October 25, 2008

A little weekend death poetry

Skull courtesy of wikipedia.

Since the Day of the Dead is approaching, this weekend's poetry selection draws on that theme. Below you will find the closing section of William Cullen Bryant's poem Thanatopsis. It's pretty good advice on living in the face of death.

So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

Here's a link to the whole thing.


October 24, 2008

Fortune and faith

El Cabrero has been thinking about luck, chance and randomness lately. In the Roman era, this was personified by the goddess Fortuna, who was about the only pagan deity to flourish in the Christian era.

This was more a matter of popular folklore than orthodox theology. It was hard to reconcile the idea of arbitrary chance with divine providence, although some managed to do it.

A case in point was Dante. In Canto 7 of the Inferno, Virgil explains to the pilgrim that God appointed Fortuna to be his agent in bringing change to the world:

He whose omniscience everything transcends
The heavens created, and gave who should guide them,
That every part to every part may shine,

Distributing the light in equal measure;
He in like manner to the mundane splendours
Ordained a general ministress and guide,

That she might change at times the empty treasures
From race to race, from one blood to another,
Beyond resistance of all human wisdom.

Therefore one people triumphs, and another
Languishes, in pursuance of her judgment,
Which hidden is, as in the grass a serpent.

Your knowledge has no counterstand against her;
She makes provision, judges, and pursues
Her governance, as theirs the other gods.

Her permutations have not any truce;
Necessity makes her precipitate,
So often cometh who his turn obtains.

And this is she who is so crucified
Even by those who ought to give her praise,
Giving her blame amiss, and bad repute.

But she is blissful, and she hears it not;
Among the other primal creatures gladsome
She turns her sphere, and blissful she rejoices.

She's still with us today and is as changeable as ever, which isn't always a bad thing.

81,312 HOMES were lost to foreclosure in September.

GETTING IT RIGHT THIS TIME. If another stimulus package is going to happen, here's how to get more bang for the buck.

MISTAKES WERE MADE. Alan Greenspan has apparently acknowledged that unregulated markets might actually not be divine. El Cabrero would like to ask, "What was your first clue?"

MOUNTAINTOP REMOVAL MINING isn't very popular with the American people, as a new poll reveals.


October 23, 2008

A turning of the wheel

Imagine having it all--fame, status, respect, wealth and more--and then suddenly losing it. (Some people are going through that right now.) How do you think you would deal with a big reversal of fortune (or Fortuna)?

That was pretty much the real situation of the Roman patrician Boethius (circa 480-535), who held high office in that twilight zone between the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Middle Ages.

Rome had fallen under the power of the Ostrogoths, although for a time much of daily life remained unchanged. Boethius fell afoul of King Theodoric and was stripped of wealth and position, imprisoned and executed in what no doubt was a pretty nasty way.

It was during this period of imprisonment that he composed a classic work, The Consolation of Philosophy. As he bemoans his fate, Lady Philosophy visits him in prison and instructs him in wisdom so that he can face his end with composure. While that might sound contrived in a work of fiction, Boethius' situation was all too real.

The book is interesting to me largely for its view of the role of Fortune in human affairs. As Richard Green wrote in the introduction to his translation,

The conception of Fortune as the feminine personification of changeable, unpredictable fate is drawn from pagan sources, notably from the Roman poets and moralists, where she is described as blind, vagrant, inconstant, meretricious. But, as Seneca had observed, there are limits to her power: she cannot give a man virtue, nor deprive him of it, and so virtue becomes the wise man's weapon against her. She represented fate as a random, uncontrollable force, to be feared or courted, opposed or despised, according to the theological and philosophical dispositions of those who, largely through the experience of misfortune, felt her power.

A basic point of the book is that it is the very nature of Fortune to change. Those who put themselves in its/her power by basing our happiness on things that aren't within our own power to keep are helpless when things change--as they will.

Fortune herself is quoted by Philosophy as saying

Here is the source of my power, the game I always play: I spin my wheel and find pleasure in raising the low to a high place and lowering those who were on tip. Go up, if you like, but only on condition that you will not feel abused when my sport requires your fall.

There is a very old wisdom tradition among many cultures that while we can't control everything that happens to us, we can control our own responses and thus acquire a degree of independence from fortune.

Too bad that's easier said than done.

THE AMERICAN DREAM of social mobility seems to have migrated to northern Europe, according to a new report on economic inequality.

A GOOD QUESTION. Have there been any pay cuts on Wall Street for CEOs since the bailout?

NOT TO BE. The US suicide rate is increasing for the first time in a decade. Women have shown the largest increase.

URGENT ANCIENT DINOSAUR/BIRD UPDATE here. You really have to see the picture.


October 22, 2008

Lady Luck

Albrecht Durer's engraving of Fortuna. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

It's interesting that one of the Roman divinities to survive well into the Christian era was the goddess Fortuna, the personification of luck. This was the subject of Howard Rollin Patch's 1927 book, The Goddess Fortuna in Medieval Literature.

One of her symbols is her famous wheel, which was the inspiration of the TV game show Wheel of Fortune. It's not a bad image, which is probably why it has endured so long. As you've no doubt noticed if you've ever ridden a Ferris Wheel, as it spins along sometimes you go up and sometimes you go down.

As the ancient Roman writer Seneca put it in his tragedy Agamemnon,

Whatever Fortune has raised on high, she lifts but to bring low.

I think Fortuna's wheel image is a good one to keep in mind as one navigates life's vicissitudes. If things are going good, don't assume that will always be the case. If things are going bad, remember that this too is subject to change.

Nobody owns her.

NO DIRECTION HOME. USA Today reports an increase in homeless families with children.

NO JOB EITHER. Business Week expects a bulge in layoffs in the wake of the recession.

BOOGIE NIGHTS. A "dinosaur dance floor" has been discovered in Arizona.

ECONOMISERY. Did forgetting Keynes contribute to the current mess? Maybe, as this item argues.

GET A ROOM. Scientists in England claim to have created the worlds most relaxing room.

VAMPIRISM 101. Everything you always wanted to know about animal vampirism can be found here.


October 21, 2008

Casting lots

Tyche, Greek goddess of luck, chance and destiny.

As luck would have it, El Cabrero has been thinking lately about luck, chance and randomness. It's interesting that many religious traditions and folk beliefs have attempted to divine the future through chance processes.

In the Hebrew Bible, it seems that divination was performed with urim and thummin, which were some kind of thingies connected with the breastplate of the high priest. In the New Testament Acts of the Apostles, the eleven remaining disciples cast lots to see who would be selected to fill the void left by Judas.

In the Chinese tradition, people threw yarrow stalks (or nowadays flip coins) to consult the I Ching, an ancient book of oracles. Many peoples have attempted to read signs from things like the flight of birds or the entrails of sacrificial animals. Cards have also been used for similar purposes. Even people who make fun of superstition sometimes flip a coin to make a decision.

Some traditions even make chance or luck into a divine figure. This was the case with the Greek goddess Tyche, in some versions the daughter of Zeus. While different sources dispute her parentage, she was viewed as helping to govern world events and was also associated with destiny.

One doesn't have to literalize mythology to recognize Lady Luck as a major factor in the world.

IT'S NO SECRET that hard times are often associated with acts of violence and other social problems. Here are some recent examples.

FROM THE ARCHIVES. Here's an interesting link about publications, pamphlets, and comic books from the American labor movement.

CLIMATE CHANGE could be happening faster than anticipated.


SPEAKING OF TOMBS, archaeologists have excavated a "city of the dead" beneath Rome.


October 20, 2008

Time and chance

Venus the goat is pretty random.

In his book Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche argued that a person's view of the world is more a matter of biography than of logic and conscious reasoning. He wrote

It has gradually become clear to me what every great philosophy has hitherto been: a confession on the part of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir...

Today, some people might go even farther in arguing that worldview is shaped by temperament which itself is to a significant degree the result of genes.

Sorting through that question is beyond El Cabrero at the moment, but for whatever reason I've always tended to see the world as a place ruled in large part by chance, luck and randomness. There is a part of me that is kind of surprised that the same math problems yield the same results on different days. As far as the "laws" of nature are concerned, I tend to view these more as habits or recurring patterns.

Of course, this leads to all kinds of disagreements with my deterministically-inclined friends who tend to follow Einstein in saying that God doesn't play dice with the world. For me, cosmic dice playing might be another name for God.

At any rate, I'm with the author of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, who said

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

SPEAKING OF A CHANGE OF FORTUNE, the economic crisis has many people rethinking Reaganomics. Here's a similar item from Newsweek as well.

THE MORTGAGE MESS and how to fix it is the subject of this item.

SPEAKING OF MESSES, here's a book review discussing the cost of the Iraq war.

YOU MUST CHECK OUT THIS PICTURE of the world's longest insect. We're talking over one foot.