Sunday, November 30, 2003

A source (viz. Jonathan Kingdon, via a shared acquaintance) informs us that the superorder Afrotheria has just received official acknowledgement as a taxon. Here's a little background. You heard it here first!
Tyrophiles unite!

I meant to post on this some time ago, but it slipped through the cracks. Bureaucratic health fascism is currently stifling Mauritanian herders' livelihood and denying you and me the pleasure of Mauritanian camel cheese. These poor fellows are hoping to find a lucrative market in the E.U., despite the fact that the soulless bastards currently running the show are trying to regulate their own European cheeses into sanitized oblivion. Don't believe me?

Before the EU regulations were created there were some 15 000 so-called «Specialist» or «artisan» cheese makers in the UK. As of April 1999, there are only 300, down from 2 000 a year before.

There do remain signs of lingering sanity:

European laws which insisted that cucumbers and bananas could not be excessively curved and had to be of a certain shape were ruled "unenforceable" by the High Court yesterday.

But for how long? Many thanks to those who are fighting the good fight.

Of course, the situation on this side of the pond is just as bad. My own encounters with our smothering angels of hygiene have been consistantly exasperating. As my summer livelihood requires, I am a licensed food handler in the state of Utah. For years the classes I was forced to attend were taught by a loathsome warthog of a woman, who for the duration of her lecture would constantly scratch, claw, and abuse her arms, neck and scalp. Every rafting company in town independantly christened her the 'Itchy-Scratchy Lady'. My favorite part of her courses was always her explanation of why Utah has the highest rates of several communicable diseases in the nation. "We're a tourist state," she'd say. "We have tourists from Europe, and England, and China, and even some [and here her voice grew conspiritorial, as though only she in all the world had the strength of purpose to reveal such an unwelcome secret] from Africa." I suppose the self-evident fact that the state is teeming with families whose two-digit numbers of children stick their pestiferous little trotters into everything is not a political winner in Utah.

All the people I've met in the public health field are perfect illustrations of the "only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail" principle. Their professional obsession drives them to distrust all food everywhere, and they forget that some of us still eat things because we like them. Itchy-Scratchy, when asked what local restaurants are good, instantly admits that she never eats out at all. I can't fathom how these people reconcile their world views with the fact that folks who eat like I do are still alive and kicking, and regularly survive infancy. So let's pour as much scorn as possible on them, eat Mauritanian camel cheese and stranger things, and read and support Slow Food's Manifesto in defense of Raw-milk Cheese.

"You can help this cause by sending the following message “I also eat raw-milk cheese” to the e-mail address"

Saturday, November 29, 2003

Interesting article on some chappy who's trying to apply modern computational and statistical techniques for glottochronological purposes, to learn things about Indo-European. Anatolia 8,500 years ago, says he.

And here is an interesting and sometimes surprising article on William Christie, the current owner of the French Baroque period.

Friday, November 28, 2003

Wrong, wrong, wrong! But disturbingly fun, and no one who has ever worked in customer service will disagree. Blame Dave for this one.

Thursday, November 27, 2003

"He told himself that he was not drunk at all, but that he had taken an unusual quantity of whisky, which seemed to produce much the same effect as intoxication."

E[dward] F[rederick] Benson, 1867-1940
And while we're on the subject, here is a voice from the Middle East which desperately needs to be heard. I particularly appreciate the reminder of Egypt's late 19th Century history.
Radical feminist or Wahhabi? Take your best guess:

But are these [American] men really concerned about the rights of women? The society has so many practices which exploit and suppress women, leading to women's liberation movements from the suffragettes of the early twentieth century to the feminists of today. The truth of the matter is that monogamy protects men, allowing them to “play around” without responsibility. Easy birth control and easy legal abortion has opened the door of illicit sex to woman and she has been lured into the so-called sexual revolution. But she is still the one who suffers the trauma of abortion and the side effects of the birth control methods. Taking aside the plagues of venereal disease, herpes and AIDS, the male continues to enjoy himself free of worry. Men are the ones protected by monogamy while women continue to be victims of men's desires.

Ethics and morals and Puritan virtues
Are no recompense for a decent Sauterne.

--X[erxes] G[regorovich] Prawne (1821-1839)

Getting started early, eh, Mr. Lileks? Not that there's anything wrong with that. I myself have had perhaps some Irish Cream, and started talking about building robots to do all our chores for us. And we all know how that ends, don't we.

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

The GashlyCrumb Tinies - You have a terribly wicked
sense of humour and people are drawn to your
wit. Children beware of the thin, pale man
with the black umbrella!

Which Edward Gorey Book Are You?
brought to you by Quizilla
doubtful guest
The Doubtful Guest - You like to stir things up for
people don't you? You have quite a surreal would rather live in fantasy
than reality.

Which Edward Gorey Book Are You?
brought to you by Quizilla

Yeah, that's me (the book, not the quiz-monger's description), and I could procure testimonials to prove it. I'm not impressed with the quiz itself, though, neither with the questions, nor with the way the answers changed as I played with them.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Also in maritime news, the Queen Anne's Revenge, Blackbeard's flagship, has been found.
Turns out sea urchins may live for two hundred years. I'm still not about to stop eating their eggs.

Sunday, November 23, 2003

Even with their consent, it's still not okay to eat people. Especially if you are German.

Here. If you must. (Also, here, for a rather more selective audience.)

"There's a little Üter in all of us!"

Saturday, November 22, 2003

Want to know about the Georgian Revolution? Japan Times has an excellent primer. Also check out Living with Caucasians.
Al Maviva attends the Federalist Society Convention. And survives.

Sunday, November 16, 2003

And lest any of you doubt that the world is a strange and wonderful place, know that a characteristic of a breed of dogs called tazis is that their feet smell like popcorn. My parents have two, one from Kiev and one from Kazakhstan, and I assure you that the claim is true.
And here's a bad poem I like, by Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864):

STAND close around, ye Stygian set,
With Dirce in one boat convey’d,
Or Charon, seeing, may forget
That he is old, and she a shade.

Ever wish your cat had a beak? I know I do. Indulge this and stranger fantasies here.

Saturday, November 15, 2003

Boredom leads me to read the personal ads; to analyze them, perversity.

Caveats: I am in no way qualified to do this; my sample is small and self-selected; the paper I read has its own...issues, so to speak, which brings in a further degree of self-selection on the part of the readers; once more, I am not a statistician, nor have I any interest in that discipline.

I broke down the information given in the ads into two categories, each with the same two divisions. The categories are Offers and Demands, and the divisions Appearance and Personality. Briefly, an Offer is any significant information about a person (and, yes, I decide what constitutes significance), e.g. "SWM, 40, 5'9", 270 lbs." A Demand is any request for a quality in the respondant, e.g. "seeks SWF, 18-24 blonde/blue, fit, attractive, for one night stand, maybe more". Appearance is self-explanitory; Personality is any non-physical quality, including "financial independent" or "sword swallower/snake charmer". Into the morass!

The ads themselves are broken up into four sections. I do not include the "Variations" area, since this is a family-friendly blog. Mostly.

Anyway: Women Seeking Men, Men Seeking Women, Men Seeking Men, and Women Seeking Women. Naturally, the WSM and MSW outnumbered the other two, making their percentages rather less influenced by a single ad, but MSM and WSW were over-represented in percentage of ads compared with percentage of population. My theory about this is below, with more on self-selection. For now, a breakdown (forgiveness, please, for poor formatting):

O/P___65%___73%___54%___100% (!)

A few notes about these statistics before we continue. They don't add to any particular percentage. This is because an ad may contain anything between a single Demand or Offer to all four sets. As previously stated, the MSM and WSW are easily skewed. WSM who Demanded Appearance always Offered it; MSW who Demanded Appearance -or- Personality always Offered something (not necessarily the same thing! "SWM, 50, fun, independent, likes music, seeks SWF, 20-50, trim, fit, attractive, for dining out, dancing, and movies" is a classic example of Offering Personality in exchange for Appearance. This was a trend with MSW, although not a pronounced one (less likely, in fact, than an Offer of Appearance with a Demand for Appearance, or similarly with Personality)).

So, firstly, we see that Men, of any orientation, are more Demanding than Women, although WSW are very interested in Personality. While we might expect Men to Demand more in terms of Appearance, a trend which we do see (although Appearance was seldom Demanded in any case; the most common area being MSM with 38%), MSW also Demanded Personality more commonly than any other group. Interestingly, MSM were the least interested in Personality.

Men, in fact, had a different style of ad than Women, regardless of orientation. While there was overlap, Women's ads tended towards the narrative: "New in town, SWF, middle-aged but young at heart, seeks friend or maybe more for...." Men, on the other hand, were fond of adjectives, often simply listing their Offers and Demands: "Me: 36, fit, athletics, loves hiking, reading, social drinker. You: SWF, similar age, interests."

Men were also more likely to Offer something, MSW Offering Personality more commonly, while MSM Offered Appearance. Women Offered less commonly, although WSW always Offered Personality ("animal lover, amazon femme, brutally honest...").

So, I'm sure not going to jump into the whirling razor-blade lined fun-ride of drawing conclusions. But a brief hypothesis: MSM and WSW are over-represented because of the comparative difficulty of meeting someone similarly inclined. MSW and WSM can go to a bar, or grocery store, or box social, and be fairly confident that the majority of the people which they encounter are potentially interested. MSM and WSW don't have that assurance, and so must rely on other means of meeting likely partners.

And get a load of this:

Among their more unusual behavior, the [blanket] octopuses [Tremoctopus violaceus] employ a unique defense mechanism by tearing off the tentacles of passing Portuguese man-of-war jellyfish. The octopuses are immune to the tentacle's painful sting. When they encounter potential predators, the octopuses waft the captured man-of-war tentacles in two pairs of its upper arms as an effective deterrent.

Friday, November 14, 2003

I have a post ("too large for this margin") that involves both Conan the Barbarian and Sherlock Holmes. But Detective Conan? That's just weird.

Thursday, November 13, 2003

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

If the State had a mind to put a stop to all true poetry, it would need introduce 1000 livings for royal poetic functionaries.

--Søren Kierkegaard

Similarities with space travel, health care, schooling, and common charity are left for the reader to enumerate.

Monday, November 10, 2003

If the soul is one, and immortal, it cannot alter. For if it were, say, to move closer to or further from some afterlife, that would be an alteration. Because the soul is one, any alteration must be complete; that is, there is no part to the soul, so an alteration necessarily alters it entirely (the soul is atomic). And if the soul defines identity, any alteration would produce a new person. And a new person cannot be held responsible for the actions of another, and so cannot move closer to or further from some afterlife. Thus, the soul cannot alter.
Socrates, at least in the Phaedrus, comes off as strongly against the written word, since it cannot do anything but remind us of what we already know. I wonder, though, if that's true. Anyone who's read Plato has imagined himself arguing with Socrates; has thought his interlocuters dim, and said to himself, "If only I were there. I'd show him a thing or two." (Billy Collins, Marginalia:
Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author,
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny back script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O'Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

In short, Plato's works produce a sort of dialogue between the reader and Socrates, rather than instructing the reader or reminding them. The Phaedrus has always struck me as odd for that reason: it's a written work which purports to decry writing.

All the great books have that give and take to them. They can be read and re-read for that reason: we take them into ourselves, and give them new life, and new arguments arise each time. Because they tell us something true, we can change the way we reach that conclusion, and have new understanding of it.

But all that depends on us actually reading these books; they don't read themselves (except late at night, rustling on the shelves to one another. I finally had to separate Epictetus and Nietzsche. Each morning I'd come in and Nietzsche would be lying on the floor in despair, his spine broken in a new place). Epictetus, actually, puts it very well:

Do you then show me your improvement in these things? If I were talking to an athlete, I should say, 'Show me your shoulders'; and then he might say, 'Here are my weights.'
You and your weights look to that. I should reply, 'I wish to see the effect of the weights.'
So, when you say: 'Take the treatise on the active powers, and see how I have studied it.' I reply, 'Slave, I am not inquiring about this, but how you exercise pursuit and avoidance, desire and aversion, how your design and purpose and prepare yourself,
whether conformably to nature or not. If conformably, give me evidence of it, and I will say that you are making progress: but if not conformably, be gone, and not only expound your books, but write such books yourself; and what will you gain by it?'

We do not call a man wise because he has a large library, or even when he has read all the books of his library; he is wise when he has read, and retained, and put into action, what is contained in those books (presuming, of course, the books are worthwhile).

Now for the science fiction. Google has made me look smarter than I am on several occasions. To be able to find something so well, to have such information at one's fingertips, is a great advantage. Presume a future where we subconsciously google while we think and talk. A small internal computer, linked to the Internet, reads our thoughts and searches for the information which might interest us. We would, of course, need content-blockers to keep the pr0n to a minimum, but such things are coming along nicely. We therefore have a constant low murmur of information, which we can bring to the front of our mind at will. No longer are libraries necessary: every book ever written is available to us. We can, at a moment's notice, know all we need to know about, say, cephalopods, or whatever topic interests us.

We have gained very little, I think, although I'll be in the front of the line when such a service is available. The important information, the morality of an action, is not available online. Only reason can give that to us. And reason is not something that computers do well. Even the consensus which the Internet gives us is unsteady. I'm particularly loath to allow such a democratic process to decide my actions.

Any medium is limited by two factors: the information it conveys, and the readiness of the interpreter to absorb that information. While dialogue is clearly best, since it requires two active participants (or more, especially in the blogosphere), the great books are an excellent substitute. They're also around rather longer than any philosopher I can recall.

"Orchestras are the World's Greatest Air Guitar": Lileks blogs Berlioz.

Far too few people realize that Berlioz was a splendid writer of prose as well as music. Evenings with the Orchestra is a pleasure no one ought to miss: plenty of musical anecdotes and invective, but also many very odd works of short fiction, even one of science fiction. This in conjunction with my recent Polynesian peroration has inspired me to re-read the book's final offering, "The Adventures of Vincent Wallace in New Zealand", a dementedly lurid story of fleeting love between an Irish musician and a cannibal Maori princess.
Why has no argument against the Iraq war, principled or un-, valid or in-, no surprise, setback, or disappointment really disturbed me? I'd say because of this.

Sunday, November 09, 2003

I always bear a measure of trepidation when renting an “indigenous culture” sort of film, as many of them are inclined to dwell on native peoples’ social problems, alcoholism, domestic abuse, oppression by Whitey, &c, and the resulting movies tend to be predictable, exasperating, and depressing. In recent years there has been a trend of improvement in this sub-genre, but even such fascinating and well-executed films as Rabbit-Proof Fence and Gadjo Dilo are determined to lurch into wretchedness at their endings. Pathfinder, on the other hand, was a splendidly earnest adventure movie, but it was at heart a dramatization of a Lappish folk-tale, and nothing more; its story and style had no real relationship to the Lapps’ current situation.* Once Were Warriors gave the full social squalor treatment to contemporary Maori culture in 1995. So it’s very heartening to see a movie like Whale Rider steer clear of these pitfalls and actually offer insight into the processes of cultural stagnation and renewal.

A brief summary of the conflict at the film’s outset: Pai (the strikingly poised young Keisha Castle-Hughes) is the granddaughter of Koru (Rawiri Paratene), leader of the local Maori tribe. Her twin brother was to be Koru’s heir, heir to a line which stretches back to Paikea, the man who rode a whale to New Zealand; but both her brother and her mother died at their birth. Now, at the age of twelve or so, Pai is better versed and more involved in tribal tradition than any other young person, but her sex presents to Koru an insurmountable obstacle towards her fulfilling any role of tribal leadership, which would have been her brother’s birthright. Koru clearly sees Pai’s birth as the death-knell for the tradition of which he is keeper; he has lost faith in the old ceremonies, and the war-canoe which he is carving languishes unfinished.

Whale Rider does not search for the causes of Maori cultural lassitude in external sources such as history, New Zealand’s European government, or any white cultural domination; scarcely a white person appears in the whole movie. It instead looks inward, exploring the psychology of how individual Maori have or do not have faith in tradition. It was entirely filled in Wharanga, a real, living village on the North Island’s east coast (and not unlike a poor town here in New Mexico). Except for the leads, the cast is likewise composed of locals. This puts the supporting actors somewhat in the audience’s position in regard to Maori customs. The kids performing traditional chants at a school function early in the movie are ill at ease, perplexed, and clearly wondering if what they’re doing is perhaps unbearably silly. But there is later a wonderful scene in which Koru instructs the local boys in the conventions of Maori stick-fighting (more Maori weapons here). He thumps his chest and screams and protrudes his eyes and tongue in a hideous fashion, and at first looks quite absurd. Certainly, the bare-chested pubescent boys whom he orders to imitate him do not think they are cutting very impressive figures. But Koru proceeds to explain the significance of these ritual combative gestures, notably that the extended tongue signifies a Maori warrior’s intention to eat his foe, and I suspect that his pupils are no less delighted than I by the knowledge that their ancestors did not make idle threats. The boys start repeating the gestures more earnestly, and it is clear to see that the actors here, along with their characters and hopefully the audience, are coming to regard these proud traditional boasts as something worth taking pride in.

Keisha Castle-Hughes is another actor who all but lives her performance as Pai. Apparently she was pulled out of her classroom by the casting department and asked if she wanted a leading role in a feature film. She rose to the occasion gloriously (I very much hope to see her in other roles), and with evident delight becomes the torchbearer for traditionalism among the young people. Her character’s conflict is not with duty or destiny; Pai is eager to assume the role of Paikea’s heir, and when, for instance, the local boys all fail an initiation test, we have no doubt that she will be the one to complete it. Her troubles are instead with her grandfather.

Koru is everyone’s stubborn traditionalist grandpa, and the fundamental conflict of the film is his failure to see that some parts of his tradition must change if its best parts are to survive, that his granddaughter must be his heir or his bloodline be broken. This spiritual blight in its leader has infected the local society. The mythological nature of Koru’s malaise requires an act of mythological significance for its cure, and Pai is finally driven to such an act. The film’s climax demands some suspension of disbelief, but not much; no supernatural event occurs literally, but portent and destiny are palpably present as Pai asserts her descent from the Whale-Rider and her right of inheritance.

The final scene is visually spectacular, as Koru’s long awaited war canoe is launched, crewed by sixty muscular, grinning Polynesians, the real-life citizens of Whangara. The movie makers gave the canoe to the village when filming was done; the villagers had attempted to build one some years before, but it was not completed. This gift encapsulates the film’s message. The canoe was not built traditionally, it is constructed of movie studio materials, but it is stunning to look at, full size, and seaworthy. Tradition does not need to shun modernity. It needs rather to exploit the parts of the world and society which have changed for the better, to preserve the parts we wish to keep eternal.

Saturday, November 08, 2003

'Tis the voice of the leper;
I heard him decry,
"I have lost all my toes,
My ears, and one eye.
But 'tis really no matter,
For you see I have found
Gutta-percha replacements:
Three shillings a pound."
Everyone else is watching and reviewing Matrix Revolutions (ha!), so I may as well weigh in on some decent movies. Odious’ fiancée and I just saw Winged Migration, and it was almost as good as everyone’s been saying. It did, however, show undeniable symptoms of being a French movie. It’s mostly silent, but now and then a very Froggy sounding narrator interjects risibly uninformative and obvious statements along the lines of, “Zese birdz, zey migrrrate ver’ ver’ far, zey come wit’ ze spring” The soundtrack is mostly by a Bulgarian Orchestra and vocalists, and it vacillates between apt and distracting, but is pretty satisfactory overall. The film opens and closes, though, to the sounds of a musician only a pretentious Frenchman could think appropriate in a poetic, contemplative film about birds, viz. Nick Cave, albeit evidently in an uncharacteristicly sappy, dippy mood.

There are also some occasional scenes with social subtexts, which seemed rather out of place in such a lyric film. The credits snootily inform us that the shots of hunting were “filmed in North America, where this takes place every year”. Shut up and go enjoy eating songbirds with the smart Frenchmen, you pompous asses, while I raise a glass to hunting, which despite the tranzis’ and Euro-ninnies’ worst efforts is still not (quite) illegal over there. A scene where some sort of blue macaw cleverly escapes from an Amazonian pet-trafficker’s bamboo cage is too obviously contrived to take seriously. And there was a scene where some depressed looking geese wander around a wretchedly polluted Eastern European industrial hell-hole; I actually found it rather moving, but I could hardly keep myself from shouting at the ostentatiously P.C. Santa Fe audience, and perhaps at the film-makers as well, “This is what Communism does for the environment, you pinko socialist morons!”

But enough negatives; I’m glad I went, and this is a beautiful, spectacular visual poem on both birds and worldwide geomorphology . There’s tons of very good (though hardly unsurpassed) footage here of interesting bird behavior, and tons more of them simply flying, over farmland and city, seashores, seacliffs, sand deserts, the Himalayas, Monument Valley, avalanches and calving glaciers, the arctic and antarctic, and more. The backgrounds are stunning and often look fascinatingly abstract. It’s a meditation on landscapes with birds in the foreground adding personal interest and drama; indeed, its avian performers set it apart as possibly the best cast film in recent memory.
Stupid posts not writing themselves....Hmmph.

Here's the deal: Blowhards, some time ago, posted on the death, or at least dissolution, of print. I had something to say, which was: I love the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a seriously long and, to most Anglo-spherites, obscure Chinese epic. I have my favorite character (Zhou Yu!), my favorite section for humour/martial prowess/trying to get to sleep at night. What does this have to do with the death of print? I found it through the game Dynasty Warriors 2.

Which game is much fun. You take the role of one of the great heroes of the books, and run around slaughtering thousands of underlings without a care, until you come to a named character, all of whom are from the book (although liberties have definitely been taken: Sun Ce, anyone?), and slaughter him, which is harder. So this great book was only brought into my purlieu by that scorned medium, the video game. Yay non-print media, right?

Well, not really: the game is fun, but no substitute for the book, and no other form of the story can substitute for the book. Indeed, to claim that we are nearing the death of print (which Blowhards didn't, but the meme races round the Internet now and again (Psmith has played the game)) is a return to an odd sort of nominalism. There are concepts which we cannot and do not receive from experience; and here I am thinking of morality. Nobility, justice, virtue: all of these are a priori. We recognize them, but they cannot be derived a posteriori. Abstract concepts are difficult to convey by means of pictures, and impossible to convey with appropriate clarity.

By the way, I count twenty games based on the Romance. Why not the Iliad?

Thursday, November 06, 2003

Joanne Jacobs nails it. Sympathy can only come with a knowledge of the subject.

A brief anecdote: in college, one of the readings was Tacitus, famous to the point of eponymy for his disinterested style. But when he described the suicide of Cato, I could feel the intestines in my hands, and the strength it took to tear them apart. The only way to reach this point, however, was to understand his situation. Knowledge first, then sympathy. For one thing, that order allows us to make judgments more justly. A person may be suffering, but that's not enough information to make a decision to help or hinder them. We must know the cause and the ground.

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

"Always hittin' and cursin' and getting shot in th' head! You girls are crazy...but I like yous."
Our only hope is that our enemies never develop the tactical umbrella. ACME would be so proud.