Monday, December 31, 2007

St. Nicholas, Potemkin, and Alexander Herzen

Some of you remember James Biedron* and maybe remember what the term Potemkin Village means. I thought of this when reading Herzen's memoirs while eating lunch today.

* Czar of Russian History, B-CC class of 1957, B-CC social studies teacher from 1969 to 2002, also 30-year coach of B-CC's "It's Academic" team.

At the turn of the year from 1837 to 1838, his three-year exile in the Siberian province of Vyatka was coming to a close. As it does, he recalls the incident a half year before that changed his fortunes. He tells it thus (this is scanned and ocr'd; unlikely to be error-free):

Alexander Herzen, My Past and Thoughts; translated by Constance Garnett, revised by Humphrey Higgens (1968, Knopf)

Vol. 1
Chapter 17
The Tsarevich's Visit


THE Heir will visit Vyatka! The Heir is travelling about Russia to show himself and look at the country! This news interested everyone, but the governor, of course, more than any. He was harassed and did a number of incredibly stupid things: ordered the peasants along the high-road to be dressed in their holiday caftans, ordered the fences in the towns to be painted and the sidewalks to be repaired. At Orlov a poor widow who owned a small house told the mayor that she had no money to repair the sidewalk and he reported this to the governor.

The latter ordered the floors in the house to be taken up (the sidewalks there are made of wood), and that, should they not be sufficient, the repairs should be made at the government expense and the money recovered from her afterwards, even if it were necessary to sell her house at public auction. Things did not go so far as a sale, but the widow's floors were broken up.

Fifty versts from Vyatka is the place at which the wonder-working ikon of St. Nicholas of Khlynov appeared to the people of Novgorod.

When emigrants from Novgorod settled at Khlynov (now Vyatka) they brought the ikon, but it disappeared and turned up again on t?e Great River fifty versts from Vyatka. They fetched it back again, and at the same time took a vow that if the ikon would stay they would carry it every year in a solemn procession to the Great River.

This was the chief summer holiday in the Vyatka province; I believe it is on the 23rd of May. For twenty-four hours the ikon travels down the river on a magnificent raft with the bishop and all the clergy in full vestments accompanying it. Hundreds of all sorts of boats, rafts, and dug-out canoes filled with peasants, men and women, Votyaks, and artisans follow the sailing image in a motley throng, and foremost of all is the governor's decked boat covered with red cloth. This barbaric spectacle is very fine. Tens of thousands of people from districts near and far wait for the image on the banks of the Great River. They all camp in noisy crowds about a small village, and, what is strangest of all, crowds of unbaptised Votyaks, Cheremises, and even Tatars come to pray to the image; indeed, the festival has a thoroughly pagan appearance.

Outside the monastery-wall Votyaks and Russians bring sheep and calves to be sacrificed; they are killed on the spot, a monk reads a service over them, and blesses and consecrates the meat, which is sold at a special window within the precincts. The meat is distributed in pieces to the people; in the old days it used to be given for nothing: now the monks charge a few kopecks for every piece; so that a peasant who has presented a whole calf has to pay something for a piece for his own consumption. In the monastery-yard sit whole crowds of beggars, the halt, the blind, the deformed of all sorts, who sing 'Lazar' in chorus.* Lads-priests' sons or boys from the town-sit on the tombstones near the church with inkpots** and cry: 'Who wants lists written? Who wants lists?' Peasant girls and women surround them, mentioning names, and the lads, deftly scratching with their pens, repeat: 'Marya, Marya, Akulina, Stepanida, Father Ioann, Matrena. . . . Well, Auntie, you have got a lot; you've shelled out two kopecks, we can't take less than five; such a family-Ioann, Vasilisa, Iona, Marya, Yevpraxia, Baby Katerina. . . .' In the church there is much jostling and strange preferences are shown; one peasant woman will hand her neighbour a candle with exact instructions to put it up 'for our guest', another gives one for 'our host'. The Vyatka monks and deacons are continually drunk during the whole time of this procession. They stop at the bigger villages on the way, and the peasants treat them to enough to kill them.

So this popular holiday, to which the peasants had been accustomed for ages, the governor proposed to move to an earlier date, wishing to entertain the Tsarevich who was to arrive on the 19th of May; he thought there would be no harm in St Nicholas, the guest, going on his visit to his host three days earlier. Of course the consent of the bishop was necessary; fortunately he was an amenable person, and found nothing to protest at in the governor's intention of celebrating the 23rd of May on the 19th.

The governor sent a list of his ingenious plans for the reception of the Tsarevich to the Tsar-as though to say, 'See how we fete your son'. On reading this document the Tsar flew into a rage, and said to the Minister of Home Affairs: 'The governor and the bishop are fools; leave the holiday as it was.' The Minister gave the governor a good scolding, the Synod did the same to the bishop, and St Nicholas the guest kept to his old habits.

Among the various instructions from Petersburg, orders came that in every provincial town an exhibition should be held of the various natural products and handicrafts of the district, and that the things exhIbIted should be arranged according to the three natural kingdoms. This division into animal, vegetable and mineral greatly worried the officials, and even Tyufyayev to some extent. In order not to make a mistake he made up his mind in spite of his ill will to summon me to give advice.

'Now, for instance, honey,' he said, 'where would you put honey? or a gilt frame -- how are you to decide where it is to go?' Seeing from my answers that I had wonderfully precise information concerning the three natural kingdoms, he offered me the task of arranging the exhibition.

While I was busy arranging wooden vessels and Votyak dresses, honey and iron sieves, and Tyufyayev went on taking the most ferocious measures for the entertainment of his Imperial Highness at Vyatka, the Highness in question was graciously pleased to arrive at Orlov, and the news of the arrest of the mayor of Orlov burst like a clap of thunder on the town. Tyufyayev turned yellow, and there was an uncertainty apparent in his gait.

Five days before the Tsarevich arrived at Orlov, the mayor had written to Tyufyayev that the widow whose floor had been broken up to make the sidewalk was making a fuss, and that So-and-so, a wealthy merchant and a prominent person in the town, was boasting that he would tell the Tsarevich everything. Tyufyayev disposed of the man very cleverly; he told the mayor to have doubts. of his sanity (the precedent of Petrovsky pleased him), and to send him to Vyatka to be examined by the doctors; while the affair was going on the Tsarevich would have left the province of Vyatka, and that would be the end of it. The mayor did as he was bid; the merchant was in the hospital at Vyatka.

At last the Tsarevich arrived. He gave Tyufyayev a frigid bow, did not invite him to visit him, but at once sent Dr Enokhin to examine the arrested merchant. He knew all about it. The Orlov widow had given him her petition; the other merchants and townsmen had told him all that was going on. Tyufyayev's face was more awry than ever. Things looked black for him. The mayor said straight out that he had had written instructions for everything from the governor. Dr Enokhin declared that the merchant was perfectly sane. Tyufyayev was lost.

Between seven and eight in the evening the Tsarevich visited the exhibition with his suite. Tyufyayev conducted him, explaining things incoherently, getting into a muddle and speaking of a 'Tsar Tokhtamysh'.*** Zhukovsky and Arsenev, seeing that things were not going well, asked me to show them the exhibition. I took them round. The Tsarevich's expression had none of that narrow severity, that cold, merciless cruelty which was characteristic of his father; his features were more suggestive of good nature and listlessness. He was about twenty, but was already beginning to grow stout. The few words he said to me were friendly and very different from the hoarse, abrupt tones of his uncle Constantine and without his father's custom of making his hearer almost faint with terror.

When he had gone away Zhukovsky and Arsenev began asking me how I had come to Vyatka. They were surprised to hear a Vyatka official speak like a gentleman. They at once offered to speak of my situation to the Tsarevich, and did in fact do all that they could for me. The Tsarevich approached the Tsar for permission for me to travel to Petersburg. The Tsar replied that that would be unfair to the other exiles, but, in consideration of the Tsarevich's representations, he ordered me to be transferred to Vladimir, which was geographically an improvement, being seven hundred versts nearer home. But of that later.

After the departure of the Tsarevich, Tyufyayev with a heavy heart prepared to exchange his pashalik for the chair of a senator; but worse than that happened.

Three weeks later the post brought from Petersburg papers addressed to 'the administrator of the province'. Everything was turned upside down in the secretariat; the registrar ran in to say that they had received an ukaz; the office manager rushed to Tyufyayev; Tyufyayev gave out that he was ill and did not go to the office. Within an hour we learned that he had been dismissed sans phrase. The whole town was delighted at the fall of the governor; there was something stifling, unclean, about his rule, a fetid odour of red tape, but for all that it was nasty to watch the rejoicings of the officials.

Yes, every ass gave a parting kick to this wounded boar. The meanness of men was' just as apparent as at the fall of Napoleon, though the catastrophe was on a different scale. Of late I had been on terms of open hostility with him, and he would have certainly sent me off to some obscure little town such as Kay, if he had not been sent away himself. I had held aloof from him, and I had no reason to change my behaviour to him. But the others, who only the day before had been cap in hand to him, who had grudged him his carriage, eagerly anticipating his wishes, fawning on his dog and offering snuff to his valet, now barely greeted him and made an outcry all over the town against the irregularities, the guilt of which they shared with him. This is nothing new; it has been repeated so continually in every age and in every place that we must accept this meanness as a common trait of humanity and at any rate feel no surprise at it. .

My parting with Vyatka society was very warm. In that remote town I had made two or three genuine friends among the young merchants.

Everyone vied in showing sympathy and kindness to the exile.

Several sledges accompanied me as far as the first posting-station, and in spite of all my efforts to defend myself my sledge was filled up with a perfect load of provisions and wine. Next day I reached Yaransk.

From Yaransk the road goes through endless pine forests. It was moonlight and very frosty at night. The little sledge flew along the narrow road. I have never seen such forests since; they go on like that unbroken as far as Archangel, and sometimes reindeer come through them to the province of Vyatka. The forest is for the most part composed of large trees; the pines, extraordinarily straight, ran past the sledge like soldiers, tall and covered with snow from under which their black needles stuck out like bristles; one would drop asleep and wake up again and still the regiments of pines would be marching rapidly by, sometimes shaking off the snow. The horses are changed at little clearings; there is a tiny house lost among the trees, the horses are tied up to a trunk, the sledgebells begin tinkling, and two or three Cheremis boys in embroidered shirts run out, looking sleepy. The Votyak driver swears at his companion in a husky alto, shouts 'Ayda', begins singing a song on two notes. . . and again pines and snow, snow and pines.

Chapter 18
The Beginning of my Life at Vladimir

WHEN I went out to get into my sledge at Kosmodemyansk it was harnessed in the Russian style, with three horses abreast: one between the shafts and two flanking it. The shaft horse, with its yoke, rang the bells gaily.

In Perm and Vyatka the horses are put in tandem, one before the other or two side by side and the third in front.

So my heart throbbed with delight when I saw the familiar troika.

'Come now, show us your mettle,' I said to the young lad who sat smartly in the driver's seat in a sheepskin coat, the bare side turned outwards, and stiff gauntlets which barely allowed his fingers to close enough to take fifteen kopecks from my hand.

'We'll do our best, sir, we'll do our best. Hey, darlings! Now, sir,' he said, turning suddenly to me, 'you just hold on; there is a hill yonder, so I'll let them go.' It was a steep descent to the Volga; III the winter the way lay across the ice.

He certainly did let the horses go. The sledge did not so much run as bound from right to left, from left to right, as the horses whirled it down-hill; the driver was tremendously pleased, and indeed, sinful man that I am, so was I-it is the Russian temperament.

So my post-horses brought me into 1838-into the best, the brightest year of my life. I shall describe how we saw the New Year in.

Eighty versts from Nizhni Novgorod we, that is Matvey, my valet, and I, went into the station-superintendent's to warm ourselves. There was a very' sharp frost, and it was windy too. The superintendent, a thin, sickly, pitiful-looking man, inscribed my travelling permit, dictating every letter to himself and yet making mistakes. I took off my fur-lined coat and walked up and down the room in my huge fur boots, Matvey was warming himself at the red-hot stove, the superintendent muttered, and a wooden clock ticked on a faint, cracked note.

'I say,' Matvey said to me, 'it will soon be twelve o'clock; it's the New Year, you know. I'll bring in something,' he added, looking at me half-inquiringly, 'from the stores they put in our sledge at Vyatka.' And without waiting for an answer he ran to fetch bottles and a bag with some food.

Matvey, of whom I shall have more to say later, was more than a servant: he was a friend, a younger brother to me. A man of Moscow, apprenticed to Sonnenberg, whose acquaintance we shall also make, to learn the art of bookbinding, in which Sonnenberg, however, was not very proficient, he passed into my hands.

I knew that if I refused it would disappoint Matvey, and besides I had nothing against celebrating the day at the posting-station. . . .

The New Year is a station of a sort.

Matvey brought ham and champagne.

The champagne turned out to be frozen solid; the ham could have been chopped with an axe, and was all glistening with ice; but a la guerre comme a la guerre.

'May the New Year bring new happiness.' Yes indeed, new happiness. Was I not on the way back? Every hour was bringing me nearer to Moscow-my heart was full of hopes.

The frozen champagne did not exactly please the superintendent.

I added half a glass of rum to his wine. This new 'half-and-half'**** was very successful.

The driver, whom I had also invited to join us, was still more extreme in his views; he sprinkled pepper into his glass of foaming wine, stirred it with a spoon, drank it off at one gulp, uttered a painful sigh and almost with a moan added: 'It did scorch fine!' The superintendent himself tucked me into the sledge, and was so zealous in his attentions that he dropped the lighted candle into the hay and could 'not find it afterwards. He was in great spirits and kept repeating: 'You've given me a New Year's Eve, too!' The scorched driver started the horses off.

* A plaintive, wheedling song sung by beggars.
** The lists of names were sent up to the priest, who said a prayer for the owner of each name,
*** The Tatar khan of the Golden Horde who in 1382 sacked the Kremlin at Moscow and massacred 24,000 people.
**** In English in the text.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

a pleasant shock while caroling

We sang carols in church last Sunday. Traditional ones: Away in a Manger, Silent Night. Just that sort. I like to sing carols. There I was joining in the festive song, using the low range of my voice since they usually pitch a note or two outside my upper range, glancing at the words printed in the program, but singing most of the verses by heart.

Only most. I don't think I've ever previously encountered the third verse of It Came Upon a Midnight Clear. It speaks of the woes of sin and strife, of a world that has suffered long. It says we've endured 2,000 years of wrong: "And warring humankind hears not/The tidings which they* bring" Then it tells us:
O hush the noise and cease your strife
And hear the angels sing;
How have I missed out on this motherly command all these many Christmases of my life?

{click image to view full size. My source.}

*the angels bending near the earth


Must be something about third verses. We also sang the third of Joy to the World and it also has a surprising turn. It speaks of thorns that infest the ground and blessings that flow "far as the curse is found."

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

a message of faith

Parmenides was first to draw the obvious conclusion from the fact that you can't make something out of nothing. A pre-Socratic philosopher, he was born 2,500 years ago. The web site of Prospect Magazine (UK) has a current article on him by Raymond Tallis, an all-round British intellectual.

The conclusion was that the universe must have always existed, that all its component parts have always been present, and, since these contents have always been, they must always be. What is, is. This isn't too far removed from our current understanding that matter can become energy and energy matter. The whole sum of matter and energy is the whole sum of everything: there's no creation of matter without loss of energy nor creation of energy without loss of matter.

What Parmenides didn't say, but can't be escaped, is that it doesn't make sense that matter and its potential have always existed. We simply can't imagine what it means to say there was no beginning and will be no end. It's the same as saying there was something before time came into being and will be another something after time ceases to be.

To him this "something" of before and after is the concept "nothing."

Parmenides' contemporaries, particularly Democritus, tried to come to terms with this "nothing." He, Democritus -- known as the laughing philosopher from Abder, is famous for pointing out that nothing has to be. Something, anything, all things, everything -- none can exist without nothing. This sounds like wordplay of a sort dear to the Elizabethan wits, and indeed Samuel Beckett made sardonic jokes about it; as when he has Murphy contemplate "when the somethings give way, or perhaps simply add up, to the Nothing, than which in the guffaw of the Abderite naught is more real."
(Grove Press edn. 1957, p.246; guffaw of the Abderite refers to Democritus)

Parmenides also didn't say that the idea of this nothing (no thing, no time, no place) makes very us uncomfortable. Thus Beckett has Malone say "I know those little phrases that seem so innocuous and, once you let them in, pollute the whole of speech. Nothing is more real than nothing. They rise up out of the pit and know no rest until they drag you down into its dark. But I am on my guard now."
(Malone Dies, Grove Press edn. 1975, p.16)

There's much that you can drag out of this navel-gazing, but I only want to draw one simple conclusion. The current state of our knowledge requires that we have faith.

We must take on faith that there an unknowable nothing that preceded all that exists and will succeed it. Faith is required to grasp that there can't be an "is" without an "is not."

I think this is why so many scientists profess belief in God. We need something -- an organizing principle -- to help us come to terms with what we know to exist (this "nothing") but recognize to be unknowable.

This is my way of saying atheism may not be provably wrong but it's unpragmatic; there's no sense in denying a first cause, an organizing principle, a focus for an explanation by faith of that for which there is no other explanation.

A current article in the National Post (Can.) deals with this subject. It's on faith in the virgin birth, an improbability that's easy for atheists to doubt, but it's also about faith in general. The author quotes the Catholic writer Romano Guardini: faith, he says, is the point "where the mind has stopped short at some intellectual impasse." And that point, he wrote, is "this journey of God from the everlasting into the transitory, this stride across the border into history ... something no human intellect can altogether grasp."

The author also says it's tempting to ignore this intellectual impasse, but doing so is against our nature. The author quotes a psychologist -- Prof. Peterson, Univ of Toronto:
[Peterson says] belief is not optional. And regardless of the specific belief, he maintains it is as necessary as air and water.

At its most basic level, belief acts like a set of headlights to guide us through a foggy universe that "is far more complicated than we are smart." So belief is eradicable, he said, because there will never be a time when we know everything.

"Ignorance is a condition of human existence and belief is a necessary means of coping with ignorance," he said. "The assumptions we make about the world directly regulate our emotions and they provide hope and inhibit anxiety."

But at a deeper level, belief represents patterns of a deeper reality that go beyond the physical world. They function like mathematical formulas that seem abstract but actually define an underlying physical reality.

"Our religious sense is grounded in biology," said Prof. Peterson. "It's not a simple cultural overlay. Religious belief and ritual are universal. It's as specifically human as language.

"What's repeated in profound systems of belief are the patterns of life. That's why they're so memorable," he said. "There is something about them that contains the essence of life. These stories can't be forgotten. That's why they last thousands of years."
Pretty good stuff.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

sovereign wealth funds and US sovereignty

The papers are reporting on a new Saudi sovereign wealth fund. I've written about these funds once before. They are established by dollar-rich nations to permit hedge-fund style investing in the world's financial markets. They are important because, until now, these states have relied exclusively on government agencies such as central banks to invest their surplus dollars and these agencies have traditionally made conservative purchases, mostly purchases of US Treasury Securities. This meant that money Americans spend on such things as imported oil is returned to the United States to help pay the interest on our national debt. Without these investments it's safe to say the US would not have been able to keep interest rates low while also increasing national productivity and, in sum, maintaining an economy that grows faster than that of other highly-industrialized nations. These two charts graphically demonstrate US reliance on purchase of Treasury investments by central banks and other foreign sources.

{Click to view full size. Source: Who Do We Owe and How Much?. }

The number and extent of the sovereign wealth funds is large and growing. Their total assets, shown below, are estimated at about $2.5 trillion. They are expected to grow to $12 trillion in the next eight years.

The move from central bank investment in the US national debt toward SWF investments in all kinds of financial instruments destabilizes a precarious balance in global finance. As foreign government shift investments away from US Treasuries, there's a risk that the value of the dollar will plummet. It's dropped already as a result of the housing crisis and foreigners' nervousness about the extent of their holdings of US investments (in addition to other factors of course).

As the International Monetary Fund has repeatedly said, a gradual and orderly decline in the value of the dollar will actually increase global financial stability, since low interest rates in the US have kept the value of the dollar artificially high. So the risk is a dramatic plunge in value. The IMF would like to see a gradual shift from dollar-denominated investments to toward investment in developing nations (coupled, necessarily, with reductions in the US national debt, strengthening of the Euro economies, a shift in China away from internal investment, and in general reform of corrupt regimes in developing countries).

The value of the dollar would plummet, producing a huge international depression, if foreigners made a precipitous decision to move investments to other economies than the US. Since the depression would be global, foreign investors can be expected to do their best to avoid that scenario. They have to balance their risks however.

The risk hangs on a matter not just of rational decision-making in dollar-rich countries but also a matter of faith: faith in the ability of the US to work its way out of the current financial crisis and establish policies that insure -- as much as can be -- orderly and predictable economic growth. So far, the dollar-rich nations have kept this faith. If they were to lose it, one or more of them might pull investments out of the US despite the risk of global depression. Their motivation would be the same as that of investors in an overheated stock market whose fears of recession cause them to do panic selling of their holdings. If a crash is seen as inevitable, those who sell first end up better off, during the ensuing depression, than those who sell only after the value of stocks has gone way down.

The news about SWFs and their investment policies actually has an optimistic aspect in this respect. There's no evidence of a decline in faith in the US economy. Instead what's happening, so far, is SWF investment mainly in the US. They are buying stocks and bonds, but also real estate, and -- I guess it shouldn't come as a surprise -- they are buying up US businesses, particularly within the depressed financial sector.

The Telegraph (UK) explains:
Merrill Lynch set to take $5bn from Singapore, by Angela Monaghan, Dec 22, 2007.


Merrill Lynch is set to become the latest global investment bank to receive a capital injection from an Asian government fund. Temasek's investment in Merrill would make it the fourth bank to receive a foreign state bail-out from cash-rich developing economies to stem their escalating sub-prime problems, a further sign of the shift in power to the Far East and Middle East. China's sovereign wealth fund - China Investment Corp (CIC) - has injected $5bn to shore up Morgan Stanley's capital position in return for equity units that will convert into as much as 9.9pc of Morgan Stanley stock. Abu Dhabi's sovereign wealth fund invested $7.5bn in Citigroup last month while last week GIC, an investment arm of the Singapore government, and an undisclosed Middle Eastern investor injected Sfr13bn (£5.6bn) into Swiss bank UBS.
It seems strange to welcome purchase of US assets by foreign governments. Doesn't it compromise US sovereignty? This has been a major concern, but -- when you think about it: (a) the US doesn't have much choice and (b) the US is already so much dependent on foreign investment that the task for the US government is to regulate these inflows of investment to keep the risk of lost sovereignty to a minimum.

By risk of lost sovereignty I mean such things as the ability of one or more foreign governments to, in effect, blackmail the US into bending its policies to suit the foreign governments. An example might occur if dollar-rich Russia took a huge stake in, say, American Express, and then threatened to sell unless the US aligned with Russia on some issue involving Iran, Iraq, or Afghanistan.

Friday, December 21, 2007

a visual message for Christmas

Click to view full size. Source listed at bottom of post.

I like this image. I'm generally fond of technically well-made monochrome photos with traditional design values and this is a good example of that genre. Much more than that, like the finest short poems it's highly evocative. As you'd expect there are connections to other classic blank-and-white shots, particularly the classic Ansel Adams one of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941. Not so obvious is its evocation of the Nativity:

This picture evokes for me the quiet, peace, and sense of security which are one aspect of the Christmas story. The absence of footprints in the snow suggests expectation. The light illuminates the scene suggesting a watchfulness. A gift to a people dependent on sight for safety, it staves off darkness and gives promise of protection against the unknown terrors of night. It is a beacon visible far and near in all directions, leading the unfortunate to a potential haven. Symbolizing the turning of the year on its longest night, it gives promise of Spring to come as hours of daylight once more begin gradually to increase. And the annual repetition of this seasonal transition is evidence of the permanence of a benign order of the universe inducing a sense of security, hope, and the promise of future rewards.

Nonetheless, the scene is wintry cold, the time is moonless midnight. The light's corona reveals not gentle snow flakes falling but wind-blown sleet. It helps us see in mind's eye the privation that winter inflicts on many. With this knowledge of undeserved want comes doubt about the turn of fate and uncertainty about what the future may bring. It also forces us to recognize the blessings of our own lives and helps convince of the need to provide for others less fortunate.

Finally, this is a landscape of man. It tells us (tell me) that we make the world we live in and are responsible for our actions, good and bad. The buildings are our making and so is the light. We have to acknowledge that we rarely have sufficient information to make essential decisions about our own wellbeing and the wellbeing of of future generations, but that is no invitation to passivity. We must not avoid our responsibility to act: to plan and execute. We can, should, must use what ability we have to find right and do it.

Source: Here's the link to the page containing the image: 겨울 123 / 1005 2007-12-11 01:43
And here's a link to the parent web site: Raysoda

Thursday, December 20, 2007

not your shopping-mall carols

Alan on Corriente Textual says ¡FELICES NAVIDADES! and presents us with an eclectic musical celebration of the season. I particularly like Martinu's Berceuse Enfantine though it's somewhat tame and highbrow compared to most of the others.

Here's a link to his post: Corriente Textual: KISSMAS

In our family the favorite alternative Christmas album is Caribbean Christmas

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

just about beyond comprehension

So much of existence is unimaginable.  It's a pleasant surprise when discoveries such as this can be rendered as beautiful images.

I got this from NewScientistSpace:

Intergalactic particle beam is longest yet found - space - 07 December 2007 - New Scientist Space

Here's the lead paragraph: "An intergalactic particle beam stretching for more than a million light years is the longest ever seen. According to the team that discovered this record breaker, it could help reveal how such jets of matter bind themselves together."

Image caption: "Colossal black holes at the centres of active galaxies power jets of matter that stretch far into space (Illustration: NASA)"

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

a blues map of mississippi

Excellent map from Birthplaces of Mississippi Blues Artists. Click map to view full size. The numbers key to names on the left panel of the page.

{Another post in which I'm trying out Deepest Sender.}

Monday, December 17, 2007

a travel planning resource

I keep eHub in my Bloglines feed list. It's a fast way to keep up with what's new and good. As the site says, it's "a constantly updated resource of web applications, services and sites with a focus on next generation web (web 2.0) and social software." Mostly, the blog just gives you a link to a new app with a short description. Sometimes, however, they do some nice features. This is one - Emily Chang - eHub: Traveling Internet Style.

Here's the lead:

Written by Kim Lau and posted in eHub Features

Travel is a necessary fact of life. We travel to visit far-away families and friends, or we travel for business. Most people, if you ask them, will say “We love to travel”, but if you press further, they will admit that it’s not exactly the act of traveling they love, but the end result - being away from home or escaping the stresses of their personal or professional lives. The romance of travel is often obscured by the stresses of hunting down the cheapest airfares, researching hotels, and looking for the best experiences while avoiding the tourist traps.

The web does offer many solutions, but it does take a little bit of research in order to make the sites work for you. I’ve broken this article down into a few parts: (1) booking - finding the best/cheapest airfares (2) lodging - finding the best hotels, inns or residences for your travel purposes and (3) experiences - establishing and preserving your itineraries and memories.
This post is another experiment in using three Firefox extensions: Deepest Sender, Copy as Plain Text, and Copy as HTML Link.

online exhibit on the early Americas

This new online exhibition at the Library of Congress is unusually good both technically and aesthetically:
Exploring the Early Americas - Exhibits (Library of Congress):
Exploring the Early Americas features selections from the more than 3,000 rare maps, documents, paintings, prints, and artifacts that make up the Jay I. Kislak Collection at the Library of Congress. It provides insight into indigenous cultures, the drama of the encounters between Native Americans and European explorers and settlers, and the pivotal changes caused by the meeting of the American and European worlds. The exhibition includes two extraordinary maps by Martin Waldseemüller created in 1507 and 1516, which depict a world enlarged by the presence of the Western Hemisphere.

Note: I'm trying out three new Firefox extensions: Deepest Sender, Copy Plain Text, and Copy as HTML Link. I found them on

Saturday, December 15, 2007

British Beauty

On and off, I'm currently reading Isaiah Berlin's letters. It's a wonderful book. The review in NYT does it justice. The letters are charming, witty, & all that. They show Oxford life, particularly All Souls life, in the 1930's. They're rich with detail about literature, music, politics, travels in Europe, and intellectual history. There's much about the Jewish elite in Great Britain, the US, and Palistine. The rise of Nazism is present as a backdrop; a tragedy for Jews, but it's future unkown. He sees danger but no signs of build up toward the absolute anihilation of European Jewry.

Born in 1909, he was all of 25 when this photo was taken:

{Click to view full-size.}

As you can see, it's 1934. He and friends are in a garden, taking a break from a formal dance -- the quadrennial Commem Ball at New College. They're a bit self-conscious, none more than IB himself -- a bit apart from the others, over on the right in a pose that says, "I can be theatrical if I wish; I do wish, and so I am."

You can easily be misled by appearances in a single photograph. The men are elegant in their white ties and tails. Nicely done out. The women are well dressed. But aren't they mostly surprisingly unadorned? I'm no expert on formal costume, but I think of my Mom who was 19 at that time. She wanted to look like a movie star: Myrna Loy, Norma Shearer, Claudette Colbert, or maybe Ginger Rogers. Here is a studio portrait of Maire Lynd, second from left in the Commem Ball photo, along with one of Myrna Loy from the same mid-30s timeframe. Both obviously possess an abundance of natural beauty. One chooses to appear unenhanced while the other is strikingly made-up. (Yes, I know, of course I've chosen these photos to dramatize my hypothesis. Nonetheless I do think they help to make the point that I'm groping my way toward.)

{Click images to view full size. One comes from the book of Berlin's letters, the other from a fan site.}

So, my question: Is there a tradition of un-glamor -- or anti-glamor -- among English women?

This comes to mind on reading this astoundingly pro-glam and superficial article in the Times (UK): American beauty?. The author, an American expatriate, compares the grooming habits and relative devotion to appearance among US and UK women, concluding that the latter are unkempt and lazy about grooming. He says, approvingly -- and I don't think this is a put-on:
An informal poll of my US female friends revealed that they spend roughly $700 (£350) a month on what they consider standard obligatory beauty maintenance. That covers haircut, highlights, manicure, pedicure, waxing, tanning, make-up, facials, teeth whitening etc. They will spend a further $1,000 (£500) a month on physical conditioning such as military fitness, spinning sessions, vikram yoga, Pilates, deep-tissue sports massage, personal training etc. On top of that, add the occasional spa day, a week-long “bikini boot camp” in Mexico at the start of every summer and seasonal splurges on personal shoppers and clothing. I’m not sure any of my British female friends spends £700 during an entire year on her appearance. American women see these costs as a simple and sensible investment in their future.
Here's the photo that accompanies the diatribe:

So, then, is there a tradition on anti-glam among British women?


I arrived in London in September 1968 to begin Ph.D. research at the London School of Economics. I'd spent a year in New York City, living down in the East Village, which was known than as a home of flower-power hippiedom. That period time has myriad associations: student rebellion, block power, recreational drugs. Above it all resistance to the war in Vietnam and the effects of a population statistic: the purchasing power of the boomer generation producing a cult of youth.

A more immediate impression on my arrival was the sight of so many young women in mini-skirts and tights. This photo, taken by a woman pro photographer, is appreciative not prurient; it's a pretty good take on what's cast up in my mind's eye when I think back to that time.

{Click to view full size. Flickr source:*}

What I recall of the girls of London -- the many I'd see each day in the tube stations, buses, and pavements -- is a sense of amazement. But I think I understood that this style was indigenous and self-directed, not a product of a celebrity-obsessed society. In fact, I understood the main reason for mini-skirts to be a quirk of British tax law whereby short skirts were classed as children's clothing and taxed much less than longer ones.

London was beginning to enjoy some economic development and it was comparatively easy for young women to find work, but the pay was low and they were necessarily frugal. The tax advantage of short skirts was important to them.

Added to this, at technological innovation, nylon tights, had recently been commercialized. Tights made short skirts practical. A fashion site explains:
When tights were first introduced in the 1960s it liberated women from girdles, roll-ons and suspender belts. It's difficult to know which came first the skirt or the tights, but the introduction of seamless stockings had started the tights revolution. What is certain it is unlikely the one could have existed without the other as no groomed young lady ever went out bare legged then. A pair of Wolsey tights cost about £1 in 1965 and with careful daily washing they could be made to last a month.
This could not last:
The changing fashion scene did not go unnoticed by the Treasury. In 1965 we spent almost £1.7billion on clothing - on a £10 to £15 weekly wage! Up until 1966 skirts under 24" long were classed as 'children's clothing'. In fact, the dresses were becoming so small that on 5th November 1965 the government brought in new Customs and Excise rules to prevent women avoiding taxes by buying children's sizes. The 10% tax depended on the length of the clothes ..... before a rethink! From 1st January 1966 womens clothes were assessed for tax purposes according to bust size, not length.
An article by Margaret Drabble in the Guardian earlier this year helps explain the phenomenon. I think she supports my conjecture: The underlying pressure in the fashion revolution of the 1960s was bottom-up, not top-down. It's not outrageous to say that British women tend to go their own way and resist pressure to be archtypically glamorous. They seem not to become slaves of celebrity and they are careful not to put themselves in debt for appearance sake. As the editor's intro says, "Skirts were short and hopes were high. Margaret Drabble remembers a decade when women got vocal, artists got rude and the young ruled the streets." Here's an extract:
The 60s was an uplifting decade. Our skirts were short, our hair was long, our hopes were high. London was the centre of the world, and we breathed the heady air of social hope. After years of austerity and docility, we sensed freedom.
* The Flickr photog uses the handle pbar12003. The camera's exif data says she took the picture at 11:45am on Oct. 10, 2005, using a Nikon SLR. She makes the photo available with some restrictions (provide atttribution, don't charge money, and don't alter). There are a couple other shots of the same subject in this photostream. The key tags are tights, pantyhose, stockings, and london.

Here's the info recorded by the camera.
Camera Make: NIKON
Camera Model: E5700
Image Date: 2005:10:01 11:43:15
Flash Used: No
Focal Length: 41.1mm (35mm equivalent: 161mm)
Exposure Time: 0.0079 s (1/127)
Aperture: f/3.9
ISO equiv: 100
White Balance: Auto
Metering Mode: Matrix
Exposure: program (Auto)

Friday, December 14, 2007

vélib' and the future of the city

I don't usually do blog posts that merely link you to another blog post, but this quick-and-easy method is appropriate for this interesting post on the business model of the folks who operate the fabulously popular Vélib' bike-sharing program in Paris.

Here's the link: A lesson in business from the French

The author explains how bike sharing funded by advertising is like Google. He says "City inhabitants have two expected 'givens' for the future. The first is 'intermodalite' (using several modes of transport in one day) and the other is mobility itself (actually wanting to move around, not stay still)." This concept is linked to advertising in order to foot the bill for the system, a "Google of the city", where "information is half of the mobility". He says the business model "is about creating 'inhabited infrastructure' which attracts people and which creates more valuable advertising propositions for those with budgets." The key is "to create new flows from points along pathways, not to focus so much on the terminus at each end."

Thursday, December 13, 2007


This morning I saw a blog post containing the phrase "in his pomp"; quite British and, I thought, nice: in his pomp: attempting to make a splendid display as a stuffed shirt might do.

OED has a typically fine definition which includes a 1770 quote by Oliver Goldsmith from his Deserted Village:
Here, while the proud their long-drawn pomps display.
There the black gibbet glooms beside the way.
OED gives definitions for two usages of pomp as noun and two as verb. My favorite is the use as verb meaning to conduct oneself pompously.

It figures in one of Thomas Hardy's Late Lyrics:

I have seen her in gowns the brightest,
     Of azure, green, and red,
And in the simplest, whitest,
     Muslined from heel to head;
I have watched her walking, riding,
     Shade-flecked by a leafy tree,
Or in fixed thought abiding
     By the foam-fingered sea.

In woodlands I have known her,
     When boughs were mourning loud,
In the rain-reek she has shown her
     Wild-haired and watery-browed.
And once or twice she has cast me
     As she pomped along the street
Court-clad, ere quite she had passed me,
     A glance from her chariot-seat.

But in my memoried passion
     For evermore stands she
In the gown of fading fashion
     She wore that night when we,
Doomed long to part, assembled
     In the snug small room; yea, when
She sang with lips that trembled,
     "Shall I see his face again?"
{Source: Thomas Hardy, Late Lyrics and Earlier}
Roy Buckle has set this to music, but I can't find an online version or copy of the score.

On a site called Hardy's Answers, Hardy explains his use of unusual verbs such as this (and other "experiments with vocabulary" that give force to a poem:
Hardy's Short Stories, Poems and Other Wessex Poems


I have read and enjoyed immensely your Wessex Poems. However, it seems to me that from time to time you seem to make words up, in order to make a rhyme or keep the scan. Is that not a bit of a cop out? Good stuff, though.
(Thomas, aged 18-25)


Dear Thomas,

I am delighted you enjoyed Wessex Poems, and also that you spotted my experiments with vocabulary - even though you seem to take rather a dim view of them!

The first thing I should say in my own defence is that ''making words up'' is not at all an unusual activity for a poet: in fact poets help to enlarge and revitalise a language, and have always done so. Think of Shakespeare, who never hesitates to invent a word if one does not exist that suits his purpose. And you will also find modern poets such as Dylan Thomas doing the same.

It isn't really fair to say that in my case such coinages of new words are desperate measures to solve a problem of rhyming or scansion. The usual reason is to achieve greater expressiveness by giving the reader a tiny shock, so that a familiar idea suddenly becomes new again.

In my poetry I also aimed at the maximum degree of concentration, and I prefer to use short, incisive words. Even if the reader has never seen them before, there is usually no difficulty in guessing their meaning.

To give an example: one of my favourite devices is to create a new negative form by adding a prefix to a common word - 'unhope', for instance, and 'unbloom'. These seem to me to have a force that more familiar words would not have.

I ought to add that some of the words that may appear to be ''made up'' are actually revivals of old words that have dropped out of use, or the introduction of dialect or technical words that many people will not have come across before.

When I write (in Nobody Comes) that a car 'whangs along', or (in The Old Gown) that a girl 'pomped along the street', the verbs are of this kind. Of course I could have said that the car moved along, or the girl walked down the street, but I think the way I put it is more vigorous, more arresting, and more memorable. And that after all is what poetry is about. I hope you agree!

Best wishes,


Tuesday, December 11, 2007

a saint

Update: Over a year ago, Alan Cooperman reviewed an exhibit of early Bible texts at DC's Sackler Gallery (A Testament To Change: Early Scraps Of the Bible). In the review, he gives an anecdote about the Bible that St. Ceolfrith commissioned:
For pure symbolism, however, it would be hard to top the Latin translation of both the Old and New Testaments commissioned by the Abbott Ceolfrith when he retired from the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in northern England in 716. The Sackler has just a few leaves of one of these volumes. As a gift for the pope, Ceolfrith called for a huge, lavishly illuminated version, which took three people to lift. The message it was meant to send was that 'the farthest outpost of the empire is where it's at now; we can outdo Rome in craftsmanship, we can outdo Rome in scholarship'. That message, apparently, was received. Sometime in the 9th or 10th centuries, Ceolfrith's name was scratched out of the Bible sent to the pope. It was replaced with the name of an Italian saint, and the codex was assumed to be Italian until the 1880s.

I thought I might find a name-saint so I could celebrate a yearly feast day as do the other members of my family. There's no St. Jeffrey, but there are a few other candidates: a St. Geoffroy of Amiens (also: Godfrey & other variants), a St. Godfrey of Cappenberg, and a St. Ceolfrith (variant spelling: Ceolfrid; in English: Geoffrey). I think I'll go with the last one since one of his celebrated accomplishments was to assemble the largest library in Anglo-Saxon England, and also because he was mentor to Bede. One source says: "The celebrity of his school, in which Bede imbibed his great learning, was very extensive." Here's a link to the entry for him in

Two images that show him. In the first, he is receiving messengers from Nechtan IV, King of the Picts. The second is a icon. The source doesn't explain its origin. In it, he's seen with a book, appropriate because of his acquisition of books and also because he commissioned the Codex Amiatinus, one of the most famous of all Bibles.

{Source: rootsweb. Click to view full size.}

Butler's Lives of the Saints gives a full description of his life and accomplishments.
From Bede, Hist. 1,5, et 1. de Vitis Abbat. Wirim. Item, 1. de Tempo, ribus. See Leland de Scriptor. Bulteau, Hist. 1. 4. Pitseus, and Suysken, t. 7. Sept. p. 123.

A. D. 716.

CEOLFRID is the same Teutonic name with Geoffrey, and signifies Joyful, as Camden remarks. The saint was nobly born in Bernicia, and related to St. Bennet Bishop, with whom he joined in the generous resolution of quitting the world. With him he made a journey to Rome, partly out of devotion, and partly for improvement in sacred studies and divine knowledge. After their return he was St. Bennet's assistant in the foundation of his monastery of St. Peter at Wiremouth, on the north bank of the river, in the bishopric of Durham.

St.Ceolfrid would have regarded it as his greatest felicity on earth, if he could have been as much forgotten by all creatures, and contemned by every one as he contemned and studied to forget himself: and he lived in his community as St. Antony and St. Hilarion lived on their mountains, in the most profound recollection, and in the practice of the most austere penance. When St. Bennet built the monastery of St. Paul at Jarrow, he sent Ceolfrid, with seventeen monks, to lay the foundation of that house, and appointed him abbot. Our saint governed this abbey seven years in St. Bennet's life-time, and was constituted at the desire of that saint, in his last sickness, abbot also of Wiremouth: from which time he presided, for twenty-eight years, over both those monasteries, which for their propinquity and constant connexion were usually esteemed as one, and were generally subject to one abbot.

St. Ceolfrid was diligent and active in everything he took in hand, of a sharp wit, mature in judgment, and fervent in zeal. Bede, who had the happiness to live under this admirable man, has left us most authentic testimonies of his learning, abilities, and extraordinary sanctity. He was a great lover of sacred literature, and enriched the libraries of his two monasteries with a great number of good books; but banished those which could only serve to entertain curiosity. To how great a pitch he carried the sacred sciences in his monasteries, Bede is an instance. He was himself very learned. Naitan, king of the Picts, sent to him, desiring to be informed concerning the right time of celebrating Easter, and the true form of the clerical tonsure. The holy abbot strongly proved and recommended to him the Catholic custom of observing Easter and the Roman tonsure called St. Peters, by a letter which Bede hath inserted in his history.* The king received it with great joy and satisfaction, and commanded both points to be received and observed throughout his dominions. This king likewise desired our saint to send him builders, who might erect a stone church, after the manner of the Romans, promising to dedicate it in honour of St. Peter. The abbot complied also with this request.

St. Ceolfrid finding himself broken with age and infirmities, and no longer capable of teaching his monks, by word and example, the perfect form of monastic observance, resigned his abbacy. The monks entreated him on their knees to alter his resolution; but were, obliged to acquiesce, and, upon his recommendation, chose Hucthbert, or rather Hubert, a very learned priest, abbot of both monasteries, in which then lived six hundred monks. This being done, the saint having sung mass in the morning, made them a strong exhortation to mutual love and concord; and, for fear of being stopped by the grandees of the kingdom, who all held him in great veneration, set out immediately with a design to perform a pilgrimage to the tombs of the apostles at Rome. On the road, besides the canonical hours, he every day sung the whole psalter twice over, and also offered to God the saving victim in the mass which he sung every day, except one when he was upon the sea, and the three last days of his life. After travelling one hundred and fourteen days he arrived at Langres, in France, where, being stopped by sickness, he happily died on the 25th of September, in the year of our Lord 716, of his age seventy-four, of his sacerdotal character forty-seven, and his abbatial dignity thirty-five. He was buried in the church of the three twin martyrs, SS. Speusippus, Eleusippus, and Meleusippus. His relics were afterwards removed to his monastery of Jarrow, and thence, in the time of the Danish devastations, to Glastenbury.
(l) Leland saw a square stone at Jarrow, on which was this inscription: (2) "The dedication of the church of St. Paul at Jarrow, (1) See App. ad Martyr. Gallic. Malmesb. de Reg. 1. 1, c. 3, et Monast. Angl. 1. 1, c. 4. ( 2) See Leland, de Scriptor. ed. a Tanner, p. 162.

* L. 5, c. 22. St. Ceolfrid calls that tonsure St. Peter's, in which the crown was entire of the whole head: but that Simon Magus's, in which the circle was imperfect, and only on the fore part. See Mabillon, Praefat 2d Saec. 2. Bened.

From: The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints by Alban Butler (Published 1866, J. Duffy)

Here's more on St. Geoffroy, given because he shows up in a poem about a picture and because the picture is available online.

One source say: "As bishop he did not cease to take care of the poor and the sick. When some lepers came to him he commanded his cook to prepare food for them; four hours later nothing had yet been done, and he himself went to the kitchen and found a large, prepared salmon which he took to the famished lepers. The cook remonstrated with him, and the Saint told him that it was injustice to allow the poor to die of hunger while unworthy bishops enjoyed food that was too succulent."

This is an extract from a poem about painting:
But sickness comes; and Painting shows
How holy men did cheer its woes.
Saint Godefroy, whom old Amiens knew
As tending sick men, comes to view;
Yon see him standing by their bed:
With these few touches all is said.
From "The Power of Painting" by Kenelm Henry Digby. Little Low Bushes: Poems London, 1869.

Monday, December 10, 2007

a neighborhood, all neighborhoods

Gobbergo has an homage to Mr. Rogers. There was a time I couldn't abide such things -- embarrassing sentimentalia associated with my neurotically smothering Germanic grandmother, turning a blind eye, as I saw it, to the injustices and brutalities of life. With respect to Mr. R, I'm with Gobbergo; I'm done with that attitude.

a blog on vélib' and other bike-sharing programs

Bike-sharing Blog is devoted to bike-sharing systems like the Vélib' program in Paris. It's produced by a bike consulting firm, MetroBike LLC. I've been posting quite a bit on this subject and am happy to be able to point you to a good source for current into on it. The photo is from the current post. It shows bikes from a company with which the University of Washington has a contract for a bike-sharing pilot. The bikes are electric-powered. Here's a press release.
Another post has a nice mash-up from Google Maps. The guy who writes the blog says there are now 62 mature bike-sharing programs. Sixty-one in Europe, one in Asia, and none in North America or elsewhere.

He agrees with me that plans for bike sharing in Washington DC are extremely lame. He says:
Small, but hey, it'll be the first in North America. D.C. contracted for the 120 bikes four years ago when it released its Request for Proposals forits bus shelter contract. Four years ago, a fleet of 120 was impressive. With larger and successful programs like Velib' (10,600 bikes now with 20,600 planned) and Bicing (3,000 bikes now with 6,000 planned), the relative size of a small program has shifted. D.C. officials are already considering how to expand the size of their program.
Incidentally: I used the ScribeFire Firefox extension to prepare this post. Nice and easy. I like it.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

a memorable professor

In the early 60s I was taught Roman history by Russell Meiggs, an Oxford don who was visiting professor for a semester. He had boundless enthusiasm for his subject and life in general. The first uninhibited British academic I met, he actually put on a bathing suit to frolic in the snow on one of the few occasions when we had enough of the stuff for cafeteria-tray sledding and the like. From him I learned about Ostia and its excavations, a subject on which he was typically passionate.

All this came back to me on reading a letter of Isaiah Berlin's from the mid-1930s.* Berlin is writing with typical humor about highbrows, middlebrows, and lowbrows, from which he morphs into a playful introspection on himself as aesthete. Along the way he mentions Meiggs as definitely neither highbrow nor aesthete. The man, he says, spoke and wrote energetically, sprinkling real and figurative exclamation marks throughout. Reading that called back this leonine person, ebullient, unpredictable, and magnetic; a professor to make an indelible mark in my otherwise pretty porous undergraduate memory banks.

Here's his portrait by Michael Noakes which hangs in the Oxford College, Balliol, where he was Fellow for many years.

A website devoted to the archaelology of ancient Ostia provides this strikingly similar photo.

This site also gives the most interesting anecdote about the man:
And then there was Russell Meiggs. He was a very nice man, an eccentric, with long hair. He would still be wearing shorts in November! He had a blue jumper that his wife had made for him, which featured the Portus lighthouse flanked by two ships, like a mosaic in the Square of the Guilds. I remember a very strange visit to Portus. One day Meiggs arrived riding a motorcycle with a sidecar."Jump in! We're off to Portus!"."We haven't got a permit", I said, "the ruins are on private land, the Torlonia estate!". Anyway, in the end we went. We got in through a hole in the fence, but we were discovered by the custodians who called the police at Fiumicino. Meiggs explained, long and loud, that he'd entered the grounds because he was finishing a very important book, and he was given a permit on the spot, something the Italians had been asking for in vain for years!" (From an interview with the archaeologist Alberino Vicari by Jan Theo Bakker, January 1988. I added the links.)
This site also has an appreciation of him that mentions the eccentricity I best recall:
Meiggs was devoted to Swarthmore College and to his colleagues there, and the sentiment was certainly reciprocated. When he came to America he brought with him some of his more exuberant habits, such as rolling in the snow in the coldest days of winter in scant bathing attire. (by G.W. Bowerstock)
From this same website, here's a reproduction of an article on Ostia from the Times (of London) Meiggs wrote in 1954. (I assume the Times editor took out the exclamations that must have been present in the copy Meiggs submitted.)

{Click image to view full size.}

There's also a good page devoted Meiggs giving links on his life and his writings.

*Isaiah Berlin - Selected Letters 1928-1946, by Isaiah Berlin (Author), Henry Hardy (Editor)

Saturday, December 08, 2007


This caricature shows the Earl of Sandwich. He's being lampooned for making himself available for office in an abortive effort by Charles James Fox to form a ministry in April 1757 at the end of the reign of George II in England.

It's a detail from a cartoon by Charles Townshend, one of many he made recklessly ridiculing contemporaries. Townshend was a military officer and politician. He served under Wolfe at Quebec and later, as an MP for Norfolk, was responsible for the infamous Townshend Acts which he intended as just payment by the American colonies to help cover costs of their defense and which the Americans attacked as taxation without representation (first use of that phrase).

Sandwich is the subject of a good biography by N.A.M. Rodger. Rodger defends Sandwich against the accusations of libertinism and compulsive gambling made by contemporaries, but Sandwich did have many mistresses and was a famous gambler. He was also attacked as hypocrite for a speech in the House of Lords in which he effectively destroyed the political career of the notorious John Wilkes, a friend of Charles Townshend. (Sandwich showed Wilkes to be obscene and misogynist and Sandwich's enemies said he was no better; Rodger denies this.) Sandwich was also a naval reformer and administrative reformer in general. When Cook discovered the Hawaiian islands he named them for his patron, Sandwich and, it's true, the sandwich we consume many lunchtimes is also named for him. My favorite Sandwich connection is musical: He loved music, played it himself, and sponsored musical events at his home. He was passionately fond of Handel and took as lifelong companion Martha Ray, a young tradeswoman whose ability as a singer he particularly admired. (This alliance has its own separate story.)

In the Townshend cartoon Sandwich is made to say "I love deep play; this or nothing!" He has a cricket bat over his shoulder in place of musket. Deep play refers to a batting style in cricket but also underhandedness in politics -- an opportunism that was seen at the time as dishonorable, though common. I think the stuff dangling from the end of the bat are his cricket shoes and socks.

The cartoon was an immediate success -- outraging Fox and adherents and tittilating the political gossips in London coffee houses. It was immediately pirated; cards were printed showing each of the individuals it ridicules.

Here's the original. You see Fox leading a bunch of ill-assorted recruits towards an altar, on which is placed the king's son and commander-in-chief, the fat Duke of Cumberland, crowned with laurel. In addition to Sandwich, the recruits included Winchelsea (First Lord of the Admiralty), and Bubb Dodington.

Source: jstor. Click to view full size.

You can read more about this in The Caricature History of the Georges.

Here is a cartoon showing Sandwich's first encounter with Martha Ray.

Source: LoC. Click to view full size.

My source for the Sandwich caricature at top is the book, England Under the House of Hanover. The National Portrait Gallery has the pen and ink original:
NPG 4855(23)
John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich
by George Townshend, 4th Viscount and 1st Marquess Townshend
pen and ink, 1751-1758
5 1/4 in. x 3 1/8 in. (134 mm x 80 mm)
Bequeathed by Robert Wyndham Ketton-Cremer, 1971

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

snow, gentle and ferocious

We're having our first snow fall. It's gently descending. We'll get maybe an inch and a half over the course of the day. This summer's geraniums haven't given up yet. They're a bit droopy after a few frigid mornings, but still pretty.

{Click image to view full size}

The snow reminds me of a famous day in the Giro d'Italia, Italy's version of the Tour de France. On that day an American riding for an American Team won what most probably consider to be the most difficult stage of any European professional race in the modern era. He not only took the stage, but went on to be the first and only American ever to be the overall winner in the Giro.

The connection with snow is a bit surprising. It was June 5, 1988. The race was in the mountains that day, and one of them, Passo Gavia, was experiencing blizzard conditions. The mountain is a high one, 2652 meters, but even at that altitude, in Italy one does not expect a blizzard on June 5.

The American rider is Andy Hampsten, a sweet-natured, clean-living, child of the 70s who -- from appearance and personality -- doesn't seem likely to possess the iron will and indefatigable constitution needed to not just endure but overcome all opponents in mountainous ice and snow. He's a favorite of mine partly because there is no chance, none at all, that he ever used illegal performance-enhancing drugs. And partly also because we have pretty much the same body measurements and thus ride bikes of the same dimensions. It isn't too outrageous for me to fantasize being Andy.

As the accounts I cite below explain, his performance on the Gravia gave Andy a commanding lead in the competition for overall race leader, but he did not win the stage. The stage winner was Erik Breukink, current manager of my favorite professional team, Rabobank. His account of the day would also make an interesting read. The Dutch riders, such as he, and men of Flanders are notoriously hard men, well-adapted to cold, wet conditions they must endure in training for and racing the Spring Classics, Northern Europe's famous one-day races.

Andy gave lots of interviews describing his ordeal that day. One of the best appeared in 2003: Giro 1988: Andy's Epic Day, by Richard Pestes (PezCyclingNews). Give it a read. Here's the opener: "As part of our series on the Giro climbs, we asked Andy Hampsten to recount his epic day on the Passo Gavia in 1988. A day of unquestioned cycling history, Andy started the 17th stage of that Giro in second place, and despite the Italians pleading with him to ride “piano piano” over the last climb, he went on an epic attack that earned him the maglia rosa, and the only American win of Italy’s grand tour. Pull on your woolies – it’s gonna be a cold one … "

Here are some excerpts from other accounts he's given. Note his self-awareness. His modesty has nothing false about it and it's characteristic that he says he didn't win the Tour de France because there were always a handful of racers better than he; there's no hint that he believes he might have won if they, like he, were drug-free.

1. "It was the most difficult day of my life. Nobody would have complained or argued with me if I had pulled over and not raced. It was above and beyond what anyone is asked to do at a race. As a bike racer. . . . It was really hard for me to turn pro and go to Europe. Coming from North Dakota and going all the way to Europe was what I was dreaming about the whole time, so I convinced myself to keep riding and keep racing all the way down the mountain. . . . The fans really appreciated the fact that it wasn't cancelled. It was kind of an end of an era where all the racers raced. Nowadays when the weather is bad sometimes a race gets cancelled. I'm not going to say that's good or bad."

2. "My personality is very good for bike racing. I like doing hard things ... sort of the monotonous beating my head against the wall. And that's the mentality it really takes to do the training to be a bike racer. Now, you know, looking back over the 10 years or so since I've retired, I have chilled out a lot. I don't tell myself everyday that it's another Gavia. I still like to work hard, but I also like to play pretty hard too. One thing I've learned is to not take things so seriously anymore. . . . Do I wish I were a bigger media icon? Personally, no. I tried to win the Tour de France every year I raced, and I didn't. I don't look at it as a failure. There were always three to five other riders faster than me. I'm glad I had all the opportunities that I did to try. I wanted to win the Tour because I respected it. That would have been the coolest accomplishment I could have achieved, and I'm glad I focused on it instead of trying to win more one day races. I wouldn't wish being as famous as Lance Armstrong on anybody. Knowing the way I am, that's not the way I would want it to be. I'd rather just be out riding my bike. . . . [On the descent from the top of the Gavia], at about 6km to go, Breukink caught me, but I was totally blocked and could not respond. Breukink had no rain jacket on, just a jersey, so he could descend faster on the long straight drop into Bormio. There was no bloody way I was going to take my jacket off. . . . After I crossed the finish line, I headed straight for our our soigneur, Julie. I was in such a rage trying to get down the mountain in one piece that when our team doctor, Max Testa, came up behind me and tried to put his jacket around me, I didn't realize who it was and since he was keeping me from Julie and my warm clothes, I started punching him. Mike Neel came over and straightened me out and got me in the team car, which was running it's heater full blast! When I started to warm up the pain started to come back. Mike then told me I had the jersey and the pain and the euphoria swept over me and I just started crying, laughing and shaking. A whole wave of emotions covering the range of finishing the stage to the realization that I would survive gave me a brief and refreshing emotional meltdown. . . . Within 10 minutes of the finish, I was up on the podium. The pink jersey felt good. I slipped it on and all my doubts went away. The TV interviews began and I remember saying 'Incredible, I have never seen conditions like this, even in Colorado. Today it was not sport, it was something beyond sport.'"

This is Andy on the Gravia.

This is one of his struggling opponents.

Here is Erik Breukink.

Andy in the pink jersey of the overall leader after the Gravia had given him a commanding lead. Click image to view full size.

Here are newspaper accounts from that time. Click to view full size.

There's a YouTube video of some Gravia footage, but it mostly concerns Pedro Delgado, another famous rider, and the images are very fuzzy.

Friday, November 30, 2007

on pluralism: sontag, berlin, and gray

I've been reading John Gray and Susan Sontag.

Gray is interesting because he's an outspoken maverick. He's a public intellectual with a good track record in showing how actions that seem good play out badly in the end. He's done this at the time Communism fell apart in 1989, with the growth of globilization and faith in free markets, in the contradictions of the "war on terror," and with the attempt to impose democracy by force in Iraq. His method is simple. As was Thomas Hobbes, he's a pessimist and a skeptic, deeply studied and highly articulate. His guiding principal is that when people take action "the ideas and consequences are rarely those intended, and never only those."

Gray delights in telling us how frequently our preconceptions are wrong. He's best known for pointing to the tragic outcomes -- a couple centuries after the fact -- of the Enlightenment faith in reason and improvement (whether economic, social, cultural, or political). The events themselves are plain enough: There are many advances celebrated in high school history texts -- such as the harnessing of steam power and then electricity, the shrinking of distance via rail, advances in communication, the ascendancy of democracy and democratic ideals in much of the world, the abolition of slavery, the revolution in agriculture. We, most of us I think, unconsciously accept these as instances of progress -- the betterment of mankind or at least some subset of peopledom. But, Gray asks us, don't we also recognize that none -- practically none -- of these advances are unaccompanied by dreadful events: from the horrors of exploitation in the agricultural and industrial revolutions through to the mass slaughters of the 20th and 21st centuries, the plague of AIDs, the injustices of globalization, and tragic failures in ham-fisted efforts to spread democracy. To see what I mean about Gray's single-minded determination to show us the downside of "progress," take a look at any of the many short books he's published, or maybe just scan his articles in the New Statesman.

Gray appreciates Sontag as a fellow-contrarian. Like him, she said that modern civilization is deeply flawed. To quote wikipedia:
Sontag drew fire for writing that "Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Balanchine ballets, et al. don't redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history." (Partisan Review, Winter 1967, p. 57.) ([2]) Sontag later offered an ironic apology for the remark, saying it was insensitive to cancer victims.
Also like him, she delighted in questioning widely-held assumptions, even those held by intellectuals like herself. The obit in the New York Times calls attention to this side of her:
Ms. Sontag had a knack - or perhaps a penchant - for getting into trouble. She could be provocative to the point of being inflammatory, as when she championed the Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl in a 1965 essay; she would revise her position some years later. She celebrated the communist societies of Cuba and North Vietnam; just as provocatively, she later denounced communism as a form of fascism. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, she wrote in The New Yorker, "Whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards."

Despite these similarities, there's a wide gulf in the writings of Gray and Sontag. He's persistent in pushing one big idea -- the pernicious working out of Enlightenment ideals over the centuries since it took hold. While she doesn't pretend to any all-inclusive overview and you can't find an intellectual thread which permeates her writings. There's no doubt about her credentials as a member of the intelligentsia, but she was not dogmatic and she believed that our understanding of the world, the quest to achieve wisdom, isn't wholly the product of our intellects, but just as much a matter of intuition.

Gray understands this anti-intellectual force, but uses it mainly to reinforce his anti-Enlightenment thesis. Note here his emphasis on the power of religion as a countervailing force and his use of the useful phrase "works of clairvoyant speculation" in a review of books in a series devoted to worked that altered history (Battle of the books):
The return of religion as a pivotal factor in politics and war is one of the defining features of the age, and it is time Paine, Marx and other secular prophets were gently shelved in the stacks. The writings of these Enlightenment savants have stirred events for a very brief period in history, now clearly coming to an end. Against this background it is good to have Bruce Lawrence's admirably balanced and informative volume on the Qur'an, and to look forward to Karen Armstrong's volume on the Bible appearing in the Atlantic series next spring. A few great books of science have altered history, as have some works of clairvoyant speculation, such as Freud's Interpretation of Dreams. But the books that have most formed the past, and which are sure also to shape the future, are the central texts of the world religions. Future volumes in the series must surely include Confucius's Analects and the Tao Te Ching, the Bhagavadgita and the Buddha's Fire Sermon - texts that have never ceased to shake the world and, as far as anyone can tell, always will.

All this leads me to a consideration of Gray's take on Isaiah Berlin. Gray knew Berlin personally and in some ways his writings reinforce the pluralist point of view that Berlin consistently advocated. Berlin would certainly agree with Gray's attacks on the fundamentalist point of view and in fact all sources of motivation that are founded on faith in simple, basic, naive beliefs (whether political -- as in the neo-con faith in exporting democracy via warfare, economic -- as in the industrial world's faith in a globalized form of "free-enterprise," or other). But Gray tries to fit Berlin himself into a simple intellectual structure. He says Berlin's philosophy is dominated by a belief in incommensurability: that diverse human values cannot be reconciled with one another (see here for an explanation of this). And in this I believe he's wrong. Berlin's writings warn us against simplistic analyses of complex events and they say you cannot assume there to be a single human nature that all people share and have always shared. But he was not so pessimistic as to write that values cannot be reconciled, must always be in opposition. Unlike Gray he was proud to be both a pluralist and a liberal.

Gray believes "we are ultimately powerless over both our individual and collective destinies, which leads to our nonsensical faith in progress." Berlin believed that individuals and groups can effect change and can overcome conflicts in order to improve their lot. He had a fundamental belief in human decency and he was optimistic about the power of decent people to effect change for the good.

Gray seems to be saying that some core values are inately true. You can't question the basic rules of morality. They are universally true. That belief he shares with Berlin. But they differ when Gray goes on to say there's nothing you can do about the problem of evil -- a failure to act in accordance with these ethical values.

Berlin, like Sontag, believed that intellectuals shouldn't just be skeptics. He believed that people can and should make ethical choices, that conflicting value systems can be reconciled -- at least some of the time, and that a pragmatic outlook coupled with understanding and imagination, can lead to improvements in peoples' lives. As Sontag put it, "I don't want to express alienation. It isn't what I feel. I'm interested in various kinds of passionate engagement. All my work says, be serious, be passionate, wake up."

I conclude that, ironically, Gray, who espouses a kind of pluralism, has a monist flaw. In Berlin's terms, he's at core a hedgehog and not a fox, while Berlin himself, and Sontag, are undoubtedly in the fox's den.


1. Here's Berlin's famous statement about hedgehogs and foxes:
The Hedgehog and the Fox - Isaiah Berlin (excerpt)
There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: 'The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing'. Scholars have differed about the correct interpretation of these dark words, which may mean no more than that the fox, for all his cunning, is defeated by the hedgehog's one defense. But, taken figuratively, the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general. For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel - a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance - and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle; these last lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal, their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision. The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes; and without insisting on a rigid classification, we may, without too much fear of contradiction, say that, in this sense, Dante belongs to the first category, Shakespeare to the second; Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Proust are, in varying degrees, hedgehogs; Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, Joyce are foxes.

2. Here's a link to a good introduction to Berlin's ideas. I urge you to read it. From the book, The Power of Ideas, by Isaiah Berlin, edited by Henry Hardy: MY INTELLECTUAL PATH Chapter I (Also available as pdf

3. Here's a link to Sontag's excellent essay on appreciating beauty (pdf).

4. There was a good interview article on Gray in The Independent a few years back. It explains some of Gray's appeal, much like that of Christopher Hitchins, Here's a paragraph:
Gray is very good at his destruct jobs. Here he is on Post-Modernism: 'Just the latest fad in anthropocentrism.'; on atheism: 'Secularism is like chastity, a condition defined by what it denies.'; on environmentalism: 'A high-tech Green utopia, in which a few humans live happily in balance with the rest of life, is scientifically feasible, but it is humanly unimaginable.'; on Buddhism 'This is only another doctrine of salvation, subtler than that of the Christians, but no different from Christianity in its goal of leaving our animal inheritance behind.' As you can see, this is not some work of middle brow, Alain de Bottonesque consolation, philosophy viewed as an antiseptic sticking plaster for the fevered mind. This is the full monte, with isms falling right left and centre, free will savagely downsized and morality revealed as a perennial but threadbare attempt to market white as the new black.