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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Even the weariest river rolls somewhere safe to the sea

by John MacBeath Watkins

That no life lives forever
That dead men rise up never
and even the weariest river
rolls somewhere safe to the sea

On hearing the above words, my thoughts went to Ecclesiates, my favorite book of the Bible. I'm particularly partial to Theodore White's version of the first couple lines;

Vanity of vanities, all is vanity
and shepherding the wind.

I've spent my career among journalists and booksellers, and the management of these might be called shepherding the wind. Yes, well, give that North wind a quick bop on the nose, that will get him to mind.

But those opening lines were written by Algernon Charles Swinburne in 1866. I hesitate to mention this, because readers of this blog are the erudite and decadent sort who probably already know this, but in college Swinburne chose to hang out with the pre-Raphaelites, which means, of course, that he was born more than 300 years after the death of Raffaello Sanzio da Urbin, a high Renaissance painter.

He was a decadent poet (though no less expert on decadence than Oscar Wilde claimed he greatly exaggerated his tendency to vice) and was writing, in the poem "The Garden of Proserpine" (Proserpine is better known as Persephone, portrayed in the Bernini sculpture at left) about the pagan Goddess of springtime. So of course, his language makes me think of the Old Testament, King James version, which owes a lot (as do we all) to William Tyndale's translation of the New Testament and much of the Old Testament, brutally suppressed by Henry VIII. Hank8, not long after Tyndales' death at the hands of Henry's agents, decided he wanted his own translation, so he hired a hack who used Tyndale's suppressed translation and the work of other scholars to produce the Great Bible. Henry the Eighth had the Bible chained to the pulpits of those priests who he had not already killed, to be interpreted by them.

Tyndale made some controversial translation choices (in translating the Bible, who could fail to be controversial?) but his scholarship and prose style made his work the basis for all subsequent English translations of the Bible.

His was a translation so influential, we can hear its echoes in a decadent poet writing about a heathen Goddess, hundreds of years after his death.

And don't wait on his resurrection. Tyndale's remains were burned, so there would be no body to be resurrected on Judgment Day: His censors were not the forgiving kind. Just as well that he lives on in our language and our ways of thought.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Journey to a text

by John MacBeath Watkins

Book collectors are subject to strange passions and obsessions. One of mine happens to be the history of sailing craft. I thought I would tell how this obsession brought me to spend as much for a few pages as most people pay for an entire book. And we must consider, the median number of books read by adult Americans in a year is two. So I blew half the median American budget for a year on a few pages copied from a defunct magazine.

I suppose it all started with my ill-starred decision to learn the alphabet, but not being James Michner, I'll start with a more proximate cause.

I often waste my time with others of my ilk on the WoodenBoat forum. There I angered an Englishman who rejoices in the name Andrew Craig-Bennett by suggesting that Uffa Fox, the most renowned small-boat designer of all time, didn't invent the planing dinghy. Fox won the Prince of Wales Cup in Avenger, a 14-foot sailing dinghy, in 1928, introducing the planing dinghy to England. He had worked on aircraft designed to take off from the water, and used some of this knowledge in designing Avenger. The boat won 52 races in 57 starts. You have to be a complete geek about small-boat sailing to regard this as earth-shattering, so I do.

Now, I knew that the inland scows in America were planing in the late 19th century, the basic shape remaining roughly the same from the 1890s to the present day. Some of the classes still sailing were organized in 1901 and 1903. The difficulty is that the type is little known outside the US (although for a time in the late 1890s, they terrorized a lagoon in New Zealand until an earthquake destroyed the lagoon.) And finding lines for such a vessel to show to my interlocutors, who by this time included an English naval architect, a New Zealand small-boat designer of some repute, some Aussies and a number of Americans and Canadians, proved more difficult than expected.

I ran across the illustration at the left in a book called The Golden Age of Yachting, by L. Francis Herreshoff (it was the lines of a design by his father that had set me off in the first place.) It was the sail plan for a racing scow designed by Charles G. Davis, the design editor for Rudder magazine, a publication then quite new. The design ran in 1898 under the headline, "How to Build a $50 racer," serialized in three issues, and proved so popular that it radically boosted the circulation of the magazine. In 1899 Rudder published it as a hard cover book, so I thought, being in the book business myself, perhaps I could acquire a copy. Unfortunately, the cheapest copy available was $85, and being in the book business, I'm not rich.

By this time, I'd found better examples, and Andrew had found a quote from Uffa Fox that showed he didn't think he'd invented the planing dinghy, though he had greatly improved it. But according to Herreshoff, the young men of his generation found their imaginations inflamed by the plans for the 'racer for $50,' and many were built. Rudder later promoted a design called the Snipe by a later editor, William Crosby, which became one of the most popular classes in the world.

Was Lark, as Davis had named his design for the $50 racer, the Ur-dinghy, the missed chance to start an even earlier class? Here bibliophile's obsession kicks in. This is information that cannot be found on the Web, part of the knowledge that a generation is missing because they can't find the text through a search engine.

I learned that Mystic Seaport, that Mecca for the soggy fellowship of traditional boat enthusiasts, had copies of the fragile old magazines that the how-to-build article had run in back in 1898. For the price of a moderately scholarly trade paperback, I got six 11x17 photocopied pages of plans and text. They showed a boat nearly the same size as a Snipe that would have been faster and lighter, a boat that would have achieved higher speeds especially on a reach, where the Snipe's weight and hull form make it difficult to get the boat on the step. Davis described overtaking the waves while sailing, a pretty good indicator of planing behavior, though in 1898 -- and here was the other problem with our forum conversation -- the language we now use to describe planing didn't exist.

Perhaps someday, someone will build another "$50 racer" (though I suspect it would cost a couple grand, now.) In the meantime, I get a warm glow when I look at those lines, and the simple construction drawings.

Money well spent.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Cry of the voters: Represent ME!

by John MacBeath Watkins

Okay, the floodgates are open. I'm doing a second political post.

I can't stop myself, because so much tosh has been written about the mood of American voters.

Supposedly, they are in an anti-incumbent mood, ready to throw the bums out, which should be bad news for the ruling party. This is supposed to be the Republicans' year.

In theory, one way to track this is through by-elections, those special elections that take place on a different schedule than general elections, generally to fill a vacant seat. Because they tend to have lower turnout, they should favor the party with the most enthusiastic (or ticked-off) voters. They also tend to favor the party with older voters and wealthier voters, because those are the people who tend to vote in all the elections, not just the big ones. In practice, that should mean Republicans have a second advantage in these elections.

So far during the Obama administration, there have been eight House by-elections, one of them in the Hawaiian district where Obama grew up.

That one went to the Republicans, because two Democrats split the Democratic vote. The other seven, NY20, IL5, CA32, CA10, NY23, FL19, and PA12, have gone to the Democrats. In NY 23, which had been reliably Republican for generations, two Republicans split the vote, but one of them announced she was withdrawing before the ballot -- and endorsed the Democrat.

In Massachusetts, Republican Scott Brown famously defeated Democrat Martha Coakley for Edward Kennedy's old Senate seat.

These results don't indicate that people favor one of the political parties over the other. In fact, it looks to me like they don't favor the parties at all. Republicans have failed to take seats that they could have, because they tried to nationalize the campaigns and make them about President Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi. They were beaten by people who showed they knew their districts and knew the local issues their constituents cared about.

Coakley made several gaffes that made her look like she didn't know and/or care about things local. Criticized for going to a Washington fundraiser instead of campaigning, she said "as opposed to standing outside Fenway Park? In the cold?" Voters decided they were no more enthusiastic about her than she was about meeting them. Brown won not be being an ideologue, but by convincing voters he was one of them.

With their current representatives voting too often in a lockstep, party-line manner, with money corrupting the process and lobbyists writing legislation, voters want representatives who represent them, not a party or an ideology or an industry with lots of money to throw around.

In places like NY23, the Republicans have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by putting up candidates who don't know the local issues. One would think by this time they would have learned their lesson, but organizations are not rational actors. If the party puts more emphasis on ideology than on knowing what the voters in a district or state want, it will get candidates who are ideologically pure, and knowing their turf will be a matter that does not affect the selection process.

If you are not serious about knowing the voters' needs and serving them, a candidate should expect rejection.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Doing violence to history

by John MacBeath Watkins

In general, I've steered clear of political commentary in this blog, since the world has enough of that, but as a reader of history, I have to take issue with David Brooks' latest column.

He invents an angry voter, who he christens Ben. Ben worked hard, believed in a society where hard work is rewarded and indolence is not, yada yada,

This setup is followed by the following assertion:

"Once there was a group in the political center that would have understood Ben’s outrage. Moderates like Abraham Lincoln believed in the free labor ideology. Their entire governing system was built around encouraging labor and rewarding labor."

Lincoln was our most divisive president. His election was followed by a large number of states attempting to leave the union. They did so because they did not regard his views as moderate.

In fact, he believed that an entire rentier class should be deprived of their property and forced to give that property to itself. I've had some people argue with me that slavery was not the cause of the Civil War, but if you read the Declaration of the Causes of Secession issued by Confederate states, you'll find that those driving the secession made themselves amply clear. Here are a few sentences from the Mississippi declaration:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.

That we do not overstate the dangers to our institution, a reference to a few facts will sufficiently prove.

The hostility to this institution commenced before the adoption of the Constitution...

...It has grown until it denies the right of property in slaves, and refuses protection to that right on the high seas, in the Territories, and wherever the government of the United States had jurisdiction.

More declarations here.

You could not have free labor, which as Brooks notes was what Lincoln believed in, and have a property right to laborers. These are rights in conflict, and there was no middle ground. The country spent its entire existence up to the Civil War trying to find such middle ground, and explored pretty much all the options. Sometimes, doing the right thing is not centrist or moderate.

Brooks also does violence to more recent history. Suppose a president wanted to be the centrist figure Brooks longs for. Suppose that president wanted to tackle one of the biggest problems the country has, the problem of healthcare. One thing he could do is adopt the best ideas of the other party, and anticipate that they would support reforms instituting those ideas.

Obama's health insurance reforms drew on ideas used in the 1993 Republican healthcare reform plan, supported by the right-wing Heritage Foundation and instituted in Massachusetts by Republican Mitt Romney when he was governor of that state. Conservative talk show host Hugh Hewett, in his book A Mormon in the White House? praised the plan, saying:

This brilliant bit of legislating was born from a partnering between Romney and his policy team with the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Once Obama adopted the plan, Romney, the Heritage Foundation, and Hewitt all distanced themselves from its core ideas. The Republican talking points about ideas they had once supported said the plan was socialistic and un-American.

Where is there room in this sort of conversation for a centrist? Brooks asserts that "...the political center is a feckless shell. It has no governing philosophy. Its paragons seem from the outside opportunistic, like Arlen Specter, or caught in some wishy-washy middle, like Blanche Lincoln. The right and left have organized, but the center hasn’t bothered to. The right and left have media outlets and think tanks, but the centrists are content to complain about polarization and go home. By their genteel passivity, moderates have ceded power to the extremes."

No. The center has been defined out of existence. Think tanks once seen as centrist, such as the Brookings Institution, have not ceased to exist or issue policy papers. Partisans choose to define them as belonging to one side or the other.

The lessons of history are there to be learned, ignored, or misinterpreted. Brooks attempted the first and instead did the last of these.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Tale of Three Books

by John MacBeath Watkins

In 1950, an author named Duff Cooper wrote a spy novel titled Operation Heartbeat. While it was greeted with a yawn in the literary world, in some circles it caused quite a stir. The echoes of that book are still reverberating.

Cooper had invented a plot device he thought rather ingenious, in which the British plant a body with certain documents on it that they want the Germans to find, and the Germans are taken in. What he didn't know was that this had actually happened. In 1943, a Spanish fisherman found a badly decomposing body dressed as a British officer floating off southwestern Spain. On that body was a courier case containing documents relating to where the Allied landing in southern Europe would be (Sardinia and Greece, rather than Sicily, where the actual landing took place.) The Spanish authorities offered to turn over the document case to the English vice-consul, who declined, saying the matter should go through the usual channels. There followed frantic cable from England, and efforts to get the documents back, but by this time, pro-German Spanish officers had copied the documents and sent them to Germany, causing the Axis to make the wrong decisions about troop deployment.

People who had been involved in the actual incident started to talk after Cooper's book came out. British intelligence was unable to conceal the operation any longer, and decided the best course to steer the narrative about its actions was to write their own book.

Ewan Montague, who had led the real operation (Operation Mincemeat) took a weekend off from his legal practice and wrote a slender volume describing the incident, and in the process making British Intelligence look like geniuses. The book, The Man Who Never Was, became a bestseller, which I read and enjoyed some years ago. A film made from it two years after the book was published partially fictionalized the incident, but maintained the narrative that Montague started.

Now a third book has come along, Operation Mincemeat, by Ben MacIntyre. This gives us some of the detail Montague left out. Major Karl-Erich K├╝hlenthal, head of German intelligence in Madrid, habitually exaggerated the importance of the intelligence he gathered, sometimes making stuff up to make it seem better. This may have had something to do with the fact that he was part Jewish, and was desperate to keep from being posted in Germany.

Not to worry, the Germans had a backup. An analyst named Alexis Baron von Roenne vetted the documents and pronounced them to be authentic. MacIntyre reports that von Roenne may not have believed the documents were authentic, and in fact seems to have done all he could to sabotage Hitler, who he despised.

This ties in with my theory that the more secret an organization is, the more incompetence it can conceal (for more on that, see Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner.) It also reveals what economists call the agency problem: Those who you commission to act as your agents often act instead on their own interest.

For the reader, there is a different agency problem. The Man Who Never Was, while a delightful read, left out the fact that the success of the operation owed much to the fact that intelligence services often don't work very well. Perhaps that was the part of the narrative British Intelligence was trying to control. After all, Ewan Montague's brother Ivor was acting as a spy for the Soviets during World War II.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Giant Isopod: A Trilobite for our Times?

by John MacBeath Watkins

As the owner of too many books about paleontology, a picture on the front of the Seattle Times today took me aback at first. It was a scientist holding what appeared to be a trilobite. Hey, I even owned a boat named Trilobite at one time. Perfectly respectable extinct bottom-dwelling creature.

But this was not a real trilobite. It was instead an example of convergent evolution, a giant isopod, related to wood lice and pill bugs. They are threatened by the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Giant isopods seem to live like trilobites, eating whatever falls to the bottom of the sea, so they adopted the same flat body form and flexible shell.

Just as New World vultures are not genetically related to Old World vultures, evolving from different birds to fill the same ecological niche, isopods are not related to the species that existed 300 million years ago to fill their niche.

More on trilobites here.

More on giant isopods here. Apparently they are served at restaurants in Taiwan.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Reviewers and Humor

by John MacBeath Watkins

Reviewers are the Praetorian Guards of literature. They can anoint the new Caesar, keep him in his post, or bring him down.

As a bookseller, I know that with literary fiction and mysteries, the imprimatur of the New York Times book reviewers is golden. With science fiction, word of mouth and a good premise are more important, in history there are books that cover a topic no one else has, and the book has value for that reason.

But even within the categories where reviewers wield godlike power over readership, there are exceptions. Books that are funny can succeed without the accolades of reviewers. This is a good thing, because humor does not seem to be held a very high accomplishment by reviewers.

I suppose this is understandable. If you finish a book, lay it down and think, "So. Nietzsche was right about God," there is a feeling that the writer has been very serious and achieved something great. The successful humorist accomplishes something subtler and more difficult, leaving readers feeling as though something rather nice has happened to them.

Readers value this highly, and become devoted to writers like P.G. Wodehouse, who can accomplish this consistently.

As it happens, Wodehouse is my favorite author. He was British, but enjoyed his greatest success in the United States, first as a librettist for musical comedies in conjunction with Guy Bolls and Jerome Kern, then, when the Saturday Evening Post started accepting his work in the 1930s, as a novelist and short-story writer.

The sharp-tongued Dorothy Parker waxed lyrical about the musical comedies, and enough people in the publishing industry were fans that even when his work was not terribly profitable, they published him. But Wodehouse sometimes seems to have missed the approval critics bestowed on serious writers, the sort who wrote about despair in the suburbs.

There is now a Wodehouse Prize for comic writing, but fewer prize are given than good reviews. Too few reviewers give credit to good comic writing, but despite their tendency to slight this sort of book, readers are willing to try a book that lacks the aristocratic New York Times review if it looks like it might be funny.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word

by John Macbeath Watkins

I've been accused on occasion of being bohemian, so finding the word in an odd context piqued my interest. It seems the Romani, so called because of the myth that they are from Romania, were also called Bohemians because of the myth that they were from the kingdom of Bohemia, now called the Czech Republic. They are most commonly called gypsies because of the myth that they are from Egypt. Some of their own myths say they came from India, others say they came from the middle east (possibly Chaldea) and some of them went from there to India. The linguistic and genetic evidence is a little ambiguous, but it seems they came from somewhere in the Indian subcontinent.

But the word "bohemian" as it is used to describe someone disreputable in a kind of cool, anti-authoritarian way, has everything to do with the gypsies. They arrived in Wallachia (now part of Romania) and Serbia some time in the 1300s, where they were quickly recognized as aliens and enslaved until the law was changed in 1856. They arrived in France in the early 1400s, where their wandering ways brought them in contact with the Goliards, unfrocked priests who traveled from town to town, in some cases seeking knowledge at different schools but in most cases chasing women, drinking wine, and writing some of the earliest European poetry written in the vulgar tongues (as well as vulgar poetry written in Latin.) They gave us some of the earliest preserved secular music.

In that time, to be a scholar, you pretty much had to take orders. If you became disenchanted with the Church, what was left to you? A choice between a life as a hypocrite within the church, or a dissolute life outside of it, or, I suppose, going back to the family farm. To be a scholar and not a hypocrite, what would such a person do? Kick around in cheap lodgings, consort with loose women and other disenchanted scholars, write poetry that was subversive without being overtly political, I suppose. (That overtly political stuff would get you killed.) Much of this poetry was about a fictional defrocked priest called Bishop Golias, a satirical figure used to ridicule the Church. The Goliard poets were still priests, and got some of their money by preaching and granting indulgences.

Eventually, the church started cracking down on them. Authority within the church was becoming more centralized and it was becoming better able to suppress such subversive activity at about the time the gypsies, better known in France at the time as "bohemians" were arriving in France, England and Germany, the main stomping grounds of the Goliards.

But if you were to condemn their behavior, calling them Goliards would only remind people of the disreputable Bishop Golias, about whom so many satirical songs were sung in drinking establishments. Better to associate them with the gypsies, who made people uncomfortable. They looked different, they dressed different, nobody wanted them to settle wherever they went except those who wished to enslave them. To call behavior "bohemian" was to link it to poverty, theft, and a shiftless, impermanent lifestyle. The Goliards' reputation for fighting, drinking, wenching, gambling and writing edgy, anti-authoritarian poetry was linked to the "bohemians" from then on. Or, as several 19th Century French books on the Romani had it, Les Bohemiens.

Although four Romani accompanied Columbus on his third voyage, there are not so many Romani in America. At a time when it was almost impossible to be an illegal immigrant in America, 1885, Congress passed a law against them immigrating. So American bohemians had to make do with associating with our more numerous underclass, African Americans and Hispanics. We associate them with drugs such as marijuana and music such as jazz that are connected with these groups, and with an alienation from mainstream life and the authority that protects if from the disreputable, the outsiders, and the rebels.

But calling the rebellious poets of the 14th century bohemian has in fact attached the sign (the spoken or written word) to the meaning once occupied by the term Goliard – a rebel poet – more than to the meaning the Church authorities had hoped for, of people who were poor, shiftless, thieving, and Not of our Tribe. Power managed to change the sign, but not what it signified, because the web of meaning is more resilient than any political power.

The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
Why do we need myths?  
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone

"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word

On being a ghost in a soft machine
On the illusion of the self

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

by John MacBeath Watkins

The arrest of Faisal Shahzad has reminded me of an excellent book for those trying to understand the middle east. The Crusades Through Arab Eyes gives you a view of the middle east not caught up in the daily news.

At first, the crusaders were quite successful against the Arabs, in large part because whenever an Arab general seemed poised to defeat them, he lost the support of other Arab leaders. Defeating the invaders would have made the winning general more powerful, costing his allies their own power. Saladin united the Arabs before attacking the crusader state instead of putting together a temporary alliance. To do this, one form of Islam had to become the dominant one, and under Saladin it was the Sunni variety. Today, we see some of the same divisions in Iraq, still struggling for dominance. The cult of the Assassins, an early terrorist group, got its start in the time of the crusades.

I came away from the book feeling that the Arabs, looking back on this history, must feel that however long it takes and however many times they fail, they will in the end triumph over those they see as interlopers in their land. The crusades went on for a couple hundred years. The Kingdom of Jerusalem, a crusader state, lasted from 1099 to 1291. Eight generations of Arabs never accepted the crusaders' rule of Jerusalem. I suppose this does not portend well for them accepting Zionist rule of Jerusalem, either, or American occupation of any Muslim country. The book contributes to our understanding of the middle east, but doesn't set your mind at rest.