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Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Sex Life Of Amoebas

The amoeba (or ameba, depending on which crossword puzzle you are doing) is a shapeless unicellular organism of the genus, Protozoa. According to reference material found in science stacks at the Library of Congress, accessible only by funicular, they are identified by their extreme tininess. They are so tiny that when an amoeba invites a billion of its friends to its 25th birthday party it can't tell whether they showed up or not.

We mustn't assume the amoeba under discussion is 25 human years old. That would be silly. We must understand amoebas (or amoebae, if the crossword is an ancient Roman one) are asexual. They do not go steady or perform stunts to impress each other. They avoid these social and developmental complexities by growing from ages zero to 25 in about a second  --instructive to parents whose adolescent offspring have reached the age of sentiment, a strange period when they get very excited about one another and feel things that scare the hell out of everybody. This is why I encourage my kids to be over 25 years old --over 40 if they can manage it-- and have always done so.

Amoebas do, however, sometimes gather and achieve a form of sociality. These communities are created mainly by a variety called Dictyostelium discoideum when food supplies run low or when they get lonesome. The result is a multi-cellular organism. Each amoeba takes on one of two roles. They either become spores that reproduce, or stalks that lift the spores above the ground to more favorable environments. Here is a microscopic rendering:
Some of these colonies can become quite large. In fact, the one pictured above has lately got big enough to detect without a microscope. If we color in its discreet segments and label it more specifically, it becomes recognizable as Europe.

This was the setting for the Protozoan Reformation in 1517, when Luther published The Ninety-Five Theses. It concluded in 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia that ended years of European religious wars. In 1620, many spores blew westward and landed in Massachusetts in time for Thanksgiving.


Thursday, January 24, 2013

False Start Friday.

With the 25th approaching at unnerving speed, I decided to dig some back pages out of the pumphouse for Suze's  "False Start Friday" exercise. I started early because it's really cold here now and shed-fossicking for ephemeral antiquities is the only kind of exercise I'll consent to.  There is nothing like a beautiful, bright, brisk and frosty morning to make a hardy fellow feel like crap. In California, we get frozen sunshine. Here's how it looks:

You can see it above the frosted lawn. We chisel it out of the air and throw sunshine chunks into bowls and jars, then haul it indoors to wherever we need more light. Some people fridge it and bring it out at night. Either way, it saves on the electric bill, and it's a renewable resource. I took enough into the pumphouse to go clear back to the '60s. Here's a 1968 poem from STYLUS --a literary annual started by Willie in '60 (photo was taken by Hans Feickert and the poem is a false start because I'm still revising it) :

There are also boxes of old loose stuff under the pumphouse bench that never got titles and still haven't any. Finding them is less like fossicking ore than noodling for catfish. Here is one:

     I'd like to have a
     Patchwork horse
     I could ride under
     Arbors of dreams.
     Through floral arch
     Sleep and thoughtwork pergolas,
     I would ride my ridiculous horse. 

     I would follow a
     Ribbon of glowing
     Motes along galactic
     Dawn, ascend over avalanched
     Days --embers under its course.

     Over clouds composed
     Of begins and of ends where
     All events assemble, we
     Would fly; my horse and I could
     Canter on cosmic winds.

     Eternally journied,
     Ever arrived, and
     Always about to
     Begin are too diverse for
     The logic of earth but
     I'd like to have such a horse.

Maybe "Horsewish"? That is what I wrote over it so long ago and crossed out. I thought it silly and didn't want to become a silly man. Too late. Only a year later, I had grown my own cowboy hat.

Emerson thought what lies before us and behind are tiny matters compared to what lies within.  I have just packed a bunch of STYLUS back numbers within a priority mail parcel and posted it to Willie. Suze's project has got me attacking, sorting and thinning out everything I've got stored in duplicate out there. I can actually see my pumphouse floor! Not bad for a silly man.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Age-old Secrets To Good Posture

The three fine examples of good posture pictured above span thousands of years because we have always wanted good posture. People with good posture get ahead and are called "upright". People with bad posture slouch and are called "slouches". Slouches are typically ne'er-do-wells and dissidents who go about trouble-making, then slouch off and slink into hiding where they teach other slouches to slink.

Upright people, however, stand tall and do not disrupt society. They circulate as deactivists, proudly stirring up apathy and indifference among the populace. How do they train for this? To answer that question we must return to ancient Egypt and examine the mystery in good light. Here is a picture of Ptah, god of craftsmen and architects. In the triad of Memphis --named after an ancient Tennessee city much admired by ancient Egyptians-- Ptah was known for his good posture. This impression was created by making Ptah hug a fencepost for all portraits.

In later years, it was discovered the illusion of uprightness could be maintained with more subtlety if the subjects posed with a fencepost but also consented to being gilded, during which process the fencepost could be removed. Oscar ___, a patient recently released from the Age-old Secret Posture Academy, had this to say:
"I'd like to thank the academy for making this possible without a fencepost, and making me sought after by film stars, but I wish I could sit down. I like films. A hacksaw and hinges would enhance my movie-watching experience immeasurably."

A somewhat less conspicuous example of posture improvement is provided by Subject G___., whose wife of 43 years has taken to snapping photos of his undignified meditation postures until he tells her the other letters of his name. I have credited her furtive artistry in italics.
But we do not live in ancient times and have little need of their good posture secrets. This is the future! This is the era of brash technology, and if I can label a photo in italics, it follows I  can italicize a whole photo,

which pretty much solves the posture problem. Not quite perfectly, I know, but it's an improvement --and no fencepost. These things take time. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Historical Enigmas #3: Who Were The Middle Ages Anyway?

I received roughly half the response on Historical Enigmas #2 that I did on #1, so I have decided to proceed to #3. I do not consider this punitive. I considered PBS repeating Riverdance until they met their donation goals punitive. Fifteen years ago I knew a guy who lived downstairs from Riverdance and he can't hear so good now. This is different. It is history. If you don't learn your history, not only are you doomed to repeat it but you cannot expect to repeat it with any authority or accuracy. 

The remedy is contained in an old Sam Cooke song, What A Wonderful World: "Don't know much about the Middle Ages; looked at the pictures and I turned the pages". And although that line was excised, probably to shorten the song for more frequent radio play, it's the one that thematizes this blog entry, which deals with the Middle Ages. They went on for a very long time, from the Late Antiquity period of 300 AD to Renaissance 1200 years later. I'd like to shorten it, like the song, to the middle Middle Ages but there isn't any. So this essay will address the High Middle Ages--AD 1000 to 1350. Historically speaking, this is when people began saying "Hi!"(shortened from "High!") to each other.
The clergy, which assumed psychological power over the populace, comprised a privileged social class. Knights, who got military power, comprised another. They said "Hi" to each other. The serfs mainly got shovels. I made my living as a gardener for many decades and know about the shovel part.

Above is the Bayeux Tapestry showing William the Conqueror  (center), his half-brothers Robert, Count of Mortain  (right) and Odo, the bishop of Bayeux in the Duchy of Normandy ( left).  They mainly sat around all day saying "Hi", watching chickens and waving at each other. Understandably, this got a bit old after several hundreds of years. So they had the Crusades.

The Crusades were endorsed by the clergy.  They told the knights: "You know, you really ought to go  barging around other peoples' countries and get them to wearing pants!" And they did.

Since nobody in these countries had ever seen three armored warriors riding a single six-legged horse before, they immediately complied. Thus, the High Middle Ages gave onto the Late Middle Ages, in which everybody had pants but no accurate timepieces. Dinner engagements, board meetings, prom dates and everything one wears pants to were ruined by hordes of latecomers. So they quit the Middle Ages for an era of invention and refinement, especially of accurate clocks and watches. This was called the Renaissance and I hope you all know it's still going on.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Historical Enigmas #2 The Fuggers

The Fuggers were a family of historically prominent European bankers, members of the fifteenth and sixteenth-century mercantile patriciate of Augsburg, venture capitalists. They replaced the Medicis as strategical lenders of European aristocrats during the Renaissance.  Fuggers took over the Medicis' assets, political power and influence.  They bankrolled Hapsburgs, Vatican, etc. during late middle ages and renaissance. They were part of a chain of financial king-makers that resulted in the  modern Bilderberg and Carlyle groups.

The Fuggers reached their zenith during the administration of Jakob (1459 –1525), nicknamed "de rijken", or "the rich" Fugger. He was criticized by Martin Luther for urging the Pope to rescind prohibition on the sale of indulgences. Imperial authorities in Nuremberg brought action against him to halt his monopolistic tendencies, which is all very interesting but now I'm thinking about Luther.

I really admire Martin Luther from two things I learned as a teenager. First, he smuggled his future wife out of a convent by hiding her in a beer barrel and wheeling it away on a hand truck. The second was this unforgettable quote: "Wenn ich in Wittenberg furzen sie riechen es in Rom."  ["When I fart in Wittenberg, they smell it in Rome."]

This brings us to Rome. Romans conquered Greece --around 170 BC--because Greece had declined militarily. Rome had perfected an infantry move based upon flanking the enemy by the principles of the vise, the caliper, the lever and the inclined plane. Greeks, on the other hand, improvidently adopted the dubious tactical merits of the conga line, which Romans foiled by compromising their rhythm and trombone sections. However Greek culture would in turn conquer Roman life and all subsequent civilization, as demonstrated by the ageless popularity of the Olympics. Even today, we are astonished that one person can outrun another. How can this be?

I shall leave off here and continue this series of historical enigmas another time, but wish to dedicate it especially to those several subscribers to this blog who have had some sadness lately. What I've written here is mainly factual and accurate, and has by its own strangeness beaten a doorstep to my path --which is eccentric. I hope it furnishes some small relief.


Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Historical Enigmas #1

History. 45 years ago a history teacher, Mr. Elliot Olson (esquire, he was also a lawyer) asked me what I thought history was. I closed my eyes, visualized, then replied, "Ideological disputes and a lot of people just standing around, flossing I think." He gave me a good grade. Not an A, but just good enough to get me interested forever.

Francis Bacon was an English philosopher, statesman, scientist, jurist, and author who, it may safely be said, popularized the Scientific Method. Some historians credit him with its creation, others credit him with the modernization of Empiricism. The two factions actually went to war over this and got very loud on smokey battlefields until they captured a few of each other and, under threat of torture, told on themselves. When confessions were reviewed, it was obvious only one side was involved, if that many, and everybody went home in favor of Bacon's knighthood. Those few combatants still making trouble claimed Sir Francis wrote Shakespeare's plays, but this was merely contentious flapdoodle --a misinterpretation.

Shakespeare asked his wife, Anne Hathaway,  "You think more men would buy my poetry if I put bacon in it?"
She said they'll even be putting bacon in chocolate someday so why not? She was right. I've tried it and it gets stuck between my teeth just like regular bacon. Unfortunately, the historian who interviewed the Shakespeares capitalized his B's and the story fueled speculation of nebulous authorship. You may or may not accept this solution to the Bacon-Shakespeare controversy but especially after reading the sonnets, flossing is a good idea.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Gold, Silicon and Irony

What is irony?

When a thing has a lot of iron it is irony. Silica (SiO2) is almost always present in iron ore, though most of it is slagged off during smelting. Also gold and silica precipitate initially as colloidal buddies at deep hydrothermal levels and get shoved upward by ore-forming fluids. Gold is rarer than iron and iron rarer than silica. 

Silica is composed of silicon and oxygen, the two most abundant elements in the earth's crust. It is a white sparkley rock on country lanes and driveways. It holds up railroad ties and the dreams of futurists. I am writing this on one of those dreams.

Under this keyboard, electrons are tickled in silicon. Listen. You can hear them capering into the future, and into the past. 

In 1967, my buddy Eladio and I were guests at his grandmother's ranch about 25 miles southeast of here along the Cosumnes River. We stopped to let a beautiful tarantula cross our path. We followed it to a rough foundation of tumbled silica rocks. They walled a basement into which black timbers had fallen long before. There was a hearth inside, and gaps where doors once were. Nothing else except a bad feeling.

"Eladio, who lived here?"
"My grandmother says a bandit did. Lived here with his girlfriend."

"How long ago?"
"Before her time. She says he torched the cabin and rode off with their gold. His girlfriend crawled out and dragged herself to my great grandparent's house."
"What happened?
"I mean what became of the woman?"
"She recovered. Tough lady."
"And the bandit?"
"Hollywood made Zorro out of him."
"Out of whom?"
"Joaquin Murieta."

A few years after this conversation, the property was sold and turned into a modern high-end gated community. The dashing ore-gathering exploits (raiding claims and stealing their yields) of Joaquin Murieta were deputed to the last members of his gang, who promoted Proposition 13 in 1978 and succeeded in claiming the disputed territory, California, for the inflationary whims of developers and rapacious realtors. The rest of the country soon followed suit.

I suppose the moral of this story is that a mineral as plentiful as silica connects us with its entire history, and its future, and our own, every time we encounter it. There is even a therapy involving its crystals that promises to make new persons of us --persons we may or may not like-- which renders gold less and less important to modern economics. It is useless in microchips. Iron, however, is quite useful in all electronics, which reminds me this post is about irony:

I seldom write about irony. I recognize it and experience it, but do not like it very much. This has been a strange week and it left me feeling kind of, I don't know, igneous.