Thursday, October 20, 2011


My hitherto unstated goal of posting a blog every day failed after less than a week, although I can claim an excuse which makes up in veracity what it lacks in originality: I was sick. I had not been bitten by a tick, mosquito, or even vampire; I had, in my lay opinion, simply underslept, resulting in a quite crippling migraine which made this laptop a very unwelcome companion. I am pleased to report I am all better today; I am, on another level, pleased that I have neither resorted to the artificial subterfuge of manipulating the date of this blog nor given up on the whole blogging project in the face of a single setback.

The subject of sickness recalls a lyric:

We all have a sickness, that cleverly attaches and multiplies/ No matter how we try

It comes from a song which I'd like to share with you - Dig, by Incubus. The video was selected from a shortlist by fans of the band; the striking animation is from an artist styling himself "Kaamuz".

There is a particular dig I wanted to discuss, but the hour grows late and I am, after all, not completely recovered. Ask me about the Swabian Venus sometime. It's very cool.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Something lighter

After a couple of blogs dealing in a rather portentous fashion with Occupy Wall Street, I feel this is a good moment to turn to something lighter.

This iconic design - which you may or may not have recognized at once as representing the world's oldest underground railway system, in London, England - depicts, in its most modern form, some 270 different stations, arranged along eleven different lines - some merely subsurface (i.e. "cut and cover" tunnels, dug as trenches from the surface and then covered over) and others deep-bore tunnels (whose circular cross-section inspires the popular nickname "the Tube"). The intricate map was originally designed by a London Underground employee named Harry Beck. It doesn't reflect the distances, or precisely the layout, of the real Underground network; but it does give an accurate depiction of their positions relative to one another - which is of course what travelers on the Underground need to know. Beck's genius was to realize this. Prior to his 1931 prototype map, a more accurate official version existed; however, this version had to devote such attention to the very crowded central portion of the Underground under the City proper that it was unable to encompass the more distant periphery of the network. Beck's model, organized on a system of bright colors, parallel lines, and topological relationships, avoided that problem stylishly.

Beck's version, however, was not officially sanctioned, and the stuffy bureaucrats in command positions of the London Underground were skeptical of its promise; so Beck produced it as a labor of love, shyly offering it two years later for consideration. The public loved it; and, for most of the next thirty years, Beck produced new maps to reflect the evolution of the network.

Every good story needs a villain, of course; in the story of Beck's Underground, that villain was Harry Hutchinson (being called Harry was not a requirement of employment with the London Underground, but it helped). Hutchinson was a publicity officer with the Underground whose lack of design background did not prevent him from producing his own map when faced with the challenge of integrating the new Victoria line with the already complex existing network; Beck, who had surmounted similar challenges for three decades and faced down a rival plan submitted by Hans Scheger in the 1930s, was unimpressed and offered an alternative version. But he had reckoned without Hutchinson's politicking; the London Underground rejected Beck's version, and he never produced another Underground map.

Although the Underground has evolved tremendously since the first Beck map in 1933, the current version still strongly recalls the original - indeed, Beck is formally credited on each new version of the Tube map as the inspiration for everyone who came after. It is impossible to put a price on immortality; the rather feeble recompense provided by the London Underground for Beck's original, unsolicitated, and instantly classic design was... ten guineas.

* * *

One of the many stations on the London Underground was originally planned as Seymour Street, in the London Borough of Camden. It opened to little fanfare in 1907 under the alternative name of Mornington Crescent, and for much of the first sixty years of its history its chief function was to momentarily break up the monotonous view confronting passengers on the non-stop Edgware train. It lies on the Northern Line, which is a dual-branch line; an oddity of this is that taking the Charing Cross branch leads one to Mornington Crescent en route from Camden Town to Euston, while taking the City branch will also allow one to alight at either Camden Town or Euston, and yet find no Mornington Crescent between. The station was seldom used, and indeed by the early 1990s had fallen into such disrepair that significant renovations were needed.

Despite its humble nature - and, in fact, possibly because of its self-effacing now-you-see-it-now-you-don't existence in the mysterious subterranean waste separating Camden and Euston - Mornington Crescent station received those significant renovations, even though they took most of the decade to complete. The reason for this is that Mornington Crescent, too, achieved a form of immortality, featuring prominently on the legendary British radio quiz show I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue from the sixth season in 1978 onwards.

The game of Mornington Crescent combines the pulse-pounding excitement of Cribbage with the athletic demands of Shove Ha'Penny. Its intricacies are difficult to explain to the layman, however I was fortunate enough to track down an episode in which, helpfully, experienced Crescenters Tim Brooke-Taylor, Barry Cryer, and Graeme Garden were able to offer their wealth of expertise to highly-thought-of novice Ross Noble in his very first game:

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Morality of Wealth

Following from my OWS musings the other day...

It occurs to me that the simplest formulation of a message from the OWS protests is the antithesis to Gordon Gekko's mantra of "Greed is Good" - the protestors are making the case that the acquisition of wealth is a moral evil.

To be sure, they are also advocating a certain amount of wealth as a civic right (and possibly as a human right). It is possible to construe this as indicative of a certain underlying confusion regarding either their ends, or the means by which they can be achieved. But it is also possible that their animus is not directed against wealth per se - rather, it is too much wealth that identifies the targets of their wrath.

This raises the question of "how much wealth is too much?" Although OWS spokespersons of varying degrees of authority might venture widely different answers to that question, I'll suggest here that the broader sympathy in society for OWS' position, if not in all its details or manifestations, stems from the sense that "good" wealth is earned; any wealth beyond earned wealth is "bad." People tend to view Social Security as "earned" wealth, and they tend to view inherited wealth as "unearned." These are generalizations, of course; but this hypothesis explains why a person who is wealthy in absolute terms may be perceived as morally justified in their wealth, and why a person in relative poverty may still be considered unjustified even in the meager income on which they depend. People who disparage "welfare" may well feel differently about its provisions for veterans of armed conflict; there again, pacifists who view volunteer service personnel as taking pay for morally questionable purposes may consider this "unearned."

The morality of wealth, then, has two dimensions. It is firstly measured in the raw amount of wealth one possesses; but, perhaps more importantly, it is determined by the manner in which one acquires that wealth. We can go further: we can say, fairly safely, that wealth acquired purely for its own sake will seldom be considered morally justified reward. We can also say that wealth acquired through exploitation will be deemed immoral. In the former case, we identify an aspect of "earned wealth" - that it is a means to some other end, essentially incidental to that end and earned in proportion with the justness of that end. In the latter case, we see further that the means to the end must also be just in order for wealth accrued ancillary to those means to be "earned." We can conceive of a noble end employing morally questionable means; it is unlikely that money acquired in the pursuit of such an end by such means would be considered "earned."

This analysis of whether income is earned or not is complicated by subjectivity. For one thing, envy is a factor that can distort our notion of what is "earned." Unless we have a very clear and objective view of what opportunities we ourselves as earned, we are apt to identify those beyond our reach as "unearned." Resentment is toxic; it clouds our judgement. Neither is this resentment a one-way street - it is quite as easy to contemplate a wealthy man resenting the relative pittance drawn by an unemployed student, as to imagine the reciprocal situation.

Another factor to consider is the human propensity to judge others by the standards and values of our own experiences. It takes an unusual character to form values that are not self-justifying; the wealthy banker who seems exploitative to the protestor who lost his job in the recession will argue that he is reaping the rewards of his own wise investments, and moreover is enabling opportunities for others to make wise investments of their own; he will argue that the failure of others to make decisions that prove as profitable as his should not be blamed on him, and he will reject the possibility that his decisions worked out because of dumb luck and accidents of circumstance, let alone the notion that his decisions enriched himself only by denying others access to their rightful share.

We are all generally much better at recognizing bad luck when it strikes us, than we are at appreciating good fortune. What we call "good fortune," when we do acknowledge it at all, is actually nothing more nor less than a Bowdlerization of "unearned wealth" - by definition we do not "earn" good fortune. Chance operates irrespective of merit, and the distorting effect of human subjectivity makes us, as a rule, incompletely aware of its operation. We equate randomness with equidistribution - the 'cluster effect' illustrates this cognitive fallacy. Another manifestation of this kind of thinking crops up when we consider distribution of wealth; intuition tells us that the fairest distribution is the one dictated by chance, the one that by definition is least tainted by deliberate willed choices and therefore minimizes the likelihood of anybody having more "unearned" wealth than anybody else. Intuition here is quite false, of course; if everybody enters a lottery and buys a single ticket, they each have equal chance of winning, but equality of opportunity will not translate into equality of outcomes. To achieve the intuitively desirable equality of outcome requires a seriously distorted inequality of opportunity, one that exactly counterbalances the random distribution of opportunity among a population of individuals. It should be noted that the intuitively desirable outcome is therefore only achievable by maximizing the distorting effect of deliberate willed choice, and that the operation of this willed choice will necessarily take the wealth that some individuals would have by fortune (and so be strictly "unearned" but not thereby immoral since it was not acquired by choice but by circumstance alone) - this in fact is the textbook example of the noble end (equality) subverted by ignoble means (arbitrary redistribution of property).

The central paradox here was well described by Derek Parfit in his refutation of utilitarian arguments. He was able to demonstrate that, if we consider any two populations, one of which has higher 'utility' (a measure of happiness, or wealth, or "good" by some abstract measure) than the other, and we adjust the 'utility' of the two populations, reducing the greater and increasing the lesser, so as to equate them and increase the total utility of the two - then repeat this process, introducing a further population whose 'utility' is lower than the newly-homogenized population and merging it into another combined population of yet greater total utility - we reach what Parfit calls "the repugnant conclusion:" a very large population whose total utility exceeds that of the original group but whose average utility is barely positive.

The, perhaps equally repugnant, conclusion we can draw from Parfit's thought experiment is that a degree of relative wealth inequality may be optimal. With a nod to John Rawl's model of social justice - in particular, its concept of the "original position" behind the "veil of ignorance" from which its minimax provisions abstract the rules that provide for minimal support standards for the poor in society - we can add that wealth inequality is optimal IFF social mobility is maximal: in other words, wealth is only truly immoral if it is made unattainable to any member of society. Genuine equality of opportunity is the hallmark of a just capitalism.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Of comments, communists, and commixture

For some reason, since I returned belatedly from my sojourn in ports foreign, I seem to be encountering difficulty with commenting on some blogs that I know I was able to comment on before.

Apparently, my google account does not have permission to post comments - but only on some blogs. Is this a new security feature? Something I should know about Google? Something I can fix?

In other news, I've been following the Occupy Wall Street protests with some interest recently. It's interesting to compare with the other significant popular political movement of recent times, both as a phenomenon in itself and as an artifact of media reportage - in the Information Age, of course, the two are inextricably intertwined.

The T.E.A. party coalesced around a single simple (perhaps simplistic) theme - that Americans are Taxed Enough Already, and that government must be spending too much if taxes can't cover spending. Its members by and large supported Republican candidates, on the basis that the Republican party is nominally the party of low taxation. Energizing the Republican base, it claimed responsibility for the 2010 election "shellacking" of President Obama's party.

OWS also takes a single simple (perhaps simplistic) theme - that the richest 1% are prospering in a time of economic trouble at the expense of the 99% that make up the rest of us. The difficulty for protestors here is that their message, while resonant and popular, does not clearly translate into a program of action. The organizers of the original OWS protest were keenly aware of this problem, seeking to identify a specific demand to which protestors could address themselves. Various proposals were made, by various groups, all of which can be seen represented among the crowd at what was once Liberty Plaza Park. Anarchists advocating the dismantling of government join drum circles with communists advocating its enlargement. Campaigners for racial equality share space with neo-Nazis and anti-Semites. Tea Partiers swap billboards with their former detractors. In one sense, there is something wonderfully democratic about the OWS protest - those who derided the T.E.A. party as an "astroturf" rather than a "grassroots" movement would struggle to level the same charge against the chaotic organism that is OWS. In another sense, the protest is dismayingly jejune - and, despite its longevity, it remains representative of a much smaller percentage of the population than it might wish. Neither has the clear rallying cry yet emerged - the general anti-globalist anti-capitalist themes persist, as they have for decades, without translating into the ballot-box power of the T.E.A. party.

Democrats clearly hope that OWS can do for them what the Tea Party did for Republicans, but there are several reasons for believing this will not be the case - not least of which is the significant cohort of OWS protestors who consider Democrats to be part of the problem, and not part of the solution. From a sociological standpoint, the movement remains fascinating; but until a coherent political or economic message emerges, it is unlikely to advance beyond a mere curiosity.

Saturday, October 15, 2011


There is a legend told of a certain king, who with his knights betook himself unto a cave high among the mountains; and there he gathered around him his knights, and there they fell into a long sleep, for they were weary with fighting. Yet they slept, and did not die, for they knew that the day would dawn when their country would once again have need of them.

And long years passed. And at the end of many years, came there unto the cavemouth a shepherd, seeking after a lost sheep. And he saw within the cave the king, and around him arrayed in a circle his knights; and swords were in their hands, and shields before them; and their raiment shone bright in the light of the shepherd's torch.

Then saw the shepherd a gilt horn, set high upon one wall of the cave, and beneath this horn were written the words: "To Awaken The Sleepers." And the shepherd was sore afraid, yet his curiosity was as great even as his fear; and he stretched out his hand, and he took up the horn, and he blew upon it.

And there was a great sound throughout the cave, and then a great silence.

And in that silence came a voice, that was deep and strong and yet oddly cadenced, for it was the voice of the King, and the King's dialect was not the dialect of modern men. And the King asked: "who blows upon the horn that waketh the sleepers?" Then stood forth the shepherd, those his knees trembled, and spake, though his voice trembled likewise, saying: "It is I who blew the horn."

And the eyes of the King opened, and there was in them a terrible lambent fire, and the shepherd fell to the ground.

"Rise," said the King, and the shepherd did as he was bidden. "Tell me," the King continued, while around him his knights continued in their long slumber, "do the ravens yet circle over this hilltop?" And the shepherd, who knew the hills well, said that this was so. Then waxed wrothful the King, saying, "Thou fool! Thou hast wakened us before the appointed time! While yet the ravens remain above, so must we remain below. Begone, fool, and do not return!"

This legend, in its various forms, has existed since early historic times - indeed, the prototypical story concerns the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus (Washington Irving was later to borrow from the same theme for his tale of Rip van Winkle), whose miraculous slumber and subsequent awakening is recounted in the Qu'ran, where its telling mirrors early Christian accounts from such writers as Gregory of Tours.

The Seven Sleepers, I should add, have no relationship to the Seven Sisters - unless, perhaps, you're a fan of Gematria.

A more modern Sleeper emerged in the 1990s in the UK, building on a partnership begun in a philosophy lecture between Louise Wener and Jon Stewart. Although they were subsequently joined by Diid Osman and Andy Maclure, making the band a four-piece, the Britpop outfit are remembered for Wener's androgynous, breathy, and confrontational presence - to the extent that the term "Sleeperbloke" was coined as the band rose to prominence, and denotes unremarkable persons making up the numbers in an operation. The original "Sleeperblokes" took this epithet in stride, cheerfully donning interchangeable "Sleeperbloke" T-shirts for live performances, one of which your chronicler caught while the band was on their It Girl tour. The album of the same name, released in 1996, was a Sleeper hit but hardly a sleeper hit, eventually going platinum.

Among the quirky tracks on offer on the 45-minute album was on entitled "Good Luck Mr. Gorsky." Here it is:

The unusual title recalls a legend involving the astronaut Neil Armstrong, who apparently uttered the cryptic eponym when he landed on the Moon. Since I'm not R-rating this blog, I'll be somewhat delicate in recounting it; the gist has a young Neil Armstrong losing a ball over a neighbor's fence and, in going to retrieve it, overhearing that gentleman - a Mister Gorsky - in a heated argument with his wife over a certain recreational activity for which his appetite is markedly greater than hers. As the story goes, the young Armstrong arrives just in time to hear the defiant Mrs. Gorsky aver that she will perform this particular service "when that little boy next door walks on the moon."

Although 20 July, 1969, must have been a sleepless night for Mission Control and the astronauts' families, not to mention excited viewers all over the world, Mr. Gorsky at least may be expected to have slept very well indeed...

* * *

The story is apocryphal, of course. Those killjoys at confirm that no such words were uttered by Armstrong - although John Grunsfeld, a repairman on a Colombia mission to fix the Hubble space telescope, did call out "Good luck, Mr. Hubble!" in reference to this tale. Neil Armstrong was the first of just twelve men to have walked upon the Moon's surface - the last being Eugene Cernan in December 1972, almost forty years ago. At least, that's the official story...

Friday, October 14, 2011

Drops of Jupiter

And did you miss me while you were looking for yourself out there?

~ Train, Drops of Jupiter

Yes. Yes, I did. Hello, folks. I'm not proud to admit that I hadn't taken a hiatus from writing, or even from writing online; I'd merely gravitated to writing for other audiences. However, this seems more appropriate, even if my inner Diddakoi chafes at the prospect of sitting in one place and putting together a solid body of back-to-back bloggage.

I love that I remembered the word Diddakoi. It refers to a Romani of mixed blood, a gypsy even to gypsies; I encountered it, as I have so much else, through one remove - this dimly-remembered fragment of my childhood was itself a dimly-remembered fragment of my father's when he recounted it to me, himself having been friendly with a group of Diddakoi as a youth. I think my lifelong love both of words and of secrets stem from the snatches of Romany patois he bestowed upon me - Pogadi Chib, more properly, although I didn't learn about that until much later, and for example not until long after I detected the Romani influence on the Polari of Round the Horne's "Julian and Sandy" - recurring characters on a legendary and groundbreaking 1960s radio show who conversed, like the gypsies, like the medieval guilds and priests and peddlars, like the modern-day moneylenders and politicians, in a secretive language, a cant, designed to conceal as much to inform. Julian and Sandy were hilarious; but they were also important to my education.

I'm digressing. This is, of course, what happens when you set out to write with no set plan but a great many words pent-up within you; and I venture to hope that somewhere along the way I touch on something of interest to somebody (even if I don't, I invariably find things that are fascinating to me, and I have a belief that nothing is done well that is not done first and foremost for oneself). This may or may not constitute a much-belated answer to a question Heather posed a while back, one which she must by now have given up hope of ever seeing answered...

But getting back to Jupiter - it features tonight in one of those myriad coincidences that make astronomy such a rewarding pursuit, in this case a close pairing with our own moon and the distant star cluster known as the Pleiades - more poetically, the Seven Sisters; rather less so, Messier object 45 - that is both beautiful and a wonderful excuse to explore some mythological associations. The Pleiades, being a very highly visible star cluster, feature in the mythos of almost all cultures, although I will overlook almost all of these to mention briefly before closing what may be their most recent contribution to memetics.

Billy Meier - his given name is Eduard, which may allow for inferences to be drawn about his choice of nom de guerre - was a Swiss farmer whose adventures included a spell in the French foreign legion and a marriage to a Greek woman named Kalliope (named, of course, for one of the Muses, a group of nine sisters in Greek legend; the muses, as you may already know, were credited with inspiring works of art and inventive fancy). His travels took him around Europe, into Turkey - where he lost an arm - and, by his own somewhat unbelievable account, to the Pleiades.

This famous image, which adorned Spooky Mulder's wall for several seasons of The X-Files, was originally shot by Billy Meier. It is one of many that he took showing a remarkable array of spacecraft, or as he calls them "beamships," by which Nordic aliens traveled the light years between Earth and the Seven Sisters - and by which on at least one occasion he claims to have traveled with them. Among his several Pleiadean (or Plejaren) contacts was a female named Semjase, after whom Meier later named a building where his non-profit ufological organization is headquartered.

Meier is widely regarded as a fraudster. There are numerous discrepancies in his photographs, and "Semjase," like several other obliging aliens who agreed to pose for him, strongly resembles humans of his acquaintance - indeed a dancer, Michelle DellaFave, has alleged that Meier deliberately misrepresented pictures of her in support of his contactee allegations. Perhaps most damning is this image, taken from a scorched negative that Meier clearly attempted to destroy:

This seems to show a model spacecraft on a tabletop, of the sort a hoaxer would need in order to produce lo-tech fraudulent images. Meier weakly claims that he constructed the model, and others like it, having been inspired by his own repeated sightings of UFOs.

Despite the apparent shakiness of his evidence, Meier does have supporters in the ufological field, and the idea of human-like "Pleiadean" aliens is almost as canonical now as that of humanoid "Grays." This support helps him bear the considerable skepticism that greets his claims - beside travels with aliens, he also claims to have gone back in time to meet with "Jmmanuel," whom Meier asserts was the real Jesus Christ, and, most recently, to have foreknowledge of an impending Third World War. This, according to Meier, is expected to commence in November 2011. Before you start hoarding tinned goods and making peace with your God, I should point out that it was also expected to commence in November 2006, 2008, and 2010; perhaps Meier is just another voice craving an audience...

And sometimes you take a swim/Found your writing on my wall...

~ Tori Amos, Hey Jupiter