Asking the Wrong People


It was in Physics class that I learned to pick locks. Dick Feynman’s memoirs detailed it in theory. He also gave quite a bit of information on cracking safes. This, in addition to Feynman’s assertion that he solved hard problems because he had a different mathematical ‘tool-box’ gave me my first inkling of the power of asking the wrong people.


When I was a freshman there was a big push in my class to eliminate the phrase ‘tidal wave’ because – darn it – tides are not involved. That is a persuasive argument if you don’t have a good dictionary. Then you find that ‘tidal’ is a word in the Old Testament meaning ‘fearsome.’ And fearsome in an Old Testament way is an apt description of a tsunami. Besides, tidal is easier to say.

I learned that, as an act of simplicity, Einstein insisted on using the same soap for shaving as he used for washing. Since Einstein grew up in a time and place where shaving was an art, I looked into it. Water is the key. Hydrating hair takes it from something with the strength of copper wire to something softer. Heat helps as does soap which acts as a surfactant to reduce the surface tension and allow the water to soak in more easily. Making a lather allows the water to stay on the face. So cold shaving cream is both less effective than making a hot soap lather and much more expensive. And less pleasant. If you use a mug and a brush the results are surprising. Some shaving creams are so bad that I was actually asked, ‘Does shaving cream do anything but help you keep place?’ Not what I expected to learn from Albert Einstein.

One thing everyone gets wrong is the Fourth Commandment. It does not mean that you are not to say gal dang it, Dagnabit! Nor does it suggest the linguistic atrocity of writing god as G-d. The Bible means that God has a personal name, and that it may only be used at certain times by certain people. A name related to the ancient Semitic word for ‘to be.’ As the Hebrews did not write out their vowels the Tetragrammaton – Greek for Important Four-Letter Thingie – is written out as IHVH, YHWH, IHWH, or some similar form. Alphabets have changed a bit in the last four millennia. The Greeks went from Linear-B to illiterate to developing the Greek Alphabet to inspiring the Latin Alphabet to inventing letters that the Romans never heard of, such as y,j,w.

If you put the vowels for elohim -god – and mispronounce the initial letter as a ‘J’ you get ‘Jehovah’. Positively not the name of God and invented to not be the name of God. If you do the same for ‘lord’, ‘adaonai’, you get  something like ‘Yahweh.’ At least the initial letter is correct. So Indian Jones failed the test of the name in ‘Last Crusade’ and fell to his death. That probably explains ‘Crystal Skull.’

Such a great taboo has formed about this noun that legends have formed. Religious folk will tell you that the pronunciation is lost. This is a palpable lie. More on that later. The Golem of legend was animated when the wise man inscribed the tetragrammaton properly upon it. In most English language Bibles the four-letter thingie is written as Lord in all capitals – ‘LORD’ – to avoid the issue. The hereditary Cohen priests do an odd gesture of the hands when making the Priestly Blessing. In the Aramaic alphabet the hands can assume a sort of schematic representation of the name.


A bright, young Jewish fellow once decided that the higher feelings and wishes of a character he played demanded a sort of salute. Using the right hand of the Cohen gesture, Mr. Nimoy invented the Vulcan Salute. There is a fraternal organization which believes that one of their most important words is lost. But they decide the first letter is something like a G for god, and so their logo has a letter for a word they do not know. If this is not a metaphor for the loss of the tetragrammaton, paint me blue and call me Cuthbert.

The problem with the tragedy of The Lost Name is that it is a lie. Once again the power of asking the wrong people shows itself. Jews and Christians have this taboo, but all the neighboring nations wrote it down. Linguists know quite well what the words are.

shasu e yhvh

The Nomads of Yahweh. Note that the syllabary does not indicate ‘Yahweh.’

The myth of lost name is a lie. More evidence of the lie is hilarious. Johnathan Swift was a nasty man who wrote nasty satires. “A Modest Proposal” eventually suggested the Irish eat their babies to ameliorate the famine. He was the Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and a Doctor of Divinity. In the last book of Gulliver’s Travels he describes a land where the civilized and gracious creatures are shaped like horses – created in the image of beasts. Those who look human – created in the image of God – are dumb, ungracious, stupid animals. It is said that Swift would not write down the name of these brutes. He had his publisher bring three workmen to him. Johnathan Swift pronounced the name – or The Name – and the workmen decided how to spell it. Thus did ‘Yahoo’ enter the English language. Now, do you use or avoid that search engine?

So what about the Jews? Well there was a notable Zionist named Nathan Mileikowsky who when he moved to Israel decided he needed a more Hebrew name. Nathan is from Nathaniel and means ‘gift of God.’ Many Hebrew names end in -iah or -iel for god or the lord as circumlocutions to avoid the tetragrammaton. Nathan changed his family name to Nathaniel, except: Modern Europeans can’t pronounce theta so he used a ‘T’. And instead of -iel he actually used the name of God. He did leave off the final ‘H’. I wonder if that was an act of hubris or devotion. It seems rather arrogant for a religious man. Regardless his grandson is Benjamin Netanyahu .


If every group knows the secret, why do they keep it? Is it just for the educated?

The Arabic for Jew is Yahudi. The people of Yahuh. I am led to an uncomfortable inference. I was raised to have a great deal of respect for Jews and Moslems. Whatever our differences we worship the same god. However…. The Arabs knew the name of the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Moses. And Islam rejects it. Am I to infer that we do not worship the same god?  I find I am a bit disturbed by where logic takes me.


Sharing Nightmares

In our grinding slide towards Caesar and his little boot on the way to Augustulus I feel less than eloquent. Here is another nightmare. First, last century’s Horseman of Death:

Horseman Death

Nightmare, With Angels
An angel came to me and stood by my bedside,
Remarking in a professorial-historical-economic and
irritated voice,
“If the Romans had only invented a decent explosion-
Not even the best, not even a Ford V-8
But, say, a Model T or even an early Napier,
They’d have built good enough roads for it (they
knew how to build  roads)
From Cape Wrath to Cape St. Vincent, Susa, Babylon
and Moscow,
And the motorized legions never would have fallen,
And peace, in the shape of a giant eagle, would brood
over the entire Western World!”
He changed his expression, looking now like
a combination of Gilbert Murray, Hilaire Belloc and
a dozen other scientists, writers, and prophets,
And continued, in angelic tones,
“If the Greeks had known how to Cooperate, if there’d
never been a Reformation,
If Sparta had not been Sparta, and the Church had been
the Church of the saints,
The Argive peace like a free-blooming olive-tree, the
peace of Christ (who loved peace) like a great,
beautiful vine enwrapping the spinning earth!
Take it nearer home,” he said.
“Take these Mayans and their star-clocks, their
carvings and their great cities.
Who sacked them out of their cities, drowned the cities
with a green jungle?
A plague? A change of climate? A queer migration?
Certainly they were skilful, certainly they created.
And, in Tenochtitlan, the dark obsidian knife and the
smoking heart on the stone but a fair city,
And the Incas had it worked out beautifully till Pizarro
smashed them
The collectivist state was there, and the ladies very
They lacked steel, alphabet and gunpowder and they had
to get married when the government said so.
They also lacked unemployment and overproduction.
For that matter,” he said, “take the Cro-Magnons,
The fellows with the big skulls, the handsome folk, the
excellent scribers of mammoths,
Physical gods and yet with the sensitive brain (they
drew the running reindeer) .
What stopped them? What kept us all from being Apollos
and Aphrodites
Only with a new taste to the nectar,
The laughing gods, not the cruel, the gods of song, not of
Supposing Aurelius, Confucius, Napoleon, Plato, Gautama,
Just to take half a dozen–
Had ever realized and stabilized the full dream?
How long, O Lord God in the highest? How long, what now,
perturbed spirit? ”
He turned blue at the wingtips and disappeared as another
angel approached me. –
This one was quietly but appropriately dressed in
cellophane, synthetic rubber and stainless steel,
But his mask was the blind mask of Ares, snouted for
He was neither soldier, sailor, farmer, dictator nor
Nor did he have much conversation, except to say,
“You will not be saved by General Motors or the pre-
fabricated house.
You will not be saved by dialectic materialism or the
Lambeth Conference.
You will not be saved by Vitamin D or the expanding
In fact, you will not be saved.”
Then he showed his hand:
In his hand was a woven, wire basket, full of seeds, small
metallic and shining like the seeds of portulaca;
Where he sowed them, the green vine withered, and the smoke
and the armies sprang up.

– Steven Vincent Benet


~     ~     ~     ~

Robert W. Bussard was disappointed that I was not sufficiently embracing of our family’s frenchness.  One of our earlier discussions was about the art of Corot. He would turn me toward what he saw as more French aspects of culture. I don’t know how french Benet is, really, but Robert thought of him as such. Benet was someone he pointed me toward.


The Power of Dishonesty


I was slow to understand the power of honesty. I was even slower  to appreciate the power of dishonesty.

I remember when I was hiring the fellow who would become my assistant. Troy was a bit intimidated. A few days before I had told a thief not to come back. That can be a good thing to do: Honest people feel less like suckers, and it takes a lot of sales to make up for thefts. While I was interviewing Troy an angry man – maybe twenty-five years old – came and demanded to talk to me.

“My big sister says you cussed at her and through her money in her face!”

“No, I did not.”

“She says you accused her of stealing!”

“I know she took things. I told her not to come back.”

“She says I should beat you up for lying about her!” What do I say to a guy who has been dominated by his older sister since childhood and sent as her attack dog?

“You don’t know me, but you know her. Who do you believe?”

“Oh.” He then turned very quiet and left. Troy broke into laughter. We worked very well together for several years. It turned out that he had left his previous job because they wanted him to lie. There seems to be a trend. My friend Anh I also found after her previous employers had lied to her.




For the past few years I have heard many folks who claim an interest in social justice decry ‘food deserts.’ I would let the subject pass, but we are witnessing a great creation of food deserts.

In a food desert one must travel a long way to get healthy food at reasonable prices. There are entire nations that qualify as ‘food deserts’, but this is not what is meant. There are farming methods and regulations that make food more scarce and expensive, but these are not considered either. What those who speak of ‘food deserts’ mean are inner cities without produce-selling grocery stores.

In Berkeley, New York, and especially, Missouri there have been riots and destroyed stores. Who would rebuild there. Had I the money, I would be foolish to do so. I am the wrong race and am from the wrong part of the country. I would be seen as an outsider. What’s the ghetto word for ‘carpet-bagger’? So the universe of possible rebuilders shrinks.

A rational business must charge enough to cover its risks. The risks in many of these places are demonstrably high. Unless one is viewed in a very positive light there would be public demonstrations about profiteering. So in addition to high risk there would be insult and hate. The number of people who would be viewed favorably is minuscule.

Businesses are run by humans. Considering crime, riots, and hatred from the community we have to find a business owner who would be willing to send employees to work in such a place. Money is not the only consideration of people; they have to be able to live with themselves.

Civic groups that want to mandate grocery stores want to mandate. They mandate what is to be sold, and where, and how, and to whom. No wonder such businesses never prosper.

The way to reverse desertification is clear. Will we allow it?