GROWING UP POOR, WITH TRUMP ON TV

Amanda Rea in Literary Hub:

Fresh_Prince_NBC_11A lot of things didn’t reach the remote corner of Colorado where I grew up. Hummus, for instance, and artichokes, mailmen, punk rock, paved roads. This was the mid 80s, so the internet wouldn’t exist for another few years, and our single TV channel played, in my memory, a near-continuous loop of The Cosby Show, broken now and then by an old episode of I Love Lucy. Airplanes passed over us, leaving white skid marks across the sky. Any passenger looking down would’ve seen nothing, a flat beige expanse where the Rocky Mountains petered out.

And yet, even there at the edge of a ghosted mining town, where jackrabbits outnumbered humans ten-to-one, we had heard of Donald Trump. His was a household name, synonymous with wealth and arrogance and a place called New York City, which might as well have been a settlement on the moon for all it meant to us. Between Cosbyreruns, Trump was on the news, wearing a suit, talking about his money. He was young then, early forties, and though his feathered ducktail hadn’t yet turned lurid yellow, he had the same petulant mouth and smug manner we know so well today. Newscasters fawned over him. They said he had the “Midas touch”—his father had given him a fortune, and he’d turned it into more fortune.

My brother and I rolled our eyes. Nobody had to tell us Trump was an asshole, though our parents probably muttered something to that effect. We were no big fans of rich people. Our family had always been poor—generations of miners, ranchers, farmers, and oil hands.

More here.

Does Dark Energy Mean We’re Losing Information About The Universe?

Ethan Siegel in Forbes:

ScreenHunter_2612 Feb. 28 18.28Perhaps the biggest surprise of all about the Universe came at the very end of the 20th century: the discovery of dark energy and the accelerated expansion of the Universe. Rather than being pulled towards us gravitationally, the most distant galaxies in the Universe are speeding away from us at ever faster-and-faster speeds, destined to disappear from our view. But does that create its own information paradox? Rob Hansen wants to know, and inquires:

The universe's expansion means our visible horizon is retreating; things faraway are vanishing continuously. (Albeit slowly, right now.) This would seem to imply we are losing information about the universe. So why is it the idea of losing information in a black hole's event horizon is so controversial, if we're constantly losing information to another horizon?

There's a lot to unpack here, so let's start with the accelerated expansion of the Universe.

More here.

The case for moral disengagement from politics in the age of Trump

Anis Shivani in Salon:

America-fuck-620x412There continues to be a gross underestimation, even among politically aware liberals, of what we are really up against, and how to counter it. Increasingly, our fellow citizens are resorting to the concepts of fascism to describe the current situation, but this is not necessarily followed by any cogent reflection on what the political subject under fascism needs to do. Ordinary liberal prescriptions have no chance of success under a regime that has moved into an overt fascist mode; moreover, the unacknowledged continuities from the recent neoliberal past, which led to the fascist overture in the first place, mar any consistency of thought among intellectuals, activists and ordinary citizens.

The time has come to explore modes of existence that only make sense under a fascist regime, or rather, are the only modes that make sense under fascist conditions. Above all, the question of moral disengagement from any existing political practice must be taken seriously, and this includes so-called “resistance.” Are there things that pass under the activist rubric today that are actually strengthening fascism rather than weakening it? If that is the case, then those activities must undergo severe scrutiny, because it may well be that what seems like activism is actually “passivism,” and vice versa.

More here.

Black Genealogies of Power: Seven Maxims for Resistance in the Trump Years

Dan Berger in AAIHS:

Mural_Malcolm_X_-_Ella_Baker_-_Martin_Luther_King_-_Frederick_Douglass-1024x823“Power concedes nothing without demand,” argued Frederick Douglass in one of his most cited speeches. “It never did and it never will.” Donald Trump inaugurated his first Black History Month at the White House with a bizarre mention of Douglass that made clear he does not know who Douglass was, what he did, or that the legendary abolitionist died 122 years ago. While Trump’s ignorance is clear, Douglass’s words remain a prescient example of how the black freedom struggle has thought about power. The black freedom struggle knows power intimately, as it has needed to: both the effects of power from above and the experience of power from below. How can it be otherwise? Slavery, colonialism, segregation, policing, and other forms of racism are power in and over the flesh. At the same time, black radicalism has developed its own power through abolitionism, marronage, transnationalism, feminism, labor organizing, fugitivity, and other forms of communal struggle.

Black History Month occasions a return to how black radicalism conceptualizes the issue of power. A diasporic political tradition built over centuries, the black radical tradition resists simplistic notions of what power is and how it operates. It has displayed a concurrent attention to strength on the bottom and to weakness from above. Here I want to complement the efforts of contemporary organizations such as BYP100, the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, the Dream Defenders, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, and the Movement for Black Lives by anchoring some of their historical forerunners. To that end, I present seven maxims of power as a useful but by no means comprehensive list for thinking about the revanchist assaults now underway by the Trump administration as well as the historic opposition movements now gathering force nationwide.

Don’t look to the institutions of power to resolve the problems caused by power. “O, let America be America again—/ The land that never has been yet—/ And yet must be—the land where every man [sic] is free,” Langston Hughes offered in his poem “Let America Be America Again.” Hughes’s poem centers on the contradiction of demanding “America be America again” with the recognition that “America never was America to me.” There are no halcyon days to return to, no golden era when American institutions upheld universal, intersectional antiracist policies. They have been, and remain, venues for necessary fights—both to defend existing rights and win new ones. Yet such fights are not calls to return to the past, to “restore faith” in traditional institutions, as we so often hear amidst Trumpist attacks on the media, the judiciary, and other normative branches of liberal democracy. Rather, political battles are most effective when pointing to the world that could be rather than the world that was (but wasn’t really).

More here. (Note: At least one post throughout February will be in honor of Black History Month)

In ‘Exit West,’ Mohsin Hamid Mixes Global Trouble With a Bit of Magic

Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times:

HamidMohsin Hamid’s dynamic yet lapidary books have all explored the convulsive changes overtaking the world, as tradition and modernity clash headlong, and as refugees — fleeing war or poverty or hopelessness — try to make their way to safer ground. His compelling new novel, “Exit West,” is no exception, recounting the story of the migrants Saeed and Nadia, who leave an unnamed country in the midst of a civil war and journey to Greece, England and eventually the United States in an effort to invent new lives for themselves. The first half of their story is about how war warps everyday life; the second half, a tale of globalization and its discontents. Writing in spare, crystalline prose, Hamid conveys the experience of living in a city under siege with sharp, stabbing immediacy. He shows just how swiftly ordinary life — with all its banal rituals and routines — can morph into the defensive crouch of life in a war zone, with fears of truck bombs and sniper fire and armed soldiers at checkpoints becoming a daily reality, along with constant surveillance from drones and helicopters. He also captures how insidiously violence alters the calculus of daily life: how windows with beautiful views become a liability; how funerals become smaller, more rushed affairs because of fighting in the streets.

The fiercely independent Nadia is feverishly keen to find a way out of the besieged city, and she and her more introspective boyfriend, Saeed, soon find an agent, who, for a fee, promises to supply them with an exit plan. There have been rumors of magical doors that whisk people away to strange and distant lands, and the door that Saeed and Nadia enter transports them to a beach on the Greek island of Mykonos, where hundreds of other migrants are living in tents and lean-tos in a makeshift refugee camp. Later, the couple will try other doorways that take them to other countries, other continents. “It was said in those days,” Hamid writes, “that the passage was both like dying and like being born.”

More here.

The returns to societal capital

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Dietrich Vollrath over at his website [via Brad Delong]:

Brad DeLong had a recent post that contained a number of ideas regarding how we view redistribution in a market economy. I picked up on some comments he made towards the end of that post, in which he points out that much of our prosperity comes from a stock of societal capital that we unknowingly rely on every day. And because that societal capital is unseen and uncompensated, we are all in some way overpaid for what we do.

When he says societal capital, I think of it in two broad categories:

  1. Trust: I think this is much of what DeLong has in mind. We are lucky to be in the “trust” or “cooperate” equilibrium in our repeated game of exhanging goods and services. If you like, call it the “stag hunt” equilibrium Nick Rowe talks about. Regardless, we benefit from the decisions of our ancestors to play this equilibrium, so that it is the default. If you want to say this is due to some institutions, or culture, or pure luck, it doesn’t matter. We’ve found our way to the trust equilibrium, and benfit from that immensely.2.
  2. Scale: He doesn’t mention this explicitly, but I think it is as relevant as trust. Scale influences the potential profits from innovations, and so is crucial to growth. Bigger market, more profits, more incentives to innovate. But scale is not the same thing as trust, or institutions, or culture. If you doubt that, ask yourself why no firm is spending millions to get into New Zealand, paragon of free market institutions, but they are falling all over themselves to do business in China. Living in the US, or EU, or China, is to reap the benefits of living with scale.

The heart of DeLong’s point is that neither trust nor scale are things that are owned by any firm or individual. You could say that we inherited them from our ancestors, or you could say these are emergent properties, or you could say that they are designed by the institutions we choose for ourselves. Regardless, trust and scale are “ideas” in the broadest sense, and are inputs into the production process in that trust and scale mean our set of rival inputs (labor, capital) can produce more with them than without.

How is it that scale and trust mean we are overpaid?

More here.

Citizenship: A relic of European legal culture?

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Dieter Gosewinkel in Eurozine:

A state is “the corporate body of a settled people equipped with sovereign authority”, wrote the influential Austrian constitutional lawyer Georg Jellinek in 1900. The defining characteristics of statehood are accordingly sovereign state power, a titular state people and a delineated state territory. This model of clear demarcations was formulated at the highpoint of the emergence of nation states, when they were at the peak of their legitimacy, and continues to shape international law to this day. National borders and national citizenship define an interior and exterior through legal means and thereby determine inclusion and exclusion. However, the theoretical and ethical bases of this legal construction are beginning to seem increasingly flawed.

Two waves of globalisation have undermined – and continue to undermine – the spatial concept of an economically and politically self-contained state. Worldwide flows of information, economic activity, communication and above all migration contradict conventional understanding of national statehood based on static models, in which the population is tied to one location, cultures are nationally delimited, and borders are only crossed as an exception. Political practice drives these developments forwards. The freedom of movement within the united Europe – the dissolution of borders for communication, goods and travel – has shaped the continent’s de facto existence to such an extent that it determines how leading European politicians imagine Europe ought to be: border checks should no longer be possible because they can no longer be conducted in practice. Praxis creates a theory that, in turn, confirms praxis. The advance of universalist global ethics and the humanitarianism of human rights legitimise a global politics of morality. Against this, the boundaries of traditional nation states seem at best anachronistic and at worst theoretically simplistic and ethically illegitimate.

More here.

Tragedy and Philosophy

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Richard Marshall interviews Dennis Schmidt in 3:AM Magazine:

3:AM: You have written about the tension between tragedy and philosophy – German philosophy in particular. What is this tension?

DS: I would suggest that this tension is at the very root of the idea of philosophy that we have inherited in the West and that, until recently, has largely gone unchallenged. Over time, this tension was simply set aside as philosophy increasingly came to neglect the claims of art. But when philosophy as we now know it began Plato took the work of art, especially tragedies (and here Homer is included since Plato does not distinguish tragedy and epic as Aristotle will), as a sort of foil in his efforts to delineate this new way of speaking about the world called “philosophy.” A different stage or theatre was exposed – a theatre of ideas in the mind, not of actors on the stage – language and dialogue were still crucial to this new theatre, but even the residue of theatre that belonged to philosophical dialogue would very soon disappear. The birth of the essay, of the treatise, is coterminous with the essential exclusion of the work of art from philosophy. [As an aside, I would suggest that interviews, such as the one’s you conduct, are a gentle way of restoring something of the dialogue character of thinking to philosophy.] Part of the argument that I made in speaking of the German recovery of Greek tragedy as a philosophical problem is that this marks a genuinely new moment in the long history of philosophy and that this recovery of tragedy as a question opens up avenues for philosophy in general that have been closed off since the beginnings of philosophy.

Perhaps the most direct way to characterize this tension is to say that tragedy is the expression of a view of life as defined finally by an insurmountable contradiction (of a law of life at odds with itself), while philosophy will always aim at a sort of overcoming of contradiction (of the law of non-contradiction as the need of truth). There is, of course, more to be said. The form of presentation proper to tragedy is, as Aristotle notes, reliant upon language, meter, plot, spectacle, and stage. Tragedy needs to appeal to emotional life, to a feeling that perhaps cannot be conceptualized. Philosophy, on the other hand, is deeply distrustful of any turn to emotional life and it is equally suspicious of any language that does not abide by the rule of the concept, that is, by the demand for universalizability and consistency. The concept has long remained the mother tongue of philosophy and, at the same time, a tragedy that can be reduced to its concept does not merit the claim of being a work of art.

More here.

The Owl of Minerva Problem

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

OwlWisdom is a product of experience and reflection. As a consequence, it's often quite a long road to that goal. It's for this reason that the poetic expression, "the Owl of Minerva Flies at Dusk," has its effect. Only at the end of the day, once the work is done and we recline in thought, do the insights of what we ought to have done, what the best option was, and what was wrong about a particular decision become clear. We live forward, but we understand backward. And that can occasion distinctive problems.

In democratic politics, this point about insight is certainly true. And it extends not only to the errors we may make as a country, but also to the errors we make in understanding ourselves and our decision-making. In its current form, much democratic theory is focused on the decision-making and argumentative elements of modern political life. This deliberative democratic movement casts democratic life as that of participating in ongoing discussions, wherein all have a voice, no issue is beyond question, and every decision must be justifiable to all those whom it effects. There are admirable ideals, but we understand the ways we can fail those ideals only in making mistakes, only in witnessing the pathologies to which public reason is prone.

We experience living in a democracy and then we see the particular kinds of challenges and errors to which reasoning together can be prone. Perhaps we should have anticipated the effects of group polarization that seem to define contemporary political discourse, but we understand it all too well now that we live under its conditions. The incurious dogmatism of epistemic closure, the slippery euphemism of Orwellian Newspeak, and the abuses of and visceral reactions to political correctness are all political phenomena that require we see as developments from histories and arising within particular social settings. We do now know them a priori.

The Owl of Minerva Problem at first looks like a simple point about the retrospective nature of knowledge: You must first have experience to know, so knowledge must be dependent on (at least some) events of the past. But the Owl of Minerva Problem raises distinctive trouble for our politics, especially when politics is driven by argument and discourse. Here is why: once we have a critical concept, say, of a fallacy, we can deploy it in criticizing arguments. We may use it to correct an interlocutor. But once our interlocutors have that concept, that knowledge changes their behavior. They can use the concept not only to criticize our arguments, but it will change the way they argue, too. Moreover, it will also become another thing about which we argue. And so, when our concepts for describing and evaluating human argumentative behavior is used amidst those humans, it changes their behavior. They adopt it, adapt to it. They, because of the vocabulary, are moving targets, and the vocabulary becomes either otiose or abused very quickly.

Consider the use of fallacy vocabulary less as a device for the cool evaluation of arguments, now, but rather as a tool of evasion or attack.

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Random Triangles and Pillow Problems for Insomniacs

by Jonathan Kujawa

While laying in bed on the night of January 20, 1884, Lewis Carroll conjured up the following puzzle:

Three Points are taken at random on an infinite Plane. Find the chance of their being the vertices of an obtuse-angled Triangle.

That is, since any three points on a sheet of paper can be connected to form a triangle, what's the likelihood that one of the angles is more than ninety degrees if you pick those points at random?

If you only know Lewis Carroll from Alice in Wonderland you may be surprised that his thoughts turned to mathematics. In fact, his day job was to be a mathematician at Christ Church college in Oxford under the name Charles Dodgson. In addition to his more famous works of fiction, he was known for writing several mathematical texts. When teaching linear algebra I always take a day to talk about Dodgson Condensation [1].

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Lewis Carroll working on a pillow problem.

One of the books he wrote is Curiosa Mathematica, Part II: Pillow Problems Thought Out During Wakeful Hours. It is the compendium of 72 math problems Dodgson pondered and solved while waiting to fall asleep. Helpfully he also gives the date he dreamt up the problem and the solution he devised. Go here if you'd like to take a look at the other 71 problems.

The Obtuse Triangle Problem is No. 58. Before we take a look at his solution we should step back a minute. What does it mean to pick three points at random? Like most politicians' speeches, it sounds good but falls apart under the slightest scrutiny. Are we to pick x and y coordinates for each of these points? Alternatively, we could pick an angle between 0 and 360 degrees and a distance and, starting at the origin, take the point at that angle and distance. Or, since all we care about is the resulting triangle, maybe we should randomly pick an angle between 0 and 180 degrees, pick two side lengths at random, and make the triangle made by drawing two sides of those lengths with that angle between them. I'm sure we could come up with a dozen different ways to randomly pick a triangle.

If a random triangle was a random triangle, and if the world was fair and just, then the odds of an obtuse triangle would be the same regardless of our method. Sadly, the world is neither fair nor just. It will matter how we choose to pick a random triangle [2].

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Monday Poem

“The woolly mammoth vanished from the Earth 4,000 years ago,
but now scientists say they are on the brink of resurrecting the ancient
beast in a revised form, through an ambitious feat of genetic engineering.”

— Hannah Devlin inThe Guardian

Lazarus

If the wooly mammoth becomes the new Lazarus
reborn from an ice sarcophagus
does it mean that we may all return one day
to beat our breasts at the injustice of death
but also to rejoice in miracles? It’s an
honest question, we’ve been asking it
for generations, yet it’s never been answered
but in myth, the story that elevates ignorance
to poetry, that blazes red trails in pigment,
that ends up only as sublime music to our ears,
elusive, illusory as the apparition of tomorrow

But we still have this day
It seems never to end

Jim Culleny
2/21/17

Reality Check: Wine, Subjectivism and the Fate of Civilization

by Dwight Furrow

Perfectly round circlesI must confess to having once been an olfactory oaf. In my early days as a wine lover, I would plunge my nose into a glass of Cabernet, sniffing about for a hint of cassis or eucalyptus only to discover a blast of alcohol thwarting my ascension to the aroma heaven promised in the tasting notes. A sense of missed opportunity was especially acute when the wine was described as "sexy, flamboyant, with a bounteous body." Disappointed but undaunted, I would hurry off to wine tastings hoping the reflected brilliance of a wine expert might inspire epithelial fitness. It was small comfort when the expert would try to soften my disappointment with the banality, "it's all subjective anyway." So one evening, while receiving instruction in the finer points of wine tasting from a charming but newly minted sommelier, I let frustration get the better of me and blurted "Well, if it's all subjective, what the hell are we doing here? Is it just your personal opinion that there is cassis in the cab or is it really there. We all have opinions. If you're an expert you should be giving us your knowledge, not your opinion!" Someone muttered something about "chill out" and it was quickly decided that my glass needed refilling. But the point stands. The idea of expertise involves the skillful apprehension of facts. If there is no fact about aromas of cassis in that cab there is no expertise at discerning it.

These conversations over a glass of wine are more pleasant (because of the wine) but structurally similar to the semester-long task of getting my college students to realize that moral beliefs are not arbitrary emendations of their lightly held personal attitudes but are rooted in our need to survive and flourish as social beings. Yet even after weeks of listening to me going on about the sources of value they still write term papers confidently asserting that with regard to "right" and "wrong", eh, who knows?

Subjectivism, the view that a belief is made true by my subjective attitude towards it, has long been the default belief of freshman students and arbiters of taste. Unfortunately this tendency to treat it as the wisdom of the ages has escaped the confines of the wine bar and classroom into the larger society. Buoyed by the cheers of multitudes, our fabulist-in-chief, routinely finds his "own facts" circulating in what seems to be an otherwise empty mind. Unfortunately, this is no longer mere fodder for a seminar debate.

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Politics Trump Healthcare Information: News Coverage of the Affordable Care Act

by Jalees Rehman

6a017c344e8898970b01bb097d5b09970d-320wiThe Affordable Care Act, also known as the "Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act", "Obamacare" or the ACA, is a comprehensive healthcare reform law enacted in March 2010 which profoundly changed healthcare in the United States. This reform allowed millions of previously uninsured Americans to gain health insurance by establishing several new measures, including the expansion of the federal Medicaid health insurance coverage program, introducing the rule that patients with pre-existing illnesses could no longer be rejected or overcharged by health insurance companies, and by allowing dependents to remain on their parents' health insurance plan until the age of 26. The widespread increase in health insurance coverage – especially for vulnerable Americans who were unemployed, underemployed or worked for employers that did not provide health insurance benefits – was also accompanied by new regulations targeting the healthcare system itself. Healthcare providers and hospitals were provided with financial incentives to introduce electronic medical records and healthcare quality metrics.

As someone who grew up in Germany where health insurance coverage is guaranteed for everyone, I assumed that over time, the vast majority of Americans would appreciate the benefits of universal coverage. One no longer has to fear financial bankruptcy as a consequence of a major illness and a government-back health insurance also provides for peace of mind when changing jobs. Instead of accepting employment primarily because it offers health benefits, one can instead choose a job based on the nature of the work. But I was surprised to see the profound antipathy towards this new law, especially among Americans who identified themselves as conservatives or Republicans, even if they were potential beneficiaries of the reform. Was the hatred of progressive-liberal views, the Democrats and President Obama who had passed the ACA so intense among Republicans that they were willing to relinquish the benefits of universal health coverage for the sake of their political ideology? Or were they simply not aware of the actual content of the law and opposed it simply for political reasons?

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Perceptions

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Eileen Alice Soper (1905-1990). When Badgers Awake.

John Lister-Kaye, naturalist and wildlife writer, describes his experience with Soper in “Gods of the Morning”:

“As we approached the (badger) setts in the dusk she seemed to slough off her human-ness and transmogrify into something more than half wild. I couldn't understand how she sat so still. She denied cold and rain, she ignored itches – a gnat landing on her nose – she seemed to become part of the wood herself, part of the tree, the soil, the still evening air …”

More here, and here.

Special note to my siblings: Eileen Soper was the illustrator of our beloved childhood books by Enid Blyton – look!

WEIMAR ON MY MIND

by Brooks Riley

National Theater, Goethe and Schiller

National Theater, Goethe and Schiller

To paraphrase Heinrich Heine, I dream of Weimar in the night—not the era, but the town of Weimar, a lovely word on its own, one steeped in intellectual significance, historical resonance, cultural audacity, political and artistic enlightenment, philosophical bravura–and in modern times monstrous atrocity.

I remember the first time I heard the word Weimar. It wasn’t that small town in Germany where Goethe, Schiller, Nietzsche, Liszt, Luther, Cranach, Bach, Wagner, Gropius, Klee, Kandinsky, Strauss, Schopenhauer and countless other thinkers and artists once lived–or even where Kafka on a visit fell in love with the daughter of the caretaker of Goethe’s house.

It wasn’t the birthplace of the Bauhaus movement. It wasn’t the place where the new German constitution was signed in 1919 launching the legendary Weimar Republic, that glittering era of promise before the darkness fell. And it wasn’t the town closest to the murderous concentration camp at Buchenwald.

It was our Weimaraner, a hunting dog my father acquired to quell his thirst for a canine to tip the balance in a feline household. But Tonndorf, named for the castle a few miles from Weimar where my father, Artillery Commander of the 6th Armored Division had quartered with his regiment at the end of World War 2, wasn’t allowed in our household, and was banished to the stable with the horses, where he spent hours hoping to catch a rat coming out of a hole in the earthen floor of a stall, successful only once in all his years, when an emerging rat took a wrong turn and landed in his maw.

Weimaraners were exotic in the mid-Fifties. They hadn’t been discovered by William Wegman or immortalized in the Museum of Modern Art. What I remember best about Tonndorf was the color of his coat, my favorite color, taupe. Taupe is the color gray with a smile, a hint of warmth that seeps through the sober neutrality of lightened black. I never think of Weimar without somehow seeing taupe, and when I look at Goethe’s color wheel, I can’t help wishing he had added that smile.

It would be many years before I actually went to Weimar, years before I began to understand the subterranean currents that would lead me there. So many interests of mine had their genesis in Weimar or were inextricably entwined with it. In college, a term paper of mine dealt with Friedrich Schiller’s Wallenstein trilogy, which was written and premiered there. In it, I posited that Schiller might have foreseen the dangers of Napoleon, and had written Wallenstein as a parable. Ironically, Weimar later briefly fell to Napoleon.

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