Friday, March 28, 2003

I bet these creatures were really tasty. Science, how 'bout it? Bring back extinct creatures so we can eat them! Take that, you PETA scum!

Thursday, March 27, 2003

This post is for the three Texan gentlemen last night. Listen, fellas, when everyone else has been gone for forty-five minutes and your waitstaff is sitting in the service bar and the ambient music gets louder and louder, guys, it's time to leave. Go home! Don't you have homes?

Tuesday, March 25, 2003

Let no one say that cookbooks are necessarily boring reading. The Georgian Feast by Darra Goldstein contains reams of the fascinating ethnographic tidbits with which the Caucasus seem so abundantly blessed. The following is a description of a very peculiar custom, both funerarily and culinarily, in seventeenth century Georgia, by the Turkish traveler Evliya Çelebi (Efendi):

[They] have a strange mode of burying their Begs [lords]; they put the body into a wooden coffin, which they nail onto the branches of some high tree and make a hole in the coffin near the head, that the Beg, as they say, may look up to Heaven: bees enter the coffin and make honey, entirely wrapping the body up in it; when the season comes they open the coffin, take the honey and sell it, much caution, therefore is required to be used in purchasing the honey of [these people].
--From Narrative of Travels in Europe, Asia and Africa in the Seventeenth Century

Monday, March 24, 2003

With all that's going on in the world, let's not neglect to spare a thought for the Scourge of Piracy. The Weekly Piracy Report always makes for entertaining reading, and this week had a particularly juicy (i.e. violent) entry:

13.03.2003 at 1000 UTC in the vicinity of Socotra islands, Somalia.
Four speedboats with four pirates armed with high-powered guns in each boat chased a bulk carrier underway. Despite taking evasive measures, four pirates managed to board at forward and attempted to enter accommodation. Vessel contacted coastal authorities and owners for help. An hour later, a maritime aircraft arrived and assisted. Crewmembers using fire hoses, rocket flares, armed with some iron bars prevented the attackers from entering the accommodation. At 1200 UTC pirates disembarked into their boats and fled. Ship resumed her voyage.

Fortunately, piracy seems not to be a very prosperous sort of livelihood these days. In several months of following the Report I've yet to read of a successful ship takeover. All a modern pirate can reasonably hope for is to sneak on board and make off with an armload of goods. Still, last week (sorry, can't find an archive link) some Indonesian pirates attacked a ship with rocket launchers and other serious firepower. Don't ever think that the world's a safe place.
Anecdote of Idiocy

Peculiar's absence from the internet of late is ascribable mostly to fatigue. I work at a ski area, and our current plenitude of snow, and also management's penchant for hiring mostly drug addicts and sub-normal goat farmers, has left me working some very long, hard days recently. But the people-watching at ski areas is always world class, and yesterday one gentleman displayed idiocy to a degree actually sufficient to set him apart from the crowd.

One of my drearier duties is to scan lift tickets, using a standard hand-held barcode scanner. I go to scan one fellow, the sort of rum cully all too common in Santa Fe, whose disheveled hair, dull stare and three-day beard atop some quite pricey ski clothes imply that an abundance of unearned money was for him the deciding factor between a career as a sensitive new-age guy or as a street drunk. As I reach toward him, he lurches his torso as far from his ticket as possible (with limited success, the two being attached), and demands to me, "Don't point that thing at my body, man! Those things are dangerous!" "No they're not," I say, "I'd worry more about the sunlight than this light here." "Gimme a break man," he replies. "It's a LASER! You know... like laser guns." "They kill fish," his female companion chimes in helpfully.

I've already decided that talking to this guy is like delivering a speech to dryer lint, but my nearby colleague tries good-naturedly to explain to him the difference between Class A and other lasers. But our Idiot-Olympian cuts him off, without the slightest trace of banter or irony, yelling, "Hey man, you got your belief system, I got mine!"

Well, clearly. Now I must admit that this guy bothered me more than he should have, much more than the Mere-Mortal idiots of whom I spent the rest of the day in observation. But, aside from contemplating the pleasure of telling him on his next run that his innards had already been thoroughly cauterized and mutated by the laser controlling the automatic door of our rental shop, I contemplated as well the perniciousness of the Your-Belief-System-Versus-Mine response which one hears so often from people on the losing sides of arguments. The fact that his belief system is a caprice, whereas the logical implications of mine regularly square with reality in the observations of numerous independant observers, is not even what I find most troubling. To respond to another person in this way is deny any possiblity of agreement, or even communication, save perhaps by chance. If we hold beliefs in common, it is pure coincidence, and we cannot use these commonalities to reach agreement on anything else. We cannot learn and we cannot teach; we cannot even communicate an idea to another unless they have it already, in which case it's an empty communication. Human intellect, art, and empathy all cease to have any power, and every person is permanently, hopelessly alone, unable to influence anyone else or even to know if beliefs and perceptions which appear to be shared are truly the same beliefs and perceptions. Someone who determinedly holds such notions is a human being only in the most technical sense.

But I'm over it. My interlocuter of yesterday has doubtless already died of dyspepsia, and I am free to steal a barcode scanner and enjoy a tasty summer of laser-fishing.

Sunday, March 23, 2003

Traffic reports indicate over 110 unique visitors last week. Since Peculiar and I only know about five, total, this statistic begs the question: Who are you people?

Saturday, March 22, 2003

Speaking of artificial intelligence, this article on AI and Thomas Aquinas is pleasantly odd.
There are a lot of very intelligent people out there with the ability royally to piss me off. Richard Dawkins is one of them. Materialism leads directly to moral relativism--that should be obvious to anyone with enough brains to read books written before 1853 AD. Why anyone listens to him on any subject besides evolutionary biology is beyond me. Of course, Dawkins thinks that every subject comes down to evolutionary biology, so perhaps that's why he feels qualified to write on anything, no matter how uninformed he may be.

Saturday, March 15, 2003

Nature is always tougher than we imagine. Any organism or group of organisms that has lasted this long tends to be, in the words of Neal Stephenson, "a stupendous bad-ass." Still, if the robot falcons had been a little less passive, this might have gone the other way. Come on, people, let's get those birds in the air. Hit somebody!
Link via the Belligerent Bunny Blog.

Friday, March 14, 2003

The best effort at Artificial Intelligence I've come across was one in which the computer was simply programmed with data as they were needed. I can't find the article, so good luck! The example given was that the computer realized that a person with claustrophobia would be uncomfortable travelling by train to Paris from London, based on the following: the Chunnel is an enclosed space; claustrophobes feel uncomfortable travelling in enclosed spaces for a long distance; the Chunnel is 163,680 feet long; this length is longer than fifty feet; fifty feet is a long distance. This induction is impressive, but I wouldn't call it intelligence.

Induction and deduction as methods have switched definitions on occasion. Here, I mean by induction the method of reaching a generally applicable conclusion from singular statements. Deduction, therefore, is the method of creating the general conclusion first, then testing it with singular statements. Deduction is now, more or less, the accepted scientific method. One creates an hypothesis which leads one to various falsifiable predictions, tests those predictions, and decides whether this theory is false, or unfalsified. Not true in the absolute sense, of course, since by this method no theory can ever be proven true. It remains only and for the moment unfalsified.

This method is so familiar that it's hard to remember how young it is; and it is so familiar because it's so useful. Karl Popper, an Austrian philosopher recently revitalized by the book Wittgenstein's Poker, was one of the most influential advocates of it. Indeed, in his Logic of Scientific Discovery, he demonstrates the impossibility of the inductive method reaching any new discoveries.

That inconsistencies may easily arise in connection with the principle of induction should have been clear from the work of Hume; also, that they can be avoided, if at all, only with difficulty. For the principle of induction [i.e. a statement which would allow us to put inductive inferences in an acceptable logical form; that is, move from the singular to the universal] must be a universal statement in its turn. Thus if we try to regard its truth as known from experience, then the very same problems which occasioned its introduction will arise all over again.

He goes on to disparage Kant's attempt to place the principle of induction in the realm of the a priori; I think he gives Kant short shrift, since this view requires more that a shrugging off, but the important thing is that Popper has an alternative. If we begin with our conclusion, we cannot prove it, but we can falsify it if a singular event does not fit. If I decide that 'All peace protesters are stupid', this hypothesis can be disproven when I meet a smart peace protester. All I need is one instance of this, and my hypothesis must be thrown out or modified. This insight of Popper's is what destroyed the then juggernautical Vienna Circle and its logical positivism, which demanded that a statement, to be meaningful, must be capable of proof.

I'll quote Einstein, because I can, and it's his birthday, and I like him, in his address on the occasion of Max Planck's sixtieth birthday. "There is no logical path leading to these [highly universal] laws. They can only be reached by intuition, based on something like an intellectual love of the objects of experience." Popper himself thinks that every discovery has "'an irrational element'".

Until this "irrational element" (which I rather doubt is truly irrational) can be harnessed, computers will still be nothing more than excellent adding machines, a useful form of outside memory. They will be unable, to use a term of Kuhn's, to initiate or understand a "paradign shift"

P.S. Comparisons to Plato's Meno have been left as an exercise for the reader.

Wednesday, March 12, 2003

Haven't blogged lately: the Muse has been rather retiring lately, and, I might add, something of a surly drunk. But here's a jolly passage from The Floating Brothel by Sian Rees (the book is about the transportation of female convicts to Botany Bay):

Another East End twosome currently in Newgate under sentence of transportation were to Parts Beyond the Seas were Poll Randall and Mary Butler. These two had comitted an even more audacious raid on Joseph Clark at a lodging-house or brothel in Cable Street... On the night of 10 November 1787, Joseph Clark was strolling down Cable Street with the extraordinarily incautious sum of £40 in his pocket and half a cheese on his head[!]. When he found himself seized from behind by Poll Randall and Mary Butler and dragged into a house, it was, he explained to a bemused court, care for his cheese which prevented his putting up any resistance. Inside, his cheese was snatched and this, he went on, was why he could not leave...

Joseph Clark held out for his cheese during half a pint of gin, a game of cards, a further half of gin and supper, although he did object as supper as suggested that 'I only want my cheese and to go home'. But suddenly the mood changed. Poll and Mary hauled him upstairs- 'you could not resist at all?' asked an incredulous judge- and forcibly undressed him. 'She threw me on the bed!' he said in his defense. 'I cried out, for God's sake do not use me ill!' It was only when Poll demanded the banknotes in his pockets that Clark realized they were not just after his cheese. Even at this dramatic point, they all had another round of beef and gin, Clark still tucked up in bed. The girls were prepared to humour him for a while, but at a certain point Poll Randall ran out of patience- she wanted a drink: 'She took both my hands and put them behind me; I was afraid to make any resistance!' Both Poll Randall and Mary Butler were 13.

Comments fail me.

Saturday, March 08, 2003

Oog. This morning is one on which I long for a gentleman's gentleman. Had a lovely time last night with my not-at-all-odious and middlingly peculiar parents and various avuncular relatives. Somehow, during all the talk (about Iraq! Who should have guessed?) alcohol was consumed, leading to my current headache and loss of subjects for my verbs. On the other hand, I did come away with the knowledge of an excellent margartia-good enough for me to drink, which is rare, ever since "Margaritennacht" several years ago. Silver tequila, cointreau, and fresh squeezed lime juice. More tequila than cointreau and lime juice combined, mix vigorously. Somehow, in the cold, wavery light of morning, it doesn't appeal the same way.

Wednesday, March 05, 2003

Mark your calenders!

March 15th is International Eat an Animal for PETA Day. I for one can't think of a group I'd rather offend, or a tastier way of doing so. PETA has just launched an ad campaign which compares eating animals to the Nazis' slaughter of the jews. Such a comparison frankly reeks of the 'pigs and monkeys' imagery popular with the worst breeds of anti-semites, and a response from sane and decent human beings is very much in order. The link above has mailing and e-mail addresses for PETA, as well as an apt letter which we are invited to cut and paste. Let's all do so.

The philosophical problem with animal rights is, of course, that rights are meaningless if those who have them can't or won't uphold them in others. Quite simply, I'll stop eating animals as soon as I can trust them not to eat me. Our odious and peculiar cats, Vermin and Horseflesh, show us occasional signs of affection, but I don't doubt that were we dead or immobile they'd be taking nibbles soon enough.

Soooo then... sausages for breakfast, maybe a Cornish game hen at lunch, shrimp with peanut sauce or calamari for an appetizer, then flank steaks for everyone!

Update: Or, if you'd like to get as many animals as possible into every mouthful, I suggest the following, courtesy of the Two Fat Ladies:

1/2 pound good mushrooms, sliced
salt and freshly ground pepper
grated nutmeg
1/2 pound chicken or turkey livers
1 pound each ground beef, ground pork, and ground veal or turkey
1 pound pork sausage meat
1 large onion, grated
3 fat garlic cloves, minced to a paste
10 juniper berries, crushed
1 heaping teaspoon ground allspice
sprigs of fresh thyme
1-2 eggs
1/2 pound sliced bacon
branches of fresh rosemary

Sauté the mushrooms in butter until the juices run, then season with salt and pepper plus a good grating of nutmeg. Reserve. Remove the sinews from the livers and slice. In a large bowl, combine all the ground meats, the sausage meat, the livers, the onion, garlic and juniper berries. Add the allspice and some thyme leaves. Season with salt and about 20 turns of the pepper mill. Beat the egg(s) and add to the mixture along with the sautéed mushrooms. Use your spotless hands to mix this whole lot together most thoroughly.

Oil a roasting pan and place all the mixture in it, molding it into an oval shape. Adorn with the slices of bacon, criss-crossed Union Jack style, tucking the ends under the meat loaf. Strew some bay leaves and branches of rosemary on the top and sides. Cook in a pre-heated oven at 450ºF for 15 minutes, then lower the heat to 350ºF and cook for a further 1 1/2 hours.
One of the more beautiful methods of space transportation seems to be gaining some suppport. It's also nice to see that the company plans to make money off this venture. For too long space travel has been the realm of governments, with all others restricted to orbit. I know I'm saving my money for an affordable space-ship for the working man.

Tuesday, March 04, 2003

Physicality and Music

Patrick Kavanaugh has an interesting article up at NRO, in which he contemplates the current trend towards semi-nudity and sexual suggestion on classical album covers. Neither Kavanaugh nor I disapprove of any specific instance of this per se. She's hot, she's scantily clad, and her Beethoven will blow your socks off? What's not to like? It's the trend which disturbs us, not its lovely incarnations.

Artists' looks have always been an issue in opera, where audiences are generally encouraged to look at the performers rather than close their eyes and contemplate the music's abstract structures. The putative public, with unfeeling heart and shriveled imagination, is commonly perplexed by operatic heroes' love for their expansive sopranos. But with the help of costume, lighting, and some distance between the viewer and the stage, a good singer can easily hide her physical form behind the power of her vocal characterization*. In instrumental music, the problem should theoretically be nonexistent. Who cares if the soloist has a hump and a horn, if her playing brings tears to our eyes?

I do not wish to imply that only the imbecilic, Philistine masses have these sorts of issues, while I, the educated connoisseur, am quite beyond them. I must admit, in good candour with myself, that I too am somewhat distracted by the girths of (for example) Jessye Norman and Gary Lakes in my DVD performance of Die Walküre. But this distraction would be negligable in a live performance, where ample singers do not fill my television screen, but are instead dwarfed by the scenery. I place the blame here on the zoom lenses at live performances, and on the boudoir photographers employed by the record companies. We the audience were never meant to see the sweat on a violinist's grimacing brow as she plays a serene but difficult passage, and only the most narcissistic of artists would rob us of the serenity which the composer intended in order to spotlight her own exertions. Such focus on the physical act of music making, and the physical stuff of the music makers, exacerbates this tension between technical process and emotional product, and forces our eyes towards performers' bodies in a manner unprecedented throughout classical music's history.

The matter of sexy album covers is, of course, fundamentally a marketing issue, both for artists and record companies. As Kavanaugh points out, the world of classical performance is so fiercely competitive at present that even quite talented and generally respectable female performers can hardly afford not to take advantage of whatever fleshly beauty they are lucky enough to possess. As for the record companies, they are desperate for any marketing advantage which can justify charging eighteen dollars for a recital CD. All of the standard repetoire has been recorded, often in dozens of excellent competing versions. Modern digital recordings do not, in the ears of most listeners, sound consistantly better than remastered analogue performances, and one is not hard pressed to think of numerous records from the late fifties and early sixties which are still considered the benchmark recordings of indispensible works. With so many stunningly good old performances available for a fraction of the price of the renditions du jour, it's little wonder if the marketing executives are not particularly scrupulous as they try to draw our attention to new releases. Playing up the artists' 'personalities' and physical attributes is just an obvious means of boosting sales.

The most prominent victims of all this are the many talented young performers whose faces and other bits are not alone capable of selling records. But I fear that televised performances and close-up shots are also pushing rising stars into tackling difficult repetoire too early, while their youthful bloom yet lingers, and robbing older artists of the rewards for their years of effort (Convent Garden recently rejected Deborah Voigt as Ariadne, on the grounds that she was too fat). Life experience and maturity make a great deal of difference in interpretations of complex and subtle material. It's pleasant enough to look at a nubile twenty-two-year-old pretending to be Fiordiligi, Eva, Desdemona, or Arabella; but it's years of performance experience, of interpetation and re-interpretation which brings the greatness of these roles to life**. The same applies to the great instrumental repetoire, which is so often personal and painful at it's heart.

One of the great benefits of recorded music, in my mind, is that it saves us from the problems of physicality which plague live performances. I can listen at home to hours of Wagner in such comfort as is inconceivable in the opera house, stretched out on the sofa, refreshments at hand. I can imagine a Sieglinde who appears every bit as beautiful, as dignified in humiliation, as hopeful in sorrow, as a good soprano can sound but can hardly hope to look. And I can be spared nitwit post-modern directors' sophomoric production concepts (like Francesca Zambello's Les Troyens recently at the Met, in which Berlioz' Trojans are depicted as "Post-9/11, Pre-Gulf 2" American imperialists), which reduce timeless artistic grandeur to shallow and fleeting propoganda. But by emphasizing and exploiting performers' bodies and non-musical personalities the marketers are subtly robbing us listeners of these delights, robbing us of the joy of hearing a mature, seasoned artist set her ageing body aside and bring the conceptions of a long dead genius magically and sensuously to life.

*These vocal swords can cut many ways. It is absolutely a myth that all opera singers are fat. Take, for instance, Christa Ludwig as Fricka. It never ceases to amaze me how so tiny a woman can transform herself through singing into a terrifyingly imposing goddess, who quite believably demolishes Wotan's mighty will and reduces the chief of the gods to a despondent heap. And let's not forget the delicious irony in the anecdote (found here) about the tenor singing Don José in a modern dress Carmen in Mexico City, who went out for a beer during intermission and was arrested as a deserter from the army; only by singing Cette fleur que tu m'avais jetée could he convince the police that he was not in fact the character he was portraying.

**The role of the Feldmarschallin in Der Rosenkavalier embodies these questions. She is a woman who is only just passing her physical prime, who is coming to realize that flesh and beauty are fleeting, and therefore cannot define a person. Her Act I monologue on time would alone suffice to prove that opera can have great depth, and is not mere vocal showmanship. "One must take it lightly, with light heart and light hands hold and take, hold and relinquish... Those who are not like that will be punished by life" [trans. Walter Legge]. Obviously, older sopranos will bring greater depth and poignancy to such a role than younger ones, and audiences very often assume based on the performer's age that the character Marie Thérèse is much older than the libretto in fact indicates.

Monday, March 03, 2003

I used to joke that, because I was born three days earlier than expected, I would someday take those days off and laze about.

I am now roughly two years behind.

Sadly, I can't even hope for an enormous contraction of the Universe to destroy all evidence of my indolence. On the plus side, things will slow down as the Universe expands, so I may have a chance to catch up (God and thermodynamics willing).