Friday, October 31, 2008


Tonight I was browsing through my books and by chance read a short story from my library by Vassili Iretsky, "Hydromel."

I found it chillingly timely, even though it was written nearly a century ago. The setting, of course, is the Soviet Union during the first years after the communist Revolution.

"From his long-legged English father Bromley had inherited obstinacy and perseverance, from his Cossack mother a poetic love for the open vastness of the black-soil plains ... Almost entirely with his own hands he built a small house ... and last of all, some beehives.

"One winter's day, grim-visaged trouble made its entrance ... appeared first one horse, then a second, then a third ... [each] carried a surly looking man ...

"One of the men ... bawled at him: 'In accordance with the orders of the Ispolk[Executive Committee], you are to submit yourself unquestioningly to my authority...You are understood to own a number of hives: the whole lot are to be nationalized for the benefit of the workers: that goes for all the honey and wax you've got, too ... Hand over everything you've got; if you don't, you'll be shot.

"'...For once in a way you can work for the proletariat, instead of the other way around ... Parasites have been formally prohibited.'"

"Bromley threw him a contemptuous look. 'Parasites,' he said looking him up and down, 'are people who live by the honest labor of others. All my life I have never worked less hard than any ordinary workman, and perhaps a good deal harder. This honey was produced by my labor, certainly not by yours; yet you assume the ----'

"He was not given time to finish. An obscene oath burst from the leader, followed by: 'In accordance with my powers I have the right in the event of resistance to arrest and shoot you. You are resisting: I arrest you! ... You've made profits out of your land. That sort of thing's been stopped. Now's the time for the workers to make a bit of profit for a change. That's all there is to it."

Monday, October 27, 2008

Lapham's Quarterly

I received a piece of mail recently inviting me to subscribe to something called Lapham's Quarterly. It is a new magazine which proposes to examine several times a year some current event question and then "find answers to that question from authors whose writings have stood the test of time."

Homer, Twain and Goethe would be called upon and Tacitus and Virginia Wolfe.

I am of mixed feelings. It sounds interesting -- it sounds like a shortcut to what I have been trying to do myself for the last ten years. In essence, plumb the great and sometimes obscure minds of all human history and find their relevance today.

But perhaps the shortcut is the problem. At the risk of sounding arrogant, maybe I don't want other people picking and choosing from history for me.

I get a further hint of this when the editor mentions that the failure to have a sense of history led to "the catastrophe in Iraq." Now I do try to spare my readers my political feelings for the most part, but the fact is, whatever one may think about George Bush and the invasion of Iraq, a democracy is now in place where once a cruel and warmongering dictatorship once held sway. It is admittedly a flawed and frail and messy democracy -- but aren't they all? Slavish devotion to history might have taught us that no democracy has ever existed in Iraq and therefore never could. Slavish devotion to history would have discouraged the very Founding Fathers of the U.S. from their own experiment in democracy.

But those great men learned from history, from the writings of the Greeks, of Plutarch and then they left history behind and created a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. They knew the odds and they defied them.

So I'm not sure about this Lapham thing. Plus, it costs $60 a year.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Australia continued

I have learned this week that Kevin Rudd, Prime Minister of Australia, speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese. Very cool. And very practical, considering proximity and considering the growing role of China in the world.

Maybe being bilingual ought to be a requirement for a US president.

Something else about the man:

"Researchers looking into Mr Rudd's family history discovered that his fourth great-grandfather, Thomas Rudd, was transported to Australia in 1801 to serve a seven-year sentence for "unlawfully acquiring a bag of sugar".

However, his crime is eclipsed by that of the prime minister's paternal fifth great-grandmother Mary Wade, a London street urchin who made a pittance by sweeping streets and begging.

In 1788, aged 12, she and an older girl coaxed an eight-year-old girl into a toilet where they relieved her of "her dress, petticoats, a linen tippet, and a cap and absconded".

Wade was sentenced "to be hanged by the neck til she be dead" after a trial at London's Old Bailey in January 1789 but the sentence was commuted to transportation to the colony of New South Wales.

Another relative of the prime minister was convicted of forging coins. Mr Rudd's paternal fifth great-grandmother Catherine Lahey arrived in Sydney in 1800 after forging one shilling and sixpence to pay her rent."

The article notes that convict ancestry is fairly common in Australia, and is today a badge of honor, not shame.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Geography Project -- Australia

I was supposed to study Australia during the month of October, in my so-called geography project. Well, I still have a few days left in the month to try to learn something about the place -- the only continent in the world that is encompassed by a single nation.

As of this morning, I knew no more than the average six year old American kid about this country. Kangaroos and koala bears and people who say Crikey a lot. There's an Outback Steakhouse in my city that serves Bloomin' Onions. For all I really know, nobody in Australia actually eats those things.

Now I know that the capital is Canberra and that Australia is composed of six states and a handful of islands. I know that that scoop out of Her northern shore is called Gulf of Carpenteria.

Still pitiful, such lack of knowledge.

I don't know of Her great writers, Her cultural personalities, Her inventions, Her history beyond the fact that the Dutch were the first Europeans to sight Her and that Great Britain settled the place.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Life long ago

Perhaps the artist has anthropomorphized this little fellow a little much. But something similar to this creature did once live, swimming through the warm, shallow seas of the Ordovician Era, 460 million years ago. Almost nothing lived on land back then -- how quiet and eerie the world must have been, with nothing to see but rock and sand and mud, not a bird to be heard, not a leaf to quiver in the wind, just a few arthropods skittering in the seashore mud and eating slime.

As promissum wriggled unblinking through the waters, one of the few creatures of the era to have developed eyes, it looked upon a watery world that was far different than what a diver would see today. No fish, not any with jaws, at least. None of the great and scary sea monsters that would prowl the depths in later years, and certainly no whales, dolphins or even sharks.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Catching up -- a hodgepodge

Night after night, I have talked myself out of typing on this screen. It's not that I've had nothing to write about -- quite the contrary. So much has gone on in my life -- sometimes I am so busy living it that I find myself too tired to write about it.

Sarah Palin came to our state recently and I took a day off from work to go to the event. It was labeled as a rally, so that should have prepared me, but still, I felt slightly uncomfortable at the attempt to rouse my emotions that way. I never went to pep rallies in high school for that same reason -- even hated singing campfire songs as a kid because I don't like being told how I should feel, or having others work on my emotions.

Contrary to popular rumors, nobody screamed,"Kill Obama" or anything like that, at least at this rally.

This month, Sweetie and I also took our Niece to Her ballet practice. I killed time by scribbling down thoughts as they came to me there as well as details of what I saw and heard around me. I used to do that a lot. More on that later.

We took our neighbor out for dinner and made some new friends, a sweet, older couple. More, later.

I've also been reading intensively from about four different books. One is Thirteen Moons, a historical fiction novel set at the time of the Cherokee Trail of Tears. Since I have so recently defended Columbus, perhaps I am hypocritical to feel utter contempt for Andrew Jackson and his role in that disgusting travesty of the American ideal. Still, contempt I feel.

The second book is Boorstin's The Discoverers, the most recently read chapter being about the invention of clocks. More on that later.

The third book is Encyclopedia of the Prehistoric World, all about the bumper-car antics of our planet's continents, and the weird creatures that have lived upon it. More later.

Lastly, I have read through the writings of the Early Christian Church Fathers, so now, before moving on into the age of Constantine, I've taken a little detour into the extinct (?) world of the Gnostics, supposedly heretical Christians at whom some of those ECFS took great offense.

For a movement that only lasted about a century before being obliterated by orthodoxy, and whose works also were consigned to oblivion until a jar of them was found in the Egyptian desert in the 1940s, it is astounding to read that no less than 4,000 books have been written on the subject.

There is so much that I could write, so many questions that pop up! What compelled an early Christian monk from a nearby monastery to collect and hide away these proscribed texts? What was he thinking about when he made that lonely trip into the desert with his jar of heresy?

What was in the minds and hearts of the people who wrote these texts -- certainly they were not all the slavering charlatans that Iranaeus and others made them out to be.

And Elaine Pagels, who in 1979 wrote the award-winning account of Gnosticism for the understanding of laymen -- what a fascinating life this Woman has had, as well! She started out a dancer with Martha Graham and then became a scholar in the field of ancient religion. More, much more, later.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Of Columbus

"Because, O most Christian and very high, very excellent and puissant Princes, King and Queen of the Spains and of the islands of the Sea, our Lords, in this present year of 1492 ... Your Highnesses resolved to send me, Cristobal, to India ... and ordered that I should not go by land to the eastward, as had been customary, but that I should go by way of the west, whither up to this day we do not know for certain that any has gone." -- The Journal.

On October 12 at two hours after midnight, the land was sighted at a distance of two leagues. The vessels were hove to, waiting for daylight and on Friday, they arrived at a small island [believed today to be Watling Island.]

If Columbus had not discovered America for Europe, eventually someone else would have. Would the indigenous inhabitants have suffered less if it had been Russia, crossing over from Siberia, not Spaniards? Or Turks, pouring in with the banners of Mohammed? Or if two more centuries had passed and Englishmen had been the first of the European race to plant their flag in the New World?

It is not reasonable to hate Columbus, as some do. He was a man of great courage, certainly. He was a man of many flaws, too, a man of his flawed era. But from Ottawa to Buenos Aires, for better or for worse, the world is a bigger place because of him.

We rightly honor him today.

Above is a church in the Canary Islands where he stopped to pray along his journey.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Hollywood Hell Inside My Head

Come with me now inside my head as it slumbered last night, weary from a week of work.

The first scene that you will see is the inside of a restaurant, an ordinary setting. Do not be fooled! All is not well.

Dreamer-me observed a Woman worrying about whether She should the seafood plate, since She was allergic to shellfish. She was assured by someone that She would be okay, so She did.

Next thing I knew, She was on the floor,convulsing, with tumors beginning to pop out through Her skin, and I could clearly see that She was dying.

"You, call 911!" I told the manager firmly, remembering what I had been taught in CPR training. But he just stared at me. Nobody seemed concerned. So I tried to call on my cell phone but I just could not remember how the hell to dial a phone number or how the send button worked.

Somehow, a doctor arrived anyway and began to tend to her. In the middle of all this, the co-manager of the restaurant asked me if I would go to the store down the street and buy her some green peppers.

Continue with me through this land of weirdness where scene two is of watching a baby monkey under water being swallowed up in the dark, loathsome jaws of a Moray eel, while some unseen Nature Channel narrator calmly describes the sad scene.

Then we are in a room where an eager little creature, looking like a half-pint, potbellied Grinch in a velvet suit with Seuss-style soft slippers upon his feet, is begging me to step into his room and watch him dance. He pulls my arm so I go along, which is a mistake, and I know it is because I feel that great evil is looming.

Sure enough, he begins to dance and then begins to morph into a ghastly monster.

So far, just an ordinary nightmare, like I have all the time. I am gasping for breath, and my Sweetie outside of the dream world is trying to wake me up -- but my dastardly brain has one more horrible surprise in store for me.

As my Sweetie shakes me awake, I look at Her and then some nightmare demon-thing pops up between us, dragging me into deeper depths of terror.

Sweetie persists -- and then, and only then, do I realize that even as my real-life Beloved was trying frantically to awaken me, I was dreaming that She was in my dream trying to awaken me into a nightmare world, which, of course, was ridiculous. Naturally, I was resisting, which only prolonged the horror.

Eh, who needs an acid trip or a visit to a Halloween Haunted House when your own brain cooks it up for free?

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Kidney Juice

What to do with your morning, um, lemonade. Sell it to your neighborhood chemist.

I learned in my studies of Rome this year that in the heyday of that Empire, urine was prized as a valuable ingredient for washing clothes and collected from the public privies for that purpose.

I remember that during my sophomore year of high school, I proudly announced to the class during an oral report, my discovery that Ladies of Rome used lion wee-wee to bleach Their hair.

Yeah, I was that kind of kid.

Most of us wannabee scientists are aware that synthetic urea (natural urea, converted from ammonia, being a major constituent of your daily offering to the porcelain god, because it is a good way to get rid of excess nitrogen) is highly valuable in the production of a number of products, such as explosives, plastics and as a flavor additive to cigarettes.

From wikipedia:
“[Urea, aka carbamide] was the first organic compound to be artificially synthesized from inorganic starting materials, in 1828 by Friedrich Wöhler, who prepared it by the reaction of potassium cyanate with ammonium sulfate . .. thus starting the discipline of organic chemistry.

This discovery prompted Wöhler to write triumphantly to a friend:

"I must tell you that I can make urea without the use of kidneys, either man or dog. Ammonium cyanate is urea."

Happy day for him.

Today I learned more strange facts about kidney juice. Seems that most mammals have the ability to break urea down (oxidize it) into a substance called allantoin. Synthetic allantoin is, like urea, quite a useful product. It’s probably in your mouthwash, toothpaste or lipstick.

But humans and higher apes have lost the ability to convert urea into allantoin.
More details:

That doesn’t seem to bother us too much, (does it bother you?) but I wonder why evolution took that step, evolution usually having a good reason for what it does. Related to this seems to be our loss of the ability to make our own citric acid (vitamin C), which most animals can do and which can be a very bad thing, as ye olde timey sailors learned the hard way. Evolution screwed up on that detail.

I had a guinea pig for a pet as a kid, and I learned then that humans share that latter defect with those furry little critters.

Very strange.