We are awash in relativism, or post-relevance, as I like to call it, the bastard grandchild of post-modern Euro-crit.  You know what I’m talking about:  It’s all real; whatever; any possibility is as good as the next.  Or my favorite:  All opinions have an equal right to be heard.  First, corporations are people, now opinions.  Oy!

The psychological anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn once published a study of the Dineh (Navajo) people, in which he concluded that their society was fundamentally neurotic.  You can imagine the response.  Cultural relativism was a cornerstone of anthropology long before our current obsessions.  Kluckhohn’s response was that if the values of all cultures are equally valid, then his judgment of the Dineh society within the context of psychological anthropology was perfectly sound as well.

Therein lies the problem: at its root, cultural relativism is paradoxical.  One can probably be a truly disinterested observer with regard to, say, arthropod taxonomy, although even there, tempers have been know to flare.  But where human values are concerned, especially where they directly conflict, such a thing is a cherished fiction.  Because, of course, the vast majority of human cultures clearly and unequivocally believe that their values are superior to all others.  To find an example, one need look no further than the culture of anthropology itself, which presumes to be a metaculture, floating nonjudgmentally above the fray, all the while explaining how people haven’t a clue about the true meaning of their institutions.  Is it just heuristic convenience that anthropologists rarely study their cultural peers?

As bad as the situation is in academe, the slopewash in pop culture is worse.  All that is necessary for a proposition, no matter how absurd, to be taken seriously is for someone to utter it.  That this ultra-refusal to take a stand coexists with the swift condemnations typical of social media is no real surprise.  It is a paradox within a paradox.  After all, indignation is just another point of view, on equal footing with apathy, tolerance, and intolerance.  With relativism, absolutism is fine.

Whatever, dudes.

The origin of ketchup

According to Wikipedia, ketchup originated “In the 17th century, [when] the Chinese mixed a concoction of pickled fish and spices and called it (in the Amoy dialect) kôe-chiap or kê-chiap (鮭汁, Mandarin Chinese guī zhī, Cantonese gwai1 zap1) meaning the brine of pickled fish (鮭, salmon; 汁, juice) or shellfish.”

As a kid, I spent a lot of time at drugstore lunch counters.  Many of you are no doubt too young to remember those; every drugstore had one.  You could get made-to-order Coca Cola from a spout that mixed the syrup with fizzy water right in front of you (flavors, from cherry to chocolate and vanilla, were optional), various ice cream treats (malts, shakes, floats and sundaes), more or less fresh coffee and donuts,  and greasy lunches for a reasonable price.  Condiments like salt and pepper, mustard and ketchup, were lined soldier-like along the length of the counter.  It was a cheap hangout, an ersatz clubhouse, where a guy too young to hang out in a bar could go and reasonably expect to find a friend or two any time of day.  Best of all, magazines and comic books were always displayed nearby, and you could sit and read them without buying; the proprietor generally only complained a couple of times a month, when the racks got overly disorganized, as long as you were careful not to treat them so roughly that they couldn’t ultimately be sold.

A kid could get to know the routines: the shift changes, the making of the Fresh Coffee (older customers timed their arrival for this), and the refilling of the condiments.  I would sit and watch, fascinated, as the counter server went from container to container, topping off the bottles and shakers.  I never saw anyone empty and wash out a bottle of ketchup, which leads me to one inescapable conclusion.

Some small trace of that original 鮭 was no doubt still at the bottom of those ketchup bottles, and that’s why I have such a strong immune system to this day.


I don’t get it. C, that is. The speed of light.

I get that it’s supposed to be constant, and I get that the idea enables us to have GPS and all kinds of other wonderments, and I don’t even wonder why, since the universe gets to have any rules it wants, as far as I’m concerned. I just don’t get what it means that the speed of light is constant. Not light itself, mind you, but its speed. An attribute trumps the thing it’s attached to.

When you’re talking about speed, the first question that pops up is, relative to what? With light, it doesn’t matter, it’s the same regardless of what it’s measured against. If I’m standing still, and you’re moving, we will still get the same reading on our cosmic radar guns. As if that weren’t enough boggle for one topic, yours would arrive a little bluer or redder than mine, because, of course, the frequency, which I would have thought had some relation to speed, is not constant.

What exactly was Einstein on about when he was talking about the speed of light? Clearly, velocity, almost by definition, is what relates time to space, so I get why it should have a central place in a theory that regards space-time as a continuum. But velocity is an attribute, dammit! It has no existence outside of the thing it is a characteristic of. How can it possibly be the root phenomenon of reality as we know it?

Then again, I still don’t understand airline pricing, so maybe such things are just beyond my grasp.