Discerning – A Meditation

Today, embrace the sun and moon,
Pose questions to the rocks and clouds,
Consider ripples in the sea,
And delve into the dust of doubt.

Engaging them, take time to see
That each announces not itself
Alone, but one, strong, fair, and true,
Who them displays, whose word all wealth
Now allocates to large and small,
Including you within some scope,
Governing cosmic, quantum, all,
A ground of mystery and hope.

So when you ponder, ask, and reach,
Give time to see as well as show.
Discerning means and motives, learn
To shape and teach as well as know.

Folly's Foliage


Here's a bit o' light verse, given that words are many but hours few.


Folly's Foliage

A dandelion puff aloft went wayward without sinking,
Uprooted, blown into the sky by simple wishful thinking.
So bold, its dreams of meaning made of happenstance and hope.
So dry, the withering stem now plucked– an epistemic trope.

The keep with no foundation falls apart in nothing flat.
Our prison-house of language games will make quite sure of that!
Each proposition needs a promise– given, cherished, kept–
Else thinking, thus unsteadied, spawns a progeny inept.

So build your treehouse near the stream and, firmly rooted there,
It will provide the place where thought may thrive and grow and dare.
The blooming bud once plucked becomes a thing already dead.
Perennial, the cultivated carefully instead.

In the New York Times, Verlyn Klinkenborg Gets It Wrong

Verlyn Klinkenborg has written an op ed called The Decline and Fall of the English Major in which he starts with his students' inability to write and winds up discerning a "literal-mindedness in the recent shift away from the humanities". The apparent goal of the article is to defend the value of the humanities. However, the editorial has two weaknesses that undermine that goal.

The first weakness arises in the attempt to define that value. The author reduces what the humanities offer to mere writing— to clear composition. "They don’t call that skill the humanities. They don’t call it literature. They call it writing," explains Klinkenborg, who also asserts that undergrads do not know "how valuable the most fundamental gift of the humanities will turn out to be. That gift is clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature."

So the value proposition of the humanities is reducible to clear thinking, clear writing, and a literary hobby. If that's all the humanities can offer, then why not eliminate every humanistic discipline other than composition and informal logic?

The humanities must be defended, if at all, on a much broader and deeper basis than this. To defend them merely because they build communication skills is to provide a tacit argument for superseding them with more efficient means toward that goal.

This fault in the editorial is joined to another. Klinkenborg writes: "…a certain literal-mindedness in the recent shift away from the humanities… suggests a number of things. One, the rush to make education pay off presupposes that only the most immediately applicable skills are worth acquiring…. Two, the humanities often do a bad job of explaining why the humanities matter. And three, the humanities often do a bad job of teaching the humanities. You don’t have to choose only one of these explanations. All three apply."

Whether these are genuine faults or merely perceived ones hardly matters in view of one overriding concern: if the humanities are so excellent at developing clear thought and clear verbal expression, then why do "the humanities… do a bad job of explaining" their value, and why do "the humanities… do a bad job of teaching the humanities"?

It seems reasonable that if the value proposition of the humanities consists of "clear thought and expression", then explaining the value of, and teaching, the humanities should be a slam dunk (and should be perceived as such). But if "the humanities" do a poor job of explaining their value and communicating their methods, then why believe in the first place that effective communication is a likely outcome of humanistic education?

Note– I'm all in favor of the humanities. Because of my humanistic education, I look askance on weak arguments and outright contradictions. For this reason, I don't like to see the humanities defended by a reduction to "clear thinking and writing" on the one hand and, on the other, by a contradiction of their efficacy at precisely that juncture.

A Christmas Hymn

I believe I first heard the advent hymn a solis ortus cardine in the 80s, when I was living just up the road from the Benedictine Abbey of S. Martin in Ligugé, France. The monks there were known for their chants, so I picked up their Chefs-d'oeuvre Grégoriens (on cassette tapes back then). It served well as a soundtrack for my quasi-total immersion in the middle ages.

Here's what Wikipedia offers about the song:

A solis ortus cardine … is a Latin poem by Coelius Sedulius (died circa 450), narrating Christ's life from His birth to His resurrection. Its 23 verses each begin with a consecutive letter of the alphabet, making the poem an Abecedarius…

The first seven verses, with a doxology verse by a different writer, were used from the early Middle Ages onwards as a Christmas hymn. They write of the striking contrast between the grandeur and omnipotence of the Word of God (the second person in the Holy Trinity) and the vulnerable humanity of the child in whom the Word became flesh.

Although I have a sentimental attachment to the version by the Choeur des Moines at L'Abbaye de Ligugé, I think this video by the Schola Gregoriana Monostorinensis in Transylvania presents the lovely melody at its best:

A solis ortus cardine
ad usque terrae limitem
Christum canamus principem,
natum Maria Virgine.

Beatus auctor saeculi
servile corpus induit,
ut carne carnem liberans
ne perderet quos condidit.

Caste parentis viscera
caelestis intrat gratia;
venter puellae baiulat
secreta quae non noverat.

Domus pudici pectoris
templum repente fit Dei;
intacta nesciens virum
verbo concepit Filium.

Enixa est puerpera
quem Gabriel praedixerat,
quem matris alvo gestiens
clausus Ioannes senserat.

Feno iacere pertulit,
praesepe non abhorruit,
parvoque lacte pastus est
per quem nec ales esurit.

Gaudet chorus caelestium
et angeli canunt Deum,
palamque fit pastoribus
Pastor, Creator omnium.

Gloria tibi, Domine
Qui natus est de virgine
cum Patre et Sancto Spiritu,
in sempiterna saecula.



credo ut intelligam, ambulo ut legam

Here's my favorite name for a dead-end street in France. I respect its current and former intellectual humility, and I celebrate its medievalizing wit.

l'Impasse de la Trinité (formerly l'Impasse de la Résurrection)
l'Impasse de la Trinité (formerly l'Impasse de la Résurrection)

Sidney Hollis Radner, 1919-2011 – A personal remembrance

This article first appeared in The Mandala Magazine, Volume 2, Issue 1 (July/August 2011), pp. 26-27.

Magnificent Obsession

It seems as if I’ve always known his name. No, not Houdini’s—Sid Radner’s.

That Tony Curtis movie is what first sparked my interest in the monarch of manacles. An obscure 1971 BBC documentary is what really kindled the flame. The Truth About Houdini was televised in the greater Los Angeles area around Halloween of 1976, and I vividly recall a photo in that week’s TV Guide of the real Houdini with his striped shirt, his heart-shaped hair, and his ball and chain. It was a photographic still from The Grim Game, and at the time it was one of the few photos of Houdini that I had ever seen. I carefully extracted it from the magazine and packed it away in an Antonio y Cleopatra Cigars box with my other childhood treasures. Now and again, I studied it with care.

From that moment and for many years, I sought out books and information about Houdini. Because I’m the sort who mulls over footnotes, it seemed to me that Sid Radner was popping up everywhere. Randi and Sugar cited him. Henning and Reynolds thanked him. Christopher too, and eventually Brandon and Silverman, Kalush and Sloman, Koval and Culliton. And from the very beginning, the coincidental convergence of Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner and Gilda Radner in my 1970s TV-saturated mind made Sid’s name unforgettable. I was Radner-aware.

Flash forward a couple of decades. Sometime in the middle 1990s, I was on the phone with Bill Brehm concerning the Houdini Historical Center in Appleton, and he realized I was in New England. “You should go visit Sid Radner!” he declared. “I should? I mean yes, yes. I should!” A little while later, the phone rang and Sid was inviting me and my wife to his home in Holyoke. From his perspective, I was a random stranger who happened to share his magnificent obsession. From my perspective, he was one of the last living connections to the Man Behind the Myth. Here was a chance to savor his unique perspective, and to see some of his collection.

I couldn’t wait.
Continue reading Sidney Hollis Radner, 1919-2011 – A personal remembrance

Dogged determination

I once heard Phil Leider say of Francisco Goya that he had only ever truly longed for two things: the career of Diego Velázquez and the love of the Duchess of Alba.

The Duchess of Alba in Mourning, 1797, collection of the The New York Hispanic Society (The Hispanic Society of America)

Maybe that's so.

His last duchess Goya depicted several times, most memorably in an enigmatic painting in which her defiant stance seems to contradict the connotations of her mourning apparel. She points down toward the dust at her feet, where some finger — his? hers? — has inscribed "solo Goya".

Seems like something's going on there. He kept this painting among his possessions from the time of its creation until his death in 1828.

However that may have gone, Leider was surely right about Velázquez, the greatest Spanish painter of the 17th-century, and maybe the greatest of them all — the painter of whom Ruskin supposedly said that everything he does "may be regarded as absolutely right" and to whom Ruskin ascribed "the highest reach of technical perfection yet attained in art."

Why wouldn't Goya want to be Velázquez redux? The earlier artist had lived a charmed life as court painter to Philip IV, under whose auspices he cranked out not only a seemingly endless supply of stock portraiture, but also some of the most psychologically and intellectually compelling images in western art.

It didn't matter what Goya wanted, though. It was not to be. Living through the French Revolution and the Peninsular War, Goya was surrounded by destruction, corruption, incompetence, and folly. Sure, he became court painter — nominally the same position Velázquez had held. But Goya's monarch was an imbecile surrounded by monsters. Recognizing the sad irony of his plight, Goya pulled no punches when it came time to speak truth to power. Continue reading Dogged determination

What's the Frequency, Flik?

The internet is pretty slick. Every attached computer has a unique address sort of like a phone number. (Sometimes, entire sub-networks lurk behind a single address through the miracles of IP and routing and such, just as entire switchboards of phones may lie behind the phone number of a main switchboard, but that's another story.)

Thanks to Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), files can be sent from one address to another with amazing efficiency. The brilliance of TCP's design lies in this: the rate at which stuff is sent automatically throttles up or down in response to network latency as measured by response time!

The Office – S5/E9: The Surplus from Vimeo.

Let's break it down. TCP is cool because "transmission control" sounds like "mission control" and that sounds like something NASA would have. But TCP is also cool because of how it works. Grossly simplified, it works like this:

  • You want to send that document requesting a pony to someone who has sent you a blind solicitation.
  • The networky stuff in your computer breaks the document into a bunch of "packets". Just like real parcels sent through UPS or Fedex or that other service, each packet is wrapped with a label explaining where it came from, where it's going, and so forth.
  • The packets follow various routes to their destination. As they arrive, the recipient (i.e., networky stuff on the other guy's computer) sends a receipt (called an "ack") to the sender. Meanwhile, the recipient uses the wrapper info to figure out whether all the packets have arrived, to put them in their correct order, and finally to reassemble the document. Transmission Accomplished!
  • The best part is the flow control. The sender starts by spraying out some packets and timing how long it takes to get a receipt for them. If the receipts come quickly, the sender sends more packets at a time. If the receipts come slowly, the sender sends fewer packets at a time (even stopping cold, if necessary). And since there's an ongoing flow of shipments and receipts and timing, the sender can avoid flooding the network but can also avoid letting bandwidth go to waste! Faster and faster! Slower and slower! No, faster! Slower! Strike that! Reverse it!
Flik, from Pixar's A Bug's Life
Flik, from Pixar's A Bug's Life

Now, here's the trippy science factoid du jour: researchers at Leland Stanford Junior University have discovered that Harvester Ants (including, apparently, the most venemous insect in the world) have been using TCP all along… behind Vint Cerf's and Bob Kahn's backs! Says the press release:

the rate at which harvester ants – which forage for seeds as individuals – leave the nest to search for food corresponds to food availability.

A forager won't return to the nest until it finds food. If seeds are plentiful, foragers return faster, and more ants leave the nest to forage. If, however, ants begin returning empty handed, the search is slowed, and perhaps called off.

They also found that the ants followed two other phases of TCP. One phase is known as slow start, which describes how a source sends out a large wave of packets at the beginning of a transmission to gauge bandwidth; similarly, when the harvester ants begin foraging, they send out foragers to scope out food availability before scaling up or down the rate of outgoing foragers.

Another protocol, called time-out, occurs when a data transfer link breaks or is disrupted, and the source stops sending packets. Similarly, when foragers are prevented from returning to the nest for more than 20 minutes, no more foragers leave the nest.

Further research into what these critters might teach us will be undertaken at the newly funded FourmiLab. Meanwhile, I leave you with a meditation on Proverbs 6:6 by e. e. cummings: go(perpe)go from his 1935 manuscript No Thanks (in George James Firmage, ed., E. E. Cummings: Complete Poems, 1904-1962, Revised, NY: Norton, 1994, p. 403 or thereabouts).

go(perpe)go, e. e. cummings, No Thanks, #20, 1935
go(perpe)go, e. e. cummings, No Thanks, #20, 1935