Wednesday, March 29, 2006

For those of you wanting to see Jet Li dressed as a chicken in "Deadly China Hero": second picture down.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Real, Ultimate Power. The computer screen lends itself more easily to reading short articles than novels. But when those novels aren't available elsewhere, well, you take what you can get.

What you can get in this case is an excellent translation of the fantasy novel Twelve Kingdoms, by Fuyumi Ono, done for the pleasure of it by Eugene Woodbury. From his introduction:
Translation, as opposed to reading, really does focus the mind on what the author actually means, as opposed to simply propelling you along the narrative track. So the real credit goes to Fuyumi Ono for writing some of the most fascinating and creative novels in the high fantasy genre--in any language--and that only get more interesting and morally complex and you go along.
I agree with both the focusing ability of translation and his assessment of the novels. A mythic China about the time of the Three Kingdoms is the setting. Our heroine is transported there from modern Japan and must find her way home. Speaking as someone who spent most of his childhood inspecting wardrobes, walking into clocks, sticking his head into buckets of water like Lucas-Kasha, and generally searching for passage to Elfland, it's a trope that has lost none of its charm.

I would also be remiss if I did not share with you the time-wasting black hole of Ultimate Power that is Wuxiapedia. Those of you hungry for action like this:
Now the horse had collapsed and Yan Nantian was still in mid-air, now seven, eight swords came towards him like shooting stars. All the swords came from different sides, from left to right ensnaring him.

Yan Nantian was totally entangled by his attackers’ web of swords, however he still has power in him even in mid-air, he raised his arms and his body ascended another 2 metres or so. The swords passed him under his feet, a loud CLAAANNNGG could be heard. The seven, eight swords could not be retracted in time so they collided with each other, as soon as they hit they immediately fell back and scattered around. Seven, eight persons each stood at a corner quite far apart from each other. In the fog, you could not see their faces clearly but at least four of them were Taoist priests.

Yan Nantian descended and landed on top of the carriage and as soon as he had landed he immediately launched an attack on a Taoist priest wearing a blue robe. He generated his full internal power to his palms and did not hold back now, these people attacked without any reason and used the most lethal methods needless to say he was merciless too.

The beard and robe of the Taoist priest swayed by the powerful palm energy released from Yan Nantian, he could hardly stand straight and in a flux he raised his sword and counter-attacked.
...and who isn't? can read translations there. That excerpt is from Gu Long's Legendary Siblings. I've been hooked on wuxia ever since I read Outlaws of the Water Margin instead of writing a paper on conic sections.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Le génie Cucufa est un vieil hypocondriaque, qui, craignant que les embarras du monde et le commerce des autres génies ne fissent obstacle à son salut, s'est réfugié dans le vide, pour s'occuper tout à son aise des perfections infinies de la grande Pagode, se pincer, s'égratigner, se faire des niches, s'ennuyer, enrager et crever de faim. Là, il est couché sur une natte, le corps cousu dans un sac, les flancs serrés d'une corde, les bras croisés sur la poitrine, et la tête enfoncée dans un capuchon, qui ne laisse sortir que l'extrémité de sa barbe. Il dort; mais on croirait qu'il contemple. Il n'a pour toute compagnie qu'un hibou qui sommeille à ses pieds, quelques rats qui rongent sa natte, et des chauves-souris qui voltigent autour de sa tête: on l'évoque en récitant au son d'une cloche le premier verset de l'office nocturne des brahmines; alors il relève son capuce, frotte ses yeux, chausse ses sandales, et part. Figurez-vous un vieux camaldule porté dans les airs par deux gros chats-huants qu'il tiendrait par les pattes: ce fut dans cet équipage que Cucufa apparut au sultan!
--Diderot, Les Bijoux indiscrets

Thursday, March 23, 2006

On the advice of my wife, I am posting a link to the Greek poet fanfiction I recently got paid for. It feels a bit like justifying one's promiscuity by becoming a prostitute.
While New Mexico may be busy creating the hottest substance on earth, I feel that we here in Oregon need to give props to the mad scientists amongst us.
A new study of a meteorite that originated from Mars has revealed a series of microscopic tunnels that are similar in size, shape and distribution to tracks left on Earth rocks by feeding bacteria.

And though researchers were unable to extract DNA from the Martian rocks, the finding nonetheless adds intrigue to the search for life beyond Earth.
A picture; I cannot find the article on the Oregon State page.
I am become Death, destroyer of, well, of blackberries, mostly. I have been machete-ing the vile vines wheresoever I find them, which is unpleasant work. If you don't get the swing right, the vine bounces back at you, latches on to your flesh, and whispers terrible secrets about the Elder Ones who live beyond the stars. Maybe not that last, but it certainly feels like it when you're in the middle of a thicket of red-green tentacles and the wind picks up. Ia!

To avoid considerance of the Old Ones and the accompanying loss of sanity, I let my mind wander. This state is actually conducive to thought, since my internal censors are dealing with preventing loud profanity. Thus I can sidle up to my thoughts and surprise them before they disappear.

So what do I think about as I am lashed by brambles? A number of things, but I got to thinking about the unity of love. I am in good company here: the Pope's Christmas encyclical on the subject says things far better than I could hope to. His conclusion is that "[f]undamentally, “love” is a single reality, but with different dimensions; at different times, one or other dimension may emerge more clearly."

We think of love as different things under a single name. Friendship, sexual love, charity--the Greeks broke it down that way and would, I think, have seen little reason to combine the concepts into one. Indeed, the exchange between Christ and Peter at the end of the Book of John:
So when they had broken their fast, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of John, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs.

He saith to him again a second time, Simon, son of John, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Tend my sheep.

He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of John, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.
...makes a great deal more sense in Greek, where Christ asks the first two times if Peter agape loves him, and Peter replies that he, Peter, philos loves him. The third exchange both use philos.

The Pope also uses the example of the Song of Songs. "We can thus see how the reception of the Song of Songs in the canon of sacred Scripture was soon explained by the idea that these love songs ultimately describe God's relation to man and man's relation to God." We are, then, to feel a longing for God just as we feel a longing for our spouse.

This idea of an erotic quality to the search for goodness is an element of a number of the thinkers I like. I'm tempted to claim that Confucius felt it, in the way that he took the Book of Odes and its love poetry, and used quotes from it to illustrate correct behavior. "It is by the Odes that the mind is aroused; it is by the rules of propriety that the character is established; it is from Music that the finish is received." Confucius, it should be remembered, was so moved by music that the first time he heard the music of Shen he tasted nothing for three days. Confucius' desire for goodness, like everything about him, is in excellent taste, but it is no less sincere, constant, or powerful for that.

The Stoics, too, felt this longing, although they would have claimed that their interest was wholly rational. But who can read Epictetus without feeling that he burned with desire?
Wilt Thou that I continue to live? Then will I live, as one that is free and noble, as Thou wouldst have me. For Thou hast made me free from hindrance in what appertaineth to me. But hast Thou no further need of me? I thank Thee! Up to this hour have I stayed for Thy sake and none other's: and now in obedience to Thee I depart.


Whatsoever place or post Thou assignest me, sooner will I die a thousand deaths, as Socrates said, than desert it. And where wilt Thou have me? At Rome or Athens? At Thebes or on a desert island? Only remember me there!
This erotic longing for goodness is so striking that I worry a great deal about my lack of it. I do what is right grudgingly at best and with a feeling that everyone had better appreciate the sacrifice I'm making in trying to be a good person, rather than chasing joyfully after goodness without a thought of anything else. I am not attracted to the Good; or if I am, I keep it hidden, to disguise my failure to be good as successful apathy. This self-deception is too often triumphant. It is, of course, pride that keeps me from confessing my desire, and I've so suppressed it that I feel it only sporadically anymore. It takes quite a shove to make me realise how much I would like to be good.

I don't know about anyone else, but Pascal's "distraction from wretchedness" becomes more and more my motivation. I find myself singing, not because I like the song, but because old iniquities are coming to mind and I don't want to remember them. I read while I watch movies, because with only one distraction I might notice my fallen state, and the knowledge of how low I am is intolerable. A tutor once said to me that as he got older he sympathised more and more with the villains of 19th century literature. I didn't understand when he told me; I dislike understanding it now.
One of the wonderful things about having ancestors is that we can learn from them. As John McLoughlin observed in Toolmaker Koan, this allows us a Lamarckian cultural evolution: acquired traits can now be passed on.
"A human being, producing an invention, passes that invention on to the next generation via the route of what we call culture. This I [the crazy alien artifact speaking] would call the Lamarckian 'genetic apparatus'. As you can plainly see from your own history, cultural--Lamarckian--evolution is far faster than Darwinian evolution...."
And a good thing, too. F'rinstance, thanks to my father's attempt to flirt with my mother with word problems ("two trains are headed for each other at different speeds...."), which ended in literal tears and curses, I know that I ought not to share the particularly pleasant problems I encounter with my wife.

But this conclusion is unsatisfying, since I really do like word problems. So I bethought me of the Internet, which I have never made cry, despite my best efforts. Both are from the Lilavati of Bhaskara, which was named for the mathematician's daughter. He had determined the only propitious moment for her marriage, and the girl, anxiously watching the clepsydra, let fall an unnoticed pearl from her finery which stopped the clock. The hour passed before this accident was learned of, and in consolation the mathematician named his treatise after her. Which I'm sure made everything all better.

Both are fairly simple problems, one determinate, the other in-. What I like is not the intricacy of reasoning necessary, but the clean, wholesome, five-finger exercise.

1. A bamboo 32 cubits high breaks in the wind, and the tip hits the ground 16 cubit away from the base. At what height from the ground did it break?

2. A peacock is perched on a pillar. At the base of the pillar is a snake's burrow. Spotting a serpent at a distance from its burrow equal to three times the height of the pillar, the peacock pounced precipitously in a straight line as the serpent slithered for safety. If both the peacock and its prey traveled the same distance before the messy end of the snake, how far from the pillar did they meet?

Lo! I hope no one over the age of twelve has been reduced to tears. Comments are open, but since these are rather simple problems, I would prefer to save them for questions or criticism rather than the answers themselves.

Grâce à Mr. Boyer's A History of Mathematics.

Friday, March 17, 2006

There aren't too many albums I liked in high school that I still love today, but If I Should Fall From Grace With God by the Pogues is an exception. I've never liked it a whit less any time I've heard it. Damn, that grog-rotten Celt McGowan wrote some good songs! Damn those boys' early records were good!


Update: Mrs. Peculiar has more refined thoughts.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The whole Movies in Dead Languages thing is getting to be quite a fad. We've had Aramaic in The Passion, Algonquian in The New World; Mel Gibson is making something in Yucatec Maya. Now Vin Diesel wants to make a Hannibal film in Greek, Latin and Punic!

Glossophile that I am, I’m hardly going to gripe about these interests entering popular culture. The results of these efforts are open to question, though: the Passion continues to sound immensely dreary to me, and what I’ve heard about the Algonqiuan (see link) makes it sound marginally credible at best. But why isn’t anyone interested in making some movies in the many, many dying languages out there, instead of going after tongues that deader than doornails? Someone write an epic screenplay about the Livonians, please!

Friday, March 10, 2006

Ah, New Mexico!
Scientists [at Sandia National Labs] have produced superheated gas exceeding temperatures of 2 billion degrees Kelvin, or 3.6 billion degrees Fahrenheit.

This is hotter than the interior of our sun, which is about 15 million degrees Kelvin, and also hotter than any previous temperature ever achieved on Earth, they say.

They don't know how they did it.
Emphasis mine. Half of me says, "Cool!" Half of me wishes I were further from Albuquerque.

A rather pale bodhisattva, no? Take another look, and think outside the box. That's right, it's the Mother of God with Child and book, as depicted by Japanese crypto-Christians.

The above is courtesy of Laputan Logic, who is back after a long hiatus! Keep scrolling, and check the January and February archives. His posts are long, detailed, abstruse, well-illustrated and consistently fascinating. Recent items include an Arab tale of an African king turned slave turned king again, ancient mathematics, ambergris, analysis and debunking of the "Chinese Vinland Map", naughty mathematical objects, and, best of all, Wilfred Thesiger on transgendered Marsh Arabs. Enjoy!

For those of you who don't check her blog very often, I like Kate's new poem.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Kirby Puckett has died. I watched him play in two World Series.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

A source for rare mantids. I type this with my eyes on the ceiling, whistling softly, thus demonstrating that I am not really posting. Too busy. I certainly don't have time for this. I am not really here.

Via Ms. Rogers.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Cannibalism rife among Mormon crickets

Well, I could have told you that. I had the, er, pleasure of participating in some peak cricket years when I worked on the rivers in Northeastern Utah. It's something to see. One must understand, they're quite repulsive. Their big maroon bodies are slightly squishy, not soft like butter but not crisp like a proper insect either, more like a bell pepper turned bad. They don't fly, they just hop around, seemingly at random. We once painted numbers on their backs with Sharpie markers, drew concentric circles around them and had cricket races.

And they certainly do eat their dead. As the article quite accurately states, "Swarms sometimes cross roads, and as these crickets avidly feast on one another, slick driving conditions can develop, experts say." I can testify to the truth of this claim (guess that makes me an expert!). Yup, I've hydroplaned on some cricket swarms in my time, I tell you what. Pullin' a trailer too. Driving into our river put-ins, we'd exit the truck to look back on tire tracks delineated in bug carcasses, which soon became seethingly animate as the living moved to feast, half squished crickets creeping on two front legs as their healthy comrades devoured the remains of their abdomens.

What's more, they inclined toward mass suicide in the rivers. I recall one day floating through Island Park on the Green. The shores were all twitching with little maroon hops and the water teemed with swimmers, crickets by the thousands floating with the current, swirling in the eddy lines, collecting on every obstacle. From inside the boats, the situation resembled a rather tasteless alien invasion film. Any line or strap dangling in the water they would climb up. Even when these avenues seemed closed, you would look down to the self-bailing holes in the boats' floors to see a leg protrude, then another, followed by a leering little face. Our passengers refused to set foot on shore for lunch. Water fights were super-charged with liquid cricket ammo. Waves of crickets broke over the inflatable kayaks in the rapids.

Sorry. Folks, this doesn't happen most years, I promise. And it doesn't last all summer when it does. You should not hesitate to go boating in Utah. I can see why the Mormons hailed some cricket-eating seagulls as a miracle, though.

Speaking of Mormons, it looks like they're making a movie about the Mountain Meadows Massacre. (Hat tip: Chas.)

Update: A cricket article with something intelligent to say.

One important facet of Dubai Ports World which I have yet to see discussed in either the MSM or in blogs is the quality of their mascot. Yes, they do indeed have a mascot, Captain Hamad, who together with his seagull sidekick cheerfully waits to introduce children the world over to the joys of stevedoring. I rather like him. He's got inviting, earnest anime eyes, backed up by Popeye forearms. He seems a good egg, eager to please, honest, far superior to our snarkbooger American mascot brats. He brings to mind the sort of merry third-world street urchin who is glad to help Dr. Jones dispatch a dozen thuggee with unrestrained childish jollity.
Yes, happy St. Davy's Day! While we're dwelling on matters spiritual, here's an interview with Frederica Matthews-Green about the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete.
Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed. Do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about. I will walk the path that our fathers have trod before us.

--St. David of Wales