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.

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 . . . .