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One of England’s Freedoms

Tuesday, January 15th, 2019

[ by Charles Cameron — an amused defense of sacred measures such as the foot, yard, and acre — against the atheistic and idolatrous metric system ]
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You can trudge uphill, you can run up hill and down dale as the saying goes, you may march from pillar to post, church spire to spire, you may follow ancient foot- or bridle-paths or ley lines — all these, if pursued on foot, are covered by the word rambling, and in England, if you follow well-trodden or half forgotten paths, it’s your right. It is one of England’s freedoms.

**

Sam Knight, in the New Yorker a couple of days ago, The Search for England’s Forgotten Footpaths:

Nineteen years ago, the British government passed one of its periodic laws to manage how people move through the countryside. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act created a new “right to roam” on common land, opening up three million acres of mountains and moor, heath and down, to cyclists, climbers, and dog walkers. It also set an ambitious goal: to record every public path crisscrossing England and Wales… [ .. ]

Between them, England and Wales have around a hundred and forty thousand miles of footpaths, of which around ten per cent are impassable at any time, with another ten thousand miles that are thought to have dropped off maps or otherwise misplaced. Finding them all again is like reconstructing the roots of a tree.

Now that’s all numbers, and numbers are, d’oh, quantitative. The thing is, walks in the English countryside are primarily qualitative affairs, with mud, styles to clamber across, flash thunderstorms and after-storm greenery, oaks with mistletoe or a thousand rooks high in their branches, willows, snails, birdsong, conversation with a friend or two.. Plato, Brahms, Ann Patchett, Feynmann, Hitchcock, .. with picnics and sandwiches along the way..

Freedom!

Qualitative beats quantitative all to smithereens.

**

If you look at the photo that accompanies Sam Knight‘s New Yorker piece [above], it belies the “unremarkable walk in the English countryside” mentioned in its caption — clear on the horizon is Glastonbury Tor, hardly an unremarkable location for English walkers.

Ever since my friend the late British hedgerow philosopher John Michell [above] — hedgerow and British Museum Reading Room philosopher, that is — wrote his startling best-seller The View Over Atlantis [below] —

— ever since that book appeared, new-agers and ramblers have rambled along ley lines and in search of standing stones — I was one such rambler, along with Michell himself and our mutual friend, the photographer Gabi Nasemann, though I fear I was the slowest and most complaining in our small party — where was I? — Glastonbury Tor has been a sort of seekers’ central for those whose imaginations project ley lines — equivalent to Chinese dragon-paths — across the actual lay of the land.

Another friend, Lex Neale, penned this piece, Glastonbury: King Arthur’s Field, giving an overview of Glastonbury and the supposed zodiac spread out around it —

for my then guru’s in-house magazine, lo these many years ago. By then I was in America. And we were young.

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Why do I so love my memories of John Michell?

He was a William Blake returned, wrong by the mechanical standards of the age, right in imaginative reach.

It was in the Spring 1978 issue of CoEvolution Quarterly that I first read the text of John‘s A Defence of Sacred Measures. He’d published it as a pamphlet — the first in a series of “Radical Traditionalist Papers” to which our mutual friend the recently deceased Heathcote Willians also contributed — Heathcote {below] —

do watch this clip, it’ll only take three minutes of your lifetime, and they’ll be three minutes well-spent! —

— and Stewart Brand must have snagged it for CoEQ. Anyway, you can get the gist from the full title, in the format the pamphlet gave it, as you may have seen at the head of this post:

I’m deeply grateful to Zenpundit friend Grurray for pointing me to that cover and the full text of John‘s essay, which my own web searching hadn’t turned up. Grurray took particular pleasure in this excerpt:

the use of the foot locates the centre of the world within each individual, and encourages him to arrange his kingdom after the best possible model, the cosmic order. The ancient method of acquiring this model was not astronomy but initiation

For myself, it’s John‘s description of the cubit and sundry other measures — and their rationale — that gets me:

Cloth is sold by the cubit, the distance from elbow to finger tip, and other such units as the span and handbreadth were formerly used which have now generally become obsolete. Of course no two people have the same bodily dimensions, and the canonical man has never existed save as an idea or archetype. These traditional units are not, however, imprecise or inaccurate. Ancient societies regarded their standards of measure as their most sacred possessions and they have been preserved with extreme accuracy from the earliest times. A craftsman soon learns to what extent the parts of his own body deviate from the conventional standard and adjusts accordingly.

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Oh, you may think this all a pretentious, anachronistic attempt to revive a moribund system. But consider this, from the LA Times in 1999:

NASA lost its $125-million Mars Climate Orbiter because spacecraft engineers failed to convert from English to metric measurements when exchanging vital data before the craft was launched, space agency officials said Thursday.

A navigation team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory used the metric system of millimeters and meters in its calculations, while Lockheed Martin Astronautics in Denver, which designed and built the spacecraft, provided crucial acceleration data in the English system of inches, feet and pounds.

As a result, JPL engineers mistook acceleration readings measured in English units of pound-seconds for a metric measure of force called newton-seconds.

In a sense, the spacecraft was lost in translation.

The Times assumes the correct procedure would have been “to convert from English to metric measurements” — but who says? One might equally argue the translation should have gone from metric to English.. the mother tongue, so to speak.

John Michell would lead us along that path..

Knowledge, London cabbies and American sommeliers

Friday, October 26th, 2018

[ by Charles Cameron — inheritor of yet another form of knowledge]
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  • NYT, The Knowledge, London’s Legendary Taxi-Driver Test, Puts Up a Fight in the Age of GPS
  • New Yorker, The Cheating Scandal That Has Shaken the World of Master Wine Sommeliers
  • **

    For Bates it came down to a lifetime of knowledge. “While many questions may seem simple taken on their own, it is really about the amount of information needed to correctly answer one question. For example, if a question was asked about the location of a village in Germany, knowing where that one village is located is a very small part of the preparation for that question. To be sure to get that one question correct, I had to learn every major wine producing village in Germany, broken down by region, in order from north to south and west to east, with 2 or 3 of the most important villages in each. In order to be able to recall that information on demand, I had to learn to draw a map from memory of every wine growing region in the country. All that for the sake of be able to answer one or two questions that, out of context, may not have been all that hard.

    McCabe turned east on Coldharbour Lane, wending through the neighborhoods of Peckham and Bermondsey before reaching the tunnel. He emerged on the far side of the Thames in Limehouse, and from there his three-mile-long trip followed a zigzagging path northeast. “I came out of the tunnel and went forward into Yorkshire Road,” he told me. “I went right into Salmon Lane. Left into Rhodeswell Road, right into Turners Road. I went right into St. Paul’s Way, left into Burdett Road, right into Mile End Road. Left Tredegar Square. I went right Morgan Street, left Coborn Road, right into Tredegar Road. That gave me a forward into Wick Lane, a right into Monier Road, right into Smeed Road — and we’re there. Left into Stour Road.”

    **

    In early September, fifty-six nervous sommeliers in pressed suits and shined shoes assembled at the Four Seasons Hotel in St. Louis, Missouri. They were there to attempt the most difficult and prestigious test in their industry: the Master Sommelier Exam, a three-part, application-only ordeal that just two hundred and forty-nine individuals worldwide have passed—fewer than have travelled to space.

    It’s not enough to know every wine region, village and district in the world, candidates also need to know which years were better than others for each region. The blind tasting of six wines requires not only identifying the grape varietal, but the region it came from and the year it was made. That’s merely scratching the testing surface though; during the service portion examinees have to recall facts about sake, spirits, distilling methods, apertifs and of course ideal food pairings.

    Knowledge of cigar production, with special reference to Havanas, will be required.

    **

    When trees leave, they find a spot where the sunlight can get through despite the existing leaves, and put out a leaf there.

    Suggestion: find, on the limb, branch, and in time, twig of the tree of knowledge you feel most passionate about, a space nobody else is occupying, and know it — in the kind of detail a knowledgeable cabbie knows London, or a master sommelier the aperitifs, wines, beers, ciders, liqueurs, brandies, whiskeys and cigars of the world.

    It’s worth a try.

    **

    esto nobis praegustatum
    in mortis examine.

    In the case of such Knowledge as most concerns us, the examen is still to come.

    King Canute, Imperial Beach, CA, and rising tides

    Monday, October 22nd, 2018

    [ by Charles Cameron — a coastal California town has learned the lesson King Canute either taught his nobles or learned the hard way himself — but what can anyone do about it? ]
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    Okay, here’s the first para of Can a California town move back from the sea? Imperial Beach considers the unthinkable: a retreat from nature:

    At the start of each year, Southern California gets a glimpse into a future of rising seas, through an annual event called the king tide. On that day, the sun, moon and Earth align to create a heavy gravitational pull, leading to the highest tides of the year. If “king tide” sounds ominous, that’s because it is, particularly for a city like Imperial Beach, a small coastal town near the Mexican border surrounded by water on three sides: San Diego Bay to the north, the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Tijuana River Delta to the south.

    It doesn’t hurt that there’s a king reference there either, from my POV — because?

    **

    Because King Canute.

    As a Brit, I was introduced to King Canute at an early age, along with every last one of the other Kings and Queens of England — and their dates — memorize them! Americans, however, have shaken off the dust of kings and queens, and may not know the tale of King Canute and the waves. Was he, as my gold-embossed, colour-plated richly patriotic children’s book had it, an imperious royal who set his chair in the sand before the incoming tide, and not about to lose one inch of English sovereign soil to the waves, dared the Atlantic to encroach on his royal prerogative?

    Or was he, as Henry of Huntingdon, the original chronicler of the tale has it, a humble and wise, one might say ecologically sound king, who set his chair in the sand to demonstrate to his fawning and flattering courtiers that look, not even my royal command can overrule the laws of God — or Nature?

    **

    So, back to the humbling question — rising tides?

    Currently an anomaly, the king tide is a portent of things to come. Researchers warn that, due to myriad factors including the Earth’s rotation, California will deal with even higher sea-level rise than other locations, as the atmosphere and oceans warm. The oceans are now rising at a faster rate than any time since the last Ice Age, about half an inch or more per decade. While much of this is understood by researchers and informed readers, very little has been done by coastal cities to confront this slow-moving catastrophe.

    And Imperial Beach in particular?

    That is what makes Imperial Beach so interesting. Here, at the southernmost beach town in California, in an obscure corner of the United States, one small city is asking: What if we just got out of nature’s way?

    **

    Sources and readings:

  • High Country News, Can a California town move back from the sea?
  • The Sun, You Canute be Serious

  • Wikipedia, King Canute and the tide
  • New York Times, Major Climate Report Describes a Strong Risk of Crisis as Early as 2040
  • ipcc, Global Warming of 1.5°C
  • Metaphors v, We use sports terms all the time

    Sunday, August 12th, 2018

    [ by Charles Cameron — I’m not the only one thinking sports metaphors are important, though I’ve been collecting a whole lot more examples ]
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    There’s a NYT article — We Use Sports Terms All the Time. But Where Do They Come From? — as you see, tucked away in the Sports section, which I’d really like to transport over here whole, because it’s a sports metaphor article, not a sports article, and sports metaphors are a specialty du maison here at ZP.

    Let’s see if I can ferret out the gist:

    We’re talking about sports idioms, those everyday phrases ingrained in our lexicon, handed down from generation to generation. We use these terms all the time, without really knowing where they came from. Some of their origins are pretty clear: front-runner, on the ropes, the ball is in your court. But there are many others whose provenances are not so apparent.

    The world of sports is a particularly fertile ground for such terms, said Katherine Connor Martin, head of U.S. dictionaries at Oxford University Press. “Sports are written about and discussed a lot, and so have generated a great deal of colorful, specialized vocabulary. And competition exists in many other spheres of life, so sports terms are well suited to be borrowed into other domains, such as business or politics.”

    **

    **

    As I’ve suggested, the whole piece is a rich trove of materials for the sort of exploration I’ve been working on. Just a few minutes ago, as it happens, I heard someone on TV say in regard to the 2020 presidential election:

    If Michael Avenatti wants to throw his hat into the ring, great.

    As it happens, throwing one’s hat into the ring is one of the examples the NYT piece explores a little deeper. Their example:

    In The New York Times: Mr. Mahathir threw his hat in the ring in the recent national elections. Opinion, May 12.

    Their comment:

    Back in the days when boxing was a quasi-legal, rough-and-tumble affair, fighters and even spectators who had an interest in getting into a bout would signal it by tossing in a hat. It’s mostly used now in the rough-and-tumble field of politics to announce that one is running for office.

    Its first use, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, came in The London Times in 1804, in its literal sense: “Belcher first threw his hat into the ring, over the heads of the spectators.”

    Throwing in the towel would be, I suppose, the equal and opposite phrase..

    **

    Other examples they went into in similar detail:

    Wild-Goose Chase

    We need to get a little lost, pursue “productive and instructive disorientation, distraction, wild-goose chases, dead ends.” Book Review, June 4.

    Throw in the Towel

    Anthony Barile, the owner of this wood-oven veteran where other pizza-makers honed their skills, said he was tired and throwing in the towel after nearly 26 years. Food, March 27.

    Out of Left Field

    It was so out of left field and something so different than anything I’ve done. Movies, July 6.

    Hands Down

    Sue is, hands-down, the best at this. I would marry her in a minute. Television, June 21.

    Wheelhouse, Strong Suit, Forte

    One of the many subspecialities within Wright’s wheelhouse is Italian glass. Arts, April 17.

    and so forth, Back to Square One, Across the Board, and my favorite as a Brit:

    Sticky Wicket

    But ad-driven nostalgia is a sticky wicket. Australia, Feb. 7.

    **

    **

    That last quote, under the Sticky Wicket header, was from Australia, a little far from New York. The writer Victor Mather writes, almost as an apology for straying so far afield:

    “Cricket is the U.K.’s baseball,” when it comes to the lexicon, Ms. Martin said. It’s beyond our purview to get into British English too deeply here; there are British alternatives for many terms in American sports.

    I don’t know, however, that any American can suggest a baseball term or phrase as beautiful as the British cricketer’s triple pun:

    bowling a maiden over

    Over and out.

    Greed can do it as easily as Religion — or Time Itself

    Sunday, July 22nd, 2018

    [ by Charles Cameron — the passing of time is theft is the passing of all things ]
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    Here’s a quick stop-motion movie of the Temple of Bel, Palmyra, in four powerful frames.

    The Temple was originally gloriously decorated..

    null

    That’s Palmyra’s divine triad: Baalshamin, with the Moon god Aglibol on his right and the Sun-god Yarhibol at left, discovered at Bir Wereb, near Palmyra, 60 cm high (Louvre, Paris) (photo: Emmanuel PIERRE, CC BY-SA 3.0)

    The Temple was, in fact, until recently, an impressive ruin..

    null

    That’s the Temple of Bel, Palmyra, Syria, in a photo by Bernard Gagnon, GNU license.

    But then ISIS used explosives for a sacred demolition..

    null

    Credit for this and the final image goes to Reuters

    …and now there’s not much remaining of the glory..

    null

    End of film, end of story — setup for the point I want to make.

    **

    Stuff gets made or born, stuff lives or exists.. stuff dies, fades, crumbles, evaporates.. sometimes stuff is reboorn, salvaged, gets a second life..

    Consider the great temple of Angkor Wat, buit by Khmer artists, partly destroyed by centuries of weather and overgrowth, pock-marked by the bullets of insurgents & army.. now given a second life as a tourist destination.. Consider Tibetan mandalas, chalked out in detail, painstakingly painted in sand, then swept away, proof of impermancence..

    Well?

    **

    The establishment of monotheism in Egypt was accompanied by royal command with the destruction of what we might now call religious and cultural works —

    In rebellion against the old religion and the powerful priests of Amun, Akhenaten ordered the eradication of all of Egypt’s traditional gods. He sent royal officials to chisel out and destroy every reference to Amun and the names of other deities on tombs, temple walls, and cartouches to instill in the people that the Aten was the one true god.

    — in a manner that calls to mind some of ISIS excesses, their destruction of the Temple of Bel, for a recent and striking instance.

    **

    Indeed, places of worship have not infrequently been torn down:

    Lord what work was here! What clattering of glasses! What beating down of walls! What tearing up of monuments! What pulling down of seats! What wresting out of irons and brass from the windows! What defacing of arms! What demolishing of curious stonework! What tooting and piping upon organ pipes! And what a hideous triumph in the market-place before all the country, when all the mangled organ pipes, vestments, both copes and surplices, together with the leaden cross which had newly been sawn down from the Green-yard pulpit and the service-books and singing books that could be carried to the fire in the public market-place were heaped together.

    That’s from England — which suffered under Cranmer (Reformation) and Cromwell (Civil War), both of them politically influential Puritans.. who between them made ruins of many British abbeys — think Glastonbury, Fountains, Walsingham..

    Well, all that’s background, simply to establish that time’s river allows for the buildup by a wide variety of means and sweeping away of all manner of things animate and ootherwise, in a continual flux, a continual emergence, a continual impermanence..

    **

    But my point, remember?


    Photo credit: via Trib Live

    My point is that the thief of Pittsburg’s unique and valuable book antiquities deprives us of treasures of the mind in much the same way that ISIS does with its explosives in Palmyra. In the latter case: impassioned religion; in the former: simple greed.

    Appraisers discovered missing items and books that had been “cannibalized,” with entire portions removed, according to the affidavit.

    and the alleged thief:

    is charged with theft, receiving stolen property, dealing in proceeds of illegal activity, conspiracy, retail theft, theft by deception, forgery and deceptive business practices.

    Items of high value and greed, idolatry and iconoclasm — the cutting up of books from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh including a copy of Newton’s Principia is nend ot in the too different from what ISIS’ Kata’ib Taswiyya batallion did to Palmyra.

    Not too different, either, from the activities of Tibetan monks.. or, I suppose, wind, rain, and a thousand years..

    **

    Percy Bysshe Shelley:

    I met a traveller from an antique land,
    Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
    Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
    And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
    And on the pedestal, these words appear:
    My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
    Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.”


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