Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

My most popular blog post ever

August 14, 2016

UnknownI’ve been blogging since 2008, on WordPress, which provides a lot of interesting data. WordPress says I’ve done 645 posts and have had 224,000 visits, last year from 162 different countries. I have 3,582 subscribed followers (though many apparently signed up just to plug their own blogs).

What I find particularly interesting is which blog posts attracted the most hits. This must largely result from search terms people google. In some cases, it seems obvious why a post gets a lot of traffic – for example, the one titled, “Is consumerism bad?” In other cases it’s a mystery to me. (Like the one on Amartya Sen. Who?) Meanwhile, I’ll sometimes post something I feel is really interesting and should draw a lot of traffic, but . . . pfft, nothing. It seems that titles with question marks do well (see below).

Unknown-1So anyway, here, according to WordPress data, is my “top ten” list of most visited blog posts, in ascending order of popularity. Note, there is some bias in favor of older items which have simply had more time to accumulate hits, so more recent ones haven’t yet made the list. However, the rankings for the top ten have actually stayed the same at least since the beginning of this year. (You can click on each title to see the original post):

10. The marshmallow test

9. Unintelligent Design – Why evolution explains the human body and “intelligent design” does not.

8. Eckhart Tolle: The future is now

7. Amartya Sen: Development as Freedom

6. Why is there something rather than nothing?

5. Utilitarianism: Is killing one to save five moral?

4. Is consumerism bad?

3. Reason versus emotion?

2. Why religion and logic don’t mix.

And, finally, my most popular post ever, from 2009, which still continues to rack up hits and consistently maintains its top spot:

images 1. The Enlightenment and its critics

This one definitely falls in the mystery category. I am baffled by its popularity; would never have guessed this would get much attention, let alone the number one slot. Yet, year in and year out, “The Enlightenment and its critics” continues to lead the pack, with more visits than any other post.

Maybe I said something there more profound than I realized. Perhaps it’s worth a look!

Gregg Millett

August 3, 2016

GreggGregg Millett died August 1, aged 77. This was a shock. He was a friend of ours; in fact, he was responsible for our marriage, running Singles Outreach Support where I met my wife-to-be in 1988. We didn’t know him then; only many years later did we become acquainted through the local humanist society.

Gregg was a man of strong left-wing political views. He called himself an “old commie” and had spent time in Nicaragua during the Sandinista period living those beliefs. He also traveled several times to China and cultivated relationships with Chinese both there and in the U.S. He was always coming out with statements that I personally found absurd. So it might seem strange that we were friends.

However – unlike far too many people in today’s political landscape – Gregg was always humble about his views, a gentle and sweet man, always respectful of others, and always willing to listen to and consider other viewpoints. He was intellectually curious and wanted to learn and understand. He even invited me several times to speak to his group, and often said things I wrote made him re-think. Maybe he was just flattering me – but that was Gregg, always striving to be a good person toward others.

Communism aside, if all people were like Gregg Millett, this would be a better world.

John Cleese: So, Anyway

August 1, 2016

UnknownJohn Cleese’s memoir, So, Anyway, says, “I know this book is supposed to be an autobiography, but the fact is that most of you don’t give a tinker’s cuss for me as a human being or feel for the many different forms of suffering that make me so special. No, you are just flipping through my heart-rending life story in the hope of getting a couple of good laughs, aren’t you?”

Yes, I was. But any fans looking to revisit Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Fawlty Towers probably will be disappointed. Unknown-1Those shows are mentioned only as future foreshadowing, since the book stops when Python started.

Nevertheless, Cleese does provide some good laughs. The quoted paragraph made me laugh out loud. And the antecedents of the dead parrot sketch, among others, are explained. Yet this is mainly a straight personal memoir (with no suggestion of co-authorship or writing help), chronicling not just Cleese’s early comedy career but his broader experience of human life, and how his career fit into it. The emphasis is very much on the person rather than the performer.

Unknown-2One reads such things with an eye toward one’s own life. And his actually had some resemblances with mine. Cleese too trained as a lawyer; he was just about to start a dull legal job when a surprise BBC offer came. And Cleese, like me, was very late to the party when it came to women. In his case it was partly down to male-only education, with scant exposure to females which, combined with British reserve, left him clueless how to relate to them.

Speaking of male-only, here’s an eye-opener. Starting at university, Cleese was a close friend of Graham Chapman (the future Python), they collaborated on projects, and even spent some weeks living together in Ibiza to write a film script.

Graham Chapman

Graham Chapman

Yet, when Graham finally came out as gay, Cleese writes, “I was very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very surprised.” (His emphasis, and his eleven veries.) But this was the 1960s, and tells us what a different planet that was. Homosexuality was so stigmatized that gays took great pains to conceal it.

The book does reprise some comedy bits, but not merely for yuks; its main theme is what goes into producing good comedy. Cleese quotes Sir Henry Irving, asked on his deathbed whether dying is hard: “No, dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” A real talent like Cleese can make it look easy, on the TV screen – but the book’s big take-away is how much art, and sweat, goes into it.

Like so many things in life, it should not be taken for granted, but cherished.

 

 

Only the good

June 17, 2016
Jo Cox

Jo Cox

Only the likes of Jo Cox, British member of parliament, human rights worker, advocate for immigrants and refugees.

Never the likes of a Robert Mugabe.

Only 49 people innocently partying at an Orlando night spot.

Never people at a KKK rally.

Only peacemakers like Yitzhak Rabin.

Never monsters like Bashar Assad.

Always the Bhuttos. Never the Musharrafs.

Only the Sadats. Never the al-Sisis.

Always the Boris Nemtsovs. Never the Vladimir Putins.

Only the JFKs, RFKs, MLKs. Never the Erdogans, Maduros, Nkurunzizas.

Why? Hating the bad is characteristic of rationality. Hating the good, of irrationality.

Gottagetgon

May 30, 2016

images-1We went to the annual Gottagetgon (“Got to get gone”) folk music festival during Memorial Day weekend. The first time was 1988. I drove up and was told, “That’ll be $26 – unless your boy is under 13.” It was actually my new, slim, short-haired girlfriend, over twice that age. Now she’s my wife, twice again that age, with longer hair, but retaining her boyish figure (and lovelier than ever).

We attended quite a few times afterward, bringing along our kid. It’s a low-key, informal event. Held at the Saratoga fairgrounds, an attraction for children was a giant sand mountain, that mysteriously remained for years. Anyway, our daughter Elizabeth endured these outings with good cheer, and even was captivated once by one of the bands (called “Western Omelette”).

Unknown-1Now she’s working in Afghanistan. Time marches on. For various reasons we hadn’t been to Gottagetgon for several years – probably more years than I realize. Going again was indeed a reminder of time’s passage. Some familiar faces were there, a little older and greyer. (A certain once-fetching lass I pursued back in the Pleistocene – I doubt she remembers – now is a dumpy old woman.)

One song began with, “Did you ever fall in love with a man that was no good?” There were several shouts of “Yeah!” from the audience. (See my disquisition on women and bad boys.)

I’m no music buff. But like any human I respond to the emotive content. And I’m awed by the artistry. Indeed, it’s fascinating how fingering and blowing on wood and metal contraptions can produce such, well, music – that stirs the soul no less. You’ve got to love an animal that came up with such a thing.

imagesAt Gottagetgon I got a good dose of my favorite kind of music – Scots/Irish/Celtic/pipes-and-fiddle music. The Miller-MacDonald band was great, as was Atwater-Donnelly. Some of this music really gets you in the heart. Nothing like “Danny Boy” for that. But my favorite is “The Star of the County Down.” The title alone feels musical to me; the melody is elegiac. I used to go to contra dances (trying to pick up girls, like the one mentioned), and they’d often do a waltz-like “Star of the County Down” as a fitting finale. Killed me every time.

And I especially love the pieces that start off kind of slow, and build, then flip to a faster, higher energy intensity level, maybe even a couple of times. You can just feel when that’s coming – a delicious tension – like when an orgasm is coming. (I learned at the festival that this sort of thing typically joins an opening “Strathspey” to a reel or jig or two.)

UnknownI love the joyfulness, the celebratory quality of this music. That’s the emotive kick. When listening to it, in my mind I map it onto human events, as though it’s a soundtrack for a story – for the progression of the great human project – or even for the trajectory of my own life. People aren’t grateful enough. There is much to be thrilled about. This music makes me feel that thrill.

Big buttocks

May 23, 2016

Striving to maintain for this blog an elevated standard of excellence and seriousness, I don’t normally comment about buttocks.

(OK, I did write about overhearing a gal say she wanted Frida Kahlo tattooed there.)

imagesHowever, a line in a local newspaper story got my attention: “police say they caught him with 69 bags of heroin hidden in his buttocks.”

A reasonable person naturally wonders: how big were they? The bags. And the buttocks. Inquiring minds want to know.

The newspaper did not specify any dimensions. But, hypothesizing the smallest bags one can plausibly envision, it’s still a log of bags. Unknown-1And so we come to the size of the buttocks. Need I say more?

And what, pray tell, was this guy’s comeuppance, for being busted with 69 bags of heroin up his rear? The City of Schenectady is paying him $25,000. To settle his lawsuit claiming illegal search.

Only in America.

(He was a passenger in a car stopped because of a warrant for the driver. Courts ruled the cop needed another warrant to search the passenger; so drug charges against him were thrown out. Was his lawsuit against the City cheeky?)

Another new currency design

May 11, 2016

After seeing my recent blog post about currency redesign, here’s what my wife gave me, to celebrate May 2, the anniversary of the day we met. This design incorporates (according to her) my heart’s desires. However, note that it’s the chocolate I appear to be fixated on.

dollar

Human ingenuity: a new way to count

November 24, 2015

images-1My business is collector coins, which I often have to count. When they’re all identical they can be counted in stacks of ten. But for non-uniform coins, there seemed to be no alternative to, well, just counting them. Counting by twos helps a bit. But it’s still laborious, requiring concentration, and it’s easy to lose count, especially when dropping a coin or two.

Recently I had a mess of about 5,000 mixed coins I planned to sell in bags of 200. So I asked my wife, “Darling, do you have a little spare time?” And she agreed to help.

But my wife can have her own way of doing things.

UnknownSo after a while, I thought I’d better check on her, and lo, found a strange sight: a vast array of coins spread out in neat rows. Could this make sense?

Then she explained the method in this seeming madness: on a newspaper sheet, she’d marked out a grid of ten squares by twenty, to put one coin on each square. When done, she’d roll up the sheet to neatly funnel the coins into a bag.

imagesThe light bulb went on: I instantly grasped the system’s beauty. Laying coins out on the grid is actually faster than counting them one by one or two by two. Moreover, you cannot lose count or miscount. And no mental concentration is required – she did the job while watching TV!

Through all my decades counting coins, I had never thought of this. And when she finished, I carefully kept her grid sheet for future use.

I guess this shows my wife is smarter than me; but I was pretty smart to marry her.

Proust and the Mystic Chords of Memory

August 22, 2015

UnknownMarcel Proust was an odd cat. Poor health immured him for much of his life in his bedroom, whose walls he had lined with cork to keep the world out; he succumbed at 51. And yet he managed to be something of a social prodigy with keen insight into human psychology – displayed in his monumental seven volume opus A La Recherche du Temps Perdu (commonly translated as Remembrance of Things Past).

This was my first birthday gift to my wife-to-be, just weeks after we met, in 1988. Unknown-1We started reading it aloud to each other in the evenings, a few pages at a time – with some significant gaps in our dedication to the task. In the last few years we became more assiduous, and finally just finished.

I did most of the reading. It helped me comprehend better, and I enjoyed the challenge. The problem was that Proust is famous for his long, convoluted, digressive sentences – so one had to plunge into a sentence without knowing where it would go or what its logic would turn out to be, making course corrections of tone and inflection as one went along.

I had actually read it all before, after a friend strongly recommended it. But that didn’t help much, as it was in the ‘70s when I did not know, to use the technical terminology, my ass from my elbow. In particular, the topic of homosexuality pervades the work, but mostly that had gone right past me without really registering. Indeed, in part at least, this is indicative of how “under the radar” the whole gay thing was in those ancient times, in contrast to today.

One thing I did vividly remember, after slogging through all seven prolix volumes without, frankly, getting all that much out of them, was the ending. imagesTo be exact, the final passage – the final line – which even at the time struck me as a perfect, fitting coda. I didn’t remember the exact wording (something like “on the shoulders of Time”), but certainly recalled the feel of it, the sense of it, as well as the final word itself – Time, with a capital T.

So I was somewhat surprised when my wife and I at last reached the final line, without the dramatic thunk (or “shoulders”) I thought I’d remembered. Now, we were reading the C.K. Scott Moncrieff translation, as revised by Terence Kilmartin in 1981, the best known one; so naturally I wondered whether what I’d read before was simply a different translation. So I went online and learned that prior to 1980 there was only one other English translation, of the last volume only. It’s unlikely I read that; more likely what I had read before was the Scott Moncrieff version prior to Kilmartin’s revision. With some further effort I was able to find a different translation of the book’s ending, but that didn’t conform to my recollection either.

Unknown-2So I wind up simply confuzzled. A la Recherche, as the title suggests, is in the main a meditation upon memory. Be careful next time you insist you remember something with absolute certainty. The brain does not work that way. (See this further post about memory.)

Anyhow, at my wife’s behest, having after 27 years pretty much forgotten the book’s early chapters, we have started again from the beginning, albeit with the new translation of the first volume by Lydia Davis, which we got from her very own hands.

Next Door to the Dead: Poems, by Kathleen Driskell

August 20, 2015

(This is a guest posting, written by my wife, Therese L. Broderick, and appearing on her own poetry blog.)

Located on the same grounds where my father is buried, a nearby cemetery’s headquarters is the site for a variety of public discussions and activities. Once, I sat in attendance while a visiting lecturer explicated “One Art,” Elizabeth Bishop’s powerful poem of loss.

9780813165721Poetry has a long affiliation, of course, with human loss—our trivial daily relinquishments as well as that final and most consequential loss, our voyage from Life to Death. Conversely, poetry has also sung for thousands of years about that other voyage, that cosmic law-defying journey that only a few departed souls succeed in making: a safe return to the greening Earth from a stay in the barren Underworld. And yet, every contemporary poet who writes or vocalizes an elegy, dirge, ode, or threnody is performing that very miracle, resurrecting someone—however briefly— by means of a ritualized trinity (Art, Art’s subject matter, Art’s witness).

All these currents and more run through the eloquent, graceful, vivifying new book of fifty-one poems by Kathleen Driskell entitled Next Door to the Dead (The University Press of Kentucky, 2015). Over the next few days, this blog will focus on that highly admirable book. Today’s spotlight focuses on my own observations.

Conceptually, this impressive collection guides us first to a cemetery boundary, then through the gate, and then inside the graves in order to summon forth their spirits. Along this path, Next Door to the Dead unveils a cultural desecration, descending to that particular hell of funereal skullduggery. Thankfully, this talented poet knows how to guide us back to a proper reverence.

Humanistic as these poems are in orientation, they also honor the spiritual imagination, escorting the reader through multifarious encounters with disembodied personalities, some of them eternally in limbo. (The human lives envoiced in this book recall, for me, the personal dramas within The Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters.) These pages peopled with ‘’Border State” individuals—Kentuckian and/or everywhere existential—explore matter-of-fact loss, grievously tragic loss; witty epitaphs, profound laments; family tales, town gossip; occasional ceremonies, timeless myths; skeleton-closet celebrities, anonymous worthies; gods and clergy, saints and sinners; and the (perhaps fallacious) empathetic mourning of critters and Nature.

Kathleen Driskell

Kathleen Driskell

Those character portraits are made expansive and vivid by Kathleen Driskell’s talents for weaving the textures of lyrical narration, persona, and monologue. Also by her utterly trustworthy shaping, her dynamic phrasing, her melody of vowels plus peal of consonants, the palpable tug of her versified lines, her strikingly true turns-of-phrase, and her images both rooted and revelatory.

Much can be said about “Tchaenhotep,” the book’s extended signature piece. A probing and subversive journey, this poignant monologue arrives in the voice of a female mummy exhumed, displaced from an ancient Egyptian tomb to a modern American museum. The unlikely speaker lived as a marginalized woman, a proletariat. Her ancient chant-like accounting of her own commonplace virtues and vices is a time-tested paradigm for judging innocence and guilt.

This prominent poem, then, weighs the merits of all other poems, of memorial poetry in all forms. And also of how respectfully our surviving cultures redeem the crimes committed by our forebears. Just as importantly, of how fruitfully you and I the readers have spent our own days and decades.

Thankfully, the highly deserving poet Kathleen Driskell is an artist, not an evangelist for any single faith tradition. In Next Door to the Dead, she devotes her artistry to sanctifying the natural dignity of her subjects, renewing for us all a vision of communal care and understanding. Blessed be every single one of her neighbors, in-the-flesh or otherwise.

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