Thursday, February 26, 2015

Coincidental Reading

The other week, I picked up a copy of Kaputt by Curzio Malaparte from Kramerbooks. Some days later, when I was about halfway through Kaputt, I happened to pull The Ice Age, by Margaret Drabble, off the shelf here. I opened it at random, but then quickly found what I had half remembered, a passage running
After that, Anthony found Tim's stories increasingly dull and increasingly unreal. He had never gone much for the theory that good storytellers never have any respect for the truth; on the contrary he tended to think that only the truth could possibly be interesting. However dull the truth, it was more interesting than a fantasy. Anthony began to evolve for himself, while listening to Tim, a new theory: that bores are not necessarily people who talk too much, or who talk too much about themselves, they are people who do not tell the truth, either about others or about themselves.
 And that is one of my objections to Kaputt, that Malaparte weaves fictions around real persons and presents them as if he were writing memoir or history. That would make for uncomfortable reading, even were the events indifferent, or the other parties to the conversations of little fame. But when the other parties are Hans Frank, Himmler and Antele Pavelic, and the events are pogroms in Romania or murders farther east, the discomfort intensifies. Dan Hofstadter's afterword to the book makes just this point
... but the waffling between genres, the implausibility, the scant regard for fact--all grow more and more troubling as they come to bear on the most terrible atrocities of the last century. Readers have a right to feel puzzled, and to wonder what merit a book may have that values the truth so lightly.

Friday, February 20, 2015


When in grade school I used to buy a box of Indian brand pumpkin seeds now and then for two cents. Pumpkin seeds are yellow when raw and golden brown when roasted, but Indian brand seeds were white from the coating of salt on them. When in my early twenties I found that one could still buy them, but for twenty-five cents a box. I also found that I must have had a very high tolerance for salt in my childhood.

Now I think of those pumpkin seeds rarely. I thought of them this week, for many of the streets in Washington are covered with a fine dusting of salt. It is not as opaque as the salt on the pumpkin seeds, but for coverage it comes closer than any culinary application I can think of. Here and there cars leave faint salt clouds behind them as they go. I think that the urge to apply salt has increased since I have lived here. I do walk more and have more time to look than I sometimes have had, so that accounts for some of the increase in what I see. On the other hand, I can remember driving about 200 yards of 16th St. NW with a car that was not entirely in my control, with cars before, beside, and behind me that had no more traction than mine did. That was between ten and fifteen years ago; it would not happen with salt applied to the roads the way it is now.

It might not happen with salt applied more sparingly. Perhaps the experience of a few more winters will help the local authorities find a sufficient but lower level.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

A Suprise

When the young woman applying ashes said, "Repent and be transformed", I was surprised, yet with the feeling that I had been surprised before, probably every Ash Wednesday for years. The new Worship in the pews has for Ash Wednesday only the readings and Psalm; there would be no point in giving the words for the distribution, since the recipient is not expected to say anything. The Spanish missalette offers as alternatives "Repent, and believe in the Gospel" or "Remember that your are dust, and will return to dust." I expect the liturgies in all languages have equivalent latitude.

A friend who went to a Tridentine Mass said that of course there one has the old version, "Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris," which he remarked "nicely captures the sense of 'Threat Level: Orange'".. True enough, and it has the weight of long tradition as well. Yet "Repent and be transformed" seems to to capture well the senses of "Metanoeite",

the watchword of John the Baptist

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Reading Friedell

In his notice of Egon Friedell in Cultural Amnesia, Clive James writes
Translated into English in 1930, the three-volume set of his Cultural History of the Modern Age was such a publishing disaster that it simply vanished. Today it can be obtained only from a dealer in rare books.
 In the fifth paragraph of the book, it struck me why this might be so, for Friedell writes
That things happen is nothing; that they become known is everything.
Fairly or not, I imagine a hundred German heads nodding in agreement and a dozen English or American heads being scratched in puzzlement. James goes on to say that
In the original German, however, Kulturgeschichte der Neuzeit turns up second-hand all over the world, because it was a talisman for the emigration...
Whether for that reason or not, it turned up at a local used bookstore last year, where I bought it. I have now read through to the end of the first volume, which after a long introduction takes one from the years of the Black Plague through the beginning of the 17th Century. I have found it steadily interesting, if slow going. Friedell's eye for the telling detail, and his well-argued judgments on historical movements and figures,  make the book steadily interesting.  Probably I will take a break before I take up Volume II, with the Thirty Years' War.

Friedell's late Middle Ages, an "incubation time" look to me a good deal like Huizinga's; he acknowledges Huizinga's work there. He makes the remarkable assertion that nominalism had a more drastic effect on European history than either gunpowder or the printing press, and offers cogent if not entirely convincing reasons.

His Italian Renaissance looks a good deal like Burkhardt's, whose work he also acknowledges. One might simply say "renaissance", for he considers the northern renaissances as pale reflections of the Italian. He is consistently interesting on the writers and artists: Petrarch, Aretino, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael. He is aware of the faults of Petrarch
He adores simplicity, retirement, and the bucolic, and is steadily occupied in snapping up benefices.
and of Raphael
Everyone understands his sweet womanly faces, his clear figure drawing, his bright and powerful color harmonies. He is what the man in the street expects a painter to be. Raphael speaks to everyone. But just for that reason, he speaks properly to no one.
(I must say that though I find the arguments over Raphael fascinating, I am in no way qualified to judge them.)

I chanced to be reading Diarmaid Macculloch's account of the early Reformation at about the same time as I read Friedell's. I would compare the experience to seeing a reconnaissance photo and an impressionist painting of the same terrain. Macculloch traces the development of Luther's thought in clear detail. Friedell lays more stress on personality, giving one a plausible picture of Luther and his extra-doctrinal life and thought. I did not see that Friedell missed anything relevant in Luther's doctrine, even if he does not work at Macculloch's level of detail. He does bring in some insights of his own: Luther's feeling for music and his utter want of feeling for the plastic arts and poetry; Luther's literalism;  the roots of Luther's style in the "language of the Saxon chancellery," and the great influence of his Bible on the German language; of this Bible that
Not very much of the fragrance, the local color, the whole ambience of the biblical world, indeed of the feeling and thought of the composer, is brought across; but in this way, in his (in every sense) German Bible, Luther has managed to write the most German book in German literature.
He is persuasive on the mystics of the German Reformation (though I am easily persuaded, knowing nothing about them) and on the early Devotio Nova.

 Friedell is hard on the Hapsburgs. With great appositeness he quotes Liutprand on a Byzantine emperor, suddenly hoisted into the air and in a different robe, and uses that as a figure for the Hapsburgs. Yet he acknowledges the qualities of some that he has just damned: after half a dozen pages writing down Philip II, he returns to "Felipe segundo sin segundo"and what Philip II and his time achieved in Spain.

The nearest comparison I can think of in English is Jacques Barzun's Dawn to Decadence, which covers much of the same period, in Barzun's case from the Reformation forward. One could walk away from either with a long reading list.

Thursday, February 12, 2015


The Domain Name System (DNS) is one of the foundations of the internet. It resolves symbolic names to numeric addresses,letting computers know that "" resolves to one of half a dozen addresses beginning 75.125.21; it resolves aliases to their canonical names, translating "" to ""; it tells to world where to send email addressed to "" or ""; it knows that such names have a finite time to live (TTL) and will check again when that time is over. Without DNS, the internet, and for that matter corporate networks of any size, would be unworkable. The software that serves up these names is referred to as BIND on UNIX and Linux machines. At most times in most places it runs properly and nobody but sysadmins gives it more thought than anybody but plumbers and electricians give to water and electricity.

On Tuesday,this week name resolution seemed to be slow and occasionally unreliable. When somebody from the Help Desk mentioned this to me, I logged into the server that runs the named daemon, and sent it a message (SIGHUP) to make it reread its configuration. This had an effect: the system quit answering queries. The program did write out many messages to the effect that it could not find addresses for particular root servers. A BIND that cannot retrieve information from the root servers is of no use for resolving addresses outside its own network, and, I discovered, may be so busy trying and failing that it can do little else. Yet there was no reason the program should have had trouble finding the root servers--the root hints file was fine.

The failure of DNS (domain name service) quickly stops the work of many parts of a network. Email will not go out, and users cannot connect to web sites. I was one of those users, so the usual recourse of checking on Google for the sense of apparently senseless error messages didn't work. After repeated restarts of the named daemon and the caching daemon, we got back to a fairly stable condition, where the name service would respond correctly, if not on the first try, then on the second.

That lasted until I tried another restart Wednesday morning. The daemon reported that it could not find the root servers. Restarting the named and caching daemons was not working. A SIGINT to the named daemon produced a dump of the state in named_dump.db, but that didn't tell me much. Eventually a BSD-oriented blog suggested that the forwarders in my configuration file could be the problem. I commented them out, restarted, and life returned to something like normal.

Clearly I need to be better at reading named_dump.db, and I need to know more about the work of the forwarders in the configuration.

I did notice a few things in named_dump.db that I don't ordinarily think about. There are many curious domain names out there, for one. A few, copied at random, are

with the last perhaps being my favorite. And I noticed how many domains I found for Amazon Web Services, and other such providers. I vaguely knew that such providers serve many sites, but it looked to me as if about half of the addresses our name server knew about had "aws" somewhere in the second-level domain.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Discarding Books

Occasionally I go through my bookshelves and get rid of books not likely to be read or re-read. Probably five years ago, I purged some of my shelves at work. I don't remember most of what went, but this week I found myself wishing I had a book I had been confident I wouldn't open again, Python Programming on Win32

This week I was putting together a makeshift script to take a few records from the beginning of file, a few from its end, and display them in an Excel worksheet. The central logic is simple and took little time to finish. However, it required a bit more than that.

It was desirable to let the user select the file with a graphical interface, for one thing. After some time peering at the Help section and Googling for hints, I figured out how to display a win32ui.FileDialog. That done, the script seemed to work pretty well. It worked correctly when I selected the correct file, when the file was accessible, and so on. That will not always be the case, so there needed to be some way to print a message and exit gracefully.

Without a console, the "print" statement is useless. Various promising objects I tried to create from the win32ui package blew up with unhelpful error messages. I fell back on Tkinter, which looked promising also. But I couldn't make Tkinter exit gracefully, and I have no idea why that is so. Eventually I discovered win32gui.TextBox, which did just what I need. I imagine that somebody proficient in the old Microsoft Foundation Classes would not have needed this explained.

I might have lost four hours on items that   perhaps I could have looked up in the book I discarded those years ago. It takes up no more room than another book I still have and haven't opened since the last time I needed to look at the behavior of an SMTP agent (three years ago? four?). But I will continue to get rid of books and take my chances. Now I just need to remember why I still have Practical Programming in Tcl and Tk, which I hadn't opened in years, and takes up the shelf space of a large-print Bible.