Bons Mots

 

Image result for constellation airplane air france

 

I’m reading this novel Constellation, about a French plane trip gone wrong, but the damn thing is in French, so I have to keep reaching for the dictionary.

I looked up the word estiver and was not helped by learning its definition was “estivate.”

So I looked that up in my Oxford dictionary (where it’s “aestivate,” maybe because they’re British or something) and was enchanted by the definition: to spend the summer in a state of torpor.

How have I gone my whole life without knowing this word?

Image result for eddie cochran summertime blues

 

I also learned another word flipping through the pages (le YOLO, c’est moi). I honestly don’t understand how we don’t see it all over the place:

 

 

Starstruck

 

Occasionally I will pause my lessons to remind students that the cosmos is not easy to comprehend.

The other day I had kids take out sheets of loose leaf and turn them sideways. I instructed them to draw a (small) Sun at one end, and, a thumb-width away, a (smaller) Earth. Then I asked them to estimate where the nearest star lay in relation.

I offered a candy bar as a prize for the most accurate estimation.

 

Image result for hershey bar

 

I collected the sheets and, laughing between mouthfuls of chocolate, told the students they’d need paper that extends from their desks to the Cambridgeside Galleria.

Yea, for as they shall know our galaxy’s enormity, so too shall they rue my cheap trickery!

Then I showed them this short video, about going to the desert to construct a properly scaled map of the Solar System. The guys who did this really are ingenious.

 

 

 

School of Rock

 

The principal goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done; men and women who are creative, inventive and discoverers, who can be critical and verify, and not accept, everything they are offered.

-Jean Piaget

 

Embed from Getty Images

 

What keeps this teacher awake at night isn’t Common Core State Standards or 21st Century Skills or Educating the Whole Child or Social and Emotional Wellness or etc, it’s this: what am I doing to help the next Johnny Marr?

Here’s what Marr had to say about his teachers in his autobiography, Set the Boy Free:

He was an eccentric man who brought a big green parrot called Major to school with him every day. Major was a big talker and had a cage in the classroom, and every hour Mr. Quinlan would let him fly around the room, causing mayhem and landing on pupils’ heads.

Eccentric man? Check. But I don’t have a parrot, dammit.

Continue reading “School of Rock”

Initials B.B.

 

The other week my friend Ben sent me the obituary of Y.A. Tittle, remarking he was surprised to learn the man was not long dead. This naturally made me think of Algeria’s first president, Ben Bella.

 

Image result for ben bella

 

You see, just that morning I’d read the following passage about the coup that deposed him:

Ben Bella is said to have been killed. To have been wounded. To be alive. To have been not wounded, but ill. Everything is reported, since nothing is known. One version has him on a ship anchored off Algiers. That version is confuted by a report that they are holding Ben Bella in the Sahara, at an army base. According to another view, he is still staying at the Villa Joly…

Everything is possible, since nothing is known.

The most common version is the official one: that Ben Bella is in Algeria and being well treated. It might even be true.

 

That’s from “Algeria Hides Its Face,” by Ryszard Kapuściński. Seeing as he’d written it in the mid-1960s, I decided to find out what finally happened to Ben Bella.

I must add that my hopes were not high; mortality in 20th century Algeria was not overly characterized by natural causes.

So I was pleased to learn that the official version was more or less true. Ben Bella died in 2012.

 

 

Base Fiddle

 

Occasionally you learn something astonishing. The other day I was in the midst of Mathematics for the Nonmathemetician* and read this:

There are people who campaign for the adoption of base twelve, because it offers special advantages.

I mean, this is America. There’s a lot you can say about the place, but it does not lack for heterogeneity of the mind. Yet I have never heard – or even heard of – anyone saying “You know what? We need to get rid of our base ten numerical system and replace it with base twelve.”

 

Image result for dozenalism

 

Turns out I’ve led a sheltered life.

Dozenalists aren’t cranks or crotchety anti-metric grouches. We just find the dozenal system easier, more efficient, and otherwise better than the decimal. This is a reasonable opinion well founded in the facts.

Don Goodman, The Dozenal Society of America

 

 

*I could use more books like this, e.g. Conversation for the Nonconversationalist, Patience for the Nonpatient, etc.

 

I Can’t Explain

 

Image result for golden record

 

Because this record did not actually promise any sales, there was little incentive for any corporate entity, particularly a recording company, to accelerate the approval process. I asked Jon Lomberg if there was anything missing from the Voyager record for this kind of reason. “The Beatles,” he responded instantly. All four members of the band wanted “Here Comes the Sun” included – but their publisher wouldn’t grant the rights.

-Jim Bell, The Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty-Year Voyager Mission

 

I watched some of the Ken Burns Vietnam documentary and what’s been indelible is the Marine saying, regarding a most unhappy matter, that he did not know how to explain it so that it made sense.

That sentiment less unhappily came to mind reading the above excerpt. Imagine trying to explain to the heptapods (or etc) such a situation. On the bright side, said situation does illuminate various aspects of human ingenuity.

Personally, my incomprehension regards the quadrofabs. I’d have been all “Uh, guys… You know you have a song called ‘Across the Universe,’ right?”

 

PS “Across the Universe” eventually did go interstellar.

 

Triomph

 

There is so much crap in this world, and then, suddenly, there is honesty and humanity.

-Ryszard Kapuściński, The Soccer War

 

If you were to recommend a band to me, and describe them as a Thai funk/surf soul trio, my central nervous system would probably execute some sort of armadillo maneuver.

And if you were to utter the dread words “jam band,” it would then summon the officer with the football.

 

Mercifully Professor Missionjmk used none of the above to recommend Khruangbin. I attended their show Saturday night and holy moly they were good. Easily the best Thai funk/surf soul jam band trio I’ve seen from Houston.

 

 

Seriously, they are the real deal, and they are on tour now.

 

 

Pettifoggery

 

If we do not speak ill of the dead, who will?

-Harold Bloom

 

Embed from Getty Images

 

Of all the horrors of late, not least is Tom Petty songs everywhere. It had been bad enough to hear them only occasionally.

Into the bargain words like “genius” are being used to describe him. Gentle Reader, we need some unpleasant fact-face interface: Tom Petty’s music is not good.

(And that’s just the music. His lyrics are mere text. Bloom wept.)

E.g. “Learning to Fly” is gemlike insipidity. “I Won’t Back Down” is an artless slog. “Running Down a Dream” seems the work of the Anti-Euphony League.

Etc.

It mystifies me how he hung out with Bob Dylan and Randy Newman yet remained, at least compositionally speaking, unimproved.

Do I have nothing nice to say about him?

Oh, alright. He declined to sue the Red Hot Chili Peppers, which does indicate a generosity of spirit, one that I would certainly lack where the Red Hot Chili Peppers are concerned.

 

 

What Happened?

 

Factually, if you had told any of us who worked with President Clinton as he prepared for his first summit with Boris Yeltsin in 1993 where the Russian economy, Russia’s government, and Russian relations with the United States were going to be in 2017, we would have been appalled.

Larry Summers

 

I had my students write about the most fun thing they did over the summer. One, from South Korea, wrote about playing video games, and mentioned the slowness of the Internet here. This struck me because the night before I’d watched a PBS documentary on the Battle of Chosin. Imagine the bewilderment of those Marines if you’d told them that in a couple of generations South Korea would have a superior technological infrastructure to America’s.

 

Kigali City Tower (credit: Adam Cohn)

 

Twenty-one years ago I was in Rwanda. Had you told me that today there’d be a national fiber optic network and universal health care, I’d have told you to lay off the waragi.

 

 

 

The Brink’s Job

 

Image result for greek philosophers

 

The Greeks of the sixth century and earlier were intellectual pioneers. It was the first time that they or anybody else began, as one historian has put it, “to think of space, time, man, and the state in any clear and coherent manner.”

David Fromkin, The Way of the World

 

I was at a party last night talking to a couple who mentioned some concerts they’d seen at a local arena. The man added that they’d also seen the Lipizzaner Stallions.

“Now that’s a name for a band,” I said, but they explained it was actually the horse show.

Anyway, when I got home, I picked up the New Yorker and started reading “The Risk of Nuclear War with North Korea.” Based on last night’s sleep, I probably should have read about dancing horses instead:

Brinkmanship, according to Thomas Schelling, the Nobel Prize-winning economist who pioneered the theory of nuclear deterrence, is the art of “manipulating the shared risk of war.” In 1966, he envisaged a nuclear standoff as a pair of mountain climbers, tied together, fighting at the edge of a cliff. Each will move ever closer to the edge, so that the other begins to fear that he might slip and take both of them down. It is a matter of creating the right amount of fear without losing control. Schelling wrote, “However rational the adversaries, they may compete to appear the more irrational, impetuous, and stubborn.” But what if the adversaries are irrational, impetuous, and stubborn?

 

Modest though my contribution may be, I owe it to the ancients to think about space, time, man, and the state in a clear and coherent manner. And so I ask:

How come you always hear about brinksmanship, but never a brinksman? Seems like The Brinksman should be a cool spy novel or a series about a Victorian rake or something. I could read it before bed.

 

Image result for victorian gentleman

 

(Google informs me that, alas, The Brinksmen has been taken for a band name.)