Monday, February 26, 2007

Going straight to the sidebar: Strange Maps, which is a blog entirely unconflicted about its mission. Thanks to Dr. Hypercube.
Ever wonder what Saturday morning cartoons are like if you're a North Korean? Wonder no more. And there's more where that came from, including highly militarized propoganda films. Courtesy of (who else?) Lileks.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Saturday, February 24, 2007

I had the good fortune to stumble across Roger Scruton's Gentle Regrets. It has the unusual virtue of being the sort of book I might recommend to anyone: either it will be usefully vexing, or it will give one such a shock of recognition that one will be kicked out of the sitting room for reading too many passages aloud. My response was the latter, as you may have guessed.

"The works of our culture were not mysterious to us, but merely deep, in the way that the face of a mother is deep to the eyes of her child." Or, "I suppose that underlying that sense of loss is the permanent belief that what has been lost can also be recaptured -- not necessarily as it was when it first slipped from our grasp, but as it will be when consciously regained and remodelled, to reward us for the toil of separation through which we are condemned by our original transgression. That belief is the romantic core of conservatism, as you find it -- very differently expressed -- in Burke and Hegel, in Coleridge, Ruskin, Dostoevsky, and T. S. Eliot."

I might add that that sense of loss is the reason I adore Epictetus and consider Marcus Aurelius not worth re-reading. And there were other moments of amazed discovery. For example, he and I favored the same reagents for our exothermic experimentation: "I was an accomplished fouler of the nest, and used my knowledge of chemistry to blow up small but significant parts of the school facilities with chlorate bombs and nitrogen tri-iodide."

I never inflicted any damage on my school, desire it as I did, and the only time we were ever truly evacuated was due to some picric acid someone had let dry. But a certain number of blasts and bangs could be heard in the forest behind my house, c. 1989-1997.

These chemical effusions children are so given to form their characters inimitably. A steady hand, a cool eye, grace under pressure, the ability to move quickly, and the stoicism to dig out the shrapnel and treat the burns oneself: these qualities are what make the boys and girls of today into the men and women of tomorrow. And should we lose a few -- well, nobody needs a clumsy chemist. Dealing with nitrogen tri-iodide alone taught me a great deal more about useful safety precautions than any lab class since.

Post script:

Hey kids. Don't blow yourselves up. Because that's not cool.

UPDATE: I forgot the best part! He also has sensible things to say about opera!
For the chances are that what you will see on stage will have nothing to do with what you hear from the pit. The habit has grown of ignoring not merely the stage directions given by the composer, but also the spirit of the music, the sense of the words, and even the nature of the drama. A nineteenth-century opera may be set in Hitler's Germany, so that the producer can reveal that he is, contrary to rumour, sound on the Nazi question. Or it may be transported, like Wagner's Ring, to the world of industrial capitalism, so that the producer can show that he too has read Feuerbach, Marx and Bernard Shaw. [Or, more likely these corrupt times, wants to pretend so. --O.]


There are special reasons, of course, for the mutilation of Wagner. For Wagner's dramas concern sacred things, and sacred things are intolerable to those who no longer believe in them: an urge to desecrate replaces the desire to worship and -- just as in periods of religious iconoclasm, such as that which destroyed the interiors of our English churches -- the finest and most beautiful symbols are torn down and trampled on, lest they retain their power over the human soul. That is why Siegfried is wearing schoolboy shorts and carrying a satchel; it is why Wotan is encumbered with a suitcase, a bicycle, a teddy bear or a mobile telephone. These are moralizing gestures on the producer's part, warnings against corruption and deliberate gestures of mockery towards gods that have died. Moreover, it was Wagner who made the greatest claim for opera as the equivalent for the modern world of the Greek tragic stage: a festival experience in which the spirit of religion lives as it can no longer live (according to Wagner) except in art.
It shows great restraint on my part that I stop here and do not quote his remarks on Pelleas et Melisande. Go read it yourself, anyhoo.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

And a very good opera anecdote from Jay Nordlinger, "a reminiscence by Manuel Rosenthal, the late composer-conductor who was a student of Ravel:
One day he was speaking to me in glowing terms about Puccini. And being the silly, impertinent young man I was, I started to sneer. At that Ravel flew into a towering rage, locked us both into his little studio at Monfort l’Amaury and sat down at the piano. He then played me the whole of Tosca from memory, stopping about 50 times on the way to ask: “Have you anything to complain of about that passage? Look how good the harmony is, how he respects the form, what a clever, original, and interesting modulation there is in that tune.” Finally he took down the score to show me how perfect the orchestration is. He said, “This is exactly what I did with Le tombeau de Couperin: this economy of means by which two solo instruments in Puccini’s orchestra produce such an impact — that is the mark of a great artist.”
Nordlinger adds, quite correctly, "I have long observed that there are two groups of people who love Puccini: common folk and true musicians (e.g., other composers). The only people who are anti-Puccini are middlebrows, idiot middlebrows, who have been told by someone, somewhere, that Puccini is sappy, sentimental, and insubstantial. They think they are expressing a sophistication by running down this remarkable composer."

I must confess that I have myself formerly deprecated Puccini in a similar vein. His composition was so wholly oriented towards stage drama, and he was so expert at composing to that end, that it is easy to overlook the mastery behind his musics thunderbolt immediacy. Some composers, Mozart for instance (who is also often criticized by the middlebrow for being "childish" and "predictable"), make sure you are well aware of a piece's virtuosity, never letting you forget all the craft and artistry on display from both composer and performer. Puccini's craft doesn't dazzle, it goes right for the gut. It matches the drama so perfectly, you can easily forget it's there at all. Many people are made uncomfortable by the fact that music grips them so directly but they can't explain how; it can be easier to dismiss stunningly emotive music as "sentimental." Puccini didn't write to amuse philosophers, but avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma.

Islamic decoration and quasicrystal patterns: a very interesting piece on NPR tonight related how Islamic decorative patterns from the 14th C. and earlier hit upon modern mathematical concepts called quasicrystal patterns (see also aperiodic tiling), which I don't pretend to understand. Here is an article with much more on the mathematical and artistic aspects. Here is how to produce such patterns with lasers.

Calamari rings the size of tractor tires

Is this the year for squid or what? Right on the heels of the stunningly excellent bioluminescent cephalopod attack (about which my blogging has been most tardiloquent: apologies), we now have the largest squid ever caught, a Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni, i.e. colossal squid. (Architeuthis, the giant squid, is longer, which Mesonychoteuthis is heavier.) Half a ton and 33 feet long! Obviously, this has made my day!

While you're looking at Deep Sea News, check out the video of the giant isopods.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Stupid, stupid, toys.
Shield with sword blade, gauntlet, sword catchers, and lantern from the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. This unusual Italian creation seeks to combine many offensive and defensive capabilities into one package. It dates to the first half of the 16th century and combine a shield with multiple blades and an armoured gauntlet.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

More photoblogging

Some shots from last night in our local mountains, the southern end of the Sangre de Cristo range:

This is one of New Mexico's largest aspen groves, if not the largest. A number of people have pointed out articles such as this, about spreading malaise among the aspen groves of the west. No one knows quite what's going on, but drought and fire supression seem the most reasonable explanations to me. In any case, the southern and central Rockies remain full of spectacular groves, and the prospect of an aspen holocaust is not making me lose any sleep at night.


A few shots from the Magdalena area last weekend...

Dogs love trucks!

One finds fish tanks in some pretty odd contexts:

Cerro Ladron

Friday, February 09, 2007

Here, via Languagehat, is a wonderful series of four posts (1, 2, 3, 4) regarding the Ob-Ugrian languages, that is Mansi and Khanty. Some of the purely linguistic talk is dense even for me, who have studied a Finno-Ugrian language, but there remains much to be enjoyed: bear taboos, the Ob-Ugrian's lack of polite terms for body parts, river-related vocabulary ("Further, n?luw, meaning ‘in the direction of (down to) the river/downriver’ can also mean ‘towards the fire’, which is in the centre of the hut."), a chilling poem about the forced conversion of the Mansi, and a splendid folk story about a mouse, which concludes thus:
the mouse is offered food by children in the village, but refuses the perch because the bones will stick in his throat. At the third village he is offered roe broth, the favourite dish of his father and grandfather. The mouse eats and drinks so much his stomach bursts. The children sew it back up with a needle and some roots. The mouse gets in the boat and rows off. He meets a reindeer, and they play hide and seek in the forest. The reindeer accidentally swallows the mouse. The reindeer suggests that the mouse come out through his eyes, but his eyes are full of sleep. The mouse cannot come out through the reindeer’s mouth, because it is too sputum-y. And the reindeer’s ears are full of wax. So the mouse goes into the stomach, gets out his little knife, and cuts a hole in the reindeer’s belly. The reindeer dies, and the mouse strips the meat and fur, runs home and summons his wife and their daughters and sons. The mouse family collect the reindeer flesh and meat, and take it home, where they ate and lived well for a long time. And they all lived happily ever after.
Happily ever after is rendered in Ugrian idiom as They are still alive, if they did not die. The end.

Some previous Finno-Ugrian posts: Finnish Kanteletar, Khanty Bear Feast Song.

Quote of the day:
More convincing would be an argument that religious ideas are somehow uniquely impervious to reason. Is this true? From the fact that I almost never change anyone's mind (and nor does any other pundit I can identify) on any contentious issue, I infer that almost all beliefs are impervious to reason, religious or not.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Lastly for tonight, here's by far the best online resource I've seen for Scots language: bilingual in Scots or English, with numerous sound files of speech and song, and extensive discussion of the several regional dialects of Scots. When you hear the singer in Old Blind Dogs pronouncing wh as f, know that it is characteristic of "the Doric o Scotland's Nor-Aist".
Chas has an interesting link to new evidence that Central Asia's Altai Mountains were the birthplace of skiing (warning: highly irritating Flash ad). Central Asians: is there anything good they didn't invent?
New Mexico is once again shooting for the bottom of the national rankings with the worst designs for a state quarter you've ever seen. Pathetic. I'd rather have a North Dakota quarter! Surely a state with 400 years of recorded history, thousands of years of archaeology, 13,000-foot mountains, a wide selection of blasted wastelands and numerous races sharing an uneasy coexistance can come up with something vaguely interesting? Well, someone did. Here's my favorite of the proposed designs:

New Mexico, exporting useful products since 1945! It'll never be accepted, though; we'll be stuck with yet another wretched Zia symbol to remind us that a state governed by a presidential aspirant is not allowed to be interesting.

Remarkably, the comment thread to the New Mexican article has some pretty decent examples of New Mexican wit: "I was leaning towards it saying 'Land of Flea - Home of the Plague'" "I thought it was supposed to be two dimes and a nickle taped together."

Hat tip to Jack, who is generally too harried for blogging.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

At last, saw Snakes On A Plane. Damn! That one definitely would've been good in the theater!

Request for the sequel (Snakes On A Train? Snakes On A Sub? Snakes On A Zeppelin?): fewer little venemous guys, more giant pythons!!

Saturday, February 03, 2007

John Derbyshire has a word puzzle that's right up my alley: matching the names of western writers with their Pinyin transliteration. I shall take the liberty of reproducing it in full:
OK, here are 30 Western writers:

(1) Camus. (2) D.H. Lawrence. (3) Bunyan. (4) Trollope. (5) Pushkin. (6) Edgar Allen Poe. (7) Donne. (8) Rousseau. (9) Yeats. (10) Cervantes. (11) George Bernard Shaw. (12) Wells. (13) Dante. (14) Chaucer. (15) Dostoyevsky. (16) Kipling. (17) Goethe. (18) Kafka. (19) Dos Passos. (20) James. (21) Fitzgerald. (22) Keats. (23) Aristophanes. (24) Gogol. (25) Hardy. (26) Charlotte Brontë. (27) Johnson. (28) Thackeray. (29) Flaubert. (30) Shelley.

Now here, in a different order, are the pinyin transcriptions of their Chinese names.

(a) Guogeli. (b) Xiaobona. (c) Alisituofen. (d) Saiwantisi. (e) Zhanmeisi. (f) Gede. (g) Danding. (h) Yuehansheng. (i) Puxijin. (j) Qiaosou. (k) Duosi-Pasuosi. (l) Jiamiao. (m) Tangen. (n) Tuosituoyefusiji. (o) Yezhi. (p) Fuloubai. (q) Feicijielade. (r) Xialuoti-Bolangte. (s) Jici. (t) Kafuka. (u) Sakelei. (v) Jibulin. (w) Ailun-Po. (x) Xuelai. (y) Teluoluopu. (z) Hadai. (aa) Lusuo. (bb) Banyang. (cc) Weiersi. (dd) Laolunsi.

Your task is to match off the second list with the first. You have five minutes to do this, starting… now.
I think I made a pretty respectable showing on my first attempt, getting over two-thirds in the initial five minutes. Of course, I was at work, and therefore not at liberty to keep trackof my results other than mentally.
I have a son. You probably won't hear from me for a while.

My God, life is good!