Wednesday, August 31, 2005

September 1, 2005--The Fall of the Roman Empire

As promised Hedy, I will reveal here the answer to the centuries-old question: Why did the Roman Empire fall? This is not simply an academic issue; many today are seeking answers because they perceive the U.S. to be an empire and thus are looking for similar evidence of our potential decline and fall. Either in an attempt to prevent it or hasten it as the case may be.

Historians have cited many reasons: there was political corruption, unemployment, inflation, urban decay, excessive military spending. See the parallels? Some even claim Rome fell because of Christianity--among other things Christianity turned Romans into pacifists. Parallels cease.

I have learned when facing complexity and contradiction, turn to the NY Times.

Bear with me. Look carefully at the very top lefthand corner of the front page. Note the "All the News That's Fit to Print" box. See just below it: "Vol. CLIV . . . No. 52324." I ask you to turn your attention to "Vol. CLIV"--Roman Numerals! CLIV=154 in Arabic Numerals. This notation indicates that 2005 is the 154th year in which the NY Times is being published.

Though many of us learned our Roman Numerals in elementary school their only current uses seem to be for publication volumns (check your magazine subscriptions), crossword puzzles, and Super Bowls--the next being Super Bowl XXXIX (39 for those of you who did not go to elementary school).

So you may be wondering, how did Roman Numerals lead to the fall of the Roman Empire? Learning that I=1 and V=5 and X=10 is easy. Try doing addition using Roman Numerals. Allow me to illustrate:

Let's add 23 + 58. In Roman Numerals that's XXIII + LVIII. How to proceed? We need to begin by writing the two numbers next to each other: XXIII LVIII. Next we arrange the letters so that the numerals are in descending order: LXVIIIIII. Now we have six Is, so we rewrite LXVIIIIII as LXVVI. The two Vs are the same as an X, so we simplify again and get LXXXI, or 81 as our final answer.

Don't ask me to do long division.

Suffice it to say, when the Arabs came along with their Arabic Numerals (and swords) the Roman Empire didn't stand much of a chance.

August 31, 2005--Not My Kind of Rest Stop

I had mentioned to at least one visitor to this site that I would today reveal the truth about why the Roman Empire fell; a truth revealed by a careful look at the front page of the NY Times. This is a widely debated subject which I had promised to at last put to rest. But to that friend I have to seek a day's reprieve in order to post a quick note about the United States Empire.

There are those days when the juxtapostions on a single page of the Times add up to more than the sum of the articles themselves. Today may be one such occasion.

If you have today's paper in front of you, please turn to Page A9. (I am not advanced enough yet in Blog technology to give you the actual links to the articles I am about to mention. Coming soon.)

At the top of the page there is the piece, "Poverty in U.S." It tells us something I'm afraid we know too much about--"Even as the economy grew, incomes stagnated last year and the poverty rate rose, the Census Bureau reported Tuesday. It was the first time on record that household incomes failed to increase for five straight years." [My italics]

On the right hand side of the same page we find, "Teaching of Creationism Is Endorsed in New Survey." Something else we know too much about. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released recent findings that reveal that 64 percent of Americans were open to the idea of teaching creationism in addition to evolution. The Pew report says, "It's like saying, 'Some people see it this way, some see it that way, so just teach it all and let the kids figure it out.'"

The educator in me says the kids should be so lucky--in at least a third of our public schools to have any semblence of science instruction would be an improvement.

The last article on the page, lower left, "Vermont Blends 'Green' Flush Toilets and a Greenhouse" is clearly something we probably do not want to know too much about. But I press on. I suggest you read all of it, but in case you don't get around to it, in essence Vermont has figured out how to combine greenhouses and toilets at its roadside rest stops. Interesting, very Vermont but there is more: since there are so many veterans on the road they are also incorporating Vietnam memorials in these green toilets.

About this I cannot resist one indiscreet comment--with my digestive system, for me, having to potty at a Vietnam memorial just won't work. Green or otherwise.

I promise, tomorrow the fall of Rome!

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

August 30, 2005--Keeping Up With the Ayatollah

My favorite section of the NY Times is the Sunday Week In Review. Not only does it include classified ads such as Jobs In Education (important to me since one never knows), but also an occasional interesting op ed piece or something rich in context. To cite just one example, did you see this Sunday's "Getting Personal: Advice From Ayatollah Sistani"?

It refers one to his website ( There you will find answers to hundreds of questions you wanted to know about but were afraid to ask, including "Is it allowed to eat at McDonalds?" (Answer: "It is allowed to eat those meals which do not contain meat."

(Glad to know I can still get my Thick Shakes.)

The website is well organized into about a dozen general categories. My personal favorites include Eating & Drinking, Medical Issues, and of course Death Related Issues. You have had a taste of an Eating & Drinking Q&A. Here then is a brief sample of the others. (Note by the way the progression from Eating & Drinking to Medical Issues to Death Issues.)

Q: "The medical profession demands that the doctor check his female patients carefully undressed . . . Is it permissable to engage in such circumstances?"

A: "It is permissable, if one refrains from forbidden looking and touching."

(I'm glad I got to my dermatologist last week before reading this!)

Q: "In some non-Mulim countries, the corpse is placed in a coffin and then buried in the ground. What is one's duty in such a situation?"

A: "There is no problem in placing the corpse in a coffin when buying him in the ground. However the requirements of burial must be fulfilled; and one of those requirements is that the corpse is placed on its right side."

(I can live with that.)

Monday, August 29, 2005

August 27, 2005--The Yiddish Side of Maureen Dowd

There is the following in her August 27th column--"You'd think by now, watching the meshugas in Iraq [italics added], the Bush crowd would have learned some lessons about twisting facts to suit ideology. . . ." The fact that she felt no need to add italics of her own or did not include a parenthetical definition of meshugas, suggests it has become a casual part of standard English. I wonder. Quick, before reading further or Googling, how many of you know what it means?

If all of you, then no need for italics or definitions; if some of you need help, let me try: "Craziness" sort of captures it. But meshugas is a very particular kind of craziness: an effectionate kind that one might encounter in Fidder On the Roof, for example. It also means self-created craziness--something that makes you crazy but in many ways shouldn't because there is no external objective-correlative reason why you should be crazy. This also makes it very Jewish.

Here's a classic example of meshugas: You get a voice mail message from your sister that your 90 year old mother is in the hospital. The tone of her voice suggests something serious. Before calling back you begin to make airline reservations to Florida. You then leave repeated messages for your sister. Not hearing back, in gathering angst, you figure why not try your mother. What do you have to lose. At least you'll have the comfort of hearing your mother's voice on her answering machine.

On the second ring your mother picks up the phone, sounding quite normal. You say, "I heard you were in the hospital. What's going on?" "Oh yes," she replies, "I was a little dizzy and, you know your sister, she was very upset and insisted I have some test. I had an MRI butI'm fine. It was nothing. Maybe a little anxiety. So I increased my Paxil."

That should be the end of it right? No objective correlative. So why do you find yourself heading for the airport? Simple--meshugas.

Back to Maureen Dowd. It's good to see that this nice Catholic girl feels comfortable enough to use the Yiddish meshugas in her column without any italics; but is she using it properly? That's another story. How appropriate to apply it to the situation in Iraq? Craziness to be sure; but to call it "just" meshugas makes it feel more like Fiddler than what it is--a tragedy.

Friday, August 26, 2005

August 26, 2005--The News That Fits

How big was that catfish they caught the other day in the Mekong River in Thailand? The NY Times reported that it might have been the largest freshwater fish ever. I'm not that interested in the size of catfish; just how they taste. What interested me most was that the fisherman who caught it was given $90 dollars (the boat owner $2,000!) and that he was giving the $90 to his father. My friend Alex, who has a two-month old son said, "I'm going to clip this story, save it, and give it to Jose when he's 18 so he can learn what kind of son to be." That Alex!