Friday, December 30, 2005

From Homo Ludens I learned of this article telling of Stalin's ape-man soldiers.
Moscow archives show that in the mid-1920s Russia's top animal breeding scientist, Ilya Ivanov, was ordered to turn his skills from horse and animal work to the quest for a super-warrior.

According to Moscow newspapers, Stalin told the scientist: "I want a new invincible human being, insensitive to pain, resistant and indifferent about the quality of food they eat."
Don't we all. In the immortal words of Bart Simpson: "God Schmod. I want my monkey-man!"
Haiku in Ancient Greek.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Were the Gracchi worth the hassle?
Not one among us knows;
Were the Gracchi worth the hassle?
'Round the globe the query goes.
It is shouted upon rooftops--
It is whispered in the hall--
Politicians practice Latin
Whilst waiting for the call
From the local TV station
To argue for their side
Upon the "Roman Question":
To vaunt; or to deride?

Tiberius and Gaius,
Those sempiternal names,
Each day face wilder slanders
And exculpatory claims:
As the nation tears itself apart,
Highest lord and lowest vassal
Seek an answer to the question:
Were the Gracchi worth the hassle?

Saturday, December 24, 2005

I won't be posting much over the weekend, as I'll be hiding at my mother-in-law's home with my wife and various family. I have over a dozen kinds of cookies to try, as well as real fruitcake, of which a single slice puts you over the legal limit. Combined with Nelson's blood and absolute horizontology, as well as a roaring fire, a cozier domestic scene one could not hope to find. I just hope that the solar lion disemboweled the lunar bull a little more thoroughly elsewhere, since here in Oregon it is still very dark.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Sloth is the only vice which is its own reward. For an Aristotelian, this claim presents an interesting dilemma. In the Nichomachean Ethics, we learn that
the highest good is something final. Thus, if there is only one final end, this will be the good we are seeking; if there are several, it will be the most final and perfect of them. We call that which is pursued as an end in itself more final than an end which is pursued for the sake of something else; and what is never chosen as a means to something else we call more final than that which is chosen both as an end in itself and as a means to something else. What is always chosen as an end in itself and never as a means to something else is called final in an unqualified sense. This description seems to apply to happiness above all else: for we always choose happiness as an end in itself and never for the sake of something else.
It's tempting to conclude that since happiness is an end in itself, and so is sloth, therefore the two are for our current purpose identical. Aristotle, despite being a lazy fellow himself, would disagree. Happiness can only be obtained through the proper activity of the soul -- and even this activity is a necessary rather than a sufficient cause. But I remain unconvinced. And so do others.

It's a subtler question than it seems at first. It's a flip thing to say, that sloth is its own reward. But what grounds do we have for choosing the active happiness over this empty, indolent one? Why, in short, choose something over nothing? Rather than insisting that our nature as a rational being necessitates rational action, to which it can be retorted that our nature necessitates rational inaction, we must assume that we have a duty to objects beyond ourself. Such a claim requires an elaborate moral framework, and finally, I think, a belief in God. The Stoics understood this most clearly.
Friend, lay hold with a desperate grasp, ere it is too late, on Freedom, on Tranquility, on Greatness of soul! Lift up thy head, as one escaped from slavery; dare to look up to God, and say:-- "Deal with me henceforth as Thou wilt; Thou and I are of one mind. I am Thine: I refuse nothing that seemeth good to Thee; lead on whither Thou wilt; clothe me in what garb Thou pleasest; wilt Thou have me a ruler or a subject -- at home or in exile -- poor or rich? All these things will I justify unto men for Thee. I will show the true nature of each...."

Who would Hercules have been had he loitered at home? no Hercules, but Eurystheus. And in his wanderings through the world how many dear friends and comrades did he find? but nothing dearer to him than God.
The Stoics overstate their case when they claim that accepting whatsoever comes is the path to happiness. The natural and appropriate reaction to certain events is grief. To try to deflect this grief through the cheap rationalization that because God ordained it it must be good is rank foolishness. But only the Stoic insight into the importance of duty can show us why sloth is not virtue.

Friday, December 16, 2005

I'm poaching on Odious' preserves here, but he and everyone really ought to try this artificial intelligence program. It plays twenty questions with you, and it's pretty darn smart. It seems particularly sharp on animals: it got platypus and python quite efficiently, and came up with dachshund by a set of questions whose utility in guessing said object was not at all apparent to me. It has more trouble, unsurprisingly, with abstract or semi-abstract things, e.g. haiku and opera; these usually require more than twenty queries. But it's learning as people play (a little creepy, at least to me, but pretty cool too). Players should probably try to instil some decent values in it: it often asks "Does it bring joy to people?" A platypus damn well does bring joy to people, and the program had better get clear on that. (Also, a dachshund most certainly is a predator.) It gives a really interesting list of things which it suspects, but doubts about an object once the game's done. Some of its suspicions are surreal: it wonders if an opera mightn't be a purebred dog. Again, it's pretty smart: I was pleasantly surprised when, for Question #20, it correctly guessed ice axe! From the questions it was asking, I really didn't expect it to get that one.


Update: Objects it finds similar to a kiss: an ice cream sandwich, oatmeal, fudge, chili, spaghetti, alcohol.

Update: Oh, my! The A.I. doesn't have wife in its database (sad comment on our society, what? It did eventually start guessing girlfriend, boyfriend and, touchingly, soulmate), but the questions it asked as it tried to guess were hilarious in context. Gentle readers, upon my honour, the following transcript is in truth a real dialogue which took place between myself and the 20Q, in its true, original order*. Again, the scandalous answer is wife:

A.I.: Does it have paws?

Me: No.

Can you lift it?


Is it something you can purchase?


Would you be lost without it?

Well, yes.

Can you control it?

[snort] No!

Can you sit on it?

Ahhhhh, no.

Does it squirm?


Is it something you bring along?

Oh, yes.

Can it help you find your way?


Would you use it in the dark?

Ooooh... yes!

Does it get really hot?

Oh, I say!

Do you put things in it?

'Pon my word, sirrah, you go too far!

I guessed that it was a chick?


Would you like to be one?

How am I supposed to answer that?

Is it used in a sport?


Can you use it 24 hours a day?


Do you clean it regularly?


Is it fragile?


Do you use it in public?

I wouldn't appear in public without her.

*Certain exchanges are omitted (including the afore-mentioned extra-marital guesses); however, the most shocking passages transpired, I swear, as written, without intermission.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Í upphafi var Orðið, og Orðið var hjá Guði, og Orðið var Guð.

Alussa oli Sana, ja se Sana oli Jumalan tykönä, ja Jumala oli se Sana.

HATSEAN cen Hitza, eta Hitza cen Iaincoa baithan, eta Iainco cen Hitza.

I te timatanga te Kupu, i te Atua te Kupu, ko te Atua ano te Kupu.

In principio erat Verbum, et Verbum erat apud Deum, et Deus erat Verbum.

A wonderful tool (hat tip: Languagehat): a site which will give you parallel Bible translations in four languages simultaneously! (Though I can't get Blogger to display some of my favourites, e.g. Latvian, Georgian, Greek). It offers a pretty impressive array of tongues, not all of which are particularly living:
Ayns y toshiaght va'n Goo, as va'n Goo marish Jee, as va'n Goo Jee.
Okay, this one's on me: Manx Gaelic, ~300 speakers.

And don't miss this search for the Oldest dictionary of an African language (also via the endlessly worthwhile Languagehat).

Diane Duane may be willing to write a (previously outlined) third feline wizard book. If she gets enough e-mail love. The book, titled The Big Meow, has its own site

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Just in time for Christmas. I don't know what your Advent traditions are, gentle readers. With my family the activity I remember most vividly is the frosting of cookies cut into the shapes of various Christmas-y items: stars; bells; camels; and that one Christmas tree that got further and further bent until it was either a lightning bolt or a paramecium. We used a simple sugar frosting dyed a bright, toxic yellow, blue, red, or green with food coloring.

After I made a reindeer entirely covered in Red Hots and hundreds and thousands (which term may be just obscure enough to warrant a randomly Googled link), which no one else would touch, the obvious conclusion was drawn. If one could create a cookie so foully decorated that only oneself could enjoy it, one was sure to get that cookie, and never mind a just division of the spoils. Soon, cookies which appeared to have been dipped into powerful chemicals, as Batman's nemesis the Joker was, were all we produced. This arms race ended with my sister's development of the Ultimate Weapon: the Pooping Santa. After that we made less colorful but rather more tasteful designs.

Anyhoo. All this lead-in is for a site about with which I spent a happy time mucking. OBIS, the Ocean Biogeographic Information System, lets you search for oceanic life by "date, depth, custom region, genus, species", common name, or by clicking on a large map of the world they have thoughtfully provided. It's a lovely toy, and gave me an idea for a really excellent Advent Calendar. Go on, see if you can find some carnivorous sponges.
If you're tired of getting drunk and listening to Philip Glass, why not shift gears and listen to music composed by mice? (Includes link to audio)
"It soon became ... apparent that these vocalizations were not random twitterings but songs," said researcher Timothy Holy. "There was a pattern to them. They sounded a lot like bird songs."
Holy said the mice sounds met two key criteria for song — distinct syllables and recurring themes, "like the melodic hook in a catchy tune."
Distinct syllables and a recurring theme, eh? The mice are two up on a lot of what's currently considered music.
Over at Querencia I learn from Reid Farmer that the use of the narwhal's horn has finally been discovered.
But a team of scientists from Harvard and the National Institute of Standards and Technology has now made a startling discovery: the tusk, it turns out, forms a sensory organ of exceptional size and sensitivity, making the living appendage one of the planet's most remarkable, and one that in some ways outdoes its own mythology.

The find came when the team turned an electron microscope on the tusk's material and found new subtleties of dental anatomy. The close-ups showed that 10 million nerve endings tunnel from the tusk's core toward its outer surface, communicating with the outside world. The scientists say the nerves can detect subtle changes of temperature, pressure, particle gradients and probably much else, giving the animal unique insights.
No virgins were harmed in the process of this investigation, only some odd theories. My personal favorite was that it produced a piezo-electrical charge (PDF):
I think the tusk is a sensor of some kind. It could be used for detecting sound, temperature or salinity. I also think there may be a voltage potential across the tooth. Most bones and teeth have what is known as a piezo effect: they contain crystals that generate a voltage when a mechanical force is applied to them. So when a twisted crystal like the narwhal's tooth is moving with a tremendous force through water, there's probably some kind of voltage across it.
Below I reproduce, with permission from our lovely foreign correspondent (who will either need a pseudonym or a website of her own someday) a brief portion of a Plant Ecology exam. She liked the haiku-like quality of the problems. I liked the test itself (which I failed). The test is, naturally, posted only for the amusement of readers and not for any underhanded and scurrilous academic evasion. They've all been turned in anyway.
Wilford Weatherly was the third of the Weatherly brothers. He was an evolutionary plant ecologist who constantly wondered why certain plant and environmental characteristics fit together and why some combinations were never observed in nature. He was also an avidly interested in the application of plant ecological principles to societal challenges. Below are a number of his “brain teasers” that you should have no difficulty figuring out. As was typical of Wilford, for each question below, there is a set of characters - some plant and some environmental. What we first need to know is would you expect to find characters together in the same plant or do the plant and environmental characters fit together? Answer with a "yes" or a "no". If not, why not? If so, do they represent a particular adaptive syndrome characteristic of a specific species or group of species from a particular environment? Can you possibly identify the plant? Where is that environment?


b. high photosynthetic rate
glacial atmospheric CO2 concentrations
C3 photosynthesis

d. Kyoto Protocol

f. invasive species
annual life form
associated with greater fire frequencies in invaded regions

k. enzymatic oxygenase activity
enzymatic carboxylase activity
PEP carboxylase

l. a species tolerant of moderate, fast-moving fires
non-serotinous cones

r. overgrazing in Utah
shrubland emergence
forest fire policies


u. high plant biological diversity
endemic species
herbaceous life forms
No, I'm not going to provide the answers.
On the kotatsu, over at No-sword. What I didn't know was that
[s]ince the Great Importation, kotatsu have been too cozy for their own linguistic good -- they're now used as a mocking, disparaging element in words like kotatsu-byouhou ("kotatsu [military] tactics" -- pure theory, never tested in the real world) and kotatsu-benkei (basically the same thing as an uchi-benkei: someone who is meek and submissive while out in the world, but turns into a Benkei-like tough guy at home).
Which makes Descartes' work both literally and metaphorically kotatsu-philosophy:
I was then in Germany, summoned there by the wars which have not yet concluded. As I was returning to the army from the coronation of the emperor, the onset of winter stopped me in quarters where, not finding any conversation to divert me and, by good fortune, not having any cares or passions to trouble me, I spent the entire day closed up alone in a room heated by a stove, where I had all the leisure to talk to myself about my thoughts.
--René Descartes, Discourse on Method

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

In other, and better, news, mighty deeds are occurring in Ethiopia, tectonically speaking: a 37-mile-long, 13-foot-wide fissure opened rather suddenly in the Afar desert this September. It's very impressive:

Cronaca sees Matt's sparrow (murdered for destroying a Dutch domino project, and later enshrined); and raises him a h0 m0se xua l n3cr0ph1l1ac Dutch mallard (no Google hits, please!).

Allow me to note with dismay the declining standards as to the birds we immortalize in museums. These two are being hailed as "the two most famous tragically dead birds of the 21st century". In the 20th Century, pigeons were rightly decorated as war heroes:

"[Pigeon] Gustav was a real local hero, putting his life on the line to bring back vital information on the success of D-Day."

"On his last mission, "Cher Ami," shot through the breast by enemy fire, managed to return to his loft. A message capsule was found dangling from the ligaments of one of his legs that also had been shattered by enemy fire. The message he carried was from Major Whittlesey's "Lost Battalion" of the 77th Infantry Division that had been isolated from other American forces. Just a few hours after the message was received, 194 survivors of the battalion were safe behind American lines."

I certainly do not, however, belive that the pigeon-guided missile would have been an ethical use of such potentially valiant creatures.
The Critic As Artist:

--Anonymous, Iraq, 2003
Medium: Assault-on-Poster

In this passionate yet subtle subversion of Classic Propagandic Narcissism, the meta-artist has here subverted the very medium of the genre to achieve an effectually differentiated paradigm in opposition to the original work's intent. The overall result is reminiscent of the works of Francis Bacon.

Or perhaps there's a simpler interpretation...

I've mentioned Ascham's The Scholemaster previously, but I had yet to run across Elyot's The Governor, which examines the education of those who are destined to rule. He and Ascham agree on a number of points; this one caught my eye:
But in as moche as he also saithe, that he that is of good astate in his body, ought to knowe the power and effecte of euery exercise: but he nedethe nat to practise any other, but that whiche is moderate & meane betwene euery extremitie: I wil now brefely declare in what exercise nowe in custome amonge vs, maye be mooste founde of that mediocritie: and maye be augmented or mynysshed at the pleasure of hym that dothe exercise, without therby appairinge any part of dilectation or commodite therof. And in myn oppinion none may be compared with shootinge in the longe bowe, and that for sondry vtilities that come therof, wherin it incomparably excelleth all other exercise. For in drawyng of a bowe, easie & congruent to his strength, he that shoteth dothe moderately exercise his armes, and the ouer parte of his body: & if his bowe be bygger, he must adde to more strength: wherin is no lasse valiaunt exercise than in any other werof Galene writeth.
This gentleman is well worth reading, not the least evidence of which is that he gave us the word "maturity".

Monday, December 12, 2005

Three detailed expositions of excellence from the Mesnagier De Paris:

[L]'anguille qui a menue teste, becque délié, cuir reluisant, ondoiant et estincelant, petis yeulx gros corps et blanc ventre, est la franche. L'autre est à grosse teste, sor ventre, et cuir gros et brun.

The eel which has a little head and a slim beak, shining, wavy, sparkling skin, small eyes, a large body with a white belly is the true eel. The other has a large head, a yellow belly, and thick brown skin.
Non mie blanc comme Helaine,
Non mie plourant com Magdalaine,
Non Argus, mais du tout avugle,
Et aussi pesant comme un bugle:
Contre le poulce soit rebelle,
Et qu'il ait tigneuse cotelle.
Sans yeulx, sans plourer, non pas blanc,
Tigneulx, rebelle, bien pesant.

Not near so fair as Helen was,
Nor weeping like the Magdalene,
No Argus, but altogether blind,
And dense and heavy as an ox:
Against your thumb it should rebel,
And it must have a scabrous rind.
Without eyes or tears, and not white,
Scabrous, firm, and good and dense.
Be aware... that a horse should have sixteen characteristics. Three qualities of a fox: short, straight ears; good hair; and a strong tail full of hair. Four qualities of a hare: a lean head; extreme wariness; light movements; and speed. Four qualities of an ox: a wide, large, and broad chest; a large belly; large eyes that stand far out from the head; and low jointedness. Three qualities of an ass: good feet; a strong backbone; and gentleness. Four qualities of a maiden: a beautiful mane; a beautiful chest; beautiful loins; and large buttocks.
That last I could not find online; it is from Tania Bayard's translation.

I count eighteen characteristics of a horse. It's interesting to compare with Xenophon (the attribution to whom of On Cheeses and Eels is apparently apocryphal):
His neck should not hang downwards from the chest like a boar's, but stand straight up to the crest, like a cock's; but it should be flexible at the bend; and the head should be bony, with a small cheek. Thus the neck will protect the rider, and the eye see what lies before the feet. Besides, a horse of such a mould will have least power of running away, be he never so high-spirited, for horses do not arch the neck and head, but stretch them out when they try to run away.
Would someone please tell me I'm translating "tigneuse" wrong?
Four of eight.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

More Giant Catfish

Carved into the stone of Ankor Wat, this Mekong giant catfish is devouring a dog or a deer. Courtesy of a very good NPR story on the fisheries of Cambodia.

Here's a live one (courtesy of this site, which has other photos of Southeast Asian aquatic megafauna:

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Glad we got that cleared up
Dispelling years of anecdotes in travelogues, the popular press, and scholarly works, biologists from the University of Bristol argue that it is nearly impossible for elephants to become intoxicated from eating the fruit of the marula tree.
Mendacious. Contumely.

"Full" article.
Famous names
Suddenly there came from the inner room a sound that was not human, a gasp and a loud cry I was sitting watching the tailor. We rushed to the door but it was locked. We called, but there was no answer, only the loud inhuman noises. I was young and strong in those days, so I lifted the door from its socket and we rushed in. The men had come by now, the old steward and another old man, a nephew of the house. There was the Fourth Mistress lying back against the wall on the k'ang. Fortunately she had on a pair of trousers. Otherwise she was bare. Even her feet were not covered. The old steward put his hand on her mouth and said, "What is the matter?" He was an old steward and dared to do so.

She called in a loud voice, "I am Kuan Kung."

"What do you want?" we all called together.

"I want a sword," she called in a loud voice.

"All right, all right," we answered, "we will get it for you." But still she called and cried in that strange voice.

So we asked again what she wanted, and she said, "A cannon."

..."I want a flowered cannon."


Still she would not stop calling. And the old steward asked again, "Why do you call so?"

And she answered, "The Third Mistress spends all her time reading the Three Kingdoms [link added], and the heroes say that she is too familiar with them."
--A Daughter of Han: The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman, by Ida Pruitt, from the story told her by Ning Lao T'ai-t'ai.

If there were any justice in this postlapsarian world this possession would be my fate, since a) I read too much of the Three Kingdoms, and b) I could use a sword, a flowered cannon, etc.

The Three Kingdoms is, I think I can safely say, the work of historical fiction upon which the most video games have been based. I have forgotten if I encountered one of them before reading the romance, but I know that a number of people have been inspired by, say, Dynasty Warriors, to find out more and read further. I helped a number of them when I was working at Barnes and Noble, and one commonality became quite clear. Everyone develops great likes and dislikes for the characters. There are very few who can remain neutral--which is, of course, the story of the Empire's shivering to pieces, and the formation of Wu, Shu, and Wei.

There's a case to be made for the tradition villain Cao Cao, for example. One person I argued with insisted that he alone has the ruthless character, along with the force of personality and intellectual gifts (" enough to rule the world, but wicked enough to disturb it") to successfully reunite the Empire, and that Liu Bei and Sun Quan are wrong to oppose him. I disagree, but it cannot be denied that the virtuous Liu Bei's dithering over correct behavior cost lives and cause misery.

For my part, I have an undying hatred for Liu Bei's great strategist, Zhuge Liang. Blessed with knowledge and powers beyond the mortal sphere, he laughs up his sleeve at everyone around him, moving them about like pieces on a chess board. He and that other smirking Taoist, Pang Tong, live in rustic seclusion, ignoring the suffering of the people, until a suitably fine position can be got. Then they proceed to wreak havoc and Liu Bei's enemies, allowing their master his luxury of correct thinking whilst they themselves scruple nothing in lying, manipulating, and stealing to further their cause. Moral duties they ignore, and the dictates of Heaven are merely legal details to be got around.

It's odd that I hate Zhuge Liang so much, since he resembles another character whom I like: Odysseus. Both are cunning beyond those around them, willing and very able to deceive, and both possess supernatural aid. In particular the end of Zhuge Liang reminds me of the end of Odysseus.
"I am in the habit of praying," replied Kong-ming [Zhuge Liang's 'heroic epithet'], "but I know not the will of God. However, prepare me forty-nine men and let each hace a black flag. Dress them in black and place them outside my tent. Then will I from within my tent invoke the Seven Stars of the North. If my master-lamp remain alight for seven days, then is my life to be prolonged. If the lamp go out, then I am to die. Keep all idlers away from the tent and let a couple of youths bring me what is necessary."
---Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Lo Kuan-chung, trans. C. H. Brewitt-Taylor

Idlers not kept away, he perishes shortly thereafter. This failed propitiation has always reminded me of Odysseus wandering inland with an oar over his shoulder.
Beyond Epirus, among the high hills of the Thesproteans, he sat the oar upright in the stony ground, and turning toward the ram which he now meant to sacrifice to Poseidon, he found Heaven's amiability to remain unpurchased, because the offering of Odysseus, who was a rebel against Heaven's will to destroy him, had been refused, and the ram had vanished
--Something About Eve, James Branch Cabell

Odysseus and Zhuge Liang are both supernaturally clever, but neither can, finally, avoid that fate which is common to all men. In Odysseus I find it tragic, and in Zhuge Liang I find it just, even though Odysseus also through his strategems burned and sacked a great kingdom, and Zhuge Liang also had his moments of human sympathy. The difference, I think, is that Zhuge Liang is, despite these moments, always separate and above events and people. He is untouched by common concerns. He is not simply a great strategist--great strategists are two a penny in the Three Kingdoms--but can control the winds and the weather. How can he have a place in human society? Even Homer's Achilles does not differ in kind from his fellow men. He is strong, but not strong beyond strength. He too has human attachments, and these attachments allow him to understand Priam when that king comes to Achilles' tent.

Zhuge Liang also cheerfully vexes to death my favorite character, Zhou Yu, about whom more later.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Late but happy traipses this water scorpion; article found at Cronaca.
In case you are having trouble at the breakfast table. It is not your fault. It is an immutable law of the universe.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Small Poem About the Hounds and the Hares

After the kill, there is the feast.
And toward the end, when the dancing subsides
and the young have sneaked off somewhere,
the hounds, drunk on the blood of the hares,
begin to talk of how soft
were their pelts, how graceful their leaps,
how lovely their scared, gentle eyes.

--Lisel Mueller (1924-)

Steve is off to Turkish Kurdistan, in search of hounds. May he find all the dogs of his desire!

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Here's a collection of medievalist blogging. The highlight is probably the ancient recipe for pork with truffles. The lowlight is almost certainly Rudolf the red-Nosed Reindeer in Latin. Also, don't miss the discussion of treating headaches with electric eels.
Christmas Cheer:

Vandals Burn Swedish Christmas Goat, Again

Article here:

Since 1966, just 10 of the 43-foot-high goats have survived beyond Christmas Day. Most were burned _ sometimes within hours of being built during the first week of December. The 1976 goat was hit by a car

Saturday, December 03, 2005

If you want to feel hungry, take a look at The Cook's Cottage, an Indian food blog, lavishly illustrated. For instance, a pomegranite salad recipe is illustrated with Boticelli, Rosetti, Persian portraiture and photos of the fruits themselves. The author also has detailed step-by-step recipes with photos, plus many wonderful pictures of Indian marketplaces and everyday life.