Sunday, July 11, 2010

Bugs to fearen babes withall

In case anyone still checks this site from time to time, you might like to know that I'm now blogging (though still not very regularly) elsewhere. All the old posts from this site, with the exceptions of ambigrams and brief "I read book X on date Y" entries, have been transfered there.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Announcing a separate blog for ambigrams

Since many of my regular readers are mainly in it for the ambigrams and ignore the other stuff, and most of the others are interested in the other stuff and ignore the ambigrams, I've decided to make things easier for both groups by creating a separate blog just for ambigrams and related diversions. So, ambigram people, reset your bookmarks to wmjasambigrams.wordpress.com. Everyone else, as you were.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Ambigram: Virgil

Ambigram: Life/Love


Designed by request, for someone who wants it as a tattoo.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Fifteen translations of Dante compared

In my last post I compared John Ciardi and Allen Mandelbaum's translation of the Inferno by looking at how they handled Canto XXVI, lines 112-120. Here I want to expand that exercise, comparing 15 different translations in a more systematic way. The 15 translations are those of Ciaran Carson, John Ciardi, Anthony Esolen, Robert and Jean Hollander, Robin Kirkpatrick, Stanley Lombardo, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Allen Mandelbaum, Mark Musa, J. G. Nicholls, Robert Pinsky, Tom Simone, John D. Sinclair, Charles Singleton, and C. H. Sisson.

I will be looking at the same passage as before, but I've broken it into 10 sections, each of which will be graded based on its fidelity to the original Italian. (I don't actually know much Italian, but I do have a dictionary and 15 different translations of the passage in question.) The grading is as follows: 3 = perfectly faithful, 2 = defensible paraphrase (same basic meaning), 1 = dodgy paraphrase, 0 = unforgivable paraphrase (putting words in Dante's mouth). The translators scored as follows:
  • Longfellow, Singleton (27)
  • Sinclair (26)
  • Mandelbaum (25)
  • Simone, Sisson (23)
  • Hollander, Kirkpatrick (22)
  • Lombardo (21)
  • Musa, Nicholls, Pinsky (18)
  • Ciardi (17)
  • Carson (14)
  • Esolen (13)
As might be expected, the three prose translations score highest in terms of fidelity, with Allen Mandelbaum close on their heels as the most accurate of the 12 verse translations. Ciardi unsurprisingly ranks rather low.

Here are the details of the scoring:

O frati, dissi,
  • Brothers, . . . I said (Carson) - 3
  • Shipmates, I said (Ciardi) - 1
  • O brothers (Esolen) - 2
  • O brothers, I said (Hollander, Simone, Sinclair, Singleton) - 3
  • Brothers, I said (Kirkpatrick, Lombardo, Musa, Sisson) - 3
  • O brothers, said I (Longfellow) - 3
  • Brothers, I said, o you (Mandelbaum) - 3
  • O brothers! I began (Nicholls) - 2
  • O brothers . . . I began (Pinsky) - 2
che per cento milia perigli
  • who . . . through perils numberless (Carson) - 1
  • who through a hundred thousand perils (Ciardi, Lombardo, Longfellow, Sinclair, Singleton) - 3
  • who have borne innumerable dangers (Esolen) - 1
  • who in the course of a hundred thousand perils (Hollander) - 3
  • a hundred thousand perils you have passed (Kirkpatrick) - 2
  • who having crossed a hundred thousand dangers (Mandelbaum) - 3
  • who through a hundred thousand perils have made your way (Musa) - 2
  • who . . . through perils without number (Nicholls) - 1
  • who . . . through a hundred thousand perils, surviving all (Pinsky) - 0
  • who through a hundred thousand dangers (Simone, Sisson) - 3
siete giunti a l'occidente,
  • have reached the west (Carson, Ciardi, Lombardo, Longfellow, Pinsky, Sinclair, Singleton) - 3
  • to reach the setting of the sun (Esolen) - 1
  • at last have reached the west (Hollander) - 2
  • and reached the Occident (Kirkpatrick) - 3
  • reach the west (Mandelbaum) - 3
  • to reach the West (Musa) - 3
  • to the west . . . now have reach'd (Nicholls) - 3
  • have come to the west (Simone) - 3
  • at last have reached the occident (Sisson) - 2
a questa tanto picciola vigilia d'i nostri sensi ch'è del rimanente
  • now that you've run the race of life, in this last watch that still remains to you (Carson) - 0
  • to the brief remaining watch our senses stand (Ciardi) - 2
  • from those few hours remaining to our watch, from time so short in which to live and feel (Esolen) - 0
  • to such brief wakefulness of our senses as remain to us (Hollander) - 3
  • For us, so little time remains to keep the vigil of our living sense (Kirkpatrick) - 1
  • to the last glimmering hour of consciousness that remains to us (Lombardo) - 0
  • to this so little vigil of your senses that remains (Longfellow) - 2
  • to this brief waking-time that still is left unto your senses (Mandelbaum) - 2
  • during this so brief vigil of our senses that is still reserved for us (Musa) - 3
  • to this the short remaining watch, that yet our senses have to wake (Nicholls) - 3
  • So little is the vigil we see remain still for our senses, that (Pinsky) - 2
  • for this so limited vigil of our senses which still remains to us (Simone) - 2
  • to this so brief vigil of the senses that remains to us (Sinclair) - 3
  • to this so brief vigil of your senses which remains (Singleton) - 2
  • to this short vigil which is all there is remaining to our senses (Sisson) - 3
non vogliate negar l'esperïenza
  • I ask you not to shun experience, but boldly to explore (Carson) - 0
  • do not deny . . . experience (Ciardi, Lombardo) - 3
  • do not refuse experience (Esolen) - 3
  • do not deny yourselves the chance to know (Hollander) - 1
  • Do not deny your will to win experience (Kirkpatrick) - 2
  • be ye unwilling to deny, the experience (Longfellow) - 3
  • you must not deny experience (Mandelbaum) - 2
  • do not deny yourself experience (Musa) - 2
  • refuse not proof (Nicholls) - 0
  • you should not choose to deny it the experience (Pinsky) - 2
  • do not be content to deny yourselves experience (Simone) - 2
  • choose not to deny experience (Sinclair) - 3
  • wish not to deny the experience (Singleton) - 3
  • do not deny experience (Sisson) - 3
di retro al sol,
  • beyond the sun (Carson, Ciardi) - 3
  • of the lands beyond the sun (Esolen) - 1
  • following the sun (Hollander, Longfellow, Singleton) - 2
  • behind the sun (Kirkpatrick) - 3
  • that lies beyond the setting sun (Lombardo) - 0
  • of that which lies beyond the sun (Mandelbaum) - 3
  • of what there is beyond, behind the sun (Musa) - 2
  • following the track of Phoebus (Nicholls) - 1
  • behind the sun leading us onward (Pinsky) - 0
  • Follow the sun into the west (Simone) - 0
  • in the sun's track (Sinclair) - 1
  • following the course of the sun (Sission) - 1
del mondo sanza gente.
  • the vast unpeopled world (Carson) - 1
  • of the world (Ciardi) - 0
  • the world where no one dwells (Esolen) - 2
  • the land where no one lives (Hollander) - 2
  • of worlds where no man dwells (Kirkpatrick) - 2
  • of the unpeopled world (Lombardo, Nicholls, Sinclair) - 3
  • of the world that hath no people (Longfellow) - 3
  • and of the world that is unpeopled (Mandelbaum) - 3
  • in the world they call unpeopled (Musa) - 0
  • of the world which has no people in it (Pinsky) - 3
  • of the world without people (Simone) - 3
  • of the world that has no people (Singleton) - 3
  • of that world which has no inhabitants (Sisson) - 2
Considerate la vostra semenza:
  • Remember who you are (Carson) - 0
  • Greeks! (Ciardi) - 0
  • Think well upon your nation and your seed (Esolen) - 1
  • Consider how your souls were sown (Hollander) - 1
  • Hold clear in thought your seed and origin (Kirkpatrick) - 1
  • Consider the seed from which you were born (Lombardo) - 2
  • Consider ye your origin (Longfellow) - 2
  • Consider well the seed that gave you birth (Mandelbaum) - 2
  • Consider what you came from: you are Greeks (Musa) - 0
  • Call to mind from whence we sprang (Nicholls) - 2
  • Consider well your seed (Pinsky) - 2
  • Consider your seed and heritage (Simone) - 1
  • Take thought of the seed from which you spring (Sinclair) - 2
  • Consider your origin (Singleton) - 2
  • Consider then the race from which you have sprung (Sisson) - 1
fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
  • what you were made for: not to live like brutes (Carson) - 2
  • You were not born to live like brutes (Ciardi) - 2
  • For you were never made to live like brutes (Esolen) - 2
  • you were not made to live like brutes or beasts (Hollander) - 2
  • You were not made to live as mindless brutes (Kirkpatrick) - 2
  • You were not made to live like brute animals (Lombardo) - 2
  • ye were not made to live as brutes (Longfellow, Singleton) - 3
  • you were not made to live your lives as brutes (Mandelbaum) - 2
  • You were not born to live like mindless brutes (Musa) - 2
  • Ye were not form'd to live the life of brutes (Nicholls) - 2
  • You were not born to live as a mere brute does (Pinsky) - 2
  • you were not made to live like brutes (Simone) - 3
  • You were not born to live as brutes (Sinclair) - 2
  • You were not made to live like animals (Sisson) - 3
ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.
  • but for the quest of knowledge and the good (Carson) - 1
  • but to press on toward manhood and recognition (Ciardi) - 0
  • but to pursue the good in mind and deed (Esolen) - 0
  • but to pursue virtue and knowledge (Hollander, Singleton) - 3
  • but go in search of virtue and true knowledge (Kirkpatrick) - 3
  • but to live in pursuit of virtue and knowledge (Lombardo) - 2
  • but for pursuit of virtue and of knowledge (Longfellow) - 3
  • but to be followers of worth and knowledge (Mandelbaum) - 2
  • but to follow paths of excellence and knowledge (Musa) - 1
  • but virtue to pursue and knowledge high (Nicholls) - 1
  • but for the pursuit of knowledge and the good (Pinsky) - 2
  • but to follow virtue and knowledge (Simone, Sinclair) - 3
  • but to pursue virtue and know the world (Sisson) - 2

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Mandelbaum vs. Ciardi as translators of Dante

I just finished Allen Mandelbaum's translation of the Inferno and found it much more moving that John Ciardi's, the only other translation I've read. As I did before with Goethe's Faust, I want to compare the two translations in terms of their accuracy by looking at a sample passage. I chose one of my favorite parts, Ulysses' speech to his shipmates (Canto XXVI, lines 112-120).

First, the original Italian:
    'O frati,' dissi, 'che per cento milia
perigli siete giunti a l'occidente,
a questa tanto picciola vigilia
    d'i nostri sensi ch'è del rimanente
non vogliate negar l'esperïenza
di retro al sol, del mondo sanza gente.
    Considerate la vostra semenza:
fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.'
Here's John Ciardi's rendition:
'Shipmates,' I said, 'who through a hundred thousand
    perils have reached the West, do not deny
    to the brief remaining watch our senses stand

experience of the world beyond the sun.
    Greeks! You were not born to live like brutes,
    but to press on toward manhood and recognition!'
And Allen Mandelbaum's:
    'Brothers,' I said, 'o you, who having crossed
a hundred thousand dangers, reach the west,
to this brief waking-time that still is left
    unto your senses, you must not deny
experience of that which lies beyond
the sun, and of the world that is unpeopled.
    Consider well the seed that gave you birth:
you were not made to live your lives as brutes,
but to be followers of worth and knowledge.'
Mandelbaum is clearly the more faithful to Dante here. Ciardi condense's Dante's nine lines into six, makes the first sentence hard to parse by throwing in the random word "stand" (to rhyme with "thousand," which it doesn't really), cuts out "the world that is unpeopled" altogether, and stretches his poetic license to the breaking point when he chooses to translate "Considerate la vostra semenza" as "Greeks!" (Mandelbaum's only real liberty -- adding "that gave you birth" -- seems a necessary one, since otherwise "your seed" would seem to be referring to descendants rather than ancestors.)

The two translators' very different renditions of "virtute e canoscenze" -- "manhood and recognition" vs. "worth and knowledge" -- are intriguing. Since my knowledge of Italian doesn't go much beyond the ability to recognize obvious cognates, and since both translations seem etymologically plausible, I don't know who's closer to the mark here. If I had to bet, though, I'd put my money on Mandelbaum. "Press on toward manhood" isn't the most natural exhortation to give to a company of veterans who are "already old and slow."

Chinese anagram: Castor/Pollux

The twin sons of Zeus.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Chinese anagram: capo/coda

Another Dante-inspired Chinese anagram: The Italian words for "head" and "tail."

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Divine Dante


I'm not sure what to call wordplay of this type. It's not exactly an anagram, though the general idea is the same. Unlike an anagram, it doesn't require that all the rearranged components be full letters, nor that they be arranged linearly. The components can be rotated and can be placed anywhere. (No overlapping allowed, though; that would be cheating.) The same concept can be seen in Nagfa's One Swallow piece and (almost) in my own attempt at a Chinese anagram. In fact, come to think of it, "Chinese anagram" might be just the term I'm looking for. "Chinese" because it's the closest thing you can get to an anagram in a non-alphabetic language like Chinese; because it's basically a verbal version of the Chinese art of the tangram; and because there's a long tradition in English of just randomly calling things (checkers, auctions, fire drills) Chinese. So, until someone proposes a better term, I hereby dub this art form the Chinese anagram.

I'm reading Dante again, by the way -- Allen Mandelbaum's translation. I was so impressed with his Odyssey that I went from bookstore to bookstore until I had finally tracked down copies of his Aeneid and Commedia. He's also translated Ovid, Quasimodo, and Ungaretti, and I'll snatch those up too if I can find them. For someone who is such a virtuoso at translating poetry (and from three different languages!), Mandelbaum surprisingly turns out to be a bit of a klutz when it comes to English prose, at least if his nearly unreadable introduction to the Inferno is any indication. A typical passage:
For Dante is an Aeolus-the-Brusque, a Lord-of-Furibundus-Fuss, the Ur-Imam-of-Impetus. Or, for brutish Scrutinists, who reach for similes among the beasts and not among the gods, he is the lizard that, "when it darts from hedge/ to hedge beneath the dog days' giant lash,/ seems, if it cross one's path, a lightning flash" (Inf. XXV, 79-81)
Note how the dead, bloated language suddenly springs to life as soon as he stops speaking for himself and starts translating Dante. Like Plato's Ion, he has nothing to say except as a reciter of his favorite poets -- of which, unlike Ion, he happily has more than one.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Ambigram: Wm Jas

I don't know why it took me so long to get around to doing this one.


Sunday, January 17, 2010

Ambigram: Faust

I haven't been doing ambigrams much these days, but sometimes they just jump out at you.



This is so natural that I'm sure it's probably been done before, but the only I've been able to find on the Net is in Cyrillic.

Shaw and Darwin

Bernard Shaw's preface to Back to Methuselah, "The Infidel Half Century," is something you don't see much of these days: a non-creationist attack on Neo-Darwinism.

Back to Methuselah was published in 1921, a good 15 years before the modern synthesis got underway, so "Neo-Darwinism" as Shaw uses the term means something different: not Darwin-plus-Mendel, but Darwin-minus-Lamarck. Unlike Darwin himself, who was willing to grant that Lamarckian processes (the inheritance of acquired characteristics) might play some role, the Neo-Darwinians broke with Lamarck completely and insisted that evolution was driven almost exclusively by what Shaw -- not wishing to profane the name of Nature -- insists on calling Circumstantial Selection.

It's not that Shaw doesn't believe in natural selection -- he grants that it occurs and that it influences evolution -- but he considers it to be an incidental process. He thinks of natural selection the way a more orthodox evolutionist thinks of genetic drift: It undeniably happens, but it's not all that important and evolution could go on just fine without it. The real driving force behind evolution is voluntary change.
If you can turn a pedestrian into a cyclist, and a cyclist into a pianist or violinist, without the intervention of Circumstantial [that is, natural] Selection, you can turn an amoeba into a man, or a man into a superman, without it. All of which is rank heresy to the Neo-Darwinian, who imagines that if you stop Circumstantial Selection, you not only stop development but inaugurate a rapid and disastrous degeneration.

Let us fix the Lamarckian evolutionary process well in our minds. You are alive; and you want to be more alive. You want an extension of consciousness and of power. You want, consequently, additional organs, or additional uses of your existing organs: that is, additional habits. You get them because you want them badly enough to keep trying for them until they come. Nobody knows how: nobody knows why: all we know is that the thing actually takes place.
The details of this process are admittedly a little sketchy, even if we take the heritability of acquired characteristics for granted. It's easy enough to imagine how a giraffe -- the canonical example, which Shaw dutifully trots out ("I do not remember how this animal imposed himself illustratively on the Evolution controversy; but there was no getting away from him then; and I am old-fashioned enough to be unable to get away from him now.") -- might want a longer neck, try to get one by stretching, and succeed in lengthening its neck a bit. But when one tries to picture a cartilaginous fish "trying" to have bones, or a monkey "trying" not to have a tail (not to mention a plant or an amoeba "wanting" or "trying" to do anything at all), the theory seems to break down.

For Shaw, the important thing about Lamarckism is not the inheritance of acquired characteristics, but the importance of will in the evolutionary process. In fact, Shaw seems to think that the former depends on the latter -- that acquirements are inherited if and only if they were acquired deliberately rather than by accident. (He expresses this in a rather confusing way, saying that only "habits" can be inherited, but makes it clear that he is using "habit" in a special sense which includes not only customary behavior patterns but anatomical features as well. A Shavian "habit" is any feature that is voluntarily acquired and thereafter becomes involuntary and automatic.)

Because of Shaw's focus on the inheritance of voluntarily acquired characteristics, he dismisses the experiments of August Weismann -- in which he cut off the tails of 20 successive generations of rats and observed that their offspring were nevertheless born with tails -- as missing the point. Shaw considers it self-evidently ridiculous to suppose "that injuries or accidents coming from external sources against the will of the victim could possibly establish a [heritable] habit: that, for instance, a family could acquire a habit of being killed in railway accidents." He proposes the following as an alternative experiment which, if it were practicable, would be more relevant to the Lamarckian hypothesis as he understands it.
The scientific form of his experiment would have been something like this. First, he should have procured a colony of mice highly susceptible to hypnotic suggestion. He should then have hypnotizes them into an urgent conviction that the fate of the musque [sic] world depended on the disappearance of its tail, just as some ancient and forgotten experimenter seems to have convinced the cats of the Isle of Man. Having thus made the mice desire to lose their tails with a life-or-death intensity, he would very soon have seen a few mice born with little or no tail. These would be recognized by the other mice as superior beings, and privileged in the division of food and in sexual selection. Ultimately the tailed mice would be put to death as monsters by their fellows, and the miracle of the tailless mouse completely achieved.

The objection to this experiment is not that it seems too funny to be taken seriously, and is not cruel enough to overawe the mob, but simply that it is impossible because the human experimenter cannot get at the mouse's mind.
The odd thing about this -- okay, there are a lot of odd things about it, but one of the odd things about it -- is how thoroughly Darwinian it is. A true Lamarckian would perhaps expect that, once the mice had been suitably hypnotized, they would somehow try very hard to reduce the length of their own tails and would succeed in doing so, if perhaps only to a very slight degree. (Exactly how this would be done is, as I have said, not so clear.) Their children would then be born with very slightly shorter tails, which they in their turn would shorten a bit by the same method, and after many repetitions of this process a generation of tailless mice would finally be produced.

Shaw predicts something completely different. Instead of the mice changing their own bodies by willpower and then passing on those changes to their children, he imagines that the mice's desire for taillessness would somehow cause a few tailless mutants to appear a generation or two later, and that the tailless mutation would become the norm by means of a process which can only be described as eugenics -- that is, self-imposed artificial selection, which is nothing more than a special case of Darwinian natural selection. The bit about the mutation arising "very soon" as a result of the mice's desire (rather than arising eventually by chance) is the only hint of anything non-Darwinian in Shaw's story.

Unlike the mouse story in the preface, which is not Lamarckian at all, the Back to Methuselah plays themselves do feature the inheritance of acquired characteristics. In the story, a few people read a book arguing that the human lifespan must be extended to at least 300 years, and as a result they themselves -- not the next generation, as in the case of the mice -- go on to live for 300 years! Somehow their desire directly causes sweeping physiological changes, which are then inherited by their children. The implication is that, had they instead read a book arguing that humans all ought to be nine feet tall, they could simply have taken thought and added the requisite cubits to their stature. (The physiological changes implied in increased longevity are internal and invisible, which helps make the story seem a little less obviously ridiculous. That's probably why the mouse story, featuring a more obvious physical feature, used a different mechanism. It would be too clearly bogus if the mice's own tails had simply disappeared after the hypnosis.) After that, eugenics -- in the form of sexual selection and genocide -- once again takes over. The long-lived people seek each other out as mates "for the good of the race," and eventually they decide to kill off all the short-lived ones. No matter how hard he tries to be a good Lamarckian, Shaw's imagination keeps being drawn back to Darwinian mechanisms.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

What I thought about Avatar

I finally went and saw Avatar, and, while it certainly does blow you away with its technical brilliance, I found just about everything else about it frustrating and disappointing.

The biggest disappointment is that, having demonstrated his ability to bring a totally alien world to life, Cameron doesn't bother to populate it with totally alien aliens. Six legs and spiracles notwithstanding, most of the animals are instantly recognizable as having been based on specific terrestrial genera (Brontotherium, Tapejara, PantheraEquus, etc. -- and of course Homo), and sometimes the resemblances get even more precise. The horse-analogues, rather than just being vaguely ungulate-like, specifically call to mind draft horses of the Shire breed, and the human-analogues (if that's even the right word for something so human in every anatomical detail) are recognizably Nilotic under the blue skin. The alien humans are by far the worst. While the other animals may give the general impression of a Shire horse or a panther, they are still clearly not from earth. The people, though, are -- well, people. The USB-cord thing in the hair is about the only thing that would make anyone hesitate to classify the a Na'vi as primates, and human primates at that, albeit with atavistic tails. Not only do they lack spiracles, they have eyebrows and breasts and five-toed feet and long hair in the same place humans have long hair, and they smile and laugh and shed tears as an expression of sadness and speak a language with no features that would surprise Noam Chomsky. Talk about convergent evolution! They're so thoroughly human that we don't find it even remotely shocking or unsettling when the earth-human protagonist falls in love with one of them.

Which brings me to the second big disappointment: the complete lack of moral tension. The decision to turn against your own people and make war on them has got to be a monumentally difficult one, even when your own people are clearly the bad guys. Every instinct of loyalty and prudence is pulling you in the other direction, and to override those instincts requires heroism. Jake, though, doesn't seem to wrestle with his choice at all. "How does it feel to betray your own race?" the colonel asks him at the movie's climax -- a question which apparently goes right over Jake's head. As far as we can tell, he doesn't feel anything in particular about turning against his species. The discovery that his people are the bad guys and that it is his duty to kill them -- which should be at least as wrenching as learning that your father is Darth Vader -- makes no discernible emotional impression on him. He doesn't see "us" and "them" at all, only good guys and bad guys. This is all perhaps very morally admirable, but it comes so easily to him that it's drained of its heroism. Courage means feeling the temptation to do the wrong thing but doing the right thing anyway; Cameron never manages to convince us that Jake feels the temptation. The same goes for the handful of other humans who join Jake, from whom betrayal is as easy as saying (almost in so many words) "Screw this, I'm switching sides," and never looking back.

In an early scene Jake thanks his alien love interest for killing some nasty alien predators that were about to have him for lunch, and she rebukes him with, "Don't thank. You don't thank for this. This is sad." I assumed at that point that Cameron was foreshadowing the ending of the film -- that when the war had been won and the Na'vi were thanking Jake for helping them kill off the nasty humans who were going to bulldoze their village, he would echo those words back to them. I could hardly have been more wrong. With so many critics complaining about Avatar's very predictable plot, I guess I should be happy that Cameron managed to surprise me, but, well -- you don't thank for this. This is sad.

Still, though, when all's said and done, the special effects were pretty damn cool.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Baboons react to the death of Michael Jackson

I'm sure this page will come to Yahoo's attention soon and be corrected, so for the benefit of posterity here's what it looks like now:



In addition to the headline/photo combination, there's this great line from the text: "The baboons were named local officials who are supposed to prevent baboons from entering houses and cars." Presumably they meant to say they were named by local officials -- or maybe South African politics really is that corrupt.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The end of the reading log

I've decided to terminate the "reading log" aspect of this blog -- the feature in which I put up a post every time I read a book, even if I don't have anything in particular to say about it except that I finished reading it on such-and-such a date. It's out of place on a blog where I otherwise stick to notes and ideas and steer clear of autobiographical trivia. I'll still be writing about what I read, of course, but only when I actually have something to say.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Reading: The Encantadas, by Herman Melville

I finished Melville's The Encantadas or Enchanted Isles on 5 November, 2009.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Reading: Benito Cereno, by Herman Melville

I finished Melville's Benito Cereno on 5 November, 2009.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Reading: "Bartleby" by Herman Melville

I read Melville's story "Bartleby, the Scrivener" in April 2009 and again on 31 October 2009.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Wocky-Bocky; or, the general public

I found this in Conrad Roth's review of Michael Neo Palaeologus His Grammar, by his Father Stephen N. Palaeologus:
The language of the Grammar is, in fact, utterly delightful, and possibly its chief selling-point. . . . Wocky-Bocky, the name of an Indian chief in a story by Artemus Ward, is resurrected to mean 'the general public'.
Now this, it must be admitted, is perfect. So perfect that I intend to resurrect it myself. (I almost wish I were a more politically oriented person, so that I might have more opportunities to refer, say, to the Wocky-Bocky Republic of China, or to a certain rough beast which I should of course rechristen wockibockiocracy.) This post exists so that I (or, reader, you) can unobtrusively link to it when using the word, in much the same way that one might include a courtesy link to the Wikipedia page for an obscure historical personage mentioned in passing.

Here is the relevant passage from Artemus Ward's Panorama:
But there were too many of these Injuns--there were forty of them--and only one of me--and so I said--

"Great Chief--I surrender." His name was Wocky-bocky.

He dismounted--and approached me. I saw his tomahawk glisten in the morning sunlight. Fire was in his eye. Wocky-bocky came very close to me and seized me by the hair of my head. He mingled his swarthy fingers with my golden tresses--and he rubbed his dreadful Thomashawk across my lily-white face. He said--

"Torsha arrah darrah mishky bookshean!"

I told him he was right.

Wocky-bocky again rubbed his tomahawk across my face, and said--"Wink-ho--loo-boo!"

Says I--"Mr. Wocky-bocky"--says I--"Wocky--I have thought so for years--and so's all our family."

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Reading: "The Piazza" by Herman Melville

I finished Melville's short story "The Piazza" on 27 October 2009.

Ho-hum. The first Melville I've read that wasn't excellent.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Reading: Billy Budd, by Herman Melville

I've read Melville's Billy Budd, Sailor twice, finishing it on 20 April 2007 and 26 October 2009. It's a memorable and provocative tale dealing with the rule of law and the unhappy fate of innocence in a fallen world.

"But your scruples: do they move as in a dusk? Challenge them. Make them advance and declare themselves" (Captain Vere).

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Reading: See You in a Hundred Years, by Logan Ward

I finished Logan Ward's See You in a Hundred Years on 25 October 2009.

One of my side jobs is working with a reading group associated with the Changhua Toastmasters Club, and this is the book they're reading now. It's not the sort of book I would have been likely to read of my own accord, but it turned out to be pretty good. Ward tells the story of how he, his wife, and their two-year-old son lived for a year without using any technology not available in 1900.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The mystery of violet and red solved

Why is red so much more important than violet? I finally found an answer on this page:
As there are around an order of magnitude fewer bluish-violet cone cells than the other two types – and as the other two types are both sensitive to greens – this explains why the human eye is particularly sensitive to variations in the green portion of the spectrum. (For the more pedantic amongst us, the actual ratio of bluish-violet to bluish-green to yellowish-green [i.e., "blue" to "green" to "red"] cone cells is about 1:10:20.)
So the reason red and yellow are the top two colors while violet is an also-ran is simple: there are 20 times as many red/yellow-sensitive cones as violet-sensitive ones. By assuming that "red" cones are specially attuned to red and that the three types of cones are present in equal numbers, I made a mystery out of something that's really quite straightforward. Remember what the no-nose guy says, kids!



Now I'm going to go read the rest of that page I linked to. It looks like a very clear and thorough explanation of color.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The high Berlin-Kay rank of yellow

In a previous post I wondered why, given that our color vision uses an RGB system, our languages consistently treat the non-primary yellow as more basic than blue and sometimes more basic than green. Well, sometimes you have to step back and question the givens.



The above diagram shows the sensitivity of the three cone types to different wavelengths of light. (It comes from Wikipedia. All I've added is the vertical lines dividing the spectrum into "colors.") Once you see that the sensitivity of the so-called red cone actually peaks at yellow, the latter color's status as an honorary primary makes more sense.

Now the question is, why is red considered so much more basic than violet? Being both a bookend of the visible spectrum and the region where the "blue" cone's sensitivity peaks, violet ought to be as important as red and yellow put together -- but, while red is universally treated as the very most basic spectral color, violet is not a basic color in any language. (Purple sometimes is, but purple is not the same as spectral violet.) In fact, violet is so unimportant in our color vision that it's the one spectral color your computer monitor is physically incapable of displaying -- and no one notices.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Reading: The Qur'an

I finished John Medows Rodwell's translation of the Qur'an on 22 October 2009.

I suppose it's inevitable -- if unfair -- for the Western reader to compare the Qur'an with the Bible. Unfair because the latter is the work of an entire civilization, written by dozens of authors in three languages over a period of a thousand years. One could hardly expect the Qur'an, a single book by a single author, to approach the Bible in scope or depth, and, sure enough, it doesn't. Muhammad's book is endlessly repetitious, returning again and again to the same narrow family of themes: the infidels who treated God's messengers as liars, the folly of joining gods with God, the flames of hell, the shaded gardens beneath which the rivers flow, and so on.

The comparison is also unfair because, if the Bible is greatest story ever told, the Qur'an doesn't really tell a story at all. Familiar stories, some biblical and others not, are often alluded to and sometimes summarized, but never properly told. If the Bible often seems to tell stories for their own sake, the Qur'an tends to be more interested in the moral -- which is almost always the same. The people of Noah treated God's signs as lies, so God drowned them. The people of Lot treated God's apostle as a liar, and God rained stones on them. Pharaoh treated God's -- well, you get the idea. There are a few stories which the Qur'an expands in an interesting way, though:

  • In Sura 12, Jacob goes blind with grief over the loss of Joseph and later perceives him by smell. ("I surely perceive the smell of Joseph: think ye that I dote?") This recalls Jacob's younger days, when he deceived his own blind father, partly by means of smell, and passed himself off as Esau.
  • Aaron's golden calf -- which in the Qur'an is actually the work of one Samiri, Aaron being guilty only of not preventing him -- is not a dumb idol, but is animated by some occult power and lows. When Moses returns and demands, "And what was thy motive, O Samiri?" Samiri's reply is, "I saw what they saw not: so I took a handful of dust from the track of the messenger of God, and flung it into the calf, for so my soul prompted me." (Sura 20)
  • Solomon appears (in Suras 27 and 38, for example) as a magician, able to command the winds and the satans and to understand the speech of birds and ants. This aspect of Solomon, the butterfly-who-stamped Solomon, doesn't really turn up in the Bible.
Conspicuous by their absence are the 72 virgins we hear so much about. The houris of paradise are mentioned often, but the number 72 doesn't come from the Qur'an. Nor is there much of a focus on martyrdom or smiting the infidels. There's a bit of "slay them wherever ye find them" in places, but overall the Qur'an is less militaristic than some of its modern-day adherents would lead one to believe. One passage did jump out at me in connection with 9/11, though: "And who shall teach thee what Hell-fire is? It leaveth nought, it spareth nought, blackening the skin. Over it are nineteen angels. None but angels have We made guardians of the Fire: nor have We made this to be their number but to perplex the unbelievers" (Sura 74). Could that be the reason the al-Qaeda guys chose to use 19 hijackers?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Orange hair

In his collection of Obvious Untruths, Chrs mentions "red" hair:
No person naturally has Red Hair, They only have Orange Hair. Why do people become so hysterical when you suggest that someone has Orange Hair?
Despite the proverbial hotheadedness of orangeheads, I've never known anyone to react hysterically to this observation. Rather, it tends to be treated as a bit of quasi-wit of the why-do-we-drive-on-the-parkway-and-park-in-the-driveway variety, rarely eliciting more than a monosyllabic chuckle.

But why do we call orange hair -- and orange foxes and purple wine and a lot of other non-red things -- "red"? I remember learning about "red" hair as a kid, around the same time that I learned to call brown and peach people "black" and "white," and being confused by it. Calling things by inacurate color names doesn't come naturally to kids -- they have to be taught it -- so why is it so common among adults? It's not just a quirk of the English language, either. In Chinese, for example, the word for "carrot" literally means "red radish," and orangutans are called "red-furred apes." What's going on here?

Part of it seems to be a preference for what Brent Berlin and Paul Kay called "basic color terms." After surveying numerous languages, they identified 11 basic color terms, some of which are more basic than others. Donald Brown summarizes their findings as follows:
[i]f a language has only two colors--and all languages have at least two--they are always white and black; if a language has three colors, the one added is red; if a fourth is added, it will be either green or yellow; when a fifth is added, it will then include both green and yellow; the sixth added is blue; the seventh added is brown; and if an eighth or more terms are added, it or they will be purple, pink, orange, or gray. (quoted here)
So the hierarchy goes something like this:
  1. black, white
  2. red
  3. yellow, green
  4. blue
  5. brown
  6. purple, pink, orange, gray
  7. all other colors
In every case I can think of where something is consistently described with an objectively incorrect color term, the term used is always more basic than the actual color. Many orange things (foxes, flames, Yellow trucks) are called "red" or "yellow," but few if any red or yellow things are called "orange." Gray dogs and purple violets can be called "blue," but bluebirds are never called "gray" or "purple." Human skins come in various shades of brown and pink, but we prefer to call them instead by the most basic of colors: black, white, red, and yellow.

Berlin and Kay would say that English has 11 basic colors and that all other colors are non-basic. If a color is non-basic, you can get away with using a more basic color word instead and no one will look at you strange. Words like "magenta" and "goldenrod" are available if you want to use them, but you can always just say "pink" and "yellow" instead. Basic colors, on the other hand, are mandatory vocabulary. If something is unambiguously blue in color, "blue" is the most basic word you can use for it. You can get less basic if you like (cornflower, navy, turquoise, etc.), but you can't use a more basic word like "green" or "black." I think there's also a middle rank of semi-basic colors like purple an orange. In some situations these words are basic  (if a guy's wearing an purple T-shirt, you can't call it "red" or "blue"), but in others they're not ("red grapes" is okay). The truly basic colors in English are black, white, red, yellow, green, and blue. The semi-basic colors are brown, pink, purple, orange, and gray. Other languages will draw the lines differently (in Chinese, blue is only semi-basic and you can get away with calling the sky "green") but will presumably always conform to Berlin and Kay's hierarchy.

Which leads to a more fundamental question: why that particular hierarchy? The most basic colors are certainly not the ones you'd tend to encounter most often in nature. If the purpose of language is to describe what we see, you'd think every language on earth would consider brown a basic color, with red much lower on the hierarchy. You'd also think that at least one of the many languages spoken by Caucasians would have a basic color word for describing their own skin! I mean, how much more basic can you get? But they don't.

The other obvious theory would be that the basic colors reflect some property of the human eye, but that doesn't quite seem to work, either. As far as the eye is concerned, the basic colors are black and white (rods) and red, green, and blue (cones). So why does yellow outrank blue and sometimes even green? And what's so special about red that makes it more basic than its fellow primaries?