Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Mystery Solved

Over the last several years, I have walked home on an average of one or two days every month, usually on a route that includes 17th Street NW from K Street to Florida Avenue. On many of those days, passing by at roughly 5:30  I have seen a queue of about 20 persons at a downstairs door, and wondered idly why they were there. They look too healthy to be there for a clinic. They are too public and disorganized to be there for subversion, too public and confident to be there for crime. They have no (or not many) yoga mats and gym bags, so I doubted they were there for yoga or exercise.

We have friends who live in that neighborhood, whom we see at least three times each year, but I have been consistent in forgetting to ask them. On Christmas Eve, I did remember to ask, probably because I had recently passed the queue. Our friends knew.

The downstairs door, which has no sign, gives entrance to an exclusive and expensive restaurant. I forget whether the restaurant takes reservations, and I'm pretty sure I didn't ask the name. I hope that one must say "Swordfish" to be admitted, but I doubt this is so.

There was nobody there this afternoon, more likely because I was by about 4 pm than because it is New Year's Eve.

Friday, December 26, 2014


I might have reached my middle thirties without encountering the word "artisanal". "Artisan" I knew, though it seems to me chiefly through Yeats's "Meditations in Time of Civil War". Then some column in a magazine referred to the making of artisanal bread: I think that the writer might have used wild yeast. I did not think much about this, but on a vacation to Europe a year or two later, I noticed "artisanal" on signs.

Now one sees it everywhere. Bread has long been artisanal, beers and wines are artisanal. A month or so ago, The New York Times wrote up an actress who has retired upstate to practice artisanal motherhood. That suggests to me that we have reached "peak artisanal" and that another adjective is on the way to supplant it. What will it be?

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Role of Poetry in Polar Expeditions

Having picked up a copy of The Hall of Uselessness by Simon Leys as part of a friend's Christmas present, I see that it is the book I should have taken along on the last vacation, and that I was negligent in putting it back on the shelf when I first noticed it at Kramerbooks last summer.

In the essay "On Readers' Rewards and Writers' Awards", Leys offers the observation that
In the darkest depths of disaster, when all members of his expedition had to abandon every piece of superfluous luggage, [Shackleton] refused to abandon his beloved copy of Browning's collected poems. One day some scholar should write a doctoral thesis on "The Role of Poetry in Polar Expeditions"--but right now I had better not wander too far away from my subject.
The polar explorers I grew up reading of were Robert Peary and Richard Byrd,  They were brave and efficient, but, as far as I could tell from what I read of and by them, prosaic. If Peary brought Browning along on his sled or Byrd on an airplane, I have not read of it.

But Robert Graves's story "Old Papa Johnson" offers a British officer in middle age who knows by heart Shakespeare's sonnets, the Psalms, St. Mark's Gospel, and the Book of Ruth, all memorized while "expeditioning". He says that he memorized the last to distract himself from the likelihood of imminent death during a violent storm on "Desolation Island", In the preface to the volume, Graves identifies "Old Papa Johnson" as one H.H. Johnson, and Desolation Island as South Georgia Island. I regret to say that I have given away the collection of essays and stories that contained it.

I regret still more that Pierre Ryckmans, who published under the name Simon Leys, is no longer with us to write that thesis on the role of poetry: he died this August.

Friday, December 12, 2014

You Go Right Ahead

Flannery O'Connor wrote to Cecil Dawkins on April 25, 1962:
[Eudora Welty] told a story about a beauty parlor operator in Jackson who writes novels about the Northwest Mounted Police. She sent one of her love scenes through the mail to Faulkner for criticism and when she didn't hear from him she called him up and said, "Mr. Faulkner, what did you think of that little love scene of mine?" He said, "Honey, it isn't the way I would do it, but you go right ahead, you go right ahead."
I have no aspirations to write fiction, let alone at the Faulknerian level. But I thought of this passage the other day when I was working my way through an ASP web page and the VB code behind it. Once I might have relished the challenge of rewriting the files. Now I murmur, "It's not the way I'd do it, but ... " and I make the fewest changes needed to accomplish my task.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

O Christmas Tree

My late mother-in-law had a neighbor with a number of quirks, one of which was the habit of setting up three Christmas trees every year. It took three trees to hold all the ornaments and lights his family had, I gather. I never saw them, but heard that there were two on the main floor, and one in the finished basement. Now and then I wonder whether we will end up like that family, for example when I find us putting fourteen strands of lights on the tree.

We drove out to River Road last Saturday afternoon to get our Christmas tree. I was interested--astonished--to see what some of the trees cost, and also to see the dump of trees in reserve from the display area. It appeared to me that reserve area was about fifteen yards each way, piled maybe six feet deep. Last Saturday we had drizzle and rain all day long, but while we examined trees, we were under a roof.

On the way back, K told me that I would probably not be able to get the tree into the house by myself, for it had taken two employees to lift it onto our car. Now, it seemed to me that this proved only so much. The store management might have set a two-employee policy to keep somebody from underestimating the difficulty and damaging a customer's car, say by snapping off a mirror. However, it turned out that the essential point, that the tree is heavy, was correct. Still, I lugged it onto the porch, and we got it set up.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Brand Names

In Rome, I was a little surprised to see someone in a Franklin & Marshall sweatshirt, and then astonished to see a storefront with the Franklin & Marshall name, which I knew only as the name of a well thought of college in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The offspring explained that it is an Italian clothing company, the founder of which had discovered that the Franklin and Marshall name was not trademarked in the European Union. Apparently the clothiers pay an honorarium to the school, though not what a licensing agreement would bring in.

And then in Siena we saw a store called "Original Marines". Apart from an abstract Stars and Stripes in the sign, I saw nothing to call to mind the United States Marine Corps. The next day it occurred to me that this may be somebody's variation on the US brand "Old Navy".

Finally, at Schiphol, I found myself looking at a shelf of Penn State pretzels. Though I think of Pennsylvania State University in many connections, none directly has to do with pretzels. I suppose I could have bought a bag to find out whether they were up to Pennsylvanian standards, which are high.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Roman Signs

Out for a walk that took me along the Via Marmorata, I noticed first

and then

I wondered who the next type founder or printer might be, but it was on to electricians: Galvani and Volta.

This Wednesday, out for a walk, I noticed

And there was a Piazza Belli, with a statue of the poet, near where we stayed last week. I had heard of him through Anthony Burgess's novel Abba, Abba. I had a look at the shelves of a nearby English-language bookstore, but though they had a couple of Burgess's other novels, they did not have that one.

And finally, the assertion at St. John Lateran:

Monday, November 17, 2014

Pulling a Punch Line

A store near the baggage claim are of the Rome airport has a handful of signs, about hip high, in the entrance, each with the image of some famous person and a quotation praising books. Some are to be expected, for example Thomas Jefferson's "I Cannot Live Without Books". One did surprise me:

I considered the reasons one might provide only half of the quip:
  1. Not enough space. But Oscar Wilde gets more words.
  2. "Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read" just doesn't work in Italian humor.
  3. The signs are there to encourage one to buy books, not to make one laugh
  4. "All'infuori di" has a logical meaning but not a spatial one, and so cannot be opposed by "dentro" as "outside of" is by "inside of".

Wednesday, November 12, 2014


We are a bit touchy about squirrel sounds on the roof, having had to deal with a couple of intrusions. Several summers ago when one had dug at a window frame we trapped a couple of squirrels and exiled them to Arlington County. Since then, they have contented themselves with digging up the lawn to hide acorns, or digging out bulbs. But we remain on the watch.

This morning, K sent to me out to look for one on the front roof. He was there on the gutter. Presently, he clambered back up the slate at the southwest corner and disappeared over the roof. When I got to the back yard, he was in the holly tree at the northeast corner, about to head down.

For now, I assume that this squirrel is foraging for acorns that have fallen from a neighbor's tree into our gutters. I would find it more restful if he didn't, and perhaps once he satisfies himself that the acorns are gone, he won't. If he looks for storage or nesting space in the attic, he may find himself transported to Four Mile Run.

The other day I thought that I heard woodpeckers at our rake boards. This would have meant woodpecker damage to repair and bug infestation to deal with. Once I opened an attic window, I could hear that the hammering was from a crew down the alley.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A Busy Neighborhood

For the last few days, a crew of masons has been replacing a neighbor's front steps and walk. Today I noticed also, on my way around the neighborhood,

  • a neighbor's porch ceiling being painted
  • a new driveway going in on Argyle Terrace near Varnum St.
  • a new front walk on Argyle Terrace near 17th St.
  • major work on a house (recently sold) at 17th and Varnum: new windows, new gutters, new floors at least
  • diagonally across the intersection, window replacement on somebody's addition
  • a new brick walk at 17th and Upshur
  • in the alley between Taylor and Upshur, a new fence going in
  • a neighbor's basement cleared out for renovation
Perhaps this work goes on all the time, but on weekdays when I'm at work.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

In Short

We are putting together a leave tracking system for an affiliate, the third leave tracking system that we will have done in four years. I hope that we are getting better at this, not that the first one was bad. In any case, I have made a number of simplifications that render one of the main portions less scary.

But while going through and removing commented-out procedures left over from a prior version, I noticed that the package body runs just over one thousand lines. Further edits might have eliminated another fifty lines. Now, there is a fair bit of white space in that count, a line or two around data structure declarations and subprogram bodies, generally a line before the return statement of any function, and so on. There are not many, not enough, lines of comments, though those will come: our own organization's working version has some comments twenty or thirty lines long, carefully setting out all the errors I have made and corrected. I suspect that the true working payload is about 600 lines of PL/SQL. That's a fair bit.

The largest single procedure is probably around eighty lines, though most of that it is in subprograms, the main portion being around a dozen lines. I am generally satisfied with the structure. Some pieces need to be pulled out to make it easier to accommodate other classes of employees. I'd like to find a better way to handle testing, too.

There remains one other package, dauntingly line, full of procedures or functions written to handle this or that need of ours, and not applicable to the affiliate. I would guess that it is around 1200 lines, and should be nearer 400. We'll see next week.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Not a Bad Halloween

A good Halloween is one on which I recognize half a dozen neighborhood kids, give generously, and turn out the light at 9 pm with a little bit of insurance candy left in the bowl. On a poor Halloween, I see nobody I know, and at 8:30 there are 14-year-old boys on the porch at with not the slightest excuse for a costume. I give them the candy, but I think that they might have exerted themselves more.

Friday, I got home a little before 6, and sat down to carve the jack o'lantern. There have been years when I managed to do this the night before, separate seeds from strings, and roast the seeds. Now I am the only pumpkin-seed consumer in the house, and don't bother. I did have the pumpkin carved, and set out on the steps before it was quite dark.

A neighbor stopped by early on, with at least one of his sons and that son's friends. With the costumes, I'm not sure whether the younger son was there also. A couple of girls stopped by later on, explaining to me that they were not a pair of unicorns, but rather a unicorn and a narwhal: with a closer look at the position of the horns, I could see that this was so. I think one lives on the next block down. The one young neighbor I positively identified is not quite four. She was done up as Snow White, which she had to explain to me, since I haven't watched many Disney movies lately. She had on her wig hair, she said, and her real hair under it.

And there were quantities of kids who certainly are not from the neighborhood. They were, without exception, polite, well spoken, and in costume. A pair of girls, probably about 14, showed up on the porch twice, and were slightly embarrassed to realize that they had done so. Of course we gave them candy again.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Browsing Skeat, Or, "Click ; see Clack"

A few weeks ago, I came away with a copy of The Concise Dictionary of English Etymology, by Walter Skeat. It is said to have been a book that James Joyce enjoyed browsing in, and I can see why. It has among its merits a light weight, making it easy to hold, and a pattern of discrete pieces of information, generally linked backward and forward, so that one can browse happily for as little or as much time as happens to be available. (Another book I bought at the same table, The Reformation, by Diarmaid Macculloch, is likewise fascinating, but it is heavy, and demands long stretches of attention.)

A couple of peculiarities struck me early on. First, organization of related words under a root, so that Scribe, in the main alphabetic order, is followed by ascribe, circumscribe, conscript, and on down to superscription  and transcribe. The words in the sub-sequence are given as here, not capitalized. Likewise Sooth is followed by absent, present, represent, sooth, and soothsay.

Second, the entries of the form "x; see y". So Scribe immediately follows "Scribble ; see Scribe". Some of these catch the eye from half a page away, as for example "Click ; see Clack". The latter he derives from the Middle English clacken, relating it to Crack, and also to words in Icelandic, Dutch, Irish, and Greek. A couple I noticed today seem to say something about fashion: "Thong ; see Twinge" and "Trousers, Trousseau ; see Torture". However, Skeat is not thinking about the sacrifices made to look good, but about roots: thong and twinge he traces back to the Old Friesic twingan, to force or constrain; trousers, trousseau and torture come back to roots meaning to twist.

I used to forget the components that went into the word "whiskey"; but now that I have seen Skeat relate "beath" to the Greek "bios", I won't again soon.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Local Color

The other week, I picked up a copy of Short Letter, Long Farewell by Peter Handke, in part because I had him mixed up with Peter Schneider. I don't so far regret the confusion.

About sixty pages in, the narrator and a girlfriend begin a drive along the Pennsylvania Turnpike:
We entered it from State Route 100, near Downingtown, after the eighth toll station. On the seat beside her Claire  had a box full of coins; at each toll station she would toss a few of them out the window into the hopper without coming to a full stop. From there to Donora we passed another fifteen toll stations. In the course of the day, Claire tossed more than five dollars into hoppers.
There are toll roads that work this way, but the Pennsylvania Turnpike, during the period I have traveled it, has not been one. One gets a ticket when entering, and one pays when leaving, whether one has passed one exit or many. Certainly in 1972 one had to stop for the toll booth operator to examine one's ticket and collect the toll..

Two points interest me here.
  1. The error does not bother me. Similar errors and anachronisms in historical novels set my teeth on edge. I infer that Handke's mistake does not bother me in part because this is really not an historical novel: it was written in 1972 and set at about that time. It does not aim at reproducing the feel of a distant time or place. There is more to Claire than her box of coins.
  2. In how many novels set elsewhere or at other times have I noticed such bits of detail and taken them for true when they weren't?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

I Will Mention

This morning it was announced that Monsignor Ronald Jameson, rector of the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, the Roman Catholic cathedral of Washington, DC, has commenced tweeting. Those who care to can follow him at Msgr. Jameson is not one of your young and trendy clerics just out of the seminary: he was ordained in 1968. He is quite good at sermon length: at 140 characters, well, that will be for Twitter readers to judge.

Saturday, October 18, 2014


For a while in my late 20s, I found it easy to buy shoes. I would walk into the local running-goods store, or the expo before the Marine Corps Marathon, and buy a pair of Asics Excalibur GTs in my size. Never before had I found running shoes I liked as much, and never since have I found anything comparable. I have found decent enough shoes, shoes made well enough, but nothing I could count on like them. I expect that a designer could explain to me in detail why the new shoes are preferable to the Excalibur GTs, but I don't care. Of course, I have added twenty pounds, thirty years, and a size and half in the foot, meaning that a supply of the old model would not necessarily do me any good.

In those days, dress shoes didn't matter much. I wore Rockport shoes when I needed something better than running shoes. Rockports are not especially dressy--my wife once told me that many scientists seem to wear them, which I didn't and don't consider an endorsement of their fashionableness.

Much more recently, I have found that Ecco made a shoe that I like, dressy enough for work yet comfortable. The model I like has lasted me through a couple pairs each of black and brown shoes, and many heels on both.The most recent black pair lasted about three years. But when it was time for new heels, my wife, acting as my fashion conscience, suggested that they were worn out and that it was time for new shoes. We stopped by the store yesterday.

That model of Ecco is no longer made. I settled on the nearest approximation, and hope that it will work out. I am more concerned that the variations will affect my stride than I am confident that they make the shoes more handsome. It seems unfair that a model of shoe that suits one so well should disappear like that. 

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Pilots

In my early thirties, I traveled a good deal for work. Sometimes I traveled to large cities by jet, sometimes I traveled to small cities by jet to a hub, then turboprop to the destination. In the latter cases, I noticed that the pilots seemed to be a good deal younger than I was. Some in fact looked to me as if they were flying for regional airlines until they should be old enough to graduate from high school and join the military. I suppose that my anxieties could have contributed to this interpretation.

A high school alumni newsletter arrived in today's post. It announces, among other matters, the college graduation of a young man, and his imminent employment by a regional airline. I remember this young man as a third-grader, small for his age. Yet somehow this does not bother me. Partly this must be because all those young pilots--men who did not look old enough to shave, and women who looked like the men's younger sisters--got me to and from Springfield, Utica, Allentown, etc. in one piece. Partly it must be because even those pilots with the comforting grey around the temples, the ones who fly the big jets, are mostly younger than I am. I expect that he will do fine.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Politics on a First-Name Basis

With municipal elections approaching, there are campaign signs out in yards and on poles along the street. For many offices, there is a preponderance of first names.

Of the candidates for mayor, Muriel Bowser uses only her first name on yard signs, both names on the signs fastened to light posts and utility poles. Carol Schwartz has some with both names, some with just Carol. When questioned about this back in the 1990s, she said that signs reading "SCHWARTZ" tended to bow around the pole and read as "WAR" to a head-on view. David Catania, an independent, and Bruce Majors, a Libertarian, use only their surnames. Faith Dane, who has run for mayor in every election of at least the last two decades, gives only her first name--the picture of a woman holding a bugle is to remind those who can be reminded that she had a big number in the musical Gypsy a half century and more ago.

Of the at-large candidates,  Calvin Gurley and Anita Bonds provide their surnames in larger type than their first names. Eugene Puryear and Thomas White print both names their names in equal sizes. Elissa Silverman has her first name in a larger, bolder, serif face, her surname in smaller, thinner sans-serif: the effect is something like an eye chart with a few rows missing. Khalid Pitts gives only his first name, and picture. I had to take off my glasses and peer at the tiny "paid for" line to discover his surname.

Among the candidates for attorney general, Lorie Masters prints her surname somewhat larger, and Karl Racine prints his much larger. Edward Smith could be considered to split the difference, for his signs read "SMITTY".

I suppose that the trend has been around since the days of Honest Abe, and I expect that "I like Ike" buttons are affordable in political memorabilia stores. Still, is informality a preferred quality among candidates?

Thursday, September 25, 2014


If you have any responsibility for computers running Linux, the last couple of days have been busy. Yesterday afternoon, we all heard of an old but newly discovered vulnerability in the bash (Bourne-again shell) shell, which today is being called "Shellshock". The problem is that unpatched versions of bash accept without sufficient checking environment settings from the invoking program: environment settings can be designed to cause another program invocation.. This means, in the gravest case, that somebody with a web browser can cause your system to create an account for him, open the firewall, email passwords, etc.

If you have a Linux system or Mac at your disposal, you can test for this by entering
VAR="() { ignore; }; /bin/uname -a"; bash
You should get an error message. If you get information about your operating system, it's time to update bash. If it takes more than five minutes to do so, it is probably because you are running an obsolete version of Linux.  Figure out now how you will upgrade. It is a very bad idea to let your Linux installation get too old.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Parking Day

On Friday, out for a walk at lunchtime, I noticed a cluster of persons up about 20th and M Streets, NW. The sign said something about "National Park(ing) Day". There was a hip-high stack of two by fours, maybe a foot each way horizontally, and apparently the challenge was to extract one without causing the whole stack to fall. I thought it odd, but forgot about in a block or so.

Then on K St., there was another sign, and some chairs and a table set up in a parking space. And a bit further east on K was "Perspective Park". This had a structure of tubes about three feet high, three feet wide, and four inches through the tubes, which looked had about the circumference of mailing tubes. Some were stopped or partially stopped with small objects. The passers by were invited to peer through it. I did not.

Back at the office, Google promptly located the web site. Park(ing) Day falls on the third Friday of September, a day on which
PARK(ing) Day is an annual worldwide event where artists, designers and citizens transform metered parking spots into temporary public parks.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Nerd Bumper Stickers

Seen today on I St. NW, next to the Department of Veterans Affairs:

For those not immersed in the culture, a brief explanation. In the LISP programming language, "car" takes the first item in a list, "cdr" takes what is left over. The programming language Perl is ubiquitous on machines running UNIX and Linux; the pathname of the executable is generally /usr/bin/perl. This sticker seems to have Linux in mind, with a penguin dressed up in knitted hat and scarf.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

"Emblematic" Come Back, All Is Forgiven

For about twenty years, I wondered whether I would live to see the popularity of the adjective "emblematic" fade. I had no fear that it would kill me, but it annoyed me, and it seemed to have more staying power than I felt in myself some days. So-and-so would be emblematic of such-and-such, usually meaning "typical" or "a fair example", and I would grimace as if I had cut my finger on the paper. But its popularity has fade over the last year or so.

Now we have "iconic". The Northwest Current has a caption describing the Kennedy Center as "one of the iconic Foggy Bottom landmarks to be featured on the [heritage] trail." The Kennedy Center is certainly recognizable, which I suppose is what they mean; though how a landmark could not be recognizable, I don't know. I hear of iconic books, poems, and songs, meaning important or excellent ones. But why iconic? The poem that I can think of off-hand that I'd be willing to call "iconic" is the section of "Among Schoolchildren" beginning "Both nuns and mothers worship images".

Still, I can think of a landmark in Washington that is in its way iconic. The National Presbyterian Church has a "Chapel of the Presidents", the stained glass windows of which depict various presidents rather abstractly. I don't believe that Presbyterians recognize the place of icons in worship, and I doubt that even Steven Ambrose would say that Dwight David Eisenhower was a saint; but say this for his window: it is Ike-onic.

Friday, September 5, 2014


Today's XCKD brings to mind Wilfrid Sheed's essay, "A Few of My Favorite Sins", collected in Essays in Disguise:
Naming the deadly sins is uncannily like trying to remember the seven dwarfs. The first person to say "Doc" three times figures he's made it. (In my own case, the Taj Mahal serves the same purpose for the Seven Wonders of the World.)
 In the case of the sins, I can always fall back on the acronym "Saligia", thanks to Czeslaw Milosz's essay of that name in To Begin Where I AmA bus driver at Disney World told us all a handy way of remembering the dwarfs names, something involving categories (moods was one, comprising at least Grumpy); but that was a while ago, and I've forgotten.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Still in There Punching

With a notion for a post not yet written, I went to the University of Toronto's wonderful Representative Poetry Online site. The poem for the day was "There was a young lady of Riga", which I remember from long ago as "There was a young lady of Niger" (and Niger seems the better rhyme for tiger, but maybe not in Toronto). But what struck me most was the attribution of the limerick, to "(Anonymous, 1100 - 2010)". He seems be suffering from writer's block lately, something that happens to poets younger than 900; still I trust he will back strong as ever.

Saturday, August 30, 2014


Some years ago, on a winter Sunday, a friend told me, "You know, I really miss summer. In summer things are alive. Even bugs are alive." The day was nothing unusual for a local winter: an afternoon temperature in the mid-forties, an overcast sky, maybe some drizzle, dark bare trees. I did not wholly agree. For one thing, I grew up in colder places, and would have been happy to see more snow and lower temperatures. For another, I find running more comfortable in cool weather than in hot. But I understood what he meant.

We are about at the end of another Washington summer. It was a comfortable one as they go. If I chose the shaded side of the street on lunchtime walks, it was to improve comfort, not to avoid discomfort. I think that there may have been one day I felt very uncomfortable running on a weekend afternoon: most summers there are a dozen or more. There has been no stretch like that I encountered my first summer here  and which almost fixed my notion: temperature above 90 F, high humidity, a low sky the color of freshly poured concrete.

I can do without many of the bugs, particularly the mosquitoes. But I do like the lightning bugs early in an eastern summer. I think they disappeared on the early side this year because it was drier and cooler. And I like the cicadas and crickets late. A couple of weeks ago they made a sound as of little bells shaken. Now they are back to the late summer sound I'm used too, less silvery and raspier. I like to watch the bees and butterflies on our flowers and shrubs.

And I enjoy the summer fruits and vegetables. My father did, and in fact discovered an allergy awakened by too many tomatoes and ears of corn. I have long passed the age at which he broke out in hives, so either I don't have the allergic trait, or I get through less of that produce. But from early summer we have fresh tomatoes always in the kitchen, corn sometimes, peaches usually, berries and plums from time to time.

Even the weather can be enjoyed, if one acts prudently. The runner has to know the intervals of sun and shade on his route, when to start, sometimes when to walk. But once he or she has learned to run in the Potomac summer, the rest of the day seems not so bad.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Coding and Cooking

A young neighbor said that she is taking an introductory programming class. Of course, I asked her what language it used--failure to do so could lead to them taking away my pocket protector. When she said C++, I stared for a minute. I said, Well, it's a big language. And I remarked on the growth between the two editions of The C++ Programming Language that I had owned, the first probably under 300 pages, the next, purchased at most five years later, over 500. I find that the latest edition, published this year, has 1386 pages.

Large books on programming languages are not unusual. However, C++ is a tricky beast, a tool designed by a very proficient programmer for his own kind. The beginning programmer can easily discover that the runes in the small print actually said "Here be dragons" or "Achtung: Minen" or "Chien Mechant", or indeed have to puzzle this out from a two-page error listing. I don't think that I would use C++ in an introductory course.

For what it can do, C++ is excellent. However, of all those employed as programmers, a small fraction need the facilities it offers, chiefly the ability to combine low-level access to the hardware with a high level of abstraction. Most of them can work at a remove from the hardware, as with Java and C#, or "scripting" languages such as Perl, Python, and Ruby.

It is certainly useful to be able to work at all levels of the software stack, however much one may stick to one particular level. I am grateful for the chance I had to learn assembler and C, and make gaudy but not too costly mistakes as I figured out about effective addresses and registers. However, I have worked with consultants who probably couldn't give a five-minute talk on pointers but are very productive with the higher-level languages they use. Plenty of the students intimidated or simply flunked out by C++ might be useful programmers, and eventually capable of tackling C++, if they started with something like Python.

I shared these reflections with a couple of friends. One responded to agree, mentioning the case of a young relative who had suffered pointlessly through half of a C++ class.

Michael Pollan, who writes about food, devoted some of his Omnivore's Dilemma to a meal beginning with the shooting of a wild pig. I believe that I read a bit of this chapter in the New York Times Sunday Magazine before I was called away to do something else. Or maybe I found it remote from my interests. I like Pollan's writing and more or less agree with many of his ideas, but have no urge to hunt my own pork.

Competence in programming is good for the individual, who becomes more employable, and for society as a whole, which nowadays can use programmers. Competence in cooking is good for the individual, who will generally eat better and weigh less, and for the society as a whole, which has member less likely to suffer from the ailments that accompany obesity. So, more of us should learn to code and more of us should learn to cook.

If instruction in cooking began with shooting and butchering a pig, how many of us would learn cooking? And the beginning student does not approach C++ with superior firepower. It is not a matter of lying in ambush with a rifle, it is a matter of contending in mud or thicket with a tough opponent, on terms of near parity. Odysseus got away with a scar when he went boar hunting.  How many of the students will?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014


Forty-odd years ago, Richard M. Nixon, Republican president of the United States, said "We are all Keynesians now." This did not please the conservative wing of the Republican Party, which tended to be parsimonious on government spending and opposed to any measures tending toward inflation.

This week, Francois Hollande, Socialist president of France, dissolved his government because his economics minister, Arnand Montebourg, had criticized the government's austerity measures, speaking in favor of more government spending to stimulate growth: I gather that Montebourg had considerable backing in the cabinet. I lack the training in economics to say who has the better of the argument. But I would not have thought that a member of a French socialist cabinet would be turned out for speaking against austerity.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Back to School

The first student I saw was a boy of five or six, walking with his mother. He had on dark cardigan, tie, and slacks, and a white shirt. I could see by not quite read the school's device on his sweater: the initials ended in DS, presumably Day School; but the two or three schools I can think of that call themselves such are a good ways away from Spring Road and 16th St. NW.

After that there were children and teens from schools obvious and not. Obvious were the teenagers in Bell High School shirts and their juniors in Lincoln Middle School shirts. Not obvious were the boy in white tennis shirt and dark slacks at Park Road and the little girl in a plaid jumper at Euclid St. Either or both could have been headed for Sacred Heart Academy, but I don't remember the girls' plaid, or the boys' uniform there.

It seems to me that I usually enjoyed the first day of school, however disenchanted I might become. There was the promise of a fresh start and things to be learned, for one thing. There was the promise of fall, as well, a wonderful season in the Midwest, with cool weather, colorful leaves, and football, on TV and in the back yard.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

1914: The Sleepwalkers

By now, I have read many accounts of the outbreak of WW I: Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August probably first, then accounts embedded in histories of England, Germany, Russia, or the Hapsburg Empire. This week, I read to the end of The Sleepwalkers,by Christopher Clark.

Tuchman's history is exciting, with ship chases, infantry engagements, towns burned, and troops sent to the front in taxis. It also, I gather, blunders on the actual schedule of mobilizations. She read the history of 1914 through the history of 1933 through 1945, a point that I certainly did not see when I first read the book 40 years ago.

Clark's history ends before the battles start. It appears to me that he reads 1914 through the history of the breakup of Yugoslavia, so that the Austrians and Germans come off better, the Slavs worse. But wherever the blame falls, I cannot read it except as the history of the suicide of Europe. As such, it is thoroughly depressing.Once one has read enough histories of WW I, each next one appears to asymptotically approach Karl Kraus's In These Great Times.

George Kennan's history of the development of the Franco-Russian alliance is worth reading along with The Sleepwalkers if you can find it. Many of the actors of 1890, when Kennan's history ends, were still active in 1914. It makes for less depressing reading, with fewer and smaller wars, and with coups d'etat that do not end in regicide.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Dawn Patrol

Last Thursday morning, on my way past the Russian cathedral, I thought I heard singing. This surprised me, for it was not yet 7:10. I paused to be sure I heard the choir, then checked the bulletin board beside the parish hall. It was "Procession of the Holy Wood of the Life-Giving Cross of the Lord. Holy Maccabean Martyrs." The liturgy had begun at 6:40. This Tuesday morning, the choir was back for The Feast of the the Transfiguration, and next week they will turn out early for "Dormition of the Most-Holy Theotokos", what Latins call the Feast of the Assumption.

I am impressed at their devotion. It is not difficult to find a 7 am Roman Catholic Mass, and I think that St. Stephen Martyr in Foggy Bottom even has a 6:30 Mass on weekdays. But if you want a Catholic choir before 10 o'clock, you might have to find a convent or monastery.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Scientific Terms

At the beginning of the week, I noticed a headline in The Washington Post:
After 40 Years, Nixon's Vitriol Still Resonates
This is pretty standard headline writing, but it distracts those who remember that vitriol means "sulfuric acid". We imagine waves dashing back and forth in a beaker.

Later in the week, I found, in a most interesting and learned book, that
At the epicentre of the deepening opposition to the crown was the Serbian army.
I think not. The epicenter is the point on the surface above an earthquake. The author does not suggest that Serbian society shook, and the army fell on the king. Rather, officers of the army were leading conspirators. I think that the author has fallen into the bad habit of taking "epi" for an intensive.

And steadily we have"implode". Marriages implode, families implode, states implode. I believe that most of the entities said to have imploded simply failed. They might be said to have collapsed, from weakness in their structures, but generally they did not fail through sudden overwhelming pressure from without. Still, "implode" acquired a prestige at Los Alamos that it hasn't lost yet.


Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Reading John Dewey

A few weeks ago, I happened on a slim book called Dewey on Education, edited by Martin S. Dworkin. Never having read any of John Dewey's work, I thought it worth reading. Having now read it, I'll say it is. Dewey served for me as a name for a school of pedagogy spoken badly of by many of the teachers and writers I respected: Santayana, Jarrell, and Flannery O'Connor come to mind. Jacques Barzun in his mentions of Dewey distinguished the man and his writings from the work of those who thought of themselves as Dewey's followers. It was in part Barzun's remarks that made me curious to read Dewey.

Dewey raises a question that may never have occurred to some who speak poorly of him: Shall these bones live? Less poetically, how shall we take the dead matter on the textbook page and make it into live learning? The question only intermittently occurred to me for a good deal of my life, and I think that many persons, particularly many of the well educated, haven't bothered to ask it much. I arrived in elementary school from a household that had books and parents that read them. My parents were comfortable with numbers. When I encountered history and geography in the classroom, I knew something of them. It really didn't matter that much for me, and for the students from similar families, that there were fifty or more students in the first-grade classroom. It did not occur to me, and probably didn't occur to my friends, to wonder what impression the school made on children from different backgrounds.

Dewey did not anticipate the excesses of those who thought of themselves as his followers. He writes in "The Child and the Curriculum"
Just as, upon the whole, it was the weakness of the "old education" that it made invidious comparisons between the immaturity of the child and the maturity of the adult, regarding the former as something to be got away from as soon as possible and much as possible; so it is the danger of the "new education" that it regard the child's present powers and interests as something finally significant in themselves.... It will do harm if child-study leave an impression in the popular mind that a child of a given age has a positive equipment of purposes and interests to be cultivated, just as they stand.
Yet Dewey's influence was not on the whole positive, I think. He became regarded as the leader, respected, maybe read, probably not quite understood, for the progressive schools movement. He inspired with enthusiasm those who did not correctly understand him. He did not overlook this efffect. After years avoiding association with it, he eventually accepted an honorary presidency from the Progressive Education Association, which he then addressed with a lukewarm speech.

Partly the problem arose from Dewey's writing. Dworkin writes that
Dewey wrote badly. His style was often opaque, his terminology ambiguous.... in a way, Dewey may be said to deserve whatever confusions came to be associated with his name. It may be no compliment to professional educators that they so easily understood Dewey while professional philosophers shook their heads.
Diane Ravitch writes of Dewey's prose as "dense and difficult", which is charitable, for the density is not that of semantic content: Dewey multiplies expressions without making his point clearer. He is apt to reach for a phrase that sounds good, as
Just as two points define a line, so the present situation of the child and the facts and truths of studies define instruction.
which recalls Euclid only to confuse: several pages later is a more sensible passage distinguishing the logical and psychological approaches:
We may compare the difference between the logical and the psychological approaches to the difference between the notes which an explorer makes in a new country, blazing a trail and finding his way along as best he may, and the finished map that is constructed after the country has been thoroughly explored.
And there are judgments that are just odd, as in this sentence from "School and Society":
Literature would contribute its part in its idealized representation of the world-industries, as the Penelope of the Odyssey--a classic in literature only because the character is the embodiment of a certain industrial phase of social life.
Dewey's description of the Laboratory School of the University of Chicago, a large portion of the book, may be mostly accurate, but I think misleads.  First, to the extent that teachers and students thought of it as experimental, it would have suffered from the Hawthorne Effect. Second, to the extent that the students were recruited from faculty families and from others interested in the experiment, the school had a considerable advantage: all that weaving, cooking, and drawing would not distract them from learning what they would have learned elsewhere.

There is a sentence in Santayana's The Last Puritan that I remember as "Learning, traced to its sources, was as fresh as sensation." On this, Santayana and Dewey are in agreement. The point lost, not by Dewey, was that learning was necessary. Teaching in the manner Dewey had in mind must be harder, not easier, than following a textbook, and the teachers must have mastered the subject well enough to set the textbook aside. This was not the message that those who claimed to be his followers understood.

Monday, July 28, 2014

When Almost Doesn't Work

We are having the basement renovated. Most of the work is in the hands of the contractor, but we are cleaning up the windows, which is to say sanding them down, moving and replace broken panes, removing and replacing old brittle putty, and someday painting them. We are old hands at the work, having done even more elaborate restoration of the first and second floor windows. The experience doesn't mean that the work is faster or more entertaining.

On Sunday I was trying to get the first of the cracked panes out. I scraped away as much as I could of the bits of old putty that obstructed its way, pulled the glazier's points, and used the scraper to dig out the putty beside it on both sides. I then started gently pressing up on the bottom of the pane. I thought I pressed gently, but maybe not. There was a Bang!, and about half the pane bounced off my chin on its way elsewhere. It may have been the same piece that grazed the heel of my hand. I took time off to clean up. The cuts were tiny: had I not been continuing with the work, I'd have skipped the bandages. The other broken panes came out less dramatically. Still, it reminded me that glass has very little flexibility, and that partly stuck can be as bad as wholly stuck.

We are also replacing the old hinges on the windows. As far as we can tell, nobody now makes quite the same pattern: the holes in the leaves don't line up. My wife says, Well they almost line up. I say, That's even worse: you would have to drill into the side of the original hole and enlarge it so that the screw won't hold. I guess we'll putty the holes and let the contractors figure out a new placement.

Friday, July 25, 2014

SysAdmin Day

Today, the last Friday of July, is SysAdmin Day, a day to celebrate the labors of systems administrators, which, if successful, are never otherwise noticed.* Systems administrators are the men and women who keep computer systems running. Anyone who has ever used a computer used by more than one person at once, or connected to a network, let alone blogged about cats, has benefited from the work of a systems administrator.

Many of us no longer see our systems administrators, for our systems are out there in the "cloud" rather than in a glass room in our buildings. But the sysadmins are out there, keeping the systems running, keeping the data backed up. If you can't buy any of them a beer, think good thoughts about them.

(Thanks to The Register for reminding me of the day.)

*Some months after the computers in a limited part of the University of California campus were networked together, in the 1970s, the administrators found it necessary to bring the network down for some changes. At once the halls were full of persons complaining that they couldn't get any work done. Or so I have read.

The Ad Council Tells Me

I walk to work some mornings, passing many bus shelters. Over the last several months, maybe two years, I have been seeing many advertisements on them with an "Ad Council" mark near the bottom. I learn from them that

  • We should save money.
  • We should set examples for our children.
  • We should listen to our children.
  • We should talk to our children.
  • We should give our children healthier snacks. ("Change Your Child's Snack for Good": I think the item shown was a mango.)
  • We should become teachers, make a difference, and make more. Alternatively, we should become a teacher since there is no reason to be anyone when we could be someone.
  • We should not drive under the influence of alcohol.
  • Avoiding eye contact is a sign of autism.
  • We should do more to keep high school students from dropping out.
  • We should save energy.
I don't necessarily disagree with any of these, though I bet that most of those avoiding eye contact around bus shelters and on buses are attractive women who are not even slightly autistic. But I do wonder

  • Whether the firms advocating thrift had any part of Citbank's "Live Richly" campaign some years ago, the one that was going on even as the banking industry was lobbying to make personal bankruptcy harder.
  • Whether the firms that want us serve our children mangoes have any snack food accounts.
  • How many of the designers at the firms would really care to work at a teacher's salary.
  • How much the ubiquity of these public service advertisements has to do with a depressed market for outdoor advertising.

Sunday, July 13, 2014


Noted a couple of days ago in Little Wilson and Big God, by Anthony Burgess, the first volume of his autobiography:

There is something desperately wrong with our remembering mechanisms. The trivial, especially if it is in verse, sticks. Great thoughts and great expression of great thoughts vanish. I have repertory of about a thousand popular songs and only one line of Goethe. From one of the 'Little Tales' in Punch, I remember this: "He said I love you, and she said I love you too. Then they went in to tea and he made jokes about the jam sandwiches.' What the hell is wrong with us? The greatness of James Joyce lies partly in his recognition of the importance of the trivial, but it is not his responsibility to explain the importance. Flaubert's Felicite dies seeing a parrot flutter over her head. I shall die on the memory of the HP Sauce bottle from which I first learned French:  'Setty sauce, de premier choyks. . .'
(I think that I have the advantage of Burgess in the matter of Goethe: I can remember three or three and a half lines, probably somewhat mangled.)

I suspect that the sticking power of the trivial verse comes in part from the age at which it is encountered. The lyrics of John Lennon or John Denver are remembered because encountered in childhood or adolescence, ages of energy and hope.  And I think that the same process works for much better verse. The Athenians captured at Syracuse could recite Euripides at great length; Eugenia Ginsburg, on the train to Siberia, could recite Pushkin for half an hour by the watch; I'm sure that they learned the verse young.

Friday, July 11, 2014

A Sesquicentennial

One hundred and fifty years ago today and this weekend, Federal and Confederate troops skirmished on the outskirts of Washington, DC, three miles or so from where I sit. The Washington Post and other local news sources have items about the anniversary.

Federal forces under General David Hunter had been forced by lack of supplies to retreat from the Shenandoah Valley; their lack of ammunition meant that they had to retreat toward the Ohio River, rather than directly toward Harper's Ferry. This opened the valley to Confederate forces under Jubal Early, who crossed the Potomac, and moved on Washington. General Lew Wallace got together a scratch force of mostly raw troops, and fought a delaying action on the Monocacy River near Frederick. They Union force lost, but the Confederates were delayed a day, which gave Federal reinforcements, principally the 6th corps of the Army of the Potomac, to arrive from the James River.

July 12th and 13th saw skirmishing in front of Washington, mostly in the area around Fort Stevens, near present-day Piney Branch Road and Georgia Avenue, NW., though some Confederate cavalry made a reconnaissance in the direction of what is now the American University neighborhood. Fort DeRussy, in Rock Creek Park near Military Road, contributed fire support. Ultimately, Early decided that it was not worth trying to force his way into the city, and retreated.

Vestiges of the works and the battle remain. You can see the old earthworks at Fort Stevens from Piney Branch Road; you can see what is left of Fort DeRussy by walking a hundred yards or so in from the intersection of Military Road and Oregon Avenue, NW. Battleground National Cemetery, on Georgia Avenue, NW, between Van Buren St. and Whittier Place has graves of Federal soldiers; it occupies about a third of a city block. In the churchyard of Grace Episcopal Church in Silver Spring, about three miles north, there is a grave marker for some Confederate soldiers.

It certainly would have embarrassed the United States government to have the capital raided. Whether that would have had an effect on the war is less clear; there had been a year of successes by July 1864. Early's raid led to Philip Sheridan taking command of Federal forces in the Shenandoah Valley, where he defeated Early's forces at Fisher's Creek and Winchester, giving the US command of most of the valley.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

And One Grows Old

Mme. de Sevigne writes to the Comte du Bussy-Rabutin, August 6, 1675:
You also know about my life: five or six friends whose company pleases me, a thousand little duties, and that's something. But what upsets me is that the days go by in doing nothing, and one grows old, and one dies, and our poor life is made up of these days.
I can't say that many of my days pass in doing nothing; but enough seem to pass in accomplishing nothing, and given Mme. de Sevigne's thousand duties, perhaps that's what she meant.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Programming as Performance

Twenty-five years ago, in a systems administration class, I met a couple of women who seemed rather old, though reckoning says that they were younger than I am now. Both had started programming when it was an unusual occupation. At least one had learned the trade in Manhattan, which then probably had more programmers than Seattle and Palo Alto put together.

She told me that when she was a new programmer, the company's machine room had a picture window onto the sidewalk. Passersby would stop to look, for computers were few then, and not well understood. The programmer would hand off her card deck to the operator, who would read in the job, set it, and run it. This gave the spectators more to watch, for in those days tapes held much of the data and the work space, disk drives being new, few, and expensive: one could watch the drives go back and forth, tapes being taken down and hung, and so on. But if the program ABENDed (came to an abnormal end), all the tapes would stop at once, and the failure would be obvious to the public. It was, she said, a strong incentive to write one's program correctly.

I believe her. The PC revolution made it possible for millions to encounter program failures, and the web has greatly increased the number of programs and the number of users. But nobody has to hand off the code to an operator in full view of a sidewalk full of New Yorkers.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Historical Fiction

I think that the rules for historical fiction reduce to a generalization of one of Mark Twain's nineteen rules for romantic fiction, as given in "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses":
8. They require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as "the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest," by either the author or the people in the tale. But this rule is persistently violated in the Deerslayer tale.
I would omit the reference to the woodsman and the forest, and settle for the crass stupidities not being played. But even this sometimes is too much to ask.

As to particulars, one must limit "historical fiction" to the historical novel, perhaps as practiced since Sir Walter Scott. The Greek and Roman epics are full of anachronisms: Homer has no idea of the tactics of chariot warfare (not that anyone else does); Homer's warriors wear armor of different eras; Virgil has bronze-prowed ships and makes his Trojans recline at table like Romans. Shakespeare has bells tolling the hour in republican Rome; he uses the name of a tough and durable partisan warrior for his wastrel Falstaff; and nobody cares.

But in the novel, details count. I should say that rules are something like the following:
  1. You have limited freedom with well-known historical events. You can write up Borodino as a draw, but not Marengo. You should not represent General Desaix as the victor of Hohenlinden, or place General Grant at Gettysburg.
  2. The diction should be internally consistent. Probably it is better not to archaize too much. Definitely it is best to avoid obviously recent usages: Matthew Brady had better not take "selfies".
  3. The characters' thoughts should be more or less appropriate to their era. They should not in the 1860s use the terms of 1970s psychology.
  4. Technology and its products should not be in advance of the age.
Beyond that, I think that the rules are those of general fiction. Your characters must be plausible. They must say and do what the reader can imagine them saying and doing in life. To refer again to Twain,
5. They require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject in hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the Deerslayer tale to the end of it.
11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency. But in the Deerslayer tale this rule is vacated.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Blitz Reading

On the first Friday of June, an errand took us to Bethesda, where we meant also to see a movie. We had some time between errand and movie, which we used to look into the Barnes and Noble at Woodmont and Bethesda Avenues. There we bought several books, among them The Guns at Last Light by Rick Atkinson, the last of his "Liberation Trilogy" on the US Army's campaigns in the North Africa and Europe during World War II. It was only later that I noticed how tidy it was to have bought the book on the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

I finished the book in four or five days. It helped, of course, that I know how the story comes out, knew even the broad outlines of Huertgen Forest, the Colmar Pocket, etc. But Atkinson writes plainly and clearly, for one thing. For another, the story remains absorbing for those of us who grew up when most of the fathers around had been under arms during World War II.

I am no historian. Yet Atkinson's judgments in the trilogy have mostly matched what I read elsewhere, in Moorhead, Weigley, Keegan, Howard, and others. I believe that he has his facts down, and that his judgments are generally sound.

He writes well, a few annoying tics set aside. He has the weakness for the occasional foreign word in italics: gefreiter, frere, resistant. His thumbnail characterizations of his generals (and a few noted field or company officers and NCOs, for example Audie Murphy) recall Ernie Pyle at best, Time Magazine at worst. Allied forces figure only to the extent that they affect American actions--the action on Sword, Gold, and Juno beaches in 1944 gets very little more attention than the British operations on Walcheren Island in 1809; that is  a reasonable choice, given that he is writing about the US Army, but occasionally it is distracting.

I am glad to have read it. I'm not sure what happened to my copy of An Army at Dawn, the first volume of the trilogy, but probably I gave it to my brother. I gave away the second volume of the trilogy, The Day of Battle, about the Italian campaign, in part because I found it too tempting to re-read. I may give away The Guns at Last Light on the same grounds.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Probably It Is the Humidity

We spent most of Saturday through Tuesday in New Orleans. I have long become accustomed to the summers around Washington, DC, and thought myself pretty tough because of that. But now and then I go south in the summer, and discover I'm not. In Atlanta, years ago, I thought it was the heat. In New Orleans, I'm fairly sure that it was the humidity: the reported temperatures were even with those in Washington, yet I was more uncomfortable than I would have been here.

I did enjoy the visit. I got to poke around a few bookstores. I picked up a copy of Jacques Barzun's A Word or Two Before You Go at Crescent City Books (which does not want Google Glasses or firearms on premises). I admired the density of books at Arcadia Books, though wondering whether someday a patron or employee will be buried in an avalanche, and  deciding that I didn't have suitcase room for some Pleiade volumes. I decided against a signed cop[y of The Poison Pen at Faulkner House Books. And I saw a bit of the city otherwise.

On Carondelet Street, I noticed an odd juxtaposition:

My guess is that Jesuit High School, now several miles farther from downtown, started here. But the right conspiracy buff could find much to work with.

It was my impression that the statue of Andrew Jackson in Jackson Square is similar to but also slightly inferior to the statue in Lafayette Square in Washington; however, Wikipedia says that they are castings from the same mold. It may be that I'm used to seeing the statue from its right side, and in New Orleans I approached it from the left.. The base of the New Orleans statue has "The Union, It Must, and Will be Preserved" on two sides, which an acquaintance attributed to the Federal occupiers during the Civil War. The statue in Washington says "Our Federal Union: It Must Be Preserved", both versions of a toast Jackson gave at the Jefferson Day dinner of 1830.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Librettos of Daydreams

Certain novels astonish me by their popularity.They are set in times and places not so remote as to be unknown, yet the features don't match up. The local color and details belong to some other place, or belong  nowhere. Nor do plotting or sentiment compensate. Both tend to be predictable; the latter is meant to be sweet but cloys. Reasoned arguments do not affect their fans--try giving such a book a one-star review on Amazon, and await the replies.

It has occurred to me that I have been mistaken in taking these books as a finished product: they are the librettos of daydreams.

The libretto for an opera, read in silence, is dull, even if da Ponte has worked from Beaumarchais's play. The lyrics tend to be not much more than serviceable, the plots run to farce and melodrama. Could you sit through The Magic Flute or Rigoletto without the music? Yet when the contralto gets going, I don't care that she is a woman playing a boy, who will presently play a woman. When the countess and Susanna get going, I don't really care about anything else at all.

I believe that readers who keep (say) The Royal Nonesuch way up the NY Times bestseller list for all those weeks aren't really reading the book, they are hearing their own opera. It may be my opinion that the libretto owes more to Winfrey than to von Hoffsmanthal, and that the music is more likely Muzak than Mozart, but I am not the intended audience. For that intended audience, I am the bore who wishes to talk about Freemasonry or gender roles when they're trying to listen to The Magic Flute or Der Rosenkavalier.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Father's Day

It occurred to me this weekend that the first Father's Day acknowledgement I received was over thirty years ago, years before I was a father. The Washington RunHers sponsored a Father's Day five-kilometer race, with the requirement that every entrant be a father or a son. I suppose that I must have heard about this from a friend who belonged to the group. In any case, I found my way out to western Arlington County or thereabouts, and had an enjoyable run, with the encouragement of the wholly female staff. I remember my time, approximately, and I remember bumming a ride back to Rosslyn with a wholly male carpool. I believe I remember the name and face of one of the RunHers who worked the run, an acquaintance. But I thank them, at this distance, for an enjoyable afternoon.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Herakleitos, Again

Opposition and change are the foundation of Herakleitos's philosophy. His fragment 27 says, again in Guy Davenport's translation
When Homer says that he wished war might disappear from the lives of gods and men, he forgot that without opposition all things would cease to exist.
Well, Homer puts the wish into the mouth of Achilles, mourning in Book XVIII for Patroclos. In Book IX, when he and his were still sitting out the battle, Odysseus and Ajax found Achilles playing on a plundered lyre, and singing the glory of warriors. Till then, only Thetis, in Achilles's circle, showed much feeling for the shortness of life.

Fragment 93 says
Homer should be thrown out of the games and whipped, and Archilochos with him.
I don't know what in Archilochos bothered Herakleitos. Archilochos, a mercenary, did know the chances and sufferings of war, and left, like Horace (Odes, II, 7), a poem about discarding his shield in flight from a losing battle.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Opinions Vary

The other evening in 7 Greeks: Translations by Guy Davenport, I noticed Fragment 25 of Herakleitos:
War is the father of us all and our king. War discloses who is godlike and who but a man, who is a slave and who is freeman.
Certainly that was the common Greek understanding. But then in Thucydides, Book 4, Chapter 40, concerning the capture of the Spartans at Sphakteria, one finds
Nothing which happened during the war caused greater amazement in Hellas; for it was universally imagined that the Lacedaemonians would never give up their arms, either under the pressure of famine or in any other extremity, but would fight to the last and die sword in hand.No one would believe that those who surrendered were men of the same quality with those who perished. There is a story of a reply made by a captive taken in the island to one of the Athenian allies who had sneeringly asked 'Where were their brave men-all killed?'; He answered that 'The spindle' (meaning the arrow) 'would be indeed a valuable weapon if it picked out the brave.' He meant to say that the destruction caused by the arrows and stones was indiscriminate.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Jury Duty

Today I turned out at the Moultrie Court House for jury duty, with the eight o'clock shift. About nine we had our orientation video, then the screens went to CNN, with the sound low but too audible. I opted for the hallway, where it was easier to read. And at about 11:30 we were all called into the Jurors Lounge for a jury pool.

Pool members are called out by last name and the last three digits of the juror identification number. The last three digits perhaps should be expanded, for we had three pairs in our pool of 60. We were seated in some order in the courtroom--probably not alphabetical, else I should have been farther back. The judge introduced herself, the attorneys, and the defendants, and at 12:15 turned us loose until 1:45. I walked over to the National Gallery of Art for lunch in the concourse cafeteria.

The voir dire began at about 2:00, requiring just about a minute for each potential juror. At that point the last four into the room were dismissed, then some number of others, I suppose for cause. We then went through about a dozen rounds, in each of which at least two pool members were placed in the section to be dismissed, and generally one or two moved into the jury box. I was in the jury box for a couple of rounds.

About 3:35 the attorneys had the dozen jurors and two alternates for the trial. The rest of us were dismissed to the jury office, and were done for the day, and most likely for at least two years.

The jury office and the clerks work efficiently. I do think that
  • The televisions in the Jurors Lounge are distracting. I recognize that many jurors prefer TV to books, but there were quite a few people with books in the lounge and in the courtroom.
  • The air conditioning is on too high.
  • There should not be a courtroom right next to the juror lounge, where so many potential jurors sit reading and talking. Attorneys and their clients come out discussing the case--today I assume it was one for which a jury has already been empaneled, but will it always be?

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Seen in Philadelphia

Above Walnut Street, a statement of artistic faith:

Along Broad Street, perhaps an artistic statement of faith:

(Though it raises the question whether such footwear counts as sandals under the meaning of Exodus 12.)

At Book Traders on 2nd St., truth in labeling, or certainly opinion:

Azaleas (?) in the churchyard of St. Mark's (Episcopal):

Monday, May 12, 2014

Daytime Sleeping

In Erasmus's "A Dialogue on Early Rising", the late riser says "Truly, no sleep is sweeter than that after sunrise." In the course of the dialogue, the early riser thoroughly schools him in the importance of rising early, and the late riser promises to become philosopher rather than "philypno", that is a lover of wisdom rather than of sleep.

The sweetest daytime sleep I ever had was in the days of my earliest rising, one summer during college that I worked on a highway landscape crew. I rose at 4:30 to be at work at 6, left work at 2:30, cleaned up, and slept until 5:30 or 6 pm. On Saturdays I would wake up with a start at 4:30, turn over, and sleep gratefully a few more hours.

But in general daytime sleep has not suited me. I worked nights for three years, and never got used to it. The rest of the world, on its daytime schedule, wants to make its usual noises. Children play, pile drivers drive piles far away or nearby, lawn mowers and leaf blowers roar. One day some neighbors brought in a crew to remove the concrete in their driveway. I could not ignore the noise, though the jackhammer crew could: one young man was sleeping in a wheelbarrow and another on the sidewalk, while the middle-aged man ran the jackhammer.

There is also the matter of light. Beppe Servergnini writes that this is a problem here because Americans do not understand shutters. Maybe so; I have certainly overslept in a couple of European cities behind shutters. And I remember a couple of co-workers on the night shift discussing a useful trick with Venetian blinds: turn them so inside edge is higher. During the summer of the early work days, our family had a "ranch" house, one built with windows set high in the wall, and so easily made dark.

But really, I'd just as soon know when it is light out, and get up. I say this in late middle age, many years after fatherhood taught me to rise with the sun, and the toddler. Erasmus's late riser is said to be 17, an age at one which one generally is inclined to sleep later.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

A Festival of Elitism

It is sometimes said, commonly in election years or around political issues, that Americans dislike elitists and elitism. This usually seems to involve matters of the mind, or at least of education: the college sticker on your car, however much it impresses the neighbors, might hurt you in a wide enough electoral district.

Yet there is right now on nationwide television an exercise and celebration of elitism, the National Football League draft. The TVs in a building lobby near work had a sports show going yesterday afternoon, with learned disputes over whether a defensive end should be the first pick in the draft. The draft will continue for three days, and will be argued over for years. The proper football fan can tell you how many of a team's picks are still in the league five years after they were drafted.

And in sports, the reward for discriminating elitism is high: you get to keep your job. If you fail at elitism, the owner, the fans, in college the alumni, will blame you and push you out. Nobody minds that. You picked Morgan Leaf? You traded the draft rights to Magic Johnson to sign Gail Goodrich? So long--better luck in your next line of work.

Nobody minds, perhaps, because sports are mostly quantifiable, and almost wholly visible. There is no satisfactory method for demonstrating that Robert Frost's poetry is better than Robert Service's, or that Johann Sebastian Bach was a better composer than John Lennon. But contemporary athletes do compete against one another, with clear enough results. The sport statistics buffs compute "wins above replacement", which offers at least a rule of thumb for comparing athletes of different eras. And for track, field, and bicycling, the measures of time and distance answer most questions.

So what should one say to somebody that objects to elitism? "What happened to the GM who drafted Ryan Leaf?" comes to mind.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

A Minor Correction

In the exhibit "Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections", now at the Getty, there is a relief showing Alexander the Great borne up to heaven by a pair of griffins. I took this to be an apotheosis when I saw the exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, but find that I am wrong.

The anthology I picked up last week has excerpts from Eckhart of Aura's universal history, both of them concerning Alexander the Great. According to the second, the flight with griffins was a matter of aerial exploration. So far from his being received on Olympus, they and he eventually returned to earth ten days walk from his army, to which he returned safely. But I still wish that I had a postcard of the relief.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Back to Camp Hill

For many years, we drove up to the "West Shore", the trans-Susquehanna suburbs of Harrisburg, about every six weeks. Over the last five years, we have been there only two or three times. One was last week, to see friends and family, and stock up on food easier bought there than here. I noticed again that

  1. One sees a lot of turkey vultures soaring above I-270 out past Germantown. Certainly they are around closer in--I saw them on a chimney down the block early this year, and have seen them in Rock Creek Park. But the open country makes them easier to see.
  2. Pennsylvanians understand smoked sausage as well as anyone on the continent, perhaps in the world.  Lebanon bologna is a wonder.
  3. The West Shore Farmers Market in Lemoyne still has the fluorescent lights that make anyone over 20 look embalmed. (It would probably violate some health code to hold a wake and viewing in the market; but the location would offer an excellent excuse for the mourners to say "He looks so natural.") 
  4. The Bookworm on the upper level of the market still has not exhausted its lode of Norman Mailer in various languages. The stock seemed strongest in Armies of the Night (I think Dutch, maybe German--I didn't look closely) and Tough Guys Don't Dance (I think Danish, and perhaps Hungarian). I did not deplete the stock, buying instead a Essays in Disguise by Wilfrid Sheed, and an anthology of medieval writing.
  5. There is no longer an exit from Simpson Ferry Road west to US 15 south. I think it was gone by our last visit a couple of years ago, but it caught us by surprise.
  6. It is "The Ashcombe Farm and Greenhouses" on Grantham Road, not "Ashcombe's". For years I vaguely supposed that the Ashcombe family owned the establishment. Not so. The name "Ashcombe" comes from the estate of some Anglophile or Cymbriphile who built a house a bit east of there.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Pictures at the Zoo

In Chapter 4, "Don't Ever Become Sentimental", of  Joachim Fest's Not I, there is picture of him with his two brothers, taken at the Berlin Zoo in 1933. The older two boys are holding lion cubs; the youngest shares a chair with the middle brother and holds his hand on the cub's hip. The older boys have a look of confidence, the younger seems to be worried about what the camera will make of him.

A friend of ours, some years dead, was born to a Jewish family in Berlin, and got to the US in 1936. The one picture of her German days that I remember showed her in a chair, holding a lion cub. She was a very pretty girl of about 10 or 12 when the picture was taken. If the bad times had arrived, they do not show in her face. I suppose that the picture could have been taken in 1933, and her cub could have been one of those in the picture with the Fests, and so for that matter her chair.

Was it a custom of the prosperous classes in Berlin to have such pictures taken? No American zoo of the last half century would want to risk the liability, I should think.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Noticed in Burke

Happening the other day to open a book to Burke's Speech on Conciliation with America, I noticed the sentences
I do not say whether they were right or wrong in applying your general arguments to their own case. It is not easy, indeed, to make a monopoly of theorems and corollaries.
And farther down he answers Samuel Johnson's
how is it that we hear the loudest YELPS for liberty among the drivers of negroes?
 in detail, if without at all blunting its point:
There is, however, a circumstance attending these Colonies which, in my opinion, fully counterbalances this difference, and makes the spirit of liberty still more high and haughty than in those to the northward. It is that in Virginia and the Carolinas they have a vast multitude of slaves. Where this is the case in any part of the world, those who are free are by far the most proud and jealous of their freedom. Freedom is to them not only an enjoyment, but a kind of rank and privilege. Not seeing there, that freedom, as in countries where it is a common blessing and as broad and general as the air, may be united with much abject toil, with great misery, with all the exterior of servitude; liberty looks, amongst them, like something that is more noble and liberal. I do not mean, Sir, to commend the superior morality of this sentiment, which has at least as much pride as virtue in it; but I cannot alter the nature of man. The fact is so; and these people of the Southern Colonies are much more strongly, and with an higher and more stubborn spirit, attached to liberty than those to the northward. Such were all the ancient commonwealths; such were our Gothic ancestors; such in our days were the Poles; and such will be all masters of slaves, who are not slaves themselves. In such a people the haughtiness of domination combines with the spirit of freedom, fortifies it, and renders it invincible.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Footnotes, Or, Oh, That Hegel

I have been reading, with much interest, Not I by Joachim Fest. I have been distracted here and there by the footnotes. These can be very helpful, as when they identify German poets and writers little known to most of us in the English-speaking world. They can also be a bit odd, something I noticed with a footnote on page 102, which explains a board game of naval strategy, the text  being
later we replayed historic sea battles from Salamis to Trafalgar and Jutland.
The note reads
These are major historical maritime battles from the Greeks via the Napoleonic Wars to the First World War; to Germans it is the Battle of Skagerrak, not Jutland.
Now, given that Fest's memoir is largely about his life under the Third Reich, and about his decision to become a historian, it is fair to assume that most who buy the book will have some interest in history. Those who have enough interest in history to spend $17 and tax on the book seem likely to me to have heard of Salamis and Trafalgar, if not Jutland. Is the footnote in effect an apology for the translator rendering "Skagerrak" as "Jutland"? I'm not likely to find out.

On page 387, discussing the collapse of the Weimar Republic, Fest writes
Consequently, broad but fickle sections of the population, who were essentially well disposed  to the republic, believed themselves to be threatened by radicals of the right and left; they increasingly surrendered to the idea that nothing less than the spirit of the age was against them. With Hegel in one's intellectual baggage one was even more susceptible to such thinking.
And the footnote explains
Fest here refers not to the Hegel whose reception, especially via France, has dominated so much of postmodern Western thought. He writes of the founder and main representative of German Idealism as he was popularly dispensed in German secondary schools and universities well into the 1960s. One of the seminal modern thinkers, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1700-1831) has profoundly changed speculation in most fields of philosophy from logic to ontology and from philosophy of history to aesthetics.
 I cannot imagine who can both understand this footnote and require it.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Not News to Many, But Good News to Me

This morning I happened to be passing by Kramerbooks just above Dupont Circle, when I noticed that the sign gave the ours as 7:30 am through 1:30 am. The closing did not surprise me; the opening surprised and delighted me. I had to go in and buy a book. (Not I, by Joachim Fest). This is yet another reason to walk to work, and take the long way.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Solidarity on Columbia Road, NW

Seen today on the 1700 block of Columbia Road, NW:

The orange sign is headed "ENVIOS DE DINERO"--words more commonly seen on the signs along this commercial stretch.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Calling Myers and Briggs

One day this week, I got onto the bus downtown, and managed to get my preferred seat, the left-side one in back that faces across the aisle. I was slightly aware of a woman sitting in the right corner of the seat across the back, mostly because she was talking on her cell phone. Generally I did not notice, but along about T St. I heard that she was explaining to her interlocutor the difference between introverts and extroverts.

Perhaps we should add the category "Metrovert", one who carries on private conversations in a carrying voice on public transportation.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Challenges and Football

Jay Mathews writes this week in The Washington Post, that many of the country's best high schools, as measured by his "challenge index", have no football teams. He offered a list of fifty local schools, nine of which had no football team. I found the list of schools without football less than persuasive, for it had

  • St. Anselm's Abbey School, which enrolls probably 150 boys in its four high school grades. That is really too few for eleven-man football, particularly if it is to offer any other fall sports.
  • Washington International School is coed, with 900 students total. It is a fair guess that they have about the same male population in the upper grades.
  • The Arlington County alternative high school H.B. Woodlawn. I know nothing about it.
  • The District of Columbia magnet high schools, Banneker and School Without Walls. I don't know much about them.
  • Holton-Arms, Stone Ridge, National Cathedral School, and the Madeira School, which are girls-only.
The criterion of the challenge index produces a list of the top 50 local schools not including Thomas Jefferson High School in Fairfax County. This diminishes my opinion of TJ not at all, and does not improve my opinion of the index. And I find it curious that Gonzaga manages to place about mid-way down, but Georgetown Prep, the other local Jesuit high school, does not appear.

On reading the whole article I had to wonder: if a writer as persuasive as Jay Mathews were to identify a correlation between posture and college admission, would the hallways of our high schools look like West Point?

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Because You Can Never Have Enough

Recently I noticed a statue I hadn't seen before on Massachusetts Avenue NW at Sheridan Circle. I found that it was of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

A plaque beside it says that the statue was paid for by private funds. It stands in front of the building that used to house the Turkish embassy.

The new Turkish Embassy is a couple of blocks away and on the other side of Massachusetts Avenue. It, too, has a statue of Ataturk--

I assume that the Turkish state paid for this one.

Excluding religious figures, I can think of only two other men represented by two or more outdoor statues in Washington. There are two statues of Abraham Lincoln: the immense seated figure at the Lincoln Memorial and a life-sized standing statue near the courts. There are four outdoor statues of George Washington: equestrian at Washington Circle and National Cathedral, standing in front of the Society of the Cincinnati and in George Washington University's University Yard. (There is also a large bust of Washington behind the Masonic Temple at 16th and S Streets NW.)

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

St. Jerome in Washington

A while back, I noticed this statue

of St. Jerome outside the Croatian Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue NW. It identifies him as "St. Jerome the Priest" and "Greatest Doctor of the Church". But apparently it is not clear whether St. Jerome's birthplace was within the borders of modern Croatia or of modern Slovenia.

And last month on Columbia Road, NW, I noticed on a van a sticker I had never seen before, the small blue sticker in the lower right corner of the left window:

"Veritas vos Liberabit", John 8:32 as St. Jerome rendered it in the Vulgate.

Saturday, March 22, 2014


Today my run took me past St. John's College High School. Before I was in sight of the field, I could hear the sound of an aluminum bat striking a baseball. Then I saw boys out warming up in the field. My thoughts ran something like

  1. Isn't it early?
  2. No, it's late March. It's spring.
  3. But look at that pile of snow in the corner of the track.
The newspaper says that plants are three weeks behind. Perhaps so. I did see crocuses out on lawns along our street.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Difficulties of the Easy Way

About four fifths of the way through Under the Net, Iris Murdoch's first novel, the narrator, Jake Donaghue, translator and idler, finds a job as orderly in a hospital:
It amazed me, in retrospect, when I considered how readily I had been engaged--no questions put, no references asked for. Perhaps I inspire confidence. I had never before in my life attempted to get a job. Getting a job was something which my friends occasionally tried to do, and which always seemed to be a matter for slow and difficult negotiation or even intrigue. Indeed it was the spectacle of their ill success which, together with my own temperament, had chiefly deterred me from any essays in that direction. It had never occurred to me it might be possible to get a job simply by going and asking for it, and in any normal state of mind I would never even have made the attempt.You will point out, and quite rightly, that the job into which I had stepped so easily was in a category not only unskilled but unpopular, where a desperate shortage of candidates might well secure the immediate engagement of anyone other than total paralytic; whereas what my friends perhaps  were finding it so difficult to become was higher civil servants, columnists on London dailies, officials of the British Council, or governors of the B.B.C. This is true. I was nevertheless impressed, at the point which our story has now reached, and not only by my having got the job, but also by the efficient way in which I turned out to be able to perform it.
 I walked into similar jobs when younger--delivering chicken, stacking boxes, busing tables, etc. In the poorly compensated range of white collar skills, I have read proof and done copy editing, both which jobs used to be easy to come by. And at a higher level than that, I have known people to take positions with the sort of organizations that Washington has so many of,  jobs that are a bit of a reach for their experience. Commonly, they have done well.

The problem, though, with the low barrier to entry is that the qualified and uncredentialed are not the only ones stepping over. There are plenty of plausible and unqualified candidates who step over too, sometimes at high levels, and then one has to deal with them. This can be rough, particularly when the unqualified have made their way by assertive and unreflecting self confidence.

Long ago, a friend of mine took up the practice of law in his hometown. Over dinner, he hold me about a particular judge in the local courts, a man so lost that one could get away with tricks in his courtroom. He and a colleague managed to introduce hearsay evidence, for example, and the judge, unable to identify hearsay evidence when he heard it, overruled the opposing counsel's proper objection. The problem, my friend said, was that what goes around comes around: the day was sure to arrive when Judge So-and-So would make an egregious error that went against you.