Thursday, September 27, 2012

On Writing

Ezra Pound by Henri Cartier-Bresson

The Old Man gets criticized for his writing. It is too long, too complicated, too this and too that. But then, the Old Man knows that critics are just failed writers.

But then again, so are most writers.

Sunday, September 23, 2012


While driving I-35 through the Kansas Flint Hills yesterday, I got to thinking about numbers. More specifically, I guess, I was thinking about how we measure distance. Highways are measured in straight lines even though we don't travel that way. It is really a combination of curves, rises and falls. No one travels as the crow flies, but still we measure that way.

Off of I-35. near Garnett, Kansas, a straight road

For the most part, the highway is measured in miles and feet. Inches are left to shorter items that we hold in our hand. But, miles and feet are not a universal measurement. In Europe and most of the world the kilometer and meter are used. This is because meters are a more precise form of measurement when it comes to computers and calculators. Kilometers and meters are based on the numbering system of ten. You can thank Napoleon for this revolutionary change. But remember the Greeks and Romans were counting in units of ten long before Napoleon resurrected their system.

But what are miles and feet based on?

Back in the Merry England of the Middle Ages, and Europe for that matter, no one kept rulers in their pocket. If you had to measure something, then the measuring stick was a body part. The foot is an easy one, for it is the length of a man's foot, give or take. The inch was the width of a thumb.

How about the mile?

The mile is a left-over of the Roman Empire's rule over Britain. The Romans had a measurement known as mille passuum, or a thousand paces. A pace (don't be confused, today a pace is generally considered as one step) was two strides, the distance from when the heel of one foot was lifted off the ground until it was placed back on the ground. This was about five Roman feet. The Roman soldier, like contemporary ones on parade, would count off until reaching a thousand paces. The Latin word for a thousand is mille, which becomes mile.

Hui! Or Latin for wow!

The Romans left mile markers throughout the Empire, so that they would always know where they were. Next time you are breezing down the highway look to the side and you will see highway markers in miles. Bridges have a similar mile marking. This way the Highway Patrol can note where you are if a break-down occurs.

But wait, why 5,280 feet?

The British farmer was not going to count up to 5,000. He would get lost in counting along the was. Instead, a shorter measurement was needed. One that aided one in getting to the magic mile. If you have ever counted the cards in a deck of 52, then you know it is sometimes best to stack them in piles of ten, so as to not mess up your count. The Chinese abacus has counters of five an ten that help the counter to add to higher numbers.

The Old Man is tired of plowing, Credit: © Bob Langrish.

Now, back to the ancient British farmer. This measurement was the furlong. The furlong was the distance a plow horse could plow a straight line on a farmers field before getting tired. This distance was agreed by all sensible people to be 660 feet. That number is convenient because it has as common factors the numbers 3, 4, 5, 10, and 12. It was easy from this distance to jump to a mile consisting of eight furlongs, or 5,280 feet. Today, the furlong has for the most part disappeared except on the race track where the measurement is still used.

Other body parts have been used by ancient civilizations for measurement. The Hebrews, Greeks and Egyptians used the cubit or length of the forearm. Noah's ark was measured at 300 cubits long, 50 wide, and 30 high. The cubit is similar to the yard, the distance from nose to extended arm, which was a useful way for merchants to measure rope or cloth. Finally, there is the hand which was the width of the hand or about four thumbs wide. Full-grown horses often measure about fifteen or sixteen hands, but it is hard to imagine that a horse would stand still while the farmer placed his hands along the horse that many times.

Hope this helps.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

No Good Deed Shall Go Unpunished

U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three others were killed when an angry crowd stormed the U.S. consulate in Benghazi Tuesday night. For 20 minutes Libyan guards exchanged fire with the attackers, but they were overcome by automatic weapons, rocket propelled grenades and firebombs.

Christopher Stevens.

This senseless attack is an example of the phrase that, "No good deed shall go unpunished."

Ambassador Stevens supported the Libyan cause for liberation. His help to the Libyan people in their time of need was repaid with blood. That the film that precipitated the attack was not the work of the United States but a lone individual, demonstrates that hate needs no logic.

But as the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton observed, small and savage groups always try to hijack the cause of freedom.


Since the initial reports of the attack on the consulate office in Benghazi, it appears that the security guards initially identified as U.S. Marines were actually former Navy Seals. One of the former Seals has been identified as forty-two-year-old Glen Doherty, a native of Boston. CBS News.The other security guard/former Navy Seal was identified as Tyrone S. Woods. Woods was married, the father of three sons, and a veteran of  tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

NBC News.

The information specialist killed along with Ambassador Stevens and the two guards was Online Gamer Sean 'Vile Rat' Smith, part of the gaming Goonswarm guild, a husband and father of two sons. With the consulate under attack, Smith typed a message to Goonswarm director Alex “The Mittani” Gianturco, “Assuming we don’t die tonight. We saw one of our ‘police’ that guard the compound taking pictures.”

The Hollywood Reporter

The point of the afterward being don't jump to conclusions, people are often wrong about their facts, and, most importantly, real people die.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Outside the System

Note to my son on his freshman year at CSU.

College is not an education. A diploma is not the guarantee that you possess all the answers.

Remember the classic movie and book, The Wizard of Oz. Dorthy and her companions go to the Emerald City looking for the answers to their problems. For the Scarecrow, it is his lack of a brain. The Wizard concocts a bran cereal mixture, places it in the Scarecrow's head, and declares that he has bran-new brains. The Scarecrow then shows his brain power by placing his finger to his head and incorrectly reciting the Pythagorean Theorem:
"The sum of the square roots of any two sides of an isoceles triangle is equal to the square root of the remaining side. [Is this answer correct?] Oh joy, rapture, I've got a brain. How can I ever thank you enough?"

The Wizard reminds the now brainy Scarecrow about the universality of brains and solemnly presents him with a rolled up diploma:
"Why, anybody can have a brain. That's a very mediocre commodity. Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the Earth or slinks through slimy seas has a brain. Back where I come from, we have universities, seats of great learning, where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts and with no more brains than you have! But they have one thing you haven't got - a diploma. Therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Universitatus Committeatum E Pluribus Unum, I hereby confer upon you the honorary degree of Th. D...that's Doctor of Thinkology"
Common sense is not so common, said Will Rogers, and brains are not so universal. Creative thought, the purpose of an education, requires thinking outside the box.

I am sitting on the back porch sipping a cup of coffee and reading Outside magazine. It contains stories of unconventional athletes, of extraordinary cities, and out-of-the-way places. It reminds me that one has to get outside the system to experience life.

Life is not about following a well worn path, it is about blazing a new trail. I think back to my own freshman experience and remember Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, a spiritual journey of self-discovery. Siddhartha has it all - he is rich, lacks for no worldly wants, has the best teachers, and yet, he knows nothing of the real world and its problems.

Thinking back on it now, isn't all philosophy a journey of self-discovery?

You mentioned to me the other day how dry and dismal is the Economics class you are taking.

It is thirty-some years later and the method of teaching an Economics class hasn't changed.  They are still teaching the same supply and demand curves as an explanation for all economic activity. Sure it is easy to quantify economic activity as a relationship between supply and demand, but this merely identifies that there is a economic relationship and doesn't begin to touch upon the many factors that determine production and price in an economic relationship. One example, water is in unlimited supply, therefore it should have a price of zero. And yet, we know that Madison Avenue has created a market. This market extends not only to the "rare" spring waters, but also to natural tap water, that Coca Cola markets and sells as Dasani.

My second major objection to the teaching of Economics is that it assumes for the most part that all transactions involve two individuals. Someone is selling and someone buys. In law, the buyer and seller in an exchange are referred to as ready, willing and able. The problem of how markets work is not so simple as to say I have X widgets and Y buyers, and therefore, Z production or price. Production, prices, and demand are products of many things. And distortions can occur because of many factors. Think monopolies, governmental regulation, cultural taboos, popularity, etc. Thus, Economic theory is an alphabet soup and not simply X's and Y's. Economics theory also demands an understanding of group dynamics. Read the work of John Nash, a Nobel Laureate in Economics, and the protagonist of the movie and book A Beautiful Mind.

I think the Rolling Stones had John Nash in mind when they wrote and sang You Can't Always Get What You Want.
You can't always get what you want.
But if you try sometimes well you might find,
You get what you need.
Bargaining often involves compromise of needs. Nash can be summarized as saying that most human interchanges are a function of game theory. We sometimes get what we want, but usually we have to compromise with the world around us, and settle for what we need. This distinction underlies the difference between macro and microeconomics. And if they are not teaching game theory in your Economics class, shame on them.

Enough of boring Economics.

My real point is that you have to get away from the classroom to get a real education. Like Siddhartha, you need to take your own spiritual journey to learn both the questions and the answers to life. You will learn in life, that both the questions and the answers change from generation to generation. This means that the problems that your generations face are markedly different from those of your parents and teachers.

Get outside from time to time. Go kayaking or hiking! Watch a dorky video on conventional stuff to do in Fort Collins.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

We're going to hell in a hand-basket

Every boy's favorite movie has got to be Stand By Me, Steven King's paean to the awkward years of growing up. Growing up implies a slow process of maturing, but there is always a seminal moment when it strikes us that something has changed. The change is forever and there is no going back.

I suppose that we don't fully understand the change that comes over us at that critical age. And our conversation is an odd mixture of profanity, humor, and budding philosophy. It is only years later, as an adult, that the change make sense.

Memories are rare. There are simply too many people and too many events to remember it all. We have to be selective in what we choose to remember. In the movie, Stephen King's omniscient Writer, speaks:  "It happens sometimes. Friends come in and out of our lives, like busboys in a restaurant."

My growing up summer was long ago, but I can remember some of the details like it was yesterday. That summer's popular TV show for boys was Daniel Boone, starring Fess Parker as Daniel and Ed Ames as Mingo, his Indian companion. Boone and Mingo were blood brothers, having partaken of the ritual of cutting their forearms and mixing blood. My friend and I became spit-brothers. Not brave enough to cut ourselves with a knife, we still mixed a little saliva and achieved a similar, though less painful result. Funny, I can remember what Fess Parker and Ed Ames look like, I can't remember my friend's face or even his name. 

I was in sixth or seventh grade. My family was then living in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. My father went to the Army's War College, a kind of graduate school to the Army Command and Staff School at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, where we had been a couple of years prior. I was the middle child of five, I had four sisters who made my life miserable. Why not, we had nothing in common. In the two years we lived at Carlisle, my mother would give birth at some point to a sixth and final child, a brother. Too little, too late to make a difference in my isolated personality.

We lived along a street with a row of houses that are common to the military, two story red brick, all alike. In front of our house and all the houses were young sycamore trees. I remember them because the limbs were springy like a trampoline. Everyone in the neighborhood climbed the trees, and most fell from the tree at least once. Middle age is a time of dares. The big dare was to see who could climb the highest in the tree without falling. I remember climbing to the top and flipping upside down to get my toes just a bit higher than anyone else. I don't remember now why I thought that suspending myself upside down was an advantage. But then, not everything we did then made sense.

My strangest memory is what the mother of my closest friend said. I don't remember much of my friend now even though we built tree forts and rafts together, and, like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, we were often to be found in the woods on adventure. In time, he became like one of those many busboys in a restaurant a distant figure.

But his mother said something one day that has stuck with me ever since.

It was a normal day. It must have been summer for it was the middle of the day and we were not in school. The two of us, my friend and I, were going in and out of the house, annoying everyone with our rowdy behavior. Then, on one of the trips in or out, it matters not which direction, we ran into his mother who was standing at the door. She was tall and had brown hair. She wore Capri slacks and a white blouse with the sleeves cut off. Her brown hair was short. I remember her as a sort of Jackie Kennedy look alike, but who knows how accurate that is. She might have been carrying in the groceries, but I don't remember. All I remember is that she had the air of one who was busy.

She was like all mothers and fathers of that era. They lived in a parallel universe. We kids had little interaction with them, only at breakfast and dinner would we sit down together and exchange forced pleasantries.

What I do remember is that she said to the two of us something that was strange at the time. "We're going to hell in a handcart, and I am pushing the cart." There was no context, no reason to make the remark that I can remember. Perhaps, I had said to her, "How are you doing Mrs. SoAndSo?" And, this was her way of being flip. The world stopped for a moment as I processed this strange comment, and then it went on its way.

The phrase has taken firm root and like an oak tree stood the test of time. I can't be sure of the exact words, for the colloquialism should be, "Going to hell in a hand-basket." This is generally translated to mean, things are slowly coming apart at the seams. This might describe the mess we kids were creating, but, I remember her phrase slightly differently, and that she assured me that it was she who was one driving.

That, I think, is why the phrase has stuck in my mind. It was different. It was my first inkling of an existentialist philosophy. No matter where life takes you, be in charge.