Thursday, October 13, 2005

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (10/13/05)


Man vs. the animals. In New York's Bronx Zoo is a large mirror in the Great Apes House. When a visitor looks at this mirror--through the realistic bars of a cage--this legend can be seen: "You are looking at the most dangerous animal in the world. It alone of all the animals that ever lived can exterminate (and has) entire species of animals. Now it has achieved the power to wipe out all life on earth."

Stone Age man both worshipped and exploited animals. Through homeopathic magic, early man hoped to acquire the admired traits of animals by eating their flesh: the deer for its swiftness, the dog for its tracking ability.

The ancient Greeks lavished affection on animals, especially dogs, horses and birds. Aristotle produced the first great zoological encyclopedia, his History of Animals, in which he wrote with remarkable insight that animals possessed many of the psychical attributes found in man, the difference being only one of degree.

By contrast, Roman law was harsh when applied to animals. Beasts were private property and regarded as things to be used, or used up, at the owner's discretion--a pagan attitude that was incorporated wholesale into Christian theology. The Romans made the discovery that voyeurism and cruelty had enormous mass appeal. The entire known world was scoured for animals to be used in spectacular contests. The form of combat that stirred the masses most was that between a captured Gaul, a criminal or a Christian and a wild animal.

Although Judaism sanctioned animal sacrifice, the dignity of the animal was recognized and its ritual slaughter was regarded as a tragic necessity--an instance of the distinction that humanitarians still insist on between the ethics of killing and the ethics of hurting.

No subject in the history of man's relationship with animals is more fantastic than the jurisprudence that evolved in medieval times with regard to animals. Bugs, birds, small mammals and the larger domestic animals were supposed to live according to the law and to be familiar with the statutes--a kind of back-handed acknowledgment that animals had a place of sorts in the society of men.

This attitude reached an apex of ridiculousness in the trials of animals accused of violating human law. Such trials took place in France and every other "civilized" country in Europe. Hogs were the principal defendants because they roamed so freely, but other prosecuted animals included ants, asses, bulls, cows, eels, goats, sheep, wolves and worms. Animals were brought to the bar of justice over a long period of time--from A.D. 824 when moles were prosecuted in the valley of Aosta in Italy to 1906 when a dog was sentenced to death in Switzerland.

Ever since human life first appeared on the planet, man has exploited and killed every life form, destroying their habitats and exterminating some species completely, thus diminishing the rich diversity of creatures that inhabited the planet. Even the mightiest of animals is helpless and vulnerable under our onslaught. Through our arrogance and ignorance we have altered the balance of nature. More than that, we may have foolishly destroyed sources of life-saving enzymes and pharmaceuticals that could be saving human lives today.

Uncanny predictions. In August of 2001, a FEMA training session concluded that three major disasters might strike the United States: (1) a terrorist attack on New York City; (2) a hurricane striking New Orleans; (3) a strong earthquake near San Francisco. The first occurred the following month; the second four years later. How long will it take for the third to happen?

Clouded crystal ball. Before Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast ports, they handled much of the oil, coffee and bananas imported into the U.S. as well as the corn, wheat and soybeans floated down the Mississippi on barges and exported. Much of the oysters, chickens, cotton and sugar we consume are also produced in the Gulf Coast region. Katrina shut down nine of 14 refineries--one-eighth of U.S. refinery capacity--and reduced its offshore oil production by 20 percent and knocked out a big chunk of its natural gas production. Rebuilding the devastated area as promised by President Bush will be the greatest reconstruction project ever attempted in this country.

The name Ben Bernanke may not ring a bell with you. As Katrina struck, Dr. Ben Bernanke, 51, Chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers since April 2005, claimed reassuringly, "the effects of Hurricane Katrina will be relatively modest."

What makes this statement so scary is that Ben Bernanke heads the short list of candidates to replace Alan Greenspan when his term as head of the Federal Reserve expires early next year. Adding a city's population scattered to 48 states without jobs and vowing never to return the Gulf coast to the staggering cost for rebuilding the region approaching $200 billion doesn't yield a "modest effect" in my arithmetic book. The demographics and the voting patterns of many communities may see significant changes.

Disappearance solved. Remember those nodding little figures you used to see in the rear window of the car in front of you? Know where they've all gone? To the Weather Channel, where two meteorologists sit before a weather map, one reading the weather forecast and the other looking at the first and silently nodding in agreement. Then they swap roles, and the first speaker becomes the nodder for a while and the other becomes the card reader.

Ghost words is a term coined to describe words that never actually existed, but were created by a typographical error or misreading of a handwritten manuscript and perpetuated in error. The most famous is "dord." Early printings of the second edition of Webster's New International Dictionary in 1934 carried this entry: "dord n. Density." What had happened was that an entry ("D. or d. Density") intended for the section on common abbreviations somehow found its way into the slips for the main body of the dictionary. It was edited and styled as an entry and labeled "n." for noun. The editors eventually discovered what had happened and removed the ghost word.

Another common ghost word is "Ye," seen in names like "Ye Olde Antique Shoppe,” which should be pronounced with a "th" sound and not a "y" sound. It comes from a substituting "y" for the runic letter that stood for the sound "th," no longer in our alphabet. So "Ye" really has been "The" all along.

Sexist fashion statement. Why are male fashion models showing designers' latest collections told to shamble down the runway while female models are forced to adopt an unnatural cross-legged gait? The women resemble nothing more than motorists suspected of DUI ("driving under the influence") who are required to demonstrate that they can walk a straight line.

Sticky business. I used to be a postage stamp collector in the days when you pasted tiny "hinges" to the back of stamps and affixed them in albums. Now that stamps are almost universally self-adhesive, would someone please tell me how one collects them in albums today?


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