NOVEMBER 29, 2013 3:50 p.m.M

Butter Churned Comet Ison

       When I began this post Comet Ison had broken up—a bad relationship with the sun.    Instead of watching football, I had spent two hours with thirty thousand other geeks logged on to Google/NASA live this past Thanksgiving afternoon watching Ison fly into the sun hoping it would survive.                
       It didn’t. (Well—24 hours later—maybe it did.)  The reports of its death seem to have been greatly exaggerated thereby again pleasing Mark Twain as he enjoys his own comet circling back around to us about 2061.           
       Still what fun to watch.  At the end it zoomed about at 845,000 mph. That’s the equivalence of 338  times around the Earth every sixty minutes or a complete trip about every ten seconds—puts our satellites to shame.  Add the tail and it reminds me of that childhood story about the tiger chasing its tail around a tree, faster and faster until it finally churned itself into butter.  May we get to see a greenish spread of Ison’s butter in the December skies.           
        This was the internet at its best—real time, live conversation with four scientists from across the globe—the best kind of football:  Four scientists at the top of their game and none of them sure about anything.  And all excited simply because they weren’t sure.           
        There in a nutshell exhibits the human mind at its finest—moving into territory it had never experienced before–skeptical, uncertain, curious, and eager just to find out what it didn’t know.           
        Then one travels back inside our atmosphere to Washington, Wall Street, radio, or television, and one experiences the other kind of human mind—a mind absolutely certain it knows everything exactly as it was, exactly as it should be, and exactly as it shall be.  A mind terrified of any concept which might point otherwise.            
        This tension between the two minds likely has been going on with humans for about a million years.  Those determined to keep things the way they are and those who can’t wait to see what tomorrow will bring.  No question curiosity has killed a cat or two along the way, but here we are a million years later and a bunch of us are spending Thanksgiving afternoon watching a comet zoom around the sun.              
        Sorry Washington, sorry monopolies, sorry television and radio, you can put as many blinders up as you want, but as long as humans remain human, some of us are going to peek around them.   Can’t wait for tomorrow.


NOVEMBER 24, 2013 11:19 p.m.

Memo, Milton & Mark Twain’s cat:
What goes round comes round

Clearly a descendent of Milton's cat.
Clearly a descendent of Milton’s cat.
       In the weeks running up to the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Slate’s Lexicon Valley blogger Mike Voulo asked why the authorship of JFK’s phrase “Ask Not What You Can Do for your country . . . “ in his 1961 inaugural address remains in dispute among Kennedy and his speechwriters.   If memory serves me, one might look in David Masson’s nineteenth century biography of poet John Milton, particularly at a letter Milton wrote to his friend Charles Diodati who in 1639 had asked Milton why he was cutting short his Italian sojourn and returning to England to choose a side in the English civil war. 
       Milton wrote back, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”      (As for cats and Twain, patience please.)   
       Similarly one might look to the Congressional Record during the Mexican War to find where Lincoln as a congressman likely heard or read his Gettysburg Address’s “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people” phrasing.        
       Or, if one happened to be in London this week at the Natural History Museum, one might have enjoyed the unveiling of a statue to Alfred Russel Wallace which illuminates some late credit to the naturalist who was writing letters to Darwin about a theory of evolution at the same time Darwin was contemplating what became his own theory on evolution.         
       This does not disapprove of Kennedy or Lincoln using those phrases or Darwin publishing his ideas with minimal credit to Wallace.  All three had the good sense and the good ear to use them on a public stage properly weighted for their content and made them an indelible part of the English language rather than permit the words  to lie dusty and forgotten in letters and a musty record book.        
       What disturbs me is the feebleness of contemporary investigators.   It’s like a homicide detective thinking he can investigate a murder by beginning at the scene of the murder and proceeding only forward in time, investigating the murderer’s act and escape rather than moving backward in time to seek planning and motive.   At least The Globe’s Liz Leyden, writing on Wallace, had done her homework well enough to get her credits and timings front and center thereby opening for readers a new window on an old story.          
       And that breath of fresh air now allows a kitten’s leap to Volume 2 of Mark Twain’s Autobiography.    Clemens, rather than opening new windows on an old story, is relishing in 1906 the opportunity to say whatever he pleased because most of what he said would not see the light of day for a century.    And with the passing of those 110 years, the autobiography lets a reader close the window to the feeble sounds of the 2013 infotainment which passes for news and open another to a worldview circa 1906.       
       Refreshingly, instead of listening to ranting about Jamie Dimon and JP Morgan; genocide in Rwanda, religious massacres in Kosovo or Syria, and a morally senile church trial convicting a minister for officiating at his gay son’s wedding; one hears rantings about Andrew Carnegie and U.S. Steel, King Leopold’s genocide in the Belgian Congo, Russian Christians massacring Russian Jews; and a diatribe on morally bankrupt religions with Christianity again front and center.           
       Twain dictated many of these passages during the summer while he sojourned in Dublin, New Hampshire.  Refreshing might seem an odd term except that if you are reading this, your human ancestors survived the robber barons, colonialists, and fraudulent thinkers of the Gilded Age; therefore, I suspect we current humans will survive the corporate  war lords, neocon colonialists , and fraudulent preachers, rabbis, imams, and priests of the Twenty-first Century—though I also suspect, knowing the price the Twentieth Century paid to survive the Gilded Age frauds will mean the Twenty-first Century price will also come steep.         
       Refreshing because I teach young, bright, curious students at Keene State College, a public—not private—college. where the best of them, the coolest cats I know, know history as well and see right through the Humpty Dumpties of this current Gilded Age.  That means I can still walk with a less than heavy heart to the overlooks and see the same Mount Monadnock  Mark Twain saw from his Upton House porch over a century ago and utter to no one in particular, “Not bad, Sam.  Play it again, Mark.”   A pretty good place for any old Monadnock Pastoralist  curled up with a warm kitten traveling into the holidays.


OCTOBER 11, 2013 9:41 a.m.

The Sum of our Parts

 Ruth Palmer, violinist; photographer, Gemma Ferns
Ruth Palmer, violinist; photographer, Gemma Ferns
       Last Sunday afternoon, a Symphony New Hampshire concert  in Peterborough, New Hampshire, a town of just over 6,000 souls, of which less than two hundred had gathered to listen to Beethoven’s Seventh, and a Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto  might seem an odd place to ponder diversity.  Particularly since New Hampshire’s unspoken concept of diversity is a wavy sort of nebulous shopping list that reads some thing like “We’ll have one each, but let’s not have many more than  one of each.”
       But this day, here in front of me was a finely tuned orchestra of faces which covered five continents, Antarctica being one exception and Australia the other—had heard them all converse, perhaps there may have been someone from Down  Under there as well.  But I didn’t hear them speak.  I heard them play.  What is about music that, when played well, erases the barriers of color, belief, and politics?
       Here in front of me was a British soloist, Ruth Palmer, whose entire body channeled itself into a violin just to create the passions of sound a Russian composer heard in his head over a century ago.    So focused, she was no longer in Peterborough, New Hampshire, but gliding on ballet slippers in some ethereal, tolerant place that  music brings us to if we only listen.
      And it wasn’t just the audience enthralled, the orchestra too was enthralled, musicians smiling as she lifted them as well to that plateau beyond the Monadnocks where, as the maestro noted about Beethoven’s Seventh, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
       Later in the week, at an out-the-way trattoria named Del Rossis,  two Celtic harpists, one from Scotland, one from Ireland, plucked music from their homelands with that same exquisite joy.  Inm that smaller audience, were new faces from at least four continents and we listened to music near a thousand years old in the harpists telling, but really those strains went  much farther back—to the Fertile Crescent and  the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and Nebuchadnezzer.
       If only there were maestros in Congress, in Syria, Mexico, in every corner of the polluted planet who could create music out of chaos, remind off-key solo screeders that our whole is greater than the sum of any one part. We are all part of a chorus.    If only. . . but at least for a rainy, autumn afternoon ,  and a cool autumn evening in a small, very non-diverse corner of a New England state,  a soloist, musicians, and small audiences managed to get to that place.


JULY 21, 2013 4:49 p.m.

Oh Say Can You Prism
librarian 2


     The Washing Machine Media is burning up its bearings as it agitates the hogwash that whatever has been leaked by whistleblowers Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden  is seriously damaging anything other than bloated NSA/CIA/  Congressional/Military/Executive and overwrought Silicone Valley egos.
     Just like the “slam dunk” weapons of mass destruction (not) in Iraq, these latest episodes only reinforce the oxymoron that has become  Military and NSA Intelligence.  But then with Dick Cheney as an enabler, what else could one expect except birdshot in the face.
     The mistake Cheney and the following Executive have made is thinking you can trust any political entity with unchecked power. You can’t.   It’s like placing hundred dollar bills in front of a bank CEO, oil in front of a speculator, gold in front of Glen Beck, or a smart phone in front of an adolescent–they just can’t resist the temptation.  Their only hope is a twelve-step AA meeting once a week.So while the U.S. Government only sinks deeper into the quicksand of its own making, there is a simple solution to Prism collecting our e-mails, cell phone calls, geo locators, credit card bills, ad infinitum.
     Storing information is important—researchers need it, teachers need it, historians need it, investigators need it, businesses need it, descendants need it.  We all need it to learn what to do next and what not to do next.
     The question is whom can you trust to store it properly.   Verizon?  There hasn’t been a corporation since Rome which would not sell its customer’s information for thirty pieces of debased silver, maybe even a buck.    The security agencies?  J. Edgar stored his information and look how that got put to use.
     History has provided us only one group that can be trusted with the storage of information—librarians.  You heard me right.  Let me say it louder:  LI-BRAR-I-ANS.
     Don’t tear down those Utah Complexes, don’t shut down the NSA, don’t remove the “I” from CIA,  simply retire the bosses and bring in the librarians.   Not only will they store the information carefully, they’ll catalog and archive it so a patron can find it.  Librarians exist for only one purpose—to gather information and protect it.  What’s even better is that they love doing it.  They wake up in the morning thinking, “Oh joy what will I get to catalog today.”    Find me a spy who enjoys that.
     Librarians can spot a fish in a school, the cow in the herd, grain in the sand.   A librarian would know the difference between a German fellow joking about bird-watching for rare spies along the barbed wire of an NSA collection agency  and a Mossad agent bugging the American Embassy.
     Speaking of “Protect and Serve, ” who were the only people to actually say no to the FBI, CIA, NSA when they, laden with Patriot Act smugness, came looking  for library check-out records?  You guessed it,  librarians.
      And now that we know the FISA Court is a rubber stamp, who will demand to see a real warrant , not a FISA facsimile, before they give access to their card catalogs?  Librarians.   Who knows better than historians the Fourth Amendment (and the other XXVI to boot [That’s 26 to non-librarians.])?  Do I need say more?
     If language were a religion, librarians would rule heaven, lawyers would rule hell.  You can trust a librarian to guard your privacy.  Think of Hypatia—she made the Romans burn both her and her books rather than give up stored information to patrons who didn’t know how to use it.   I’d like to see  James Clapper try to get a shred of improper information out of Bertha Pease (God-rest-her-soul) without a properly served warrant.  She’d have his ears boxed so quickly he’d never deceive Congress again.
     The only reasonable solution to our security dilemma is to turn the whole surveillance system over to The Library of Congress, then hire a lot of MLAs to staff the Maryland, California, and Utah storage sites.     We could hire them based on Congressional districts: 535 librarians apportioned from each state by population, 100 tall, stentorian librarians (two from each state) to man the front desks,  plus four or five librarians for the territories and D.C.  And I guarantee every librarian from Alaska will know whether you can see Russia from her house or not.
     Each Saturday morning the librarians could hold story time and invite the House of Representatives down to listen to a story.   Imagine 535 Representatives quietly sitting cross-legged on the floor listening to a tale like “How Amazon Hates Competition.”   True Darryl Issa would probably have to be sent home for telling a fib, but then a librarian would be the only person one could count on to call him on it. All those months of Benghazi hearings?  A librarian would have known within three days whether Susan Rice had told a whopper or not.
     Librarians also know the only way we grow-up is with accurate information so they know when and how to help.  If they see an FBI agent with the wrong cellphone calls, they’ll cluck, “Dear, dear, young man, try this list instead.  And don’t forget to sign it out.
     “Finally, this is a fiscally sound idea.  Librarians are so good at organizing, they would make it easy for all the intelligence organizations in the government to trim excess management to help meet the sequester cuts and still not lose a single e-mail.    And I salivate at the income from overdue web searches.
     Unlike the IRS, librarians never forget.


JULY 7, 2013 10:45 a.m.

A Love Affair with The Boston Globe, Part II

     Early Sunday morning I strolled to the mailbox to pick up my Sunday Globe.  It wasn’t there—a breakdown in delivery and my planned Sunday morning reflections on the sea of news had gone awry before the boat left the dock. I was back to reading–or better yet–searching, online.
     And searching with its connotations of hard labor is the apt term.    I discovered most everything in the print version was somewhere online but the process felt, how best to say this, narrow and vertical as if I were looking through a telescope or a pipe.   This compared to my scanning of the print version which felt horizontal, like, if I may continue the sailing simile, the difference between focusing through a periscope of a submarine to gazing from the bridge of a ship.
     The mis-delivered Globe arrived on Monday, perched in its light plastic bag atop my mailbox.    So what was discovered in the paper that I had missed or skipped in the previous day’s online reading?
     First I noticed I actually read the print version of the page-one story about  the Boston Aquarium’s new fish tank.  I saw it online but hadn’t stopped to read it.
     Why?  Perhaps because the pair of color photos appeared more vibrant in print than online?   Certainly they weren’t larger.  In fact, I just held my paper to my screen and the screen is a bit wider so it is something else.
     Maybe it’s also the expanse of white space which frames thing better while screens seem to have no blank space whatever.    Nope, as much white space on the screen.   But it feels busier online.    I noticed this week that the print version of Winslow Homer’s seascape also grabbed me—maybe I just love water.
     What is different is this:   Distracting motion in the ads, reflected light versus back-light, blue headline type instead of black,  unexpected pop-up sound, and far more color.     All might be helpful in a breaking story but too much distraction if one is to ponder, measure, and weigh the relative values of the information. As noted, I’ve had another week to observe the print experience.
     Today the Globe did arrive on time.  Certainly the breaking news of the West Coast Red Sox game was missing, and I picked that up online.  The details of the airline crash were fleshed out more than online but that was also available to me on the web and I would have read it there also.   What I did get that I would not have found on the web was the news I wasn’t looking for—the editorial on a different approach to immigration.   I disagreed with its workability, but it broadened my perspective.  I read an essay on Fanny Hill and an interview demonstrating how climate change of the Sixteenth Century and early Seventeenth Century was at the heart of so much of the brutal violence of that period and perhaps a signal of what lies ahead if we don’t address it.
     From the previous week, I noted four other stories I picked up in print I would not have seen online,  The first week roughly the same.   All of them existed online but all of them I missed because by the time I finished with whatever story I was engaged in, the others had disappeared from the screen and short-term memory—replaced by new ads, new links, et al.
     Finally, there is also something more visceral I’ve noticed in this three week escapade.   The feel  and odor of the paper itself.   Newsprint is gentle, it rustles, easily mutable into whatever shape or position one desires—it gives to one’s fingertips almost as soft as a living thing.  And the ink doesn’t rub off as it used to.  The paper is made of wood.   A recent story (Full disclosure, I discovered it online,) talked about how the scent of wood pulp present in bookstores routes itself directly to a primitive pleasure center in the brain.  A vestige of our ancestral time in the forest?
     What does a tablet or laptop or desktop provide?   Plastic, glass, and precious metal.   Nothing mutable (yet), nothing that gives.  Nothing that even resembles a living thing.     I doubt that odors from an electronic device spark anything but worry of an electrical circuit frying.
     Yes the wood costs a tree, but the trees are replanted.  The metals used in the tablet, cellphone and laptop are turning vast stretches of Africa, Asia and South America into strip-mined wastelands. To summarize:  Read a Sunday paper to see broadly, read breaking news on your laptop to see narrowly.  Read a newspaper, lose a tree.  Read a tablet, lose an ecosystem.


JUNE 2, 2013 10:34 a.m.

A Love Affair with The Boston Globe

      It’s taken me twenty years to get over my pique when the Taylor family old The Boston Globe to the New York Times.   Despite one Globe editor’s comment, “Being owned by the New York Times is about as good as you can do,” city editor Walter Robinson said, “but being independent is a lot better and we have lost that;” (LA Times, 6-11-93) I could not shake the idea that my Sunday ritual of reading the Globe’s personal take on the world had now become Times-lite and with the Times simultaneous purchase of Worcester’s Telegram-Gazette, a trust was broken.
     It was not that I had a problem with the Times.  It was and is a great newspaper.  The problem was and is The Globe made the Times a better newspaper because of its very existence in much the same way the Red Sox and Yankees make each better simply because they are there and they are separate and by nature they are forced to compete.
     Put a Steinbrenner or a Henry in charge of both and an edge is lost and without that constant sharpening of the competitive edge, an entity becomes blunted, content, and useless as a public source of accurate information.   I tried all the internet alternatives—most of which:,,,,,, I’ll check every day because I want a sense of what is happening beyond the confines of my local community (where The Keene Sentinel and Peterborough Ledger/Transcript keep me posted with local happenings) if for no other reason than that I am nosy. I tried the Herald (like the New York Post, too little thought, too much titillation) and The Washington Post (my God can any paper ever get more pompous and self-absorbed) even the Sunday Times but it wasn’t New England.
     None of them filled the void created when I stopped getting my Sunday paper—a ritual that began when I first started working all-day Sundays in my uncle’s Twin County restaurant in the amish country of Pennsylvania forty-five years ago.  A day when not a whole lot of patrons stopped in so I just tended a quiet counter with the Lancaster Sunday News and The Philadelphia Bulletin as my only regular companions. Boredom has it merits.
     After devouring both sports sections, there was simply nothing else to do for eight hours but read both papers cover to cover.  And so I began.  To my surprise I found it all interesting and satisfying—particularly because politically they were opposites.  I discovered that Sunday papers did something dailies didn’t—they got to think about the news for a few days and so by Sunday had perspective—both of them.  A valuable lesson learned.
      One I took with me to New England in the ‘60s and held to with a vengeance until 1993 when my beloved Globe was let go by the Taylor’s to its rival. Try as I might, I could not get over it.   You know what they say about betrayed love.
     Still, last year, when I read the Globe was up for sale, something sparked in my heart.   I remembered those Sundays when The Globe eased the angst of the non-stop blood-news of the prior week and placed that news in perspective not just in the written word but sensually as well—one could physically see that the misery of page one was followed by a hundred more pages of other kinds of news, most of it not so terrible—a needed leavening.   And two years ago when the Times did not sell the Globe to the Koch Brothers, Rupert Murdoch or Jack Welch, the heart began to flutter.
     Therefore last week, I re-subscribed to The Boston Globe and early this morning, June 2, 2013, my first Sunday Globe in twenty years arrived at my driveway encased in a clear plastic bag to protect it from the rain.  I gathered it fondly and with a hot cup of tea, took it onto the screened porch, opened it and started to read. By an hour or so later I had nosed through every page and no longer felt quite as miserable about the world because, just like twenty years ago, after the bad news of the first page or two, there were still 106 pages (I counted.) and two magazines of other kinds of news to keep me balanced.
     When I finished my sojourn, I felt more in tune with the world than oppressed by it.  That is something the internet and television has not provided: The physical, tactile perspective that a Sunday paper provides—for every page of bad news, one is also holding in his or her hands a hundred non-editable pages of other kinds of news—the leavening as I said one needs to stay emotionally and mentally balanced from the prior week’s media bombardment, along with the Monday morning that will surely follow. And that, my friends, is worth much more than the price of subscription.