April 28, 2012

1. Constellations

I’m trying to learn some constellations. Nowadays, serious astronomers have a certain disdain for constellations; they view constellations as “kid’s stuff” with little relevance for science. But learning constellations is an important first step; it makes the night sky seem familiar and interesting, it enables one to understand literary references to stars, and it enables one to understand something about the history of astronomy. There are several observatories in the Providence area, where a novice can get tips from experts. The best visibility is in remote areas, the worst is in urban areas (“light pollution”).

The first constellation that people in the northern hemisphere learn is the Big Dipper, whose bowl points to the North Star (as we see in the state flag of Alaska), and whose handle points to Arcturus and then Spica (“follow the arc to Arcturus, then speed to Spica”).1 Technically, the Big Dipper isn’t a constellation but rather an “asterism” in the constellation Ursa Major (the Great Bear).

The constellation Orion can be seen from the southern hemisphere as well as from the northern hemisphere. Orion is a hunter is Greek mythology, and a line of three stars is in the middle of the constellation, forming the hunter’s belt. Orion is easily seen between November and February, less easily now (April), and it can’t be seen at all in June. According to Wikipedia, “Orion is very useful as an aid to locating other stars. By extending the line of the Belt southeastward, Sirius can be found; northwestward, Aldebaran. A line eastward across the two shoulders indicates the direction of Procyon. A line from Rigel through Betelgeuse points to Castor and Pollux” (see diagram). Betelgeuse is part of the Winter Triangle, while Rigel is part of the Winter Hexagon.

Gabriel Oak, the protagonist of Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, sees Orion from a hilltop in December:

The sky was clear — remarkably clear.... Since evening the Bear had swung round [the North Star] outwardly to the east.... A difference of color in the stars — oftener read of than seen in England — was really perceptible here. The sovereign brilliancy of Sirius pierced the eye with a steely glitter, the star called Capella was yellow, Aldebaran and Betelgeuse shone with a fiery red.... The Dog-star [i.e., Sirius] and Aldebaran, pointing to the restless Pleiades, were half-way up the Southern sky, and between them hung Orion, which gorgeous constellation never burnt more vividly than now, as it soared forth above the rim of the landscape. Castor and Pollux with their quiet shine were almost on the meridian: the barren and gloomy Square of Pegasus was creeping round to the north-west; far away through the plantation Vega sparkled like a lamp suspended amid the leafless trees, and Cassiopeia’s chair stood daintily poised on the uppermost boughs.

Astronomers are abuzz now about the transit of Venus (Venus passing in front of the sun), which will occur on June 5, and won’t occur again for 105 years. In an earlier issue, I discussed how the transit of Venus was once used to calculate the distance from the earth to the sun.

To learn more about the night sky, you might look at a book called A Walk Through the Heavens: A Guide to Stars and Constellations and their Legends.

2. Allan Bloom

Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind is being re-issued, on the 25th anniversary of its original publication in 1987. A reviewer in the Weekly Standard quoted what may be the most profound passage in the book: “The crisis of liberal education is a reflection of a crisis at the peaks of learning, an incoherence and incompatibility among the first principles with which we interpret the world, an intellectual crisis of the greatest magnitude, which constitutes the crisis of our civilization.”2 Bloom continues thus: “Liberal education flourished when it prepared the way for the discussion of a unified view of nature and man’s place in it, which the best minds debated on the highest level. It decayed when what lay beyond it were only specialties, the premises of which do not lead to any such vision. The highest is the partial intellect; there is no synopsis.”3

A synopsis, a view of the whole, is what I’ve long aimed at. What I call the Philosophy of Today represents a shift in “the first principles with which we interpret the world,” a shift from a rational approach to a non-rational approach. Surely Bloom understood that his idol, Leo Strauss, didn’t present “a unified view of nature and man’s place in it.” Rather, Strauss presented a way of studying old texts, and provided an example of dedication to this study. But Strauss never got past books, never got to things themselves, never got to “the nature of things,” let alone presented “a unified view of nature and man’s place in it.” Didn’t Bloom realize that what’s needed is a new philosophy, not just a way of studying philosophy? Bloom seems unaware that a new philosophy is not only urgently needed, it’s possible. If I remember correctly, he doesn’t call for a new philosophy, but merely for a careful study of past philosophies.

3. Paper and Printing

The word “paper” comes from “papyrus,” a plant that grew near the Nile, and was used for writing on. In China, bamboo was used for writing on. Animal skins were also written on, perhaps because papyrus was in short supply, perhaps because those who controlled the papyrus supply weren’t always willing to export it. Paper made from animal skin was called parchment or vellum. Even today, some special documents, such as diplomas, are written on parchment, hence a slang term for diploma is “sheepskin.” The word “parchment” comes from “Pergamon,” an ancient city where a famous library was located, and where the technique for making animal-skin paper was refined. The word “vellum,” like the word “veal,” comes from vitulus, Latin for calf.

Since papyrus was scarce and parchment expensive, a medieval scribe often chose to re-use existing parchment. He would take an unpopular book, un-bind it, remove the parchment, erase it as best he could, then write his new text on the parchment, and re-bind it. The term “palimpsest” means “erased and used again.” Scholars try to decipher the original text underlying the later text. Some of Archimedes’ writings have survived only in palimpsest form, hidden beneath a later religious text written by a medieval scribe.

The Chinese developed a method for making paper in the modern way, from wood pulp, wood fibers, perhaps around 200 AD, hence the Chinese are credited with inventing paper. (Paper is considered one of the four major Chinese inventions, along with printing, gunpowder, and the compass. The Chinese also invented the wheelbarrow, the stern-post rudder, cast iron, the spinning wheel, and the water-powered loom.4) The Chinese technique for paper-making didn’t reach the West for many centuries. It probably came to the West via the Muslim world. In his book Jews and Arabs, S. D. Goitein wrote,

In 751 the Arabs clashed with the Chinese in Central Asia. They took Chinese prisoners who were familiar with the production of paper and put them immediately to work; and before the end of the eighth century there was a paper mill in Bagdad. [The introduction of paper] increased the production of books and writing to a degree unprecedented in the history of the countries settled by Jews....[It] had an effect on Jewish culture and our knowledge of it, possibly greater than the beginning of printing in the fifteenth century.5

The Chinese began printing with wood blocks around 600 AD, and began printing with movable type around 1,000 AD.6 In the wood-block method, characters were carved onto wood, the wood was inked, and then paper was pressed against it. In the movable-type method, individual characters were made from wood or clay (metal was used later). A Chinese typesetter needed at least 20,000 characters, while a Western typesetter needed just 26 letters. Furthermore, if more copies of a book were needed, the Chinese typesetter would have to set the type again, but if the book were printed from wood blocks, it was easier to print more copies, hence the wood-block method allowed “print on demand” (assuming, of course, that the printer kept the blocks after the initial printing). Thus, even after the development of movable type, many Chinese printers continued using wood blocks.

One might say there have been four revolutions in writing culture:

  1. The invention of fiber-based paper, making paper more readily available, and writing more common;
  2. The invention of printing (by wood blocks or movable type), making books more readily available;
  3. The development of paper-making factories (such factories were developed in Europe around 1800); as Wikipedia says, “Although cheaper than vellum, paper remained expensive... until the advent of steam-driven paper-making machines in the 19th century.” Cheaper paper (in conjunction with advances in printing) led to a proliferation of books, newspapers, magazines, etc.
  4. The development, in our own time, of computers, paper-less writing, publishing via the Internet, etc. Another significant development in our time is self-publishing, which is leading to a dramatic increase in the number of printed books.

It could be argued that each of these revolutions, while disseminating literature more widely, has also debased it, as currency is debased by multiplying it; it could be argued that literature flourished, in both China and the West, before any of these revolutions took place.

4. Amazon

In a recent issue, I discussed the bad press Amazon had been receiving, and I pointed out how Amazon helped self-published authors. Now another wave of bad press has washed over Amazon. The federal government is suing Apple and various publishers, charging price-fixing on e-books. The suit will enable Amazon to lower the prices of e-books, and thus make e-books much cheaper than printed books. This will make it harder to sell printed books, and harder for the local bookstore to survive.

It may also make it harder for publishers to survive; Amazon is becoming a publisher itself, and competing with traditional publishers. “Amazon, already the dominant force in the industry, will hold all the cards.” Amazon will have the most popular device for reading e-books (Kindle), and it will be the biggest seller of both printed books and e-books. “Competition erodes as the spread between e-books and physical books grows greater. There will be fewer retail stores.” One bookstore owner said, “My fear is that the major publishers won’t be able to stay in business just selling e-books. You can’t bring in enough money to support the infrastructure. If that happens, there goes the marketing, the editorial, the author tours, the expertise of the book industry.”

It seems to me, though, that the only “expertise” publishers have is in marketing blockbuster books by famous authors. Publishers no longer read manuscripts by unknown authors, except to see if the manuscript can turn a fast profit. They make no effort to judge the literary value of a manuscript, or to promote good literature. And even if they tried, would they be able to recognize an original work? To recognize an original work is almost as difficult as writing one. According to one publisher, “Someone needs to say this is good and this is not.” But this is a task that publishers don’t try to do, and couldn’t do if they tried. Publishers talk as if they deserve to make money because they discover unknown writers, but actually they make money by publishing established writers like Stephen King.

One criticism of Amazon is that it squeezes the profit out of the book industry — even for itself. As a New York Times article says, “Amazon has $48 billion in revenue but hardly any profit.” In this respect, Amazon and I are in agreement. I’m not trying to make money, I’m trying to disseminate my writings and build a reputation. I priced my e-book at $1, and my paperbacks at $9.95 (below cost).7 Serious writers aren’t trying to make money. Proust, for example, published at his own expense, and was willing to lose money. Serious writers are as willing to lose money as Amazon is — more so.

Before the government suit, e-books were surprisingly expensive — almost as expensive as printed books. As one New York Times reader put it, e-book publishers had

raised the prices to a level equal to hard copies which had to be printed, shipped to warehouse then to the stores, stocked on shelves, and finally checked out, versus pressing a button and having the book arrive over the airwaves. No paper, no trucks, no big box stores, etc.... It was a bit annoying to be paying the same for something that cost the “publishers” very little.... Pleased with Amazon.

As I looked at reader comments on the New York Times website, I found that many supported Amazon.

5. Movies

A. I saw an acclaimed movie from 1984, Amadeus, which deals with the rivalry between Mozart and Salieri. The movie is based on a play by Peter Shaffer, which in turn is based on an 1830 play by Pushkin. I didn’t like the movie much when it came out, and I didn’t like it much the second time, either. It exemplifies the modern tendency to belittle the great man. Doubtless Mozart himself would be horrified by it. Not Salieri, but the movie Amadeus is the real enemy of Mozart.

B. I saw a movie from 1982 called Diner, about teenagers in Baltimore in 1959. They often meet and chat at a diner, hence the name of the film. The film is a minor classic; it was made into a TV show in 1983, and is now being made into a Broadway musical. In my view, Diner shows American culture at its most philistine and vulgar. At the end, though, the various frictions and disagreements are resolved in a pleasant harmony.

C. I saw a classic movie from 1973, Paper Moon. It’s an amusing story about a con man and a young girl who’s probably his illegitimate daughter; it takes place in the Midwest in the 1930s. It drags on occasion, but has a charming conclusion. The con man is played by Ryan O’Neal, the young girl by his daughter, Tatum O’Neal. The film is directed by Peter Bogdanovich. The phrase “paper moon” comes from a 1933 song, “It’s Only a Paper Moon.” When Bogdanovich asked Orson Welles if he thought “paper moon” would make a good title, Welles said, “That title is so good, you shouldn’t even make the picture, you should just release the title!”

6. Andrew Skurka

I went to a lecture here in Seekonk by Seekonk’s own Andrew Skurka, a well-known long-distance hiker, and the subject of articles in National Geographic. Skurka hiked the Appalachian Trail (2,170 miles), the Sea-to-Sea Route across the northern U.S. (7,778 miles), the Great Western Loop in the western U.S. (6,875 miles), a route around Alaska (4,679), etc.

The Alaska hike was perhaps the most difficult since he wasn’t following trails (except an occasional animal trail), temperatures were often low, he went many days without seeing another person, grizzly bears were a threat, his feet were usually wet, etc. He showed video of himself that he took during the Alaska hike, and he often looked scared, threatened, miserable, close to tears. Skurka says “you’ll never feel comfortable in Big Wilderness,” but it teaches humility. His family sent boxes of food to points along his route, so he could replenish his supplies. I’m not sure if he tried to live off the land (berries, fish, etc.). He was a runner in college, and he covers about 30 miles a day on his hikes. He tries to travel light — only about six pounds, apart from food and water. About one-fourth of his Alaska hike was on skis, another one-fourth was in a pack-raft. His website advertises his clinics, guided trips, backpacking book, etc.

He speaks well, and he’s sincere, but he seems focused on selling books rather than delivering a great talk.

In a recent issue, I discussed evolutionary psychology, and said, “We’re social animals, and our prehistoric ancestors, whose lifestyle was more social than ours, were probably happier than we are.” Does this explain why Skurka was miserable when he was alone in Big Wilderness? Is there something unnatural, something contrary to human nature, in extreme solitude?

7. Civil Society and Broken Windows

A recent essay in the Weekly Standard by Gertrude Himmelfarb discusses “civil society,” and complains that the federal government is “aggressively expansive” and “increasingly intrusive.”8 Himmelfarb says that civil society is a middle ground between individual life and government policy. She says that “the battle cry of civil-society enthusiasts” is a quotation from Burke: “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections.... We begin our public affections in our families.... We pass on to our neighborhoods and our habitual provincial connections.”

Civil society is eroded from below by individualism, and from above by state power. “Civil society — families, communities, churches, workplaces, formal and informal associations — was to be the countervailing force to an overweening state on the one hand, and an unrestrained individualism on the other.” Himmelfarb describes Obama’s health-care plan as “perhaps the most ambitious enlargement of the welfare state since its inception.” Himmelfarb mentions other instances of state power:

For some of the major institutions in civil society, the state has become a model and even a collaborator. Philanthropic societies, almost as large and bureaucratic as government agencies, are often little more than conduits of the state for the distribution of private funds, which they are obliged to distribute, moreover, in accord with government requirements. Financial institutions are subject to government regulations so rigorous as to make them quasi-governmental organs. Public schools assume functions once reserved to the family, displacing parents, for example, in the sex education of their children and in the inculcation of sexual mores — again, in accord with Department of Education regulations. So, too, trade unions, professional associations, universities, hospitals, and other ostensibly private institutions are subject to so many public controls as to make them more public than private.

Civil society is eroded from above by state power, and from below by a lack of civility and courtesy, and by a proliferation of disorderly behavior and petty crime. Himmelfarb mentions the Broken Windows theory (James Q. Wilson) and the earlier discussion of subway graffiti (Nathan Glazer). “Vandalism, public drunkenness, obstreperous panhandling, and the like — minor infractions of the law which generate an atmosphere of lawlessness that is an invitation to crime.”9

It would be interesting to study intersection behavior — that is, how drivers behave at intersections. Is intersection behavior different in different neighborhoods? How often do drivers wave to another driver, implying “you go first,” and how often do drivers wave back, implying “thanks for letting me go first”? Intersection behavior exemplifies courtesy between strangers.

Behavior in public bathrooms exemplifies what might be called civility in the public domain. Behavior in public bathrooms is especially significant because it’s usually unseen by others, so it isn’t affected by fear of other people’s anger, or desire for other people’s esteem; one might call it civility in a pure form. Does behavior in public bathrooms differ in different neighborhoods? Does it differ in different nations? In my book of aphorisms, I wrote

Fundamental Law of Ethics  Always leave a public bathroom a little cleaner than you found it. This might be called a fundamental law of politics, too, since society benefits from people acting responsibly and civilly in the public domain.

Burke firmly believed in the importance of civility, courtesy, manners:

The habits we put in practice end up shaping the people we are within. “Manners are of more importance than laws,” Edmund Burke wrote. “Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in”.... The contemporary philosopher André Comte-Sponville argues that “politeness is the first virtue, and the origin perhaps of all the others”.... Jane Austen is the novelist most famous for advocating this point of view [hence her works are called “novels of manners”].(David Brooks)

8. Brooks vs. Obama

The New York Times columnist David Brooks is regarded as a moderate conservative, a conservative without a partisan edge, a conservative who tries to compromise. Lately, though, Brooks has been sharply critical of Obama. Brooks says that Obama isn’t making a serious effort to deal with the budget-deficit problem. (I made a similar criticism a year ago.) Brooks says that bold action is required to avoid “fiscal calamity.” Republican Paul Ryan has proposed such bold action. Brooks says,

I have my own problems with Ryan’s plan, which Obama identified. But Ryan has at least taken a big step toward an eventual fiscal solution. He’s proposed necessary structural entitlement reforms, which the Democrats are unwilling to do. He’s proposed real tax reform, which the Democrats are also unwilling to do.... [Obama] has not offered anything close to a sufficient program to avoid a debt crisis.... Obama shouldn’t be sniping at Ryan. He should be topping him with something bigger and better.10

Brooks’ criticisms of Obama led to an unusually heated exchange between Brooks and the liberal Mark Shields (Brooks and Shields discuss the political scene on PBS every Friday night).

Another New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, is less conservative than Brooks, but he, too, has been criticizing Obama’s approach to the deficit problem. While complaining about Romney’s “ludicrous opposition to any tax hikes,” Friedman says that Obama has failed to propose serious taxation-and-spending reform, choosing instead to propose a tax on the super-rich (“the Buffett tax”), which is nothing but a “clever campaign gambit.” Obama doesn’t want to get serious about deficits if it would reduce his re-election chances. Friedman argues that a third candidate should enter the presidential race, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.

© L. James Hammond 2012
visit Phlit home page
make a donation via PayPal

1. Wikipedia explains how the Big Dipper also points to Capella, Regulus, Alphard, and Castor. For more astronomy info, visit Sky & Telescope. back
2. “The Book That Drove Them Crazy: Allan Bloom’s ‘Closing of the American Mind’ 25 years later,” by Andrew Ferguson, April 9 - April 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 29 back
3. Part III, “The Student and the University,” “Liberal Education,” pp. 346, 347 back
4. See Jacques Gernet, A History of Chinese Civilization, ch. 15 back
5. Ch. 6 back
6. In the West, block-books appeared in the 1460s, as a cheaper alternative to books printed with movable type, which began appearing in the 1450s. Soon, however, movable type became cheaper, and block-books disappeared. Illustrations, however, continued to be printed using blocks of wood. back
7. My first two paperbacks were $9.95, my last two, which are longer, are $17.95. back
8. “Civil Society Reconsidered: Little platoons are just the beginning,” April 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 30 back
9. In an earlier issue, I discussed the Broken Windows Theory in connection with Malcolm Gladwell. I also discussed a competing theory that downplays the importance of petty crimes. back
10. This quotation combines two Brooks columns. back