Monday, December 31, 2007

The Last of 2007

And one last for the year: sunset ice on the Gunnison river. Happy New Year!

Year's End Outing with Rock Art

Here are some scenes of my last hike of the year, yesterday, in a very fine, moderately isolated canyon in western Colorado (the diligent can surely deduce the location, but my current stance is that nowhere needs any publicity whatsoever). First, the context, with frozen waterfall. The bedrock is basement metamorphic schist, overlaid by some odd red granitish stuff I couldn't place, followed by cliff-forming Wingate sandstone:

Unsurprisingly, the Indians liked this place. Inhabitants included Desert Archaic culture, possibly the Fremont and certainly historic Ute. One sees hand prints pretty often, but I was pleased to find one that strikes me as a bear print:

Some abstracts, in their spectacular gallery:

The same up close:

Historic Ute presence is clearly visible here. I hesitate to identify the beastie. The first thing that leapt to my mind, somehow, was horny toad, but it seems hard to justify any taxon with close examination:

An elegant pecked herbivore body, reminds me of the graceful forms of Old World rock art:

Another panel in splendid context:

Detail of above. Again, hand prints are common enough, but the unusual inclusion of the arm here conveys a reaching, grasping which is highly evocative. Though hardly objectivly warranted, thoughts come to the mind of desparation, clutching at the stone:

Finally, what can this engraving evoke save hunting magic? The bighorn sheep, perched in a high place, surveying the territory; likewise the artist/hunter, eulogizing his prey in stone as he too scans the canyon for another animal.

And so the author, high against the cliff, crouching and looking at the canyon, red stone, frozen stream, the tribes gone, the sheep still here.

Long time gone.

Well, I've got about an hour left of my twenties, but birthday presents are already open. Quite worthy of display are the following gifts, courtesy of the Querencia household: plush pathogens!

Click to enlarge: that's Typhoid, a very recognizable shepherd's crook Ebola and Salmonella in front; and Giardia in the back. Giardia definitely gets to come on my next commercial river trip, to the general edification no doubt. Hell, I've harboured him three times, I may as well be candid in my status as vector!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Things to which I look forward in 2008:

Update: Apologies: video is gone. It was the trailer for Life in Cold Blood, the upcoming BBC series with Attenborough on (at last) reptiles and amphibians.
Christmas has debauched our armadillo.

Happy New Year to all!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Linguistics: The word eggnog has recently been substantially antedated, by an impressive 51 years from its earliest citation in the OED.
Fog-drams i' th’ morn, or (better still) egg-nogg,
At night hot-suppings, and at mid-day, grogg,
My palate can regale

--A Glossary of Provincial and Archaic Words, Jonathan Boucher
It is also interesting that the earliest citation jumped a continent. The post cited asserts that a recipe for eggnog was found among Washington's papers at Mount Vernon.

Via Bradshaw of the Future, a blog which will of interest to those entertained by Indo-European roots.

Update: If you're truly interested, here's more.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

A bold new sport: Yak skiing, skiing uphill powered by ravenous yak via pulleys. If that's not a thrill, I don't know what is.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Rod Dreher reports that the always execrable Time magazine hoped to depict Vladimir Putin, their Man of the Year, iconographically on the magazine cover. Happily, they were apparently unable to find an iconographer willing thus to debase his craft.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Why has no one told me about this?

"OCW is a free publication of course materials used at MIT. Get lecture notes, problem sets, labs and more. Watch lecture videos and demonstrations. Study a wide variety of subjects."

Sunday, December 16, 2007

And on to other things. I've still got a good many books, and one of them that I've been meaning to mention is the Art of Courtly Love, by Andreas Capellanus. It's a tongue in cheek handbook on Love, from getting to keeping to increasing. What struck me reading it was how perfectly applicable to high school romances it all was. Capellanus touches with a needle when he "say[s] and insist[s] that before his eighteenth year a man cannot be a true lover, because up to that age he is overcome with embarrassment over any little thing...." Tarkington's Seventeen might have been written with that maxim in mind.

Capellanus also is the first source I have encounter for the "base" system: the division of the advance of Love's player on the corners of the baseball diamond. He, of course, doesn't mention the game itself, but he does say that "[f]rom ancient times four distinct stages have been established in love: the first consists in the giving of hope, the second in the granting of a kiss, the third in the enjoyment of an embrace, and the fourth culminates in the yielding of the whole person." I was never quite clear what second and third were, but now I have a 12th century authority.

The Art of Courtly Love's worth reading just for the odd power system it espouses, in which the lover must do whatever his beloved--or indeed any woman--commands, and the woman is free to choose whichever lover she finds most admirable; but she must choose. A woman who never chooses a lover is, in one elaborate allegory designed to unlace a pretty bodice, doomed in a strange afterlife to wear fox skins in burning heat while riding in Love's train, then to sit upon thorns and been jounced by men much to her discomfort. Whereas a woman who takes a lover may therefore much improve him, and thereby win great renown. It's a strange book, and even as exaggeration points to a perturbed state of things. I shall close with Love's rules, as won by an unnamed knight (I think Lancelot) from King Arthur's court.
I. Marriage is no real excuse for not loving.
II. He who is not jealous cannot love.
III. No one can be bound by a double love.
IV. It is well known that love is always increasing or decreasing.
V. That which a lover takes against his will of his beloved has no relish.
VI. Boys do not love until they arrive at the age of maturity.
VII. When one lover dies, a widowhood of two years is required of the survivor.
VIII. No one should be deprived of love without the very best of reasons.
IX. No one can love unless he is impelled by the persuasion of love.
X. Love is always a stranger in the home of avarice.
XI. It is not proper to love any woman whom one should be ashamed to seek to marry.
XII. A true lover does not desire to embrace in love anyone except his beloved.
XIII. When made public love rarely endures.
XIV. The easy attainment of love makes it of little value; difficulty of attainment makes it prized.
XV. Every lover regularly turns pale in the presence of his beloved.
XVI. When a lover suddenly catches sight of his beloved his heart palpitates.
XVII. A new love puts to flight an old one.
XVIII. Good character alone makes any man worthy of love.
XIX. If love diminishes, it quickly fails and rarely revives.
XX. A man in love is always apprehensive.
XXI. Real jealousy always increases the feeling of love.
XXII. Jealousy, and therefore love, are increased when one suspects his beloved.
XXIII. He whom the thought of love vexes, eats and sleeps very little.
XXIV. Every act of a lover ends with in the thought of his beloved.
XXV. A true lover considers nothing good except what he thinks will please his beloved.
XXVI. Love can deny nothing to love.
XXVII. A lover can never have enough of the solaces of his beloved.
XXVIII. A slight presumption causes a lover to suspect his beloved.
XXIX. A man who is vexed by too much passion usually does not love.
XXX. A true lover is constantly and without intermission possessed by the thought of his beloved.
XXXI. Nothing forbids one woman being loved by two men or one man by two women.
The White Tiger left, and the Black Tortoise showed his usual abominable character. We were lucky, when the floods came: our house was on a hill and it only covered the road in front of us. Neighbors would reach the puddle, get out of their cars, and tromp up the driveway in enormous boots to find out if they could get through. Pick-ups, yes. One remarkable woman in a minivan, barely. Anybody in a car, nope.

A flood may be the most boring natural disaster I've ever witnessed. Water rises without the drama of a good fire or the howl of wind. It doesn't have a barren beauty to it the way a blizzard can. It's brown, dull, and kills more people ever year than any other act of nature. The town up the highway from us, Vernonia, had more than half its houses flooded and three-quarters of its businesses. Like I said, we were lucky--we only lost the things we had in a storage locker outside of town.

Unfortunately, those things included many of our books. Most are replaceable, but the sight of my signed copy of Tam Lin lying in muddy sewage was a wrench. My wife lost her correspondence from childhood: over twenty years of pen pals, kindred spirits, and her magazine for girls. The Principia Dana gave me for proof-reading it is gone.

These are replaceable things, mostly. They were solid memories, and we still have the ideal ones to treasure. But for the first time I understood Xerxes. If I'd had an army, they'd have been lashing the Nehalem.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Since Boreas has at last graced us with his icy breath, sadly putting our Thai Mouse Shit chili plant on its last legs, I thought I'd follow up last month's winter poetry and art. I was reminded of the following by Steve; I hadn't thought of it in quite some time:
October Dawn

October is marigold, and yet
A glass half full of wine left out

To the dark heaven all night, by dawn
Has dreamed a premonition

Of ice across its eye as if
The ice-age had begun to heave.

The lawn overtrodden and strewn
From the night before, and the whistling green

Shrubbery are doomed. Ice
Has got its spearhead into place.

First a skin, delicately here
Restraining a ripple from the air;

Soon plate and rivet on pond and brook;
Then tons of chain and massive lock

To hold rivers. Then, sound by sight
Will Mammoth and Saber-tooth celebrate

Reunion while a fist of cold
Squeezes the fire at the core of the world,

Squeezes the fire at the core of the heart,
And now it is about to start.

--Ted Hughes
Provided with the happy excuse of books to review, biologist Tim Flannery rhapsodizes about the wonders of the deep. Excellent passage:
To understand the full extent of the constraints that the abyss places on life, consider the black seadevil. It's a somber, grapefruit-sized globe of a fish—seemingly all fangs and gape—with a "fishing rod" affixed between its eyes whose luminescent bait jerks above the trap-like mouth. Clearly, food is a priority for this creature, for it can swallow a victim nearly as large as itself. But that is only half the story, for this description pertains solely to the female: the male is a minnow-like being content to feed on specks in the sea—until, that is, he encounters his sexual partner.

The first time that a male black seadevil meets his much larger mate, he bites her and never lets go. Over time, his veins and arteries grow together with hers, until he becomes a fetus-like dependent who receives from his mate's blood all the food, oxygen, and hormones he requires to exist. The cost of this utter dependence is a loss of function in all of his organs except his testicles, but even these, it seems, are stimulated to action solely at the pleasure of the engulfing female. When she has had her way with him, the male seadevil simply vanishes, having been completely absorbed and dissipated into the flesh of his paramour, leaving her free to seek another mate. Not even Dante imagined such a fate.

Friday, December 14, 2007

A very different age of nature documentary: Frank Buck's film of tiger vs. python. If you read the article, you'll see that the python was at a very unfair disadvantage. The film is here. This is as good a time as any to point out: Per their fallback editorial policy, Odious & Peculiar make no strict claims regarding the veracity of anything.

Also: documentary filmmakers vs. python. Ha!

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Sigh. I always neglect to keep up on the Proceedings of the Athanasius Kircher Society, and when I do check in I feel woefully inadequate as a blogger. What can one do but link?

Extensive subterranean cities of Cappadocia, much vaster than I was aware.

Monastic self-mummification in northern Japan.

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Legend of Belovodye, the Russian Orthodox Shangri-La, often alleged to be located in the Altai Mountains. It's not hard to see why. Of course, this sort of thing is no less problematic in Russian Orthodoxy than anywhere else.

Tipped off by SummitPost, which provides the following, though without a source, alas:

The roots of this myth go back to the violent schism of Russian Orthodox Church of XVII century. The Old Believers were persecuted and their prisoner labor has been widely used in Czarist Russia since late XVII century. An imperial decree of 1737 ordered their use at the Factories and Mines of the Treasury in Siberia. In 1762 another decree offered Old Order refugees in Poland assistance to resettle in Altay. Although escapes from the mines were severely punished, by early XIX century the secret villages of Old Believers abounded in the taiga of Altay.

About the same time, Arkady Belovodsky, an impostor "envoy" from the Hidden Kingdom of Bolovod'ye, started preaching among the European Old Believers about his mystical, powerful country in the East, somewhere beyond China. The White Waters Land of Arkady's sermons retained pre-schism Antioch [sic] Orthodoxy, with seven hundred churches on a huge island. It had a distinctly Shambhala-like quality in that only the truly enlightened people could reach the White Waters.

Also about the same time, a splinter Old Order group formed the Community of Truly Orthodox Travelers, better known simply as the Runners. They moved from a safe house to a safe house using hand-written route charts.

By 1830s, these three developments crystallized together into the Old Believer quest for Altay Belovod'ye. Believers were trickling from all over Russia, guided by their route-scripts. Some sought the Hidden Land up in the highlands, where all the peaks where called, indeed, Whites. Other continued up Bukhtarma Valley and crossed the border with China. The Old Believers' searches for White Water Land did not abate until 1910s. Today's folk wisdom in Russia pretty much equates White Water Land with the White Peaks of Altay.
Old Believers, incidently, are alive and well. Mrs. Peculiar relates a story of one of her goofy, earnest Orthodox convert friends who noticed a picturesque Orthodox church somewhere in the upper Midwest and knocked on the door. He was answered by a harried, bearded fellow, who, after his visitor had tried to engage him in chat about contemporary American Orthodoxy, burst out, "Why must you yet be persecuting us?" And there are a fair number of them in Alaska. When I spent a stormy January week at a (non-Old Believer) monastary in the Kodiak Archipelago, we saw a fishing boat venturing toward the open sea in atrocious weather one morning. "Old Believers," the monks informed me, "They're always the ones heading to sea when no one else would set foot on a boat."

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Speaking of successful upstarts, we saw a fantastic show a week ago in Montrose, Colorado by our classmate from St. John's, Eilen Jewell (warning: sound), who I'm happy to say is doing quite well:

The sound quality in the video doesn't do her justice, but there are several good samples on her web site. Think Gillian Welch with the benefit of some uppers, or maybe June Carter. And her guitarist is a serious, razor-sharp Rockabilly man. Here's a performance of her most upbeat radio hit, and here's her eulogy to Boundary County, Idaho (her native and my favorite state). I'm very glad that old-fashioned country and Rockabilly is gaining popularity and that performers with taste are able to thrive; it's one of the few happy trends to be found in pop culture.

And if you're in a musical mood, definitely don't miss this number, courtesy of 2 Blowhards, with Guy Clark and Emmylou Harris:

Guy Clark's songwriting is increasingly one of my favorite things going, and he and Emmylou together are magic. Another from the pair: Black Diamond Strings.

Via Instapundit, a nice discussion of the stifling effect regulatory burdens place on small businesses and small-scale entrepreneurs. The whole point is well encapsulated in the final paragraphs:
Those who push for federal regulations to rein in "big business" often don't realize that the biggest of big businesses don't mind heavy federal regulation at all. They have the resources to comply with them, not to mention the clout in Washington to get the regulations written in a way that most hurts upstarts and competitors.

Big businesses know that a heavy regulatory burden is the best way to make sure small- and medium-sized businesses never rise up to challenge them.
This has been on our minds lately. Mrs. Peculiar has lately stumbled into a fair bit of demand for a certain home-made product. But to make her enterprise legal would require a $15,000 piece of equipment (and likely much else besides), to do $50 worth of business weekly. It should come as no surprise that chains are dominating our economy when would-be upstarts are subject to hurdles no sane family would choose to inflict on itself for highly dubious rewards. Who wants to attract venture capital just to make some extra beer money on the weekends? But surely that's how a lot of innovative businesses got their start.

On the other hand, it is a pleasure to live in one of Colorado's (and probably the nation's) least regulated counties. It shows. It would take us forty minutes to get to a fast food restaurant, two towns away, but the number of small business owners, entrepreneurs and random folks with pet projects is highly encouraging.

For any readers who, like me, don't generally happen across media coverage of such things, Odious is referring to this (check out the slide show). They're a few miles down the road. It's good to hear from him.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

We're not underwater, but it was a near thing. Everyone is fine; more information when I'm sure the phones won't go out.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

It's been quite a while since we've changed the current pick in the sidebar, so here you are: the truly excellent mammoth of last year's holiday season from the brush of Olduvai George. The gentleman's blog is currently idling, but his site linked above is full of excellent biophilic art, with an emphasis on the prehistoric and extinct. A perusal is well worth your time.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

This is very nice. I'll try to post a verse translation in a week or so.
Pictures of puddings, in Patrick O'Brian style, glistening and faintly translucent (though not puddings in the true nautical sense).

Or there's this.

Have you all made note of the (formerly) secret underground Italian temples? Though the content is rather too hippy for my taste, I have to grant that the style and technical execution are bloody fine. It's good to know that humans can still produce quality and intricacy on a large scale; by modern standards it probably does indeed qualify as a wonder of the world.

Also inspiring is this unassuming fellow. I love the looks of pessimistic resignation and contempt from the judges and audience before they are blown away by secret talent and Puccini.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Even for a serious fan of world music like myself, Chinese music is a tough nut to crack. Pentatonic scales and vocals in tonal languages are simply not a winning combination for western ears. Farewell My Concubine is one of my favourite movies, but that's not due to it's scenes of Peking opera. As has been remarked, "When it comes to Chinese composers, I prefer Puccini."

So I was all the more delighted this evening to hear a wonderful NPR interview with Ma XiaoHui, an erhu virtuoso. You really owe it to yourself to listen to the story and appreciate this woman's music. It sounds like a cross between Yo-Yo Ma and Tuvan or Kazakh tunes. They open with Ms. Ma playing Elegy, a "concerto for erhu and orchestra," though they do not trouble to specify the composer, nor if and where a recording can be obtained. I'd get it in a second. She also adapts western violin classics to her instrument, with fine effect. And her Horse piece which closes the interview is not to be missed: sounds like H.I. Biber and his Sonata Representativa (samples) reincarnated in northeast Asia!

Also in the realm of Asian music, I just ran across Smithsonian Folkways' new six-disc collection Music of Central Asia (lots of samples via link). I am now hoping that Christmas morning in the Peculiar household will exalt to Kirghiz and Tajik strains.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The nice thing about having friends stay with you is staying up late sorting philosophers into the four houses (Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, Slytherin), and then eating cinnamon rolls in the morning.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Also re. poetry: if you're in a Sinophilic mood, you may derive some hours' amusement on Mountain Songs, an online collection of Chinese poetry having anything to do with mountains (Warning: front page has sound). They obligingly allow you to search poems not only by title and author, but also by mountain and temple, if such names mean anything to you. A nice reference, though I think the translations could have a little more vim. Also, Li Po seems to be romanized as Li Bai these days.
Let it snow. Let blue skies fade to steel.
Let the wind gust, then pick up, flat light creep in.
Let clouds arrive, pile up, grow dark, conceal.
Let the weather service issue a bulletin.
Let the first flakes fall like the kiss in a seduction,
Full of promise, tenderness and danger.
Let them whisper imminent destruction,
Then unfurl their fiery love and anger.
Let evening fall, let freedom ring, let things
Break down berserk, dark spirals burst out big,
And flake on flailing flake sculpt thickening rings
Of snow beyond what any plow can dig.
The ground is bare, the flowers dead. Let's go:
It's winter, time for blizzards. Let it snow.

--David J. Rothman
A couple lines' meter might have been done more elegantly, but I like it, and damned if it isn't apt right now. 20% chance tonight; I'm not holding my breath.

Before I return the book to the library, I might as well post another of Mr. Rothman's sonnets:

Resurrection of a Mouse

What full, sad sounds, the noise that you were making,
Clenched in our cat's jaws, pierced by a tooth,
Inevitably cought forever, shaking
And squeaking like a man who's seen the truth.
Sneaky pest who shit all over tables,
Vermin, host to rabies, hanta, louse,
I'm undeceived by all the mousy fables.
I'm glad you're gone, I'm pleased our cat can mouse.
Still, I cannot forget your empty death,
Prey to the satisfied play of calico.
Years later I start awake, hearing your breath
Cry life as far as any voice can go.
Confidently soaring, writing with my wing,
Beyond all praise and blame, you sing, you sing.

Monday, November 12, 2007

And here's one for Steve:

From the brush of Emperor Hsüan-tê. Here he is depicted by an anonymous artist:

Click to enlarge. From China: A History in Art.

Just for fun, while we're on the subject, here are Mrs. Peculiar and Myself in Alaskan waters:

All right, I can't hide any longer. I have Internet at home again, and while Odious has held down the fort very well, it's time I contributed something. I have an ungodly number of photographs from the last seven months, some of which will doubtless be inflicted in due time. But for now I shall fall back on that standby of all bloggers: what I've been reading.

You should all rush out right now and procure a copy of Where the Sea Breaks Its Back by Cory Ford, subtitled The Epic Story of Early Naturalist Georg Steller and the Russian Exploration of Alaska. Mrs. Peculiar and I spent much of the summer devouring (re-devouring, in my case) Patrick O'Brian novels, and the transition to Mr. Ford's book was utterly seamless, like picking up a work of non-fiction which O'Brian would surely have penned had Ford not beat him to it. Nautical exploration, harsh elements, shipwreck, the resourceful desperation of sailors, and above all natural philosophy: it's all there. And Mr. Ford's pen does excellent justice to all (he had a long-running column in Field & Stream; ah, for the days when outdoor sporting magazines cultivated writing of a caliber that can no longer be found in National Geographic). From the introductory chapter describing the Aleutians, the author's own experience:

The sun was setting; we watched it poise on the horizon and then slip out of sight as deftly as a conjurer's coin. A queer chuckling sound caught our ears, and we halted. A small dark-bodied bird, with white eyes and a crested topknot like a California quail, marched out from a crevice in the cliff and regarded us owlishly for a moment. Then he fluffed his feathers-- I could have sworn he shrugged-- and walked to the edge of a projecting rock, and pitched in a power dive toward the water. Through my glasses I saw him spread his wings and level off at the bottom of his descent, only a few inches from the surface of the ocean, and shoot out at right angles like a projectile from a gun.

He was followed by a steady succession of other birds, each in turn stepping out onto a rock and hurtling down in the same breathtaking leap. Some were crested auklets; some the absurd-looking least auklet, its big eyes surrounded by a few white bristles, giving the effect of plucked eyebrows; some the rare rhinoceros auklet with a tuft of feathers sprouting from its bill like a horn. The air was full of acrobatic birds, forming single lines and moving in long undulating ribbons below us, crisscrossing each other's paths, weaving in and out in graceful patterns, alternately light and dark as they turned in the air. Abruptly the show ended. At some inaudible signal, the ribbons wound upward to the top of the cliff, and with a roar like a waterfall the entire flock disintegrated overhead and landed all about us. One by one the gave us the same owlish look, shrugged again, and trudged back in to their burrows for the night.

Naturally, the narrative revolves around Steller. A young, ambitious man, a brilliant naturalist, he is very sympathetic while being frequently as insufferable as a Stendhal protagonist. The man had the enviable yet heartbreaking distinction of being the first trained naturalist to set eyes upon the northwest of the American continent, on Vitus Bering's epic voyage in 1741. Americans will most likely recognize his name in the Steller's Jay; he also lends his name to an eider, a sea lion and the spectacular Steller's Sea Eagle. Even more intriguing, he observed two highly unusual species which were never seen by a scientist again. Steller's Sea Cow was an enormous manatee dwelling in Alaskan waters, up to 35 feet long, 25 around and four tons in weight. Steller measured a specimen and found that its heart weighed 36 1/4 pounds and that its stomach was [Steller's words] "of amazing size, 6 feet long, 5 feet wide, and so stuffed with food and seaweed that four strong men with a rope attached could scarcely move it from its place and drag it out." Operating in a very different tradition of scientific observation than today's, and also under trying circumstances, to say the least, Steller also gave the following description of the animal:
[The fat was] glandular, firm, and shiny white, but when exposed to the sun takes on a yellowish tinge like May butter. Both the smell and the taste of it are most delicious, and it is beyond comparison with the fat of any marine animal... Melted, it tastes so sweet and delicious that we lost all desire for butter. In taste it comes pretty close to the oil of sweet almonds... The meat, when cooked, although it must boil rather long, is exceedingly savoury and cannot be distinguished easily from beef. The fat of the calves is so much like fresh lard that it is hard to tell them apart, but their meat differs in no wise from veal.
Small wonder that, after they had sustained Steller and his companions through an Aleutian winter, the sea cows were devoured every one by Russian fur traders. Steller's writings are the only record of the animal.

More mysterious still is Steller's Sea Monkey. In the naturalist's own words

"It was about two Russian ells [five feet] in length... the head was like a dog's, with pointed, erect ears. From the lower and upper lips on both sides whiskers hung down, which made it look almost like a Chinaman. The eyes were large; the body was longish, round and thick, tapering gradually toward the tail. The skin seemed thickly covered with hair, of a grey color on the back, but reddish white on the belly; in the water, however, the whole animal appeared red, like a cow. The tail was divided in to two fins, of which the upper, as in the case of sharks, was twice as large as the lower. Nothing struck me as more surprising than the fact that neither forefeet (as in the marine amphibians) nor, in their stead, fins were to be seen."

He was particularly impressed by "its wonderful actions, jumps, and gracefulness. For over two hours it swam around our ship, looking, as with admiration, first at the one and then at the other of us. At times it came so near to the ship that it could have been touched with a pole, but as soon as anybody stirred it moved a little farther. It could raise itself one-third of its length out of the water exactly like a man, and sometimes it remained in this position for several minutes. After it had observed us for about half an hour, it shot like an arrow under our vessel and came up again on the other side... in this way it dived perhaps thirty times. There drifted by a seaweed, club-shaped and hollow at one end like a bottle, toward which, as soon as it was sighted, the animal darted, seized it in its mouth, and swam with it toward the ship, making such motions and monkey tricks that nothing more laughable can be imagined. After many funny jumps and motions it finally darted off and did not appear again. It was seen later, however, several times in different places of the sea."

No one has any idea. The thing was never seen again, and were it any other observer one would question the account's reliability. But Steller was a seriously good observational scientist. All his other accounts of marine life hold up in retrospect, and he seems to have gotten quite a long and close look at the animal. What's a cryptozoologist to think? If the Russians ate them all, it was never deemed worthy of mention.

Of course, voyages of exploration are not generally lacking in Sturm und Drang, and Bering's voyage ranks high in the annals of human misery. Indeed, it's progress is emblematic of the phrase Worse things happen at sea. After sighting the sea monkey, the St. Peter was harried by desperate weather until it was finally wrecked on a desolate island, with a crew deep in the throes of scurvy. Despite all that had just happened at sea, what then happened on land is intensely harrowing:

...three sailors died as they were brought up on deck, and a fourth succumbed on the way to the beach... Conditions were not much better ashore. Driftwood for the underground huts had to be dragged a considerable distance, and the handful of men still able to work had not yet completed the shelters. The sick lay on the open beach under rags and bits of canvas, sometimes half buried by the drifting snow. When a man died, his comrades were too weak to remove the body, and it remained alongside the living. A night they could hear the foxes gnawing at the corpse.

"Everywhere on the shore there was nothing but pitiful and terrifying sights," Steller sympathized. "Some sick cried because they were so cold, others because hungry and thirsty, since the mouths of many were so miserably affected by the scurvy that they could not eat because of the great pain, as the gums were swollen like a sponge, brown-black, grown over the teeth and covering them." His previous contempt for his Russian shipmates was forgotten. Now, in their adversity, he worked tirelessly to minister to the needs of the crew, bringing them warm soups and antiscorbutic herbs and roots which he dug from the frozen ground.

From this situation, as hopeless as any in which humans find themselves, comes not only survival, but the irreplaceable scientific tour de force that is Steller's description of the sea cow. Why can't we make movies as amazing as this? Steller's biography puts any number of Hollywood epics to shame.

Also, his De Bestiis Marinis is available online.

My other recent read, which I will discuss at much shorter length, is Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides. Revolving around the biography of Kit Carson, it is also an account of the American settlement of the southwest and the Navajo experience of that settlement. Kit Carson is easy to vilify for his role in rounding up the Navajos, but the man was hardly a racist. His three marriages, for instance, were to an Arapaho, a Cheyenne and a New Mexico Spanish woman. Sides does an excellent job of not shying away from the brutal aspects of the American conquest while also avoiding excess of sentiment and hand wringing. What I like best about the book is Sides' ability to reveal the full strangeness of history, especially parts of American history which we too often take for granted. For instance, I had no idea that after Stephen Watts Kearny and his dragoons traveled from Santa Fe to invade California, they were met and nearly slaughtered by mounted Californians wielding nine-foot lances.

More regular blogging to come, I hope!

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

From Peculiar comes LOLTHULHU. My buttons are duly pressed.

What I really want, tho', is a LOL History of Rome.


O HAI iz u brutus


Tuesday, November 06, 2007

And how.

My Peculiar Aristocratic Title is:
Lord Odious the Surreptitious of Giggleswick under Table
Get your Peculiar Aristocratic Title
Peculiar! We forgot Archimedes!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Robots vs. pirates.
-it’s not as stupid, or unlikely, as it sounds. Piracy has exploded in the waters near Somalia, where this past week United States warships have fired on two pirate skiffs, and are currently in pursuit of a hijacked Japanese-owned vessel. At least four other ships in the region remain under pirate control, and the problem appears to be going global: The International Maritime Bureau is tracking a 14-percent increase in worldwide pirate attacks this year.


For years now, law enforcement agencies across the high seas have proposed robotic boats, or unmanned surface vessels (USVs), as a way to help deal with 21st-Century techno Black Beards. The Navy has tested at least two small, armed USV demonstrators designed to patrol harbors and defend vessels. And both the Navy and the Coast Guard have expressed interest in the Protector, a 30-ft.-long USV built by BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin and Israeli defense firm RAFAEL.
Anurans! The closest I've come to studying these critters was the raniform (i.e. batrachomorphic) mecha I designed for GearHead. I really must find some way to convey skin toxicity into the game.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

And another worthwhile read from Arts and Letters.
It is unfashionable to speak of national characteristics. Queasy types think it is akin to racism. But the truth is that nations are definably different. Most importantly, they differ in what they do best. No nation has produced better essayists than France, none has produced better composers that the Germans, better painters than the Italians, nor better novelists than the Russians. America invented jazz and still masters the form and, though some may dissent, her record in film is unsurpassed. And the English? The English do poetry.

Poetry has no serious contenders as the English national art. Ah, it is often said, but Shakespeare wrote plays. And so he did. But consider these plays. Hamlet is a weird drama made magnificent by a torrent of peerless poetry, and I have always thought of it as a long poem whose cosmic structure seems to pivot on the words “We defy augury”. Shakespeare is the greatest playwright on earth, but he is heaven’s poet. And the list of his poet-compatriots – Chaucer, Browning, Dryden, Wordsworth, Clare, Donne, Auden, Tennyson, Keats, Pope, Herbert, etc. etc. – closes the case. We are a nation defined by and consisting of poets. To deny this is to deny England.
I will just add that C. S. Lewis was quite right to contrast poetry with the other English profession: shopkeeping.

Also, Mr. Appleyard does not, to my taste, go back far enough. English poetry may be said, with more truth at least to my untrained and tone-deaf ears, to end with Chaucer rather than begin there. Perhaps he feels that poetry which is no longer more-or-less immediately recognizable is no longer English poetry, an opinion to which I am sympathetic. But I will take the Pearl over Auden's corpus any day.

Also, speaking as someone who has at certain times of his life put a great deal of effort into the writing of sonnets, I can only asperse, scorn, and detest that Italianate invention. Those "jangling stops", which Milton later makes a sign of Babel's curse, are hard.

Come to that, how can one go through an article on English poetry and not mention Milton? For all that Graves didn't like him, he remains one of the greatest English poets ever. We find him a bit distasteful these days, as a reminder of that vulgar time when the English possessed actual religious beliefs, but that is no indictment of his craft. This ignorance seems to be rather widespread. I remember wondering at it when several students asked a tutor what translation of Paradise Lost she favored.

I had in my youth a plan to translate Paradise Lost into Latin hexameters, and illustrate each book with woodcuts à la Doré. The only things stopping me were my utter ignorance of Latin, hexameters, and woodcuts.
Something more on the death of Socrates. Either the reviewer or the author is being too harsh to Xenophon's Socrates, who is not so mundane as he appears at first glance--at least, outside the Oeconomicus, where he is only a stock figure taking advice from someone suspiciously like Xenophon himself.

I will confess that I have always liked Xenophon better than Plato. He seems like a genial, well-bred sort of fellow who would share with you that dish of figs which Plato would gobble sans honte.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

A vocabulary game worth the candle. I can't seem to break 50.
Now Glam gathered up his strength and knit Grettir towards him when they came to the outer door; but when Grettir saw that he might not set his feet against that, all of a sudden in one rush he drave his hardest against the thrall's breast, and spurned both feet against the half-sunken stone that stood in the threshold of the door; for this the thrall was not ready, for he had been tugging to draw Grettir to him, therefore he reeled aback and spun out against the door, so that his shoulders caught the upper door-case, and the roof burst asunder, both rafters and frozen thatch, and therewith he fell open-armed aback out of the house, and. Grettir over him.

Bright moonlight was there without, and the drift was broken, now drawn over the moon, now driven from off her; and, even as Glam fell, a cloud was driven from the moon, and Glam glared up against her. And Grettir himself says that by that sight only was he dismayed amidst all that he ever saw.

Then his soul sank within him so, from all these things, both from weariness, and because he had seen Glam turn his eyes so horribly, that he might not draw the short-sword, and lay well-nigh 'twixt home and hell.

But herein was there more fiendish craft in Glam than in most other ghosts, that he spake now in this wise--

"Exceeding eagerly hast thou wrought to meet me, Grettir, but no wonder will it be deemed, though thou gettest no good hap of me; and this must I tell thee, that thou now hast got half the strength and manhood, which was thy lot if thou hadst not met me: now I may not take from thee the strength which thou hast got before this; but that may I rule, that thou shalt never be mightier than now thou art; and nathless art thou mighty enow, and that shall many an one learn. Hitherto hast thou earned fame by thy deeds, but henceforth will wrongs and manslayings fall on thee, and the most part of thy doings will turn to thy woe and ill-hap; an outlaw shalt thou be made, and ever shall it be thy lot to dwell alone abroad; therefore this weird I lay on thee, ever in those days to see these eyes with thine eyes, and thou wilt find it hard to be alone--and that shall drag thee unto death."

Now when the thrall had thus said, the astonishment fell from Grettir that had lain on him, and therewith he drew the short-sword and hewed the head from Glam, and laid it at his thigh.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

From Not To Go on Four Legs:

INTERVIEWER: So what is it like to spend years of your life working on a mathematical problem of this magnitude?

PROF. BARRA: My students have asked me that, and I have a rather elaborate metaphor, if you don't mind. It's like a dream in which you go to climb a rock pinnace. You can't see the top of it, and while you can plan your ascent from the bottom to some degree--I'll put my hand there and my foot there, and then I'll be able to reach there, and so forth--you can't really know how you can climb until you begin. And of course you don't really know what's at the top.

I: But you have an inkling.

B: Yes. You know something of the shape of the rock, and something about how you're going to climb it, and something about what you'll find at the top. But not very much! And as you climb, you can spend as much time examining each hand hold as you like. In fact, since it's a dream you have that peculiar ability to focus on one object to the exclusion of everything else, and you can see every detail perfectly. That object can become your whole world, and it's easy to forget about the rest of the climb.

I: What about the climb?

B: Well, if you can keep a memory of where you're headed, you just keep finding these holds. They can be as tenuous as you want, as long as they'll support you. It's just a question of finding a new hold and moving a little bit further every time. Of course you can get stuck!

I: And then what?

B: Well, you can try to climb down a bit and find a new path. Or you can try to carve out a hand hold. But sometimes you fall. Of course the only thing that happens if you fall is that you wake up. Nobody has ever died of an unproved theorem.* But I'm sure you know how hard it can be get back to a dream after you've awoken....
*Does Archimedes count, do you think? μή μου τούς κύκλους τάραττε and all that.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Further developments in inimical technology.
Ark Trading Inc, an Osaka-based trading company, has started selling the NANDA Clocky, an innovative alarm clock that runs and hides from its sleepy owners as they attempt to turn it off.
Is this the sort of behavior we really want to encourage in our fledgling AIs?
Knights Templar rehabilitated? First off, now I need a new "K".
Despite his conviction that the Templars were not guilty of heresy, in 1312 Pope Clement ordered the Templars disbanded for what Frale called "the good of the Church" following his repeated clashes with the French king.

Frale depicted the trials against the Templars between 1307 and 1312 as a battle of political wills between Clement and Philip, and said the document means Clement's position has to be reappraised by historians.
I don't care what anyone says, I've seen the severed head of Baphomet myself.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Hypocrisy is the most difficult and nerve-racking vice that any man can pursue; it needs an unceasing vigilance and a rare detachment of spirit. It cannot, like adultery or gluttony, be practised at spare moments; it is a whole-time job.
W. Somerset Maugham, Cakes and Ale

Monday, October 15, 2007

Shake, whimper, writhe and moan,
Claim the Spirit for thine own,
'Gainst Petran authority shake tiny fists,
Revolting heretic and MONTANIST.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

A marker for myself, but perhaps you'll find it useful: The World History Bulletin.

Friday, October 12, 2007

When it doesn't work. One of the duties I have at work is the organizing of benefits. I make gift baskets; talk on the phone with desperate folks from local schools and charities; and I organize fund raisers. The latest of these took the form of a barbeque. We were to cook burgers and sell them outside the store to raise money for a worthy cause, I don't remember what.

I usually get to work about two hours before the rest of my crew, so I had an enjoyable morning to myself setting things up. I like the quiet space of prep. No one is asking me what to do, which is pleasant; no one is telling me what to do, which is ecstasy. I wheeled out our large portable grill, prepared patties, got condiments, and generally set things up so that everything was as easy as possible when Myra and Olive (pseudonyms!) arrived.

Now, I generally prefer a "hands-off" style of management. I like to see organization emerge organically from experience, and give as little guidance as possible. I like to think of this as an exercise in a fruitful, Jeffersonian anarchy. The CEO once called it a "total lack of any actual management."

So when Myra and Olive arrived, I showed them the setup. I gave them a rundown on what we were doing, where everything was, and I gave Olive (competent) the grilling to do, and Myra (less so) the job of taking orders and money. They settled in, our volunteers from the charity arrived and I greeted them, and then I vanished to the office to glare at spreadsheets for a time.

After half an hour of computer screen and fluorescent lights, I needed to get outside. What I found there was Myra, chatting about the global warming crisis while Olive...well, Olive was invisible behind an enormous cloud of smoke. Customers were lined up behind Myra's interlocutor, tapping their feet and looking at their watches. Parts of the grill were on fire that ought not to be. Acrid, greasy smoke drifted at eye level throughout the area. The volunteers looked panicked.

I came up behind Olive and tapped her shoulder. She turned around, tears in her eyes from frustration and smoke. "My grill," I said. Then, "Myra!"

Myra is not used to being spoken to this way. Our department is laid-back, relaxed, and generally indolent. It suits her well.

"Myra!" I say. "Take the order. When you take the order, you tell me what it is. You wait until I repeat it back to you, then you take the next order. Got it?"

Myra hasn't got it. She asks the global warming enthusiast what he wants. He wants a burger. She looks at me. "You heard that," she says. I stare. I'm trying for baleful and reptilian. "Hamburger?" she says.

"Hamburger up!" I shout, making one volunteer jump. "One hamburger all day!" Then, sotto, "Olive, would you get me some salt?"

Myra slowly learns how to take an order, and the line begins to shorten. She announces the order, I shout it back and throw meat at the fire. The salt puts out the grease fire, although I know I'm going to smell of it for the rest of the day. My eyes and nose are running, and I don't have time to wipe them--I'd need to stop to wash my hands, after. Olive goes inside to recover from smoke inhalation. I'm angry at Myra for being useless and at Olive for being weak and at the volunteers for being feckless and the customers for being there. And then I get it.

This is all my fault. I have given no guidance to anyone about how to work this sort of event, assuming that they would simply work it out themselves. I'm angry at me. Where I could have had a smooth, efficient, happy event, now I've got a nasty, back-breaking drudge that will fall apart without me. This is not the soulful machine that food service can be. This is food service Hell, and as the only person with an experience in the business, I had a duty to show them how to avoid this. Which duty I promptly disdained. Olive was crying and Myra is angry and the charity has lost money because of my sloth.

Well, it turns out to be Purgatory, since the torment ends. As the lunch rush slows, Olive returns to the grill. Myra has a new appreciation for the methodology of the thing (Myra takes well to rules once they have been established). We make money. I feel confident enough to go back inside.

I still check on them every ten minutes, though.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

In Chitral there is another legendary creature, the "glacier frog." It is about the size of a calf, has the shape of a frog, and lives in glacier crevasses. What it lives on, nobody seems to know. Many people who claim to have seen one, usually indistinctly silhouetted against the background of a crevasse, maintain that its head and back were encrusted with gold and diamonds...

[There follows an account of how to obtain treasure from a diamond-hoarding cobra.]

The Islamic Chitralis were more down to earth. They had little use for rites and incantations; to capture a glacier frog, more drastic measures were necessary. A smith, who was a shrewd enough businessman to have earned enough money to buy himself a truck, suggested we should go into partnership: He would make the right kind of fishhook, and if I managed to catch a glacier frog with it, we should go fifty-fifty on the proceeds. To avoid losing face and appearing a complete sucker, I stuck out for a bigger share for myself; after all, it was I who was exposing myself to the perils of frog fishing. But for some reason or other our scheme never came off. Nevertheless, I was very grateful to the glacier frog. In those days the Chitralis were still backwoodsmen, so to speak, and had nothing of the Sherpas' experience of anything so crazy as mountaineering. To the Chitralis I was an inexplicable phenomenon and was consequently viewed with mistrust. But once the news got around that I was aftera glacier frog, they gave me enthusiastic support.

From Himalaya by Herbert Tichy, 1968
A glimpse into my reading habits.
Emily to Sue, April 1864
Dear Sinai do'nt be angry--the Crickets are sorry for their Chirping--Lord what a noise the Wind made too--Vesuvius a'nt nothing to it....

Vinnie to Austin, April? 1864
...[torn] bursts into the house and races to Emilie's room and then I hear "G-d d-mn you Billy Collins get your hands off her" and Carlo barking and down comes C[ollins] clutching his trousers and D[avis] right after waving a horse whip and a [illegible]....

Sue to Austin, April? 1864
...I cannot get a sensible word from E she says that she is a wife without the Sign and wo'nt stop talking in Capitals about bees and gentians and I know not what.... Please bring back two dozen pearl buttons as Emilie's [illegible] has had them all torn off I am sure I do'nt know what to do....

Emily to Sue, April? May? 1864
Dearest North Wind tell Brother not to Scowl so at me from afar--I am not so Quick as he fears--and I know that Honor is its own Pawn--and the World has another Lamp when the Soul is shuttered.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

You can see me over at Querencia after a ratting expedition. Someday I will visit that blog without adding to my list of Things to Read.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Brandon over at Siris has (had, for I am slow) a post about a number of things, but the one closest to my heart is the rough treatment Xenophon receives. I think the reasons he gives are accurate, but not complete. I think that one major reason Xenophon is disparaged as Plato is praised is that Xenophon's Socrates is much more human--and that he dies a more human death, for a more human reason.

Preface: I wish I had my books. This is from hazy memory. But Xenophon's Socrates is very far from a Platonist. He goes so far as to claim that nothing is "good", but that things are only good for something. And in his death he remains far from the unyieldingly philosophic, truth-seeking Socrates of the Phaedo.

In the Phaedo, we see an unrepentant Socrates declaring that the philosopher is constantly practising death, and so should not fear it when it comes. He has chosen to die rather than to cease his eternal questioning, and his last words, "Crito, we must sacrifice a cock to Asclepius; see to it, and do not forget," are positively heroic. I will here admit that I get choked up every time I read it, and indeed whenever I think about it.*

This is the philosopher at his best, facing death, unafraid and cheerful and resolute. And I think the myth has especial resonance for lovers of philosophy, since so few philosopher were anything like heroic in this same manner. Who else in the history of philosophy dies this way? To whom shall we look for another such example of living the philosophic life? Whether from lack of need or opportunity (charitably), or courage or conviction (un-), no one else has made so clear a choice between such stark alternatives. When we consider the... less respectable life of a Nietzsche or a Heidegger or even a Kant, it becomes obvious just how far above these lives Socrates' was. And so philosophers, not otherwise noted for living well (however fairly or unfairly), can always point to Socrates.

Xenophon, however, rips this story away. His Socrates chooses death not because of some refusal to compromise his skeptic's integrity (although his innocence is a confort to him), but because he is old. His faculties are failing, and to avoid this he thinks it better to die than to suffer this indignation. The heroic Socrates of the Phaedo is replaced with the merely human Socrates of the Memorabilia, and the only really philosophic death among the great philosophers is replaces with an early form of euthanasia.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Wilbur Scoville, famed for his "Scoville Organoleptic Test", was in 1931 awarded the Haleburg Company Exciting Foods Competition prize for "Best rendition of heated meat slurry".

Friday, September 14, 2007

Still on the farm, harvest has been crazy but is beginning to mellow somewhat. The toads, alas, are becoming scarcer, and surely this is the deepest root of all autumn melancholy.

The harvest rolls on apace, however. Our compost heap is full of beautiful tomatoes and melons such as you cannot purchase in stores. The tomatoes especially are a heartbreak: gorgeous striped psychedelic orange and yellow ones, which also happen to be especielly delicious, sit rotting in the soil. Sic transit gloria. We simply do not have time to preserve any substantial number. Mrs. Peculiar has been successfully sun-drying a few, however, so perhaps we'll have some fond memories of September come winter.

If one were growing crops for survival, cucurbits would seem a good horse to back. Our summer squash and cucumbers are appallingly prolific. They do require a measure of tolerance for creeping, crescent, Lovecraftian vegetable horror, though. I'm fairly convinced that if left alone for a week, many of our plants' arms would become mobile and prehensile, sprout suckers and reveal a snapping beak in the middle. It is still far too warm; a frost would bring great peace of mind. Our edamame, on the other hand, merit much praise. Our farmer saved seed he acquired in Japan, and the things are friendly, easy to harvest and carry, actually seem like they enjoy being domesticated. If only more crops desired happy symbiosis instead of despotic overlordship!

In personal news, it looks very like Delta County, Colorado will be our long-term home. Mrs. Peculiar landed laudable employment at a cider mill/distillery (there's success for you!!) in Paonia, and we have found housing. We are quite pleased.

Friday, September 07, 2007

I was much lost in Portland, whirling around various labyrinthine streets, when I came across a sign that chilled my very marrow: Lovecraft Biofuels. How pleased I am to learn it was not a joke. Ia!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Okay, naturalists. Can any of you identify these to bugs for me? the first was found last week on a green bean plant in Hotchkiss, CO, about 5,300':

The second is this larva in the central Idaho mountains, July 21, about 3,400':


While I'm online, here are a couple shots from our mountains last week:

You're The Guns of August!

by Barbara Tuchman

Though you're interested in war, what you really want to know is what
causes war. You're out to expose imperialism, militarism, and nationalism for what they
really are. Nevertheless, you're always living in the past and have a hard time dealing
with what's going on today. You're also far more focused on Europe than anywhere else in
the world. A fitting motto for you might be "Guns do kill, but so can

Take the Book Quiz
Haven't read it, but the result doesn't sound too implausible.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Heaven does ten thousand things for man. Yangtze dolphin declared extinct.
This is no ordinary extinction of the kind that occurs frequently in a world of millions of still-evolving species. The Yangtze freshwater dolphin was a remarkable creature that separated from all other species so many millions of years ago, and had become so distinct, that it qualified as a mammal family in its own right. It is the first large vertebrate to have become extinct for 50 years and only the fourth entire mammal family to disappear since the time of Columbus, when Europeans began their colonisation of the world.
Not the sort of thing we can breed back.

UPDATE: Hurrah!

Friday, August 03, 2007

A little more photo-blogging. First, an action shot from the iddle Fork of the Salmon. The rapid, Lake Creek, formed only a few years ago when soil loosened by the 2000 fires flowed into the river. The rapid has changed substantially every year, and this year it has a tree in the main current. The ideal run would be rather farther from the tree. An oarstand was harmed in the making of this photo:

A scenic, also from the Middle Fork:

Finally, a shot which begins to convey a faint idea of the most dramatic sandstone erosion I've ever seen. The location is in northeastern Utah, and doesn't need extra publicity. The genuinely interested can no doubt sniff it out on their own.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

AfriGadget. I particularly like the windmills. And the bicycle/grindstone.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Taking down a sperm whale by hand.

Via Deep Sea News, of course. There's video, too, as well as another giant squid!

Update: Boy, turns out it's whale day. Via Chas, apparently whales can live a jolly long time.

To return to somewhat more elevated themes, we're having a very nice time with the Odiouses and their numerous animals. And it turns out, despite myriad indications to the contrary, that if one perseveres westward through Oregon, there is indeed a very large body of water at its edge. Odious and I went there yesterday, where we were entertained by many obliging birds, old growth trees, waves and waterfalls.


Vocalizing indignation:


Surf crow:

The pelicans were reluctant to be photographed, but the anemones had little choice:

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Notes from the Road

We're in Oregon with Mr. and Mrs. Odious now, and quite a time it was getting here. Our car ran hot up through Wyoming, and when we took it to a dealership in Bozeman, MT (mistake, I know), we were brusquely and unhelpfully informed that it had a bad head gasket and required a $1,900.00 repair. Inasmuch as two grand would be very ill-spent on an '88 Subaru with 225,000 miles, we sought a second opinion. A much more helpful mechanic quoted us $900 for the gasket and the likelihood of a warped head and sundry related irritations. A 50% improvement for driving a quarter-mile wasn't bad progress, but we were referred to a man down the road who ran a Subaru junkyard. After gleefully wasting an hour of shop time idly telling us about Subarus' general qualities, he strongly advised us not to mess with the head in any way, guaranteed to be cracked, can of worms. "What you need is a new radiator." Turns out Subaru radiators only hold a quart of fluid when new; ours was probably down to less than a pint to cool four cylinders pulling a very heavy little load. He put in a new used radiator in an hour (Happy Birthday, my sweet wife!), and spiked it with a tablespoon or so of black pepper, a trick of Alaskan motorists that allegedly seals minor coolant leaks. We took a test spin up Bozeman Pass, 70 mph, passing semis, A/C running, better than it's driven in years. Total bill: barely over $100. Competence is so satisfying to witness these days.

Mrs. Peculiar a few thrills on the drive, sights formerly never seen. She saw her first really enormous, torrential waterfall in Wyoming, and not long after she saw her first mountain goat near Beartooth Pass:

And some days later, we both stumbled upon the much-recounted delight of the annual demolition derby in Salmon, Idaho. Tales of the legendary intermission event have been related for years, but most people assume that such doings cannot happen in our time. In eastern Idaho, however, legends remain.

Pinky, the moral victor, off to an inauspicious start:

But demo derbies, though always laudable, are common enough. The particular pleasure of Salmon's event comes halfway through, with a contest wherein local teeneagers may show their heroism. Two boys to a motorcycle: one drives, one wears a balloon taped to his helmet and wields a bat. The rest should be obvious.

Though plastic bats seemed to be regulation, a couple weapons on the field did not look so plastic. Three separate fistfights broke out, and the contest at last came down to two teams whose disqualification was somehow not justified.

When the derby proper resumed, Pinky proved remarkably tough, somehow surviving several heats and assuming an ever more accordian-like form. He did not win, but he was definitely the first car into Valhalla.

Friday, June 29, 2007

...Nessun maggior dolore
che ricordarsi del tempo felice
ne la Missouria...

Apologies. But 'twas apt: I recently journeyed from this:

to this:

Fortunately, I also returned again, sorry though I was to travel home without a single Dolly Parton lollypop, which I initially took for a succubus with burning eyes and bleeding nipples. Many other marvels and wonders also remain unvisited. Very sad indeed were we to decline a kind Ozark invitation to light our fireworks at a big cat refuge on the Fourth, surely an ideal venue for pyrotechnic revelry.

We did however enjoy some truly excellent tapas in Dallas, and had a delightful stay with Reid, who assures me that there are some really wonderful river floats to be had in Missouri. And the flight from the midwest to Denver was oddly delightful. One passes dreamlike over the clutching effusion of greenery that is east Texas, through a Euclidean hallucination of square acreages and trigonometric circle-pivot fields, into the dendritic fractal landscape of eastern Colorado's slowly eroding plains, at last reaching the Wagnerian welcome of the Rockies.

In Montana at the moment, and off to Oregon and Odious tomorrow, on the wings of newly-installed used radiator (Mrs. Peculiar's birthday present). Blogging next from there, in the best of company.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Badgers? Badgers? We don't need. Anyway. This fellow has it about right.
I’ve just heard the latest news
I’m not impressed and I’m nae amused
They say if I want my kilt to use
I’m going to need a licence

Let the wind blow high, let the wind blow low,
Through the streets in my kilt I'll go,
And all the lassies shout hello
Donald, where’s your licence?
Hey there laddie, got a licence for that thing?

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Where's Athanasius when you need him? From Tinkerty-tonk, "I am both Muslim and Christian":
Shortly after noon on Fridays, the Rev. Ann Holmes Redding ties on a black headscarf, preparing to pray with her Muslim group on First Hill.

On Sunday mornings, Redding puts on the white collar of an Episcopal priest.

She does both, she says, because she's Christian and Muslim.
And also because she doesn't understand why exactly the Arians cheesed off the church so much.

In truth, this is exactly the sort of thing that cheeses me off, too. A refusal to deal with the hard questions...
Redding doesn't feel she has to resolve all the contradictions. People within one religion can't even agree on all the details, she said. "So why would I spend time to try to reconcile all of Christian belief with all of Islam?

"At the most basic level, I understand the two religions to be compatible. That's all I need."
...and use our God-given reason to deal with the logical incompatibilities of these faiths. I honestly don't understand this refusal to examine one's beliefs. As with Old Father William, I certainly acknowledge that there comes a time when any inquiry must practically end. But I would argue that this contradiction is far from that point. This is just intellectual laziness.

I will also note that, as an Episcopal priest, she doubtless confesses the Nicene Creed at least weekly. Which, as one might note, mentions Jesus Christ as "the only Son of God", not, as Rev. Redding would have it, that "Jesus is the son of God insofar as all humans are the children of God, and that Jesus is divine, just as all humans are divine — because God dwells in all humans."

I really need to get to work on my quatrains.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Plasma rocket!
Scientists in Costa Rica have run a plasma rocket engine continuously for a record of more than four hours, the latest achievement in a mission to cut costs and travel time for spacecraft.

The Ad Astra Rocket Company, led by Costa Rican-born former

NASA astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz, said on Wednesday it hopes to use its rocket engines to stabilize space stations in a few years, and then to power a trip to Mars within two decades.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Two worthy tidbits from the execrably authored The Wandering Scholars by Helen Waddell:
Han Yu, whose friends washed their hands in rose water before opening the manuscript of his poems... rid his province of a large and pestiferous crocodile by addressing to it a written censure, committed to the river along with a pig and a goat, a censure still regarded as a model of Chinese prose composition
Puts one in mind of the incident in Eyrbyggja Saga when a malignant ghost is exorcised by bringing a formal Icelandic legal action against it.

Secondly, wise words from the Latin poet Ausonius:

...for it is outrageous that a strictly abstemious reader should sit in judgement on a poet rather drunk.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Two Snapshots of Aspen, Colorado

Overheard beside a store front displaying a very nice array of ammonite fossils: "Oh look! Petroglyphs!"

On a store front: "Dog & Cat Boutique" "25% Off Cashmere"

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Women in art. E. R. Eddison would flip his wig.
Crochet Yoda.

Via Alice.
Occasionally tuna mania overtakes an auction. Hiroyasu Ito, the president of Chuo Gyorui, the biggest of the wholesalers and auction houses in terms of sales volume, tells me of a January morning in 1999 when an Oma tuna came to auction through his firm. It appeared to be the perfect tuna, a vision of true kata.

Ito-san remembers that the auction started modestly at ¥9,000, or about 75 bucks, per kilo. "And then ¥10,000, ¥20,000, ¥30,000, and ¥40,000. And then three men wanted that tuna very badly." The bidding among them escalated furiously. "At ¥50,000 per kilo, one of them gave up." The remaining two continued to compete. "Ninety thousand, and then ¥100,000 was the last."

The tuna weighed 200 kilos. At ¥100,000 per kilo, the possessed bidder had paid ¥20 million—the equivalent of more than $170,000—for a fish whose parceled meat could never recoup that amount.

"Big loss, big loss."
So worth it.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Mercy, the largest goat, has just had triplets! Our naming tradition is that goats are called for virtues we wish them to possess; my votes are for Candor, Pudor, and Eustochia.

UPDATE: Prudence has had twins. Thoughts?

Friday, May 25, 2007

Checking In

A few images from our recent travels and environs, viz. a small farm on Colorado's west slope.

An excellent roadside attraction (you can feed them like ducks):

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison:

A Roguelike creation tutorial.
In this tutorial we will look at the process of making a really simple (yet really cool) RPG dungeon using ASCII art (letters, numbers and symbols [^$%&()”$:@~}{P<>] put together to make pictures).

The game will be inspired heavily by an old freeware ASCII RPG called Rogue that, despite being a bit basic on the graphics front, was perhaps one of the most fondly remembered games I’ve ever played… In fact one of the top on my list of games I’d love to have made…
It's for C++.
If you ever want a demonstration of the inevitable failure of Maxwell's Demon, try getting two chickens out the garden gate while denying entrance to the rest.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Man er ikke rigtig sømand før man har sejlet på det Røde Hav. You are not a real sailor before you've sailed the Red Sea.
In which I destroy Western Civilization. We all have our faults, and mine is being wicked obsession with roguelike games, among others less mentionable. A roguelike game is, of course, a game which is like Rogue. You are a brave amphora, sent forth into dungeons (generally) to slay monsters (generally) and gather treasure (always). Rogue spawned a host of imitators, most much better than the original. NetHack is probably the best known; I cut my roguelike teeth on Moria, illicitly installed on my school's computers.

So many games have followed in Rogue's ASCII footprints because, foremost, Rogue is fun. There's a lot of re-playability in the random generation of each level, treasure, and swing of the possible sword. Also, they are easy to create. There's a quasi-annual contest called the Seven Day Roguelike, in which various developers create a playable game in a week. If yours truly can write a sorta kinda maybe workable game, anybody can.

But even with such randomness within each game, the genre was growing stale. Crawl and ADoM are both excellent, innovative games--but if you've seen an white @ bump a red D for 2d6 damage once, you've seen it enough. GearHead took Rogue and added giant robots. I am firmly of the belief that giant robots make anything better, and this is no exception. But lately only one game has haunted my days and chilled my dreaming nights: Dwarf Fortess.

Dwarf Fortress lets you command a scrappy, half-trained band of dwarves out to form a new colony, delve deep into the mountains, and discover things better left undisturbed. The controls are not particularly intuitive, and you'll probably find that the first ten games or so are lost to some freak of the rules you didn't know (like "don't tease the mandrills" or "if you put that floodgate there you will drown" or "yes, dwarves do need to sleep"). One grits one's teeth are recites the mantra of the developer: Losing is Fun.

And by some intellectual sport of nature, it is. The first time your dwarves correctly take out the garbage, you'll cheer. They make friends, and pets, and take lovers. You control a great deal of their lives, but never them directly. They will disobey when they want; take a smoke break; get angry and break things; wander off; go mad. But they'll also build a surprisingly functional little community, if you guide them.

Anyway, if you are the compulsive type, as am I, I cannot discommend this game more. Prepare to lose sleep over it, wondering if your carpenter needs mangrove, specifically, or if any decent wood will do. If your Hammerlords can hold off the kobold archers until those useless Marksdwarves can get from the barracks to the Great Gate. If your sparkling stained glass window and elaborate sculpture garden will stop your dwarves from needing to go outside, where the elephants are waiting. Oh, Axe and Maul and Hammer, the elephants.