Caveat: what we see

“I believe that nothing can be more abstract, more unreal, than what we actually see. We know that all that we can see of the objective world, as human beings, never really exists as we see and understand it. Matter exists, of course, but has no intrinsic meaning of its own, such as the meanings that we attach to it. Only we can know that a cup is a cup, that a tree is a tree.” – Giorgio Morandi (Italian painter, 1890-1964)


Natura Morta, oil on canvas, 1956.

Unrelated: what we don’t see…

“‘Why does God not show Himself?’ – ‘Are you worthy?’ – ‘Yes.’ – ‘You are very presumptuous, and thus unworthy.’ – ‘No.’ – ‘Then you are just unworthy.'” – attributed to Pascal


Caveat: hay montes

Penas (Verso XXXIV)

¡Penas! ¿Quién osa decir
Que tengo yo penas? Luego,
Después del rayo, y del fuego,
Tendré tiempo de sufrir.

Yo sé de un pesar profundo
Entre las penas sin nombres:
¡La esclavitud de los hombres
Es la gran pena del mundo!

Hay montes, y hay que subir
Los montes altos; ¡después
Veremos, alma, quién es
Quien te me ha puesto al morir!

- Jose Marti (poeta cubano, 1853-1895)

This poem was recently brought to my attention because my friend Bob asked if I could provide some insight and translation for the poem, for a choral production he’s working on that includes this text set to music. It seems not that different from other things I’ve blogged, and given how sparse my blog has been intellectually, of late, I thought I might as well post what I gave him here.

It’s important to separate who Martí actually was from the mythical being he’s been made into by subsequent generations of Cubans of all political stripes. He was a classical liberal, and in an aesthetic school called “modernismo” -not exactly the same as “modernism” because of different circumstances. He spent a lot of time in the US during various exiles from Cuba, and was heavily influenced by US poets such as Walt Whitman. He was no communist, but he was aware of Marx and I believe may have interacted some with socialists and communists and anarchists in Europe – you take your allies where you can find them. He did believe in universal human rights as that doctrine emerged from the wake of the abolition movements of the 19th century.

I do believe this poem is political. He was fighting for Cuban independence from Spain, inspired by the liberal fantasies (ideals) exemplified to whatever degree of accuracy by the US, Mexico, Guatemala – all countries where he spent time. So what he’s saying is that the time for self-pity is over. Stop complaining and get up and fight for your freedom, fellow Cubans = fellow humans everywhere. That’s how I interpret it. There are mountains we should be climbing, now, battles to be fought. We’ll let God sort out later who was good and who was bad.

Versos was published in 1891, and Martí died while leading Cuban freedom fighters in Cuba in 1895. His political program was quite mature at that point, and it would be hard to read the poem any more innocently.

Here is my own word-for-word translation.

Problems! Who dares to say
That I have problems? Later,
after the lightning-bolt, and the fire,
I'll have time to suffer.

I know about a deep regret
among the problems without names:
The enslavement of men
is the great regret of the world!

There are mountains, and there's need to climb
the high mountains; later
we shall see, soul, who [it] is
that has set you, for me, to die.

The key word, of course, is penas. I prefer the translation “problems” – it feels contemporarily idiomatic. Penas has a very wide semantic field: “pains” “sufferings” “sorrows” “guilt” “sins” “problems” etc. Especially in the context.

We deploy the word “problems” in modern English similarly. Cf rapper Jay-Z, “I got 99 problems ….”

I almost chose to translate it as “complaints” – to emphasize the fact that the tone of the poem (to me) is a bit of “Get off your butts, people, and DO something!”

Other vocabulary worth comment: pesar. Also fairly wide. I prefer “weight” to “regret” but that doesn’t work with the intensifier “deep”. Perhaps “heavy weight” rather than “deep regret.”

As a syntactician, I love the double (in)direct objects in the last line (“… te me …”) – what Spanish grammar is famous for, in stumping linguists and being a fairly famous example of something characteristically difficult about the language.


Caveat: the base alloy of hypocrisy

In this historical moment when a motley riot of neo-know-nothingists are mucking about with the levers of government, I find hope for humanist values in the apropos observations of a certain famous politician:

Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equals, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.” When it comes to that I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.
– Abraham Lincoln


Caveat: Summa Logicae

William of Ockham, Summa Logicae

Today universals are par for the course,
As when horseness is said of a horse.

And dogness is solemnly logged for a dog,
And logness is doggedly barked of a log.

And now the whole lot of us
Are expected to talk as though hippopotamateity inhered in a hippopotamus.

But all of these quiddity-quoddity hacks
Could not tell a duck from the fact that it quacks.

– Justin E.H. Smith (American essayist and philospher, b. 1972)

Caveat: the beauty of things is sufficient

It is a sort of tradition in this country not to talk about religion for fear of offending – I am still a little subject to the tradition, and rather dislike stating my “attitudes” except in the course of a poem. However, they are simple. I believe that the universe is one being, all its parts are different expressions of the same energy, and they are all in communication with each other, influencing each other, therefore parts of one organic whole. (This is physics, I believe, as well as religion.)


The parts change and pass, or die, people and races and rocks and stars, none of them seems to me important in itself, but only the whole. This whole is in all its parts so beautiful, and is felt by me to be so intensely in earnest, that I am compelled to love it, and to think of it as divine. It seems to me that this whole alone is worthy of the deeper sort of love; and that here is peace, freedom, I might say a kind of salvation.


I think that one may contribute (ever so slightly) to the beauty of things by making one’s own life and environment beautiful, so far as one’s power reaches. This includes moral beauty, one of the qualities of humanity, though it seems not to appear elsewhere in the universe. But I would have each person realize that his contribution is not important, its success not really a matter for exultation nor its failure for mourning; the beauty of things is sufficient without him.

– Robinson Jeffers (poet, 1887-1962)

Caveat: On Democracy’s Spiral

Sometimes I have essentially decontextualized insights and I decide to write them down. I was reading some blog about current political events, and thought the following. It’s not a reasoned argument, just an idea that occurred to me.

In a true democracy, it seems to me that the things people believe about government will eventually become true about government. If people believe their government is dangerous, the government will become more and more dangerous over time. If people believe their government is corrupt, the government will become more and more corrupt over time. This can go the other direction too, though: if people believe their government is capable of solving social ills, then more and more social ills will be solved by government over time. If people believe their government is a virtuous protector of individual rights, then the government will become more and more virtuous in this way over time. There is a most disturbing aspect of this “spiral effect” of democracy, however: if people specifically come to believe their government is undemocratic, then the government will become less and less democratic over time. And the problem, there, unlike any of the other spirals, is that there is no way to spiral out from this problem once you’ve descended, because once the government is no longer democratic, this feedback process is no longer in effect. Thus the absolute most important belief for the nurturing and sustenance of a democracy is the belief in democracy itself.


Caveat: a lottery for participation

Periodically, in the United States, people go around with guns killing random people in public. This is just part of our culture, apparently – check the news.

Here is someone thinking about this cultural phenomenon.

The United States has institutionalized the mass shooting in a way that Durkheim would immediately recognize. As I discovered to my shock when my own children started school in North Carolina some years ago, preparation for a shooting is a part of our children’s lives as soon as they enter kindergarten. The ritual of a Killing Day is known to all adults. It is taught to children first in outline only, and then gradually in more detail as they get older. The lockdown drill is its Mass. The language of “Active shooters”, “Safe corners”, and “Shelter in place” is its liturgy. “Run, Hide, Fight” is its creed. Security consultants and credential-dispensing experts are its clergy. My son and daughter have been institutionally readied to be shot dead as surely as I, at their age, was readied by my school to receive my first communion. They practice their movements. They are taught how to hold themselves; who to defer to; what to say to their parents; how to hold their hands. The only real difference is that there is a lottery for participation. Most will only prepare. But each week, a chosen few will fully consummate the process, and be killed. – Kieran Healy

Caveat: not all creativity needs to be bonded by wage

AOC was talking at the SXSW conference. An excerpt:

We should not be haunted by the specter of being automated out of work. We should not feel nervous about the toll booth collector not having to collect tolls anymore. We should be excited by that. But the reason we’re not excited by it is because we live in a society where if you don’t have a job, you are left to die. And that is, at its core, our problem.

We should be excited about automation, because what it could potentially mean is more time educating ourselves, more time creating art, more time investing in and investigating the sciences, more time focused on invention, more time going to space, more time enjoying the world that we live in. Because not all creativity needs to be bonded by wage.

Capitalism is based on scarcity. What happens when there is enough for everyone to eat? What happens when there is enough for everyone to be clothed? Then you have to make scarcity artificial. And that is what has happened.- AOC

Then the moderator said: that’s “Full Star Trek Socialism.” AOC just smiled.

The concept of the “post-scarcity society” has been around for a long time. And now we find that AOC is fluent in this thinking – that was not a prepared speech, but rather a response to an audience question. I’m interested.

Caveat: on agency costs and the capital gains tax

I haven’t been posting much of this type of thing, in recent months – since my change in lifestyle with the move to Alaska. But I still read several economics blogs, and I think this is very interesting and insightful.

Very high top tax rates are a means of encouraging “predistribution” rather than the tax part of tax-and-transfer redistribution. Their purpose, their very point, is to create those “agency costs” that economists from the 1970s until now have derided and demanded be ruthlessly excised from corporate practice. But every “agency cost” to shareholders is income to someone else, whether that takes the form of luxury offices and stupid jet travel for firm managers or better work conditions at higher pay for more employees. The ideologically tendentious presumption of the economics profession post-1970s has been that agency costs yield no real benefits, that they look much more like luxury offices for the C-suite than predictable schedules for service workers. But that was always just presumption, and historical experience does not support it. It is, I will admit, not a slam dunk case, it is only suggestive, that the ruthless efficiencies of contemporary labor markets and the shattering of union power happened just after we, in relative-to-prior-period terms, dramatically subsidized payouts to shareholders over other uses of funds. But it is suggestive. And it is plausible that “Treaties of Detroit” and Bell Labses, that corporate practices generally which favor workers, customers, and other stakeholders, are easier for companies to “afford” when shareholders have to give up less to purchase them. Which is precisely the effect, in the most basic economic terms, of taxing payouts to shareholders heavily.from the blog interfluidity

The point above is that by lowering the capital gains and top tax brackets in the 80s, this encouraged companies (via giving incentives to owners and management) to reduce “agency costs” – which weren’t just perks for managers but also perks for regular employees – things like healthcare, living wages, etc. So the tax cuts of the 80s drove the creation of the new, low-perk, low-security workplaces that we see today.

Just sayin’.

Caveat: from aboard the M/V Malaspina

Here I am, sailing from Ketchikan to Prince Rupert.

I’m on a phone signal… between mountains drifting down among islands.

Pictures from earlier in the day (mostly from the Hollis-to-Ketchikan ferry).











Here is a somewhat random quote that struck me as relevant to my new lifestyle among many retirees on Prince of Wales Island:

One way to find out if you’re old is to fall down in front of a lot of people. If they laugh, you’re still young. If they panic and start running toward you, you’re old.

[daily log: walking, 2km]

Caveat: intoxicated by slogans

A mass movement readily exploits the discontent and frustration of large segments of the population which for some reason or other cannot face the responsibility of being persons and standing on their own feet. But give these persons a movement to join, a cause to defend, and they will go to any extreme, stop at no crime, intoxicated as they are by the slogans that give them a pseudo-religious sense of transcending their own limitations. The member of a mass movement, afraid of his own isolation, and his own weakness as an individual, cannot face the task of discovering within himself the spiritual power and integrity which can be called forth only by love. Instead of this, he seeks a movement that will protect his weakness with a wall of anonymity and justify his acts by the sanction of collective glory and power. All the better if this is done out of hatred, for hatred is always easier and less subtle than love. It does not have to respect reality as love does. It does not have to take account of individual cases. Its solutions are simple and easy. It makes its decisions by a simple glance at a face, a colored skin, a uniform. It identifies an enemy by an accent, an unfamiliar turn of speech, an appeal to concepts that are difficult to understand. He is something unfamiliar. This is not “ours.” This must be brought into line – or destroyed.

Here is the great temptation of the modern age, this universal infection of fanaticism, this plague of intolerance, prejudice and hate which flows from the crippled nature of man who is afraid of love and does not dare to be a person. It is against this temptation most of all that the Christian must labor with inexhaustible patience and love, in silence, perhaps in repeated failure, seeking tirelessly to restore, wherever he can, and first of all in himself, the capacity of love and which makes man the living image of God. – Thomas Merton (American monk, 1915-1958)

[daily log: walking, 4km; tromping, 250m]


Caveat: a big solving, indeed

It is reported that Seoul has been saved from anihilation. The below is apparently an utterly true transcript.

Dramatis personae: the new space emperor, Kanye West, Jim Brown.

"MR. BROWN: And I like North Korea.

THE PRESIDENT: I like North Korea too.

MR. BROWN: (Inaudible.)

THE PRESIDENT: Yeah. Yeah. Well, he’s — turned out to be good. Dialogue. We had a little dialogue. And Secretary of State just came back — Mike. He just came back from North Korea. We had very good meetings, and we’ll meet again. But we’re doing good. No more nuclear testing. No more missiles going up. No more nothing. And it’s — that was headed to war. That was headed to war.

MR. BROWN: Yeah. I mean, it was — to me, it seemed like that.

THE PRESIDENT: Yeah. It was so close. We spoke — I spoke to President Obama. I will tell you, that was headed to war. And now it’s going to be — I believe it’s going to work out very well.

MR. WEST: You stopped the war —

THE PRESIDENT: We really stopped the war. Saved millions of lives. You know, Seoul has 30 million people. You don’t realize how big. Thirty million people who are right near the border; 30 miles off the border. Millions of people would have been killed. And I will say, Chairman Kim has been really good. Really good. And we’ve made a lot of progress.

That’s nice that you say that, because that’s a big — that’s a big thing. These folks were covering — they were covering North Korea not — I think not very promisingly. And there were a lot of problems. President Obama said that was his biggest problem. And I don’t say anything is solved —

MR. WEST: You, day one, solved one of the biggest problems.


MR. WEST: We solved one of the biggest problems.

THE PRESIDENT: It was a big solving. And not solved yet, but I think we’re along — I think we’re on the way."

(h/t The Rude Pundit)

[daily log: walking, 4km; tromping, 350m]

Caveat: On Conversation

I don't have much to report. We went out on the boat today. It felt like Arthur had decided this would be a last trip of the season. When we got back, we pulled the boat out of the water.


A cloudless morning.


Driving the boat out the inlet, past the base of Sunny Hay Mountain.


The captain of the boat removes the boat from the water using his cleverly designed boat ramp system with trolley.


In the afternoon, walking down the road, the clouds at last have returned to Sunny Hay Mountain, after our mini drought.


Unrelatedly, here is a thought for the day:

"[M]ost conversations are bad, so your proper goal is to make them worse (so they can end) rather than better." – Tyler Cowen.

[daily log: walking, 4km]

Caveat: On the hypothetical value of a breakfast in the cheapest country

I've been a bit glum and very withdrawn as I confront getting ready for this unexpected trip, the situation with my uncle's health, my own feeling that a sea change of sorts is approaching in how my own life is organized… 

So I settled into an escapist weekend of map-drawing and music (mostly Mexican hiphop – go figure, right?). 

Life goes on. Wednesday, I fly to Seattle. Meanwhile, I have a vast pile of things to take care of for work.

Meanwhile, a humorous, 400 year old quote:

"Your peevish chastity is not worth a breakfast in the cheapest country." – William Shakespeare, in "Pericles, Prince of Tyre."

 [daily log: walking, 7km]

Caveat: para llevarme lejos

El viento en la isla

El viento es un caballo:
óyelo cómo corre
por el mar, por el cielo.

Quiere llevarme: escucha
cómo recorre el mundo
para llevarme lejos.

Escóndeme en tus brazos
por esta noche sola,
mientras la lluvia rompe
contra el mar y la tierra
su boca innumerable.

Escucha como el viento
me llama galopando
para llevarme lejos.

Con tu frente en mi frente,
con tu boca en mi boca,
atados nuestros cuerpos
al amor que nos quema,
deja que el viento pase
sin que pueda llevarme.

Deja que el viento corra
coronado de espuma,
que me llame y me busque
galopando en la sombra,
mientras yo, sumergido
bajo tus grandes ojos,
por esta noche sola
descansaré, amor mío.

– Pablo Neruda (poeta chileno, 1904-1973)

[daily log: walking, 7.5km]

Caveat: and the stern winds brood

The Vast Hour

All essences of sweetness from the white
Warm day go up in vapor, when the dark
Comes down. Ascends the tune of meadow-lark,
Ascends the noon-time smell of grass, when night
Takes sunlight from the world, and gives it ease.
Mysterious wings have brushed the air; and light
Float all the ghosts of sense and sound and sight;
The silent hive is echoing the bees.
So stir my thoughts at this slow, solemn time.
Now only is there certainty for me
When all the day's distilled and understood.
Now light meets darkness: now my tendrils climb
In this vast hour, up the living tree,
Where gloom foregathers, and the stern winds brood.

– Genevieve Taggard (American poet, 1894-1948)

[daily log: walking, 7.5km]

Caveat: Boorish

Teacher: What do we call a person who keeps talking even when people are no longer interested?

Student: A teacher.

[daily log: walking, 7km]

Caveat: touched by His Boolean Appendage

The Speculative Grammarian site has this very clever and utterly wrathful satire of the crypto-creationists' "Intelligent Design theory", here. Given the site it's on, bear in mind that it's a rewrite of the ID theory transferred from biology to linguistics, and called "Wrathful Dispersion" theory, alluding to the Tower of Babel tale in Genesis.

I particularly liked:

One cynical observer has likened WD ["Wrathful Dispersion" theory] to Scientology, which “is a religion for purposes of tax assessment, a science for purposes of propaganda, and a work of fiction for purposes of copyright.”


In particular, a satirical Web-based grassroots pseudo-cult has grown up around the theory that all modern languages were in fact “shat out of the arse of the Flying Stratificational Grammar Monster,” with adherents claiming to have achieved enlightenment upon being “touched by His Boolean Appendage” or “washed in the blood of Sydney Lamb.”

[daily log: walking, 7km]

Caveat: 10, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000

What I'm listening to right now.

Samarth Swarup and Asa Singh, "Siri answers."


[Musician: ]
What is ten trillion raised to the power of ten?

[Siri: ]
The answer is… one,
zero, zero, zero, zero, zero,
zero, zero, zero, zero, zero,
zero, zero, zero, zero, zero,
zero, zero, zero, zero, zero,
zero, zero, zero, zero, zero,
zero, zero, zero, zero, zero,
zero, zero, zero, zero, zero,
zero, zero, zero, zero, zero,
zero, zero, zero, zero, zero,
zero, zero, zero, zero, zero,
zero, zero, zero, zero, zero,
zero, zero, zero, zero, zero,
zero, zero, zero, zero, zero,
zero, zero, zero, zero, zero,
zero, zero, zero, zero, zero,
zero, zero, zero, zero, zero,
zero, zero, zero, zero, zero,
zero, zero, zero, zero, zero,
zero, zero, zero, zero, zero,
zero, zero, zero, zero, zero,

[daily log: walking, 7km]

Caveat: not not choose

"I am my choices. I cannot not choose. If I do not choose, that is still a choice. If faced with inevitable circumstances, we still choose how we are in those circumstances." – While this quote is widely attributed (as an English translation) to Jean-Paul Sartre, I can't seem to validate it in any kind of original French-language text. Certainly he said something similar, though.

[daily log: walking, 2km]

Caveat: segmentation issues

I don't have much to offer today. I was being obsessive with a computer thing, and didn't give myself time to think of a post for blogland. So here's this.

"When all you have is a database, everything looks like a segmentation problem."

I have not idea how to attribute this quote. It circulates online.

[daily log: walking, 4.5km]