Never Cease Not Forgetting the Alamo

Civilians who take handgun training in Texas shoot at human outlines. The practice fits the tool to its purpose, which is felling humans. The shooter aims for center body mass — a generous sweet spot housing vital organs. Fifty rounds inside number “8” of the concentric circles scores perfect.

As a bombardier trainee in WWII, my dad learned to take apart and assemble a .50-calibre machine gun while blindfolded. “It has 70 pieces,” he wrote home.

In his adolescence he had been shot in the abdomen by a law officer. It was accidental. The officer, a friend, had been demonstrating a quick-draw maneuver to my dad.

In my youth there were a rifle and shotgun in the house, but no handguns. “Too easy to wave around and shoot someone,” my dad decreed.

Living in a pistol-packing culture in 2021 triggered those memories, and a reflection. My country gives each girl and boy their war: granddad WWI; dad WWII; his cousins Korea; my cohort Vietnam; my son, a Navy nurse, the ongoing Bush wars; and so on.

Always shun lapse of recollection of the sacred massacre. What rallies to the cry dressed in flags doesn’t look like civic virtue; more like a cherished grudge stalking a human shape to settle scores with.

(c) 2021 JMN

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Neruda XCI

La edad nos cubre como la llovizna,
Age covers us like drizzle,
interminable y árido es el tiempo,
interminable and arid is time,
una pluma de sal toca tu rostro,
a feather of salt touches your face,
una gotera carcomió mi traje:
a falling drop etched away my suit:

el tiempo no distingue entre mis manos
time does not distinguish my hands from
o un vuelo de naranjas en las tuyas:
a flight of oranges in yours:
pica con nieve y azadón la vida:
life chops weed with snow and with the hoe:
la vida tuya que es la vida mía.
that life of yours that’s my life too.

La vida mía que te di se llena
This life I gave to you fills up
de años, como el volumen de un racimo.
with years, like the massing of a bunch of grapes.
Regresarán las uvas a la tierra.
The grapes will make their way back to the earth.

Y aún allá abajo el tiempo sigue siendo,
And even there below time keeps on being,
esperando, lloviendo sobre el polvo,
waiting, raining down on dust,
ávido de borrar hasta la ausencia.
avid to erase its very absence.

Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada. Cien sonetos de amor
1924, Pablo Neruda y Herederos de Pablo Neruda
1994, Random House Mondadori
Cuarta edición en U.S.A: febrero 2004

[English translation by JMN.]

(c) 2020 JMN

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Make Us Better. Great’s Gone

From the confines of a rural burrow (!) in a republic reeling from 4 years of accelerated decline, the notion of national greatness has the consistency of a heat mirage.

Still, it comes as a shock, amid a pandemic, that 42 countries do genetic sequencing better than the United States.

Confirmation of reinfection [of COVID-19] requires genetic sequencing of paired samples from each episode to tell whether the genomes involved are different.

But the U.S. lacks the capacity for robust genetic sequencing, the process that identifies the fingerprint of a specific virus so it can be compared with other strains. Jeff Zients, head of the federal covid task force, noted late last month that the U.S. ranks 43rd in the world in genomic sequencing.

(JoNel Aleccia, “Why the U.S. is underestimating COVID-19 reinfection,” Kaiser Health News, 2-8-21)

<Sigh>. We used to better at scientific stuff.

(c) 2021 JMN

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Ether, Either, Eater

I’ve had a unique opportunity to parley with a friend over how the intervocalic “d” sounds in Spanish word endings such as “-ado,” “-edo,” “-ido,” “-odo,” and “-udo.”

English-speaking students of Spanish will tend to say such endings with the English “d” sound. It’s the sound Americans commonly produce when saying such words as  “letter,” “butter” and “eater” — phonetically described as a voiced alveolar flap.

The sound required by the Spanish endings is a voiced dental fricative, similar to the sound of the “th” in words such as “bother,” “leather” and “dither.”

It arose in our discussion that my friend had trouble recognizing the difference between the unvoiced dental fricative sound of English words such as “ethical,” “method” and “lethargic” versus the voiced variant in the “bother-leather-dither” trio. 

The phonetic symbol for the unvoiced variant is the Greek letter “theta”; the symbol for the voiced variant is the Old English and Icelandic letter “eth.”

When the Spanish word endings mentioned above are pronounced with the English flap “d” sound, a word such as Spanish “todo” (“all”) may be misunderstood as “toro” (“bull”).

A similar instance is furnished by Selena’s song transcribed as “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom,” where she was probably singing what Spanish would write as “biri biri bam bam.”

I’ve devised a fun game for my friend. There are 3 camps: the Ether camp, the Either camp, and the Eater camp. 

Which of the following English words belong in each camp?

matter, pithy, father, mythical, feather, otter, nothing, rather, frothy, other, monolithic, utter, northern, north, southern, south, fodder, Etheridge, fritter, Carthage, nether, oath, later, thistle, wither. (Hint: The Ether camp has 11. The Either camp has 8. The Eater camp has 6.)

Which of the following Spanish words belong in each camp? (Translations provided merely to satisfy curiosity.)

lodo (“mud”), moro (“Moor”), pero (“but”), vampiro (“vampire”), nudo (“knot”), estampido (“bang”), loro (“parrot”), módulo (“module”), matador (bullfighter), lirio (“lily”), nítido (clear-cut). (Hint: The Ether camp has 0. The Either camp has 6. The Eater camp has 5)

Note: In the Castilian dialect spoken in much of Spain, the Ether camp would be populated with words such as enlace (“link”), pozo (“well”), and raza (“race”). For my friend and me, that’s a discussion for another day.

(c) 2021 JMN

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Shiny Objects and Hot Takes

When I re-read my EthicalDative posts at a later date they often seem overly arch or frivolous — less trenchant and cleansing than they felt at the moment of posting. “Stale” is the word to describe them, I suppose, with its meaning of “horse urine.”

Elizabeth Kolbert, who writes cogently about the environment, says:

Being a journalist is a bit like being a magpie. You’re always on the lookout for something shiny — a phrase, a fact, an insight — and you never know where you’re going to find it.
(“Please Don’t Ask Elizabeth Kolbert How She Organizes Her Books,” NYTimes, 2-4-21)

In Kolbert’s statement, substitute “journalist” with “blogger who asserts an interest in language” and I swim into view.

I resonated likewise to columnist Farhad Manjoo’s recent confession to being left in the viral dust:

… I was far from alone in finding the GameStop saga compelling. By the time I was set to write my column this week, the story had already gone supernova, lighting up seemingly every corner of digital media… I was chagrined to find that every hot take I could think of had already been heatedly taken.
(Farhad Manjoo, “Can We Please Stop Talking About Stocks, Please?” NYTimes, 2-3-21)

Manjoo’s viewpoints are often congruent with mine or easily adoptable. They’re lent force by a perspicacious echoing of trendy lingo.

My burden is to hang ten on the passing shiny-and-hot with a semblance of nervy verve that doesn’t pall by end of day.

(c) 2021 JMN

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‘You Have No Authority Here, Jackie Weaver’

… I was momentarily stirred to hear there were some handbags between Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer in one of parliament’s corridors after prime minister’s questions on Wednesday… According to some reports, the Labour leader was “puce” and “rattled”… I guess it’s fitting that [Starmer] has finally mildly lost his rag in a misunderstanding… No doubt he ran the full gamut of emotions from shirty to tetchy…

… Britain is a majority-nutter nation, and we mostly want to elect politicians with something of the nutter to them… Thatcher and Blair: obvious nutters… Fast-forward to… Johnson. Nutter. The message of the 2016 referendum was the euphoric nutting of David Cameron (non-nutter)… The reason Jeremy Corbyn – full nutter – did better than expected against useless anti-nutter Theresa May in 2017 was simply because he WAS full nutter…

Corbyn… was the wrong kind of nutter. He was not a kindred nutter. As for May… She parked the bus… Nobody wants to watch that… The worry for Labour is that… watching Starmer is just like watching May, or maybe José Mourinho without the eye-gouging… I suspect that even when the nutter of the day has cocked it up, what the nutter-addicted people are always really crying out for is just another nutter, a different nutter, a new nutter to bathe us in nostalgia for whichever previous nutters we currently yearn for… Have you seen the epic parish council meeting video that went viral this week?

(Marina Hyde, “Britons want a bit of drama from their leaders — and Keir Starmer isn’t serving it,”, 2-5-21)

Admittedly this phrasebud nosegay is picked free of context from what Marina Hyde herself describes as her “whimsical” column, and that’s the fun of it — the nutter part.

(c) 2021 JMN

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Dada Besmirched

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

It is radical in its inanity, a legislative chamber designed by dadaists.

No, Ezra Klein! Comparing the U.S. Senate to a Dada design sullies Dada and its legacy.

There’s a better comparison elsewhere in Klein’s essay:

In 2012, Steven Teles, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University, published a paper arguing that American public policy had become defined by kludges. “The term comes out of the world of computer programming, where a kludge is an inelegant patch put in place to be backward compatible with the rest of a system,” he wrote. “When you add up enough kludges, you get a very complicated program, one that is hard to understand and subject to crashes. In other words, Windows.”

Or the Senate.

(Ezra Klein, “The Senate Has Become a Dadaist Nightmare,” NYTimes, 2-4-21)

I encountered the term “kludge” as a novice programmer. I pronounced it to rhyme with “sludge” until I heard it uttered by a real programmer, who rhymed it with “Scrooge.”

From my current perch in the Apple cybersphere I have fondly receding memories of the bad old days of Microsoft Windows. The memories are still vivid enough, however, for me to appreciate the wicked aptness of Klein’s comparison of the Senate to buggy software.

(c) 2021 JMN

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Neruda XCII

Amor mío, si muero y tú no mueres,
My love, if I die and you don’t die,
no demos al dolor más territorio:
let us not give grief more territory:
amor mío, si mueres y no muero,
my love, if you die and I don’t die,
no hay extensión como la que vivimos.
there’s no extension like the one we live.

Polvo en el trigo, arena en las arenas
Dust on wheat, sand on the sands,
el tiempo, el agua errante, el viento vago
time, wandering water, uncertain wind
nos llevó como grano navegante.
carried us like seafaring grain.

Esta pradera en que nos encontramos,
This meadow in which we find ourselves,
¡oh pequeño infinito! devolvemos.
— O little infinitum! — we give back.
Pero este amor, amor, no ha terminado,
But this love, love, has not finished,

y así como no tuvo nacimiento
and so just as it had no birth
no tiene muerte, es como un largo río,
it has no death, it’s like a long river,
sólo cambia de tierra y de labios.
it only changes land and changes lips.

Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada. Cien sonetos de amor
1924, Pablo Neruda y Herederos de Pablo Neruda
1994, Random House Mondadori
Cuarta edición en U.S.A: febrero 2004

[English translation by JMN.]

(c) 2020 JMN

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This is the Cubist revolution: Here, for the first time in Western art since the Renaissance, the world as we see it no longer has primacy. The picture is no longer an act of perception. It’s an act of imagination, with a life and a logic of its own.

Yet Cubism got so analytical that it nearly lost all legibility. To avoid becoming totally abstract, it needed what Braque called certitudes: recognizable hooks from modern life.

(Jason Farrago, “An Art Revolution Made With Scissors and Glue,” NYTimes, 1-29-21)

Farrago’s latest entry in the NYTimes’s ingenious “Close Read” series focuses on Juan Gris’s “Still Life: The Table” (1914).

My first response to Farrago’s elegant art talk is almost always “Well said!” His language sweeps me up.

Then, often as not, there follows a moment of “Wait! But…?” It’s when the faculty that tests pretty words, mindful of my weakness for them, kicks in, and plainer words come to mind.

If the world as we see it no longer has primacy, then depiction presumably gives way to something less — shall we say “realistic,” to use a layman’s term?

Saying the picture is an act of imagination and not perception seems to press the point rather hard. I think perception remains. Could we not say, rather, that the Cubist picture is an imaginative rendering of what’s perceived?

In observing Gris’s still life, Farrago is indeed at pains to point at, and name, the many perceived facts — bottles, newspapers, book, cigarettes — that the painter cleverly incorporated into his collage. They are Braque’s “certitudes.”

It’s a wonderful term, “certitudes,” perhaps my favorite takeaway from the essay. They are the “recognizable hooks from modern life” that helped Cubism stay “legible.”

(c) 2021 JMN

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Away with Wayward Words!

In a dispute with the EU, AstraZeneca’s CEO insists their contract requires only “best reasonable efforts” to meet delivery schedules.

Lawyers disagreed over the language of the E.U. contract, which was only partly made public.
(Steven Erlanger and Matina Stevis-Gridneff, “E.U. Makes a Sudden and Embarrassing U-Turn on Vaccines,” NYTimes, 1-30-21)

Is the dispute over language about style or about grammar? Surely what the words actually say can’t be in contention?

Contracts, after all, are drafted with consummate clarity by highly literate lawyers. Then they are read and vetted exhaustively by all parties prior to the signing.

Of course my comments are crapulent with irony and contrariness to fact. Any agreement that includes phrases such as “best reasonable efforts” is designed (by lawyers) not to be load-bearing or fit for purpose.

For contrast, a doctor commenting on the Johnson & Johnson Covid vaccine says its promised reduction in severe disease is a powerful selling point.

“That’s what you want… You want to stay out of the hospital, and stay out of the morgue.”
(Denise Grady, “Which Covid Vaccine Should You Get? Experts Cite the Effect Against Severe Disease,” NYTimes, 1-29-21)

No mention of “best reasonable efforts.” Just consummate clarity: Stay out of the morgue.

(c) 2021 JMN

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