September 24, 2012

1. What Does “Love” Mean?

“When my grandmother got arthritis, she couldn’t bend over and paint her toenails anymore. So my grandfather does it for her all the time, even when his hands got arthritis too. That’s love.”
- Rebecca, age 8

“When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. You know that your name is safe in their mouth.”
- Billy, age 4

“Love is when a girl puts on perfume and a boy puts on shaving cologne and they go out and smell each other.”
- Karl, age 5

“Love is when you go out to eat and give somebody most of your French fries without making them give you any of theirs.”
- Chrissy, age 6

“Love is what makes you smile when you’re tired.”
- Terri, age 4

“Love is when my mommy makes coffee for my daddy and she takes a sip before giving it to him, to make sure the taste is K.”
- Danny, age 7

“Love is when you kiss all the time. Then when you get tired of kissing, you still want to be together and you talk more. My mommy and Daddy are like that. They look gross when they kiss.”
- Emily, age 8

“Love is what’s in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen.”
- Bobby, age 5

“If you want to learn to love better, you should start with a friend who you hate.”
- Nikka, age 6

“There are two kinds of love: Our love, God’s love. But God makes both kinds of them.”
- Jenny, age 4

“Love is when you tell a guy you like his shirt, then he wears it every day.”
- Noelle, age 7

“Love is like a little old woman and a little old man who are still friends even after they know each other so well.”
- Tommy, age 6

“During my piano recital, I was on a stage and scared. I looked at all the people watching me and saw my daddy waving and smiling. He was the only one doing that. I wasn’t scared anymore.”
- Cindy, age 8

“My mommy loves me more than anybody. You don’t see anyone else kissing me to sleep at night.”
- Claire, age 5

“Love is when mommy gives daddy the best piece of chicken.”
- Elaine, age 5

“Love is when mommy sees daddy smelly and sweaty and still says he is handsomer than Robert Redford.”
-Chris, age 8

“Love is when your puppy licks your face even after you left him alone all day.”
- Mary Ann, age 4

“I know my older sister loves me because she gives me all her old clothes and has to go out and buy new ones.”
- Lauren, age 4

“I let my big sister pick on me because my Mom says she only picks on me because she loves me. So I pick on my baby sister because I love her.”
- Bethany, age 4

“When you love somebody, your eyelashes go up and down and little stars come out of you.”
- Karen, age 7

“Love is when mommy sees daddy on the toilet and she doesn’t think it’s gross.”
- Mark, age 6

“You really shouldn’t say ‘I love you’ unless you mean it. But if you mean it, you should say it a lot. People forget.”
- Jessica, age 81

2. Miscellaneous

A. The so-called “flash mob” is a way for classical music to be spontaneous, popular, free. Click here and here for examples. Click here for a less classical example.

B. A Word Problem  A society has a population of 302,718,342. 1% live like kings and have nothing to worry about, while 99% worry a lot and can’t seem to ever get ahead. 47% live off the government, while 53% work hard and take responsibility for their own lives. 38% are bitter clingers, fond of guns and religion. Let x be the number of freeloaders, y the number of people who want to become freeloaders but haven’t figured out how, and z the number of people who support Obama because he listens to an iPod. Show your work.

C. In an earlier issue, I mentioned In the Garden of Beasts, a book about Germany in the 1930s, by journalist/author Erik Larson. Now another book on that subject has been published: Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power, by journalist/author Andrew Nagorski. Click here for Brian Lamb’s interview with Nagorski. Like Larson, Nagorski was influenced by William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which Nagorski insists is a first-rate treatment of the subject.

D. Watched Carl Sagan’s 13-hour documentary, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1980). It has some interesting information about the history of science, but it also has some preaching — preaching against the occult, against religion, etc. It shows how the place of science has become so lofty in our time that scientists presume to address all sorts of ultimate questions.

3. Richard III

I read a novel called The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey. Published in 1951, it deals with the controversy surrounding Richard III — did he murder his two nephews, as many historians have said, and as Shakespeare said in Richard III? The Daughter of Time is a short, readable work that introduces you not only to Richard, but to English history in general. Tey writes with verve and grace. The Daughter of Time is often called one of the best mystery novels ever written, but it might be more accurate to call it a “history novel” rather than a mystery.

According to Tey, the traditional view that Richard was a monster is a myth — invented by his enemies, then passed down from one historian to the next despite a lack of evidence. She mentions several other historical episodes that she regards as myths. But she doesn’t seem to be aware of the greatest historical myth: Shakespeare. Tey notes that people are often annoyed when their myths are punctured:

It’s an odd thing but when you tell someone the true facts of a mythical tale they are indignant not with the teller but with you. They don’t want to have their ideas upset. It rouses some vague uneasiness in them, I think, and they resent it. So they reject it and refuse to think about it. If they were merely indifferent it would be natural and understandable. But it is much stronger than that, much more positive. They are annoyed. Very odd, isn’t it?2

Oxfordians can relate to Tey’s remarks. They can also relate to the mission of the Richard III Society: “It is proof of our sense of civilized values that something as esoteric and as fragile as reputation is worth campaigning for.” And Oxfordians would agree with a remark of one of Richard’s supporters, Horace Walpole: “Historic justice is due to all characters.... What does it signify that we have been for two or three hundred years under an error? Does antiquity consecrate darkness? Does a lie become venerable from its age?”

Tey doesn’t pretend to be discovering something new. She says that several earlier writers argued that the traditional view of Richard was false. For example, Horace Walpole wrote Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard III (1768). In our own time, Paul Kendall has delved into the controversy, writing a well-regarded biography of Richard, and editing a volume of earlier writings about Richard. Like Tey, Kendall defends Richard.

But the old view that Richard was a monster still has many adherents. For example, David Starkey’s documentary on British monarchs views Richard as a monster. Starkey was a prosecution witness on a TV show called The Trial of Richard III (Richard was acquitted at this trial).

Briefly put, the argument for Richard is that he had no motive to murder the boys, and the crime is inconsistent with his personality and his record. On the other hand, Henry VII (Richard’s successor) had a motive, and Henry’s personality and record are consistent with such a crime.

A few days ago, it was claimed that Richard’s bones were unearthed near the site of his death (he died at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485). The shape of the bones was consistent with the assertion that Richard was a hunchback. DNA from the remains is going to be compared to the DNA of a man in London who is descended from Richard (descended over 17 generations). Richard’s supporters, including members of the Richard III Society, may want his bones moved to Westminster Abbey.3

Josephine Tey is a pen name of Elizabeth Mackintosh. She also used the pen name Gordon Daviot.

A couple years ago, I came across a local history myth. I was walking on a bike-path in Barrington, Rhode Island, and came across a sign dealing with Barrington history. It said that John Hampden had come to Barrington around 1623, and tried to cure Massasoit, an ailing Indian chief. It said that Hampden later became a Parliamentary leader in England. When I did some research, however, I found that the Hampden in Barrington was a different Hampden, not the famous politician who fought against the king’s forces in the English civil war, not the man who has been called the Winston Churchill of his time, not the man mentioned in Gray’s Elegy, in the same stanza as Milton and Cromwell. The myth of John Hampden in New England, like many such myths, had been handed down from historian to historian, and no one bothered to examine the evidence. I passed along my findings to the Barrington Preservation Society, who said they would look into it.

4. Autism

An article in the New York Times says that autism is increasing, or at least diagnoses of autism are increasing. The article says that autism may result from a faulty immune system, from chronic inflammation in the brain. If a pregnant woman has an infection, her child is more likely to have autism; “the mother’s attempt to repel invaders — her inflammatory response — seems at fault.” The article says that, in addition to autism, other inflammatory diseases, like asthma, are also increasing, as are auto-immune diseases.

Why are all these diseases on the rise? “Scientists have repeatedly observed that people living in environments that resemble our evolutionary past, full of microbes and parasites, don’t suffer from inflammatory diseases as frequently as we do.” One scientist argued that “asthma and autism follow similar epidemiological patterns. They’re both more common in urban areas than rural.... In the context of allergic disease, the hygiene hypothesis — that we suffer from microbial deprivation — has long been invoked to explain these patterns. Dr. Becker argues that it should apply to autism as well.... Parasites are famous for limiting inflammation. Humans ...evolved with plenty of parasites.” One study put whipworms into people with autism and other diseases, and the results were encouraging.

5. New York City

I saw a 15-hour documentary on the history of New York City. It was made by Ric Burns, younger brother of Ken Burns.

One person who figures prominently in the film is Robert Moses, builder of highways, housing projects, etc. Moses said that the American economy depended on cars, and that cars required roads. He seemed unaware that, in the end, people’s lives matter more than cars, roads, and economies. He seemed unaware that “there is no wealth but life” (as Ruskin said). Moses and other city planners seemed impatient with the old city, with the city as it was; they wanted to act, they wanted to change things. If Lao Zi were alive, he would have said that sometimes the wisest course of action is to do nothing. Robert Caro, who wrote a biography of Moses, said that, in his early years, Moses wanted power in order to get something done, but as he grew older, he wanted to do something in order to possess power. If the Master Builder had stopped building, what would have become of his power?

But the film fails to discuss alternatives to the highways of Moses. It discusses the damage done by the CrossBronx Expressway, but it doesn’t say, “It could have been built underground. Or it could have been an elevated highway, which would have disrupted the neighborhood less. Or it could have been built north of the city instead of through the city. Or trains could have been used to transport people and goods, instead of building a highway.” Since the film criticizes Moses without mentioning alternatives, defenders of Moses can say, “His highway projects were destructive but necessary.”

But while his highway projects may have some defenders, his housing projects have few defenders, if any. A contemporary economist said that his housing projects replaced “well-functioning neighborhoods with Le Corbusier-inspired towers. Moses spent millions and evicted tens of thousands to create buildings that became centers of crime, poverty, and despair.”

While Moses is one of the villains of the film, Jane Jacobs is one of its heroes. Jacobs was a writer and activist who opposed “urban renewal” projects, especially those that swept away old neighborhoods. Jacobs helped to prevent Moses from building a highway through lower Manhattan. She wanted a city that was pedestrian-friendly and bike-friendly, while Moses wanted a city that was car-friendly.

Certain episodes in the history of New York seem to echo earlier episodes, and remind one of earlier episodes. For example, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which claimed 146 lives, reminds one of the attack on the World Trade Center: in both cases, a raging fire drove people to jump from high windows to certain death. And the anarchy of the 1863 Draft Riots reminds one of the anarchy that prevailed during the 1977 blackout (the film pays little attention to the blackout).

The film discusses the World Trade Center at length. It says that the Center was conceived after World War II, to promote international trade; one might say that it was in the economic sphere what the UN was in the political sphere. The Center was targeted by terrorists because of its international ambitions, because it was a symbol of American power, etc. One of the early advocates of the Center was banker David Rockefeller, who wanted to enliven southern Manhattan, where his Chase Manhattan Bank was located; Rockefeller and others were concerned that southern Manhattan was losing ground to Midtown Manhattan.

The Center was bigger than private business could afford, so it was funded, owned, and managed by a government institution, the Port Authority. The head of the Port Authority, Austin Tobin, worked hard to overcome all the obstacles, all the resistance, to the Center, but when it was finally completed, Tobin seemed disillusioned. He seemed to wonder, Why did we work so hard? What have we accomplished? People are often inspired by obstacles and challenges, and disillusioned by accomplishment.

The Center had many critics. Some people questioned its architectural merits, others pointed out that New York didn’t need more office space, and still others said that the Port Authority shouldn’t be in the real estate business. The Center was an “urban renewal” project, the kind of project that public opinion was turning against. To acquire space for the Center, many old buildings and streets had to be taken by “eminent domain” and destroyed. A business district called Radio Row, where you could buy a vacuum tube for 5 cents, was razed.

By the 1990s, however, the World Trade Center had become profitable, and had become a fixture on the New York skyline. The film says that the Center’s enormous amount of office space allowed New York to participate in the financial boom of the 1990s. In recent years, however, we’ve seen the boom followed by a bust, so we wonder about the benefits of finance.

The structure of the Center’s Twin Towers was different from that of earlier skyscrapers. Earlier skyscrapers, like the Empire State Building, had a strong steel skeleton in their interior, while the strength of the Twin Towers was on their outside, their skin. This gave the Twin Towers more space inside — they didn’t lose as much space to interior columns. They were strong enough to withstand the impact of large airplanes, but their relatively slender steel beams proved vulnerable to fire — more prone to weaken, sag, and melt than thicker beams.

The engineers of the Towers said they were the first structural engineers in New York to use computers. Perhaps they had too much faith in computers, too much faith in their tests and simulations. The only true tests are Reality and Time. Perhaps the engineers should have used an old design, a design that had already passed the tests of Reality and Time. If they wanted to use a new design, perhaps they should have used it on a smaller scale, a more conservative scale, a humbler scale.

I’ve spent thousands of hours writing database software, and in that field, it’s well known that the first version of a program is unreliable, even if the creators make every effort to test it. Perhaps the engineers of the Twin Towers put too much faith in man, in human reason, in intelligence, in computers, in their ability to simulate reality. Perhaps they invested too heavily in a novel design, in Release 1.0. Perhaps they ignored the danger of a black swan, an unforeseen event.

The Ric Burns film discusses Philippe Petit, who became famous for walking on a wire stretched between the two towers. A policeman who witnessed the feat said Petit didn’t walk on the wire, he danced. He was on the wire for 45 minutes, and made 8 crossings. He said it was easy being on the wire, and he felt happy there. Finally he decided to get off; he said he didn’t want to tempt fate, didn’t want to annoy the gods that are in the buildings, in the wire, in everything. In earlier issues, we discussed this sort of respect for the gods, respect for the world, and we said that the opposite of this respect is frevel. Petit was successful because he wasn’t a freveler, he knew when to stop.

When Petit was a teenager, he was in a dentist’s waiting room, looking at a magazine, and saw a picture of the Twin Towers. The picture struck a chord in him, he knew immediately that this was his destiny; he tore out the picture, and left the office. This shows how people sometimes anticipate their future, sometimes smell their destiny. When Joseph Conrad was 9, he put his finger in the middle of a map of Africa and said, “When I grow up, I’m going to go there.” Conrad’s later trip to the Belgian Congo formed a turning-point in his life.

There’s an excellent documentary about Petit called Man on Wire.

6. Jessica Mitford

I discovered an English writer named Jessica Mitford, best known for a book called The American Way of Death, which discusses the funeral industry. “In the book Mitford harshly criticized the industry for using unscrupulous business practices to take advantage of grieving families. The book became a major bestseller and led to Congressional hearings on the funeral industry.”4 One might compare Mitford’s book to Evelyn Waugh’s satirical novel The Loved One, which also deals with how Americans handle death. A 1965 film drew on the books of both Mitford and Waugh; the film is also called The Loved One.

Jessica Mitford wrote two volumes of autobiography: Hons and Rebels, which deals with her early years, and A Fine Old Conflict, which deals with her years in the Communist Party. J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, said that Jessica Mitford was her favorite writer, and she named her daughter “Jessica.”

Jessica was one of six Mitford sisters, who were born into an eccentric, aristocratic family. While Jessica had left-wing sympathies, her sisters Unity and Diana had right-wing sympathies. Unity was a member of Hitler’s inner circle, and Diana married Oswald Mosley, leader of British Fascists. The youngest Mitford sister, Deborah, is still alive. The eldest, Nancy, was moderate in her political views, and became a well-known novelist; Nancy also wrote well-regarded biographies of Louis XIV, Madame de Pompadour, Voltaire, and Frederick the Great.

© L. James Hammond 2012
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1. Love quotes can be found here. back
2. The Daughter of Time, ch. 11 back
3. See the New York Times article from September 24, 2012. back
4. Wikipedia back