Saturday, July 4, 2015

Rereading Dana

The Yankee pride in knowing how to doing things, and in doing them well, runs through Two Years Before the Mast. Shortly after the ship's arrival in California, it arrives in Monterey, and
I also connected with our arrival here another circumstance which more nearly concerns myself; viz, my first act of what the sailors will allow to be seamanship--sending down a royal-yard. I had seen it done once or twice at sea, and an old sailor, whose favor I had taken some pains to gain, had taught me carefully everything which was necessary to be done, and in its proper order, and advised me to take the first opportunity when we were in port, and try it. I told the second mate, with whom I had been pretty thick when he was before the mast, that I would do it, and got him to ask the mate to send me up the first time they were struck. Accordingly I was called upon, and went up, repeating the operations over in my mind, taking care to get everything in its order, for the slightest mistake spoils the whole. Fortunately, I got through without any word from the officer, and heard the "well done" of the mate, when the yard reached the deck, with as much satisfaction as I ever felt at Cambridge on seeing a "bene" at the foot of a Latin exercise.
Doing things better than others adds to the pride:
There we found the brig which we had assisted in getting off lying at anchor, with a mixed crew of Americans, English, Sandwich Islanders, Spaniards, and Spanish Indians; and, though much smaller than we, yet she had three times the number of men; and she needed them, for her officers were Californians. No vessels in the world go so sparingly manned as American and English; and none do so well. A Yankee brig of that size would have had a crew of four men, and would have worked round and round her. The Italian ship had a crew of thirty men; nearly three times as many as the Alert, which was afterwards on the coast, and was of the same size; yet the Alert would get under weigh and come-to in half the time, and get two anchors, while they were all talking at once--jabbering like a parcel of "Yahoos," and running about decks to find their cat-block.
The others can as easily be Russians, Yankee whalers with a crew mostly of country boys who "hadn't got the hayseed out of their hair",  or much later a midshipman of the United States Navy, who "could not tell ladies the length of a fathom, and said it depended on circumstances."

Dana does concede the Californians superiority in riding
There are probably no better riders in the world. They get upon a horse when only four or five years old, their little legs not long enough to come half way over his sides; and may almost be said to keep on him until they have grown to him.... They can hardly go from one house to another without getting on a horse, there being generally several standing tied to the door-posts of the little cottages.
and in dancing
... we were invited, from every quarter, to give them an American sailor's dance; but after the ridiculous figure some of our countrymen cut, in dancing after the Spaniards, we thought it best to leave it to their imaginations. Our agent, with a tight, black, swallow-tailed coat, just imported from Boston, a high stiff cravat, looking as if he had been pinned and skewered, with only his feet and hands left free, took the floor just after Bandini; and we thought they had had enough of Yankee grace.
But what are riding and dancing to seamanship and boat handling? In general, his references to the Mexican population of California are slightly contemptuous.

Richard Henry Dana, Jr. shipped as a common seaman, "before the mast" in August 1834
from a determination to cure, if possible, by an entire change of life, and by a long absence from books and study, a weakness of the eyes, which had obliged me to give up my pursuits, and which no medical aid seemed likely to cure
He returned in September 1836, having spent nearly a year and a half on the coast of California, between San Diego and San Francisco Bay, and having in Santa Barbara read an account of the graduation of his class at Harvard. In the California of the middle 1830s, the site of the modern San  Francisco was occupied by a mission and the board house of a Yankee trader. Los Angeles was "the Pueblo" (which once gets its almost full title  "Pueblo de los Angeles"), an inconvenient thirty miles from the bad roadstead of San Pedro. Monterey was the capital of the province.

Home, he finished his undergraduate work at Harvard and entered its law school. His legal practice specialized, not surprisingly, in maritime law. He served as United States Attorney for Massachusetts during Lincoln's administration, having been active in the Free Soil movement, and in efforts to protect the free Negroes of Massachusetts from the effects of the Fugitive Slave Act. He did well enough as a lawyer, but would probably have been happier as a scholar and writer.  He returned to California, by then a state, for a brief visit in 1859, and found San Francisco changed out of recognition, San Diego hardly at all.

D.H. Lawrence speaks well of  Two Years Before the Mast in his Studies in the Classic American Literature. Simon Leys translated it into French, and in his The Hall of Uselessness includes a concise account of Dana's life and writings, crediting him with establish the rule that ships under sail have the right of way against those using power.

The copy I have been reading, purchased at the end of the 1960s serves well enough. Somebody should bring out an annotated edition that would carefully explain, with illustrations, the technical terms. I know well enough what a fathom is, and even a studding sail yard,  but have to guess at plenty of other terms. The Library of America publishes Two  Years along with two other books of travel Dana wrote. They might better publish it with The Seaman's Friend, a book of

Tuesday, June 23, 2015


Recently while talking to neighbors I noticed a squash racket placed on the transom over their front door. I asked whether birds had been trying to nest there: Yes, and succeeded. I took a few steps east, and  could see the robin's nest nestled among the objects that they had placed there to keep the robins away.

We had a robin or robins trying to nest on our transom for a while this spring. We put up garden tools and scrap metal, we discarded the bits of nest that we found, and eventually we put bird spikes in place. Perhaps the bird spikes worked, perhaps the robins had simply found a better place to go, to the neighbor's house perhaps. I suspect they succeeded across the street because the family was out of town for a weekend. Considering the amount of nesting material that ended up on our porch, I don't think that a ledge so narrow is the best place to build a nest. Yet it is out of the weather and must be hard for predators to reach.

In the back yard, we have a metal arch next to the garage, over which we have trained a couple of rose bushes. Last fall, when the leaves had fallen, I notice a nest near the top of the arch. It struck me as a good spot, for I couldn't imagine a cat pressing through rose branches to get to it. This spring the nest was in use for a while--a robin in it cried out in indignation and flew off when I tried to take a picture of it. It seems to be disused now; a brood would have had time to grow up and fly off. In the meantime, the nest looks like this:

Monday, June 15, 2015

Fine Writing

This week, I noticed in Mme. de Stael's De L'Allemagne, in her chapter on Schiller's plays Wallenstein and Mary Stuart,
Nothing is easier than to compose what people call brilliant verses: there are ready-made machines for that...
(She thought, by the way, that the French were given to this, and that Schiller was not.)

Not that long ago, I encountered in Wilfrid Sheed's Frank and Maisie: A Memoir with Parents the tutor,
a third gloomy genius dressed entirely in gray who cured me forever of fine writing with one offhand sentence. "This sort of thing is much easier to do than many people suppose."
In English, I suppose, the model for such advice comes from Samuel Johnson, quoted by Boswell on April 30, 1773:
 I would say to Robertson what an old tutor of a college said to one of his pupils: "Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out."

Thursday, June 11, 2015


On a recent Sunday afternoon I noticed a boy across the street, about four years old, helping to guide the weed whacker that his father operated. I should say that hHe had on eye protection and was well back from the spinning strings. It occurred to me that if I lacked enthusiasm for lawn care in my childhood, it might have been because the tools of the day made less noise and offered fewer dangers. But as far as I can remember, I regarded lawn care as something invented for the oppression of young boys, something that ate up time in weeding or mowing when I could have been doing something else. I don't think that it occurred to me much to relate the mowing to the possibility of playing football, kickball, whiffle ball or tag on that lawn.

For many years, I didn't do much, or any lawn care. Under the trees in Takoma Park, grass grows slowly and sparse. Every three weeks would have kept the lawn more or less decent, and sometimes I managed that. After that, we lived in an apartment and then in a townhouse development, where contractors cared for the lawns. When we first moved here, we used a mowing service until the proprietor ceased to answer phone calls.

This my fourth season of mowing. I expect that I could think up as many alternatives to mowing as I did in my childhood, but I don't much mind it. It is time outside, for one thing. For another, there is the satisfaction of seeing the lawn look better. I suppose that I am turning into the suburbanite who looks censoriously at uncut lawns.

I haven't played kickball in forty-five years, touch football in thirty. Yet I am concerned for the grass and worry a bit when my wife speaks of encroaching on it with new or enlarged flower beds. Grass is good ground cover all year, whether growing or dormant, and the dirt on which it grows won't wash away. Grass does not require mulching, so leaves raked off the grass do not bring mulch along with them. In this climate one need not water grass; it will become yellow in the high summer, but will become green again when the weather cools and the rains come back.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Computer Security

The newspapers reported this week that there has been a major breach of computer systems at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. A relative forwarded on a link to one of the stories, and it struck me in thinking about it that perhaps Hamlet's father summarized the field of computer security as well as anyone:

But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine:
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood.
Very little surprises me now.

No doubt OPM made some mistakes. Yet I know what they were up against. One in couple of hundred users will click on the email from the lovely, lonely Russian girl looking for a friend. One in perhaps one hundred and fifty will click on the email with a link to log in and increase his email storage quota. Maybe one in one hundred will click on the browser pop-up that appears to be for upgrading Internet Explorer or the computer's anti-virus software. A few more will open an Acrobat file or Word Document coming from an official-looking but hostile source. And then the fun begins.

You can guard against this in some ways. You can install a web filter that blocks access to notoriously dangerous sites. You can make use of the  improved security in Windows 7 and later, requiring privilege escalation to install software or open certain files that have arrived by email. But if the users can't increase their privileges, they will complain. If they can, allowing privilege escalation will become so routine that it is automatic for them. Every such safeguard you introduce gets in the way of doing something that users want to do, at least some of which is in their job descriptions. If you make it sufficiently difficult, they will do what they want to do on their own computers, almost certainly using credentials for your systems.

You can classify action and object privileges very finely, and prove that malicious actions contrived by a particular attack will be limited in their effect. The National Security Agency (NSA) developed "SELinux", which does a good job of this, so good that I have spent days looking at logs and figuring out how to make certain programs work with it. You can, as NSA did, compartmentalize access to different pieces of data to make intrusion limited in effect and quickly detected. But then you may well hire sysadmins who share their credentials, because a trustworthy guy like Edward Snowden said that he needed them.

In Further Cuttings from Cruiskeen Lawn, Flann O'Brien, setting out the differences between the Dublin Man (disillusioned) and the Irish Man (not), says "Dublin Man rarely permits himself a laugh but the word 'idealist' will always get one." I don't laugh when I hear "computer security", but I might permit myself a pained smile that you can almost tell from a wince.

Saturday, May 30, 2015


We agreed this spring that it was time to paint the garage door, which had peeling or missing paint in places. Last weekend, I scraped, washed, and primed, the last couple of days I washed again and painted. Tomorrow I will do a bit of touch-up work with a small brush.

I believe that I last painted the door in 2004, the year we moved in. When we bought the house, the garage door hardly closed and looked as if it would fall off its hinges. We must have replaced it promptly, for that fall we were storing things in the garage. That is how I figure it, anyway.

If the paint store mixes a can for you, the can will have a sticker giving the name of the color, the mix of pigments, and the date mixed. I had a look at the old paint can, but since black is a color always stocked, there is never a need to mix it, and so no sticker. There was a can number on the top, but the cashier at the store said that he couldn't use it to establish an age.

The can specifies a 25-year limited warranty, if the paint is properly applied. I am sure that a good painter could find faults in my application in 2004 and again in 2015. I don't know that the 2004 faults contributed to the flaking of the paint. I think that the door has been hard on the paint. For one thing, a garage door has joints. Ours has four rows of eight panels, and a good storm must send water through between the rows; the panels have water stains on the inside. For another, it is pulled up a track and lowered down, traveling six feet each way. It is a shaky trip, and was shakier for a while when the wheels were failing and we didn't know it.

It seems to me that the true craftsman must know how much paint to put on his brush or roller, and get it right every time. I might, on a good day, get this right four times out of five. The true craftsman must prepare his surface correctly, and here at least I am better than some people we have hired, who would paint over loose dirt. On the other hand, the professional will know how to set priorities, and will spend most of his time on what is most visible; the amateur can spend great effort on corners, and then lack the energy to prepare the main walls.

A neighbor, a contractor who learned his trades in Europe, says that Americans don't want to pay for good painting. The fliers put out by Fine Paints of Europe, a Dutch brand, hint at the same by describing the apprenticeship that Dutch painters must go through. I expect that my neighbor and the Dutch are correct, but I must say that telling who will paint well is harder than they might think. (Well, my neighbor would say "Hire me", and he would be correct.) The contractor who says all the right things Friday might show up Monday with a couple of guys he just hired in the Home Depot parking lot. In general, we paint what we can reach with no more than a 10-foot stepladder.

Monday, May 25, 2015

California as Heaven, or Not.

In Palo Alto in 1956, George Kennan wrote
California reminds me of the popular American Protestant concept of heaven: there is always a reasonable flow of new arrivals; one meets many--not all--of one's friends; people spend a good deal of their time congratulating each other of the fact that they are there; discontent would be unthinkable; and the newcomer is slightly disconcerted to realize that now--the devil having been banished and virtue being triumphant--nothing terribly interesting can ever happen again.

(Sketches from a Life, entry for May 13, 1956.)

I thought of this today when I happened to pick up Mazes by Hugh Kenner, and found a bookmark at the end of the essay "Please Welcome My Next Idea", a piece from 1982. Within it, the angel at the entrance to the afterlife is catechizing Mortimer Adler, who then had a show running on PBS:

ANGEL: ... Back when the morning stars were singing together, I made my thousands of decisions with elan. Now I scarcely know which telephone to pick up.
ADLER (quickly): The blue one.
ANGEL: Hush, you do not know what you are saying.(A long pause.) I have decided. Your eternity shall be unique.
ADLER: Not . . . (he gropes for the worst) an eternity of culling the Great Thoughts of John Dewey?
ANGEL: No. An eternity at this very desk. You are a packager, I am a packager. Heaven, Hell, those are packages. Our appearance, even is not unlike. I shall change my pace for an aeon. I shall descend and run the Aspen Seminars. You shall sit here and catechize the clients.
ADLER: With the files? The Rolodex? The video archive?
ANGEL: With all of it. You will find it comes naturally. I must tell you, though, the secret of the telephones. Red, blue, it does not matter: mere decor. Both go to the one Dispatcher. What matters is not which you pick up but the word you say: you say merely "Los Angeles," or "Kalamazoo."
ADLER: Los Angeles. Ah, of course: Heaven.
ANGEL: Your blind trust in categories! For once consider reality. No, for the deserving, seasons and Michigan air. For the mass of men, in their infinitely greater number, an eternity of smog and issueless freeways.
ADLER (speechless): . . . 
Unfortunately, the University of Georgia Press seems to have let Mazes go out of print. It is not perhaps the best collection of Kenner's essays, yet it has excellent pieces--this one, "The Wherefore of How To", and "Marshall McLuhan Redux" among others.