Friday, May 30, 2014

Benjamin Franklin To the Royal Academy [1791]

To the Royal Academy of Farting: GENTLEMEN,

I Have perused your late mathematical Prize Question, proposed in lieu of one in Natural Philosophy, for the ensuing year . . . that you esteem Utility an essential Point in your Enquiries, which has not always been the case with all Academies; and I conclude therefore that you have given this Question instead of a philosophical, or as the Learned express it, a physical one, because you could not at the time think of a physical one that promis'd greater Utility.

Permit me then humbly to propose one of that sort for your consideration, and through you, if you approve it, for the serious Enquiry of learned Physicians, Chemists, &c. of this enlightened Age. It is universally well known, That in digesting our common Food, there is created or produced in the Bowels of human Creatures, a great Quantity of Wind.

That the permitting of this Air to escape and mix with the Atmosphere, is usually offensive to the Company, from the fetid Smell that accompanies it.

That all well-bred People therefore, to avoid giving such Offence, forcibly restrain the Efforts of Nature to discharge that Wind.

That so retain'd contrary to Nature, it not only gives frequently great present Pain, but occasions future Diseases, such as habitual Cholics, Ruptures, Tympanies, &c. often destructive of the Constitution, & sometimes of Life itself.

Were it not for the odiously offensive Smell accompanying such Escapes, polite People would probably be under no more Restraint in discharging such Wind in Company, than they are in spitting, or in blowing their Noses.

My Prize Question therefore should be, To discover some Drug wholesome & not disagreable, to be mix'd with our common Food, or Sauces, that shall render the natural Discharges of Wind from our Bodies, not only inoffensive, but agreable as Perfumes.  

That this is not a chimerical Project, and altogether impossible, may appear from these Considerations. That we already have some Knowledge of Means capable of Varying that Small. He that dines on stale Flesh, especially with much Addition of Onions, shall be able to afford a Stink that no Company can tolerate; while he that has lived for some Time on Vegetables only, shall have that Breath so pure as to be insensible to the most delicate Noses; and if he can manage so as to avoid the Report, he may any where give Vent to his Griefs, unnoticed. But as there are many to whom an entire Vegetable Diet would be inconvenient, and as a little Quick-Lime thrown into a Jakes will correct the amazing Quantity of fetid Air arising from the vast Mass of putrid Matter contain'd in such Places, and render it rather pleasing to the Small, who know but that a little Powder of Lime (or some other thing equivalent) taken in our Food, or perhaps a Glass of Limewater drank at Dinner, may have the same Effect on the Air produc'd in and issuing from our Bowels? This is worth the Experiment. Certain it is also that we have the Power of changing by slight Means the Smell of another Discharge, that of our Water. A few Stems of Asparagus eaten, shall give our Urine a disagreable Odour; and a Pill of Turpentine no bigger than a Pea, shall bestow on it the pleasing Smell of Violets. And why should it be thought more impossible in Nature, to find Means of making a Perfume of our Wind than of our Water? 

For the Encouragement of this Enquiry, (from the immortal Honour to be reasonably expected by the Inventor) let it be considered of how small Importance to Mankind, or to how small a Part of Mankind have been useful those Discoveries in Science that have heretofore made Philosophers famous. Are there twenty Men in  Europe at this Day, the happier, or even the easier, for any Knowledge they have pick-d out of Aristotle? What Comfort can the Vortices of Descartes give to a Man who has Whirlwinds in his Bowels! The Knowledge of of Newton's mutual Attraction of the Particles of Matter, can it afford Ease to him who is rack'd by their mutual Repulsion, and the cruel Distensions it occasions? The Pleasure arising to a few Philosophers, from seeing, a few Times in their Life, the Threads of Light untwisted, and separated by the Newtonian Prism into seven Colours, can it be compared with the Ease and Comfort every Man living might feel seven times a Day, by discharging freely the Wind from his Bowels? Especially if it be converted into a Perfume: For the Pleasures of one Sense being little inferior to those of another, instead of pleasing the Sight he might delight the Smell of those about him, & make Numbers happy, which to a benevolent Mind must afford infinite Satisfaction. The generous Soul, who now endeavours to find out whether the Friends he entertains like the best Claret or Burgundy, Champagne or Madeira, would then enquire also whether they chose Musk or Lilly, Rose or Bergamot, and provide accordingly. And surely such a Liberty of Expressing one's Scent-iments, and pleasing one another, is of infinitely more Importance to human happiness than that Liberty of the Press, or of abusing one another, which be, as Bacon expresses it, bringing Philosophy home to Mens Business and Bosoms. And I cannot but conclude, that in Comparison therewith, for universal and continual UTILITY, the Science of the Philosophers abovementioned, even with the Addition, Gentlemen, of your "Figure quelqonque" [ordinary figure] and the Figures inscrib'd in it, are, all together, scarcely worth a FART-HING. 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Immaculate Concoctions

Time gets shorter for each of us, that is, as we count each day from our birth forward towards an undoubted end. Does that make each moment sweeter, or more bittersweet? All we know of this life is what we get. The other side of consciousness, that dark realm of non-being which we can only imagine, awaits the return of our molecular dust to the ultimate universal dispersal. Such mordant thoughts on a pretty day!

As we age and grow increasingly frail, how much of our thought is made out of the memory of idealized experience--the rush and pressure of young love, the ecstatic inertia of physical recreation, the delight in music and embroidered language, the comic charm, the seductive taste, the awe at phenomena? Do the young appreciate what they possess? Certainly, youth is wasted on the young. But life isn't wasted on me. I'm enjoying it as much as I can. 

Starting with these two delightful original cocktail mixes. They haven't names yet, so they enter the world nameless and innocent of association. This first one is liltingly lyrical and gentle, and if you were blindfolded you might guess it had chocolate in it. Such is the mystery of flavor! 


4 parts gin
1 part apricot liqueur
1/2 part cotton candy liqueur
1/2 part irish mist
1 1/2 part cream
4 dashes Angostura bitters

Measures by proportion. Shaken gently and served up in a snowy chilled glass.

The second is equally mysterious in the way it masks its essential flavors of cherry, mint and elderflower. Plus the ambiguous combination of sweet lime and green lime makes it more elusive yet. Most drinkers like simple, straightforward flavor combinations, but complex ones intrigue me, which is what makes me keep experimenting. 

4 parts gin
1 part maraschino liqueur
1/3 part peppermint schnapps
1/3 part St. Germaine liqueur
1/2 part lime
1 part sweet lime

Measures by proportion. Very sophisticated impression. This is an elaboration upon gin's complex herbal character. The thin air of delicate distinctions. Of fine splittings of meanings, of shaded implications. Shaken and poured into very cold frosted glasses. 

Monday, May 26, 2014

Dancing the Gavotte

George Frideric Handel, Johann Sebastian Bach and Domenico Scarlatti were all born in the same year, 1685. That may be one of the great coincidences.  

  George Frideric Handel [1685-1759]

We often think of the great artists and writers and thinkers as having lived and produced their works in a kind of static epoch--a time that they helped define, which has come to be associated with them. But these individuals defined their time as much as or more than it defined them. Through their genius and innovations, they brought about change, or gave crucial voice or form to the underlying tendencies of the age.

"The age demanded," goes a line in an early poem by Ezra Pound. We think today of the spirit of a culture, or a society, as being a consequence of forces which struggle to prevail, and the writings or music or works of art either as expressions of that spirit, or as contrary challenges to a predominant power.

Handel lived in a time before the great surges of independence which have defined the West in the succeeding two and a half centuries--in an epoch dominated by royalty and the upper classes, which could afford the leisure and expense of underwriting an art and music which suited their station in the world.

The music of Handel will therefore, in retrospect, always be associated with the privilege and elegance of the rich classes of England, for whom he composed his works. His music may in this respect be seen as the embodiment of a corruption of the dignity of man, justified by the divine right of nobility (and the combined power of the state and church) to oppress and subdue the great mass of humankind. There is a buoyancy in Handel's music which is born aloft by the presumption of this privilege.

That is of course the democratic or socialist interpretation of the Art of Baroque in Europe, and there is little point is disputing the essential validity of that critique. But music has often been described as the most abstract of the arts, especially when it aspires to a higher calling than the accompaniment to movement or lyric.

We are sophisticated enough to understand that the relationship between a piece of music, and the initial pretext for its creation, are separable and may be appreciated discretely. The emotion that inspired the writing of a piece of music may increase its intensity or ingenuity, but the idea that notes--the panoply of sounds organized into a sequence of tones gathered into masses and intervals--could have only a single or specific function, is one we know is only an expedient notion.

People today enjoy listening to Handel's Messiah oratorio, no doubt to some degree because of its religious content. It's a celebration and dramatization of Christian dogma, featuring the annunciation, passion and death, followed by the judgment and resurrection of Christ, a structure upon which Handel presents a series of musical panels. It's unlikely that anyone not knowing the details of this program would be able to deduce the meaning or significance of what is being celebrated or explained by the oratorio alone. You have to understand beforehand, what the whole work is intended to be, in order to appreciate its programmatic content, if (indeed) that were the whole point of listening to it.

And yet, it's possible to comprehend the inspiration Handel felt through the music alone. This comprehension, or inspiration, may be too generalized to have a specific religious purpose. But the quasi-religious "feeling" we associate with so much religiously inspired music is one that has been associated with religions of all kinds for as far back as we have records or evidence.

As a boy, I was made to attend the local Presbyterian church with family friends. My parents were not particularly religious, and disliked the whole church-going routine. But the justification was that I was supposed to form "my own opinion" of religion through direct exposure, then choose for myself, whether it was something I felt I needed in my life as an adult. Between you and me and the fly on the wall, the real purpose of this little subterfuge was to enable my parents to have uninterrupted bedroom time on Sunday mornings.

What I did take away from my four involuntary years of Sunday school and general congregation experience was the pleasure of hearing and singing hymns. There is something soothing and even contemplative about experiencing uplifting music in the morning. There is a clear moral purpose to doing this, and there is no confusion about the basic intent of hymn-singing. It's supposed to make you feel devout and to encourage virtuous thinking, a spur to religious feeling, to give the sinners an excuse to come together and feel close.

Even in those days, I understood I was being manipulated, but I also understood that the music itself was not intrinsically religious--it was just a tool. I understood that rock & roll, or jazz, or swing, or folk, or military, or secular classical music, were just other kinds of music, though the purpose and spirit of these other styles of music was not spiritual. It was possible to distinguish kinds of music into the various occasions with which they were associated or for which they were composed. But those associations might not always seem as strong as they were assumed to be.

In any case, as I grew to hear and know more music, I could listen to religious music both inside and outside the context of its initial occasion. Over time, once I understood the circumstances under which a piece had been composed, I was free to accept or reject the context as I chose.

Today, listening to a Handel orchestral piece, or any one of a number of his various concerti, I can "hear" them more as pure music, than as mere window-dressing or furniture in an historical costume-drama illustrating the cultural clichés of a particular time. Robert Creeley once derided writers of "old-fshioned" or traditionally styled poetry by saying that we no longer "dance the Gavotte" so we should not be writing sonnets and nursery rhymes as if we still did. There is some truth to that claim, enough to give it bite. But in fact we are no less able to appreciate an elegantly composed piece of music for the gavotte, or a sonnet by Shakespeare, than we are to appreciate a free-verse lyric written by William Carlos Williams.

It is a very superficial prejudice that limits our apprehension of a work of art to the precise original spirit or pretext for which it was made. And often critics will ignore that limitation in constructing an argument for or against a particular work or artist. It is clear that Handel practiced his art under the prevailing conditions of official and privileged patronage, and that the spirit of his work fits comfortably within the terms of its occasion--as an enhancement of the niceties of polite society, elegantly decorative and effete. As a consequence of our sense of the context of his work, we are likely to see it as inextricably interwoven into the bewigged and primping pomposities of velvet and silk and powder and fans and kerchiefs and buckled shoes. It's music that belongs in such settings.

And yet there is so much more to it than that. Any music which is directed towards the ennobling or exalting of life, or humanity, is not automatically hypocritical or beholden to class or franchise. If it is merely decorative, or merely polite, it may well be nothing more than the frill on a curtain. But if it also carries weight, or is intrinsically powerful and convincing, it can transcend this initial contingency. It is one of the crucial measures of the value of any work of art, that it transcend the limitations of its time and context. We certainly think of Bach in this sense, that his compositions rise above the styles and conveniences of their time to speak to later generations and epochs of the truth and beauty.

Bach and Handel may have thought that the aspirations towards truth and beauty in their music were evidence of the glory of god. If god was the highest perfection they could imagine, that became their inspiration. We now think of inspiration as a mental or emotional quality quite apart from the context within which it may be thought to belong. I can distinctly recall how stuffy and even repugnant the bust of Handel seemed to me, resting atop my childhood music teacher's upright piano. It suggested pedagogical sternness, dull pretense, and a dignity which I felt both unable to emulate, and uninterested in understanding. In short, I lived in innocent ignorance. It's okay to be innocent--and even ignorance (especially of what the future may hold) may be preferable to complete knowledge.

Take off Handel's wig, his velvet waist-coat, his white stockings, and cotton undergarments, and we have the same man, the same physical proportions as our own. Take away the polite society sitting in baroque chairs, take the musicians out of the castle hall, put them into a high school auditorium. Is the music still an encrustation upon a decadent, dying hierarchy of oppression and self-perpetuating greed?

How shall posterity view the work of Elvis Presley? Michael Jackson? Will it be able to splice out the core musical content from the mass of cultural paraphernalia within which it once flowered? What is the distillate, the alembic? Can we hear it through the fog of presumption and prejudice and myriad preconceptions and distractions? Is to have done so an act of surgical violence, designed to eviscerate its original meaning and purpose?

Then what is the point of Handel's dignified and deliberately sophisticated, polite and ordered musical language? Whenever I hear an orchestral piece by Handel, I am uplifted. Is this the same order of exhilaration that I was supposed to experience in the church of my childhood, or is it a purer, more generalized, or more specific, quality than the various occasions for which it was once intended?

Whenever I take a cross-continental jet flight, during cloudy weather, I am astonished at the extraordinary feeling I experience as the fuselage glides over and through great white masses of clouds. Doubtless, there are prior associations I have in my memory bank of all the scenes and visions of skies and landscapes that are mixed together inside the nimbus of my conception of "cloud". All I can say is that these visions of passing through white cumulus formations at thousands of feet above ground, are invariably united in my mind with the flights of musical sublimation I associate with the works of Handel. 

This association is enriched for me by the sense of an impending mortality. In Handel's time, the experience of passing over or through clouds in an airplane was completely unknown. Religious notions of heaven have traditionally been constructed out of billowy clouds, as if after death, we would ascend into a heaven of cloudy weightlessness and deathless purity, symbolized by the diaphanous insubstantiality of floating water vapor. Clouds, in this sense, are symbols of death, or of immortality (if you believe in a life after death). Clouds, of course, may signify danger, or change, or even infernal forces. W.A. Auden once said that the rumor of death was like the sound of thunder at a picnic.  

Of all the music I know, the work of Bach and Handel seems most apt to inspire me to a sense of my own potentiality in life. The music seems to be saying to me "existence is a noble opportunity, don't waste it, give thanks for the beauty and power of your feelings and knowledge, for what you've been given to know and see." The music enacts a triumph over adversity which lifts up the heart. Ordinarily, I'm not an inspired-seeming person. I think most people would describe me as cynical and rather suspicious. Inside the awareness of life's fragility and temporality is the potential for hope. I can't speak for others, but only for myself. 

I think that dancing the gavotte might actually be fun. 

Friday, May 23, 2014


Sand dunes are much more complex than you might realize.

I've spent many an hour trudging across dunes, looking for interesting photographic compositions. These three prints are from those I took in the late 1980's and early 1990's, from large format negatives. 

Photography is about the play of light and dark, or the range of tones from totally light (or white), to totally dark (or black). Sand dunes present a palette of rich contrasting tonal range which is fascinating to the camera eye. Dunes are (like) an abstract of the logarithm of light's variation upon an undulating material reflecting surface. 

Sand is particulate, allowing it to be moved uniformly into shapes upon the land, governed by the physics of gravity, balance, and the shifting force of the wind. Dunes are constantly unsettled, undergoing continuous alteration. The poetic metaphors for the shapes and shadows of moving dunes are highly suggestive. The sharp edges of the crests and ridges of dunes produce dramatic angles, evanescent impressions, fragile and elusive.

Sand is composed of tiny particles of glass, broken up into nearly uniform units. It's astonishing sometimes to think that dunes are huge fields of broken glass. We usually think of broken glass as an unpleasant thing, dangerous, troubling, a nuisance to be swept up and recycled or thrown into landfills. In our new age of conservation, glass gets to be reused. Glass blowers use a very pure form of sand, melted down to make consistently clear glass, which can be tinted in any color. Green bottle of blue bottle flies seem less common around here (in the Bay Area). Maybe I don't spend as much time in places where they tend to congregate. You do find flies in dune fields, as well as small mammals, reptiles, and the occasional human.        

There is a quality of abstraction about sand dunes. A naked dune, without any flora or fauna to impede the view, is like a mathematical equation, clear and unambiguous. A dune is like a pure formula of matter, laid out in perfect display for the mind to contemplate. Like a canvas upon which the wind sculpts waves, scallops, shoulders, smooth curling fins and sails of painted light. Photographing dunes with a large format camera, in the early morning or late afternoon light, one is right on the vivid edge of the ultimate visual pursuit, as, moving restlessly from point to point, the endlessly mutating view seduces you over and over until you discover one, almost by magic, which organizes into an exciting composition. The dunes seem designed as photographic raw material, and don't move, the way water or tree branches or people do.       

There is a whole science of dune shapes, and of the behavior of dunes, under varying conditions of wind. There are even underwater dunes! I think people photograph dunes for the same reason that they photograph nudes. Human skin may appear as smooth and abstract as sand, and under contrast-y light conditions, may arrange into very similar kinds of abstract shapes. There are also of course nudes on dunes. The thing about sand, though, is that it tends to stick to skin, especially when it's sweaty, and there's the problem of the disturbance of smooth sand by walking into a composition. I suppose you could use a portable blower (or wind machine) to "dress up" a fashion shot. In the movie Zabriskie Point [MGM, Antonioni Director], the actors Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin roll around in the sand at Death Valley, making love and being liberated. Both these actors were amateurs. Antonioni had discovered them in his travels around the U.S., experiencing "culture shock" while looking for likely suspects to play in his movie. The two actors had an affair during the production, and ended up living in a commune in Boston. Halprin was the daughter of the Bay Area Landscape Architect Lawrence Halprin. She later was married to Dennis Hopper, and eventually ended up as a new age expressive body arts instructor at her Tamalpa Institute in Marin County, California. Such a distinguished lineage! Frechette, who'd been a bit of a flake all his young life, tried robbing a bank in 1973, a few blocks from the Boston commune, and was eventually caught and convicted, dying in prison under slightly mysterious circumstances, when a barbell he was lifting, pressed against his neck, choking him to death. What all this has to do with dunes, I don't know, but it's all true.

A large dune field is known as an erg. That sounds like something invented by a science fiction writer to describe an alien technology. According to Wikipedia, an erg is also a unit of energy, equal to ten to the minus seven joules. A joule is a unit of energy or heat equal to the the work produced by applying the force of one newton through a distance of one metre. How we get from dunes to ergs, joules and newtons is another of the mysteries of intellectual wandering. Later today I'll be spending time at the club gym expending my ergs on the static walking machine, pushing newtons across the metered expanses of imaginary space. The more calories I burn, the more ice-cream I get to eat after dinner. One of the constants of my adult life has been Haagen-Daza coffee gelato. It's one of the few things I can count on. It never disappoints. Who gives a fig about math, anyway?

Thank you for taking my call.  

Monday, May 19, 2014

Reductivist's Bluff

In my last blog post, I meditated on the idea of MORE. 

That was aimed at the contemporary paradigm of our cultural desire for expansion and proliferation, without regard to, or respect for limits in the natural world. Man may make things, change things, invent things; may increase his number. But there are real limits to expansion, of how many people may live on the earth, of how much resource remains to be used up. 

As a habit of mind, reductivism is a tendency across various disciplines, to sift information and materials down to a common denominator. "Denominator" is a word from mathematics. The principle of fractional expression is quotient, which describes the relationship of any one thing (or portion) to the ultimate sum of its equal parts. Cut a cake into four, and each slice will represent one-fourth of the total cake. Expressed as a fraction, like this:



The top number "numerates" the equivalent fractional value of parts of the whole, while the denominator represents the total number of parts. The denominator is like another symbol for "1" (or the whole of which the parts are made). 

How do we express the tendency towards reductionism, or simplicity, in language?

And in art, what is a reduction of value?

As a habit of thought, I've always been drawn to the simplest explanation of any phenomenon. In science, or mathematics, simplicity is often regarded as the purest, and perhaps the most beautiful gist. The ultimate reduction of the meaning of phenomena is the cleanest, simplest formula. E=MC2. The delightful probability that this simple formula might capture the essential meaning of the physical properties and functional complexity of the whole universe is very attractive. 

The least of anything is representative of its place in the whole. Scientists have always wanted to know what the ultimate material of matter is, how small its building block(s), how large the implication of its most common numerator. Faced with the complexity and vastness of the universe as we perceive it, we are awed by the challenge--to formulate this complexity into its most reduced form. To attain the ultimate reduced indivisible fractional unit of a thing.

I once wrote in a poem "a well-made shoe is a thing of value." A poet contemporary of mine at the time pointed out to me that my sentence was redundant, that what I actually meant to say was "a well-made shoe is a thing." If I understood him correctly, he meant that a constructed object attained its thingness through the craft of its making, but that in seeking to evaluate its function, I had merely added a meaningless descriptive. In other words, the word "value" is ethically neutral, since it signifies neither good value, nor bad value. To have stated "a well-made shoe is a thing" would perhaps have pointed out the riddle of assigning a value to a neutral object, whose inherent goodness could only be related by reference to its wearer, or its maker. 

I had of course already evaluated the shoe by calling it "well-made" but its "wellness" was by no means denoted by adding the word "value" to the sentence. Well and value are both ethical floaters, whose meaning can only be deduced by reference to other concepts or applications. A shoe is a piece of attire, and will fit and function as well as it may. Its making is a process, and may be done well or ill, depending upon one's values. Most of humanity wears shoes, but the value of shoes is not a fixed principle--there are so many kinds. 

Is there an essential "shoe-ness" which can be used to describe all shoes, in the universe of shoes? Anything that is worn on the foot. There are probably things worn on the feet of people somewhere which do not function exactly as shoes at all. Some people wear shoes that are nothing more than socks with rubber linings on the bottom. 

Mathematics employs abstract values which denote specific limited meanings, in an effort to be more accurate, to reduce the possible ambiguity of signs or symbols to a handy equation.

In aesthetics, we may describe a work of art along a line of variability, from simplicity to complexity. The materials of any artistic form may vary, but the product of the performance of any artistic creation can be measured in three dimensions, in time. 

Art, of course, isn't simply about the quest for reduction, or simplicity, but it may be. It may involve nothing more than an attempt to explore the dimensions of the frame of reference, as the early canvases of Frank Stella were:

You could make the case that a canvas like this, though, isn't really about the expression of the limits of the frame, as much as it is about the inherent meaning of the shape or shapes of which it is composed--two opposed V's filled in with uniformly incremental lineation(s). The shapes become the frame, so there is no distinction. You could with justice say that this is a reduction of the meaning of the shape of the frame, since there is no "inside" and "outside"--not an a priori containment within which the painting exists--but a self-contained definition of its formal shape. Stella's early canvases were thought to represent attempts to exclude or "push" three-dimensional space out of the canvas, as an insistence upon its essential flatness, to insist on its flatness as a fact. Ironically, it might be seen that it is as difficult to exclude the third dimension from a canvas, as it is to build it in! It's a riddle of perception--or perhaps of artistic endeavor. 

In my series on Minimalism in poetry, I've explored the ways in which writers may attempt to or succeed in capture/ing meaning by pairing down materials to smaller and smaller dimensions. Often, the power of such examples lies in the hidden potential the words contain, which is normally "hidden" beneath the grammar of their habitual use, and is only liberated through isolation, apart from the context of their syntactic function. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.--when seen as things in themselves--acquire a new independent distinction, though they cannot be seen as having a purely non-verbal meaning, except perhaps as visual constructions (or collages of shape). A phrase such as "driving the trailer all around" may roll around in the mouth, echo-ing suggested cognates of allied verbal sense, contained within the pattern of sounds they represent. A work of art should be--by its nature--self-sufficient. And a phrase like this might seem a perfect example, in that whatever nimbus of description and analysis we might put around or beside it, it needs nothing for its completeness, it is not reducible to its parts. All the meaning is boiled down to its essential structure. It is a reduced fraction or equation of its meaning. It is what it is.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

More is Less

As a general concept, or a fulcrum of disequilibrium, the phrase Less is More has often been used to characterize a condition in which the inherent value of a thing is greater than the sum of its total parts (or total mass). A thing can be larger, or greater in number, without any net gain in other senses. 

According to the Wikipedia, the phase was first used in Robert Browning's poem "Andrea del Sarto" [1855]. Browning was a great poet, but I'm not interested in tracking down the meaning he intended. Later, the phrase was adopted by Mies van der Rohe as a precept for the minimalist aspect of Modern architecture, during a period that has come to be dubbed The International Style. Buildings constructed under the rubric of this style tend towards a lack of decoration, a pristine simplicity that eschews unnecessary details and elaborations. 

But my point here isn't to delve into the complexities of architectural history, but to appropriate the phrase for a discussion of what MORE might mean to our future as a species on this planet.  

More of anything is a simple mathematical fact. The greater the mass, the greater the number, the more there is of something. All size is relative, but relativity refers to any comparison, so anything may be greater than, or equal to, or less than, something else. Everyone understands this principle, one of the easiest relationships there is. 

But the underlying value of more, versus less, is quite another matter. In many things, we tend to think that more of something is better. In human need, more may be the available stock or supply of something, which we may depend upon, now, or in the future. At any given time, we're likely to hear or be told that we need or should have more of something. We need food, we need living space, we need clothing and warmth and so forth. Our needs may be more or less than what is available.

Humankind has become very efficient in uncovering and designing supplies for our needs, and even in inventing new "needs" that we didn't realize we had. We know that some needs are actual necessities, and others are not really necessities, but kinds of luxuries. Much of the progress we've seen over the last two centuries, has been driven by the perceived "needs" humankind has believed it needed, or wanted. The industrial revolution was driven by the demand for more things that we could use and consume and enjoy. 

There is no doubt whatsoever that our human plight has improved measurably by the great gesture of industrialization and the proliferation of capital expansion and exploitation of resource over the last 200 years. Our quality of life has improved by leaps and bounds. The modern paradigm of convenience and efficiency and intercourse and synergy has transformed the world. We live at precipice of an ascent of development unparalleled in recorded history. 

We've come to think, as a consequence of this rapid explosion of technological advancement, that more of anything is almost by definition good. Of course, more of a bad thing is undesirable, though we may accept some residual bad effects as a consequence of what a certain good thing may bring us. 

Until the 20th Century, the earth seemed large enough that our depredations upon it could only be minimal. As a species, we had become the most successful of our planet's life forms. There was space, and sources of food, and resources sufficiently bountiful, to justify the idea of a continuous expansion of population, and a constantly expanding exploitation of everything. We came to rely on the notion of a constantly expanding technology of manipulation and use of the environment to fuel a constant investment in more

More people
More food
More energy
More space
More water
More goods

The idea that we would always need more people, and that as a consequence there would always be enough of all the things that more people would need and want, has been a central theme of modern civilization. More has been better. Capitalism has been a primary driver of the motivation for the idea of the more is better concept. Religion has joined in, looking for more. Politically, more means more votes, and more development and more taxes. Populations can even compete to outbreed each other, and thus win the race of the races. 

In short, bigger has come to mean better, and people tend not to question the value of big and more. There have been small underground counter currents, i.e., "small is beautiful" or less is more. But in the main, modern society tends to think that more is better, no matter what the consequences. 

But when we think of the quality of life, more of anything may have limits. There's only so much one person can consume or enjoy in a lifetime. We know that a mindless consumption is almost a kind of illness. And we know that balancing the rate of our consumption against the availability of things is a primary tool in maximizing our continuing subsistence. Times may be lean, or times may be prosperous, but we know that moderating our use or consumption is the surest way to enable us to ride out the waves of rich and poor times, whether we're talking about natural cycles, or economic ones. 

What seems clear now, is that humankind has reached, and indeed exceeded, what we might refer to as a natural balance between available space and resource. Much of the prosperity of the modern world is sustained upon an artificial imbalance between regional habitation, and availability of food, water and energy. We would long ago have ceased to grow, as a species, had we not figured out how to grow large amounts of food, and ways to move it around at will. Our numbers would have reached something like a naturally moderate (moderated) mass, had we not chosen, almost by inertia of intention, to keep increasing our use of machines and the energy to drive them. 

What also seems clear, is that we're finally, after a two century mad dash of development, beginning to understand the hard limits to the earth's bounty of space, water, and material resource. It's becoming clear that there isn't sufficient resource to sustain the kind of population growth we've seen over the last century and a half indefinitely. 

And yet in the media we hardly ever hear about limits. Everyone seems to want to believe in the value of more. Latest projections of population expansion assume double digit increases, for instance, in the American Southwest, for the remainder of the present century. The current analyses of water and resource, which do not even begin to address issues of employment and quality of life, suggest that there will inevitably be draconian reductions in the numbers and kinds of things people have come to think of as baseline. 

America as a nation was born at a time in its history when population growth, available open space, and untapped resources seemed unlimited. The idea of the quality of an individual life, as an expression of the imaginative energy and "resourcefulness" of independent thinking and work, was based on the possibility of a constantly expanding society, and a constantly expanding economy. The Founding Fathers would probably have been utterly astonished by the rapidity with which our nation settled its remaining space, and by the rapacity with which it used up natural resources and available water. And there is no doubt that this paradigm of rapid expansion is what accounts for the prosperity and quality of life Americans have come to regard as their natural birthright. 

But the idea of more now no longer suffices to provide us with a viable vision of the future, given the unlimited expansions we've come to expect. More people is no longer necessarily a useful or a favorable outcome. The need or desire for more space and more water and more food and more energy and more jobs and more consumption--as expression of the "more" doctrine, no longer suffices as a best choice for human decision-making. 

Size, as a measure of balanced use, is an unforgiving equation. As each additional stress is levied against the planetary limits, the consequent casualties upon quality of life increase exponentially. One man eating and drinking and defecating and growing a vegetable garden in the country, has a small measurable effect on his environment. 50 years later, this same man, living in a small suburban home, mowing his lawn and driving to work, has a larger, but still manageable impact. But multiply this man by a million, and even ten million, and then the stresses on his environment become elephantine. 

Every initiative we hear these days is for an expansion. We must have more people, more jobs, more water, more transportation, more food, more taxes, more sewage treatment plants, more houses, more schools, more police, more social workers. As we apply the more principle, we increasingly experience more waste, more expense, more delay, less open space, and a generally declining quality of daily living. 

At some point, we begin to realize that wanting and having and needing more and more and more--as if it were inherently a good thing--is a flawed justification, one often designed to facilitate the exploitation of the quality of life we now possess, in order to enable someone to make a quick buck, or to gain a political voting bloc. 

Whereas what we really need, if we care about quality of life, is less. Fewer people, fewer houses, less garbage, less sewage, less traffic. Small may indeed be more beautiful, especially when we don't need to sacrifice the things we enjoy, in return for a crowded existence in which everything, being dearer because more scarce, and therefore in greater demand, is more expensive in every sense. 

The value we place on something can perhaps never be fixed. But in the shifting mélange of priorities, we should examine each new initiative toward increase, to determine, from a purely selfish and sensible point of view, whether its ultimate outcome will result simply in crowding and inconvenience and nuisance and scarcity and conflict, rather than in an enhancement of our actual lives. 

It may be that, in the end, or in the future, which we may but dimly perceive through the obscurity of the present, rather than more being more, more will actually be less

Thursday, May 1, 2014

2014 Giants Season One Month In

Well, it's May 1st, and the first month of the major league season is history.

It's way too early to make strong predictions, but a few things have already become apparent in the National League West. Here are how the standings look this morning:








The Dodgers, who have packed their squad with expensive free agents, will contend, but they won't by any means be running away with the division. Arizona, which figured to compete, is presently 9-22, and even at this early date, that seems like a lot of ground to make up, especially since they're 3-15 at home (goodness!). Colorado and San Diego are harder to judge. Assuming that Tulo can stay healthy, Colorado could go on an offensive tear, and win 85 games this year. San Diego has less fire power, so I rate them as less than even to win it. Right now, I'd say that the Giants, Dodgers and Rockies will contend for the division, and they're evenly enough matched that a little streak by one player or another could decide the outcome. 

The Dodgers lost Kershaw to injury in the first month, so their pitching has suffered. Greinke's been the ace of the staff, backed up by Hyun-jin Ryu, Don Haron and Paul Maholm. Offensively, they look scary on paper, with Puig, Gordon, Kemp, Ramirez, Gonzalez and Ethier in the line-up, but Gonzalez is the only one living up to his billing at present. I doubt that Gordon and Uribe will be hitting over .300 at season's end, and unless Kemp and Puig and Ethier pick it up, the team could be a real let-down. The logjam of Puig, Kemp, Crawford and Ethier in the outfield isn't likely to work itself out, if none of the contestants is having superior numbers. Puig has come down to earth, and Kemp still seems out of sorts. When Kershaw returns, though, the team will be hard to count out. 

Colorado's team average is .293. Even for Coors Field, that's a frightening number. And the team's hit 38 homers. Six of the starters are hitting over .300. And Cuddyer hasn't really caught fire yet, either. The key for Colorado, as usual, will be their pitching, which each year seems to be their Achilles' Heel. Their present team ERA is 4.19, while their runs per game ratio is 5.41. At that differential, they'll win a lot of games, especially higher-scoring ones. So the question will be consistency. Unlike the Dodgers, the Rockies seem to be peaking early, but if they keep this up, it's anybody's guess. 

The Giants, meanwhile, have been difficult to figure. With Zito finally out of the rotation (and probably due for an early retirement), we had what looked like a pretty fair group of hurlers. Bumgarner looked to be the ace, and Cain and Hudson (the team's major off-season acquisition) and Lincecum looked solid, with Vogelsong a question-mark. As expected, Lincecum's effectiveness continues to decline. His loss of velocity and control (though control seemed to be less important when he broke in) means that he routinely strikes out one per inning, but is giving up 1.44 hits per inning, with frequent home runs. In just 3+ years, he's gone from being a Cy Young pitcher to a journeyman. Bumgarner, on the other hand, until his last start, looked to win 15-18 games, still only 24 and learning. The accepted wisdom would be that he's not yet attained his promise, but this could be a crucial year for him. If he turns in a mediocre season, it might mean he'll never be more than a dream that didn't come true. Hudson, on the other hand, looks every bit as polished and skilled as he did in his best Atlanta years, pitching economically, and staying focused. Romo, now in his second year as lead reliever, is still serving up his magic invisible sliders, and should easily make 30-35 saves. 

Before the season began, the Giants starting line-up was to have been:


--but Scutaro's back condition flared up again, at first "temporarily" but as the weeks have dragged out, it's been hinted that it may be a lot worse, possibly even career-ending. Scutaro's great performances in 2012 and 2013 had led the team management to give him a big new contract, but things have a way of confounding the best laid plans. The team has ended up platooning at second with Brandon Hicks, Adrianza and Arias sharing duties, while spelling Pablo over at third on occasion. Hicks looks to be the lead candidate to replace Marco, but it's definitely a question mark. 

Belt began the season on a tear, but has since fallen into a big slump. Sandoval, apparently, is feeling the pressure of his final, pre-free-agent year. Pablo is an emotional player, who feeds off of encouragement and his own free-wheeling nature; he seems lost at the plate this season, hitting at least 100 points below his usual lowest average. Pagan, returning from an injury-plagued year, is having career-numbers, and if he keeps it up, could raise the team up several notches all by himself. Pence, who also started very slowly, is coming on. Posey, usually Mr. Reliable, also slumped badly after an initial good start, but seems to be recovering. Morse, brought in to provide some much-needed fire power, hasn't disappointed, but again, it's unreasonable to expect he'll be hitting over .250 after the All Star break--which would be just fine, if he were to keep hitting homers and driving in runs. He's playing a part previously represented, for instance, by Pat Burrell (in 2010). Crawford is solid at short. 

The team's middle relief corps of Lopez, Casilla, Machi, Affeldt and Huff is among the best in baseball. The primary question-marks, so far, are  Lincecum, Cain and Volgelsong, each of whom has had very poor outings this year. Cain's been the most disappointing, though as always, he seems routinely to be given poor support.   

If Sandoval and Belt can shake off their early season jitters and perform at anything like their potential, the team should easily win 85 games, but that probably won't be enough to take the division. If I had to choose today, I'd bet on the Dodgers, assuming that Kershaw comes back at full strength. If he doesn't, or if the Giants hitters can come together, I'd give my home team the nod. Here's what I think it would take, in sheer numbers, for the Giants to win the division:

Pagan        .285 - 12 homers - 90 runs scored - 35 steals
Pence         .290 - 20 homers - 80 runs scored - 90 RBI's - 25 steals
Posey         .285 - 20 homers - 90 RBI's
Morse         .255 - 25 homers - 80 RBI's
Sandoval    . 275 - 18 homers - 75 RBI's - 70 runs scored
Belt            .275 - 20 homers - 75 RBI's 
Hicks          .250 - 15 homers - 50 RBI's 
Crawford    .250 - 50 RBI's   

Bumgarner    18-15 3.12 ERA
Hudson         16-11 2.56 ERA 
Lincecum      12-14  3.75 ERA
Cain               10-15  3.40 ERA
Vogelsong     9-9  4.2 ERA
Petit               6-2   2.94 ERA
Affeldt           2.75 ERA 
Casilla           2.20 ERA 
Lopez            1.75 ERA
Romo            36 Saves  1.67 ERA

Looking at these numbers reminds me how unusual it is for a whole team to play at "career year" level numbers at the same time. Right now, it looks as if Sandoval and Posey might be going to end up with comparatively mediocre numbers. If that were to happen, all the other parts of the puzzle would have to work for the team to have a decent chance. 

Is this a group of guys you'd expect to win a championship this year? On paper, they certainly have the potential. But it's all a question of timing--how a team comes together, who happens to be playing well at the right time. Neither of the Giants other two recent championship teams--in 2010 and 2012--were overwhelming teams. They did it with good pitching, and timely, scratching offenses. But with Lincecum and Cain and Vogelsong slumping, the formula can't work, unless at least two of them step up. I'd say it comes down to Cain: If he can return to his usual reliable self, our chances would brighten. 

Will any of these players achieve these numbers? It could be that none of them do; and in that case, I'm afraid we'd do no better than third in the division. But if it all came true, we might win a 100 games.