Sunday, August 31, 2014

From Here to Where?

Elgo American plastic bricks.  Favorite indoor toy, not made since the 1960s.

Last week here at your favorite literary oasis we went from a western rural Kentucky county to Purgatory (which we found is in Ireland, surprisingly).  Today's trip is much more neck-snapping, so hold on.

In a blog that I read regularly, a mention was made of an article about why there is little variety in ketchup while mustard comes in hundreds of choices .  Malcolm Gladwell penned this information-packed essay for the September 9, 2004 issue of the New Yorker.  I didn't have all the time I do now to read about such things back then and so missed it, and of course I'm curious about the imbalance between the two standby condiments. 

That was only the beginning point to a fascinating short history of the successes and failures of food industry moguls, marketers and scientists.  And there is genius behind the genesis of some particular brands and styles of products that are enduringly popular with many people; all the research, investment, data and experimentation does sometimes go awry without the inspired insight that is only present in a few of us .  And the greatest of them all, after Henry Heinz (who completely changed ketchup from its insipid, thin original state into what is, and probably always will be, the standard) was one Howard Moskowitz.

Pepsi, when considering using artificial sweeteners in the early 1970s, asked him to find the perfect amount of sweetener.  It was already known to be somewhere between 8 and 12%.   Doing the usual research, Moskowitz found that the data was all over the place, which led him to the first of his eureka moments:  that there was no perfect one in this case; it's plural (the beginning of why there are 500 varieites of everything today).  Penetrating insight and creative thinking must run in his family; he's descended from The Seer of Lublin, Polish rabbi Yaakov Y. Horowicz, who was known for his exceptional intuition and miracle-working, with the added gift of repairing souls.  (But he died in 1815 after falling from a window -- didn't he see that coming?) 

Moskowitz went deeper with the problem he tackled for Prego spaghetti sauce, which was trying to compete with industry leaders.  He found segements of taste and preference which could be addressed only with new products.  People then divided in their choice of plain or spicy sauce; Moskowitz, thinking of how Heinz forever captured his market by making ketchup much thicker, recommended chunky spaghetti sauce after finding out that there were actually three general preferences, one of which no one in the industry had thought of.  Launched in 1990, it was, and is, very successful.  I highly recommend reading the article online to learn about how achieving the "unity of taste" makes a product universally popular.  Hint:  Coca-Cola starts with a dark vanilla taste and, like Heinz ketchup, rolls back along the tongue revealing other flavor notes in the most pleasing order.  Imitation colas hit a citrus or cinnamon note first and don't develop.

Here's the hook:  without the internet, I'd never have come across this, the science and psychology of which I think is pretty interesting, and pursued the subject so easily.  Even though the monthly bill from Verizon seems high, it really delivers a lot of value if you make regular use of it.  I think what the travel, time, expense and effort required would be to find odd items like a cartrige for your old printer, or just find things out, without our worldwide web.

So, to flip it over, what do you miss about the pre-internet world?  When there were only two to five broadcast channels, before cable, we certainly had a lot more time to spend otherwise than in front of a screen, and those activities probably involved more activity and deeper engagement.  The same goes for the use of all of our internet devices.  Now that I can, for example, find a book or record from my old "look for" list effortlessly and with a great chance of success, it seems to take the challenge out of it.  Found on a library give-away table a few years ago, an old copy of  the novel South Wind in excellent condition still makes me smile in a way that ordering it with two clicks on could not.  I also miss the relative anonymity one can maintain in an old world of paper records that might be inaccessible or lost.  Now, of course, everything about you isn't mostly yours anymore.  So, you get falsely personalized marketing and scam communications daily, and they can track you like a wolf following a rabbit.

Your average wired 11-year-old today probably won't agree (because they don't take these surveys), but the Five Best Toys of All Time (as of 2011) are:
           a stick,
           a box,
           a cardboard tube,
and...  dirt.

Say what you will, virtual dirt in a video game just can't compare.


My all-time favorite dirt-moving toy.  Real metal, too.



Monday, August 18, 2014

Going Down

I guess it's easy to take most everything for granted, but I enjoy looking for, and being surprised to find out, where things come from, or even the origin of names of things.  Hickman County, Kentucky, for an odd example, where my brother- and sister-in-law live, is named after a young Army officer who met an early end on the frontier; but digging deeper you can find that the surname originally meant "Richard's man," in that "hick" or some variant of it was a nickname for Richard.  What if you could find out who this Richard was, and when and where?  But that's probably going a little far.

Literary scholarship and history often consisted of hunches, apparent similarities, or guesses before discoveries, archaeology and other sciences gave hypotheses a firmer, more factual foundation.  We still haven't figured out about Shakespeare or the origin of the Etruscans or the Basques, but someone is still looking into it.  While we may never find any more written or recorded evidence about the real Bard, DNA is an astonishing tool for finding out where peoples came from and moved on to.  Another example:  I knew there was a significant area of Romania populated by Germans brought there for their faming and mechanical skills, and recently found out I'm related to them.  This particular descendant of migrants is probably fortunate to be in New Cumberland rather than there, but that's the luck of the draw.

If you think of what inspired the writers of timeless classics, it's often the Bible or the legacy of the ancient world rediscovered during the Renaissance.  Take the Divine Comedy.  We're aware that the ancient Greeks believed, and expressed in their myth and writing, in a descent of the dead into a dismal underground.  This was woven into Christian doctrine, like so many other pagan tales, and came to be regaded as unquestionable, revealed truth.  Since Dante had completed all of this work he was going to by his death in 1321, very early in the Renaissance, that would seem to be it.  The story's origins may not have such a clear line, though.

One of the few things we know about the Druids and religion of the ancient Celts, other than it being based on nature, is that they saw the universe as comprised of three circles:  heaven, purgatory, and hell.  When the first Christian missionaries entered Ireland, Wales and Brittany at the end of the Roman Empire, they could not dislodge these beliefs and so incorporated them.  Somehow they did manage to remove women and nature from any status in the equation over time, despite both being supreme in the native culture.  The churchmen of Ireland and the rest of the Celtic fringe were both educated and fearless travelers, and took their own hybrid version of Catholicism all over the European continent (even to uninhabited Iceland before the Danes!), especially to the centers such as Rome and the early universities.  So, the definitive and detailed work on heaven, hell and purgatory, by an Italian poet, may well have inserted Celtic myth/religion into Christianity permanently.

Entering St. Patrick's Purgatory

The was a real, physical Purgatory on an island in Lough (lake) Derg, County Donegal, Ireland, by a monastery that was active and occupied from the fifth century to the seventeenth.   It was a small cave, or pit, said to be only about six steps deep, and closed off by a heavy locked door.  Probably from ancient times it was feared to be the mouth of hell, after its orignal purpose as a storage pit or sweat lodge for cleansing and purging was long forgotten.  The legend is that St. Patrick, irritated that those he was preaching to wanted some proofs, gave permission for his doubters to enter in the purgatory pit to stay there overnight (for a total of 24 hours), and report back what they experienced.  And it not only wasn't just a cramped, damp stay, it was horrifying and made believers out of those who returned.  Not all did, they say; some were hopeless sinners and went right on to hell.

Many pilgrims followed, from the Isles and the continent, but the first written accounts are from the early 12th century.  One bad character, the Knight Owain, was either sent or got permission from his bishop to sample purgatory there, and his account (actually written by monk Henry of Saltrey) from around 1150 was translated into French and was popular over Europe.

There came there devils on every side,
Wicked ghosts, I wote*, from Hell,
So many that no tongue might tell:
They filled the house in two rows;
Some grenned** on him and some made moans.

So related our reformed knight, after a preparation of two weeks of fasting, praying and sleep deprivation, which was the standard procedure.  No wonder he saw visions.


Station Island, Lough Derg, today.  The bell tower over Purgatory is on the grassy area to the left.

The cave was closed in 1632 by the English government, and is today covered by a bell tower, but the pilgrimages continue -- 8,000 people in 2011 alone.

So from storage pit, to sweat lodge, to place to be feared, to saintly legend, to literary work, and finally to dogma, we have the origin story of the idea of Purgatory. 

All the horrors thou wilt not get to know
Which Hell's inmates suffer.
Pleasant sins end in painful penalties:
Pain ever follows pleasure.

*   = I have seen
** = (?)


Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Trespassers Will Be Dealt With

I enjoyed a documentary on National Geographic Channel the other night entitled "Urban Jungle," about the spread of suburbia and the adaptation to it by wild animals.  There were 1,000 bear sightings in Tahoe last year, and as we probably already knew, it also stated that deer, coyote and raccoon populations were at record highs.  It's said the native Americans thought of animals as the equals, or betters in some cases, of humans.  We don't, but they proving to be so much smarter than us bipeds.  Think of that squirrel you can't stop from getting all the birdseed in your feeder, even if you haven't encountered the other three in your yard yet.  In California and the Southwest, people have learned the hard way not to leave pets outside at night or without safe shelter:  the coyotes will get them, and you will hardly know it.

There were two short segements about housecats defending their home territory that were pretty astonishing.  One faced down an alligator, and another went all medieval on a little bear, who turned and ran.  Cats seldom consider their small size when confronting a threat; in their minds they must be big and bad-ass when they need to be.

Our four-year-old cat Blackberry surprised us a day after the Nat Geo program.  He was in the back room at around 9 p.m., cooly resting on the floor and surveying his domain, when he suddenly got up into the stalking stance, close to the floor, with tail poofed and ears laid back.  He advanced on the back door and began a startlingly loud growl, then stood up and batted the glass with his paw.  We couldn't see anything out back on the deck until we turned on the light, revealing the white cat who lives a block away, just sitting there.  Mr. Berry was having none of that.  With the light coming on, the other cat slipped away, as Blackberry ran full tilt upstairs to observe from the bedroom window.  It took a while for him to calm down from this blatant invasion of his territory.

He knows exactly what's going outside, what is serious and what can be ignored, even though his only trips outside the house have been twice to the vet.  He has his own rules about what is permissible there, too:  he agrees to remain calm and polite after getting over the indignity of being put in his blue travel cage, but draws the line at getting his temperature taken.  That isn't going to happen.

Blackberry also has his own priorities about what constitutes a threat.  Unknown people -- and he knows a different vehicle pulling into the driveway immediately (big eyes, tail down) --  cause him to head quickly and quietly as possible down into the basement, where he opens the door to the storage room with his paw, to hide under the old bunk bed.  Other cats, well, that calls for a confrontation through glass or screen and full on ninja ready-to-attack mode.  He always knows when they're out there, even if still out of sight.  Squirrels, rabbits, him, they're no big deal.  But he's our little hero.