Sunday, January 29, 2006

Saturday, January 28, 2006

An article on Mozart by Terry Teachout is well worth your time. He makes one of those points which is so frustratingly obvious in retrospect:
To my mind, no one has done a better job of concisely explaining what makes Mozart Mozart than Donald Tovey, whose essay on the G Minor Symphony, K. 550, the greatest of the minor-key works, is a convenient starting point. Tovey offers a seeming paradox that will startle many readers: “We can only belittle and vulgarize our ideas of Mozart by trying to construe him as a tragic artist.” What could he possibly mean, especially with reference to the G Minor Symphony, still widely regarded as the locus classicus of tragedy in music? The answer, Tovey replies, is that Mozart was up to something altogether different: “Mozart’s whole musical language is, and remains throughout, the language of comic opera.”

This bald-faced assertion, so surprising at first glance, turns out on closer inspection to be all but self-evident. From the rush and bustle of the outer movements of the G Minor Symphony (whose compositional language Tovey likens to Rossini’s Overture to The Barber of Seville) to the wittily “theatrical” exchanges between soloist and orchestra in the later piano concertos, one finds in Mozart’s mature instrumental works an abundance of proof that he thought of all his music in dramatic terms—and that the kind of “drama” he had in mind was 18th-century opera buffa, abstracted at times to the point of sublimity but still essentially comic.

For the Romantic of deepest hue, such a claim must necessarily have the effect of trivializing Mozart’s minor-key music. But Mozart himself, lest we forget, was not a Romantic—indeed, Romanticism per se did not exist in his lifetime—and thus was not afflicted by the paralyzing idea that comedy is unserious.
This octopus attack is doubtless making the rounds, but how can one not link to such a thing?

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Natalie Solent is picking fights again. This time she's arguing with Prof. A. C. Grayling about the size of religious versus scientific contributions to human welfare. I'm failing to see the conflict, myself, but both sides seem to feel that there is one.

I don't, for one, understand the criteria Prof. Grayling is using to divvy up the shares. Religious motives are not incompatible with the scientific method. Nicholas Steno was no less a scientist than he was a bishop.

Moreover, Prof. Grayling wants to have it both ways:
The express implication of my original formulation was of course that there are precious few ways in which religion does not do serious disservice to mankind, and many ways in which the benefits of science outweigh the disservice it can be used to do. The defenders of religion like to point to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and Bach's sacred cantatas (etc), together with the solace afforded the old, ill and lonely (etc again), as a kind of equivalence to the payoff of science's positive fruits against Zyklon B (to use your own & well-chosen example).

But the enthymematic point I was making is precisely that even if religious art (invariably a product of devotion? or of the fact that the church had the money to commission it?) and the deceiving solaces are counted into the equation, the massive burden of conflict, psychological no less than in the way of wars, inquisitions, crusades, burnings of heretics and the rest - egregious among them the Holocaust - for which religion is directly and indirectly responsible, makes for a massive weight of harm to humanity which dwarfs these benefits.
That religion has inspired men to do wrong is not a datum I would dispute. What I fail to see is how this criterion of inspiration may ever be met by "science". If we are to judge debits and credits purely by the source of motivation, I do not understand how a method can provide this. And turning about, I fail to see how science, even Prof. Grayling's post-1600 definition of it, has been absent from tragedy. We are tool-using animals, and we have put tools to a number of nasty uses. By one standard almost all crimes can be placed at religion's door; by the other, all falls under science's broad lintel.

It is odd that Prof. Grayling places the start of science at Bacon and Descartes, ignoring the great works of the medieval logicians. The state parallels our own times rather uncomfortably. There seem to be a number of outstanding scientists (Richard Dawkins, I'm looking at you) who wouldn't know a logical fallacy if it licked their face. But empirical evidence requires this foundation of logical thought.

A postscript: I hate--detest--abominate these "science v. religion" arguments. I've tried to express what I feel is the fundamental flaw in this one. I have never felt that my belief in empirical truth was ever threatened by my faith in the Divine, and I don't see how any sensible person could find them conflicting. If you think that the world is six thousand years old, well, congratulations: you're wrong. But to use that belief as a stand-in for all religious thought is just stuffing another straw man.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Overheard at a Santa Fe restaurant:
Customer: So what's the altitude here?

Waiter: Oh, about 7,000 feet or so.

Customer: Huh.... is that year-round?

Waiters are an immensely underappreciated lot*. In an ideal world, everyone would be required to work customer service before gaining the right to receive any. In this world, everyone should at least have to read a few months' entries on Waiter Rant in order to be admitted to a restaurant. It's truly appalling how wretchedly restaurant patrons can treat their servers. It's not rare either, a lot of people do it. People speak and act to waiters in ways they would never dare to strangers on the street. If the Christian ethic/categorical imperative/golden rule/common human decency are insufficient motivation for you to treat your server politely, consider the ample opportunities they have for vengeance (and how!). It behooves you to be at least a teeny bit nice to the person carrying your food.

Also, tip! Waiters make their money through tips and nowhere else. An inadequate tip is stealing, just as much as if you take your spare key and drive your car away from the mechanic without paying for your new transmission. Guidelines: 10% is nasty, insulting, only for palpably bad service. 15% is adequate, but hardly generous. 20% and up says, "Thank you." And if you have special requests, difficult children, &c., tip more! Remember, poor people are very often the most generous tippers. If you can afford to eat out, you can afford to tip.

Keep in mind, waiters take it from all sides: from customers, who want their hearts' desire, and seldom appreciate any good thing they didn't think of beforehand; from cooks, who somehow resent being asked for enchiladas without cheese or tortillas; and from management, who are the reason the last customer's placemat gets turned upside down for you (sometimes twice) instead of being replaced with a new one. Do you want, on your romantic evening out, to venture into a steamy kitchen full of sweaty, surly, Spanish monoglot chefs bearing prison tattoos and knives and tell them that your steak is just a hair underdone? Or would you rather complain to the coked-up dilletant and his trophy wife, who secretly want the restaurant to fail to escape the shadow of a famous restaurantuere mother, not to mention tax purposes? I thought not. That's what your waiter does: keep it in mind. And remember just how spoiled and incredibly lucky you are to live in the only age in history where you can receive such service and food without being born of noble blood. Noblesse oblige.

*Full disclosure: I have never worked as a waiter. I'm not that good. If I were a waiter, I wouldn't be complaining to you, the customer, because waiters don't do that. They're that good! But I am married to one, and count many among my friends. And I have worked several customer service jobs, I have worked for tips. When I was a river guide, I saved people's lives without getting tipped for it.

Also, I can't think of a time when I've ever had a bad experience in a non-fast-food restaurant. (As far as fast food goes, I'll only point out that the world's worst geographic location for acute gastrointestinal distress is the salt flat east of Wendover, Nevada.) When I go out, I'm willing to be surprised with food that a professional chef thinks is good. I'm not in a hurry. I'll trust the judgement of the people who deal with the food every day. I want to place an uncomplicated order and receive a tasty meal with a minimum of trouble. If I want my special favourite idée fixée, done just so, I cook it myself.

But you, as a reader of this blog, are surely nice to your servers, a generous tipper, gentlemanly in all things. What then can you do? Educate! Tell your family, friends and anyone who will listen how to be decent customers. And secondly, ridicule! If you're at a restaurant and the next table over is berating their waitress for forgetting their request that the house salad look like the flag of Ireland, speak up! Tell them what ludicrous swine they are. Invite them to speak that way to someone who doesn't depend on their putative generosity for a living. Offer them lurid visions of what will happen if the cooks catch them outside the restaurant doors. Let's make these people too ashamed and afraid to show their faces in polite society!

Friday, January 20, 2006

There are a few first principles in bee-keeping which ought to be as familiar to the Apiarian as the letters of his alphabet :

1st. Bees gorged with honey never volunteer an attack.

2nd. Bees may always be made peaceable by inducing them to accept liquid sweets.

3rd. Bees, when frightened by smoke or by drumming on their hives, fill themselves with honey and lose all disposition to sting, unless they are hurt.

4th. Bees dislike any quick movements about their hives, especially any motion which jars their combs.

5th. Bees dislike the offensive odor of sweaty animals, and will not endure impure air from human lungs.

6th. The bee-keeper will ordinarily derive all his profits from stocks, strong and healthy, in early Spring.

7th. In districts where forage is abundant only for a short period, the largest yield of honey will be secured by a very moderate increase of stocks.

8th. A moderate increase of colonies in any one season, will, in the long run, prove to be the easiest, safest, and cheapest mode of managing bees.

9th. Queenless colonies, unless supplied with a queen, will inevitably dwindle away, or be destroyed by the bee-moth, or by robber-bees.

10th. The formation of new colonies should ordinarily be confined to the season when bees are accumulating honey ; and if this, or any other operation must be performed, when forage is scarce, the greatest precautions should be used to prevent robbing.

The essence of all profitable bee-keeping is contained in Oettl’s Golden Rule : KEEP YOUR STOCKS STRONG. If you cannot succeed in doing this, the more money you invest in bees, the heavier your losses ; while, if your stocks are strong, you will show that you are a bee-master, as well as a bee-keeper, and may safely calculate on generous returns from your industrious subjects.
Rev. Langstroth's Axioms of Bee-Keeping.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Another translation of the new-found Sappho.
Pursue the violet-laden Muses' handsome gifts,
my children, and the loud-voiced lyre so dear to song;
But me--my skin which once was soft is withered now
by age, my hair has turned to white which once was black,
my heart has been weighed down, my knees give no support
which once were nimble in the dance like little fawns.
How often I lament these things. But what to do?
No being that is human can escape old age.
For people used to think that Dawn with rosy arms
amd loving murmurs took Tithonus fine and young
to reach the edges of the earth; yet still grey age
in time did seize him, though his consort cannot die.

Friday, January 13, 2006

From the Ulaanbaatar Post:
Th Moscow Circus has not performed in Mongolia for over 25 years... However, that will soon change when the troupe form Moscow hits Ulaanbaatar to produce a week-long series of twice-daily shows between January 15 and 21 at Mongolia's State Circus...

Whilst the Russian performers who are on their way to Mongolia will not have too much problem with the winter temperatures, the elephants originate in India and are not used to the cold in Ulaanbaatar. To keep them warm Zorigt revealed that they are being given two liters of vodka per day.

Is that all? The Russian performers must be drinking them under the table.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

More photos:

Take a look at some fascinating photos from the shipbreaking yards at Chittagong, Bangladesh. They're all worthwhile, and a couple (Cable Gang, Dust, Boy Worker) are really stunning. Chittagong is pretty much the only place on earth where they take ocean-going ships apart. It's also not the kind of place that loves photographers, so these images are pretty unique.

Also take a look at these pictures from China. A few are wonderful photographic imitations of classical Chinese landscape painting. Very fine! The parent website, The Luminous Landscape, has tons of other good stuff.

(I'd post some on the blog, but I don't want to step on copyrighted toes. Give the photographers their due, and visit the site.)

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

I recently stumbled across the above photograph, an image I remember well (not exactly fondly) from five-and-a-half years ago. It's a picture of the 2000 fires in the Bitterroot Valley, specifically the East Fork of the Bitterroot outside Conner, Montana. I was quite nearby at the time, in Salmon, Idaho, about an hour's drive south. It was the first time I was in the vicinity of major forest fires. I remember the smoke clouds to the west being so thick that we could look directly at the sun, sometimes seeing sunspots with our naked eyes through the perfect brown filter.

I've since floated and driven through several other small to medium fires. Though I was never in a scene as hellish as that photo, active blazes do put one in mind of scenes a few circles down in Inferno. The light is veiled and ruddy, the air unwholesome. Blackened silhouettes of trunks and stumps stand naked, carved into Rococo shapes by burning, some smoking like chimneys. Smoke pours from holes in the earth and stones tumble down the loosened slopes. Flames ripple up brushy hillsides or crackle into crowns of trees. I floated through one such on the Main Salmon in 2003 without incident. It seemed that we had come through after the worst was over, as the fire was calming down. But the next morning we awoke to strong winds, and looked back upstream to see an immense column of yellow-orange erupting into the sky above the canyon.

Whenever I have seen such fires in action, I have assumed the worst about what would be left when the flames were gone. But every time I have been pleasantly surprised. Where there's smoke there's fire, but there's usually vastly more smoke. The areas you see marked as burned in newspaper maps are very far from wastelands. Some patches are indeed devastated, but most areas are only mildly singed. Undergrowth soon flourishes happily, and wildflowers are profuse in the following years. Wildlife doesn't seem to mind burned zones particularly. I even spent time in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness in the years immediately following the Biscuit Fire, possibly the nastiest burn in living memory. Even there, there are still living trees, limpid water, bears, salmon, carnivorous plants. The most dramatic aftereffects (in Idaho, at least) are landslides. The rivers have run clear much more seldom than they did before the fire years, as any reasonably focused downpour induces the loosened mountainsides to cast themselves down in a wall of mud, logs and stones, often giving the rivers some wonderful new rapids in the process.

Cramer Creek Rapid (a.k.a. De-Rig) formed overnight from a debris flow in August 2003, shortly after the Cramer Fire, creating some of the biggest whitewater on the Salmon.

My point in all this is that forest fires most definitely do not destroy an area's value as wilderness. Nature's change and growth is often not a gentle process; there is violence and destruction in it. That is where much of the awe and majesty of wilderness is to be found, and it is what sets true wilderness apart from gentlemen's estates. The notion implicit in salvage logging of burned forests is that the area is ruined, so why not pull what resources we can from it? I don't mind the resource extraction per se. What I greatly mind is the attendant road-building in roadless areas, excused on the grounds of this alleged ruination, which is believable only to those who have no serious knowledge of the areas. Wilderness should be managed as wilderness, through fires, floods and everything else. I say again, these areas are far from ruined, even on the scale of a few years. Seeing them change, through slow growth or sudden shock, in ways one would never guess, is one of the great delights and privileges of knowing the wilderness.

This is sadly likely to be an issue in my neck of the woods in the coming year. New Mexico has had no significant snowfall this season; our 12,000-foot mountains show no white at all. There have already been fires in Colorado: it's freakin' January! For all I've said above, please don't think I enjoy seeing forests burn. I definitely don't want to see the entire Pecos Wilderness burn in a week. If we don't get some precipitation soon, things will be very grim. But they'll still be better than an infestation of new roads.

Here (courtesy of Chas) is a soldier in Iraq blogging on Iraqi birds. And not birds alone: he also mentions eels and Tigris salmon (Barbus esocinus), among much else. His general natural history blog, Homerange, is definitely worh a visit as well.

It's good to see that we have some soldier-scholars out there!

I ain't afeared of a man with a beard. From our lovely mid-continent correspondent comes a brief history of priestly facial hair.
In the West hermits and monastics also had long hair and beards, like St Martin of Tours. However, the parish clergy came to a kind of compromise. Although in order to avoid seeming effeminate, Western Orthodox clergy did not shave, they nevertheless trimmed their beards quite closely. This is clear from icons of St Leo the Great or St Gregory the Great. Unfortunately, this tradition of trimmed beards was lost with the tyranny of Charlemagne at the end of the eighth century. With his massive 'barbarian' inferiority complex, it was his desire in all things to imitate pagan classical Rome. It was therefore under him that Western clergy were ordered to shave regularly. For example at the Council of Aachen (816), it was stipulated that priests and monks were to shave every two weeks.
The opening quip is from my grandfather, after someone called him the cat in the hat. He (my grandfather) was never slow off the mark.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Blessings on thy warty head

Loyal readers are doubtless aware of Odious' and my fondness for bad poetry, often favouring it over good. Since Billy Collins and Were the Gracchi worth the hassle don't don't quite compete in this category, let me offer up the following:

At ease he sits upon the pool
And, void of fuss or trouble,
Makes vesper music fit for kings
From out an empty bubble:

A long-drawn-out and tolling cry,
That drifts above the chorus
Of shriller voices from the marsh
That April nights send o'er us;
A tender monotone of song
With vernal longings blending
The rises from the ponds and pools,
And seems at times unending;

A linked chain of bubbling notes,
When birds have ceased their calling,
That lulls the ear with soothing sound
Like voice of water falling.
It is the knell of winter dead;
Good-by his icy fetter.
Blessings on thy warty head:
No bird could do it better.

--John Burroughs, The Song of the Toad
Update: Rats! (So to speak.) Not true, and therefore not well-deserved. Billy Collins is still good though!

Swift, harsh and well-deserved poetic justice in New Mexico. It rather reminds me of my favourite Billy Collins poem to date:

I wondered about you
when you told me never to leave
a box of wooden, strike-anywhere matches
lying around the house because the mice

might get into them and start a fire.
But your face was absolutely straight
when you twisted the lid down on the round tin
where the matches, you said, are always stowed.

Who could sleep that night?
Who could whisk away the thought
of the one unlikely mouse
padding along a cold water pipe

behind the floral wallpaper
gripping a single wooden match
between the needles of his teeth?
Who could not see him rounding a corner,

the blue tip scratching against a rough-hewn beam,
the sudden flare, and the creature
for one bright, shining moment
suddenly thrust ahead of his time—

now a fire-starter, now a torch-bearer
in a forgotten ritual, little brown druid
illuminating some ancient night.
Who could fail to notice,

lit up in the blazing insulation,
the tiny looks of wonderment on the faces
of his fellow mice, one-time inhabitants
of what once was your house in the country?

—Billy Collins, The Country, from Nine Horses
Speaking of Peculiar, he has excellent taste in literature, as evidenced by his gift to me of Kepler's Somnium. It's the tale of Duracotus, the son of the Icelandic witch Fiolxhilde. She summons a spirit, which can only travel through shadows, but thus at a great pace, to tell him of the Moon.

The story is a thin disguise of Kepler's objective, which is a brief description of what men would see from the surface of the Moon. It's altogether lovely, and I recommend it to anyone. If what I've told you doesn't intrigue you enough to read it, perhaps his nasty little epigram regarding the anti-Copernicans will:
They were able to castrate
The bard lest he fornicate;
He survived without any testicles.
Alas, O Pythagoras,
Whose thinking wore out iron chains;
They spare you your life,
But first they get rid of your brains.
--Note 7, Kepler's Somnium, trans. Edward Rosen

He also, accurately enough, refers to central Kansas as "an anus of the universe".
Peculiar and Proclus and I have a history of--well, of a number of things, but the one I'm thinking about right now is going up on the mountain and slinging rocks at trees. Given our skill, it is remarkable that we have six eyes between us still. But I don't believe we ever considered inscribing our stones:
Many sling bullets survive from antiquity, some with inscriptions scratched on them. The Greek for one of these leaden projectiles is molybdis, and in Latin they are called glandes plumbeae (literally leaden acorns). Here are a couple of inscriptions, from Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, I:

650: Feri Pomp(eium) = Strike Pompey.

682: Pet(e) culum Octavia[ni] = Attack Octavian's arsehole.
(The implication is that Octavianus (the future Augustus) would have turned tail in flight.)
Is anyone surprised?
Town hall bureaucrats are to be given sweeping new powers to investigate homes for identity card evasion and to impose heavy fines on occupants found without one.

The revelation, in an obscure Whitehall consultation paper, calls into serious doubt the Government's repeated promises that planned ID cards, already hugely controversial, will be voluntary and that no one will be forced to carry one.

It will stiffen resolve at Westminster to oppose the Identity Cards Bill, which is due before the Lords again next week.
I should damn well hope so. From Samizdata.