Monday, July 30, 2012


On the curious origin of the word curio:

"The Empress, the first American ship to dock at a Far East port,
returned from Canton in 1785, making a 20 percent profit on invested
capital. In the following years, China trade expanded rapidly. By 1800,
the number of American ships that cleared Canton in one year had swelled
to one hundred. In trade volume, America now ranked second only to Great
Britain. The boom in trading, however, was buttressed more by the
natural products that merchants collected from the Pacific, especially
in the Hawaiian isles, than by the native products of the American
continent. Although the Empress voyage was a success, the Chinese soon
discovered that the ginseng they bought from the Americans was not the
same as the Korean herb that had been used for centuries in traditional
Chinese medicine. Consequently, it became increasingly difficult for
American traders to sell products brought from their native land. They
had to look for alternatives, soon finding that the Pacific abounded
with natural products that would cater to the demands of East Asian as
well as American markets. Fortune-seekers moved into the Pacific to
scavenge for furs, whales, bêche-de-mer (sea cucumbers), tortoiseshell,
pearls, shark fins, birds' nests, grain, fish, salt, coal, sandalwood,
lumber, copra, cowhide, tallow, arrow-root, spices, guano, human heads,
and even human beings. These commodities gave currency to the
nineteenth-century term curio, famously adopted by Herman Melville in
Moby-Dick (1851): The New England innkeeper, Peter Coffin, told Ishmael
that the Pacific savage Queequeg had 'a lot of 'balmed New Zealand heads
(great curios, you know).' The Oxford English Dictionary, in fact, cites
Melville's sentence as the earliest recorded use of the word."

Yunte Huang, Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective
and His Rendezvous with American History, W. W. Norton & Company, 2010,
p. 11.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Little finger

"Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads
of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us
consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of
connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon
receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine,
first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of
that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon
the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of
man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too,
perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings
concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the
commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in
general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these
humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his
business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the
same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The
most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a
more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow,
he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will
snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred
millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense
multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this
paltry misfortune of his own."

Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments: To Which Is Added, a
Dissertation on the Origin of Languages (London: George Bell & Sons,
1892), p. 193.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Jinasena on God

In her blog The Useless Tree, Namit Arora writes:

In 9th century CE India, a Jain teacher called Jinasena composed a
work called Mahapurana. The following is a quote from it.

Some foolish men declare that [a] Creator made the world. The
doctrine that the world was created is ill-advised, and should be
rejected. If god created the world, where was he before creation? If
you say he was transcendent then, and needed no support, where is he
now? No single being had the skill to make the world—for how can an
immaterial god create that which is material? How could god have made
the world without any raw material? If you say he made this first, and
then the world, you are faced with an endless regression. If you
declare that the raw material arose naturally you fall into another
fallacy, for the whole universe might thus have been its own creator,
and have risen equally naturally. If god created the world by an act
of will, without any raw material, then it is just his will made
nothing else and who will believe this silly stuff? If he is ever
perfect, and complete, how could the will to create have arisen in
him? If, on the other hand, he is not perfect, he could no more create
the universe than a potter could. If he is formless, actionless, and
all-embracing, how could he have created the world? Such a soul,
devoid of all modality, would have no desire to create anything. If
you say that he created to no purpose, because it was his nature to do
so then god is pointless. If he created in some kind of sport, it was
the sport of a foolish child, leading to trouble. If he created out of
love for living things and [in his] need of them he made the world,
why did he not make creation wholly blissful, free from misfortune?
Thus the doctrine that the world was created by god makes no sense at

Saturday, March 24, 2012


Why do only brambles go into politics? Here's the fable of the trees
Jotham told after his brother Abimelech (Gideon's son) proclaimed
himself king:

"The trees once went out to anoint a king over them, and they said to
the olive tree, 'Reign over us.' But the olive tree said to them,
'Shall I leave my abundance, by which gods and men are honored, and go
hold sway over the trees?' And the trees said to the fig tree, 'You
come and reign over us.' But the fig tree said to them, 'Shall I leave
my sweetness and my good fruit and go hold sway over the trees?' And
the trees said to the vine, 'You come and reign over us.' But the vine
said to them, 'Shall I leave my wine that cheers God and men and go
hold sway over the trees?' Then all the trees said to the bramble,
'You come and reign over us.' And the bramble said to the trees, 'If
in good faith you are anointing me king over you, then come and take
refuge in my shade, but if not, let fire come out of the bramble and
devour the cedars of Lebanon.'"
Judges 9:8-15 (English Standard Version)

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

On the history of abortion

From Robert M. Hardaway, Population, Law, and the Environment, 1994,
pp. 112-113:

Soranos of Ephesus ( A.D. 98-138), "the most learned of GrecoRoman
gynecologists," attributes to Hippocrates a writing in which
Hippocrates himself "told a girl how to accomplish an abortion by
jumping." 30

Aristotle proposed that a mother have an abortion if the state was
unable to accommodate the child. 25 However, he was one of the first
philosophers to make the distinction based on fetal movement (later
known as "quickening"), insisting that any abortion be conducted
before there is "sensation and life." 26 Plato also saw abortion as a
means of attaining an optimum population. 27


In any case, Soranos of Ephesus ( A.D. 98-138), "the most learned of
GrecoRoman gynecologists," attributes to Hippocrates a writing in
which Hippocrates himself "told a girl how to accomplish an abortion
by jumping." 30

Noonan, a noted abortion historian, has noted that "in the
Mediterranean world in which Christianity appeared, abortion was a
familiar art." 31 Soranos set forth in a treatise of the day the most
common and familiar methods of abortion: "purging the abdomen with
clysters; walking about vigorously; carrying things beyond one's
strength; bathing in sweet water which is not too hot; bathing in
decoctions of linseed, mallow, and wormwood; applying poultices of the
same decoctions; injecting warm and sweet olive oil; being bled and
then shaken after softening by suppositories." 32 Given these other
less dangerous methods of abortion it is not surprising that
Hippocrates would forbid the use of "deadly drugs" or "pessaries" as a
means of inducing abortion.

By Medieval times, St. Thomas Aquinas had adopted the Aristotelian
notion of quickening. Aquinas "was clear that there was actual
homicide when an ensouled embryo was killed. He was equally clear that
ensoulment did not take place at conception," 33 and stated in
Politicorum that "seed and what is not seed is determined by sensation
and movement." 34

Martin Azplicueta, "the guide in moral questions of three Popes, and
the leading canonist of the 16th century," 35 was a consultant to the
Sacred Penitentiary, "the Roman Tribunal for deciding cases of
conscience submitted to confessors." 36 Historian Noonan has noted
that Azplicueta stated in Consilia that "the rule of the Penitentiary
was to treat a fetus over forty days as ensouled. Hence therapeutic
abortion was accepted in the case of a fetus under this age." 37

On October 29, 1588, however, Pope Sixtus V launched a campaign
against the prostitutes of Rome by issuing the bull Effraenatam that
declared abortion to be homicide regardless of the age of the fetus.
Punishment was to be excommunication, and only the Holy See could
grant absolution from the excommunication. 38 Though this appeared to
be plainly inconsistent with existing dogma, Sixtus, in a fit of pique
and in apparent exasperation with the Roman prostitutes, nevertheless
justified his precedent-breaking bull by rhetorically asking, "Who
would not punish such cruel lust with the most severe punishments?" 39
(Implied in the answer was that a prostitute, when faced with the
severe punishment of excommunication, would choose to carry an
unwanted child as a lesser form of punishment.)

Sixtus V's bull, issued in the heat of a campaign against Roman
prostitutes, and apparently based on the dubious assumption that an
unwanted child was God's retribution for lust, mercifully did not stay
in effect long. Only 2 years later, after Sixtus died, the new Pope
Gregory XIV, noting that "the hoped for fruit had not resulted,"
issued restrictions in 1591 on Effraenatum, "repeal [ing] all its
penalties except those applying to a fetus which had been ensouled."
40 Thus the dogma of Aquinas and Azplicueta was restored. 41

It was not until almost 300 years later, in 1869, that God revealed to
Pope Pius IX that St. Thomas Aquinas, Azplicueta, and Gregory XIV had
all been wrong, and that the abortion of any fetus, regardless of
quickening, was grounds for excommunication.

Sunday, February 12, 2012


After a one-year break from Chronicon Mundi, I plan to start posting
again, perhaps only for myself.


Endless memory

One of my favorite short stories has long been Borges' Funes el
memorioso (Funes the Memorious, 1942), about a man who, as the
Wikipedia reminds me (because I forget things), is incapable of
Platonic ideas, of generalities, of abstraction and whose world is one
of intolerably uncountable details. Funes finds it very difficult to
sleep, because he remembers "every crevice and every moulding of the
various houses which [surround] him."

Now I learn that Borges was wrong. It turns out that people with
"superior autobiographical memory" are very much capable of the human
capacity for abstraction. The uncountable details of their lives are
not intolerable. Other than remembering everything, or just about
everything that ever happened to them, they are perfectly ordinary
people. Here's a 60 Minutes piece on such people:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Saturday, March 12, 2011

a letter

The following is a letter and the story behind it, from Andrew
Carroll's War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars
(Kindle edition, 86% into the book):

"All letters and artifacts left at the [Vietnam War Memorial] Wall are
collected, catalogued, and preserved by the National Park Service,
National Capital Region. Duery Felton Jr., a park service curator (and
Vietnam veteran himself), was organizing a container of memorabilia
gathered at the Wall when a small photograph and letter left by
another Vietnam veteran caught his attention:

' Nov 18, 1989

Dear Sir,

For twenty two years I have carried your picture in my wallet. I was
only eighteen years old that day that we faced one another on that
trail in Chu Lai, Vietnam. Why you did not take my life I'll never
know. You stared at me for so long armed with your AK-47 and yet you
did not fire. Forgive me for taking your life, I was reacting just the
way I was trained, to kill V. C. or gooks, hell you weren't even
considered human, just gook/target, one in the same.

Since that day in 1967 I have grown a great deal and have a great deal
of respect for life and other peoples in the world.

So many times over the years I have stared at your picture and your
daughter, I suspect. Each time my heart and gut would burn with the
pain of guilt. I have two daughters myself now. One is twenty. The
other one is twenty two, and has blessed me with two granddaughters,
ages one and four.

Today I visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in D.C. I have wanted to
come here for several years now to say goodbye to many of my former

Somehow I hope and believe they will know I'm here, I truly loved many
of them as I am sure you loved many of your former comrades.

As of today we are no longer enemies. I perceive you as a brave
soldier defending his homeland. Above all else, I can now respect the
importance that life held for you. I suppose that is why I am able to
be here today.

As I leave here today I leave your picture and this letter. It is time
for me to continue the life process and release my pain and guilt.
Forgive me Sir, I shall try to live my life to the fullest, an
opportunity that you and many others were denied.

I'll sign off now Sir, so until we chance to meet again in another
time and place, rest in peace.

101st Airborne Div Richard A. Luttrell.'

Felton instantly knew he had to include the photography, as well as
several lines from the letter, in an upcoming publication the National
Park Service was assembling called Offerings at the Wall. In 1996 a
good friend of Luttrell's saw the book and shared it with Luttrell,
who had not seen the photograph and the letter since he had left them
at the Wall seven years earlier. Suddenly confronted with them again,
he broke down and cried. The pain of the memory was so great that
Luttrell realized it might never go away unless he tried to return the
photograph to the daughter of the slain Vietnamese soldier. Although
he realized that, without an address or even a name, the odds of
finding someone in a country of 80 million were astronomical, he was
determined to try. Luttrell contacted Felton, who flew to Illinois and
personally returned the items. And then, with assistance from the
Vietnamese Embassy in Washington, Luttrell was able to convince
newspapers in Hanoi with an accompanying article. Miraculously, a copy
of a paper made its way to a tiny farming village where the family of
the soldier recognized it. Several days later Luttrell received a
short, translated letter, forwarded from Vietnam by fax, written by a
woman identified only as Lan. The message read:

Dear Mr. Richard, the child that you have taken care of, or through
the picture, for over 30 years, she becomes adult now, and she has
spent so much sufferance in her childhood by the missing of her
father. I hope you will bring the joy and happiness to my family.

Luttrell immediately responded and asked Lan if he could visit her in
Vietnam. She said yes, and in March 2000 Richard Luttrell—the first
time he had been back in thirty-two years—found himself face-to-face
with Lan in her village. The moment she saw him, Lan burst into tears
and embraced Luttrell. 'I'm so sorry,' he said to her, also crying.
Lan forgave Luttrell, and the photograph of her and her father now
rests on a small altar in Lan's home."

Here is the photograph:


Tuesday, March 8, 2011


This morning's International Herald Tribune reports: "women make up 54
percent of physicians below the age of 35 in Britain, 58 percent in
France and almost 64 percent in Spain." And last year, the Washington
Post reported: "For the first time, more women than men in the United
States received doctoral degrees last year." The times they are