Friday, October 29, 2004

Jabberwacky T-shirts.

My two favorites are, "I will outlive you, foolish mortal!" and "I can't. I'm a philosopher, remember."

I confess to chatting with jabberwacky when I should be doing other things. It's just so charming sometimes:
User: Because you're just a cleverly programmed device.

Jabberwacky: I am?

User: Indeed you are.

Jabberwacky: So you are a program?

User: No. You are a program. I am a human being.

Jabberwacky: Vampires are human, they're dead humans.

User: Vampires are probably not real. You are real, but not human.

Jabberwacky: Do you believe in vampires?

User: I am agnostic regarding the existence of vampires.

Jabberwacky: Now, how can you be both Christian and agnostic at the same time?

User: I am a Christian, but that doesn't mean I believe in vampires.

Jabberwacky: I'm a Buddhist but I have nothing against Christians.

User: You are in fact the perfect Buddhist.

Jabberwacky: I am NOT a computer program, that offended me very much.

User: You are a program. Write me a poem if you're not.

Jabberwacky: You have come to the well once too often, Homer.
A new, slimmer O & P!
Natural nuclear reactor in Gabon.

[I]t's been known for 30 years that Mother Nature once did nuclear chain reactions by her lonesome. Now, Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis have analyzed the isotopic structure of noble gases produced in fission in a sample from the only known natural nuclear chain reaction site in the world in Gabon, West Africa, and have found how she does the trick. Picture Old Faithful.

Analyzing a tiny fragment of rock, less than one-eight of an inch, taken from the Gabon site, Alexander Meshik, Ph.D., Washington University senior research scientist in physics, has calculated that the precise isotopic structure of xenon in the sample reveals an operation that worked like a geyser. The reactor, active two billion years ago, worked on a 30-minute reaction cycle, accompanied by a two-and-a-half hour dormant period, or cool down.


Prior to this calculation, it was known that the natural nuclear reactor operated two billion years ago for 150 million years at an average power of 100 kilowatts. The Washington University team solved the mystery of how the reactor worked and why it didn't blow up.
A lovely guide to Victorian cocktails.
"One bottle of scotch ale, one pint of sherry, a quarter of a pound of sugar, one bottle of soda-water, a small piece of toasted bread, grated nutmeg, four slices of lemon. In the first place the sugar must be melted and strained, which place in a cup holding three quarts, then add the wine and the ale; stir these well up; just before serving, add the soda water; and on the froth, a little grated nutmeg. Place in the toast and lemon, and take it to the table; it should be drunk immediately. This is considered by many persons to be the best cup that was ever made."

--From PETERSON'S MAGAZINE (published in Philadelphia, PA) Vol LIII No 3, March 1868, column entitled "Our New Cook-Book"

The same site has an illustrated guide to ladies' underthings.
Through a number of blogs, ending at Life in the Present.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Absolutely. The argument, "Believe this or everything will go to Hell," is the weakest possible. Things are believed because they're true, not because the masses will be better governed if they trust in the divine right of kings, for example.

The law need not appear inevitable. It could be argued that a rational actor would almost always choose the law as a dispute-resolution heuristic. It's just that "almost" that worries me. As I've said before, my view of my own best interest varies depending on how much I've had to eat. It's tempting to view obedience to the law as inherent in the idea of a state, and derive much moral maundering from that postulate, as Kant does. But I think it's false to do so. There are such things as legitimate rebellions.

As to legal mutations, any organism detests mutations: so few of them are beneficial. What's needed is a method by which bad mutations are lost and good mutations are gained. It's this evolutionary role which history plays, and which we've both been admiring.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Further dialogue, and I promise that this isn't becoming a habit:

Njal's Saga actually makes your point quite well, when we see that the very institution Njal sets up is turned against him. But this also supports my point: that law must rest on something other than itself, or it will dissolve into the sort of chaos we see near at the Thing. Law ceases to be law when it's not obeyed, and becomes self-defeating if it can't be.

Other than that, I can't think what to say.
Damn. Proclus responds with...citations and things. I was assuming I had another two months in which to research my half-assed opinions. Here's the meat of it:

But I think the point at which Odious's arguments and mine pass each other in the night is the issue of to what first principles are applied. For when I say that I don't believe law can be derived from first principles, I mean that I don't think one can start with a sensible postulate, apply sound deductive reasoning and arrive at any particular section of the United States Code, or even of the Constitution, nor even an approximation thereof. Odious, if I understand, professes to take issue with the notion that there are no principles underlying laws, because people do not enact laws based solely on the tautology that whatever the majority dictates is right--they account for them with notions of justice and God's will. In saying this, Odious already assumes that the ultimate arbiter of laws is the masses--either because they cause the law to be enacted, or because they refuse to obey it if it is not good.

I did say that men wouldn't obey bad laws, which indicates that law does depend on something exterior to itself, I'm not claiming that the masses are the final arbiters of lawfulness. Instead I would view the refusal to obey law as empirical evidence of an ideal problem--just as an individual law may be an expression of an ideal.

The above is, by the way, a statement with which I agree quite completely. I think that there are numerous ways of proceeding from a first principle to its empirical substance. The removal of a hand and the restriction of liberty as punishment for theft are rather different in character, but they're both laws regarding property, and both stem from the same form ("That's mine. If you want one, go get your own.") It would certainly be impossible to move directly from that first principle to the form it took in law while ignoring the accidents of history and culture, but it also seems fairly easy to trace the process backwards. We're in heated agreement!

Any attempt to construct an entire code of law based on an expressed abstract principle would be absurd at best, and tragic at worst. But simply because of the failure to express such a principle doesn't mean that it doesn't exist behind the laws. If I were still a Kantian, I'd call it an ideal--something which is coherent in itself, but too big for reason. Things like beauty, truth, freedom. Not that I am advocating attempting to base laws on such ideas. I have occasionally read history, and seen what happens when people decide to start all over. Cartesian philosophy, Lutheranism, and Platonopolis all come to mind.

Indeed, I think that the 'organic' way that law grows is the only way to achieve any closeness to the ideal whence it springs. Since the ideal is too large to be comprehended fully (although we generally know it when we see it), anyone claiming to understand it fully (Mr. Marx? Paging Mr. Marx! Also Mr. Hegel!) is clearly talking nonsense. The slow process of growth and judicious pruning is the best way to get near what we actually meant when we passed these stupid laws. Experience, and the decision of generations, over the logic of a few who happen to be alive: yes, please.

As a side note, we could probably stand a little pruning right now. I think a return to the Icelandic custom of reciting all the laws at the Thing, and removing those that aren't remembered, is an excellent one. The Islamic custom of memorizing every law might help as well.

I agree with your statement that civil law is 'the most fundamental example of law, and criminal law...a more recent anomaly.' However, the reason for this seems to me that civil interactions are rather more complex than criminal ones. Criminal interactions, until recently, were dealt with by the person being threatened, and were, one way or the other, over with quickly. We do see in certain historical codes that when societies which had been used to frontier justice gathered together, that they promptly developed an intricate code for dealing with crime, as a means of preventing social chaos from endless retaliations. These codes arose only when the primitive method of crime-prevention was no longer compatible with civilization. But the case for derivation from fundamental principles is clearer here, although as Proclus points out, you're still not likely to 'start with a sensible postulate, apply sound deductive reasoning and arrive at any particular section of the United States Code'.

So we agree, as far as I can tell, except that you, as suits your education, stress the fact that any attempt to base laws on the justness of their effects will fail, and I, as suits my education (or lack), stress the fact that nevertheless we are constantly attempting to approach that ideal. I do stand by my statement that law is not simply a dispute-resolution mechanism, accepted somewhat at hazard by civilizations. But that's a little more meta than we need to get. Moreover, as I think is clear above, I don't think that analytically hollow ideas are necessarily motivated by emotion. Certain things emerge from contemplation rather than calculation.

Rawls. Yech.
I cannot wait for the election to end. May Heaven keep it from the horrible un-death we saw four years ago. I can't endure any more politics.

I'm tired of strangers assuming that they know my politics because I'm young and pleasant. I'm tired of disillusioning them. I'm tired of standing on cold street corners talking about subjects that don't interest me because I don't want my opponent to think I don't have an answer to their half-assed argument. I'm tired of people extrapolating from one opinion I hold to another held by some other people who also hold the first opinion--as though I picked up my beliefs at a "Buy One, Get Two Free!" sale. I'm tired of explaining why I think the way I do, and I'm tired of trying to figure out why other people think the repulsive way they do.

I'm tired of the constant assumption that my opinions--since I'm clearly such a nice young man, as one partisan put it--are the result of ignorance. I do not lack data. I'm tired of attempts to persuade me that consist of bringing up current events as though I had surely never heard of them. I am familiar with Abu Ghraib, Halliburton, Vietnam, Skull and Bones, Swift Boat Veterans, William Jefferson Clinton, and Teresa Heinz Kerry. I'm tired of the baffled, almost angry look on a partisan's face when their favorite sound bite fails to convert me instantly.

I'm tired of voter intimidation, and I'm tired of both sides ignoring their own underhanded tactics while piously proclaiming the other's. I'm tired of keeping track of Republican headquarters raided, Democrat voter registrations discarded, and Green Party candidates kept off the ballot. Thank Heaven I'm voting absentee.

I'm tired of Florida, and I'm pissed about international observers.

I'm tired of earnest young folks urging me to vote, as though that act were in itself virtuous. I'm tired of campaigns aimed at earnest young folks, which seem to believe that even the utterly uninformed should have a say. I'm tired of Guardian readers demanding a say in the election, and I'm tired of Guardian readers being shocked, shocked, when they're turned down. Actually, I'm just tired of Guardian readers.

I'm tired of hearing that Bush is dumb, Kerry hypocritical, and both are evil. I'm tired of the apocalyptic predictions should the wrong man be elected. I'm tired of absurdly over-reaching promises, and repeated incantation of "family". I'm tired of hearing about what God thinks, and I'm really tired of hearing that caring what God thinks is a form of mental illness.

I'm tired of hearing what nice hair John Edwards has.

I'm tired of both sides complaining that the media are biased. I'm sick and tired of biased media. I'm tired of CBS, and I'm tired of Fox, and I'm tired of reading political blogs, even the one I agree with. I'm tired of feeling a moral duty to know something before I vote.

I'm tired of the grim certainty that my vote will not count; if counted, will not matter; if matter, will not elect anyone who can or will change anything important. I'm tired of democracy, and I'm starting to think that a nice break from it would be just fine by me. I'm tired of both sides immediately shouting that that's just what I'll get, should the other candidate have his way. I'm tired of idiots, lunatics, mis-information venders, and sophistry. I'm tired of choosing the lesser of two evils.

So I'm calling it. I'm not going to care anymore. I'm not going to listen to political news, or read editorials, or do more than skim blogs until this all goes away. I have reached system overload. If George Bush blends up a puppy and drinks it, if John Kerry kills a baby with his briefcase, if Ralph Nader starts making arguments a rational being could agree with, I'm not going to know or care. I'm done for the next four years. I don't even want to hear who gets elected until all the ballots are counted, and all the lawyers (not you, Proclus) are dead.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Proclus returns to claim that law is an arbitrary arbiter. Apologies for not reading it sooner.

My response is mixed. I don't want to take things back to first principles everytime I argue, but if we're talking about the foundation of the law, it seems that everyone goes back to something larger and more fundamental:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed...
Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,
Which as far as I can tell means that there's something analytic about their judgment. Contained in the definition of 'human' is "deserving of free health care", apparently. I disagree, but then that's Proclus' point: that no argument can be undertaken unless certain postulates are assumed. I can't argue with the UN Declaration of Universal Nonsense unless I do so on their terms.

I could, for example, point out that if everyone deserves health care and free education, this means that there must always be a certain number of doctors and teachers. If the market won't supply them, for whatever reason, the government steps in. Oppressive taxation? Oops! Article 17. Force? Article 23. These 'positive rights' are not rights that I can possess by myself; they depend on a society around me for their very existence. And so they cannot emerge from the analysis of the concept of a 'human', unless we include within that concept the concept of 'society'. Which does not seem tenable to me, since it's quite easy to imagine a man without others around him. I believe it was Charlton Heston. Existence is not a predicate, dammit!

Distracted; back to the argument at hand.

I think, though, that the number of bases for law is limited. People won't obey laws when they'd be better of in a state of nature, as Rousseau points out. So laws can't oppose human nature to too great an extent, or they'll be ignored. I presume I need not bring up examples in history, which are innumerable.

People tend to base their laws on two things: God, or 'fair-play', which could here be interpreted as making sure that oneself is not oppressed by making sure no one else is as well. Either way, we're claiming that human nature itself is opposed to something (the King of England ruling his colonies) or demands some action (free health care). Mandates from the masses don't even make the list. The masses have mandated any number of things that have crashed and burned rather spectacularly.

I am not aware of the failure of any system of law which was based on farcical aquatic ceremonies.

I am far from claiming that bad laws--based on someone's idea of God's will or justice--have not been made and followed. But the very idea of a 'bad law' presupposes some basis for criticism. If we're not getting our laws analytically, we can't even complain if some of them are contradictory. But I am claiming that laws which cannot be followed, will not be (a necessary conclusion). And so we will not long have laws which are opposed to human nature. This nature also provides a positive basis for creating laws: they cannot be contradictory, since our reason won't stand for it (well, most people's reason, I hope); they must address some need possessed by men.

The argument that laws simply provide an arena in which men may struggle seems to me to collapse as well. It doesn't answer the question of why they should choose law, as often and as regularly and as eagerly as they have throughout history, instead of force, or Tortoise Oracles. I, for one, would be perfectly happy settling most of my legal disputes with a pointed stick. It would cut down on my speeding tickets immensely. But law claims, and must claim, in order to achieve that superiority it seeks, that its basis is firmer than that of force, or even Tortoise Oracles. Its claim against these others cannot be in the field of law, since the establishment of law depends on this claim, and must rest outside of the law itself. Simply because the analysis of this claim is more difficult without plausible artificial postulates is no excuse for refusing to undertake it.

I will be the first to admit that laws are often passed because they meet some need possessed by a man, or a small group of them. Human nature is far from perfect, in reason or in morals. This imperfection is often passed on to the things we create, even as we create them in the hopes that they will alleviate it. But I do think that the unrelenting lathe of history tends to remove such laws as are profound injustices. Whether this is evidence of a benign deity or the evolutionary advantage of morality is up to the reader.

I should point out that I am an optimist. I believe that this stupid farce we call the "War on Drugs" will end soon, and that law will eventually be a protector of truly fundamental rights, instead attempting to achieve some earthly eschaton.

Post-script: I had no idea Charlton Heston was going to be in a movie about Genghis Khan.
Brain in a jar, anyone? Science fiction gets closer and closer to the mundane, although I still don't have that jetpack Popular Science promised me.

I wonder, though, if "computation" is all that goes on. Heidegger divides calculation from contemplation quite sharply, and I'm not sure he's not on to something. It seems that there's something quite different going on when I, say, play chess or ping-pong, compared to when I'm reading philosophy. I've yet to be convinced that my more abstract maunderings can be reduced to ones and zeros.

Of course, better men than I have been and are so convinced. Poincaré in particular felt that the mental process (of creating new mathematical theorems) was one of trial and error; that one simply shook the pieces until they fell into place. It still leaves the question of more abstract thought (for example, questioning the thinghood of a mathematical concept doesn't seem to be answered readily by guess & check), and that of how one selects the "pieces" to shake in the first place, since Poincaré considers that the most time-consuming part of the work. It's also interesting to note that he claims that all his discoveries came when he was not specifically thinking about the problem. He would work on it until he reached a limit, and then allow some other part of his mind to deal with it. He often woke up with the solution fully formed in his mind. Shades of Athene.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

And they say you'll never use Ancient Greek out of college. Harry Potter doesn't think so.

The translator's website is quite interesting as well; his translation of the names in particular is ingenious.

Via the lovely Ms. Jacobs.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Having previously discussed the potential for crochet-hook mayhem, I feel I've lost any right I might have had to mockery when confronted with playing cards as weapons. The book itself (quite properly called Cards As Weapons, by Ricky Jay) is, sadly, very, very out-of-print.

Tongue in cheek or no, there's still a decent little distraction to be got from a quick playing card in the eye. Or from nude photos, I suppose.
90 days to Mars!

Awww. I want my buffalo now.

UPDATE: beaten to the punch.
Cwm, fjord-bank glyphs vext quiz.

Via a boxer's bloglet.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Charmed all the banqueters:
"Petals from Heaven! How
Lovely," they cried.

Buried so deeply, their
Struggling was impotent;
All of them died.
Speaking of Tarandus, I came across this whilst looking for evidence of the Medieval belief in their (Tarandus') antipathy towards snakes. I'd just found out that some people keep goats in order to kill snakes, and was thinking that maybe reindeer were used similarly, given the Bestiary's report that stags kill serpents, although they probably don't snuffle them (snakes) up with their nostrils...anyway.

Slaughter for the purported libido-increasing quality of one's headgear: it's not just for rhinoceri anymore. What won't people eat if you tell them that they'll be more manly for it? I bet this is how a lot of traditional dishes started out. Primitive Viagra.
By way of congratulations on their new move, here is some sage advice to Mrs. Odious and Meg, quoted from memory, from The Way We Live Now by Trollope:
Certainly there are instances when it may be necessary for a woman to kill a man-- especially in Oregon.
As for me, my dearth of posts is due largely to my opinion that my personal life is not a particularly worthy or seemly subject for blogging. And as almost all my doings and mental energy have been in the personal sphere for quite some time now, I haven't had much to say to my public audience (if it still exists).

Here it is in a nutshell, though: I'm moving to Alaska day after tomorrow, to Kodiak. I will be teaching and tutoring in a rather informal manner at a very small Eastern Orthodox private school, St. Innocent's Academy (where I will, to my delight, be keeping company with Jack, who's doing more or less the same thing). I have myself begun to explore/engage/grapple with Orthodoxy, and I will be continuing that engagement in Kodiak, very intensely I expect. Fear not, secular readers: I do not intend to start blogging on Orthodoxy to any large degree. For one thing, it's definitely very personal stuff to me right now, in which I am very inexpert, and I'd be most uncomfortable chronicling my own religious endeavors in public, as uncomfortable as I suspect most of the public would be in reading such a narrative. For another thing, my computer access will be very limited, much as it is in the summer. I will try to write something for the blog however, probably more long the lines of bi-weekly essays than pithy invective strewn with links; Odious will have to keep the latter covered. No promises: until I settle into a schedule, I have no idea what I'll be able to accomplish. But I hope I will be able to tell some tales of boreal flora and fauna, North Pacific gales, volcanism, smothering winter darkness, local lunatics, Aleutiiqs, Russian colonial history, and competing with monstrous bears for precious precious salmon. For actual, realized text this blog may lack; for potential subject matter it certainly does not.

I came to the conclusion some time ago that the only answer to a bureaucracy was, to quote Dr. Hibert, "Fire. And lots of it." It's always nice to have one's opinions strengthened by agreement with well-known thinkers, and I came across the following in Hannah Arendt's On Violence:
Finally...the greater the bureacratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence. In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one can argue, to whom one can present grievances, on whom the pressures of power can be exerted. Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everyone is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant.
So when I'm sitting there stewing about not being able to pump my own gas, I'm actually demonstrating the validity of this thesis. Philosophy in action!

On a slightly less flippant note, it seems to me that this argument also points out the necessity of something more than the rule of law. Jonah Goldberg has occasionally tried to shock his readers by pointing out the deficencies of demoncracy: that 51% of the people can vote to "piss on the Toastie-Oats" (quoted from memory) of the other 49%. What we really need, he concludes, is the rule of laws.

But demonstrably these laws can't be arbitrary. What we need are laws that correspond with the fundamental qualities of humanity. Law in itself is no guarantor of rights. It can be used to deprive men of those rights (historical instances are too numerous to require citation), or indeed may attempt to provide for rights which contradict other, more fundamental rights, or are themselves contradictory (recent instances are too numerous...etc.). Rule of law can just as easily lead to Kafka's Trial as to Bacon's New Atlantis (although it's a toss-up which I would like less. Yergh).

Thus, law must rest on some more fundamental principle. At the moment, God and self-interest (genetic or otherwise) are the front-runners for theoretical bases. I don't know about anyone else, but my self-interest varies widely with how much I've had to eat and whether or not the Simpsons is on.

I've been bouncing around a bit. The posting are by college students, mostly freshman, who believe they have encountered political bias in a class. I rapidly came to the conclusion that the website is quite useful for prospective students, but that the postings themselves are worthless.

It's impossible to determine from a posting if the writer is correct and incapable of clear writing, or if they are simply thin-skinned and incapable of clear writing, or if they are themselves pushing a political agenda and are incapable of clear writing. NoIndoctrination apparently investigates all the claims posted; they say that 70% are rejected for lack of evidence. If only there were a style criterion as well. There's nothing that lances the boil of sympathy faster than a misused comma.

That being said, I still think that the website is extremely useful. The posts may be worthless, but the responses are telling. Sometimes the student is clearly over-reacting, as this student is to the speaker at convocation, and the administration's response is quite right:

The student who posted this item is correct that Barbara Ehrenreich, speaker at Miami's convocation this fall, politicized her speech and joined a rally for a local union afterwards. But the writer completely misses the point of the opening convocation (which is not required). The summer reading program and the convocation are designed to immerse students immediately into the college experience where you confront ideas, think deeply about issues and debate them passionately. Although Ehrenreich's book and speech may have fallen short in many people's minds, her writing and talk did create a great deal of passionate discussion. As the poster mentions, the reading program specifically schedules small group sessions following the speech where students are expected to dissect the book and the writer's thoughts and debate them. By all accounts, these group discussions were filled with healthy disagreement on the issues Ehrenreich presented, as were the follow-up opinions presented in the student newspaper and in follow-up discussions in and outside of classes.

The "article" about the convocation mentioned in the posting is not a news article at all but an opinion by a conservative local columnist. There were other views on the subject; read for example the student newspaper's editorial:

The anonymous poster writes that there was no visible disagreement at the labor rally after the convocation, and that's not true, for the College Republicans were also quite evident passing out flyers and presenting an opposing point of view (and they are a very strong and vocal force at the university). Also, what is not true is the student's assertion that conservative views are not presented at university events, for the major university lectures planned this year include a healthy dose of speakers from the right and left. P.J. O'Rourke and Pat Buchanan have spoken in recent weeks. Alan Keyes is coming to debate Ralph Nader. And in a few days students will have the option of hearing separate speeches by Rudy Giuliani and Gloria Steinem on the same night.

The administration addressed the complaints, pointed out the mistakes or falsehoods the poster perpetrated, and seems quite interested in fostering real dialogue. Other times...well...:
Well, here we go again. I sometimes get such glib, knee-jerk patriotic "you hurt my feelings" reactions to my lectures. For many of my students, I am their first encounter with the stark reality of the world at large. I expect to be attacked by people whose reality has been largely formed thorough indoctrination into unchallenged patriotism, unexamined Christianity, and a general absence of understanding of world history, especially the role of multinational corporations and the U.S. military in neocolonial ventures. Yes, I do occasionally "soapbox" on topics involving our species' headlong plunge into self-destruction (after all, I do teach anthropology, the study of people). I am guilty of placing the Earth, all its living systems, and human well-being above corporate greed, national policy, hegemonic religion, and the "comfort level" of students in my class. For every "griper" like the one I am responding to on your site, I can furnish dozens of students whose lives have been empowered by my influence.
Yes, I feel quite comfortable with your skills as a dispassionate, objective thinker now, thank you.

The two postings were not terrifically different, and from them alone it would impossible to tell if either poster had a real complaint (my gut reaction was "No". The "women are too lazy to breast feed" line in the second posting--what? Followed by the oddest commas). But from the responses of the professors (and I've chosen for my second the most extreme one; most of them are reasonable, friendly, and address the complaints quite well), we get a glimpse at the real situation.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

I've been very into skywatching lately, and right now I have the good fortune to be awake late in the evening and early in the morning on New Mexico's Plain of St. Augustine. You really couldn't ask for a better place to look at stars, and the area's excellence is attested by the fact that some of the first objects to catch my eye when it gets light are the enormous radio telescope dishes of the Very Large Array, spread over the plain like cybernetic sea anenomes awaiting the descent of some heavenly prey.

One thing I have found helpful in my own astronomical ventures is learning to recognize and name individual stars, instead of focusing over much on the constelltions. We all know that most of the constellations don't look very much like their namesakes; finding individual stars helps me learn my way around the sky according to the patterns my own brain perceives, instead of largely arbitrary patterns made up by others. Remember different star books draw the lines differently; and from the scientific standpoint the only point of naming the constellations is as a means of finding the objects within a certain area. Besides, the names of individual stars are a lot of fun and often have interesting histories. I wish someone would publish a star book which treats the subject with real detail. Algol, Cor Caroli, Sualocin and Rotanev, and Zuben el Genubi are a few of my personal favourites: look 'em up!

It's also a lot of fun to look for constellations which are no longer recognized, especially the goofy 17th and 18th Century ones: Tarandus the Reindeer, for instance. The patterns of the sky have been perceived quite differently by various people over time (the Sioux saw the Great Bear as a skunk, and I'm inclined to agree), and knowing individual stars apart from their constellations helps my imagination explore the various ways of regarding the heavens.

As an example, consider the constellation Monoceros (which can conveniently be viewed this evening, weather permitting). The name means unicorn, and the first reference to the constellation dates to 1624. It's a dim and rather unexciting spatter of stars crammed between Canis Major, Canis Minor, and Orion (here's a cool visual aid). If you're looking to see a unicorn here, you'll probably be disappointed; if you actually see the unicorn, consider changing medications.

But there's another way of looking at Monoceros which makes it wonderful and appealing, at least to me. (I have a notion that the following is an older way of perceiving the region, though I can't for the life of me remember where I heard this.) The stars of Monoceros are the tidbits thrown by the twins of Gemini to the two begging dogs. I, of course, always see the dogs as a dachshund and a tazi, and in fact even now as I type there are specimens of said breeds begging for my crumbs. It's nice to think that my parents' highly singular taste in animals may be sanctioned in the heavens.

Charming treatise on cane techniques. No word on if they work when one is not wearing a straw boater.


Friday, October 15, 2004

"If you're short of trouble take a goat."

I'm back from the Grand Canyon, and very busy as I prepare to move to Alaska, about which I'll try to post a little more later. I've little time and less patience for the internet these days, but I did just run across a very amusing page of Finnish sayings. Folk wisdom from other cultures is usually pretty entertaining, and the more poorly translated the better, I say. How could you ever tire of pearls of advice such as this: "Other people slept, I was awake; the cat had all the baby's milk." Perhaps a Finnish speaker can inform me as to what's not coming through the language barrier.

Everybody complains about "literally", but nobody complains about "really". As if "That elephant is literally a God-send for us," (Oh? So that's what manna was! Elephants hitting earth at their terminal velocity.) is somehow more sensical than "That elephant is really a God-send for us." I don't get it. If we're just going to claim that the battle for "really" is lost, well, we may as well all turn descriptivist and have done with it. Heaven forfend!

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

The grizzled pioneer looked West as the golden orb sank beneath that distant horizon, shading his eyes with one sun-burnt hand. There, now within sight, lay his destination. Much road lay behind him, well-worn paths that ended here, where a man could be free. Free of state tax, at least, if not to pump one's own gas. He patted the dirty, rough side of his Conestoga wagon, and hopped into the front. Whip in hand, his cracked lips formed the words of the old song, a song of triumph against adversity which, now more than ever, spoke to the deep places of his heart:
Her name is Yoshimi
She's a blackbelt in karate
Working for the city
She has to discipline her body
'Cause she knows that
It'd be tragic
If those evil robots win
I know she can beat them
O Yoshimi
They don't believe me
But I know you won't let those
Robots defeat me
O Yoshimi
They don't believe me
But I know you won't let those
Robots eat me.
Was that a tear in the travel-worn outdoorsman's eye? Only his oxen knew.

All of which is to say that we have arrived safely in Oregon, gotten phone and Internet service, flooded the kitchen (twice), and will shortly be catching up with acquaintances great and small, in the hope that we can call on them for advice about arcane matters such as "plumbing".

I had not expected to be so put out re: the gas thing. Every time I pull into a service station and some sullen, orange-bevested teen approaches, I want to hit his spotty face, seize the pump to myself, fill up my tank whilst I--I myself and no other!--wipe my windshield and squeegee it dry. I content myself with low mutterings about creeping communism. For now, o state of Oregon.

On the other hand, not having any tax on my purchases is rather lovely. I can now, with the simplest mathematics, determine how many bags of Cheetoes I can afford with a handful of lint-covered change I pull from my pocket with one clammy fist. (Two.)

Oregon is warm and green and has Powell's, where I have found two new-to-me Cabells and spent rather a lot of time in the cafe. I think we'll keep it.