March 07, 2009

A Light exists in Spring

A Light exists in Spring
Not present on the Year
At any other period —
When March is scarcely here

A Color stands abroad
On Solitary Fields
That Science cannot overtake
But Human Nature feels.

It waits upon the Lawn,
It shows the furthest Tree
Upon the furthest Slope you know
It almost speaks to you.

Then as Horizons step
Or Noons report away
Without the Formula of sound
It passes and we stay —

A quality of loss
Affecting our Content
As Trade had suddenly encroached
Upon a Sacrament.

--Emily Dickinson

March 06, 2009

Book it

The Library Company of Philadelphia. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

El Cabrero has been musing lately on the long, active and generally useful life of Benjamin Franklin. His life is, among other things, a textbook example of the usefulness of social capital in making good things happen.

As mentioned in previous posts, Franklin and friends formed a discussion group called the Junto to discuss important issues of morals, politics, and such. Sometimes these discussions yielded very practical results. One such discussion mentioned yesterday led to the formation of a pretty sophisticated volunteer fire department.

Another such outgrowth was a lending library. During one of the Junto meetings around 1731, Franklin recalled that

a proposition was made by me, that, since our books were often referr'd to in our disquisitions upon the queries, it might be convenient to us to have them altogether where we met, that upon occasion they might be consulted; and by thus clubbing our books to a common library, we should, while we lik'd to keep them together, have each of us the advantage of using the books of all the other members, which would be nearly as beneficial as if each owned the whole.

That arrangement worked well enough for around a year, at which time he took the idea to a different level:

And now I set on foot my first project of a public nature, that for a subscription library. I drew up the proposals, got them put into form...and, by the help of my friends in the Junto, procured fifty subscribers of forty shillings each to begin with, and ten shillings a year for fifty years, the term our company was to continue. We afterwards obtain'd a charter, the company being increased to one hundred: this was the mother of all the North American subscription libraries, now so numerous. It has become a great thing itself, and continually increasing. These libraries have improved the general conversation of the Americans, made the common tradesmen and farmers as intelligent as most gentlemen from other countries, and perhaps have contributed in some degree to the stand so generally made throughout the colonies in defence of their privileges.

The Library Company of Philadelphia is still in existence today and these early subscription libraries helped pave the way for US public libraries as we know them today.

Not too shabby.

A GOOD FIRST STEP. The recovery package recently passed by Congress might help stem some job losses in the states, but more remains to be done.

UNCOVERED. A new report from Families USA found that one out of three Americans under 65 was uninsured at some point last year.

SPEAKING OF WHICH, there is also the issue of the under-insured, i.e. those with some coverage but not enough to cover basic health care costs.

WORKING WITH THE MEDIA. Here's a how-to guide to getting attention to issues that you think are important.

LOSING ONE'S EDGE. Sometimes mindfulness can be boring.


March 05, 2009

The more we get together

St. Florian, patron saint of fire fighters.

In this blog, El Cabrero has often referred to the research of Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam about the importance of social capital for solving all kinds of problems. Social capital can be defined as all the different ways people associate with each other in formal or informal settings.

The era of the Enlightenment was one that saw the blooming of social capital in many settings. Just one example of this is the Junto formed by the young Benjamin Franklin and friends (see yesterday's post). Short version: Franklin and pals would meet regularly to discuss and debate various issues of general interest "on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy."

Sometimes these discussions led to tangible results. Here's a major example taken from Franklin's Autobiography:

About this time I wrote a paper (first to be read in the Junto, but it was afterward publish'd) on the different accidents and carelessnesses by which houses were st on fire, with cautions against them, and means proposed of avoiding them. This was much spoken of as a useful piece, and gave rise to a project, which soon followed it, of forming a company for the more ready extinguishing of fires, and mutual assistance and removing and securing of goods when in danger. Associates in this scheme were presently found, amounting to thirty. Our articles of agreement oblig'd every member to keep always in good order, and fit for use, a certain number of leather buckets, with strong bags and baskets (for packing and transporting of good), which were to be brought to every fire; and we agreed to meet once a month to spend a social evening together, in discoursing and communicating such ideas as occurred to us upon the subject of fires, as might be useful to our conduct on such occasions.

The idea proved its usefulness and let to the formation of many similar companies throughout Philadelphia. Over time, the Union Fire Company procured fire engines, ladders, fire-hooks and other equipment. Writing more than 50 years after the original founding of the fire company, Franklin wrote

...I question whether there is a city in the world better provided with the means of putting a stop to beginning conflagrations; and, in fact, since these institutions, the city has never lost by fire more than one or two houses at a time, and the flames have often been extinguished before the house in which they began was half consumed.

THE STATES AND THE RECESSION. Here's a good source for state foreclosure and unemployment information.

RIGHT TO ORGANIZE? Employees fire pro-union workers in one out of four organizing drives, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

THE CHEERFUL GIVER. This item discusses the psychology of giving.

MORE SUPREME FUN. Here's yesterday's NY Times on the Massey Energy/Don Blankenship/WV Supreme Court case that was argued Tuesday before the US Supreme Court and here's the latest from the Charleston Gazette.

EXERCISE IS GOOD FOR YOUR BRAIN, especially as you get older.


March 04, 2009

The Junto

The American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia was an offshoot of Benjamin Franklin's Junto. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

Lately Goat Rope is hanging out with founding father and all-round interesting guy, Benjamin Franklin, but you'll also find links and comments about current events. The series started last week with Poor Richard's Almanac if you feel inclined to take a look.

For the next few days, I'll be combing though his autobiography for interesting nuggets.

One of the characteristics of Franklin's era of the Enlightenment in Europe and what would become the United States was the growth of civil society, which can be understood as voluntary associations outside the realm of government and commerce. It's an important example of social capital (search the Goat Rope archives for an earlier series on that).

People, usually men of at least middling means, would gather in clubs, coffee houses, and other locations for fellowship, conversation, self-improvement and social betterment. Such gatherings helped create the public sphere, as the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas has noted. They also paved the way for greater democratization.

Franklin was a social capitalist extraordinaire, founding and participating in all kinds of groups. One of these he called the Junto. As he put it,

...I had form'd most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which we called the JUNTO; we met on Friday evenings. The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss'd by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased. Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute, or desire of victory; and, to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.

The club endured for several decades and span off several similar groups, including the American Philosophical Society. Franklin and others found that such gatherings polished their thinking and communication skills and were directly or indirectly useful in their business and public affairs.

It was an early illustration of Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam's idea that social capital is the building block of other kinds of success. It's a sad fact that many indicators show that social capital has declined in the US beginning in the second half of the 20th century. And we're paying the price for that.

DEPRESSING NEWS. Here's Dean Baker's latest on the economy.

RETHINKING NATIONAL SECURITY. It's way more than terrorism.

MORE SUPREME FUN. Here's an AP article and something from the Gazette summarizing debate at the US Supreme Court in the Massey/Blankenship/Benjamin saga. I missed this NY Times editorial on the subject that ran Monday. It could be months before the court reaches a decision.

DREAM ON. Messing with sleep patterns messes with your metabolism.


March 03, 2009

A reasonable creature

They do eat other fish, after all.

There are plenty of amusing interludes in Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography, but one of my favorites has to do with his resolution as a young man to become a vegetarian.

He kept to his resolve pretty well for a good stretch, until he was on a boat journey from Boston when people began catching cod.

...Hitherto I had stuck to my resolution of not eating animal food, and on this occasion I consider'd...the taking every fish as a kind of unprovoked murder, since none of them had, or ever could do us any injury that might justify the slaughter.

The problem was, those cod looked and smelled pretty good as they were being cooked. While he considered his vegetarianism as reasonable, there was this little issue:

...I had formerly been a great lover of fish, and, when this came hot out of the frying-pan, it smelt admirably well. I balanc'd some time between principle and inclination, till I recollected that, when the fish were opened, I saw smaller fish taken out of their stomachs; then thought I, "If you eat one another, I don't see why we mayn't eat you." So I din'd upon cod very heartily, and continued to eat with other people, returning only now and then occasionally to a vegetable diet.

Here's the punchline:

So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for every thing one has a mind to do.

Roger that.

HEALTH CARE NOW? Bring it on.

GREEN JOBS, good jobs.

MORE FUN WITH THE SUPREMES. Here's the Washington Post on the Massey Energy/Don Blankenship/Brent Benjamin/WV Supreme Court saga now before the US Supreme Court.


March 02, 2009

An American original

Image courtesy of wikipedia.

If there is such a thing as an American archetype, it might be the idea of the nation as a place where one can remake oneself and create one's own destiny. It was never exactly the case for many people, but it did seem to happen often enough.

If that's the case, then the original model for such a person may well have been Benjamin Franklin. Last week, Goat Rope took a look at some nuggets from his Poor Richard's Almanac. It only seems right at this point to give a shout out to his famous and enjoyable Autobiography.

Now every autobiographer is arguably by definition an unreliable narrator, but Franklin's would be worth a look even if it was a work of fiction. It is also an early example of America's long love affair with self-help books, since it is chock full of advice and axioms for self improvement.

Franklin began writing it in 1771 at age 65 while residing in England. He returned to it in 1784 and worked on the later sections in 1788. The work was uncompleted and ends abruptly sometime in the 1750s, well before his role in the American Revolution.

Over the next few days, Goat Rope will serve up a plateful for the Gentle Reader's consideration.

BUBBLE, BUBBLE, TOIL AND TROUBLE. Here are some thoughts on the origin of the economic crisis.

THE DESERVING POOR. Times like these put a different face on poverty.

SUPREMES. Here's the latest on a case now before the US Supreme Court regarding the propriety of a justice elected mostly due to the money from Massey CEO Don Blankenship ruling on cases involving Massey. And here's background.

PORN AGAIN. A study of credit card receipts finds that the states that consume the most pornography tend to be the more conservative and religious.