Monday, July 28, 2014

BIRTH | July 28–John Ashbury (Need for a 5th Dimension)

John Ashbery receives the National Arts and Humanities
Medal from President Obama.
This day in Rochester, NY in 1927 was born John Ashbery. He is a time traveler in the way people thought of it before Einstein's followers started to think of it in scientific terms.

Garrison Keillor today says in The Writer's Almanac:

[Ashbery] grew up on his family's fruit farm near Lake Ontario. He went to a small, rural school, and although they read some poetry, all of it was old. Then he won a contest, and the prize was Louis Untermeyer's anthology Modern American and British Poetry. He didn't understand many of these contemporary poems, but he was fascinated by them — poems by W.H. Auden and T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens.

A generous neighbor, seeing how bright Ashbery was, paid to send him to a good academy for his last two years of high school, and he started writing poetry more seriously. He went on to Harvard, and he published his first book, Some Trees (1956), when he was 29. He has been publishing ever since. His books include Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), A Wave (1984), Where Shall I Wander (2005), and Planisphere (2009).


Keillor describes Ashbery as having been helped by a generous neighbor. Ashbery and David Kermani are neighbors in New York and they have been generous.

An article in the NY Observer says that when Ashbery grew up on a farm, he didn't like it. He preferred living with his grandparents in the city to attend school. His grandfather was a professor at the University of Rochester. When he was 12, Ashbery's younger brother died of leukemia. Ashbery spent most of his time by himself until a wealthy friend of his mother (the "generous neighbor") put up the money for him to finish high school at Deerfield. Ashbery explains:
By that time I had already discovered modern poetry. High schools used to have current events contests sponsored by Time, if the class subscribed to the magazine. They were quite easy. I won the prize of a book. Of the four that they offered, the only one I was vaguely interested in was an anthology of modern American and British poetry by Louis Untermeyer.
Keillor gives us two quotes from Ashbery. One is about the fact that Ashbery's poetry is not easy. People say they don't understand it. Especially freshman students in college or high school who have to read it for their English courses. 
I don't quite understand about understanding poetry. I experience poems with pleasure: whether I understand them or not I'm not quite sure. I don't want to read something I already know or which is going to slide down easily: there has to be some crunch, a certain amount of resilience. [Italics added.]
Dorothy Parker once said: "Millay did a great deal of harm making poetry seem so easy that we could all do it but, of course, we couldn’t." Ashbery tries not to make poetry too easy because he believes  it should stop you in your tracks - he wants his poems to stop you and make you spend some time. Keillor cites Ashbery's poem "At North Farm", which follows. It has a time-travel aspect. 
Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,
At incredible speed, traveling day and night,
Through blizzards and desert heat, across torrents, through narrow passes.
But will he know where to find you,
Recognize you when he sees you,
Give you the thing he has for you? 
Hardly anything grows here,
Yet the granaries are bursting with meal,
The sacks of meal piled to the rafters.
The streams run with sweetness, fattening fish;
Birds darken the sky. Is it enough
That the dish of milk is set out at night,
That we think of him sometimes,
Sometimes and always, with mixed feelings?
The basic problem with the science of time travel is that in order to travel in time, we would need to travel "at incredible speed" - incredible because weight is a function of speed. We would need to be very light, preferably weightless. The only way that science knows how to time-travel so far is in the mind. But that gives us an important degree of freedom.

Physicists have been driven by unexplained phenomena to come up with a hypothetical fifth dimension that could unite the dimensions of space and time. Until they tie up the loose ends, we will have to rely on time-travel in the mind. We will have to rely on poetry.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

WED | Jane Hwang & Gus Staknevicius, Korean-Style

Jane's mother leans forward in the p'ye-baek wedding ceremony.
The wedding coach provides them all with information on next 
steps. Couple is properly respectful before their four parents.
Note friendly paparazzi at right. Photo by JT Marlin.
Alice and I were privileged to attend a traditional Korean wedding, with a few American modifications, last weekend.

Jane Hwang, Director of Corporate Programs and Training for Social Accountability International, was married to Augustas (Gus) Staknevicius in a Western wedding with the bride in white.

Traditionally, a Korean wedding is held at the bride's family home. But when 250 guests are expected, as in this case, the wedding is often held outside the home, in a yard or hall. Every big Korean city now has a wedding hall, permanently decorated for this purpose, usually in a luxury hotel. Some cities have buildings dedicated to weddings with multiple halls for the purpose.

You can't see the bride's
face in the first photo above,
so I add one of Jane that I
took in 2013 or 2012.
The wedding in this case was in the gorgeous Asian area of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden at 1000 Washington Avenue in Brooklyn, with a chamber group playing at and after the ceremony. The hill-and-pond setting gave a peaceful backdrop to the ceremony presided over by a Christian minister.

At the reception afterwards, the bride and groom changed into traditional Korean court dress. While Koreans traditionally have been restricted in wearing the outfits required at court, on the day of their wedding anyone is allowed to dress up in this way.

In a Korean-American ceremony, vows are often made first in a western ritual and are then followed (after an interval in which the bride and groom change their clothing!) by a traditional Korean kunbere ritual. The bride and groom bow to each other and seal their vow by sipping a special wine poured into a gourd that was grown by the bride's mother. In the p'ye-baek ceremony the bride and groom offer dates and chestnuts, symbolic of fertility and children, to the groom's parents, while sitting zen-like at a low table filled with other symbolic offerings to the parents. The parents in turn offer sake or other drink to the children.

As a final gesture, the parents throw the dates and chestnuts back at the bride. (Meaning? "Your turn"? "The kids are your responsibility"?) The bride tries to catch the fruit in her large wedding skirt. This part of the ceremony reminded me of the Social Accountability International SFRR training game used, for example, in Brazil, where the players try to keep a tennis ball from rolling off a sheet.

In the Korean-American adaptation of the p'ye-baek, it is commonly held at the reception, with the bride and groom in full Korean costume. This part of the ceremony is usually hosted by the groom's side where both the bride and groom are of Korean origin. The throwing of dates and chestnuts is the highlight of the event.

Korean wedding banquets can be very simple: Noodle soup is the only required dish. In fact, the wedding banquet is called kook soo sang, or "noodle banquet." The Hwang-Staknevicius wedding offered the guests just about every delicious food imaginable except noodles, but maybe I just didn't look hard enough.

The couple's "wedsite" is well done and might be useful to look at for other couples, so I provide the URL - Since the wedding is over, I think, the content has been erased.

Note to those who think traditional weddings are sexist or otherwise not PC: I have not mentioned that the Korean ceremony is traditionally preceded a few days before by a visit by the prospective son-in-law to the bride's parents' house, where a trunk full of gifts is delivered by a merry group in the guise of a sale. This is by way of the prospective groom to ask for permission to marry, in an amusing way. The young couple today does not have to ask their parents for permission to marry, under contemporary laws or conventions, at least in western countries. What they can do that makes traditional weddings fit into contemporary life is for the prospective son-in-law to ask for the bride's parents' blessing. They could do the same for the groom's parents.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Thursday, July 17, 2014

100 Years of the Garden Club of East Hampton - Superseded

Superseded - Merged with Chapter 7.
This post remains up to preserve links.

Monuments Unveiled to 14 RAF Airmen Who Crashed 70 Years Ago

Top photo shows two of the relatives of the crew of the MZ 684, JT Marlin (your
blogger), nephew of Willem van Stockum, and Pamela Turney, great-niece of Fred
Beales. The newly unveiled monument to the 70-year-old crash is in Entrammes.

Two monuments were unveiled on June 10 in memory of the two planes downed that early morning on a mission in the Laval area.

One was at a pear farm in Entrammes, Mayenne. It was dedicated to the MZ 684 Halifax bomber and its crew. The pilot was Willem J. van Stockum, my uncle.

The other was at Saint-Berthevin, dedicated to the MZ 532 Halifax bomber and its crew.


Uncle Willem was the person who brought my parents together. He roomed with my father at Trinity College, Dublin in 1929-32. When my father discovered that Willem had a sister, he set about wooing her.

They were married in 1932, had their first child in 1934 (my sister Olga will be 80 this year), and ten years after they were married they got me (#5 out of 6 children).

When Uncle Willem died in 1944, a light went out in the lives of my parents. It was unspeakably tragic for them and for my Granny who lived with us.

"Time Bomber", by Robert
Wack, centered on the life
of W. J. van Stockum.
When we came to visit the graves in 1954, the 13 RAF-administered British and Commonwealth graves had tombstones. My uncle's grave just had a simple wooden cross. I remember my mother burst into tears because she couldn't understand why her brother was singled out for not having a tombstone. It turns out it was because Willem was still a Dutch citizen (he was seconded from the Royal Canadian Air Force but he had applied for American citizenship). The Dutch Government had asked my mother what she wanted to have on the tombstone and she said: "Greater love hath no man..." The tombstone arrived in due course, but my mother never came back to see it. My brother Randal and I have been back several times. The Dutch tombstone is very impressive, but it does not have on it the epitaph that my mother requested.

On the other hand, my uncle is the only one so far of the 14 members of the crew to have a book written about him - Time Bomber, by Robert Wack. I recommend it. The story is based mainly on factual material about my uncle and the life he led until it was ended. The additional elements that have been added to the story, what we could call the sci-fi meta-story, make several important points that are hard to discuss any other way.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Americas Society Gives Alexander von Humboldt His pre-Darwin Due

The unusually complete catalog for the Humboldt exhibition
 at the Americas Society. The once-in-lifetime show reveals
just how good Humboldt was at taking snapshots of nature.
Darwin acknowledged a huge debt to Humboldt. We see
 the best scientific work on ecology before Darwin changed it
all, adding the fourth dimension of time to Humboldt's 3D. 
The Americas Society, founded by David Rockefeller in 1965, had an extraordinary exhibition in July at its handsome Headquarters, 680 Park Avenue (68th Street) in New York City.

Art and documents have been assembled relating to the life and discoveries of Alexander von Humboldt. Before Darwin came on the scene, he is said to have been second only in European fame to Napoleon Bonaparte.

He is the first European to have ventured into many parts of Central and South America and, in the words of the great liberator Simón Bolivar, he "dragged the Americas out of ignorance".

This comprehensive exhibition brings works of art from 30 different institutions. It took two years to assemble.

The exhibition is guest-curated by two experts on Latin America, Georgia de Havenon and Alicia Lubowski-Jahn. The curators also served as editors of the 168-page hard-bound catalog, which reproduces many of the works of art and includes essays and a chronology of Humboldt's life.

Humboldt, Alexander von [Credit: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin—Preussischer Kulturbesitz]
Alexander von
Humboldt at
work (1769-1859).
In the catalog, for example, Jay A. Levenson compares Humboldt favorably with Christopher Columbus as the New World's second great explorer. The difference between them is that Humboldt was a scientist and brought back a wealth of flora and fauna, sketches, and detailed measurements, not just information about the trade potential. Humboldt spent the rest of his life compiling all the information he and his French co-explorer collected on a five-year trip (1799-1804) to Central and South America.

In the following short bio of von Humboldt, I summarize the lengthy exposition in the online Encyclopedia Britannica and add some information from other sources. Then I append some personal comments.

Humboldt's Childhood and Education

Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander, Freiherr (Baron) von Humboldt was born on September 14, 1769 in Berlin, son of an officer in the army of Frederick the Great.  His mother was a strict Calvinist from a Huguenot Protestant family that left France for Germany in 1685, after Louis XIV foolishly revoked the Edict of Nantes - thereby taking back his earlier promise of religious liberty for the Protestant minority that kept the economy growing.

After their father’s death in 1779, Alexander and his brother Wilhelm von Humboldt were raised by their mother. She had the boys privately tutored in political history and economics as well as the usual courses in Latin, Greek, modern languages, and mathematics. Alexander was frequently ill as a child and initially was a poor student. He was so restless he considered following his father into the Prussian Army.

His meandering university career included four institutions of higher learning:
  • University of Frankfurt an der Oder, a much smaller city than Frankfurt am Main. It is an hour by train east of Berlin, on the Polish border. Humboldt spent a year here studying economics. He considered it a waste of time. If he was lucky, his curriculum would have centered on the French Physiocrats and Adam Smith.
  • Berlin - a year in Berlin studying engineering and developing his passion for botany.
  • University of Göttingen (1789-90) - a year of discovering science. 
  • School of Mines, Freiberg, Saxony - two years of hard work, every morning in the mines, followed by about six hours of classes in the afternoon. In the evenings he hunted around for plants.
Leaving Freiberg in 1792, he obtained an appointment in the Mining Department of the Prussian government and departed for the remote Fichtel Mountains in the Margraviate of Ansbach-Bayreuth. Here Humboldt traveled among the gold and copper mines, reorganizing the neglected pits. He supervised all mining activities, invented a safety lamp, and established, with his own funds, a technical school for young miners.

South America 

Humboldt decided that his real aim in life was scientific exploration. In 1797 he resigned from his post to learn acquire the techniques of geodetic, meteorological, and geomagnetic measurement. The political upheavals caused by the Napoleonic Wars created obstacles to travel. Eventually he succeeded in obtaining permission from the Spanish government to visit the Spanish colonies in Central and South America. These colonies were then accessible only to Spanish officials and Roman Catholic missions. Humboldt’s high social standing helped. The Spanish prime minister Mariano de Urquijo supported his application to the king for a royal permit.

In the summer of 1799, he set sail from Marseille with the French botanist Aimé Bonpland. Money left by his recently deceased mother enabled Humboldt to pay for the entire expedition. The two explorers spent five years, 1799-1804, in Central and South America, covering more than 6,000 miles on foot, on horseback, or in a canoe. It was a physically challenging life:
  • From Caracas they travelled south through grasslands to the Apure, a tributary of the Orinoco River. They went by canoe to the Orinoco. Following its course, they discovered that the Casiquiare River connected the vast river systems of the Amazon and the Orinoco. Both travelers, excited by their discoveries, remained healthy, but on their return succumbed to fever. 
  • Cuba was next. 
  • Then from Bogotá to Trujillo through the Andean Highlands on a path, now followed by the Pan-American Highway, that was then narrow, rocky and steep.
  • They climbed the volcanoes near Quito, Ecuador. Humboldt’s climb to 19,286 feet, near the top of Chimborazo (20,702 feet), remained a world mountain-climbing record for nearly 30 years. Humboldt and Bonpland did this without the help of modern mountaineering equipment and suffered badly from mountain sickness. Humboldt was the first to figure out that mountain sickness resulted from lack of oxygen at high altitudes. 
  • The western shoreline - Humboldt studied the oceanic current off the west coast of South America that was originally named after him but is now known as the Peru Current. 
  • Guayaquil to Acapulco, Mexico, in 1803. 
  • The United States, where Humboldt was received by President Jefferson and passed on his string views about the inhumanity of slavery.
  • Then they sailed for France. Humboldt and Bonpland returned with an immense amount of plants and data - longitudes and latitudes, measurements of the components of the Earth’s geomagnetic field, and daily observations of temperatures and barometric pressure, as well as statistical data on the social and economic conditions of Mexico. 

During the next quarter-century, 1804-1827, Humboldt published the data from the South American expedition, working mostly out of Paris. He had the support of French scientists, engravers, and publishers for the 30 volumes into which the scientific results of the expedition were assembled, including:
  • Meteorological data, with mean daily and nightly temperatures, and Humboldt’s representation on weather maps of isotherms (lines connecting points with the same mean temperature) and isobars (lines connecting points with the same barometric pressure for a given time or period), which helped create the science of comparative climatology. 
  • Geographical data on each region’s flora and fauna, and his conclusions from the study of the Andean volcanoes concerning the role played by eruptive forces and metamorphosis in the history and ongoing development of the Earth’s crust. These conclusions disproved the idea that the surface of the Earth had been formed by sedimentation from a liquid state. 
  • Geology and mining in Mexico, including descriptions of the country’s political, social, and economic conditions, and population statistics. He cried out against slavery but remained unheard. However, his descriptions of the Mexican silver mines led to more investment in them by English mining capital. 
In Paris, Humboldt developed friendships with the renowned physicist and astronomer François Arago, and younger scientists whose studies he supported, such as the German chemist Justus von Liebig and the Swiss-born zoologist Louis Agassiz. About 8,000 of his letters remain.

Humboldt's Later Years 

Humboldt's money ran out in 1827, ending his extremely productive years in Paris. In order for him to get paid by the King of Prussia, Frederick William III, he had to return to Berlin, where he remained for the next 32 years until his death. The King hired Humboldt to be a tutor to the Crown Prince, who would become Frederick William IV in 1840.

Humboldt gave a course on physical geography to professors and students of all faculties at the University of Berlin, and a public lecture to more than 1,000 people. In the autumn of 1828 he organized in Berlin one of the first international scientific conferences, in the face of suspicions that he was rabble-rousing by democracy-wary Prussian rulers.

In 1829 Humboldt was invited by the Russian minister of finance, Count Yegor Kankrin to tour gold and platinum mines in the Urals. The condition was that he held his tongue about politics, and just to make sure Humboldt was shadowed by a guard from the Czar. The entourage travelled in carriages to the Altai Mountains and the Chinese frontier. The resulting observations were of great importance, because Central Asia was then largely unknown in the West.

Humboldt spent the last 30 years of his life in Berlin, with an annual visit to Paris. Even before his visit to Russia, he had returned to investigating magnetic storms. The German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss had begun to organize observatories in Germany, England, and Sweden. Mofre were needed, so in 1836 Humboldt asked the Royal Society in London that it establish permanent observatories in Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, and an Antarctic expedition. With the help of their data, English geophysicist Sir Edward Sabine correlated the appearance of magnetic storms in the Earth’s atmosphere with sunspot activity, proving the extraterrestrial origin of the storms.

During the last 25 years of his life, Humboldt was chiefly occupied with writing Kosmos, a summary of what was known about the structure of the universe. Within a few years, the first four volumes had been translated into nearly all European languages. While working on the fifth volume, Humboldt died in his 90th year, on May 6, 1859, in Berlin.


Several people in the catalog ask a basic question that I paraphrase as: "Given the path-breaking nature of his explorations and the extraordinary skills he showed in assembling his data (for example, showing the differences among flora and fauna at different levels of altitude), why did Humboldt's reputation go into eclipse after his fame in the early 19th Century?"

Certainly, Humboldt compares favorably with Christopher Columbus, as Levenson points out, yet Columbus's light never went out.

I think there is a one-word answer to the question - Darwin. Twenty years after Humboldt, Darwin set out on his own explorations. He was looking for data to answer a much more sophisticated question than Humboldt. Darwin was not interested just in describing and analyzing what he saw. He was trying to figure out the "origin of species" - how each species got to be what it is - how it "evolved".

In other words, he saw each part of nature as having a prior history, from which one could project a future. He added the fourth dimension of time.

When, in the same year that Humboldt died, the first edition of The Origin of Species was published, suddenly the study of nature took on another layer of complexity. Darwin was the vogue world-wide into the 1880s. In Darwin's theory of natural selection, the passage of time was added to the static pictures that Humboldt presented - the past and future. Evolution helps explain present-day nature by reference to the past. It also allows us to prepare for and affect the future.

Darwin gives mostly full credit to Humboldt when he describes the influences on his own work, but then in later life he ascribes a flaw to Humboldt, namely a lack of originality. This claim of lack of originality may be unfair. Even geniuses are lucky to be at a stage in history where enough  groundwork has been done that an original theory can make all the difference. Darwin was right earlier in life when he shared the credit with Humboldt because Humboldt helped him to ask the right questions and to collect the right data.

If we think of scientific theory itself as an evolving process, Darwin needed a Humboldt and other explorers similarly dedicated to making their findings accessible to other scientists. A precondition for development of his theories was a catalog of flora and fauna that would permit Darwin to see patterns in the data.

We need to keep in mind the enablers, the meticulous data-gatherers and assemblers who make possible theoretical advances. Other people with different skills can see things in the assembled data that the data gatherers themselves may not. In that way, science advances...

From my seven years in the Federal Government in Washington, another 13 in NYC Government, and a lifetime of observing the data they produce, I have to say that data collectors and data users can sometimes constitute a static mutual-admiration society that is external to the real world. But when the system works as it should and data collectors are properly independent of data users, it encourages the best in both groups.

Darwin's own reputation went into relative decline in the period of the 1880s to the 1930s. But in the 20th century the theory of evolution was seen as the key to progress in the sciences and Darwin's theories have helped unify knowledge. Humboldt's vision of the Unity of Nature finally becomes  orthodoxy through the work of Darwin.