Finally, some good news. H. Albertus Boli, Ll.D., the inventor of the letter “M” and the man who organized the construction of Portugal, is back.
Perhaps there will be some additions to Flora Pittsburghensis, but that may be too much to hope for.
I injured my leg a couple of weeks ago, which has limited my photography. The doctor is upbeat and says I should recover fully in a few more weeks, but until then don’t expect much to look at here.
None of the current anime have held my interest. When I do feel like watching something, it’s an old show such as Shingu, where you can find the largest human yawn in Japan, above. I might give Sarazanmai another try, though probably not during my lunch hour at the office. Josh notes, among other things, that “[t]he art is often very pretty.”
As I mentioned earlier, I finally persuaded myself to get a Kindle. I’d like to say that real, physical, print-and-paper books are clearly superior in every respect, but in fact the Kindle has one overwhelming advantage: I can make the type larger. I can read for hours now before my eyes get tired, and I’ve been taking advantage of that. Beside The Lord of the Rings, I also read Honor at Stake on Joseph Moore’s recommendation; it’s fun. I followed that with Dracula, which I hadn’t looked at since high school. Whatever your academic obsession is, you can pursue it in Stoker’s book (from Wikipedia):
In the last several decades, literary and cultural scholars have offered diverse analyses of Stoker’s novel and the character of Count Dracula. C.F. Bentley reads Dracula as an embodiment of the Freudian id. Carol A. Senf reads the novel as a response to the New Woman archetype, while Christopher Craft sees Dracula as embodying latent homosexuality and sees the text as an example of a ‘characteristic, if hyperbolic instance of Victorian anxiety over the potential fluidity of gender roles’. Stephen D. Arata interprets the events of the novel as anxiety over colonialism and racial mixing, and Talia Schaffer construes the novel as an indictment of Oscar Wilde. Franco Moretti reads Dracula as a figure of monopoly capitalism, though Hollis Robbins suggests that Dracula’s inability to participate in social conventions and to forge business partnerships undermines his power. Richard Noll reads Dracula within the context of 19th century alienism (psychiatry) and asylum medicine. D. Bruno Starrs understands the novel to be a pro-Catholic pamphlet promoting proselytization. Dracula is one of Five Books most recommended books with literary scholars, science writers and novelists citing it as a influential text for topics such as sex in Victorian Literature, best horror books and criminology.
Considered simply as a vampire story, it’s not bad, though the plot occasionally requires that the characters act like idiots.
Other fiction re-read include The King of Elfland’s Daughter and The Time Machine, both good despite their authors’ quirks.
I’m in the middle of one of my periodic re-readings of The Lord of the Rings. While looking for a large, easy-to-read map of Middle Earth, I came across a map of Scotland done LotR style.
I came across a short biography of Pauline Baynes, who illustrated several of Tolkien’s works. She also did the pictures for the Narnia books, though she didn’t have the same rapport with Lewis as with JRRT.
After a long day of storms, the clouds to the west are starting to thin out. I just looked out the front door: the setting sun colored the overcast sky a dull, glowering red, perhaps a bit too appropriate to my reading.
The Greeks have Achilles and Odysseus; the Romans have Aeneas; the French have Roland; the Spanish have the Cid; the British have King Arthur. And, Americans have Batman.
(Illustration from here.)
And the Japanese have Utena Tenjou. Josh lists some possible interpretations of Revolutionary Girl Utena. (Caution: spoilers.)
Male uniforms have a tendency to suggestively come undone for no reason at all, a tendency which increases as the show progresses. This indicates that Ohtori Academy has contracted the production of these uniforms to a low quality manufacturer. Furthermore, the academy seems to be perpetually understaffed, as we rarely see any faculty, and indeed almost never see them actually teaching. All this suggests severe budget cuts. Meanwhile, the Chairman’s quarters has a projector which can physically manifest objects, while the Student Council is given an entire tower with a picturesque view. All this is obviously an indictment of how many educational institutions allocate funding in an inefficient manner, resulting in greater financial burdens on students and a lower quality of education.
From a news release that crossed my desk this morning:1
While at St. Christina the Astonishing, Mr. Redacted has become known for growing and developing the school’s professional staff and implementing a new community system to enhance the relationships among both students and faculty.
From Polysics’ “Plus Chicker:”
AKA! One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Eighty-nine!
It’s baby baby baby baby portable rock!
Ok! Something in my reality might have broke.
AKA! One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Eight-nine!
I’ll always do my thing.
I’ll always do my thing.
I lied too, ever since I saw you.
Which excerpt conveys more meaning?
One of the books I (re)read during my recent trip was The Man Who Was Thursday. The cover of the 1971 paperback edition, above, depicts a moment from chapter X. Those who’ve read the book might amuse themselves by seeing how many errors they can spot.
Incidentally, Chesterton’s novel is possibly the most realistic spy novel ever published:
Thirty years ago, a British newspaper took an unscientific survey of current and former intelligence agents, asking them which fictional work best captured the realities of their profession. Would it be John Le Carré, Ian Fleming, Robert Ludlum? To the amazement of most readers, the book that won easily was G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, published in 1908….
… Soon, even police agencies themselves had no idea whether a given attack was the work of real terrorists, or of agents and provocateurs notionally working for the regime. In this wilderness of mirrors, the only certain facts were provocation and deception. “Was anyone wearing a mask? Was anyone anything?” However fantastic The Man Who Was Thursday might appear, it was describing the stark realities of counter-subversion, with all their moral ambiguities. And that was what gave the book its appeal to latter day spooks.
Let’s get rid of links, some of them old and starting to smell, beginning with a couple of quotes for a windy Thursday:
The more I see of what passes for democracy these days, the more ardently I embrace monarchism.
Political honesty means telling the voters who you are and what you promise to do—and then governing as that person and in accord with those promises. By this measure, Trump is the most honest political figure of his generation.
Quiz time: school or prison?
The answers, and some comments on education, are here.
… there’s a game everyone is playing today and it really is bad for you. Having played this game for eight years I can tell you first-hand that it really does impact the way people behave and perceive each other. And I’m not talking about in-game behavior, here. I’m talking about real, lasting consequences in the real world. I’m talking about a game that can actually change the way you see other human beings, and how you treat them. It’s a game that’s genuinely harmful and continues to impact your thoughts and behavior, even after you stop playing it.
Paradoxes of counting numbers: Chicago mathematics, or “a clown car of felonies.”
(Via I don’t know, but…)
Revolution for the hell of it: Gary Saul Morson on 19th-century Russian nihilism:
Russia was also the first country where young men and women, asked to name their intended careers, might well say “terrorist.” Beginning in the 1870s, terrorism became an honored, if dangerous, profession. It was often a family business employing brothers and sisters generation after generation. Historians sometimes trace modern terrorism to the Carbonari of early-19th-century Italy, but it was Russia that gave it unprecedented importance. You cannot relate the history of czarist Russia in its last half-century without the history of terrorism. As we now associate terrorism with radical Islam, Europeans then associated it with “Russian nihilism.” By the early 20th century, no profession, except literature, enjoyed more prestige among well-educated Russians.1
(The Weekly Standard, where this article appears, may not be around much longer. If Morson’s piece becomes unavailable there, you can read substantial excerpts at Isegoria in a series of posts beginning here. Morson was also responsible for And Quiet Flows the Vodka.)
The Old Feminist
Snugly upon the equal height,
enthroned at last where she belongs,
She takes no pleasure in her Rights
who so enjoyed her Wrongs!
The notion that anthropomorphized a thousand bales of straw: a defense of “Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D.” (It’s an old post, but I only recently discovered it.)
Four years ago, I sat across a conference table from an assistant dean with a Ph.D in the humanities who, with no evident trace of self-loathing, asked me to write bullet points summarizing the “workplace relevance” of medieval literature. (That day I confirmed that the soul really does exist, because I felt mine howling to leave my body.)
Puzzle: what does this sequence represent? The answer, with notes on “boundary violations,” is here.
A bit of ancient Marxist humor:
This was a skit from the 1924 I’ll Say She Is, re-enacted in 1931 when moving pictures finally had sound.
A bit of musical history:
Jean-Jaques Perrey and Gershon Kingsley recorded what was probably the first electronic music intended for popular audiences. Their first album featured Perrey’s Ondioline, a forerunner of the Moogs and Arps to come, plus tape loops with funny noises. In the musical demonstration during the second half of the video, note how Perrey wiggles the keyboard side to side to obtain a vibrato.
I stumbled across the Perrey video while looking for the episode of To Tell the Truth in which the panelists try to identify the real Robert Moog.1 Perrey and Kingsley used Moog’s modular synthesizer on the second album, over a year before Switched-on Bach. The music from the two Perrey-Kingsley albums is collected here. It may be cheesy, but it’s cheese of high quality. If you’ve been to Disneyland, you may have heard one of their tunes.
Pop quiz: Who said this about what?
Primitive music with all modern conveniences
Back in ancient times, synthesizers such as those played by W.W. Carlos and Keith Emerson were assembled from various single-purpose modules, linked together by a multitude of short cables. To change the sound, the musician rearranged the cables and fiddled with the controls on the modules. It was laborious, but with perseverance you could make something like Switched-on Bach or Tarkus. Eventually these modular monsters were replaced by compact synths with fixed architectures, which were easier to program and to transport. Later ones added polyphony and memory for patches, so the musician could play chords and recreate sounds instantly.
Although many of the later synths were immensely useful and desirable, none ever sounded quite like their forebears. Emerson’s modular Moog in particular was legendary. During the past 20 years or so, there’s been increasing interest in modular systems. Notably, the Doepfer “Eurorack” format has become prevalent in certain parts of the electronic music world. A musician can buy whatever modules he wants from a variety of manufacturers and combine them as he pleases. Unfortunately, purchasing modules gets expensive.
However, if you have a reasonably powerful computer, you can run the VCV Rack, a virtual Eurorack. The basic rack, including all you need to make funny noises, is free, and there are many more modules you can download to play with once you get the hang of it, most of which are also free. It’s available here.
I spent several recent lunch hours fiddling with the VCV Rack, and a couple of things quickly became apparent. First, it’s not easy to get an interesting sound out of it. The early synthesists had to work hard to make their music sound good.
Second, videos are the worst way to teach anything. There’s very little text documentation for the rack, so I sat through a number of videos explaining the basics. Good grief, they’re such a waste of time. In principle, videos should be perfect for this job — you can see the connections being made and hear the sounds that result. In practice, you get a guy rambling for half an hour trying to explain something that could have easily been summarized in three minutes. Advice to anyone making an instructional video: before you plug in your microphone, make a detailed written outline of what you want to cover. Better yet, write out what you want to say and skip the video entirely.
Charles G. Hill brings tidings from Japan of a man who “married” a holographic representation of the vocal synthesizer “Hatsune Miku.” Hill linked to a video featuring Miku’s voice which is apparently extremely popular but which doesn’t show what the software is capable of. Here are a couple that better illustrate how a pathetic dweeb could become fixated on the computer-generated image of an anime-style girl: Miku in concert; Miku on a desktop.
Vocal synthesizers, of which Vocaloids are the most successful, occasionally come in handy for those of us with lousy voices. I’ve made use of Miku myself. Others include Plogue’s Alter/Ego and Chipspeech, and Wolfgang Palm’s Phonem.
Francis W. Porretto wonders if anyone remembers Vaughn Meader and David Frye now that their targets are gone. The First Family was before my time, but I do remember hearing one particular skit by Frye frequently at the left end of the FM dial.
It’s been scientifically established that nearly any pop song can be improved by remaking it as a polka or surf tune. In a similar vein, J Greely recently wished that the cast of Dr. Who had turned a recent episode into a Bollywood musical. I haven’t seen that episode so I can’t say for certain, but I expect that would indeed have been an improvement. I suspect, in fact, that most television shows would benefit from being transformed into Bollywood musicals. (Just wondering: are there any Bollywood musical production numbers featuring surf guitar?)
This is terribly unfair, I know, but Cardinal DiNardo in the picture above looks very much like how I visualize Wormtongue when I read The Lord of the Rings.
A bit of music to set the mood. You can all sing along.
It’s that time of year when I recommend that everyone watch Mononoke, unless I forget. So, if you want to view something appropriate to October 31 done with intelligence and artistry, watch an arc or two of Kenji Nakamura’s first and best anime. It’s not necessary to watch the stories in order. My personal favorites are Bakeneko (“Goblin Cat”) and Nue (“Japanese Chimera”), episodes 10-12 and 8-9, though all of the tales of the simple medicine seller are worth your time.
A couple of other possibilities:
Madoka Magica — Not for casual viewing. If you try to marathon this in one evening, you’ll be an emotional wreck at the end. You do need to start at the beginning.
Hozuki no Reitetsu — Something a little lighter, set in the Japanese version of Hell. The first episode introduces the main characters, but after that you can skip around. My favorites include the fourth episode, which introduces the demure rabbit Miss Mustard, and the eighth, which examines J-pop and modern art.
And there’s always Natsume Yujin-cho.
I have no particular taste for horror and creepy stuff. Although there’s plenty, most I’ve seen bores me. The shows mentioned above caught my attention for reasons other than mere “chills.”
Joseph Epstein on The Bookish Life:
Willa Cather, a writer I have come to admire as the greatest twentieth-century American novelist, chose not to allow any of her novels put into what she called “school editions,” lest young students, having to read her under the duress of school assignments, never return to her books when they were truly ready for them. She was no dope, Miss Cather.
Twenty or so years ago there was a vogue for speed-reading. (“I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes,” Woody Allen quipped. “It involves Russia.”) But why, one wonders, would you wish to speed up an activity that gives pleasure? Speed-reading? I’d as soon take a course in speed-eating or speed-lovemaking. Yet the notion of speed generally hovers over the act of reading. “A real page-turner,” people say of certain novels or biographies. I prefer to read books that are page-stoppers, that cause me to stop and contemplate a striking idea, an elegant phrase, an admirably constructed sentence.1
In the risky generalization department, slow readers tend to be better readers—more careful, more critical, more thoughtful. I myself rarely read more than twenty-five or thirty pages of a serious book in a single sitting. Reading a novel by Thomas Mann, a short story by Chekhov, a historical work by Theodor Mommsen, essays by Max Beerbohm, why would I wish to rush through them? Savoring them seems more sensible. After all, you never know when you will pass this way again.
“The art of not reading is a very important one,” Schopenhauer wrote.
It consists in not taking an interest in whatever may be engaging the attention of the general public at any particular time. When some political or ecclesiastical pamphlet, or novel, or poem is making a great commotion, you should remember that he who writes for fools always finds a large public. A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short.
… something I read in this week’s The Week that is one of the sadder things I’ve heard recently: apparently animal behaviorists have found some dogs are “depressed” because of a lack of eye contact – because their owners spend so much time staring at their smartphones….
The classical period featured a celebration of human beauty. The artists strove to capture the ideal of man in those beautiful statues we still have today. The medieval period had the celebration of God and his love for man. Walk into an old cathedral and you immediately feel the essence of that relationship. Of course, our canon is packed with poetry exploring the beauty of life, all of which was composed in a prior age, by men who are strangers to us now.
Walk into a modern building today and you know what it is like to be in the chute at a slaughter house.
Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual.
The great purpose of school can be realized better in dark, airless, ugly places … It is to master the physical self, to transcend the beauty of nature. School should develop the power to withdraw from the external world.
A pas de deux from the 1935 ballet Светлый ручей (The Bright Stream), with music by Shostakovich, libretto by Adrian Piotrovsky and choreography by Fedor Lopukhov, re-choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky for the ballet’s 2004 revival. There’s a story behind the ballet, and not one with a happy ending: “A work meant to be light, entertaining, and uplifting had proved the downfall of its creators.”
(I have never read particularly fast, but maybe that’s not such an awful thing: I do find when I read more slowly my comprehension and memory for what I’ve read is much better).
Which brings to mind an old favorite story, R.A. Lafferty’s “The Primary Education of the Camiroi.” The text is not available online,1 and I’m too lazy to transcribe the relevant passages, so I’ll link instead to Alan Jacobs:
I recommend a story by one of the all-time great weirdos of American literature, R. A. Lafferty. The story is called “Primary Education of the Camiroi,” and it concerns a PTA delegation from Dubuque who visit another planet to investigate their educational methods. After one little boy crashes into a member of the delegation, knocking her down and breaking her glasses, and then immediately grinds new lenses for her and repairs the spectacles — a disconcerting experience for the Iowans — they interview one girl and ask her how fast she reads. She replies that she reads 120 words per minute. One of the Iowans proudly comments that she knows students of the same age in Dubuque who read five hundred words per minute.
“When I began disciplined reading, I was reading at a rate of four thousand words a minute,” the girl said. They had quite a time correcting me of it. I had to take remedial reading, and my parents were ashamed of me. Now I’ve learned to read almost slow enough.”
Slow enough, that is, to remember verbatim everything she has read. “We on Camiroi,” one of the adults says, “are only a little more intelligent than you on Earth. We cannot afford to waste time on forgetting or reviewing, or pursuing anything of a shallowness that lends itself to scanning.”
So maybe what matters most is not how many books we read, but how thoroughly we read them.
The delegation’s ultimate recommendations for Dubuque schools include “b.) A little constructive book-burning, particularly in the education field. c.) Judicious hanging of certain malingering students.”
The story is in Nine Hundred Grandmothers. (If you find the book at a reasonable price (good luck) and are new to Lafferty, I suggest starting with the last story and working your way to the front of the book. The first few stories are not the Lafferty I like best.)
Something you don’t see anymore: cigarette advertising. There are more examples from the ’20s and ’30s here.
While you inhale the aromas of Chesterfield and other brands of tobacco, often toasted, you might also enjoy listening to Raymond Scott: The Chesterfield Arrangements, though the music is a bit later than the ads.
I don’t want to make a generalization, but it really does seem like the quality of film and filmmakers has steeply declined even in the thirty-odd years since Return of the Jedi. Even absent George Lucas’s quixotic attempt to write and direct the entire prequel trilogy himself after decades of comparative idleness, we have a huge, multi-billion dollar company like Disney staking a massive investment in these films and the best they can come up with is the uneven Rogue One. The quality of writing and storytelling in these later films is nothing short of an embarrassment, at times offensively so, and now we don’t even have the excuse of George Lucas trying to make it a personal project. This is a branch of the top entertainment media company in the world throwing enormous amounts of money and promotion at a project with The Last Jedi as the result. Meanwhile, some forty years ago, that same ‘branch’ made The Empire Strikes Back.
Something certainly changed in the meantime, whatever it might have been. Somehow we went from Leigh Brackett to Rian Johnson.
This invisible crisis in literature becomes self-evident if we list all of the great fiction writers in fifty year increments….
In fact, the evidence practically shouts out at you. The pattern that emerges is surprisingly that of a bell shaped curve!
Washington Irving, Fenimore James Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Edward Hale, Harriet B. Stowe, Henry Longfellow, Walt Whitman, Joel Harris, Mark Twain, Mary dodge, Louisa Alcott, Bret Harte, Henry James, Horatio Alger, William D. Howells, Kate Chopin, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville.
Upton Sinclair, Booth Tarkington, Owen Wister, Sarah O. Jewett, Edith Wharton, O. Henry, T. S. Eliot, Zora Hurston, Richard Wright, Christopher Isherwood, B. Traven, Margaret Mitchell, John Steinbeck, Walter Clark, Walter Edmons, Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, Jack London, Ambrose Bierce, Willa Cather, Sherwood Anderson, Thornton Wilder, Sinclair Lewis, Cronell Woolrich, John Marquand, William Saroyan, Ezra Pound, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, Carl Sandburg, Sara Teasdale, John Dos Passos, Clarence Day, Thorne Smith, Pearl Buck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, Robert Penn Warren, H. P. Lovecraft, Jack Schaefer, Marjorie K. Rawlings.
Anais Nin, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Robert Frost, Mario Puzo, Shirley Jackson, Charles Jackson, James Thurber, James McCain, Leon Uris, Robert Ruark, James Michener, Ayn Rand, Joyce Carol Oats, John Toole, Robert Heinlein, Saul Bellow, Isaac Asimov, Raymond Chandler, Taylor Caldwell, Harper Lee, Flannery O’Connor, Tom Wolfe.
What is most alarming is that there is no new generation of high quality writers in sight to take up the torch. All of the writers that came into prominence in the last period are already dead, or like I said, have one foot in the grave.1
Are these observations accurate? It’s easy to believe that western civilization is in rapid decline, but I’m too disconnected from contemporary American culture to say if that’s actually the case.
Then there was Wolfe’s first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities. One of its chapters, “The Masque of the Red Death,” takes its title from Edgar Allan Poe and with mordant humor dissects the vacuity of Manhattanites consumed (and in some cases destroyed) by their grotesque, over-the-top consumerism. I recently re-read that stunning set-piece and the thought occurred, as it had before, that here was a far more effective polemic against materialism than anything ever issued by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
I’m also strongly opposed to the very idea of a classroom – a schoolhouse is a better idea, and even then, it should not be viewed as a place where children are managed. The example of my children might be informative: our oldest 4 (#5 is 13) all attend or did attend college, all are outstanding students – A students, magna cum laude, that sort of thing – and none of them took any formal classes at school or at home until, of their own volition, they signed up for classes at the local community college when they were teenagers. Having NO K-12 experience as commonly understood didn’t slow them down AT ALL.
did hard time in attended four different grade schools and three high schools, some Catholic, some public,1 so I may have a somewhat broader experience of education in the United States than most people. At the Catholic schools I sometimes attended Mass, and there were religion classes, but in general there was no significant difference between parochial and public. There was occasionally a little actual education here and there during those twelve endless years, but mostly what I learned was to sit still and feign attention. There was also a lot of busy work. I eventually concluded that the purpose of school was not to “educate” students, but to keep them off the streets until they were old enough to get jobs. The American education system is the greatest achievement in the history of day care.
It still makes me angry how many years I was required to spend the best part of each weekday doing nothing. I could have been reading, damn it. My brother didn’t have my patience with pointless nonsense. After fourth grade, he quit doing any schoolwork at all. He was eventually asked to leave his Catholic high school, where his GPA was third from dead last.2 He promptly took the GED, without any preparation, and scored in the 98th percentile overall, getting a perfect score on the verbal part.3
An aside: The second grade school I was sentenced to was 30 miles from home. My home was the second stop on the bus’ route in the morning and the second-last stop in the evening, so I spent two hours every day confined with a bunch of cranky kids in a noisy vehicle with bad shocks. An under-used argument against busing students to schools other than where they would ordinarily go is that busing itself is inherently abusive.
I may not have been cynical enough. Joseph Moore has written five-part series on the history of Catholic schooling, putting its development in the context of the Prussian model of education, Irish immigration and graded classrooms. It’s worth reading. The first installment is here.