Tuesday, December 19, 2017

War Is Sweet

War Is Sweet for Those Who Have Not Tried It
and other timely proverbs.

Larry Struck

Sometimes a pithy saying tells you everything you need to know. Instead of detailed analyses or extensive debate of an issue, a well-placed proverb can cut to the core. So it is with the Adages of Erasmus, a collection assembled by the Renaissance scholar that gathers the wisdom of ancient Greece and Rome. In its day, the early 1500s, the Adages was a best seller and much better known than the work he is today best remembered for, In Praise of Folly, also worth a look.

War is sweet for those who have not tried it can be traced back over 2500 years when warfare was mainly a brutal hand to hand business. By comparison, modern cyber-based war may seem clean and thrilling to spectators who don’t have flesh in the game. It was apparently as easy then as now for an inexperienced leader to unleash the dogs of war with a terrible order leading to distant human destruction. Erasmus comments, “By his will the world is to be thrown into an uproar with wars and slaughter, all things sacred and profane are to be turned upside down.”

The bad behavior of an unfit leader, and the example it sets, can leave us wondering whether this is some kind of Machiavellian design worked out by grown naughty boys. Or are we dealing with a different beast altogether whose dark nature is more frightening? Good question. Not mutually exclusive views, but our contemporary tendency to psychologize disorders and then prescribe therapy or meds contrasts with earlier ages that would agree with the saying, A crooked branch, never straight. This older fatalistic attitude holds that a twisted or warped character can’t be expected to bear good fruit, allowing that even a broken clock is right twice a day. Erasmus believes that “the evil prince…either knows nothing, or what he knows is how to bring about public disaster.” Such a leader would be clouded in mind and far removed from conventional notions of honesty or honor. Citizens should ask if clinical deviance spares him from the penalties for treasonous conduct in a nation of laws.

How would such an impetuous leader gain the support of his people? If not through forced submission to a tyrant, then more democratically by guile or public persuasion aided by the contortions of sympathetic media. A ruler’s subjects would be led by the nose to do or think as they’re told, even if believing it was their own free choice. The image comes from oxen, cattle or horses that are led by a ring through the nostril. A manipulative leader skilled in oratory or just plain fakery to get his way can be said to sell smoke. Our more modern smoke and mirrors also points to empty promises, illusions or flattery, whatever helps make the sale.

Consensus makes it easier to govern, but finding common ground with others who look too extreme or delusional is tricky. Dialogue is usually recommended as the key to communication and resolving differences. But suppose either party to the conversation can’t understand or just isn’t interested in working toward solutions. They may seem to be paying attention, nod and even make an occasional comment. Maybe they’re acting a part to show cooperation while in fact not caring at all about what’s said since their own agenda is already set in motion. Or they could just be clueless and out of their depth. An ass (listening) to the lyre captures some truth here: a donkey will twitch its ears as if appreciating music or understanding speech. Point being that donkeys are always twitching their ears so it doesn’t mean they understand a thing. Pearls before swine is a similar biblical example. A more recent variation comes from George Bernard Shaw: The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.   

It’s not surprising that so many dysfunctional traits would have dire implications for an organization or country led by toxic individuals. An old expression that vividly depicts the result, A fish rots from the head down, has become a favorite with management experts. While the description may not be biologically accurate--innards and heart may go first—it still rings true. The person(s) at the top of an organization will be responsible for deteriorating standards and performance throughout.  It’s a situation that stinks.

Erasmus offers a few thoughts in a more constructive vein. “The first requisite [of good leadership] is to judge rightly about each matter, because opinions are like springs from which all the actions of life flow, and when they are contaminated everything must needs be mismanaged.” To do this, “the mind of the prince must be freed from all false ideas so that he can see what is truly good.” No doubt it’s an uphill battle for the rare individual who can follow this advice while fighting the everyday stormy sea of troubles, not to mention those slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

If a leader--whether of a state, project, or family--can withstand the daily onslaught of media overload, innovative disruption, and enemies’ dirty tricks, then there’s a chance for a fresh start. Well begun is half done. Sometimes just tackling an unappealing job is the hardest part; made worse if you have to play defense at the same time. However if instead of making a good beginning a leader rushes off in the wrong direction then others are left with a needless mess to clean up later.  As Kurt Vonnegut would add: And so it goes…

The advice and wisdom we take from proverbs cover every corner of life, from shameful depravity and comic weakness to heroic triumph. An entire society looking for guidance could do worse than heeding: Between friends all is common. Although this maxim can
be taken as justification for sharing everything, private property and all, it really suggests the basis for social responsibility and general welfare: for all citizens to be able to meet basic needs and have a chance for a happy life with a little help from their friends, us. But what’s the plan to get that done? Ay, there’s the rub!

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Our New Era of Clowns and Creepiness

Originally published 12/08/2016. MinnPost.com

What do clowns and politics have in common? In these brave new times we may well ask. Lately there has been a peculiar craze about “evil clowns.” I’m not referring directly to the recent presidential election. Instead there are apparently grinning, menacing clown characters wandering among us that make people nervous. OK, maybe we are into the political arena just a bit.

The recent presidential contest has left many citizens struggling to understand the grim outcome. It may not be possible to predict the erratic behavior of a uniquely unqualified leader and his fawning followers, but we can make out an emerging zeitgeist that is becoming the new normal. Let’s go deep for a moment with creepiness.

Some witnesses to an evil clown sighting report a feeling of creepiness, uneasiness bordering on danger. While ordinary clown behavior would seldom be seen as threatening, the bad variety can apparently give us the chills by going against type, seemingly happy and entertaining but with a dark, sinister side (think The Joker). Now suppose there’s more to this creepiness meme than just a passing pop culture fad.

Related image

According to recent psychology research [New Ideas in Psychology 43 (2016) 10-15, and others] a thing or person will seem creepy if we think they could pose a threat, but we’re not sure. That uncertainty sets off our personal alarm bells or makes our “skin crawl.” Unlike a clear and present danger that we would turn and run from, the creepy presence can remain nearby and be part of our everyday world. So the weird neighbor with a taxidermy hobby may be amiable, though creepy, but a drunken knife-wielding attacker is nothing but hostile, bad for us in every way, and we flee.

Both alien and familiar

In his work on the related concept of the “uncanny” (unheimlich), Sigmund Freud suggests that we experience an eerie recognition of something both alien and familiar. We relate to what is creepy because it’s part of us, yet somehow distorted or unnatural. Key to Freud’s general theory of the unconscious, the uncanny represents part of ourselves that we’ve repressed but has come back in an unpleasant form to haunt or torment us.

Something else that gives us the creeps has to do with things that violate natural boundaries or disturb our settled categories [David Livingstone Smith, Aeon, Sept. 19]. A mannequin can look quite human but is clearly not alive. Horror movies are filled with unsettling images like a dog with a talking human head or trees that come alive with limbs that reach and grab. Clowns or other figures that wear masks seem spooky because we can’t tell who they really are or what they mean to do.

When we think of creepiness it’s these kinds of things that stand out: odd personal encounters or bizarre fictional images. Social media, trolls and all, also provide ample opportunity for creepy behavior thanks to the false personae that users are free to hide behind. Now consider the emerging U.S. political climate and cultural milieu, not forgetting that we ourselves contain potential for creepiness.

There’s something about the recent turn of electoral events that has many of us on edge, disgusted or creeped out. At the same time we might see ourselves and fellow citizens, through complacency or elitist negligence, partially to blame for this unprecedented dismal state of affairs. More could have been done for those economically left behind who now cheer for the new mandate. We and our representatives should have taken a more generous worldview, and now must bear partial responsibility for this surreal, yet preventable, outcome. As the old comic strip character, Pogo, summed it up: We have met the enemy, and he is us.

So are we dealing with a psychoanalytic syndrome writ large, a mass unconscious breakout producing high anxiety? Or is it a social dynamic that could have been reasonably predicted given better humility and inclusiveness? Once we move past our current stunned depression over the new status quo, a thorough debate about these issues would be therapeutic, leading from denial through bargaining and acceptance to action (apologies to Kubler-Ross).

Mood of dread will likely recede

In the near future we would expect that everyday transactions in business, education, relationships and community will mostly continue as usual. The world won’t stop revolving even though an ominous new weight has been added. The ship of state, barely manageable in the best of times, now has the added drag of mean-spirited leadership, inept at administration and driven by crass impulse.  But a widely shared initial mood of dread and paranoia, so well captured by David Remnick ["An American Tragedy," The New Yorker, Nov. 9], will likely recede with the ebb and flow of daily affairs. 

On the other hand, American normality could change to match those dire expectations and morph into crisis conditions. The contemptuous mentality taking control of government is capable of all manner of destruction, which looks to be the goal: dismantling health care for millions, undermining educational quality, depriving citizens of civil rights, starting trade (or shooting) wars abroad, and driving the economy into a ditch for all but the 1 percent.

Grandiose claims to the contrary, loss of jobs and opportunity should not be surprising, particularly among the new regime’s true believers. Presidential appointment of horribles to top government positions can further ensure dysfunction and ongoing damage. Add in a coarsening of public dialogue seasoned with a loose regard for protocol, truth or the law and we see that creepiness, along with fear, dread and disgust fairly define our new political and social reality. A bleak but blunt forecast to produce shame for our country.

In a recent interview [Brian Lehrer, WNYC, Nov. 23], a veteran Italian journalist wanted us to know that, based on his knowledge of Italy’s history and despite our own troubles, America will never succumb to fascism. We appreciate the reassurance and hope his European vantage is prescient. But any observer has to reckon with the vigorous strain of anti-intellectualism (see Richard Hofstadter) in the U.S. where a motto could well be: My ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.  Maybe as appropriate would be Benjamin Franklin’s quip: “We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid.”

There may be clowns among us, but the next several years promise to be no laughing matter.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

What Donald Trump Learned (or not) from Aristotle

by Larry Struck

It would be difficult to imagine a more incongruous pairing of names in a headline than Donald Trump and Aristotle. The above title doesn’t mean that the Donald actually studied Greek philosophy although the ancient one’s name may have passed blankly beneath his eyes as a young enquiring student. As J.M. Keynes is known to have quipped, “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.” Or in this case, philosopher.

The Republican Party in its currently distorted form has been changing the conventional rules of political discourse. As outlined in Jeff Greenfield’s POLITICO piece, Why the GOP Will Never Accept President Hillary Clinton , (8/18/16), conservative leadership has shifted its focus over the past few decades from debating issues to de-legitimizing the Democratic Party opposition. This change of emphasis has altered the tone and substance, or lack thereof, in our national political conversation. Whatever post-November consequences will result for governance and life in the U.S. will be due in large part to this new way of framing the debate, or what amounts to a different rhetorical style. To the extent that campaign advisors craft messages to create impressions and be persuasive, they are practicing rhetoric, which was invented by Aristotle.  Knowingly or not, we are all his students.

Of course there have been a few developments in language and society in the past 2500 years but the original concepts of rhetoric still stand. In delivering a speech, or let’s call it a political performance, there is a speaker, an audience and the speech itself. When Mr. Trump speaks publicly he immediately overwhelms us with his high estimate of his own character, erasing any notion of modesty or measured temperament. Then if he later attempts to dial down this personal bravado or backpedals on an issue trying to appear more reasonable and acceptable it comes across as contrived… a transparent ploy. So a major criterion that voters use to judge candidates is largely lost to Trump since one’s character is not expected to fluctuate like a strange weather forecast. Nor are we used to grandiose candidates who present their qualifications as a foregone conclusion, a contemporary divine right of kings.

Trump fares better addressing his audience of disaffected citizens. This demographic doesn’t seem to be bothered, as yet, by their man’s erratic behavior or condescending manner. Trump knows he has set the hook in this group and believes they will stay on the line through Election Day. His inability to reach other constituencies, however, is another matter and probably a fatal weakness. Minorities are unlikely to respond well to his hostile anti-immigrant positions or lame catch-up appeals, e.g., African-Americans should vote for him because they have nothing to lose.

The political message, platform, or worldview, is usually how we sort and rate candidates, although there is a blending of personality and position.  A “strong” individual will seem less likely to favor cooperative projects—withdraw from NATO—and more inclined to confrontational tactics—get tough with the Chinese. Given Trump’s history of uninformed or erroneous statements, together with an attention span not suited to prolonged deliberation, there is little solid ground on which to judge a hypothetical Trump presidency. But that’s not really an obstacle for his followers who are willing to roll the dice in a desperate act of faith. The Donald will get them a better deal in a somehow better world.

The usual ways of evaluating candidates—who he/she is, what they stand for, who their target voters are—suggest a shaky path to a Trump presidency. So it’s not surprising that his campaign is descending to character assassination, and worse, of his opponent as an election strategy. Why? Rational debate and careful examination of political differences are not Trump’s style and probably doomed to fail anyway. Instead we can expect his resorting to more illogic, blatant fabrication, pettiness and sleaze…the current Trump political brand…in what should candidly be described as a cynical bid for personal power.

 If things don’t work out, and Trump loses his chance to fully unleash his inner demagogue, well, so what?  The Donald has been covering his behind by informing us that the election is rigged anyway. We’ve also been told, just so we know, that in case of losing, either the general election or interest in the whole affair and dropping out prematurely, he can go back to a pretty great life, no doubt supervising beauty pageants and dreaming up new schemes to fleece investors like the very demographic his candidacy is aimed at. Returning to his private TrumpWorld would, in effect, be his middle finger way of saying to the American people, “You’re fired!”

If Trump or his brain trust understood and applied effective rhetorical principles we would now know a lot about the candidates’ differences and have a more productive election cycle. (Aristotle, incidentally, also invented and formulated the discipline of logic which is never a candidate’s best friend.)  As things stand, this presidential contest is revealing a darker but no less true side of American democracy. Either the Trump persona will turn stunningly malleable and hope to cajole or flatter us with new-found contradictory positions, or his campaign will march ahead using a scorched earth strategy to annihilate his adversary. Likely some of both.

Aristotle’s reputation for knowledge and wisdom led him to be recruited as tutor to a promising young man who went on to accomplish great things. Comparing Trump and Aristotle’s earlier young ward yields an interesting contrast. Alexander the Great, no doubt a willing and attentive pupil, went on to conquer the known world. The Donald, on the other hand, is overawed by large buildings, loves the trappings of power and excels above all in admiring his own image.  Hail the new conquering hero.

Thursday, March 31, 2016


The palm trees are always leaning away from the east wind

As we walk down the street here in Aruba, it brings new meaning to the term lean in. It's how you need to brace yourself if you're walking into the wind. Oh, and hang onto your hat, before it goes skittering down the sidewalk.

Sailors have some colorful phrases for the weather in this part of the Caribbean. The climate is remarkably stable, and the wind seems never to stop blowing. Sporty is one description we often hear, as in "It was downright sporty out there today." We also hear "The seas were a mite frisky on our way in." Several new boats have come into the marina, one from New Zealand, on their way back home; some French Canadians bound for Panama; a French boat next door, set to leave for Cartagena in Colombia. It's nice to have neighbors with similar interests to discuss the ever-present topic of weather.

Monday, March 21, 2016

More Life on Aruba - and Boat Fixes

New Horseshoe Buoy with Light

One of the replacement items we needed to buy was a new horseshoe buoy. Our old buoy washed away when we were hit by the rogue wave, and we didn't even notice it was gone until we dropped anchor in Aruba. It was an old safety item and needed replacement anyways. Our new buoy, designed to be thrown to crew overboard, comes with an attached strobe light that automatically activates when it hits the water. Yet another item we should never need, as we are always tethered to the boat with life jackets, and harnesses. It's one of our big fears, that one of us would go overboard. We're well aware of the risks involved.

Monitor Wind Vane Self Steering
Another big project was our Monitor wind vane self-steering. The gears shown at right came out, and we have been hammering the lower teeth back into place, and reinforcing the disintegrating plastic spacing washers with fishing line (!) on the advice of the manufacturer, Scanmar in California. We hope it is up to the rigors of our voyage.

A beautiful bright red crab on the rocks right next to our boat posed for this shot one afternoon.

Swimming Pool at Sunset

Every day we go for a swim in one of the swimming pools or a protected salt water lagoon at the Renaissance Hotel. The sunsets here are one of the most pleasant sights on Aruba, as the sun dips slowly into the ocean every evening.

Enjoying Life on Aruba

Aruba Arikok National Park

While we have been fixing the boat here in Aruba, we have been enjoying the natural beauty of the island. Last week we traveled to the National Park, a large area on the windward (eastern) shore of the island with some friends. Aruba is the driest island we have seen in the Caribbean, and very desert-like. In the two months we have been here, it has rained only once.

Natural Bridge at Arikok

The road through the National Park is part gravel with some paved sections, but there are areas you can only hike or mountain-bike through. We had a driving tour through the desert park, seeing wild donkeys and goats, along with ubiquitous lizards.

On the windy side, the waves crash against the shore almost continuously. We were always aware that this is what we will be sailing out into when we leave Aruba.

Arikok Cairns

The photo on the right gives a feel for the dry conditions on the island. Almost as far as we could see, people have made piles of stones in one area of the National Park.

Quadirikiri Cave

One part of the National Park has a series of caves that look like limestone. The photo on the left reveals the cave with the camera's flash. Windows opening to the sun peek out throughout the cave.

At the northern tip of the island
Up at the northern tip of the island is a lighthouse, under full re-construction. A good view of the western (leeward) shore of the island can be seen, including the big hotels and Orajestad (the largest city on the island) in the distance.

We are fully ready to leave and now just waiting for the wind to come down a bit. We've heard several stories from other sailors who have left and limped back into port, so we want to be sure of our weather.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

We Didn't Make it Very Far

Less than a hundred miles offshore, our first overnight of the four-day (and -night!) sail to the Windward Passage, we experienced unexpectedly bad weather. We entered a trough (which was predicted, with only a passing short squall) that lasted for hours. We had a single reef in our main and about half jib up, and were still sailing at seven knots. The wind was well forward of the beam (much more north-east than east), and the motion on the boat was very confused. After midnight, I made my way forward and put a second reef in the main and rolled up more jib to slow us down some.

About 3 a.m., I was on watch, with my harness and tether on, Larry asleep below decks. A rogue wave hit us broadside, coming up and over the bimini, slamming me against the cockpit lifelines (thank goodness we had installed stainless steel all around the cockpit!). Of course these things never happen during the day. We were hit with such force that the gears on our self-steering unmeshed and suddenly I was steering by hand, buffeted by beam-to waves. Larry was up and leaning over to fix the self-steering. After an hour of this, we determined we couldn't fix it underway and made the decision to turn back.

I got a couple of hours sleep and came up to a steel-grey sky, horizontally-sluicing rain, and perhaps 25 knots of wind, beating into it. We were trying to make it back to Curacao but it was obvious from our track that we wouldn't be able to, that we were headed for Aruba.

Our poor head sail

Once we were able to take stock of the damage and count our bruises and scrapes, we were grateful neither of us was injured badly. Our poor headsail, one of the primary "engines" of our sailboat, was damaged. The blue sun cover was in shreds, and one of the control lines (known as the leech line) was dangling off the trailing edge of the sail. Oh my!

So - here we find ourselves in Aruba, a much windier island to the west of Curacao. We have been seeking a sailmaker to repair our jib, and finally found one who will take a look at it.

Hotel area in the north of the island
Aruba is a very tourist-oriented island, much more so than Curacao. Cruise ships dock every day, and hotels make the island look very much like the coast of south Florida. Marine services for the small boat sailor like ourselves are few and far between.

But - this is where we find ourselves, so we will pursue fixing the boat here!

View from the stern of our boat

We are at the Renaissance Marina, in a protected man-made cove, just past the cruise ship docks. It is interesting to watch the cruise ships come in, with the pilot boats handling their massive dock lines.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Sea Trial, New Lazy Jacks, Self-Steering Problem

Monitor Self-Steering Wind Vane
We have a short delay due to problems found on a sea trial we took on Sunday. The good news: the sails, rig, and engine performed wonderfully. The bad news: we could not get the self-steering to work. On a passage of this length, the wind vane self-steering gear is absolutely essential. When it works, it is brilliant - using only the wind as its energy source, it senses the wind as it comes over the boat, and connects to the tiller, steering the boat on a course we select.

It is not the easiest piece of gear to use on the boat, and we suspect the problem has to do with the gears not meshing properly, and also user error. After all, it has been several years since we have used it.

Rigger Gijs Installing Lazy Jacks
 Last week, we had the local rigger out to our boat to install a system of lines running up the mast called Lazy Jacks. It holds the mainsail in place when we are raising or lowering sails until we can put sail ties around it. It is known as "taming the main sail", and is worth its weight in gold during a sudden squall. That's when we want to drop the mainsail quickly to depower the boat to ride out a storm. In any but the lightest of breezes, the sail can be a handful for the one person on deck making sail changes. We tested it out on Sunday, and it's great to have.
Up the mast with a drill to install the blocks and line

Another pair of boat shoes bites the dust - they've served me well