Monday, 10 October 2016

Toomas Karmo: Canadian Thanksgiving Holiday Reflections

Quality assessment: 

On the 5-point scale current in Estonia, and surely in nearby nations, and familiar to observers of the academic arrangements of the late, unlamented, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (applying the easy and lax standards Kmo deploys in his grubby imaginary "Aleksandr Stepanovitsh Popovi nimeline sangarliku raadio instituut" (the "Alexandr Stepanovitch Popov Institute of Heroic Radio") and his grubby imaginary "Nikolai Ivanovitsh Lobatshevski nimeline sotsalitsliku matemaatika instituut" (the "Nicolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky Institute of Socialist Mathematics") - where, on the lax and easy grading philosophy of the twin Institutes, 1/5 is "epic fail", 2/5 is "failure not so disastrous as to be epic", 3'5 is "mediocre pass", 4.5 is "good", and 5/5 is "excellent"): 4/5. Justification: Kmo has time to make the necessary points to adequate length. 

Revision history:

  • 20161011T1430Z/version 1.1.0: Kmo corrected a couple of details regarding the Canadian National Railways, while also making some tiny cosmetic tweaks. He served the right to upload minor (i.e., cosmetic, as opposed to substantive) tweaks over the coming 48 hours, as here-undocumented versions 1.1.1, 1.1.2, 1.1.3, ... .
  • 20161011T0002Z/version 1.0.0: Kmo uploaded base version. He reserved the right to upload minor (i.e., cosmetic, as opposed to substantive) tweaks over the coming 48 hours, as here-undocumented versions 1.0.1, 1.0.2, 10.3, ... .

[CAUTION: A bug in the blogger software has in some past weeks shown a propensity to insert inappropriate whitespace at some late points in some of my posted essays. If a screen seems to end in empty space, keep scrolling down. The end of the posting is not reached until the usual blogger "Posted by Toomas (Tom) Karmo at" appears.]

The first years (1949 through 1952) of my Mum's and Dad's joint life as Estonian refugee immigrants to Nova Scotia were austere. 

Late in 1952, with I myself now assuming some definite shape in Mum's womb (I popped out around the time of  the Truro sunrise on 1953-12-07), my parents moved into a tidy bungalow on a hectare lot, about 7 kilometres west of Truro. Astonishingly, all was mortgage-free, and soon there would even be an entry-level "Hi-Fi" apparatus. (One of my happy memories from young childhood is the sight of vacuum tubes mysteriously glowing in the chassis, as I crawled underneath to inspect the setup, while Dad put on one of my own special records - a bit of English-narrated Tchaikovsky, or else an English-narrated Prokofiev, "Peter and the Wolf". - It did not then occur to me to ask whether S.S.Prokofiev's wolf gets treated fairly.) 

Until Christmas of 1952, Mum and Dad had lived right in town, on Park Street. Their accomodation in those four penny-pinching years was a single large room, rented to them by the kindly "Mrs Sutherland". Under such confined conditions, how could they spend on books? Yet near the fireplace in the happy 1953-onwards bungalow sat a 1951 publication, the 30th Anniversary Reader's Digest Reader - almost certainly a survivor from the cramped conditions at Mrs Sutherland's. 

Even today this admittedly modest, admittedly middle-brow, Reader merits admission into any English-reading home. I have it still. 

Such uplifting essays! "An Open Letter to America's Students", by one "Dwight D. Eisenhower". Or, again, "Two for a Penny", excerpted from Steinbeck's account of Depression-era economic refugees. Or, again, one of my favourite essays in the entire 503-page collection, Fulton Oursler's "Whose Business Was It?" Oursler's piece recounts the successful rescue, by a young New York lawyer, of defector Oksana Stepanovna Kasenkina from the grip of the USSR. It is strikingly how the closely the accompanying pen-and-ink portrait of Madame Kasenkina recalls my own dear Grandma, Mum's Mum. I think there is just one possible way for an unpretentious Russian-educated lady to look, if she is a thoughtful and suffering "gimnasistka", or gümnaasium graduate, of a certain age, from the 1950s, and that therefore Grandma and Madame Kasenkina came from a single universal mould.  


And as one of the many entrancing space-fillers, at the bottom of page 435, we have a Scottish child's list of "My Twelve Loveliest Things, People Not Counted" (taken by the Reader's Digest editors from material of Douglas Horton, in some publication called The Art of Living Today). Here is the child's list: 

The scrunch of dry leaves as you walk through them

The feel of clean clothes

Water running into bath

The cold of ice cream

Cool wind on a hot day

Climbing up and looking back

Honey in your mouth

Smell of a drugstore

Hot-water bottle in bed

Babies smiling

The feeling inside when you sing

Baby kittens 


Today being the Canadian Thanksgiving civic holiday (in the expressive language of our local Estonian diaspora, the Lõikustänupüha), I compile my own list of blessings. 

I will rank the list, with the least weighty of my selected items coming first, and with the most weighty coming last, and with every other item being such that its weight is less than or equal to the weight of its successor in my small progression. I will, in other words, offer a finite monotonic (though not necessarily a finite strictly monotonic) sequence of good things.

A really conscientious list of blessings would, admittedly, be longer - running, one would think, to quite a few times the length of the little Scottish child's list-of-twelve. 


The continued existence of blue night lamps in railway long-haul passenger accommodations: A ritual in the life of our family in Nova Scotia in the 1950s and 1960s and earlier 1970s was the periodic Trip to Montréal, to visit Mum's brother, Mum's sister-in-law, and Mum's Mum. 

Everything about the old Canadian National Railways, in those days antedating the admittedly worthy modern "VIA Rail", was commendable. 

There were the two eateries - one for full-bore elegant dining, on white cloth; the other, no less exciting for a child or an adolescent, in the Club Car, for a hamburger and fries. 

In this same Club Car a rack held teletype output with the headlines of the evening or morning. These would be headlines summarizing such thrilling, if ominous, things as N.S.Krushchev's latest Berlin warning, or the latest reponse thereto from Washington, or at the very least the latest in the jousting between Canadian parliamentarians John Diefenbaker and Lester Pearson (respectively, family villain and family hero - my parents took a remarkably impassioned interest in almost every Canadian thing, excepting only baseball, "Country Music", and perhaps a few other genuinely impossible topics). 

There was, separate from the Club Car, the Observation Car, at the very end of the train. Here one sat, perhaps with Coca-Cola, in a rather small carpeted goldfish bowl, its ceiling and curving wall consisting entirely of windows, accommodating perhaps just six or eight or a dozen people. From this vantage point, one marvelled at the twin rails forever receding, receding, receding, as dense forests rolled by. 

But above all, there was the Night Lamp! This was to be encountered upon retiring to the Pullman berth, pulling those heavy corridor-flanking curtains shut. (Dad, Mum, and I travelled in what in European terms would be Second - not in First, or "Compartment"; and not in Third, or "Coach".) One could switch the special Pullman pillow-side lamp either to an ordinary Canadian National Railways white or - this is what was special - to a dim blue. 

I would suggest that just as those have not fully lived who have not seen a sunrise or have not had wine with steak, so also those have not fully lived who have not stretched out on railway bedlinen, under rough railway blankets (with endless farmland and forest rolling past, with endless clanking of steel on steel) as the special lamp glows dim and blue. 

No doubt these special night lamps are gone from CNR's (admittedly worthy) heir to the Canadian long-haul passenger mode, VIA Rail. In particular, I believe they were missing from the 2006 Montréal-to-Truro VIA run that I managed to make in "Compartment", in an unexpected upgrade from my wonted post-2000 cost-effective Coach. 

And yet I am now reliably informed that these lamps have continued in service on the still longer and lonelier rails of post-Gorbachevian Russia. 

Sunrise in my basement-flat library room, in the darker half of the year: My present flat here in Ontario is notably dark. It is hard to grow things in the booklined room which serves as my parlour and library. At one point I said: Well, fine, I will not now try herbs in those self-watering parlour-cum-library pots, which I went to some trouble to devise and build. Let me simply plant dandelion seeds, for an eventual harvest of edible greens. But so dark was it that the dandelions refused to grow well. For the most part, they outright declined to germinate. The approximately four instances of actual germination (yielding a paltry germination rate of perhaps 5 percent), on the other hand, yielded just stunted, tormented runts, unsuitable for salad. 

My latest venture with those self-watering pots is into the lowest form of botany on this side of Mars, namely forest moss, with also a little lichen. 

All the more wonderful is it, then, that as the Sun dips south of the celestial equator in its annual north-south-north oscillations, it starts illuminating the so-dim library. 

A few days ago, at the very beginning of this illuminated fivemonth or half-year, I found a patch of sunlight exactly illuminating the photo of a deceased fried. The photo was sitting in its place of honour atop a small tuner-amplifier cabinet, close to the carpeted floor. My friend is the late Berthe Agg (1939-2015) - wife of local conservationist Joe Agg, and a friend to would-be conservers of the David Dunlap Observatory and Park here in Richmond Hill. An obituary notice may be inspected at

Sherlock Holmes, and Rumpole of the Bailey: Need one say more?

Well, one might recall the great detective's words - "My mind rebels at stagnation; give me work..."

Or one might recall Rumpole's exchange with the Bench, as a police Inspector presents a suspiciously tidy narrative, and the great defence counsel undertakes "Cross" (I quote from memory, from a recall of the television dramatization): 

[JUDGE:] Mr Rumpole ...are you suggesting...the Inspector is **LYING**? 

[RUMPOLE, in tones of grieved shock:] Oh, my Lord... **CERTAINLY**....

(Rumpole adds that the Crown will soon be introducing an equal-and-opposite suggestion of mendacity, ensuring that "the compliments are mutual.") 

Opportunities for exposure to scholarship and science: Having seen many things in or near academia, I am blessed to have seen even a few things in that environment which prove life-affirming. 

There is that feeling - I speak from the later 1970s, and yet things cannot have changed much - when you come in from the damp of the Oxford sunset, and you switch on both bars of your electric fire, and you make tea, and you settle down to some concentrated work in philosophical logic or in formal logic or in Greek, knowing that the balance of the afternoon will be peaceful; and knowing that dinner in Hall (with its Latin grace, its academic gowns) awaits; and knowing that the long, peaceful late evening, upon return from  Hall, promises more of the same, with concentration unbroken. 

There is that trampling of heavy feet on ringing metal catwalk in God's Navy, the observatory - as the stars wheel slowly overhead,and Ontario civilians sleep, and the stellar photons hit the CCD chip from across a gulf some hundred light years deep. 

There is also God's Other Navy, pure maths: the feeling of quiet advance, as pencil moves on paper, and some (in my case, admittedly simple) proof takes shape. 

Wordsworth remarked on Newton 

for ever

Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone

Nowadays, those same "strange seas" are a crowded English Channel or a crowded Rotterdam or a crowded Singapore, awash with endless vessels captained by personnel of the most alarmingly varied abilities, and with the harried maths student - bombarded by books, and possibly harried by professors and their Teaching Assistants - now anything but "alone". 

Yet the Strange Seas of Thought, with their "vector spaces" and "topological spaces" and "connected regions" and "smooth mappings", are still the seas - infinite, mirroring in their eternal verities the depths of physical spacetime we know from the observatory, as control-room ("warmroom") clocks advance and the silence deepens. 

Estonian institutions more rubust now than the "previous time round": The "previous time round", in the period from the 1920 Treaty of Tartu to the Soviet annexation of 1940, was also the "first time round" - constituting Estonia's first, and not altogether successful, experiment in modern statehood. Students of Baltic affairs will recall that the first time round, Estonia's 1920s parliament fractured into multiple small parties, and that Konstantin Päts ended a constitutional crisis (the far-right "Vaps" movement was threatening a takeover) through the desperate 1934 expedient of a bloodless coup - eventually bringing in a 1938 constitution ostensibly intended to preserve parliamentary democracy, and yet to modern eyes authoritarian. 

Now, as I find on comparing Estonian institutions with Canadian or British counterparts, things seem to be on a more solid footing. 

I do not know how good Question Time is at Westminster, and how it compares against its (perhaps tamer?) Estonian parliamentary (Riigikogu) equivalent, the every-Wednesday "Infotund" ("Information Hour"). 

It is  to those of us brought up in Anglo-Saxon parliamentary traditions, as Estonians abroad, disconcerting to find our Riigikogu arranged not into benches - Government on one side, Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition on the other - but into a kind of classroom, with the presiding Speaker simply facing everyone else. I guess this is the parliamentary seating we must expect if we have a plurality of parties, with proportional representation - not, indeed, the out-of-control plurality that caused Estonia trouble in some of the years leading up to 1934, but nevertheless four or five or six. Of this handful or half-dozen, two or three normally form a coalition, under the formal clauses of some "Koalitsioonileping" (the "Coalition Agreement"). 

But it is, on the plus side for those of us in the Estonian diaspora brought up in Anglo-Saxonia, refreshing to see Parliament in Tallinn not merely constitutionally empowered to bring down an entire government on a no-confidence motion, but additionally constitutionally empowered to bring down a single Cabinet minister (leaving the rest of the government in office, wriggling and squirming). 

It is similarly refreshing to see that in Tallinn, in contrast with Ottawa, people tend to complain not about an excessive preponderance of lawyers in the ranks of MPs, but rather of a shortage. ("Oh,", I believe people complain Back Home, "if only more lawyers and economists got elected, without all this inefficient diversity of occupations...") 

Above all, perhaps, it is refreshing to see Estonia combining into one person the intrinsically related offices of constitutional watchdog and ombuds. In Estonia,  the "Justice Chancellor", or Õiguskantsler, scrutnizes not one thing but two: 

  • Do the executive actions of the national and local authorities pay correct regard to the rights of individuals, or does remedial action now have to be taken?
  • Are the various legislative instruments emerging from Parliament-with-President and the various local authorities constitutional, or does remedial action now have to be taken - with, for instance, a constitutional-law case now started at the Supreme Court, down in Tartu? 
Here Estonia is breaking some new ground in governance, I think being the only country to combine these two necessary, and juridically related,  functions into the person and staff of one single agency. It is like the Ontario "Ombuds" on the one hand, and the "Justice Chancellor" (a constitutional watchdog) of Sweden and Finland on the other. Let's hope this works out. Estonian public perceptions have, as far as I have gathered from 2005-era Web information at, been positive. 

John Bradburne: I have blogged on this luminous saint twice already, in uploads of 2016-09-26 or 2016-09-27 (under the title "Theological discovery: the witness of John Bradburne (1921-1979)") and 2016-10-03 or 2016-10-04 (under the title "Theological investigations continue: John Bradburne (1921-1979)"). Today, I remark that further investigation, with much reading in the archived John Bradburne Memorial Society newsletters (available at, confirms my impressions of sanctity. 

It was presumptuous of me, as a person outside the ranks of serious literary critics, and as a person with so far only scant exposure to John Bradburne's large literary corpus, to suggest in my upload of 2016-09-26 or 2016-09-27 that his poetry is in comparison with Gerard Manley Hopkins "perhaps timid" and "a little demure". My offered criticism may be fair, or it may be unfair. It should at any rate not be coming from my desk just yet, at this initial and tentative stage in my reading. 

On the sanctity, I continue to ponder my encounter with John Bradburne's invertebrate friends, probably Apis mellifera, in an Aurora municipal park on the day following my discovery of him (as I explain in my upload of 2016-09-26 or 2016-09-27). 

I indeed now ask this: Could it be that John will help not only with my own pair of personal problems (my slowness in mathematical investigations, and my depressions), but with a public thing - the David Dunlap Observatory and Park heritage-conservation file? Can this saint help remedy the damage - perhaps, in some way I cannot now discern, bringing the developer families (the so-visibly-Catholic DeGasperises and Muzzos) to sanity and kind ways, with the 32 hectares the families have been seeking to develop now saved, awaiting the eventual forestation of what was until last year meadow, and the eventual reforestation of what was until last year forested? Can we now dream of Apis mellifera - of honeybees - introduced, somehow, onto that now-so-damaged terrain, in John's memory, in testimony to the worthiness of his eventual canonization? 

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