Leslie Buck, RIP

This is the most beautiful place on earth.

There are many such places. Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary. A houseboat in Kashmir, a view down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, a gray gothic farmhouse two stories high at the end of a red dog road in the Allegheny Mountains, a cabin on the shore of a blue lake in spruce and fir country, a greasy alley near the Hoboken waterfront, or even, possibly, for those of a less demanding sensibility, the world to be seen from a comfortable apartment high in the tender, velvety smog of Manhattan, Chicago, Paris, Tokyo, Rio, or Rome — there’s no limit to the human capacity for the homing sentiment.

So begins Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire; he perfectly captures a notion of perfection that Plato would have hated… and been secretly envious of.

I have heard it argued that “there is no such thing as perfect”. I disagree, of course; my view, instead, is that there are many perfect things; ask a new parent (do so before diaper changing gets old–you have maybe a day or two). Monday saw the passing of the designer of one perfect thing. I had never heard his name before today’s obituaries, but I knew and loved his design, as did literally millions of other people.

Leslie Buck (born Laszlo Büch) was 87, a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald (that alone is worthy of note), designed the coffee cup that embodied New York City, the classic blue and white “anthora”, with its Greek Key border, pair of amphoras, and the perfect three golden cups of steaming coffee under the words “We are happy to serve you”. Buck designed it to honor (and, to be honest, to sell to) the Greek diners that populated New York. Hundreds of millions were sold each year (currently, it is no longer in standard production, although it may be custom ordered).

Greeks traveling to the US were welcomed by their countrymen who had already made the journey. Some of the most successful of the earlier wave were the owners of diners–Greek diners, yes, but also many others; because success breeds success, the diner niche in New York was filled by Greeks (oddly enough, I did not learn this in NY, but in Greece, from a historian there). Buck’s design was a shrewd marketing ploy, and it paid off royally. The cup is perfect, and perfect New York.

Last time I was in NY, I and a friend had breakfast in a Greek diner. With the news of Buck’s death, I regret that we did not get our coffee to go. Oh, well. And it is getting harder to find the cup these days, with invasive species of coffee growing unchecked in the city.

Nothing could be finer
Than a New York City diner
With a perfect cup of coffee in your hand
And I wish I had, once more, a
Paper blue-and-white anthora
There’s no better cup you’ll find in all the land
With a bit of Greek confection
And a cup o’ Joe, perfection
Could be found, it seems, on every city block
So, Leslie Buck, here’s to ya
Though I never even knew ya
Both the cup and the designer… out of stock.

Dispatches From The Vaccine Wars

Notes and quotes and anecdotes
And third- or fourth-hand stories
A cheesy website, which promotes
Colloidal silver’s glories
A drop of homeopathy,
A touch of chiropractic,
Let’s claim it’s enteropathy,
Or try another tactic—
It doesn’t matter much at all
Which quack earns our reliance,
So long as children never fall
Into the hands of science!

Tales of sales and such details
Show evil in Big Pharma
When alt-med leaves such paper trails
We’ll claim it’s just bad karma.
Vaccines are money-grubbing schemes—
Each virus or bacillus
Is part of nature’s plan—it seems
That doctors want to kill us.
We’ll separate the false from true
By confirmation bias—
There are no data we can’t skew;
Just go ahead and try us!

We agree, the CDC
Has no concern for health
It’s all a great conspiracy
Protecting doctors’ wealth
You can’t trust doctors any more
It isn’t even funny—
This is important! This is war!
We trust the former Bunny!
Vaccines are tools of mind control
That’s really why they’re made
But they’ll have no effect on us—
The tinfoil hat brigade!

On The Constant And Unchanging Absolute Morality Of The Catholic Church

The Church is a constant; unchanging; a rock;
The foundation of morals; the source of true light
The views of society shift like the sand,
But the church remains solid, and fixed in God’s Sight.

(Abuse is something we’d never allow—
Well, maybe before; that was then, this is now.)

The Church is unwavering, ethically bound,
The Lord’s representatives here on this earth
Committed to God, to The Word he revealed,
The Church has not altered a bit since its birth

(Abuse has happened, yes, we know,
But such a long, long time ago!)

The Church is a shoulder on which you can lean,
The best source of solace; a comfort in grief
Its unchanging nature is part of its strength,
You bring us your troubles, we’ll bring you relief

(Some priests’ behavior may have raised fears,
But why bring those up, after so many years?)

The Church is the teacher of absolute morals,
Of ethics not bound by the whims of the day;
The laws set in stone by Our Heavenly Father
Which never will alter one bit, come what may

(That cover-up of which you speak?
That’s not us now, that’s us last week!)

It seems to me that the church, in recent weeks, has been simultaneously advocating two positions. It is a rock of absolute morality (when compared with the situational ethics we see in secular society, which is clearly inferior) that does not change, has not changed, will not change, because it is, was, and will forever be God’s representative on earth. And it is not raping children any more, would you please quit calling them child rapists, cos after all, that stuff happened sooooo long ago, and we’ve changed since then!

The Pope Reacts?

If the silly men in dresses
Will not recognize their messes
Then the remedy, I guess, is
We shall have to point them out

If the pope we have offended
Think but this, and all is mended:
That’s no less than was intended
(If there ever was a doubt)

Should he stay away from Blighty,
Scorn has beaten God Almighty–
We should all exclaim “all righty,
Then!”, and disregard the pope!

But a cancelled papal visit
Isn’t realistic, is it?
Still, the prospect is exquisite…
And a Cuttlefish can hope!

Again, context.

Changing The Pope’s Itinerary

“Your Holiness, a moment please–we’ve made a couple changes
To the schedule you will follow while you’re visiting this week.
It’s really nothing, mostly–it just sort of rearranges
All the visits, cos a group or two would like to hear you speak.”

“There’s a group of rape survivors; there’s a dozen men with AIDS;
There’s two priests–a married couple–who are looking for your blessing
There’s an epidemiologist, who says his courage fades
When he sees you’re banning condoms when he knows the need is pressing”

“There’s an hour with some “Hitchens” and another with some “Fry”
And between the two, expect to feel a modicum of shame
And then lastly, there’s this “Jesus” bloke, who wants to ask you why,
You are doing all this stupid shit, and say it’s in his name”


To A Rat, On Looking Back On Her Career, In The Lab

Oh, little lab rat, in your prison,
What a sad day has arisen—
Yours, a life of serving science,
Not of resting,
You help us climb atop of giants
Through rodent testing

Tis your misfortune, some fine morning
To be dispatched without a warning
With hopes we’ll find, on close inspection
Some information
Perhaps enough so your dissection
Is our salvation

Some remedy for our diseases,
Grown from bread mold, or from cheeses:
In times of plague or killing fever
You played the villain;
It’s fitting now, you help deliver

Psychologists who study learning
Used your help in their discerning—
You led them through the many phases
Of their endeavors,
Teaching them, by running mazes
And pressing levers

And pictures made from careful staining,
Slicing, mounting, then explaining
Former secrets, now revealed
Through brain perfusion,
Dissecting what we know is real
From mere illusion

As we devised atomic powers—
Mushroom clouds that bloomed like flowers—
And looked at what we’d now created
With admiration
You showed us how you tolerated
The radiation

You’ve had a paw in our advances;
We blunder on, and take our chances
Faster than our contemplation,
So please forgive us;
Our lot is likely annihilation,
And you’ll outlive us.

The high plateaus we’re proud of reaching
Are ours because of your good teaching
Let’s hope these skills, which keep on growing
Through your instruction
Are for the best, not simply sowing
Our own destruction

Hat tip to NPR’s story on Joseph Priestley’s mouse, and of course to Robert Burns, who did all the heavy lifting.

Poetry In The History Of Science

From NPR, the story of a mouse, and the verse written in its voice:

The year is 1773, and Joseph Priestley is busy working with “airs” (you or I would probably call them “gases”); his experiments were published beginning in 1774, and include the discovery of nitrous oxide, ammonia, and “dephlogisticated air” (we would call it “oxygen”; we can’t quite credit him with discovering oxygen, for two reasons–first, others can legitimately make the claim, and second, he insisted on the phlogiston world-view). Priestley apparently went through quite a lot of mice in his experiments; in additioning to researching airs, he also examined lungs. Mice, in one experiment, were put in a chamber from which the oxygen would be removed; as you might expect, this did not end well for the mice.
Priestley’s assistant, Anna Barbauld, wrote a bit of verse and (by the NPR account) left it in the cage of a mouse scheduled for the following morning’s experiment. You can read the verse, or hear the whole story (in what I found to be a rather twitch-inducing edit) here at NPR’s site. They quote historian Richard Holmes, who calls it “perhaps the first animal-rights manifesto ever written”. I suspect a bit of revisionist history–we’ve had pet rodents, and I know how quickly they turn paper products into fluffy bedding. But the verse was published, so parts of the story ring true.
Oh, what the hell, here it is as the mouse wrote it:
And, given the immense power of verse (something your pal Cuttlefish knows something about), from that moment onward, mice have been spared from participating in science.
Ok, it’s still a cute little verse, a tear-jerker of a story, and some really cute watercolor illustrations.

Superstition And Ignorance Driving Vultures Extinct In SA

Superstitions develop in all kinds of cultures
And ignorance, too, inextricably linked
The latest rendition is bad for the vultures
Where betting on football could make them extinct

South Africa, hosting the World Cup this season
Has vultures of various beautiful kinds
“The wisest of animals”–this is the reason
Some ignorant gamblers have plain lost their minds

For the sake of advantage, the vultures are hunted–
In gambling, you need any edge you can get–
Their brains, dried and powdered, are all that is wanted;
They’re snorted, for luck, before placing a bet

With so many people so desperate for money
And looking for help, to see which teams to choose
It’s tragic as hell–if it weren’t, it’d be funny
In a hunt for good fortune, the vultures will lose

South Africa’s vultures are magnificent birds. There are some eight different species (I think I saw six while I was there), which coexist in complementary roles–our guides used the vultures to locate carcasses (as did other scavengers, of course), where we might get a glimpse of something spectacular (here we see cheetahs, but from quite a distance–they were driven off by hyenas later).

The BBC reports that the World Cup and its associated betting may actually drive vulture species extinct in South Africa (video at link, and well worth watching). Superstition holds that these wise birds have the power to predict the future… and so of course they are killed, and their brains extracted, dried, and powdered for use in prognostication. One wonders if the users have thought through the implications of using the brains of a bird that did not see its own demise coming at their hands… perhaps that is why it isn’t working.

All photos by Cuttlefish.

500th Post! (And A Poll)

So… according to blogger, this is my 500th post. I really never would have guessed it. Einstein was right about time being relative; I have been blogging here for just over a week, or for decades, if you go by how it feels from time to time. The calendar puts it at late 2007 when this version of the blog started up. Since then, 500 posts, 129,515 visits from 159 countries (I need to work on reaching central Africa), two books (well, one and a half, really), and a line of designer swimwear worn by high-fashion models around the world. Ok, not that last bit, unless you count when they go skinny-dipping. I did design that.

It has been wonderful getting to know you. My readers are incredible people, and have made it possible for me to do some things I never would have been able to do without them (those people know who they are, and I can never thank them enough!). I would not have traded these last 500 posts for anything.

It is at nice round numbers like this that one starts getting introspective. What does the future hold for The Digital Cuttlefish? If you have any ideas, let me know. Meanwhile, a poll.

Whither The Digital Cuttlefish?customer surveys

And hey, if you are reading this, thanks! Yes, you, personally!

The Cuttlefish, clearly perplexed,
Introspected aloud (well, in text):
It’s been five hundred posts!
First, a couple of toasts,
Then the serious question: What next?

Who Is To Blame (For Catholic Scandal)?

There is far, far too much scandal
At the Vatican these days
Since it cannot be the Church’s fault
Let’s try to blame the gays!
With their sinful choice of lifestyle
And their flaunting of God’s creed,
If we have to point the finger
They’re a likely cause indeed!

There is much too much at stake here—
Far too much that we could lose—
So to keep our asses covered
We should also blame the Jews!
They have constantly conspired to
Bring a downfall to the Church:
If you want to find a smoking gun,
The Jews are who to search!

There is blame enough to go around
(As if you couldn’t tell),
I think it prudent we should blame
The atheists as well!
They have no moral compass
But they want to write the laws—
A secular society
Must clearly be the cause!

It’s hardly worth our mention,
Yet another group to name,
But you cannot help but notice
There’s the media to blame!
The reporters keep on digging,
Though they’re covered up in dirt—
Such a filthy occupation;
Think of all the priests they’ve hurt!

There’s one more group deserving blame;
They’re making lots of noise,
And claiming to be victims, too—
I mean, of course, the boys!
Their baseless accusations are
But acts of desperation;
They, too, should shoulder guilt
For leading priests into temptation!

So many guilty parties,
Waging war against the Pope—
One fact alone sustains us
And allows us still to hope:
One group alone is blameless—
There is nothing to discuss—
No matter where we’re finding fault
It won’t be found in us!


The sad thing, of course, is that each of these groups *have* been named, by one or another apologist, as the true culprits to blame for the scandals.