Sunday, January 28, 2007


Today was, in the Orthodox church, the feast of St. Isaac the Syrian. St. Isaac is often best remembered for his description of the Merciful Heart:

What is a merciful heart? It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for all that exists... For this reason, such a person offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm her or him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner such a person prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns with without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God.
Emphasis mine. Yes, gentle readers, you are today exhorted to entertain tender thoughts even for the reptiles. In the German fashion, Schlangestag seems a good appelation for such a holiday. Do something generous for a reptile you know! Reptile may here be understood to include amphibians, cephalopods, echinoderms, crustaceans, xenarthrans and underappreciated taxa generally. If you're very charitable and qualified, you might even adopt a reptile.
"Scientists operating with the best of intentions, using the best tools at their disposal, have taught us to look at food in a way that has diminished our pleasure in eating it while doing little or nothing to improve our health."

A fine piece of writing by Michael Pollan (from the N.Y. Times, but available to us unregistered paeons as of this post) on "nutritionism", dietary fads, dubious science and the generally problematic nature of the way our culture approaches food. To summarize his advice:

1) Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.

2) Avoid even those food products that come bearing health claims.

3) Especially avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable c) more than five in number — or that contain high-fructose corn syrup.

4) Get out of the supermarket whenever possible.

5) Pay more, eat less. [Much elaborated upon.]

6) Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.

7) Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians. Or the Greeks.

8) Cook.

9) Eat like an omnivore.

Seems like good advice to me. Personally, however, I'm holding out for a study that says seldom descending below 9,000 feet will impart Confucian sagacity together with stevedore virility. I may have to conduct my own experiments, though.

One more fact of interest from the article: "The American Heart Association charges food makers for their endorsement." Think about that during your next CPR class.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


For anyone skilled at sewing, there exists a pattern for a stuffed kiwa hirsuta toy, better known as the Yeti Crab.

For anyone with a serious interest in photography, here is probably the best photography blog I've run across, by a gentleman in Alberta. He discusses the whole nine yards: technical matters, composition, inspiration, practicalities, selling work. Makes me want to shoot more.

For anyone interested in Iranian mountaineering, here's a good trip report describing what it's like. Interestingly, the author's guide was an Iranian Jew who left and later returned because he missed Iran's mountains (which if you don't already know, are bigger than anything in the lower 48). Of course, anyone interested in these things at all had better see Grass, the 1925 documentary by Merian C. Cooper (King Kong), following the migration of a tribe of 50,000 Bakhtiari nomads across flooding rivers and over a 12,000-foot pass. Detractors claimed he staged it all in the San Joaquin valley; I don't think so. God, I'd like to go to that country! Preferably without joining the Marine Corps.

Finally, here's a landscape looking west from the Sangre de Cristos during a brief break in storms last weekend. The mountains breaking through the clouds in the distance are the Jemez Range, and the cloud carpet looks to be at about 8,000 feet. This winter's been a thrill in new Mexico; should have bought snowshoes this fall!

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Byzantine Musical Notation...

is a serious contender for the title of Most Complicated Thing Ever. Don't believe me? Take a look. If you're intrigued, have a look at the 106 Rules for interpreting such music. We didn't get the adjective byzantine from nowhere! You know you're in for a ride when Rule #2 begins "Exceptions to rule #1: a) A petastē is used instead of a psēfistón if..."

Friday, January 19, 2007

R.I.P Brad Washburn, mountaineer, cartographer, genuine explorer. Dr. Hypercube beat me to it, and said most of what I would want to say. For my thoughts on the passing of the last generation of true explorers (pace Deep Sea News, who do indeed explore some truly wonderful places), please revisit last years post commemorating the death of Heinrich Harrer.

And while we're on the subject, please raise a glass to my father, who fell in the Tetons 16 years ago today. Some day a post on him will come, but not until I can scan the photo of him collecting a bounty on rats from the Chi-Coms.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Late, late, late. If I had a large gold pocketwatch, I would be nervously checking it right now. I meant to link to and comment on Darren Naish's post on dinosauroids at, y'know, a reasonably short remove from its posting. Apparently time will not form my inner intuition appropriately for that. It is, of course, worth reading for its own lights.
No, post-Cretaceous maniraptorans wouldn’t end up looking like scaly tridactyl plantigrade humanoids with erect tailless bodies. They would be decked out with feathers and brightly coloured skin ornaments; have nice normal horizontal bodies and digitigrade feet; long, hard, powerful jaws; stride around on the savannah kicking the shit out of little mammals; and in the evenings they would stand together in the trees, booming out a duet of du du du-du, a deep noise that would reverberate for miles around.
All I wanted to add was a nod towards John McLoughlin's Toolmaker Koan, which is, as one might guess from the title, an attempt to figure out why an intelligent species might blow the hell out of itself, and how to stop it (us). But the humans in it encounter a charming dinosauroid race, the wheelin, which are divided into racial castes. The caste our humans most encounter is a sort of diplomat/hunter type, whose group hunts are as intricately choreographed as any ballet, and correspond most closely, perhaps, to human poetry. They're appropriately shaped, they come off as realistically alien yet evolutionarily reasonable, mentally, and although certain portions of the books have been Overtaken by Events, I can recommend it without reservation.

If I had my books I would quote a relevant passage. If I had my books. Indeed, I'm only getting to post this now because of the lovely weather out here, so I suppose I should count my blessings.
An inordinate fondness for beetles. Spinning enzymes got me thinking about J. B. S. Haldane, the source of the title of this post. A long time back I had a dim recollection of a pleasant essay of his about the sizes of creatures; well, Internet, consider yourself temporarily redeemed, since you did produce it.
Let us take the most obvious of possible cases, and consider a giant man sixty feet high - about the height of Giant Pope and Giant Pagan in the illustrated Pilgrim's progress of my childhood. These monsters were not only ten times as high as Christian, but ten times as wide and ten times as thick, so that their total weight was a thousand times his, or about eighty to ninety tons. Unfortunately the cross sections of their bones were only a hundred times those of Christian, so that every square inch of giant bone had to support ten times the weight borne by a square inch of human bone. As the human thigh-bone breaks under about ten times the human weight, Pope and Pagan would have broken their thighs every time they took a step. This was doubtless why they were sitting down in the picture I remember. But it lessens ones respect for Christian and Jack the Giant Killer.
Be so good as to ignore the "About the Author" bit at the end, would you? Who writes these things?

Monday, January 15, 2007

That's edutainment.
The RCSB PDB provides a variety of tools and resources for studying the structures of biological macromolecules and their relationships to sequence, function, and disease.

The RCSB is a member of the wwPDB whose mission is to ensure that the PDB archive remains an international resource with uniform data.

This site offers tools for browsing, searching, and reporting that utilize the data resulting from ongoing efforts to create a more consistent and comprehensive archive.
I for one spent far too long spinning enzymes, on my employer's unwitting dollar.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Dawn today on the New Mexico high plains, with a long volcanic dyke running toward Ortiz Mountain. (Click to enlarge.)

Thursday, January 11, 2007

From Siris comes an Illustrated History of Chinese Siege Warfare, as well as the best summation of the Mohists I've come across: "advocating the value of universal benevolence and catapults." If I had my books I would be able to bring up a piece that were left out of the guide, the name of which escapes me at the moment, but which spat fire, lead, and poison (which always seemed like overkill (rimshot) to me) at the unfortunate target.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Speaking of, 'hem, art, those so inclined may enjoy this televised performance of John Cage's 4'33". We are treated to nothing less than the full orchestral arrangement, the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican; and if the credits are to be, er, credited, there is even a piano soloist. Gavin Bryars conducting. The piece of course has widely varying effects depending on the performance venue, and as the earnest and genial announcer points out, the possibility of experiencing the work at home opens up whole new realms of interpretation, a wonderful example of serendipitous synergy between technological progress and classical performance. My personal take is that the home venue enormously augments the humoresque character of the piece, an aspect of 4'33" that I had not heretofore appreciated in quite this fashion. This effect is, however, largely dependent upon the studio audience's general obliviousness (or affectation thereof) to precisely the aforementioned humoresque facet of the piece.

I hope I may one day experience a true dream performance of the work, which I believe might involve the non-orchestral participation of renowned critics-as-artists Tom Servo and Crow.

(Thanks to Languagehat.)

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Are any modern artists not complete bastards? The buffoonish chappy Italian/Dane in the link wants to dye the summit of Mont Blanc red to protest pollution in the Alps. If he really cares about the environmental issue, surely there are any number of productive activities he might pursue; these would likely not, however, generate the same publicity as a massive eyesore. I'm sorry, this is not Andy Goldsworthy, it is plain egotism. if you were wondering, the "artist's" curriculum vitae includes defacing an iceberg, and, oh yes, he's the complete bastard that put live goldfish in a blender and claimed it was art. Shouldn't a real artist be able to actually produce art, not just graffiti and damage? Why can't he just mock Mahomet like the good Danes? If French mountaineers attack him with piolets and crampons, is it art?

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

"When it comes to Chinese composers, I prefer Puccini."

Jay Nordlinger has a review of Tan Dun's new opera The First Emperor, currently at the Met with Domingo. John Derbyshire has related thoughts, and I too wonder why sinofascism is currently considered cool. All things considered, it sounds like one to miss, though it does sound a cut above Madame Mao.

Look what I missed by being in Oklahoma for Christmas: Film of a live Architeuthis!