptions or, at least, “fuzziness”. Thus, in the famous “Lemon” case (named after a person, not a fruit), the court opined:

“Our prior holdings do not call for total separation between church and state; total separation is not possible in an absolute sense. Some relationship between government and religious organizations is inevitable. . . Judicial caveats against entanglement must recognize that the line of separation, far from being a ‘wall,’ is a blurred, indistinct, and variable barrier depending on all the circumstances of a particular relationship.”

Two ideologies have developed concerning this issue that are somewhat coordinate with liberalism and conservatism. Separationists are those who tend to believe in a firmer higher wall and emphasize the establishment clause. Accomodationists tend to believe that the first amendment means only that the government can’t prefer one religion or sect to another, and, that the government can accommodate religion in general. They emphasize the free exercise clause. If I were so foolish as to label myself, I would say I tend to a separationist view, but with a wall that melts a little in the sun. There is room in my jurisprudence for accomodation as well, as long as the tail doesn’t wag the dog. Of course, the more extreme separationists or accomodationists would probably not believe I was wishy washy at all, but firmly committed to the wrong side.

Freedom of conscience is high among the most important of our rights, and religious belief is certainly a form of conscience, as that term is meant when used in this way. The founders seem to recognize that government involvement with religion hurt both institutions and they singled it out as being a special problem and therefore having a special status. Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance is the most famous writing on this topic although it reads like a lead balloon compared to Jefferson's flowing prose.

The problem in judging first amendment arises because quite often the two clauses are not mutually exclusive. There is a ying/yang thing to it which many judges recognize as problematic. Enforcing one clause often has a negative effect on the other clause. To come to a decision some seek a compromise position and recognize their inability to do otherwise. As Chief Justice Burger wrote in a case concerning the right of Wisconsin to require children to be educated until 16 as opposed to the rights of the Amish to continue to have their tradition of older children working at home:

“By preserving doctrinal flexibility and recognizing the need for a sensible and realistic application of the Religion Clauses,

‘we have been able to chart a course that preserved the autonomy and freedom of religious bodies while avoiding any semblance of established religion. This is a “tight rope,” and one we have successfully traversed.’”

Naturally, this doesn’t please everyone and like most cases in America, you can probably find something like a rough 50/50 split. But, let’s get to the cases.

Salazar v. Buono was just argued before our high court. It concerns an issue which has been well covered before, the use of religious symbols on government property, with a twist. In this case, a cross, obviously a Christian symbol, has sat in the vast 2500 square mile Mojave National Preserve in California, originally put there by the VFW in 1934. In a remote spot, it has been used as a site for religious services on Easter pretty much since then. In 1999 there was a request to put up a Buddhist Memorial. The national park service declined but also said it was taking the cross down. The next year, however, congress legislated that federal funds couldn’t be used to take it down.

The following year, Frank Buono, a former park superintendant who regularly visited, sued to have the cross removed, stating that he, a Catholic, was not offended by the cross or any religious displays on government land for that matter, but he was offended because other religious groups couldn’t put their monuments up. The lower court found that he had the right not to be subjected to an offensive religious display and thus standing to bring the case (“standing” essentially meaning sufficient injury to sue). It also found that the purpose of the cross was to advance religion and therefore violated the establishment clause. But while the appeal was pending, congress legislated that the land be sold to the VFW in exchange for a few similar acres owned by the VFW but that if it was not used as a war memorial, it should revert to congress.

The court of appeals affirmed the lower court’s order that he had the right to sue and that the cross violated the establishment clause. Buono went back to the district court which then held congress’s attempt to sell the property to the VFW unconstitutional, because congress was obviously controlling the land, by requiring the land to be used as a war memorial (for which they would use a cross, naturally, as it is a classic war memorial) and taking the property back if it wasn’t used for that purpose. Again the court of appeals affirmed.

The questions before the Supreme Court might disappoint court watchers. The issue is not whether the cross was unconstitutional. It seems that the U.S. Department of Interior (Commisioner Salazar) didn’t want to pick that fight. They instead chose two safer routes – that Buono’s beliefs were ideological, not religious, and that there was no injured plaintiff (the usual requirement to have standing in most cases). Additionally, the govenment claimed that the sale of the property to a private group cures any constitutional problem.

The matter was argued by the Supreme Court this past week. Justice Scalia, who I have sometimes defended for what I believe are unfair attacks against him, was quite inconsistent with his famous jurisprudence which, among other things, insists that the court only to determine the arguments before it (as its rules state). For example, when the most recent abortion case came before the court a few years ago, he and Thomas both wrote that they believed that congress was without power to make such a law concerning abortion, an issue which was within the sole province of the states. However, as no party raised the issue, they could not rule that way (naturally, had they, they would have to find a federal abortion law they liked unconstitutional). Here, the issue of whether the cross itself was unconstitutional was not raised by any party and the rest of the justices did restrict themselves to the questions before them during oral argument (except perhaps Thomas who remains silent during oral argument). Scalia, however, kept trying to bring the issue back to whether the cross itself was a violation of the constitution, despite the fact that it is not before the court.

We have to wait for the court to rule. As with most controversial cases, it would not be hard to suspect that the conservatives would go one way and the liberals the other, with the “soft” conservative, Kennedy, making the deciding vote one way or the other. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Kennedy will get this right and vote that congress’s purported sale was a see-throughable attempt to circumvent the first amendment establishment clause. Their refusal to allow the park department to use funds to remove the cross is a perfect example of what happens when there is religious-governmental entanglement – it snowballs. The further act of the purported sale to the VFW is precisely what the government claims it is not – a sham. In fact, it is such an obvious sham, that I cannot help imagining how the same lawyers arguing for the government here would howl if a defendant in a criminal case tried to claim it did not violate a crime by such an obvious ruse.

My guess is that Scalia and Thomas will argue that lower court was wrong about the cross being a violation of the first amendment in the first place even though this was not argued before the court. And they, and Roberts and Alito might argue that there is no standing as there really isn’t any injury to Buono. It certainly is hard to argue there really is. Obviously, anyone can be offended by anything. There would be a stronger argument for Buono if he had been refused to put up his own monument for religious reasons.

However, sometimes the court has extended standing to first amendment religion cases, without the requisite “injury” component, because it recognized that by holding citizens to this standard, there would be almost no curbing congress from violating the first amendment whenever it wanted, free of any check by the court. Although a couple of years ago a HORRIBLE decision by the court stepped back this judicial rule where the rule challenged was an executive order instead of a legislative act, but, it would probably require Kennedy to go there too. I view him as the equalizer on the court and I would be quite disappointed in him if he does.

The second case comes from Britain. There is no first amendment in Britain and although their unwritten constitution provides for religious freedom, it is not the same thing. Keep in mind, in Britain the Church of England still has some power and input into government. However, as I have no expertise at all in British religious freedom law, I will look at the case more from the policy point of view. That is, what should Britain do?

The case in question, decided this year, actually determined what a Jew is. I kid you not, the government of Britain, in the guise of avoiding discrimination, now determines what a Jew is. It wouldn’t matter to me whether they wanted to determine what a Muslim or a Christian or Buddhist is either. The fact is, the worst thing Britain could have done, even with its continued allowance of privilege to the Church of England, was to stick its governmental nose into religious beliefs. I imagine John Wyclif is rolling in his grave.

Here’s the case. An religious Jewish family applied for their 12 year son to go to the Jews’ Free School, which has been in since George Washington was born. Although the school may not always reject students because of religion, under the law it can give preference to Jews when it has more applicants than open spots. He was rejected because although his father was born a Jew, his mother is a convert. The Orthodox Jewish school believes that because she was not converted in an orthodox church, her son isn't Jewish.

It is amazing, in the country which inspired the notion of freedom in America and therefore throughout the world, it has been determined that a religion determining who is a member of its own group is discriminatory.

I cannot even comprehend the underlying ruling here. According to the court, the school did not determine admission based on the woman’s religion, since she practiced what she (and apparently the government) considered Judiasm, so that it must be based on her ethnicity – that is, she wasn’t born Jewish. This violated a national law known as the Race Relations Act, which, obviously concerns ethnic discrimination.

I do not argue, of course, that religious groups should be able to practice actual unlawful discrimination any more than any other group, but this ruling is not even internally consistent, as it cannot be contradicted that had she simply been converted in the Orthodox Jewish tradition, he would have been admitted. Thus, there clearly was no ethnic discrimination.

"If there is one thing that should be sacrosanct, it is who we “hang out with,” who we associate with, and who we deem, rationally or irrationally, to be a member of our own group.

The consequences of this are extraordinary. It means that one group of Jews may not distinguish itself from another by limiting its membership in a manner of which the government doesn’t approve. Once the principle is established, it means that not only are divisions within a religion safe, but in fact, no religious group, even the major religions, can be safe from evaporation by expansion of its membership by government decree. Although it is doubtful at this juncture in history, could it not be determined that all of the religions of which Abraham is the father figure, cannot distinguish itself from the members of another group. And, if that happens, won’t the most popular of the religions essentially be able to swallow the others? This is not as far fetched as it might seem. Despite Britain’s permissiveness to the Church of England, this is a serious blow to religious freedom. The trend towards government control of religion is one for which religious and other leaders in England and America, as well as other countries have long fought.


"There is an appeal pending to Britain’s high court, and I hope reason prevails. If not, in Britain, parliament is more powerful than any court. If it must, it should legislate an exception to its discrimination laws such that religious groups may set their own rules for admission. Likely that would forbid discrimination because of actual ethnicity. Although I would disapprove of any religion which discriminated on that basis, I would not be in favor of such a restriction. However, it would be better than the law which prevails now as interpreted by this court."

Despite our courts’ own wrestling with the first amendment, I do not believe a decision like this would have a prayer (pun intended) in the good ‘ole US of A.

The first amendment is certainly one way in which our government is superior to that of its parent. I will leave you with some words from Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance:

"Because Religion be exempt from the authority of the Society at large, still less can it be subject to that of the Legislative Body. The latter are but the creatures and vicegerents of the former. Their jurisdiction is both derivative and limited: it is limited with regard to the co-ordinate departments, more necessarily is it limited with regard to the constituents. The preservation of a free Government requires not merely, that the metes and bounds which separate each department of power be invariably maintained; but more especially that neither of them be suffered to overleap the great Barrier which defends the rights of the people. The Rulers who are guilty of such an encroachment, exceed the commission from which they derive their authority, and are Tyrants. The People who submit to it are governed by laws made neither by themselves nor by an authority derived from them, and are slaves."

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Cheerful news for the Brothers Grimm

There once was a shoemaker, who, through no fault of his own, became so poor that at last he had nothing left but just enough leather to make one pair of shoes. He cut out the shoes at night, so as to set to work upon them next morning; and as he had a good conscience, he laid himself quietly down in his bed, committed himself to heaven, and fell asleep.

From the Elves and the Shoemaker

I thought that someone had sleighted two second tier heroes of mine in a comment on this blog, but, since my internal search came up empty for "Grimm," it was apparently either another blog I read or I imagined my heroes being sleighted so I can write about them. I'm betting on the first. But, the brothers, Jacob (some use Jakob) and Wilhelm were not some Hansel-come-latelies who penned or collected a few fairy tales in the way some hack editor might do if assigned it by a publisher. They were actually two of the most important literary figures from the early through middle 19th century and thereafter. Moreover, as far as I know, unlike say Hans Christian Anderson, they wrote no tales of their own. This post is dedicated to rounding out the picture of the two brothers, who are almost exclusively known for the fairy and folk tales, as the great scholars they were.

The boys were born a year apart in the 1780s in Germany, the second and third of eight brothers and one sister, six of whom survived infancy. Throughout their lives the two surviving oldest siblings worked together and lived together. Wilhelm often followed Jacob, and certainly Jacob was the greater of the two in all but his own reckoning, and he was probably just being humble out of affection for his brother. When Jacob went to law school, Wilhelm followed him. And when in law school Jacob was led by a professor to a deep interest in literature, Wilhelm followed him in that too. They never looked back on a legal career. Jacob became a librarian and then Wilhelm did. They moved to Gottingen to become librarians and professors there. Later, after they were dismissed for political reasons, Berlin finally called, and they went there together.

The brothers began to publish fairy and folk tales they had collected from word of mouth in the early 1800s, when their country was under the Napoleon’s control. The first two volumes were roughly coincident with the last few years of his reign - 1812-1815, and many editions followed over the years, with something over 200 tales collected. Nowadays, we mostly just refer to any of these collections as Tales from the Brothers Grimm or something similar. The family of Wilhelm’s wife (Jacob was always a bachelor), Dortchen, who cared for both men most of her life even though being frequently ill herself, provided a number of them.

It would be hard to say that the Germanic world has brought us many longer lived and popular books than these. They have been published all over the world. Disney built a company on the Brothers’ Grimm’s backs with his great triumvirate of damsels in distress – Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. Children of my generation, at least, read many more – Rumpelstiltskin, Little Red Riding Hood, The Elves and the Shoemaker, Tom Thumb, Hansel and Gretel and Iron John are all familiar to those my age and prettified versions are probably told or read to kids today. Although the Grimms' tales as they wrote them still sell quite well, I’m guessing that they are most often given as gifts these days, almost like coffee table books, and I wonder if modern American parenting allows for the telling of these often violent tales to their little princes and princesses. I’d say not so much, but that’s a guess and, of course, a generalization. But, I stopped giving it as a gift years ago, when I realized it would not be read to the kiddies.

Here’s the end from one of my favorites of their tales, although really only because modern political correctness makes it so offensive – The Jew Among Thorns.

"At length the judge cried, quite out of breath, “I will give you your life if you will only stop fiddling.” The good servant thereupon had compassion, took his fiddle and hung it round his neck again, and stepped down the ladder. Then he went up to the Jew who was lying upon the ground panting for breath, and said, “You rascal, now confess, whence you got the money, or I will take my fiddle and begin to play again.” “I stole it. I stole it!” cried he; “but you have honestly earned it.” So the judge had the Jew taken to the gallows and hanged as a thief."

The whole idea for the Grimms was to explore and preserve their beloved German literature. They spent their entire lives revising and re-editing the tales. But, when they weren’t working on them, they were producing far more material spanning the entire German history. Other than Goethe and a few other great names, they virtually became German literature. And who reads Goethe anymore?

A few years after they started collecting and publishing folk and fairy tales they published a couple of volumes on German legends and this time there were hundreds of them. Besides, they didn’t just collect all of these tales; they analyzed and edited them, trying to whittle them down to their original form to the best it seemed possible (although Wilhelm was interested in poetic renderings too). Despite frequent sickness, the unrelated work they had to do for money to survive, family and social responsibilities, their corpus of work was astonishing.

While the tales are their most popular contributions to literature, other work was much more scholarly and at least as important. Together they wrote a number of works like Old German Forests aka Old German Miscellany, a collection of essays with which they began their literary dissection of old German mythology and language and a volume of lays from the Elder Edda, a collection itself whose origins are uncertain and which I sometimes loosely describe as the Germanic Bible. But the most important work they did together outside of collecting and editing the tales was the German Dictionary. Not surprising, they are little known for this outside of Germany as you have to read German to use it.

The work is important for several reasons. It was begun when the Grimms were already in their 50s and was, in some ways, a culmination of their work, particularly Jacob’s. It sought not just to define words, but to the extent possible, to try and find the first uses of the words in print. To acccomplish this, just as editors of the Oxford English Dictionary would later do, they used correspondents who would read and report to the Grimms on what they found. Not surprisingly, they could not complete this astonishing enterprise in the time they had left – Jacob died in 1863 when they were only up to "F". In fact, he was working on the entry “”frucht” (“fruit”) when he died. However, they began the German Dictionary many decades before the British began theirs, and the latter owed much to the former. The German Dictionary was not published until 1960, almost a full century after Jacob died. It may be virtually unknown in America, and, obviously, there is no rationale to have an English translation, but it is famous throughout the German speaking world and also in philological circles. Even if the Brothers Grimm had not published the fairy and folk tales, they should be just as famous for the dictionary, which they worked on for over two decades.

By the time they began the dictionary, they were already quite celebrated. Of the two, Jacob was the more revered, but not just because he was a little older. He was the more interested of the two in uncovering the roots of the German language and its history. Wilhelm was interested in that too, but, just as he was the more social of the two, and the one with a family (which Jacob got the advantage of as well), he was also more interested in the poetry and story aspects of older German literature. Much of his solo work was related to those interests – Old Danish Heroic Lays, Ballads and Folktales; On German Runes; and, The German Heroic Legend, which was considered by Jacob and most of Wilhelm's followers, his greatest achievement. It includes a study of the Nibelungenlied, a wonderful epic (and a great favorite of your legendary hero loving blogger) still published in America, but little appreciated here. Wilhelm was ahead of his time in his understanding of it, recognizing it to be of German origin, and not a Scandinavian work as scholars and the public then thought.

But, Jacob’s work was more ground-breaking. I came to know the Grimms' history through my interest in philology and mythology, the same interests which make Tolkien's works so fascinating to me. Jacob's German Grammar, written in 4 volumes over the course of 18 years, made him a giant of philology. His most important contribution is known as Grimm’s law. Like so many discoveries, it did not begin with him. Other seminal German philologists had formulated a law concerning the way sounds have systematically changed from the proto-Indo-European language that they believe preceded virtually all European and many other languages (still a theory, but largely accepted as true - I slightly disagree with the prevalent theory but won't bore you here; someday I probably will bore you with it - and that's a threat). Jacob greatly expanded the law and is credited with “the first non-trivial systematic sound changes to be discovered in linguistics”. I put that description in quotes although I have failed to track down the origin of it; but I have seen it described thus in a number of sources, and it has to come from somewhere. Jacob himself called his contribution Grimm’s law of Permutation of Consonants.

Since the description of it was rather dry, I’ll give a couple of examples with some familiar words from Halsey’s Etymology of Latin and Greek written in 1882 (which, by the way, to show the loss of quality in bookbinding over time, my copy of Halsey is in much better condition than many of my books published very recently), examining the changes of consonants for the same word in Greek, Latin, English and German.

(Grk) thugater (Lat) -- (Eng) daughter (Ger) tochter

(Grk) odous (Lat) dens (Eng) tooth (Ger) Zahn

(Grk) tu (Lat) tu (Eng) thou (Ger) du

I don’t want to dumb down Jacob’s inspirational scholarship. It was a lot more complex, and, it seems obvious once someone figures it out. Philology is not exactly a popular field, and this might not excite you too much. But, even now, for philologists, Grimm's Law is considered a staggering achievement which led to so many other developments.

And although German Grammar and Grimm’s law were perhaps Jacob’s greatest solo achievement, he made many others, particularly in books titled German Legal Antiquities, German Mythology, and finally, History of the German Language.

German Mythology stands out in my mind. There is no Grimm’s Law to pull out from it, but it was still of great importance, if only because he applied scholarly techniques to a subject that had little of it previously. Today we have many sources for stories about the Norse or Germanic gods and other tales on our bookshelves. But his was the first clear, well-researched work on the subject. He connected German mythology to Roman descriptions of their northern neighbors, covered the great gods like Wotan and Thor as well as the sprites and elves, and spent a lot of time on linguistic aspects, which, given his expertise, is not surprising. As far as I can see, Jacob’s point in much of his work seems threefold – to impart the substantive scholarship, to show the depth and richness of the Old German culture (as opposed to the barbarian civilization the Romans described and which was still believed) and also to show that that the popular culture of his day was derived from their own ancient culture - in other words, they shouldn't be skipping right from the Romans to modern Europeans -- the old German contribution was immense.

The major modern scholarly work on German mythology by the Dutchman, Jan de Vries, is considered by many to be a continuation of Grimm’s work. German Mythology is still published, last in 2004, although thanks to the first translation in the 1880’s, it is usually titled Teutonic Mythology. Frankly, there’s much in the work that has been criticized as just plain wrong, but with seminal works in any field, that is typical. It was still a substantial advance from previous work. In fact, to this day much of modern study in German mythology is based on Jacob’s work.

There are other aspects of both Grimm’s work which are worth discussing, but the above should make my point. Of course, I’ve only included the brothers’ major works. I've left out a major political escapade where the Grimms were thrown out of a university because they protested a king who revoked the local constitution and released them from vows they did not think he could legally do. Now, a small footnote in history, it was of tremendous consequence to them and colored the rest of their lives. During the failed revolutions of 1848 and an early attempt to unite Germany, Jacob was elected to represent the district where he grew up in the new parliament, although, in reality, he was ill suited for it and soon lost interest. But, they were not really political, and for what it is worth, they were very conservative, monarchistic and anti-republican. I also haven't touched on their family relationship, which was quite benevolent, from what I can see. They were best friends as well as brothers, and when Wilhelm died a few years before Jacob, it was quite sad for him. He took a portrait of his brother to bed before he died.

And, for what it is worth, the brothers were greatly celebrated in their own day, not just in Germany, but throughout Europe, particularly Jacob. In Spring, 1841, he received the French Cross of the Legion of Honor and the next year he received Prussia’s first Pour le Mérite for arts and science. In 1846, a large group of German scholars from many fields dedicated to German unity assembled for a conference. They unanimously elected Jacob their president by acclaim.

But, as I like to say - this isn't Wikipedia, so I refer you to a few available biographies - I haven't read them all - but neither of the two I did read (Peppard's Paths through the Forest is the only one I know by name) are worthy of a recommendation, and the websites, which mostly concern the tales.

Here, I just wanted to shed some light on how important the Grimms were to literary scholarship - particularly in philology and mythology, two of my favorite subjects. Unlike other past figures I've highlighted in this blog, the Grimms are actually famous and celebrated, and I am not in any way diminishing their work on the tales, as those are very important and scholarly too, despite their entertainment value. So, I'm not complaining, just expanding.

About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .