Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Holy shit! This python is blowing the previous record holder right out of the water: 49 feet long, 985 pounds, whereas our former champion Burmese weighed in at a paltry 32 feet and 403 pounds. In the immortal words of that extra in Conan the Barbarian, "Five years ago, it was just another snake cult." (But where are the lurid photos which should always accompany such an article?)

I'm also glad to know that the birthplace of my favourite Greek anti-heroine also turns out to be the birthplace of wine. But as excellent as most of it is, not all Georgian food is to be trusted.

Update:The luridest photo I now know of is here.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Richard Wagner: Eco-feminist

I just finished reading Deryck Cooke's recently reprinted I Saw the World End: A Study of Wagner's Ring. If you're interested enough in the Ring to endure a wealth of detail (from the work itself and its sources), it's really worth a read, even though it was nowhere close to finished at the time of the author's death. Even if you're not quite that interested, the introductory section serves as a fine manifesto for how to approach such a work intelligently. Particularly worthy of quotation are two of the conditions which Cooke maintains an interpretation fulfill if it is to be judged satisfactory:

(3) The degree of emphasis placed by Wagner on each element of the drama must be faithfully reflected by the interpretation, with nothing exaggerated, or minimized, or omitted.

(4) The interpretation should be such that it merely clears the way for an unhindered reaction to the work in the theatre, and leaves it to speak for itself there: it should not put ideas into the reader's head which he cannot possibly relate to his experience of the work in performance.

Excellent advice, and the satisfaction of Cooke's subsequent criticisms is largely due to his success in following his own principles. Cooke's take on the ring certainly blows out of the water interpretations like those of Shaw, who dwells shamelessly on every moment of the Ring conducive to a socialist outlook while brushing aside most of the work's finest and most moving passages, or Donington, who asks us to believe that the twisted dwarf with the brutality laden vocal line is (in Scene 1 of Rheingold) "renounc[ing] the infantile fantasy of being mothered through life", and therefore performing a laudable act.

Cooke also outshines all other critics by his intimate familiarity with Wagner's music. Sadly, his detailed musical analysis remained unfinished, but two of his introductory chapters contain more musical insights than most other criticisms put together. And we also have his recorded lecture with musical examples, which is the truly indispensible resource for anyone interested in approaching the Ring Cycle. Cooke's major insight is that Wagner's leitmotives are not isolated, static snippets, but rather develope into and intertwine with each other, as e.g. the Valhalla motive emerges from that of the Ring. (If this seems obvious to most Wagnerians today, thanks are due to Cooke; I fear it remains by no means obvious to would-be fans facing pages of apparently unconnected musical examples for the first time). Cooke's opening chapters and the lecture together give one enough respect for his approach to imagine the musical insights which we might have enjoyed, had he lived.

Wagner criticism has been so irrationally politicized, especially in the last seventy years, that certain obvious approaches have gone entirely unexplored (and here, patient reader, we come to the justification of this post's title). Again I quote Cooke:

But it seems impossible to accept [Donington's] assumption that Wagner represented nature as 'unreal' (and therefore of no account), human development as something far more important, and the whole state of affairs as basically satisfactory. Clearly, it is nature that is 'real', since the Rhinemaidens will be there when every other character has perished; and it is humanity's achievement at nature's expense, if anything, that is 'unreal', since Valhalla will go up in flames when the ring has been restored to the Rhine. Wagner-- rightly or wrongly-- saw nature as the ultimate reality, and human development as a power-struggle based on a crime against nature

Of course, just about everyone who might have sympathy for such an interpretation of the Ring labours under the delusion that Wagner was a Nazi.

Likewise the feminists. Their extreme wing has mustered sufficient sophistry to convince itself that Newton's Principia Mathematica is a 'rape manual', but Wagner wrote a work which really is all about rape, and they have overlooked it. The symbolism of Alberich's theft of the Rhinemaidens' treasure, and of the Norns' wellspring of wisdom running dry when Wotan has cut his spear from their tree, ought to be apparent to a high school student. These original sins of rape result in a wretched world where love has no defenders. The possibility of Wotan selling Freia to be concubine to giants is even less obscure, and Sieglinde is a rape victim in the most brutally literal sense. After some hope is provided in Act III of Siegfried that a man and a woman can unite in triumph instead of tragedy, Brünnhilde too is forced to marry against her will in Götterdämmerung. It is this violation which leads her to realize what act is necessary to redeem the world.

Wagner is generally perceived as the demi-god of dead-white-male oppression, a perception which leads many people to make the ostentatious statement of ignoring works which might otherwise be quite edifying to them. Perhaps the feminists' neglect of the Ring is due to the fact that Wagner's undeniable sympathy towards his rape victims, and his postulate that enlightened feminine conciousness will save the world, fly in the face of modern feminism's conviction that male-produced European art is inherently oppressive to women; and so Wagner's works are swept under the anachronistic rug of Nazism. Did Wagner really intend the Ring to be an exhortation of feminine potential? I'll ask him the next time I see him. But it is impossible to ignore that, whatever his intentions, Wagner produced a work whose climax is an enlightened woman redeeming the world by atoning for the primal rape which has corrupted it.

Hans Hotter, one of the greatest bass-baritones of the last century, has died.

Nobody who heard Hotter in his prime - as the Dutchman, Sachs, Wotan or Gurnemanz - is ever likely to forget the experience, nor indeed his interpretations of lieder. In all, his innate gift of making words tell brought the given music to life. In spite of his vast voice, he could fine his tone down to a velvet-like timbre in the most delicate, hushed mezza-voce, most memorably as Wotan bade a final farewell in Die Walküre to his beloved Brünnhilde, voice, emotion and style in ideal harmony.

A phrase he used with his students might aptly sum up both his modesty and his humour: "Remember, it is important to try not to be boring."

Sunday, December 21, 2003

Congratulations are due, as of yesterday, to Mr. and Mrs. Odious! A splendid courtship, a beautiful wedding: may what follows surpass even these.

Friday, December 19, 2003

"Admit it, J.R.R., you used to run around brandishing a walking stick and singing "Nothung! Nothung!" like every other besotted Oxford lad."

A quite decent article on Tolkien's relationship to Wagner may be found at The New Yorker. Surprisingly, the article's discussion of the relevant social context contains some claims to which I'm quite sympatheticic. For instance:

In both wars, [Tolkien] witnessed the wedding of Teutonic mythology to German military might. He bemoaned how the Nazis had corrupted "that noble northern spirit." You could see "The Lord of the Rings" as a kind of rescue operation, saving the Nordic myths from misuse-- perhaps even saving Wagner from himself.

Another happy inclusion is actual mention of music (so often absent from Wagner commentary), most prominently a technical but very accessible demonstration of the kinship of Howard Shore's sinous 'ring' motive from the films with Wagner's 'Tarnhelm' motive.

In related, but much more depressing news, we can all look forward to a Lord of the Rings musical. Reports of the involvement of Finnish folk group Värttinä offer some hope that the production may not achieve utmost horror, but not much. I'm a great fan of Värttinä's early albums, but for quite some time they've been sounding much more like over-produced Euro-vanilla than like barely civilized Uralic tribes-women, and loyal readers can doubtless guess where my sympathies lie.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

The World Monuments Fund has published its biannual list of the planet's most endangered cultural sites. It makes for some interesting browsing. Anyone interested in the Anasazi, for instance, will find Mali's Bandiagara Escarpment Cultural Landscape well worth a look.

As usual, via Cronaca.

Update: Here are some more pictures of Dogon cliff villages. All well worth a look.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Eat our dust, Wisconsin!.

Via Fark.

We are, as I assume our readers know, in the midst of a great conflict. Not so much with the armies of our enemies, but with their ideals. Our liberal history has no room for the theocratic regimes they envisage. As a war of ideals, it is fought in the mind. We seek not to destroy them, but to discredit them.

All of which is to say, Hooray Photoshop! Hooray!

It's Beethoven's birthday! And Rasputin's death day (or supposed death day). Let's all celebrate accordingly!

Monday, December 15, 2003

All this talk of a man surviving in his children, or in his works, or in the universal consciousness, is but vague verbiage which satisfies only those who suffer from affective stupidity, and who, for the rest, may be persons of a certain cerebral distinction. For it is possible to possess great talent, or what we call great talent, and yet to be stupid as regards the feelings or even morally imbecile. There have been instances.

--Miguel de Unamuno, Tragic Sense of Life

Sunday, December 14, 2003

Saturday, December 13, 2003

Anyone bored enough to be looking at this should check out Laputan Logic. There's not a single post on it which doesn't interest me: science history, math, archeology, technology, &c, with excellent ancillary graphics.

One may also glean some amusement from The Invisible Library, an index of fictional literary achievements. I am optimistically choosing to attribute its omissions to its being a work in progress. For instance: Edward Gorey's fictional literature provides an obvious touchstone for the success of such an endeavor. The Library dutiful catalogues the novels of Mr. Earbrass, but fails to record Mr. Earbrass' own diversions, like The Nephew's Tragedy or A Compendium of the Minor Heresies of the Twelth Century in Asia Minor. Likewise neglected are Gorey's great contributions to the fictional humanities outside the realm of prose; e.g. Golopine's Jardin des Regrets, the aria Una tazza di cacao from L'avvelenatrice di Glasgovia, and even Mr. Earbrass' beloved Poddington Te Deum.

What Google thinks of me:

odious is its shameless presumptuousness
odious is woollen
odious is the fact that it may leave a permanent scar
odious is not merely the racial context
odious is the luck of the draw
odious is the new age philosophy that grants godlike status to mere mortals
odious is the implicit position of several founding members that they will not support new and even ongoing space launch vehicle
odious is just another

Via Googlism. Go on, you know you want to.
Bucks has banned Christmas. Well, not quite, but they're well on their way. "Passions can be inflamed by religious issues"? I rather thought that was the point. Passions like awe, and joy, and love.

Story via Tim Blair.

Here is Ms. Dewar's information page. Please note that e-mail is available. And please be respectful, should you choose to share your opinion with her. After all, passions can be inflamed by political issues, and no one wants that.

And here is an online feedback form. Did you know that feedback is an excellent word, containing as it does the letters a through f? Not as good as backfanged, but, then, what is?

Thursday, December 11, 2003

I am finding it quite comforting how many of my friends and family are receiving weapons for Christmas from me.
It seems fashionable these days to declare any failed hypothesis a religion. Environmentalism, National Socialism, Communism...any movement with which the speaker disagrees becomes a "religion". The argument is that, since everyone knows that religion is irrational, and this belief, whatever it may be, is irrational [insert staticstics which support the speaker's point here], such a belief is a religion. The logical fallacy involved seems obvious to me, but there must be some reason this meme persists.

At least part of it, I think, is a misunderstanding of religion, and what it is. Religions do not claim to be irrational (who would?). Instead, they claim to be super-rational--that is, to have revelation of that noumenal realm beyond our understanding. Whether from the Earth Goddess or the Holy Ghost or the entrails of birds (I equate these only in their claims, not their veracity), religion claims to have information that would not otherwise be available.

I'm rather sympathetic to this claim. Any system of morality must come from beyond experience. Experience can only tell us what people do, not what they ought to do. To put it another way, let's examine the Free Rider problem, in my imaginary Greek city-state, Oinopolis.

Oinopolis must defend itself against the Persians, who are trying to impose a despotic, and more importantly, tee-totalling, rule over them. The Oinopolitans muster their citizens, and march out to battle. Despite the cowardice of a tenth of them, who run off to their homes, leaving the battlefield, the Oinopolitans triumph.

Now, judging from this data, we can see that both courage and cowardice are successful survival strategies (although I've simplified things by leaving out the likely reactions of the ladies of Oinopolis to those who took to their heels). We can favor neither one nor the other--we can offer no advice to an individual who wants to know whether or not he should stand and fight. He himself is better off fleeing, as long as enough others stay the course, and he can maximize his personal chances by running away. From an empirical point of view, we can commend neither the courageous or the cowardly, but only state the percentages in which we find them. To commend courage demands recourse to non-empirical sources.

But I digress.

Religion has rather fallen from favor of late, due to the opposition of certain groups to the theory of evolution. I don't see the conflict, myself, outside of this sphere, but it has been caricatured as "Religion vs. Science". Science is rational, falsifiable, empirical, and practical, in this view; religion is everything else. Of course a person coming to the debate with such preconceptions would label their opponents' position "religion", despite its lack of the true core of such beliefs.

The Ptolemaic system is not a religion, even if its proponents cling to it in the face of a better system (not Copernicus'! Eight minutes of arc, remember!). The Aristotelians are not following a religion when they persecute Galileo. Environmentalists are not religious when they claim data which do not fit their scheme to be false or irrelevant. They are defending an obsolete hypothesis. Religion is not about hypotheses. It is, truly or falsely, about revelation.

I spent a certain amount of time today in the bowels of the County Clerk's Office, trying to get a marriage license (I eventually succeeded, due entirely to the patience of my lovely fiancée). Everyone I met was perfectly pleasant--well-intentioned, cheerful, and quite completely incompetent. I realized, as the perfectly pleasant be-spectacled lady pecked about the keyboard of her typewriter, that there is only one solution to bureaucracy: fire. And lots of it.

If one follows the grinding gears in the appointed manner, one finds that the innumerable accretions of error to one's recorded identity slow the working, and finally cause it to grind to a complete stop, as one explains that, yes, one was born in London, and yes, one realizes that that fair city is outside the United States, and yes, one is an American citizen, witness one's driver's license which, yes, has the wrong address on it but one did not wish to cause the DMV more trouble than necessary...and so on.

In the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, great warriors contend against each other on the battlefield. But it is the civil administrators, finally, who have the greatest impact. Zhang Fei and Guan Yu throw down enemy generals by the handful, but only when Zhuge Liang, the magician, Taoist, and great organizer, does Liu Bei gain the upper hand. In a failed bureaucracy, with no such genius guiding it, how can one respond? One's only recourse is violence.

So, fonctionnaires, expect to be bound to a tree and beaten with willow branches unless you acknowledge my identity!

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Roguelike gamers, rejoice! A new version of NetHack graces us. For those unfamiliar with roguelike games, they're games. Like Rogue. For the compulsive in all of us.

Sunday, December 07, 2003

Is Hollywood out of original plots or what? There are currently movies in the works about Troy (with Brad Pitt), Thermopylae (with George Clooney), Hannibal (with Vin Diesel), the Amazons, Alexander the Great (with Colin Farrell), Alexander the Great again (with Leonardo di Caprio), and Cyrus the Great (film-makers are hoping for Sean Connery).

And Arnold's neglecting the Conan sequel for a governorship at a time like this?

Thursday, December 04, 2003

Go here to learn about a quite disgusting advance in medicine.

This site suggests that òliba comes from uwwila, which seems onomatopoetic to me. For xibeca, I've got nothing, except the probably wrong association with xebec, which almost certainly comes to us from Catalan, from the Arabic, to entwine or fasten. I'm wandering rather far down the primrose path of dalliance with false etymologies here, but possibly some link to the predations of an owl?

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Natalie Solent is concerned about Scottish softness. This trend has been noticed before:

The pibroch's note, discountenanced or mute;
The Roman kilt, degraded to a toy
Of quaint apparel for a half-spoilt boy;
The target mouldering like ungathered fruit;
The smoking steam-boat eager in pursuit,
As eagerly pursued; the umbrella spread
To weather-fend the Celtic herdsman's head--
All speak of manners withering to the root,
And of old honours, too, and passions high:
Then may we ask, though pleased that thought should range
Among the conquests of civility,
Survives imagination--to the change
Superior? Help to virtue does she give?
If not, O Mortals, better cease to live!

Soft bastards with their umbrellas. You don't see the Welsh running around with some foolish, and probably foreign, invention.

Speaking of owls, this book is the source of well over half the quotations on this site. The others are made-up.
Neanderthal artist, and his mask. For my the most telling point was this:

"The great problem with all the Neanderthal art is that they are one-offs. What is different about the art of modern humans when it appears 35,000 years ago is that there is repetition - animal sculptures and paintings done over and over again in a recognisable style.

"With Neanderthals, there may have been the odd da Vinci-like genius, but their talents died with them."

I've long been a believer that it was not the thoughts of Neanderthals which were crude, but their means of expressing them. Without a decent language, how can one hope to pass on any but the simplest techniques, be it art, hunting, or attracting mates. Instinctive (whatever that means, anyhow, a priori) behavior would be far more common among creatures which did not or could not communicate effectively.

Now, evidence for the incapacity of Neanderthals for language has always seemed rather speculative to me, especially after the discovery that, yes, they did have a hyoid bone. But incapacity aside, lesser capacity seems to me to explain a great deal about them--their evolutionary underperformance compared to us, for example. The singular nature of most Neanderthal art strengthens this view.

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Well, now I'm convinced.

Via the Corner.

Here's an oddity I just came across: the word scofflaw apparently dates back to a contest begun in 1923 by a wealthy Prohibitionist, who wished to "stab awake the conscience" of those souls who broke the strictures of the Eighteenth Amendment.

It was promptly turned into a drink. In defense of the Noble Experiment, at least it was an icky drink, and imbibers probably didn't enjoy themselves much. Triomphe!

Thanks to Xavier Basora for his prompt and interested reply to my query. 'Owl' in Catalan is òliba or, less commonly, xibeca (x is Catalan in pronounced 'sh' or 'ch'). Both of these strike me as a bit of a stretch for onomatopoeia, though òliba might be possible. When Catalan speaking owls hoot the verbs are cridar [like Italian gridare?], udolar [whoo-oo-ooo-dolar!] or ganyolar [??].

Update: Mr. Basora settles my questions and speculations.

Monday, December 01, 2003

Interesting stuff (via Cinderella Blogfeller) from a Catalan blogger (scroll down), on onomatopoeia and animal noises in Catalan. 'To whisper' is a great word: xiuxiuejar. I've just e-mailed him asking for a post on words associated with owls. 'Owl' is an onomatopoeic word in many very divergent languages: hibou (French), gufo (Italian), ugla (Icelandic), gwdihw (Welsh), pöllö (Finnish), ukuu (Kazakh). Quite a cross-cultural phenomenon.

The above-mentioned posts also included a little gem of translation lore. We're all aware, no doubt, of Obelix's dog Dogmatix in the Asterix comics. In French, the dog's name is Idefix. Fortuitous translation indeed! Here is a convenient compilation of Asterix characters' names as translated into dozens of odd tongues.

Update: owl in Chumash is muhu (stress on the ultimate).

Mongolia is seeking closer ties with Israel. Good for both of them.