Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Milestone for the Blog Deconstructing Time

This blog DeconstructingTime ( has reached a milestone. 

It has achieved 10,000 pageviews in about a year and those pageviews came from over 110 countries which is  more than half of the countries on this Earth.


10,724 = pageviews since the start of this blog in December 2012 (as of 1/29/14).

People from 111 countries have viewed this blog.
Over half of the pageviews were from countries outside the USA, my native country. This makes me especially proud to reach a worldwide audience.
Here is the list of those countries:
Åland Islands
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Costa Rica
Czech Republic
Dominican Republic
El Salvador
Hong Kong
Macedonia [FYROM]
New Zealand
Palestinian Territories
Puerto Rico
Saudi Arabia
South Africa
South Korea
Sri Lanka
Trinidad and Tobago
United Arab Emirates
United Kingdom
United States

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

25 Year-Old Article About Time: Part 2

This is the second half of the interview with Kirk Elbod about time and history -- which we continued on another day at a lunch counter in Durham, North Carolina. The time of the interview is 1989. See the first interview at: 
K.E. = the person I interviewed, Kirk Elbod

  K.E.: You're probably wondering why I brought you here to this lunch counter (he said in a humorous tone of voice, recalling the old joke). It's because of the short order cook.   

  ME:  (Getting a bit impatient) I don't care about the cook. I want to continue our discussion about history.

  K.E.: Precisely my dear Doble (he said again with a smirk). History is about time and our concept of time. 

  Watch the short order cook! The way he perfectly balances all the elements of an order so they come out all at the same time. First the burger on the grill which takes the longest to cook. Then he slices some lettuce, tomato and puts it on the side. When the burger is almost done he toasts the buns under the grill, and when the burger is completely done he toasts the cheese for just a second. Then, in one swift motion, he puts them all together on the plate, along with the mayonnaise and mustard and at last (we watched two burgers get passed to a waitress who put them in front of us) it arrives in front of me, with everything timed right. The perfect burger and the best short order cook I've ever seen. 

  (With this I only could wait because he was devouring his burger. Together we sat in silence as we ate our food.)

  ME: (finally when we had finished) I believe the Harvard professor may be right. That we can lead perfectly good, useful lives, have children, be involved in our community and not know much about history, except perhaps a few essential facts.

  K.E.: Superficially he is right. But the US is a democracy, and as such the people vote based on the information they have. What if their understanding is just plain wrong, and they make decisions based on a misunderstanding of history.

  ME: I don't think it could be that serious.

  K.E.: Judge for yourself. According to a poll most Americans think today that the Russians fought on the side of the Nazi's in World War II. In fact the reverse is true - not only did the Russians fight against the Nazis, they suffered more deaths than any other single nation or ethnic group.

  ME: And your point?

  K.E.: That today, right now, we might be spending less money on armaments, and defense if the majority of citizens believed the truth instead of misinformation. We might have saved billions of dollars if the public knew the facts. And this is just one example.

  Now, as you know I'm not suggesting that everyone know all the history there is. My notion of the "vanishing point of history" means that we mainly need to understand recent history in detail, by which I mean about ten years before World War II to the present.

  But clearly a majority of people do not.

  ME: Well, there will always be experts who can interpret present events in terms of history for us. Why not leave it to them?

  K.E.: Another specialist! (He almost shouted.) Specialization is an entirely another subject. But leaving history to the experts means that we will feel even more alienated than we already do in modern society. If we have to go to an expert to understand our own past...(he made an exasperated expression, reaching his hands into the air)

  One of the main complaints I hear about the modern world is that people feel a lack of connection. A feeling of not engaging; alienation. But much of this is the fault of the individuals, not the big corporations and big government who usually get blamed. If you want to feel a part of your own time, and culture you need to do the work yourself; understand history yourself, for example.

  But also specialists, hired by certain people, can put their own interpretation, their own "spin" on history, which is what the Nazis did. In fact they can reinterpret history and redefine history to suit whoever hires them. In the book, 1984, George Orwell warned us against things like this. Is this what we want in a democracy?

  Let me give you a for instance.

  Suppose that the United States had fought for 2 years on Russian soil, aiding armies whose purpose was to destroy Soviet Russia? If this were true, wouldn't it explain some of the current Soviet attitude toward the U.S., some of their military obsessions and paranoia.

  ME: Yes, but of course it isn't true.

  K.E.: Wrong, it is true. And very few people in the U.S. are aware that this ever happened. United States forces were in Russia, Archangel and Siberia from 1918 to 1920 aiding the White Army whose purpose was to destroy the recently established Soviet government.

The United States Army in Archangel Russia in 1918. (
  Now a very interesting thing happens when you try to find this incident in a reference book, as Dr. Donald suggested we do. You don't find it, at least in half the books I read. It is not even mentioned. One sixth of the books that do mention it got their facts wrong. And only one third of the books that do talk about it had their history correct.

  So this is what happens, even in a democracy, when you try to look up an incident that everyone would rather forget.

  Let me attack the question from another perspective. Every time I see a news story on TV about a home being destroyed by fire, or tornado, or some such total disaster, the people invariably say "Even my photographs are gone." That's what they miss the most. Why? Because they can replace everything else, if they are insured, but not the photographs. Part of them is gone. The photos which are their personal history have been lost, and they feel as though a piece of themselves was destroyed. Which it has been.

  Now those photos are history, not stuffy academic history but a personal, important, essential history which is badly missed when it is eliminated.

  Dr. Donald's way of thinking cuts off our connection to the past. But history is our point of reference. It is where we come from. The past is where most of our concepts, our culture, and our language originated. Why else would we use a word like "horsepower" to describe a highly technical, modern engine? (He laughed.)

  ME: To go back to why you brought me here: You said that history had to do with our sense of time. 

  K.E.: Yes, and the short order cook here.

  Look at the cook again. Suppose he left the rolls in too long and they burned, or he didn't cook the hamburger long enough so it was a bit raw. Then he wouldn't be a good cook.

  He is juggling, balancing each portion of the task so that even though the parts take different amount of time, they all are ready at the same time. A juggler, if you will. A time juggler in fact. And a very good one.

  ME: And what does this cook have to do with history? 

  K.E.: We think history is unimportant, because we believe history is in the past and does not affect us. Dr. Donald's main criticism, in fact, was that the study of history was no longer relevant to today's world. But perhaps the past does effect us, more than we realize, in the present.

  So the question really is one about time. Now, I do not pretend to begin to understand all the subtleties about time, but I do know that there is more to time than meets the eye. So let me indulge in some speculation here.

  ME: Why, that very humble of you Kirk. 

  K.E.: What is time? This is the key question. What is the past, the present , and the future? Once something is done, can it be undone? Is their any point in crying over spilled milk? We are always "another day older and deeper in debt" and the river that you put you foot into is never the same. Is time the relentless forward movement of the ticking clock?

  It turns out that our sense of time, according to psychological studies, is triggered by events. When an event ends, or one begins, or something significant happens within an event, then we feel the passage of time. In a sense the clock is a series of artificial, mechanical events which makes us acutely conscious of time, perhaps too conscious, or even self conscious - but I'll save that for another discussion.

  However, life is lived by the ticking of events and more by the dynamics of events. It's as though each of us is a time juggler. We juggle a number of separate events in the air as we go though our lives. Not unlike the short order cook, only the events are larger.

  ME:  You've lost me completely. I don't understand.

  K.E.: My point is that time is subtle. And events which give us a sense of time also have dynamics all their own. There is time within an event to make changes, in a sense to go back into time, until that event is over. This idea is expressed, for example, in the phrase "in time." Such as: I caught the jug of milk "in time", to prevent it from spilling; because I knew that if the jug fell and broke it would be too late; the event would be finished; and then there would be no use crying over spilled milk; instead I would be looking for the mop.


  ME:  Very cute Kirk (I said rather snidely)

  K.E.: (ignoring me) The assumption is that the past is the past, over and done with - which is why people think they don't need to understand history. But my point is that time is in reality a myriad of overlapping events. And that within an event you may be able to - in a sense - reach back into time, by being able to affect changes. Or things from the past can affect the present.

  Events are like time areas or time spaces. However, these spaces in themselves, are very subtle. They are like 'windows of opportunity'. The windows can close - sometimes suddenly and sometimes gradually. When they do, we can no longer affect changes: 'the opportunity has been lost' or the 'time is gone'. 

  We do this everyday, but don't really think about it. Before I leave the house to go on a trip I have the opportunity to remember a notebook I've forgotten, pick it up, put it in the car. I can do this any time before I leave.

  But once I've driven away then it become harder and harder to do this. Five minutes down the road I still could, although it would be annoying. Two hours down the road and I'll just have to do the best with what I've got, make do without the forgotten notebook. The time to easily pick up the notebook and put it in my car is gone. And besides I've got to get to my appointments now and going back would make me late.

  In an accident when things happen unexpectedly, quickly, and violently we may only have split seconds to try things, or do things before the accident has run it course and whatever we do will be of no use. "What's done is done."

Accidents are examples of 'hardened time'  ( 
  These areas of time can be quite large such as the life of a nation, an era, person's life time, or quite short as in an accident. There may be many separate areas that overlap and interweave. Some may close imperceptibly slowly and others maddeningly quickly. Each area seems to have its own dynamics.

  As an occasional photographer, I know about this. Photographers in fact, seem to develop a sixth sense about time because frequently taking a photograph requires being at the right place at the right time, whatever that may be. For example, when I take nature pictures outdoors there may be hours when I can take a number of pictures over and over until I get exactly what I want. But all the time the sun is moving, the clouds may be building. Suddenly I look up and there's a bank of clouds covering the sun and I realize that I can no longer take pictures that day. It may be a day, or a months before I can get back, according to my schedule or the weather. In the meantime the foliage may have changed or someone may have bought the land and bulldozed it, which has happened more than once. When I return the place may or may not be the same as the time before.

  A death bed confession is an example of a person using a last opportunity to set things straight, to do something before they die, before the window closes on them and they can no longer act. What they confess may have happened when they were very young, and they may have carried it all their lives. But before they die the window is still open for them to act. In effect, they want to reach back into time and set the record straight. In a sense a person 's life, from birth to death is one event.

  ME: (I could sense he was through.) So what you're saying is that past, present, and future are not so clear as they appear to be and that some of history is still part of the present if we can only understand it in the proper light.

  K.E.: Yes, and also that we need to try to understand the dynamics of time, because as humans, in a sense, all we really have is time.

Friday, January 17, 2014

25 Year-Old Article About Time: Part 1

about a fictional character 
around 25 years ago

I have been writing about time on and off for over 25 years. Yet it is only recently that many of my ideas have jelled which prodded me to write this blog. The following is a 2-part essay I wrote almost 25 years ago that foreshadows many of the ideas I have covered in this blog. 

My wide ranging series of fictitious interviews included this section on time. This interview took place on the second story of an old church in Durham, North Carolina that had been scheduled for demolition but had been saved and restored. The time of this interview was 1989. 
K.E. = the person I interviewed, Kirk Elbod

  K.E.: History is neither dead or gone, even though about ten years ago, Dr. David Herbert Donald, a Pulitzer Prize winning historian and Harvard history professor wrote a letter to the New York Times, stating that it was. And the very odd things is that no one since then has been able to refute his argument.

  What he said specifically was that history was no longer relevant to the modern world. To quote Dr. Donald, "What undergraduates want from their history teachers is an understanding of how the American past relates to the present and the future. But if I teach what I believe to be the truth, I can only share with them my sense of the irrelevance of history and of the bleakness of the new era we are entering."

  There may be a speck of truth in what he said, i.e. history probably cannot solve today's problems. But he has thrown the baby out with the bath water. History is our point of reference. It is how we got to the point we are at today. It is, in fact, who we are - but I am getting ahead of myself.

  Look through the windows, here, out at the city. I have taken a sixty year old map of Durham and have driven through the town as though only the old roads existed. I saw what I thought I would see -- mostly old homes, old factories, old trees, old neighborhoods. When I followed the old map exclusively, I traveled the city as if it were old. It took a newer map to show me the newer parts. So I know that the older map, which is out of date, has meaning for me today.

  And of course this is true for most towns unless there has been wholesale renovation. But even then I find it's very rare that a road, once built, is ever destroyed. A majority of the roads on the old maps still exist today. You can, for example, still follow the Blue Highways marked on the Rand McNally road map published in 1920s.

  In fact if you look at maps of the Piedmont, hundreds of years old, you will see roads that roughly mark out where the four lane interstate is today. It seems that these roads had been an Indian trail before.

  So I don't believe history is dead, any more than I believe that what my parents did has had no effect on me. Any more that I believe that what I teach my children will have no effect on them even after I'm dead. Each of us carries our history with us, even though we forget this in the present.

  What Dr. Donald forgot is what I call the "vanishing point" of history and time.

Vanishing Point: Things that are closer appear larger, things further away smaller, until they disappear at the vanishing point. As it is with space so it is with time & history. (
  ME: Well tell me what it is, even though I'm sure you were going to anyway without my asking.
  (Kirk glared slightly at me, but with a tinge of a smile and continued)

  K.E.: Saul Steinberg drew a famous New Yorker cover depicting a New Yorker's view of the world. It showed Manhattan as huge, all of New Jersey as smaller than NYC, and the rest of the US diminishing in size and definition (with humorous titles) the further you went away from the city. Now this is a "vanishing point" view of the world. Meaning that the further you get from your point of reference, NYC in this case, what you envision, or imagine, gets increasingly smaller and less defined.

  When I visited Washington D.C. not too long ago, I noticed a rack of huge blow-ups of this New Yorker cover. Only to my surprise, each one was from a different perspective. A view of the world from Hawaii , from Chicago, from Miami, etc. In each case the foreground "point of departure" was huge, such as Miami, and then increasingly the world got less and less defined and smaller and smaller the further you got from the initial point. Someone had a great sense of humor to put these all together, so that you could buy your own biased view of the world.

  ME: (getting impatient) And what does this have to with history?

  K.E.: Simple. This is how we view time. Recent events in time loom very large, ones somewhat further away are less important, ones many years away, of very little importance. A vanishing point in time.

  And this is how it should be: recent events are usually going to have much more impact on us than events long ago.

  Even historians recognize this. For example, when I took a basic Western History course in college, we spent more time on the Romans than the Egyptians. More time on the Renaissance than the Romans. More time on the modern world than on the Renaissance. In short the closer we got to the modern day, the more detail was covered.

  Now Dr. Donald of Harvard had been teaching for a number of years. When he started in the 1940s, Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt were very important. But during his long career he decided that this time in history was less relevant than it used to be. When he thought about it, he realized it did not matter which Roosevelt carried the big stick, so he concluded that history was not important. That you could go through life and live a perfectly useful, moral life without knowing about these things.

  However during his long career other events had overtaken him, such as Korea, the cold war, Vietnam, the space program, and Watergate. Now these more recent things are important to know. And it is only natural that our view of the increasingly distant past will get vaguer and vaguer as we keep up with more recent events.

  ME:  So are you saying that it doesn't matter whether we know about the American revolution? Is this too distant for us to bother with?

  K.E.: Yes and no.. I'm saying that very important distant events which still affect us today, such as the American revolution and the Civil War, need to be understood in broad detail, but not fine detail. However, we ought to concentrate our efforts on recent history, three generations into the past. This time period is the most important.

  For example, I think today it is important to understand the history of the world from about 1930 to the present. This includes the causes leading to the 2nd World War, the war itself, and the post war period. Again I would want to understand the most recent events in more detail than the more distant events.

  But the mistake is to think that history is dead and gone. History is alive. For example, our personal history is who we are. A family is its shared memories. I make choices based on my understanding of things my father did and maybe even my grandfathers. Further back than that my "vanishing point" view of my personal history gets dim. 

  But, Dr. Donald is advocating national amnesia. Imagine that each of us woke up one morning and could only remember the recent past. If you wanted to you could look up things in a book, as Dr. Donald suggested, but it was not in your memory. Where would you start? You would not know where to begin. You would have no background information to work from, no frame work.

  In short people would feel dislocated, alienated, frustrated, out of place. And this is exactly what Dr. Donald is advocating.

  Slaves in the south were kept in total ignorance as to their location. Even if they escaped, they did not know where to go and thus were easily captured and returned. So ignorance is a form of confinement, a limiting influence. Each of us needs to have "mental maps" of how the modern world came into being, so that we can better understand our position in this world, how we got where we are. If this map is blank then we are flying blind. We are to some extent lost. And since time is one of the four dimensions of the world, as Einstein has stated, an ignorance about history means that a person's life is not fully realized; it is three dimensional but not four dimensional.
For a moment the sun broke through a hole in the clouds. Parts of the downtown were illuminated by shafts of light, in brilliant highlights and shadows. 
  Let me go back to the example of amnesia. If each of us woke up one morning and could not remember any history, even how the United States came into existence, e.g. not remember anything about the American revolution or that we had immigrated from Europe, then I believe we could not function effectively as citizens. We could not make informed decisions about issues, understand our place in the world, or have an understanding of the laws that govern us. Therefore to answer Dr. Donald's implied question: under these circumstances, no, we could not be good citizens.

  Further history is not just what Harvard or any one else says about it. It is an endless unbroken thread, some of which is written down in books studied in college and most of which is not. As Gerda Lerner, author of the Creation of Patriarchy said, we must distinguish between History, with a capital "H" and history with a small "h". History with a capital "H" represents recorded and interpreted history. And history with a small "h" involves unrecorded history and/or history which has not been focused on and interpreted. Nowadays historians are reaching back into time and and revising many of our notions of how things occurred. In a manner of speaking, they are creating new histories, because they are collecting, arranging, and interpreting past events in new ways.

  Historians of women, for example, are trying to discover the lost history of females. It is obvious that women have always been a past of history, but little has been included in History with a capital "H". So in a sense they are discovering the past.

  And history is allusive. Imagine that I made an appointment yesterday for a meeting tomorrow. Well yesterday is history but I'd better remember to be at my appointment tomorrow or I'm in big trouble. To use the old joke, "Today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday." This may seem like a simple example but where do you draw the line? Are things a year ago history and events since then current time? I know of a daughter who is suffering an ailment from a drug her mother took thirty years ago, when her mother was pregnant with her. Is this where you draw the line? There are recurring histories of diseases and susceptibilities to diseases that run for generations through families and affect people today. So where do you draw the line?

  And if this is true for individuals then how true is it for nations?

  Recently the Russians and the Americans held a conference on what happened during the Cuban missile crisis. Now this event was over twenty-five years ago. Yet the conference was important and may affect us today. Because through the conference the superpowers may have learned ways to prevent such a crisis from reoccurring.

Nicholas I -- the Romanov Tsar for whom the last Tsar, Nicholas II was named. Nicholas II was related to the British royal family and was assassinated by the Bolsheviks. (
  And another news item comes to mind. The queen of England has made plans to visit the U.S.S.R. Which will be the first time an English monarch has visited Russia since the execution of their ancestral cousins, the Romanovs, during the Russian revolution. And this visit, which reaches back into time about sixty years, will help thaw relations between England and the Soviets. So in these two examples, it is clear that even the distant past can effect the present.

  But we must come to terms with the dynamics of time and the human needs. Recent history has got to be more important than history ten years ago , which is still more important than history twenty years ago and so on. Like looking into a mist. Things up close are distinct. Things get blurrier and blurrier until we really cannot make out much of anything.

  It is still history but recent events, and those preceding them need to be given more weight. Which is as it should be.