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.

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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 . . . .