Friday, March 23, 2012


The first place I ever lived was in a little studio unit behind the apartment that my grandmother managed in Santa Monica, California. In the front yard, separating the  main building from the neighbors, there was a large hedge covered with bright red berries. When I was a very small child, I remember my mom or maybe my grandmother telling me not to eat the pyrocanthus berries because they were poisonous. (It occurs to me wonder here why you would have an enormous hedge of poisonous berries in your front yard, but never  mind.) From them or from somewhere I also learned that the fruit made the birds drunk. I doubt they were educating me on drunkenness at this young age, but in my mind it is all part of the same lesson.

Now I wasn't even old enough to read at this point, so I don't know how I got the spelling so firmly in my mind as pyrocanthus. Like eucalyptus or who knows what all else, it had a basically Latin sound so I probably filled in the blanks.

A couple of days ago I was self-editing something I'd written and came across a passage where a grown man was telling someone else that the pyrocanthus is poisonous. I had scrawled in the margin "True?" And so, as I came across this question, I decided I better find out.

First, very surprised to learn that it wasn't called pyrocanthus at all, but simply pyracantha. I don't know why the adults in my life seemed to always refer to them in the plural, but when I was hearing pyrocanthus, they were saying pyrocanthas. This is, of course, a pretty minor distinction, but it was odd having reached the over the hill crowd to know that I have been mistaken in this for pretty much my entire life.

The true shocker, though, is that pyracanthas aren't poisonous. (A small caveat follows, so don't go stuffing your mouth with them until we get there.)  In the way that we do want to cling to misinformation even as it falls in tatters all around us, I thought, well, surely there is some variation of opinion on this matter. No. There is no variation of opinion--well, not of informed opinion. The fruit is bitter but it makes a great jelly and as you will see a nice sauce. The pyracantha berry is not a berry at all, but a pome, and as such, related to the apple.

The birds do get drunk on them, though. Well, on the half-rotted, fermented fruit. As anybody would.

I thought  I would include some video on birds getting drunk on pyracantha. I did find a video of a drunk bird, but like videos of drunk humans and maybe even more so, it isn't particularly funny, but a bit sad.

Instead, though, I'll regale you with a couple of  cool videos from Here is where the caveat comes in. Although the fruit is indeed edible, the seeds, like apple seeds are not. The chemical reaction with your body creates a teeny tiny amount of cyanide. Uh, yeah. A few seeds won't harm you, but you can imagine why parents might tell children, and I was far from the only one, to leave these things alone.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Grundnorm--Following up on Grotius

Hans Kelner

I know you probably thought I was going to let you off the hook when it came to legal references for awhile, but if you happen to read the comments here, and understand the tendencies of this blog (not that I do), you probably assumed this one would find its way to a post at some point.

Although I tend to write posts about words that I think I understand, but don't, really, I also sometimes like to write up those that have come across my path for the first time. Here's the context in which this word was used as a comment by Adrian McKinty:

Where laws come from is a very curious, circular process. We all know that Congress makes the law but where is the law that says we have to obey Congress? Well that's the Constitution, but where's the law that says we have to obey the Constitution? Well the Constitution was ratified by the assemblies of the original 13 states. Where's the law that says that we should obey those assemblies or accept what they did 230 years ago as being valid now? At some point you basically have to stop asking why and admit that the Grundnorm (theres another word for you) is an axiom that you just have to have faith in.

So I think we can all see more or less what the general idea is here. I originally interpreted it as something like "the source" and thought the word translated as something like 'the ground normal'. For better or worse, I've also been watching the new TV show 'Grimm', where a lot of fantastical characters masquerade as human beings and as they are supposed to have Germanic fairytale aspects, they all have names like Blutbaden and Reinegens, so I have to say this word is getting a bit mixed up for me with its Grimmer associations...

But we actually have one particular person to thank for this term, namely, Hans Kelsen. Kelsen was an Austrian Jew who lived in Vienna in the much vaunted fin-de-siecle. There is a lot to say about this vital multi-cultural era, but basically, it was a pressure cooker. Kelsen is someone who knew both ends of the spectrum--he actually wrote the Austrian post WWI constitution, but in the end was forced to flee to the U.S. because he fell out with the Nazis.

Kelsen was a prodigious scholar, but his most famous book is The Pure Theory of Law, which was published in 1934. It's in this book that he comes up with the concept of the Grundnorm, which really just means 'the basic norm'. He was looking for a kind of protolaw, stripped of all its cultural and governmental trappings. Though it may sound and possibly is a bit abstract, his reason for seeking it is apparently as a justification for why we should obey the laws of our own particular circumstances.

I'm really poaching this all from a very accessible pair of articles on Kelsen by William R. Long which you can find here and here. Some of the things I find interesting in his discussion are that, though the scintillating brew of the Austro-Hungarian Empire gave rise to many great movements and ideas, including the Theory of Relativity and psychoanalysis, it also, being complex and leading to various uncertainties, created a craving for purity and the absolute. A retrograde desire, perhaps. But Kelsen's ideas seem, like Grotius', to be important to our own times, because we continue to need to think about ways that particular and local law and culture can be connected to a more global way of seeing.

(Thanks to PQ of A Building Roam for finding and sharing this link.)

Thursday, March 15, 2012


After the last post on "jerry-rigged", I thought that the fact that both Kathleen Kirk and I had some association to the term "gerrymandered" made a look at that word interesting.

We all know what gerrymandering is, I think. (Just play along if that's not true, because all will be revealed.) It's when a voting district's boundaries are tinkered with to change the voting demographic within it to create a more favorable output to the one who's doing the tinkering.

If you're like me, you probably thought this was an ancient custom, going back to the days when Germanicus used to tromp around Germania. Or something.

Well, it probably did, given human nature, but the name is much more recent than that. "Gerrymandering" has no ancient etymology. It takes its name from one Elbridge Gerry, who happened to be governor of Massachusetts in 1812 and signed a bill that allowed redistricting that favored the Democrats against the Federalists. His critics made fun of the district that was in fact created, saying that it looked like a salamander. So to gerrymander is a portmanteau word--gerry plus salamander becomes gerrymander.

A vulture here, but a salamander to others.

Can I just say quickly here how refreshing it is for a change not to have to go back to Middle English and then Middle French and so on to find a word's derivation?

Gerry is reported to have only reluctantly signed the bill into law, but his name got attached to it anyway. His name is said to have been pronounced Gary, but gerrymander usually is pronounced Jerry-. If he wasn't proud of his act, it's probably just as well. He didn't make out too badly from the tactic. Elbridge Thomas Gerry became the fifth vice-president of the United States.


Now a really sort of odd thing happened around this. And I think Kathleen, if she's reading along here, will appreciate it. I typed out the beginning of this a couple of nights ago, and then thought I'd leave it lie a day. The next morning I got up and with the time change it was pretty dark still. I was all set to take a shower when I looked at the tub and saw a creature sitting there on the rim of the tub. It was a salamander. Admittedly, at the time, I didn't think 'salamander' or make any connection to this blog at all. I thought 'Lizard!' and I was a little freaked out because it was so still that I thought it might be dead. But no, it is was a Santa Cruz Black Salamander, as I discovered later. It was very much alive, because it took the opportunity to duck back into a crack as soon as I had the decency to turn out the light.

I never knew of the existence of the Santa Cruz Black Salamander until now. One of my naturalist friends says she has usually only seen them smashed on the road. Despite my freak out, it was very nice of the cute little thing to pay me a visit on the morning after I researched this post. And it was actually pretty nice of it to make its presence known before I got in the shower... 

Monday, March 12, 2012


I am not really even sure how to spell it, but since a lot of my life seems to be put together that way these days, I thought I'd give this one a shot.

What do you think of when you hear the word jerryrigged? I think of something that's made to work by putting things together in a roundabout and random assemblage sort of way. Using things for purposes they weren't originally intended for. And all a little dicey and on the verge of not working at all. I don't mind a little jerryrigging in my life--a lot of the way we lived in my childhood was kind of like that and it wasn't terrible, but there is a way that when you're living on  approximate fixes that things can get to be a little draining. Right now the cable box for my TV doesn't work the way it should, so I only get certain channels. I can watch some things on my computer, but not everything. And I have to balance the TV on a storage box because it works better than the previous little TV that could balance on the broken chair.

And don't get me started on the new computer system at work and the little fixes need to get the new system to do what the old system (the legacy system) did so easily before...

I have to think I was a sailor in some past life as so many of my terms here end up being nautical in one way or another. Jerry-rigged is actually originally "jury-rigged" and I guess I have heard that term, but even reading it now, I think of rigged juries so perhaps that's why this variant grew up. ('Jiggering' also leads back to this term.) The online sources posit that it was perhaps influenced by 'jerry-built' which definitely has a sense of 'defective' from at least 1869. The thought is that 'jerry' is from the male name, and there is another example in 'jerry-sneak', a sneaking fellow, a henpecked husband, but that one which had it's day in the 19th century has come and gone.

So why nautical? Because jury-rig has to do with using a temporary 'jury-mast' as a replacement for a regular mast when things go bad. As Wikipedia has it, although ships carried a lot spare parts, it wasn't really convenient to carry around something as cumbersome as a spare mast, so improvisations were in order. The sailors might use a top mast, a boom, switch out foremast with a mizzenmast, or use a bowsprit. All of these options were weaker than the mast they replaced, but would do in a pinch. Or it was hoped they would.

The etymology on jury-rigged is a bit open ended. It could come from the the Old French ajurie, which means help or relief; it could also be from joury mast, which basically means 'mast for a day', from the French jour, day. Or it could come from the sense of 'injury'. They all seem pretty plausible to me. Maybe the  different senses acted upon each other to strengthen the word.

If all this is bit less than vivid, here is an account of what it means to sail with a jury mast.

However, despite my naval past life, I must bring this back to the present. What's in a name? Jerry-rigged is a bit pejorative when all is said and done. But as they say, reframe it. Another slang term is to "Macgyver it". As anyone with an active TV life knows, this comes from the old television show MacGyver, whose lead character was always improvising with ordinary objects to do incredible things. I have to admit that I was out of the loop when this show was at its peak, but I will recommend Burn Notice to the MacGyvers among you. I love the show, but I don't really learn a whole lot from it. I have a feeling that in that past life I probably had to walk the plank, as my own MacGyvering leaves a lot to be desired.

Saturday, March 10, 2012


Regular readers of Adrian McKinty's blog--and I know you're out there, because I have latched on to more than a few of you through that very source--may recognize this word. Lawyers almost certainly will, as will some others whose reading is both wide and deep, a category which I haven't managed to fall into just yet.

The trajectory over at Psychopathology of Everyday Life typically goes something like this. Adrian mentions something or someone and that something or someone for some reason reminds him of Christopher Hitchens, whose mind and body of work he generally admires. Then a commenter will express dismay at the appropriateness of Hitchens as any kind of hero due to his position on the Iraq war. (Sometimes that commenter has been me.) Then someone else will describe the U.S.'s entry into war in Iraq as a war crime and Adrian will disagree. At some point or another, he will cite Grotius and challenge his dissenters to read the relevant passages, knowing that few, if any, ever will.

I will get to who Grotius was and what his contribution to such discussions were in a moment, but I thought I'd start out by explaining what my own particular interest in this is. The reason dissenters won't read Grotius is not, I think, laziness, or a fit of pique, but that they dismiss Grotius on the grounds of relevance, and relevance to the concerns of the 21st century particularly. Americans, at least, seem to have the sense that not only time but geography make it impossible that Grotius could have anything to say to our condition.

Now this kind of thinking is a bugaboo of mine. I come across this in liberal Santa Cruz, a demographic I am largely at one with,  in relation to reading any sort of biblical text, despite the fact that the Bible has been part and parcel of Western Civilization for the last 2000 years or so. Whatever else it is, it is a treasure trove of Western myth and folklore.  Regardless of your orientation towards its spiritual propositions, it behooves you to know what it says.

Similarly, with this whole Grotius disdain, it seems to me to be a real ignorance of how a legal system comes about, and lack of understanding of how our contemporary law is founded on earlier thought and not just magically made up on the spot. There is the same kind of condescension toward the past that I find in my anti-religionist counterparts. I'm not a lawyer, and I am not a huge cheerleader for the law as it stands, either, but the idea that my own immediate reaction to a given situation is somehow intrinsically better than that of one of the great jurists of the past, who has mulled the thing over far more than I have, seems fairly ludicrous.

Which brings us to Grotius. Who he?

Hugo Grotius, aka, Huig de Groot, Hugo Grocio or Hugo de Groot was a Dutch jurist of the early seventeenth century. This was far from all he was. Like other multitalented types of his era, he was also a poet and playwright and as a theologian provided some of the basis for both the Methodist and Pentecostal movements. But our main interest in him here is his profound effect on the foundations of international law, and in particular, in his major work De jure belli ac pacis, or On the Law of War and Peace: Three books.

Grotius wasn't living in the fabled ivory tower of academia when he wrote this work. He started it while imprisoned for his religious beliefs and continued it while in exile in Paris (his escape from life imprisonment involved being smuggled out in a book chest). He was alive during the period of not only the 80 Years War between the Netherlands and Spain, but also the 30 Years War between the Catholic and Protestant nations of Europe. Although he tries to posit the circumstances of a "just war", his intent is actually an effort to constrain the forces of war that he witnessed in his time.

As Steven Forde has it in what looks to be a very good article on Grotius--I can't access the whole thing because I don't have user's rights over at JSTOR--

"We must always remember that Grotius's search for a middle path between realism and idealism is motivated by an essentially moral concern. His desire is for an effective set of moral restraints on states."

As to his pertinence for us today, well, for two centuries after the publication of The Law and War and Peace, Grotius was considered authoritative, according to Forde, but then his reputation suffered a great decline, "due to the rise of positivism in international law and the disfavor of natural law thinking in moral philosophy." But Grotius is on the rise again today because the things he was puzzling over are, as Forde has it, "permanent problems of foreign policy and ethics".  His effort to find a middle way is as important to our understanding of conflict as it was his.

Have I gotten around to reading the 350+ pages of The Law of War and Peace?

Uh, no. Not yet--but you can find it HERE ... or, broken down into more digestible parts, HERE .

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

flotsam and jetsam

The sad fact about ignorance is that it tends to creep back up on you. I know, for instance, that I once knew exactly what flotsam and jetsam  was. I know this because I know exactly where I learned of it. It was in a book one of my  early grade school teachers read to us, and I believe we may have even done some kind of science project on it.

Because of Pagoo, the hermit crab, we learned a lot about tidepool life. My sense is that flotsam and jetsam are what float in and out with the tide. Debris? But am I even right about that? And if so, which is which?  


Well, I would have to reread the book to know how flotsam or jetsam ended up in Pagoo's tidepool. Now that I think about it, maybe it was just plankton. Anyway, much to my relief, flotsam and jetsam are indeed debris, not microscopic sealife. They are terms in maritime law which define different kinds of cargo that end up in the sea. Flotsam, you guessed it, is cargo or wreckage that remains floating on the sea after the shipwrecked ship has sunk. Jetsam is cargo or equipment that has been thrown from a ship in distress to lighten its load, and by extension cargo that has ended up washed up on shore. There is even another term, lagan, for whatever sinks to the ocean floor. (Sometimes, though this word means cargo thrown overboard that has been attached to a buoy with the hope of being able to retrieve it later.)

Flotsam comes from Anglo-French floteson, and back from there to Old French flotaison, "a floating". As for jetsam, as I was writing this up, I wondered if it was related to the word "jettison", but decided that was too unlikely. Wrong. Jettison, the act of throwing overboard, was actually  restored to this original meaning after it had drifted into being jetsam, which had the vague sense of things cast overboard. The sequence of jetsam goes back through "jottsome" to Middle English jetteson to Anglo French getteson, and finally to Old French gettaison-- "a throwing". 

A-floatin' and a-throwin' and a-sinkin' is about the size of it all.

But the figurative use of the phrase to mean 'odds and ends' comes up as early as 1861. And even before this, Sir Walter Scott, though retaining more of the original meaning, wrote in his Diary of 1848,

"The goods and chattles of the inhabitants are all said to savour of Flotsome and Jetsome." 

Ouch, Sir Walter.

Saturday, March 3, 2012


Yeah, I know--talk about your esoteric. But I've finally written my review of P.D. James' Death Comes to Pemberly, and before I leave the matter behind, I thought I'd check out that last niggling word problem I had with it. No spoilers here, but in the middle of the book, Elizabeth and crew head out to visit some long suffering cottagers, and to do this, they all ride in a landaulet. James apparently assumes that we all have had such experiences, because no description is given. It's got to be some kind of coach or carriage or at least conveyance and presumably not a shabby one, given that this one is owned by the Darcys of Pemberly.

So let's look into it.


To be perfectly honest, I was reading this word wrong, which may account to some degree for my inability to make sense of it. I kept seeing it as "laudaulet", and in fact the header originally said that, but I decided not to perpetuate my own confusion.

Well, I guess you could say that the landaulet was an Austen era convertible. It was a smaller version of the landau, named for the German city in which it was manufactured, which was a  light four-wheeled carriage, suspended on elliptical springs, whatever those are. (Although there is a minority theory which has it that it all goes back to the Spanish lando, a light carriage drawn by mules, and going back from there to the Arabic al-andul.) At any rate, the landau has a two part folding top that comes from the front and the rear, while the landaulet only has the the rear folding top.

If you're wondering why P.D. James bothered specifying such a vehicle in the story, because I certainly did, well, it turns out that there is a lot of differentiation between carriages in Austen's novels. In fact, here is a very lively little paper on these things, which for Austen fans is much more worth your while than anything further I could say here.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Google survival tips

Yeah, I'm cruising for a bruising here, but I thought I'd mention a few things that bloggers and their followers might like to know. I'm in education mode, as we've switched computer systems at work this week as well, and though it's going all right, except for the occasional moment that makes me berzerk, it's definitely one of those times where you are sharing what you've gleaned with each other. So all this peer on peer stuff seems to be leaking over to the blog world as well.

Half the Eyestrain

First of all, I thought I'd mention that when you're dealing with the word verification system, you really only have to decipher the first word. My recent post mentions the one that was obscured by a big black ball of something, but it holds true now that you don't actually have to type both words. Go ahead, try it--though not here, because I've done away with it on my blog altogether. I get a little more spam, but most of it seems to end up in the spam filter. It may be a bit annoying to those who are following by email, but I think on balance it's the way to go.

Out with the New, in with the Old--or, Only Embed

Which leads me to my next point. I realize that there are probably as many reasons people blog as there are bloggers--some people write and don't care about the comments, some people like the comments but want to moderate them to a degree, and some people, like me, really want all the comments that are legit, and are happiest in forums where the commenters tend to interact with each other. In other words, I like forums where the comments take on a life of their own. The new updated blogger doesn't really allow for that now, because it doesn't let you know when new comments have been posted. Maybe most of the blogosphere doesn't mind, but it takes some of the fun out of the whole thing for me.

To that end, and only as a piece of information and not even a suggestion about what other bloggers "should" do, I did ask about it in the google help forum, and discovered that if you switch back to the old blogger interface, you can still offer a notification service by making sure that your comments option is the one that is "embedded". I wasn't actually off the old blogger myself, because using the new blogger only gave me a lot of error messages. Changing my own blog format doesn't particularly help me, because I was already seeing notifications for my own blog, but I think going retro is an appropriate reaction to new interface irritations. Here is the link to the discussion I had, in case, as is highly likely, I have been something less than clear.

The Disappeared
Another thing that's been happening a lot lately is that people's blogs suddenly disappear, and those interested in reading it are given a very disturbing message about the blog being taken down due to suspicious activity. I've hit a couple of blogs this way, and I know from a friend that this happened to mine as well. Not that they ever notified me that it had happened, but once I found out I went in and did a verification process. I guess they do apologize if you enquire. Uh, thanks, I guess. In any event, it doesn't seem to last long, so don't freak out. Or maybe you should. I really don't know.

Stop looking at me with those Googly-Oogly Eyes--privacy 

Finally, new policy goes into effect about privacy starting today, which means that your name is going to be linked more explicitly to your information. Again, a lot of people aren't all that concerned about these issues, and in fact, I am not sure that privacy actually exists anymore, but you do have an option to not give Google quite as much of your history as you may be now.  Here's where you can learn more.

The downside, of course, is that you will no longer get their marvelous help with shopping.