Sunday, October 09, 2005


Dear Reader,

Yes, your dictionaries. You do not really believe anyone can master the English language, do you? Learning English is a lifelong effort, and among the indispensible tools for that permanent study are good dictionaries, of which there are many.

The most comprehensive English dictionary is The Oxford English Dictionary, aka the OED, a twenty-volume, 22,000-page reference on English. If you find that as intimidating a format as I do, I suggest The Compact Oxford English Dictionary, which photoreduces the entire OED down to just 2,416 pages; it includes a magnifying glass, but I find I can read the fine print without it. If you find even that daunting, I can recommend Oxford English Dictionary Online. I cannot recommend the CD-ROM version of the OED, since the software was written to emphasize the protection of their intellectual property over usability to the point of inconvenience and unreliability, according to most of the user reviews on Amazon.

The Chicago Manual of Style recommends you use two dictionaries: Webster's Third New International Dictionary (book and CD-ROM) and its more frequently updated abridgment, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (book only; a CD-ROM version is available separately). Webster's Third New International is far more complete than Merriam-Webster's Collegiate, but the Collegiate is updated more often, which is why Chicago recommends both.

You need not own these dictionaries, but you need some dictionaries, and you should explore them. Our words influence our ideas, or lack thereof.

Yours truly,


Dear Reader,

For anyone interested in applying the Porter Principles, principle three is explained in detail (along with detailed guidelines for grammar, style, typesetting, and bookmaking) in The Chicago of Manual of Style, a copy of which you must have with you when you write, next to your dictionaries.

Yours truly,

Saturday, October 08, 2005


Dear Reader,

Consider two studies by Martin Porter about quotations.

The first, ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing’ (or words to that effect): A study of a Web quotation, from January 2002, traces a popular quote attributed to Edmund Burke to show he probably never said or wrote it. Scrape this bumpersticker off your car or change its attribution to Anonymous.

The second, Four Principles of Quotation: Being a follow up to A study of a Web quotation, from March 2002, tracks the false Burke quote, and ends suggesting four principles for quotations. Let's call them the Porter Principles:

Principle 1 (for readers)
Whenever you see a quotation given with an author but no source assume that it is probably bogus.

Principle 2 (for readers)
Whenever you see a quotation given with a full source assume that it is probably being misused, unless you find good evidence that the quoter has read it in the source.

Principle 3 (for quoters)
Whenever you make a quotation, give the exact source.

Principle 4 (for quoters)
Only quote from works that you have read.

Martin Porter's principles are excellent advice. Information out of context is noise. Our Misinformation Age is noisy, maybe even toxic. It is far too easy for writers to make things worse. Perhaps writers need an equivalent to the doctor's Hippocratic Oath: do not spread information out of context, either fragmented or in false contexts. Perhaps writers should consider a related mission: to make things better. Readers need to develop skepticism, need to realize that writers have taken no Hippocratic Oath, that everything they write is at best partly false. I am no exception. Readers and writers need the Porter Principles.

We should examine why any writer uses quotations, how they function within the text.

Most texts I read use quotations to appeal to authority, the writer trying to strengthen a weak argument by getting famous dead people to gang up on the reader. The writer should be capable of marshaling an adequate argument without calling on his influential buddies to help him out.

Other texts use quotations to hold the reader's interest, the writer struggling to stave off the reader's boredom. Gratuitous quotations are not needed to patch up a lively argument about a compelling subject.

I quote Mr. Porter because I have been sloppy with my own use of quotations, and I have fallen for this Edmund Burke pseudo-quote; perhaps you have as well. To amplify a subtlety of his two essays, we cannot know Mr. Burke never said or wrote this, only that we have no evidence he did, and that the sentiment expressed--that human affairs reduce to good and evil, and that the forces of evil will win unless the forces of good mobilize to stop them--does not sound like Mr. Burke. He criticized those who reduced human affairs to such a black-and-white apocalypse, according to Mr. Porter. We have attributed this quotation to Mr. Burke only because others have, on websites and bumper stickers that we have used as reliable sources of information.

The ancient Greeks carved Gnothi seauton on the temple before the Oracle at Delphi: Know thyself. Mr. Porter's two studies remind us of one of the most important things we should know about ourselves: too often, our inner sheep "think" for us. If we have the character strength to submit ourselves to the discipline of adhering to his principles, we will find it humbling to discover how much misinformation we believe. We have such poor mental hygiene that our minds are brimming over with lies and errors, which we routinely use to draw conclusions and make decisions. Misuse of quotations is one of the least serious symptoms of our filthy minds, but also an easy target for us to try to overcome, to begin to realize our beliefs are far from perfect. We know far, far less than we think we do, and most of what we do with our minds should not be called thinking at all.

Many of the fragments we have of Heraclitus's Peri physeos (On Nature), which I will explore frequently in these blog entries, wrestle with this dilemma in which humanity finds itself--our very survival as a species depends on our ability to think clearly about complex and dangerous subjects, but we are deeply irrational. Our irrationality leaves its fingerprints all over everything we do. Look! Detective Martin Porter has found the fingerprints of our irrationality on poor Edmund Burke. We cannot even quote a famous man correctly. We draft his corpse to argue on our behalf, put words in his cold, dead mouth.

If we show such contempt for an eloquent and honored statesman, how will we treat ordinary people like you and me? If we cannot be bothered with the truth when it is easy, like quoting a man correctly, why should anyone believe we will sacrifice for the truth when money, power, careers, or lives are at stake?

Cultivating a more honorable character, more honest, more noble, begins with the easy things, the little things, like learning to quote each other with care and respect. Without the regular practice of these minor tests, we will never shape up our characters enough for the trials troubled times will inflict upon us.

The details of life matter in ways we cannot imagine.

Sincerely yours,

Postscript: My thanks to Martin Porter, Lee Frank, Frank Lynch, Paul Boller, John George, William Safire, and the others involved in removing our words from Edmund Burke's mouth. One down, a google to go.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Sunday, October 02, 2005


Dear Reader,

Samuel Clemens wrote "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter--'tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning" (George Bainton, The Art of Authorship, pp. 87-88 (1890), which I have not yet read).

Our dear Mr. Clemens was writing about word choice, but it applies equally well to names and titles.

In part it is a matter of personal respect. My name is Frederick Douglas Saling Marshall. My friends, family, and coworkers call me Rick, or by private nicknames. Everyone else can call me Mr. Marshall. If that seems stilted, it is because we have become a rude culture that mistakes lack of formality for genuine friendliness. Intimacy without invitation is at best false, at worst it is a cousin of sex without informed consent. When a solicitor calls asking to speak with Fred, or Freddie, I know I am dealing with an organization that wants my resources but cannot be bothered to even know from whom they want them; I am just meat to them, or money, or time--less than human. To show respect is the first step in any legitimate human communication.

In part, recognizing that most people come from other cultures and speak or write in other languages is a matter of cultural respect, essential to avoid ethnocentrism, jingoism, and false forms of patriotism such as fascism. English is but one of thousands of human languages. To pretend that the English translation of a book's title or text is that book is to promote the falsehood that all worthy things take place in our language, in our culture. We must be citizens of the world and understand the true diversity of human experience, if we are to be civilized adults.

In part, calling things by their true names is a matter of excellence. The master of any art discriminates between details that matter and those that do not, and does justice to the things that matter. If someone cannot be bothered to get a name right, what else can they not be bothered to get right? It is not only worrisome, it is often an accurate predictor of other sloppy habits.

In part it is a matter of clarity. We live in crowded times, in a crowded world, and failure to properly identify our subjects breeds confusion. This is especially true with human names.

Above all, though, proper naming is a matter of comprehension. The lightning-bug is not the lightning. Nor is lightening. Our readers are probably not psychic, and cannot know what we meant, only what we wrote. Even our own thoughts are altered by our choice of language, and if we use the wrong names we will unconsciously respond to our erroneous label rather than our intended meaning. The human mind is not an organ for detecting the truth but for building patterns and associations, and it will work with whatever material it is given, however false or misleading. The computer science expression GIGO applies: Garbage in, garbage out. Conversely, the work required to clarify what we are trying to say to get the names right can reveal new information that makes us rethink what we were about to say, can teach us crucial new information that prevents us from believing or spreading misinformation.

So, a few examples:

As a child, I did not see Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope; I saw Star Wars; a later reedit was given the former title. Lucas himself created both films, but the later reedit has new special effects superimposed throughout the film.

Dario Argento (DAH-rio ar-JEN-toe; see postpostscript) did not direct Deep Red nor even The Hatchet Murders; he directed Profundo rosso (pro-FUN-doe ROSS-oh). The Hatchet Murders is a retitling of Profundo rosso after distributors sliced out huge chunks of the film's dialog, story, and character development. Argento fans consider it an abomination.

Niccolò Machiavelli (nick-CO-lah mah-kyah-VELL-lee) did not write The Prince; he wrote Il Principe (ill prin-CHEE-pay). Machiavelli was Italian and wrote in Italian, which I cannot yet read. I have read an English translation of Il Principe called The Prince, but I have never read Il Principe itself. The difference is more important than most people realize, because translations are imprecise. A translation is the result of a different author rewriting the entire work using different words from a different language; meanings are always changed, no matter how careful the translator is. For example, prince in English can mean various things, such as a cute little boy who will grow up to be king, or a sexy and available young nobleman; in Machiavelli's time, principe, may have meant prince in the sense of leader, like boss or lord.

The computer system I work on, VistA, is not written in the MUMPS programming language, nor in Caché, nor in M; it is written in Standard MUMPS (except a few lines scattered among fifteen routines), also called Standard M, specifically the 1995 standard. VistA cannot run on older versions of Standard MUMPS (such as the 1990 standard), nor on versions that do not comply with the 1995 standard (such as M3 from Patterson, Gray & Associates).

The Western Red-cedar, Thuja plicata (THOO-ya plic-AY-ta), is not a cedar; it is a thuja, a member of the Cypress family, which makes it a cousin of cedars. The Alaska-cedar, Chamaecyparis nootkatensis (cam-ee-SIP-ah-riss noot-kah-TEN-sis), also called the Yellow-cedar, is also not a cedar, nor is it a thuja; it is a dwarf cypress, another cedar cousin. Nor is the Douglas-fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii (soo-doe-TSOO-gah men-ZEE-see-eye), a fir; it is a false hemlock (an inappropriately negative but less misleading name), a member of the Pine family, making it a cousin of the firs, but only a very distant relative of cedars, thujas, and dwarf cypresses. These are three of the most important trees in my homeland. Names can be misleading.

I speak the American dialect of the English language, with western or standard pronunciation, a level of precision in the name of my language that often does not matter but sometimes does. For example, the color (not colour; I am not English or Canadian) of the sweatpants I am wearing is gray (not grey). Most people do not realize that spelling, punctuation, and vocabulary change in English depending on which dialect you are speaking. Even fewer realize there are formal styles in English, and the rules change further depending on which style you are using. I am trying to use Chicago style, detailed in The Chicago Manual of Style --though I am a novice and so make many mistakes--but newspaper writers use AP style, and there are others. If you do not know the name of your style, dialect, and language, you probably do not know the rules either, nor why they matter, nor when you may or should bend or break those rules to improve your communication.

Such examples help illustrate why sloppy knowledge of names is quite a good predictor of other sloppy knowledge.

This is not a call for anal retentiveness for its own sake. Sometimes we need precision, sometimes merely approximation, and sometimes a pronoun like it will do nicely, thank you very much. Sadly, though, even the minimal clarity required to spell short pronouns is beyond most Americans, who usually misspell its as it's. The rules for proper naming are nuanced, related not just to the thing in question and its origins but to the cultural identity of the writer or speaker, as well as to the context of the communication. If this seems complex, consider it a test of whether we have enough comprehension, clarity, excellence, and respect to engage in thought or communication with each other.

We can insist on the effort in a friendly and forgiving way. If we try and fail, we have at least pushed our limits, demonstrated our good intentions, and set a good example.

Sincerely yours,

Postscript: I have not been able to discern the correct spelling of Machiavelli's first name: Nicolo, Nicolò, Nicoló, Niccolo, Niccolò, or Niccoló? For anyone who does not know what I mean, correct does not mean most popular or common spelling, nor the most obscure or learned looking, nor the spelling preferred by experts or authorities. This is a literate man's name, so the only question that matters is how did he spell it? I have guessed based on which websites are sloppy or still using restricted character sets that Niccolò is a plausible enough spelling for this blog entry, but I have no confidence that I am correct. If anyone knows--and I do not mean has a plausible or intellectual sounding guess--I would love to be educated. I would also love to know of a reliable reference for such questions. The Oxford English Dictionary Online does not seem to include biographical entries.

Postpostscript: I have decided to start adding pronunciation guides to foreign names and terms, since there are likely to be so many in my blog, and since most of us who learn terms from reading make up our own incorrect pronunciations rather than seek a reliable reference. My rough pronunciation guides will only be close for those who speak the standard American English dialect, but since so few people can read the International Phonetic Alphabet (or IPA), and many web browsers will not even display IPA characters, and since I am too lazy to lay out a string of pictures of IPA letters, I figure my Americanese approximations are probably better than nothing at this point. I welcome corrections to any mistakes I make in approximating pronunciation.

Postpostpostscript: I would like to draw your attention to Omniglot, an online guide to writing systems. For many writing systems they include an explanation of the language's origin and pronunciation. The pronunciation is expressed in IPA, but by checking the IPA letters against the page explaining your own language and dialect's pronunciation, you can decypher how you would pronounce the language in question. For example, you can look up Italian to get the IPA spelling of Niccolò Machiavelli, then if you do not know IPA you can look up British English, or standard American English to figure out how to pronounce the IPA spelling. A few other dialects of English are listed at the bottom of the British page, but the list is by no means exhaustive--for example, no Scottish or Irish English, no Georgian or Bostonian American, and so on. We live in an imperfect world.

Saturday, October 01, 2005


Dear Reader,

Like all American boys of a certain age, I grew up watching "Cowboys and Indians" movies on television, and played "Cowboys and Indians" for fun, when we were not playing "Cops and Robbers" or other imaginary combat games. We rooted for the cowboys, who were obviously the good guys in all those movies. Any fool could see that.

Eventually, Dad questioned my certainties. "You think bad Indians attack innocent settlers protected by brave cowboys. Look more closely. Cowboys and settlers were not Americans; they were Europeans; their ancestors came from Europe. Only Indians are Americans; their ancestors lived here for millennia. If invaders from another continent came to take away your land, wouldn't you be angry? Wouldn't you fight back? Who are the real bad guys here?"

As head-to-head conflicts between comfortable illusions and harsh reality often do, this pissed me off. Dad was lying or just wrong, obviously. I already believed something else, and so did all my friends at school. As Moderns are raised to do, I believed I had a right to my opinion, and I believed that meant I had a right not to have it contradicted. If Dad were right, then all these movies, all this television, all these stories I enjoyed were essentially lies, and everyone I knew who believed as I did believed in a lie. Believing lies would make us fools. For me not to be a fool, Dad had to be wrong, so he was.

Fortunately, I was raised to value the truth above almost anything, to follow the lead of the truth wherever it takes me, however uncomfortable, and any map of the world reveals the lies immediately. The Indians were the original inhabitants of America, and we stole it from them. There used to be many of them; now there are few, and many Indian cultures and languages are gone completely. "Decimation" means to kill one in ten, but we killed nine in ten, for which we have no precise word; the nearest words are slaughter, massacre, and genocide.

The truth about Sand Creek, Wounded Knee, and so many other "battles" by which "the west was won" seared me as a child. The excitement of childhood death-games, the rage at implicitly being called a fool by my father, the shock and shame of disillusionment, the horror and grief for victims of one of the greatest holocausts humanity has ever experienced——I was ripe for electric emotional alchemy.

My delusion inverted. Europeans were the bad guys. Indians were the good guys. Americans were the bad guys. I was a bad guy. So I believed more or less for the next fifteen years.

Sincerely yours,

Monday, May 09, 2005


Dear Reader,

Last week, Beverly and I took our first vacation alone together in nine years. We spent five days at a bed and breakfast on an island in Puget Sound. We ignored our email and phones, went for walks together, soaked in the gorgeous views, played with our Dungeons and Dragons books, talked, rested, and generally had a wonderful time. Now I am much clearer on Harvey Manning's distinction between wreckreation and re-creation.

We will be doing this more often.

Sincerely yours,

Postscript: When I got back, I found that my dear friend Danny Barer had responded to my post about Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Since I love the work and he introduced me to it, I am delighted that he enjoyed what I wrote. Danny and I attended Walla Walla High School together, where he introduced me to manga, anime, many fine comics, science fiction and fantasy conventions, and so much more. I added his new blog, The Barer Cave, to my blog's links.

Saturday, March 12, 2005


Dear Reader,

I have been learning to tell time.

For our D&D games, I have been researching how the heathen Anglo-Saxons told time. They used two calendars in parallel: the Julian calendar, which was an early draft of ours, and their own lunar calendar. Learning about them in enough detail to use them in our games has taught me how much I took for granted about how we tell time today.

Designing a calendar system is not easy. The different units by which we measure time do not divide into one another evenly, and we have no fixed frame of reference for measurement.

For example, what is a day?

One naive answer is twenty-four hours, but that turns out to be circular reasoning because an hour is defined as a fraction of a day, and has no other natural meaning. The day is the natural unit, but what is it?

A second naive answer is that it is the span of time from midnight one day to midnight the next, but this turns out to be the first answer in disguise. After all, when is midnight? It is a repeating point in time spaced out every twenty-four hours, which takes us back to an hour being an arbitrary fraction of a day, and back to the original question, what is a day?

A third naive answer is that it is the time from sunset one day to sunset the next, or from sunrise to sunrise. This captures an important element of the definition of a day, but not all of it. We do know the sun rising and setting is involved, but the time of sunrise and sunset ebbs and flows through the seasons, with the daylight longer in the summer and shorter in the winter. Yet we know the answer we are looking for describes something of approximately constant length throughout the year. This answer does not satisfy that criterion, but it does correctly identify that our definition is related to the relationship between the sun and the earth, particularly to the cycles of day and night. Any definition of a day that runs out of sync with the cycles of day and night cannot be right. So again I ask what is a day?

A fourth answer, a more astronomical answer, is one complete rotation of the planet Earth, but this turns out to be subtly inaccurate. What counts as a full rotation? If we watch the second hand move from 12 around back to 12 on a clock, we can see that we are thinking about a complete rotation as returning to the starting point on a fixed reference. We have no fixed reference for the Earth's rotation, but if we approximated one, say by using the stars, or by projecting an imaginary frame of reference on space around us, the answer is still wrong. The result of doing this would be that over the course of a year, midnight would rotate around through the day as the earth revolves around the sun. Midnight would sometimes be at night, sometimes at sunrise or sunset, sometimes during the day, gradually shifting with the seasons. This seemingly reasonable answer, which is the one given by all the people I know who think they are smart people, is mathematical and astronomical but false.

A more correct answer (but no promises) is that a day is slightly more than one complete rotation of the planet Earth. The line of the Earth's orbit around the sun is our guide to the length of a day. In the almost-day it takes for the Earth to spin completely around, the Earth has also moved just under one degree around its orbit line, changing the sun's position with respect to the Earth by one degree. For the times of day to stay stable, for example for midnight to remain in the middle of the night and noon to remain in the middle of the day, the start and end of each day must remain oriented toward the sun. Since during the course of one day the Earth's revolution around the sun changes its orientation by almost one degree, the Earth must rotate just a little bit more (almost one degree) than one complete rotation to compensate, to line back up with the orbit line and with the sun. That way, noon stays mid-day and midnight stays...well, you get the picture.

If this explanation does not make sense to you, ask me in the comments and I will explain it differently.

It is easy to explain what a day is with a picture but even with words it is pretty easy to explain. So why do we not explain it this way in first grade? Everyone should know what a day is. Why do even most intelligent people define it incorrectly?

Sincerely yours,

Extra credit: Explain why a day is a about a degree more than one complete rotation instead of about a degree less. What would have to be different for a day to be about a degree less than a complete rotation?

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Thirteenth Dose

Dear Reader,

Enough with the silence! This year has not been about depression, about silence, withdrawal. It has been a good year so far. I started strength training at the start of the year. Beverly and I started scheduling free time at the same time. I started taking a nutritional supplement called EMPowerPlus on February 7th (and if you suffer from depression, bipolar, or schizophrenia, you must check out the TrueHope website). I now keep a daily log and chart my sleep, exercise, eating habits, hours worked, and so on. Whether it has been one or more of these things, or all of them together, I have not felt depressed since last year.

My blog silence for the past three weeks has been due not to depression but to ambition. I was trying too hard, delaying my posts until I could devote real time to them, with the result that I sketched or outlined four blog entries to every one I posted. I have decided to change the character of my blog to be less formal, more personal, and especially more regular. The quality of composition will go down, but I hope the increased frequency and personal emphasis will increase the blog's value overall. I will try to post more or less daily, but I make no promise.

I have had a sore throat on and off since I wrote last, and continuously since Monday of last week. Today it finally turned into bronchitis. There are two remarkable things about this. First, for the last two decades whenever I get a sore throat I get full bronchitis the very next day; to hold it at bay for a week before succumbing shows real improvement. Second, I am not depressed; I always get depressed when I get sick, but not this time. My mood and programming productivity are carrying on right through the illness. It is weird, but good.

My WorldVistA work is going very well lately. I am programming, updating the website, writing policy documents, keeping up with email, making and answering phone calls, reading books on how to professionalize our corporation, and more.

The weekend of February 18th, Jerry and I camped and hiked at Olympic National Park. We camped at Lake Ozette in his VW Bus, right on the shore of the lake. We hiked west through the rainforest to the coast, then south along the coast from Cape Alava to Sand Point, and then back east through the rainforest. We saw eagles and ravens, black-tailed deer, sea stacks among the crashing waves, miles of gorgeous coastline, and more. What we did not see was a single cloud the whole time. Bizarre but wonderful!

Because of the sore throat, Beverly, Kathy and I have only played Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) once during this time, on Wednesday, February 23rd, but it was a great session. It was our forty-seventh session playing together with these characters. Rhonwen, played by Kathy, and Mireldis, played by Beverly, along with their companions, played by me, are searching the Summerlands for a lost sacred spring. Their anticipated showdown with a malicious woman they had not seen since the fourth session was interrupted when the Summerlands were rocked by devastating earthquakes that preceded the eruption of a dragon from underground. The dragon was powerful but feral, grabbing characters and demanding to know where the sacred spring is, claiming it can smell the spring on them. In the end, the dragon released them but decided to follow them, convinced that they will find the spring for him. When next we play together, the players are concerned about how they will find the spring without revealing its location to the dragon, who the characters sense means the spring ill. It promises to be fun, but it will have to wait until I am over the bronchitis. Game mastering (GMing) is fun, but more tiring than work. It's like writing a script for a play, but then when the curtain goes up having to improvise instead based on highly creative but willful actors. I love it, but I have to go into it with physical and emotional energy and clarity of mind, as well as good notes on the characters, setting, and what I thought might happen. I just cannot do that when my body is fighting off an illness.

I have been reading The Lost Gods of England by Brian Branston and Anglo Saxon Herb Garden by Peter C Horn (for my D&D game), Guidebook for Directors of Nonprofit Corporations by the American Bar Association (for WorldVistA), A Vision of a Living World by the revelatory Christopher Alexander (for wisdom), The Constitution by Page Smith and Cracks in the Constitution by Ferdinand Lundberg (for my duty to my country), Collapse by Jared Diamond (for my duty to humanity), and A Gift of Sanctuary by Candace Robb (partly for D&D, partly for fun). I rotate from book to book with my mood, and during this time only finished the first two on the list, though I will refer back to them over and over over the months ahead to help prepare stories for our game.

At the end of February, with the help of Mike Ryan (who loaned us the DVDs and tapes) I introduced Beverly to the new Battlestar Galactica TV series, which we both enjoy. We have also been watching Veronica Mars, House, The West Wing, Desperate Housewives, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and Queer Eye for the Straight Girl. In addition, I have been watching some fun Anime shows recommended by Jerry Goodnough and Brian Lord, along with some truly dreadful horror movies off the SciFi channel.

Musically, my taste lately has run back to classical. I was listening to a lot of Vivaldi last year, but so far this year it is Beethoven's piano sonatas, one after another. I never knew more than Moonlight (#14 in C sharp minor, which I still love) well growing up, so this has been a series of discoveries for me, fixating on a single sonata for weeks after I finally get it and fall in love with it, then moving on to another. At the moment my love is for Pastorale (#15 in D major). I love how it sounds like it begins in the middle of the performance, how quietly it starts, how the main melody has an odd cadence as though it were improvised, as though the pianist were hesitating and then choosing to play something unexpected but beautiful. I love how the first movement develops from this quiet but sweet melody up to a compelling climax before working its way back home. I like the odd mood of the second movement, its strange and slightly mischievous walking theme making it sound like the perfect music for a caper film. The third movement is fine, but does not yet move me as much as the first two, and the fourth movement I do not yet know as well. Other Beethoven sonatas I previously discovered and frequently bounce back to include Tempest (#16 in G major) and Pathetique (#8 in C minor, which I got hooked on after hearing it at The Secret Garden bed and breakfast in Eugene, Oregon when we stayed there last October for Jerry's thirtieth birthday). When I'm not exploring his sonatas, it's back to his Fifth or Ninth symphony (the latter of which just might be my favorite single work of music), or his incomparable violin concerto. These days, it's all Beethoven all the time, and usually just the piano sonatas.

Today, I spent several hours at the office unpacking boxes of books, magazines, and binders full of notes, sorting them, and filing some in bookcases. My brother Rob spent an hour helping me out (thanks!), and after he left I finished. Linda gave me a lift to and from the office so I could bring our vacuum cleaner and get rid of sawdust, pine needles, gravel, and other detritus. Now it's clean and pretty in there, and with the phone line working, the phone recharged, the desk assembled, and my crucial references found and unpacked, I'm ready for business. While I was there, Linda drove my car down to the Toyota dealership in Renton for a much-needed servicing, and she will pick it up for me again tomorrow.

This evening I canceled gaming again due to the bronchitis (and I called Jerry to cancel our Oregon backpacking trip this weekend, and James to cancel strength training tomorrow morning). Instead, Kathy came over and with Beverly we watched the end of second season of Gilmore Girls, and I saw my first Marilyn Monroe movie--Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. We ate Indian food from Chutneys, and I drank pot after pot of herbal tea. Now Beverly has gone to bed and I am staying up long enough to finish typing up this blog entry.

Overall, this has been a good three weeks for me. I hope things are well with you, too, Dear Reader.

Sincerely yours,

Monday, February 14, 2005


Dear Reader,

I used to believe friendly, sincere communication could bring people together, could overcome prejudice and misunderstanding to resolve our problems.

I was naive. Not everyone can truly communicate.

I have known people who want to understand each other, want to learn from each other, are willing to change their beliefs in response to new information. I love people like that. They teach me, learn from me, explore ideas with me, and give me hope. Such people have characters with strong doses of humility, curiosity, playfulness, and wonder. They remain interested in other people and new ideas, and want to learn more, believe they should grow beyond their present limits. They seek the truth.

Unfortunately, I have known too many people who do not seek the truth, who believe they already know the truth. To the self-righteous, other opinions can only be wrong or irrelevant, sometimes threats. These people think of themselves as pragmatic, as not wasting time in pointless self-questioning. They get things done. They make things happen. And in their satisfaction with their own beliefs, they repel the truth. As a result, the things they make happen are often the wrong things.

When I can reach out to people and communicate, it is because humanity feels to me like the first kind of person, the open-minded, the engaged, and I feel hope. When I cannot, humanity is feeling to me like the second kind, the closed-minded, the arrogant, and I despair.

As my friends and relatives know, there are many periods in my life when I do not return calls or emails, when I am silent. It is as though my presence in their lives ebbs and flows, as if I appear and disappear like a haunting. So, too, does my hope for humanity ebb and flow, my sense of hopeful purpose. Too often, as was the case in July and August of last year, disappointing attempts to communicate with people or prolonged exposure to closed-minded people trigger an ebb, erode my hope for us all, and I retreat back into silence.

I am a flawed person, but I do have some gifts that I want to put at the disposal of humanity. I want to engage with my species, to leave the world better than I found it, and I am willing to sacrifice my own interests to do so. The only thing I ask is that humanity inspire me to give myself to its cause, that my species be worthy of such sacrifice.

When I feel hopeful about us, when our future seems golden, my hope draws me out into laughter and song, into dialog with friends and family, into working for the common good.

At other times, only silence seems golden.

Sincerely yours,

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Strength Training

Dear Reader,

Twenty years of sitting on my butt programming in an office have taken their toll, so I have embarked on a first for me: strength training. I train for an hour Tuesday and Thursday mornings at 7:15 a.m. at Urban Kinetics on Capital Hill. James Park, who I met through our mutual hair stylist, is my patient and supportive instructor. This is my fifth week, and I have initially committed to ten weeks. James is moving south to attend UCLA, and I will probably extend my ten weeks to include as much time as he has left in Seattle. The only variable is whether my current work contract produces funds in time, as I am stone broke at the moment. Fortunately, I paid in advance for the ten weeks.

In my life, my longest lasting sports passions have been karate, running, and hiking. I have done a little yoga off and on in the last few years (and I want to do more), likewise a little jazzercise five years ago. I bicycled everywhere as a kid, and for ninth-grade physical education I joined the swim team. I played basketball in middle school. For the last two decades I would go through brief periods of dedication to getting back into shape, but they never lasted. Walking Green Lake has been my exercise staple starting a year after we moved into our new house, but I did not keep it up consistently. Monthly backpacking trips with Jerry have been more reliable, and for about six months I was going on weekly hikes in the Cascades with my brother Rob. (I very much want to resume those hikes.)

Strength training offers me something new, a balanced, muscle-centered approach to fitness. Balance is important to me because with a lifetime of walking, off and on, my lower body has always been in better shape than my upper body. Muscle-centering is important because years of comparative inactivity led to muscle atrophy. My body image was set during the years I practiced karate, and my loss of strength over the last two decades has led me to feel at times as though I am inhabiting a stranger's body. Strength training is for me a way to jump-start my return to form, to take a short-cut back home. And that is exactly what my recovering strength feels like to me--returning home. Although I have not yet recovered to where I was at my peak, I have recovered a lot, and I am starting to look and feel myself again. What a relief!

My body image has always been the martial-arts build, not the weight-lifting build, so I was never interested in strength training per se before. My new interest came from struggling against depression. I have been reading about naturopathic approaches to treating depression and came across references to weight training as especially effective against it. I knew my life was out of balance, and I recognized that here in something I had never tried was likely to be an untapped vein of health, the restoration of some balance. When what we are doing is not working for us, the sane thing to do is to try something different, so I have.

So far the results have been encouraging. My mood has improved and proven more resilient in the face of bad days than it has been for years. My creativity is returning; playing Dungeons and Dragons is becoming easier by the week, as is writing. My interest in communicating with people has resurfaced. My endurance is returning, and my strength, and we are working on my flexibility. If we can stretch out my hamstrings and other tight leg muscles enough for me to do the splits, we will have surpassed my old fitness level and achieved something brand new for me. That may still be a long way off, but for the first time in years I feel real hope about it.

I feel hope.

Yours truly,

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Brevity Is the Soul

Dear Reader,

I forgot a bill. I ate a banana. My cat says "yow." Ow.

Yours truly,


Dear Reader,

Dumb as Dirt. Dirt-poor. Dirt-cheap. Dirty.

Roget's II: The New Thesaurus, Third Edition, defines "dirt" as:

1. Foul or dirty matter: filth, grime, muck. Slang : crud. See CLEAN.

2. Something that is offensive to accepted standards of decency: bawdry, filth, obscenity, profanity, ribaldry, scatology, smut, vulgarity. Slang : raunch. See DECENT.

Oxford English Dictionary Online doesn't get around to defining dirt as soil until the third definition, preceded by excrement and filth, and followed by foulness, metaphorical foulness, and demeaning phrases.

We despise soil, whether we realize it or not. It is one rung above excrement in our repertory of insults, the baseline of worthlessness.

Yet in the funeral expression "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" survives the ancient recognition of the soil as the source of all life, including our own.

Soil, water, air, and sunlight are the main ingredients seeds need to become the plants that support the animal kingdom. Of these, soil is by far the most complex, the most directly responsible in terms of raw materials for the complexity of plants. Seeds provide the blueprint for the adult plant's complexity, air and water provide most of the bulk elements (carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and in the case of a few plants nitrogen), and sunlight the energy, but for most plants (those that do not extract nitrogen from the air and fix it in the soil) the crucial ingredient for building proteins (nitrogen) and for all plants the majority of the elements they need (calcium, silicon, selenium, zinc, and so on) come from the dirt and only from the dirt. When we eat plants, we are eating transformed air, water, sunlight, and dirt. Since animals eat plants or other animals, the same is true when we eat animals.

We are what we eat. Whether through our umbilical cords from our mothers' bloodstreams, through our mothers' milk after birth, or more directly as we grow older, we eat transformed dirt, and we could not exist unless we did. We are circulating systems of muddy water, air, and light, and all of these ingredients flow into us from the world around us, through us, and back out into the world. Our dependence on dirt is complete and continuous. There are few things upon which our lives are so completely dependent.

Loath as we are to recognize our dependence on dirt, its value to us, not surprisingly we do not understand it very well. Dirt is extremely complex and varied, and we are still learning embarrassingly basic things about it.

For example, only recently did we learn that the vast network of fungus in forest soil is not a parasite, that it is essential for the forest to survive. Filaments of fungi, called hyphae, are fungi's equivalent to plant roots. They are much finer and more numerous than roots, and are much much more efficient at extracting water and nutrients from the soil. Plants and fungi team up to survive. Fungi send out their hyphae to actually penetrate the cell walls of plant roots, creating a single system of roots and hyphae. The fungi can then share their water and nutrients with the plants, and the plants share their sugars with the fungi. Most plants cannot thrive, or in many cases even survive, without the fungi to help them work the soil. We only figured this out recently.

Forest soil is packed with hyphae, an unbelievably complex network of tiny tubes. A single teaspoon of forest soil contains 100 miles of hyphae. Think about that. Go get yourself a teaspoon of sugar. Look at it. Then think about how far away 100 miles of hyphae can reach from where you are right now. Then pack all that distance into the teaspoon you have in your hand. All that complexity, all that capacity to absorb and transport water and nutrients, is just a fraction of what is in that teaspoonful of forest soil. The visible complexity of a forest exists only because of the invisible complexity in its soil.

Inoculation of seedlings with hyphae to help them grow is becoming part of forestry management, but is not yet a regular part of other forms of agriculture. Introduction of this practice is recent and still ongoing, because until very recently we had no idea plants need fungi to thrive. We spent decades trying to exterminate fungi, dosing crops, forests, and gardens liberally with fungicides, not realizing that a healthy hyphae network also produces its own specialized fungicides to kill off hostile fungi. We still know little about the many varieties of fungi in the world and their hyphae networks, but at least now we have a hint about the complexity of the soils they inhabit and thereby create.

What other rudimentary but essential information do we not yet know about soil? If we are still tripping over things as basic as this, we must assume there is more we do not yet even suspect.

What we do know is that we are running out of soil. Our agricultural, grazing, forestry, mining, landscaping, and sewage management practices have accelerated soil erosion to incredible levels. Our hopes for the future--artificial intelligence, curing cancer and poverty, traveling to the stars--will prove futile mirages if we run out of fertile soil first, which should happen within the next hundred years at this accelerating pace.

Our current, soil-wasteful practices are extremely profitable, so we are unlikely to change anything, except perhaps to begin selling the little remaining soil to each other at obscene prices when it becomes scarce, and then to go to war with each other over fertile land after that. China, which has aggressively adopted American farming practices, is consequently running out of soil faster than any other country. What do you suppose a billion people will do when they cannot feed themselves from their own land?

If this seems pessimistic, if you imagine technology will offer a magic fix to this problem, consider that soil building is a very slow process, taking many centuries to recreate a deep, fertile soil bed. Moving soil from place to place, though difficult and expensive, is doable with current technology, but creating new soil from scratch is another matter. Any soil we did mix up from more primitive materials would be missing the many things we do not yet realize are necessary for sustainable agriculture, the other things besides hyphae that we do not yet understand.

Meanwhile, the agricultural soil we do have is increasingly contaminated by salts and poisons as side effects of how intensively we pump resources (like pesticides and petrochemical fertilizers) into the soil to extract crops from it, and by side effects of industrialization (like perchlorate contamination of California's farmland from the leaky Kerr-McGee rocket-fuel factory in Nevada). The quality of the soil we are losing today is inferior to that of our parents and grandparents.

It would be both ironic and typical of our species if we exterminated ourselves by using up a resource that we held in contempt, used as a metaphor for worthlessness. Dirt is worth more than gold, because gold is optional, and dirt is not.

Where is the dirt going? To the oceans. Erosion by wind and water blow and wash much of it off the land. We extract nutrients from agricultural lands when we harvest and ship away the crops to market. Animals that feed off plants do so locally, and they defecate locally, thereby rebuilding the soil near the plants they feed upon. We, however, dump our sewage into the oceans, creating great rivers of soil nutrients that flow from agricultural lands to the bottom of the oceans, via our bodies.

As far as I know, there is little we can do to reverse the soil erosion that has already occurred. Dredging the oceans is impractical, given the amount of fossil fuels we have left, and would doubtless do incredible damage to ocean ecosystems that are already reeling from our unsustainable harvesting of fish, shellfish, and other ocean resources.

What we could conceivably do, though, is drastically reduce soil erosion. We would need to change our industrial practices. We would also need to eliminate poisons from our diet and environment to make our sewage fit to compost back into soil; that would have the added benefit of making us healthier. We would then need to overhaul our sewage management practices to return it to the agricultural lands as fertilizer. Taken together, these changes would help conserve the soil we have left.

Although we will not survive without these changes, none of it is profitable in a market economy, so we will not do it. There are powerful economic incentives for us to argue that it is too soon to tell whether soil loss is a serious enough problem, right up until it is too late to do anything about it. I am betting we will remain too self-involved and short-sighted to register the meaning of soil loss until most of it is gone. After, all, it is just dirt, right?

If we did, though, if by some miracle we made whatever changes are needed to make it possible for our society to value and act on stopping soil erosion, we could then build up the fertility of the soil we have left. A few older cultures were able to conserve and enrich even the faint scraps of soil on steep mountain slopes, farming the same thin soils successfully for centuries. The organic farming movement has helped us relearn old lessons about soil conservation and development. If we applied those practices, we could survive the loss of soil we have sustained to date, and eventually, over the centuries, we could slowly deepen our fertile soil beds, maybe even back to their pre-industrial levels.

We have already damaged the soil so deeply that we have left what will probably be a permanent record in the Earth's geology to show we were here and what we did. If we keep on as we have, our future is rocky. Literally. If we reverse our wasteful soil practices and spend the next few millennia deepening the soil, that too will be writ in the geological record. As a species, we still have time to leave behind us a life-promoting legacy, but we will have to change profoundly to want to do that. We will have to unite around this common goal as a species for millennia, something we have never done.

If we imagine uniting our species around a shared set of core values, if we imagine ten commandments in a sustainable worldwide culture, one of those ten will have to be something like this:

Protect the soil; it is your food, your body, and mother to us all.

When faced with essential but seemingly impossible tasks, I find wisdom in a bumper sticker, of all things, that I see all over Seattle: "Think globally. Act locally." Or as Gandhi said, we must be the change we want to see in the world. Lead by example. Learn about dirt, and slowly change your life by what you learn.

For my part, I have begun with composting, with building up the soil in my own gardens and yard. I also buy organic farm products whenever I can, because organic practices protect the soil more than conventional farming, and few actions we can take match the political impact of changing to whom we give our money; when we buy groceries we vote with our dollars. With the help of our friend Linda, we have begun growing some of our own fruits, vegetables, and herbs. These small steps are only a start, but they are something, and as I learn more about soil I will make more changes.

Dear Reader, let us aspire to become dirt-rich.

Sincerely yours,

Postscript: I am indebted to my uncle, Don Baldwin, for leading by example, for growing his own fruits and vegetables, for nurturing and improving the soil in his gardens year by year, and for showing me what a real cucumber is supposed to taste like. I had no idea what I was missing. Thank you, Uncle Don.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Kaze no Tani no Naushika (Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind)

Dear Reader,

I recently re-read Kaze no Tani no Naushika (, translated into English as Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind, by Hayao Miyazaki. It is one of my favorite books, a vast manga (Japanese graphic novel).

Kaze no Tani no Naushika is set in the far future, when in the face of an environmental apocalypse the two largest remaining human kingdoms, the Torumekian Empire and the Dorok Principalities, embark on a self-destructive war over the little remaining habitable land. Our hero is Nausicaä, the daughter of the old king of The Valley of the Wind, a small border kingdom; she is an ecologist who studies the poisonous forests that have covered the Earth. She searches for a way for humanity to survive, but she is drawn reluctantly into the war when Torumekia commandeers her tiny kingdom's last flying gunship and her with it to fight the Doroks.

This only hints at the intricate plot, only the first few chapters of a massive, multi-volume epic, yet the elaborate weave of the plot stays true to a simple, moving, elegant story arc. Like some of my favorite stories, the true significance of the story is revealed in layers as the plot progresses; as more history is revealed, it changes our understanding of everything that has happened. The complex ecology, cultures, and politics eclipse even Frank Herbert's fine work on Dune, and setting the story on Earth gives it a far greater urgency and sting.

I find Kaze no Tani no Naushika more compelling than most science fiction. Miyazaki's dystopian future is the result not just of ecological collapse, but also worldwide nuclear war, both of which occur before our story with the ecological collapse nearing completion as we begin. Then he stirs into this mix venal and corrupt power politics to set the nihilistic wars for dwindling territory in motion. Astonishingly, though, Miyazaki pairs this dark setting and backstory with a bright protagonist who is brilliant, hopeful, earnest, and compassionate. Thus unlike so many dystopias, the tone of this story is not despair but serious hope, the search for morality and life amid war and death. Given our own bleak future and our need to find reason for hope, this combination moves me more than most science fiction stories I have read.

The huge cast of characters is as nuanced and morally sophisticated as in all Miyazaki's stories, yet this subtlety and complexity does not wash them out; the motivation, feelings, and beliefs of even the most minor characters are strong, believable, and deeply involving. Protagonists, antagonists, and background characters alike--Miyazaki draws out their personalities and feelings to make you understand and care about everyone. There is nothing generic about anyone in this story; everyone clearly comes from one of the many cultures he created for this world, yet none of them is a simple cliche rendering of that culture. Nausicaä herself is just a touch super-heroic, a skilled scientist, pilot, and warrior, but her youth, vulnerability, guilelessness, and compassion bring her back within reach, keep her human and keep us involved with her.

I was first introduced to an extremely abridged version of the story in the anime (Japanese animation) movie of the same name (, which was one of the first anime movies I saw. I will always be grateful to my friend Danny Barer for introducing me to this and other anime films in the mid 1980s. In America Miyazaki is better known for his more recent films, such as Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away), Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke), and Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro).

Although I loved the anime from my first viewing of it, its story is so amputated in comparison with the manga that it is less like an adaptation and more like amputating a hand and keeping just the hand. This is not Miyazaki's fault, although both the manga and the anime are his work, aided by Studio Ghibli; adapting the entire story to film would require a movie at least twice as long as Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, perhaps much more. The nature of the conflict and especially the character of Princess Kushana are drastically different, though the setting, initial main characters, and backstory are the same. Like all Miyazaki films, it is visually lush, beautiful, and striking. Abbreviated though it is, I still love it as the closest we are ever likely to come to a film adaptation of the manga.

The black-and-white artwork of this book is gorgeous--crisp, clear, detailed, and supple. Miyazaki uses that clarity to conjure a fantastic world: jungles of enormous fungi, giant insects, armadas of flying ships, ceramic armor, swords, guns, and cannons, striking religious art and costume, convincing foreign script, vast fortresses and cities, swarms of refugees, cavalry clashing among ruins, dogfights between airships amid thunderstorms, children flying kites, old women telling stories, gardens, oases in a desert, windmills, greenhouse laboratories, flightless birds cooing over their eggs, and a fiercely loyal squirrel-fox. Every panel is packed with well-chosen, telling details that fill in Miyazaki's vision of the future, make it feel real and tangible. This is not a comic to be read quickly but studied; you must take the time to let the full impact of each panel be felt. Many of the panels are so beautiful they could be framed and hung on your wall.

The glory of the art is not just in its vivid illustration of setting and character, but in Miyazaki's exciting evocation of passion, movement, and energy. In so much art faces are mere masks, but Miyazaki makes the faces of every character radiate with humanity, move with hopes and worries, moods and thoughts. And physical movement itself is so well rendered--running, flying, leaping, fighting, climbing, falling--that before we know it we feel our hearts pounding and feel the kind of adrenaline we normally only associate with real life or at least moving pictures. Miyazaki even draws raw energy well--wind blowing, explosions, flares, sharp gunshots, low rumbles, sunlight through clouds, wood buckling under pressure, air currents, stench and miasma, cheers of soldiers rising up from towers, a tow cable snapping, the charge of giant insects crashing through city walls, plants sprouting before your eyes. All this passion, movement, and energy, from delicate to overwhelming, courses through the panels, infusing the beautiful static art with vitality. The story's rhythm balances that power with scenes of beauty and quiet contemplation, strengthening both by the contrast.

Miyazaki's work has always shown a surprisingly sophisticated appreciation of the subtle moral and ecological qualities of nature. I say surprising because humans, even the most ecologically-minded, usually flatten and mechanize nature when they try to describe or represent it. I make the same mistake, even though I know enough that I shouldn't, but we are poorly adapted to understanding organic systems and so tend to read the world in terms of objects and linear forces. We imagine the cosmos to be a mere machine, perhaps a relativistic one, perhaps a quantum one, but little more. By contrast, Miyazaki depicts nature's unexpectedly delicate weave of death within life, the total but subtle interdependence of seemingly independent individuals and species upon one another for even basic survival, and the sometimes shocking but life-affirming morality of living systems.

Dear Reader, I hope more of us learn to see the cosmos like that. It is our best hope for survival.

Sincerely yours,