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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Desert Island Discs

It's been a long time since I last saw anyone list their "desert island discs"--the ten albums they prize most. (This used to be the best part of Tower Records's surprisingly good promotional magazine, Pulse.) Here are mine, because I love sharing good music and making lists satisfies my closet autism. There's something exciting about distilling a lifetime of taste into one short list.

One note: desert island discs must be albums. They can be studio or concert albums, but they must be work the musicians intended to be heard as a single experience. No The Best of Leonard Cohen or (the 3-years posthumous) Legend .

My ten:
Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway
Jay-Z and the Roots Unplugged
Joni Mitchell - Blue
Iggy and the Stooges - Raw Power
Cannonball Adderley - Them Dirty Blues
Bob Dylan - Blonde on Blonde
Pearl Jam - Ten
Aretha Franklin - Sparkle
Sonic Youth - Daydream Nation
Salif Keita - Moffou
A few notes:

A few years ago it would have been Blood on the Tracks and not Blonde on Blonde, but as happens often these days I've come around to the one championed by my friend Charles Kaiser. I recently listened to the seven albums Dylan released between 1962 and 1966, and The Times They Are A-Changin' also stood out--I'd forgotten about "Boots of Spanish Leather", and "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" is especially haunting to me since seeing Dylan's 1964 1965 Albert Hall performance in D. A. Pennebaker's documentary Don't Look Back. By the way, a few years ago, Ian Frazier wrote a great article about the song and the real event of Hattie Carroll's death in Mother Jones.

I listen to these ten albums all the time, except for Daydream Nation. I'd give the spot to Nico & Rushad (an excellent classical-jazz fusion album) or Jimi Hendrix's Axis: Bold as Love, but I put too many hours of my life into Daydream Nation in high school.

And last, I cheated. Here's a separate list of ten hip-hop (and trip-hop, electronic, etc.) albums:
Jay-Z and the Roots Unplugged
Fourtet - Pause
Avalanches - Since I Left You
3rd Bass - Derelicts of Dialect
Dujeous? - City Limits
Ghostface Killah - Supreme Clientele
Jay-Z and Danger Mouse - Grey Album
Nas - Illmatic
Outkast - ATLiens
XClan - Xodus
Alice, I'd like to know your picks, and I have another question for you: with which still-working musicians would you buy a new album sight unseen? (Er, sound unheard?) I'd trust Bjork, Outkast, Dujeous?, and that's about it.

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New book covers






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Blogger GS on Wed Mar 28, 08:01:00 AM:
I worked on Words Without Borders and the Camus! And both those covers had long evolutions...

-GH
 
Blogger Ben on Wed Mar 28, 08:09:00 AM:
Congratulations! They both look fantastic.
 
Blogger GS on Wed Mar 28, 07:26:00 PM:
Oh, and I forgot - they were both designed by the same person: the incomparable Helen Yentus (www.helenyentus.com) whose site seems to be still in progress.

-GH
 

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Eclectica Esoterica

Here's the link to the pdf version of one of many new publications at Columbia, Eclectica Esoterica, a collection of odd papers that students wrote for courses. I just skimmed through them, but I like the idea of students publishing weird classwork that they genuinely enjoyed writing.

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

ABA: better than the bar exam

Nine of the names below are real teams from the American Basketball Association; nine are fake.

Dallas Chaparrals
Madison Maniacs
New Jersey Americans
Raleigh Rifles
Kentucky Colonels
Chicago Mountain Lions
Minnesota Muskies
Washington Presidents
Baltimore Claws
Springfield Legends
Oakland Oaks
San Antonio Alamos
Pittsburgh Pipers
Buffalo Lassos
Anaheim Amigos
Nashville Notes
Memphis Sounds
San Francisco Prospectors

Hilight text below for answers.

Answers: Real, fake, real, fake, etc.
All real teams were among the 1967 founders, except the Claws, who only existed for three exhibition games, and the Sounds, who were owned by Isaac Hayes (who renamed them; previously they were the Memphis Tams, possibly the worst name in sports history).

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Barbarians at the logic gate

Coding Horror, written by a Microsoft programmer, discusses Simlish, the fake language created for The Sims:
When The Sims was originally designed, Will Wright wanted the language the Sims spoke to be unrecognizable but full of emotion. That way, every player could construct their own story without being confined to a Maxis-written script (to say nothing of the mind-numbing repetition). We experimented with fractured Ukrainian, and the Tagalog language of The Philippines. Will even suggested that perhaps we base the sound on Navajo, inspired by the code talkers of WWII. None of those languages allowed us the sound we were looking for -- so we opted for complete improvisation.

Simlish is, by definition, meaningless. And yet it's surprisingly easy to figure out what a Sim is talking about, even without any visual point of reference or a facial expression to read. The intonation and context of the sounds is enough to extract meaning.

...

Simlish even extends to music. Last year, Maxis paid many original artists to re-record their songs with Simlish lyrics...

Probably the funniest example of this is the Pussycat Dolls' re-recording of "Don't Cha" in Simlish...

Singing in gibberish almost makes a Pussycat Dolls song more intelligible. It's brilliant. Doba, baby, doba!

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Saturday, March 24, 2007

A life of magical thinking

From a January story in the NY Times, which lead me to think about Antonio Gramsci for the first time in a while:
Children exhibit a form of magical thinking by about 18 months, when they begin to create imaginary worlds while playing. By age 3, most know the difference between fantasy and reality, though they usually still believe (with adult encouragement) in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. By age 8, and sometimes earlier, they have mostly pruned away these beliefs, and the line between magic and reality is about as clear to them as it is for adults.

It is no coincidence, some social scientists believe, that youngsters begin learning about faith around the time they begin to give up on wishing. “The point at which the culture withdraws support for belief in Santa and the Tooth Fairy is about the same time it introduces children to prayer,” said Jacqueline Woolley, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas. “The mechanism is already there, kids have already spent time believing that wishing can make things come true, and they’re just losing faith in the efficacy of that.”
...
Yet in a series of experiments published last summer, psychologists at Princeton and Harvard showed how easy it was to elicit magical thinking in well-educated young adults. In one instance, the researchers had participants watch a blindfolded person play an arcade basketball game, and visualize success for the player. The game, unknown to the subjects, was rigged: the shooter could see through the blindfold, had practiced extensively and made most of the shots.

On questionnaires, the spectators said later that they had probably had some role in the shooter’s success. A comparison group of participants, who had been instructed to visualize the player lifting dumbbells, was far less likely to claim such credit.
In another experiment, the researchers demonstrated that young men and women instructed on how to use a voodoo doll suspected that they might have put a curse on a study partner who feigned a headache. And they found, similarly, that devoted fans who watched the 2005 Super Bowl felt somewhat responsible for the outcome, whether their team won or lost. Millions in Chicago and Indianapolis are currently trying to channel the winning magic.
...
Only in extreme doses can magical thinking increase the likelihood of mental distress, studies suggest. People with obsessive-compulsive disorder are often nearly paralyzed by the convictions that they must perform elaborate rituals, like hand washing or special prayers, to ward off contamination or disaster. The superstitions, perhaps harmless at the outset, can grow into disabling defense mechanisms.
I don't recall doing much wishing when I was young, at least not where I expected wishing to make it so. But the observation about sports is right on. I think that is one of the big attractions of sports: you invest your wishing and receive as dividend a portion of the victory or failure.

But more importantly, I think the piece errs by assuming that magical thinking is isolated to unusual cases like remote prayer and OCD. Our very experience of cause and effect is cobbled together from correlates that often turn out to be false: if I switch lanes, the lane will start moving as soon as I have left; John Kerry lost the election because voters saw him as stiff; a low-carb diet will help me lose pounds more easily. What evidence do we have for most of our beliefs, besides scattered observations that we connect liberally?

In one frustrating recent example, a friend remarked that she had been excited about Barack Obama last December, but now he's proving to be just another unexceptional candidate. A few questions revealed that she hadn't particularly been following the campaign, and certainly not reading the Congressional Record. It wasn't that Obama had been inert or pandering, but that she hadn't learned anything new about him, and assumed there was nothing new to learn.

I don't mean to roll my eyes at her; I do the same thing. It's difficult to catch myself making unfair assumptions, because they seem so like the thousands of necessary assumptions I make all the time. I've never read an in-depth study of the results of drug legalization, for example, but from news stories, scattered anecdotes, a few arguments, and internal pondering I've come to believe it's a good idea almost as much as I believe the sky is blue.

This is not to say that we are too quick to assign cause-and-effect relationships to phenomena. In fact, we can't do otherwise; it's how our minds work. "Magical thinking" as demonstrated by the blindfold experiment is the same kind of everyday thinking that allows us to build knowledge from incomplete and inconsistent stimuli. We should not pretend to be above such gaps in our thinking. Instead we should follow the suggestion of Antonio Gramsci, who writes in Prison Notebooks:

The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is 'knowing thyself' as a product of the historical process to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory... therefore it is imperative at the outset to compile such an inventory.
(As edited by Edward Said in Orientalism, from various translations.)

I don't know of any writers publishing such inventories. But they need not be explicit. One kind of good writer, I think, makes his inventory of assumptions present in the text even if he doesn't bore readers by enumerating them. That's the kind of writer I try to be.

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Friday, March 23, 2007

Investigation and paranoia

I strongly second Ben's recommendation to see The Lives of Others. I also strongly recommend Zodiac: I saw it a few weeks ago and haven't stopped thinking about it. One of my friends was initially sheepish about how excited he was to see it: "I know it sounds weird, but I sort of had this serial killer obsession when I was in high school..." I think my version of it was my Tonya Harding obsession, which I admitted in similarly sheepish detail here. Back in 1994, I was convinced that if I could just read every piece of "evidence" about Tonya and Nancy Kerrigan, I could figure out the real culprit behind the knee-clubbing. It was a flawed premise, to say the least. The comments on that post from from Jenny D and Kate lead me to believe that it's not an uncommon belief to have about how obsessive reading will pay off.

Zodiac is a brutal movie about something like that problem. The scenes of violence are shocking, but they occur at the beginning of the movie, and the next two-plus hours are an account of how detection and information-gathering techniques do or don't work the way they're supposed to. I wasn't surprised that the ads for the movie show Jake Gyllenhaal mumbling that he "likes puzzles": basically, he's the stand-in for Fincher and the audience. Gyllenhaal's character, Robert Graysmith, isn't even the one to break the Zodiac killer's symbol code--a schoolteacher who does the daily crossword solves that puzzle--but the code stuff is a distraction. It's the micro version of the larger problem of how to interpret data that's incomplete or even irreconcilable.

Fincher, a notoriously exacting film director, even put himself into the role of obsessive investigator in making the film. He grew up in Marin County and remembers being afraid of the Zodiac killer's threats to kill schoolchildren. In a NY Times profile of the movie, he discusses this personal connection to the investigation:
But the source of his dark-hued lens on life, Mr. Fincher suggested, might be as simple as that original bogeyman. "It was a very interesting and weird time to grow up, and incredibly evocative," he said. "I have a handful of friends who were from Marin County at the same time, the same age group, and they're all very kind of sinister, dark, sardonic people. And I wonder if Zodiac had something to do with that."

Mr. Fincher was first approached about "Zodiac" by Brad Fischer, a producer at Phoenix Pictures, with a script by James Vanderbilt. It was based on two books by Robert Graysmith, a former San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist who became obsessed with the Zodiac, and who built a case against one suspect, now dead. Mr. Fincher said he wanted Mr. Vanderbilt to overhaul the script, but wanted first to dig into the original police sources. So director, writer and producer spent months interviewing witnesses, investigators and the case's only two surviving victims, and poring over reams of documents.

"I said I won't use anything in this book that we don't have a police report for," Mr. Fincher said. "There's an enormous amount of hearsay in any circumstantial case, and I wanted to look some of these people in the eye and see if I believed them. It was an extremely difficult thing to make a movie that posthumously convicts somebody."

Mr. Graysmith said Mr. Fincher's team found evidence that investigators had missed. "He outdid the police," Mr. Graysmith said. "My hat's off to them."

And of course Fincher's been down this road before in Se7en: Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt take a bizarre side-trip to the library because Freeman is convinced that they'll find the killer if they can figure out what books he's read. It's an odd digression in the detective work that seems like it could only work in an unnamed rain-drenched city with artfully filthy windows and pristine Gothic libraries, although it does lead to the great line from Pitt about that smooth operator, the Marquis de Sade. Gyllenhaal's Graysmith uses the same trick of coordinating library check-outs in Zodiac.

I'm partial to any data-mining techniques practiced by young Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor, but I'm skeptical of how often the gambit gets used in movies and books because it frequently seems to provide exactly and only the information that the detectives need. I know I'm supposed to suspend disbelief at these things--I always do in 24, where data-mining seems to take seconds--but it strikes me as an interesting epistemological question (no, really) about crime procedurals: how do we know what we know in the procedural? How do we distinguish good and bad information? Why do we believe that more evidence-gathering will lead to greater clarity? The great thing about Zodiac is that it takes up many of these questions: the film is so long because there's so much contradictory information to be sorted out, and there are significant lags in coordinating the investigations among the three police departments involved in the case. Owen Gleiberman mentions this fascinating problem in his review of the film.

Two other things: of course Zodiac has a fantastic cast, but I was struck by how many actors with instantly recognizable voices are in the movie. Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo are obvious examples--they're reliably great--but I recognized the voices of Philip Baker Hall, Brian Cox, and Elias Koteas before I saw them on the screen (I think they're each introduced on the phone, but I'm not sure about that). The other is that Robert Graysmith also wrote the book that Greg Kinnear's Auto-Focus is based on; that movie has something in common with Zodiac in that it's about a man who's done in by obsessive documentation.

I got in the mood to see Zodiac by reading Ken Alder's The Lie Detectors: The History of an American Obsesion. It's pretty good: I was most interested in the last chapter, "Box Populi," which details how the lie detector has become a part of popular culture and we make certain uncritical assumptions about how information can and should be attained in investigations. In an earlier chapter he talks about how the lie detector was used to intimidate suspects, even as it didn't generate reliable data about truth-telling. And how would you really be able to tell whether it was successful in distinguishing a truthful statement from lie if there was no control variable?
The lie detector, it turned out, was not so much a thing-in-itself as a mirror that magnified the context in which it was used. Change the context, and the meaning changed. The machine could just as easily amplify the intimdating mob violence of the Ku Klux Klan as the sanctioned investigation of the model station house. Like any mirror (like any placebo), it was not so much an agent in itself as a question: What do you believe?

This problem recurs several times in the book, when Alder notes the lie detector's use to manipulate suspects in a few high-profile cases, but I would have liked to read more about that issue of knowledge production in a police investigation and a little less about the odd biographies of the inventors. That is, I think the biography section could have been streamlined, and the implications sections could have been fuller.

I have an ongoing research interest in what happens when investigations turn up noise that's interpreted as significant data. This problem shows up in one of my favorite scenes in the movie, when Graysmith thinks he's found a lead and ends up getting totally creeped out in a house that seems to be full of clues. Another way to think about it is what happens when the evidence turned up in an investigation turns out to be a mere artifact of the investigatory procedure itself (like Charles Kinbote's annotation work in Pale Fire)?

I've been thinking lately about Don Foster's Author Unknown, an account of his career as a literary detective, or "attributional theorist." Foster argues for his ability to determine authorship based on close analysis of literary style. He's used those close reading skills to determine the identity of Joe Klein, once-anonymous author of Primary Colors; to attribute a funeral elegy to Shakespeare; to determine the identity of an alt-weekly correspondent in Northern California whom some people believed was Thomas Pynchon; and to claim that Clement Clark Moore was not the author of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." (I do love the Statistically Improbable Phrases for the book: among them are huge liar, funeral poem, William Gaddis, questioned document, anonymous document, mad bomber, talking points, and text archive.) In his review of the book (from the London Review of Books, archived at the Complete Review), John Lanchester argues that these investigations can pose as many problems about close reading as evidence as they bring up:
Still, the dedication started Foster off on his career. It led him to a funeral elegy of 1612, printed and published by the same team of Eld and Thorpe, and signed by one "W.S.". He became convinced that the (not very good) poem was a late, unattributed work by Shakespeare, and set about proving it. The difficulty was that all the evidence for the authorship was internal; it consisted for the most part of the poem's strikingly high incidence of Shakespearean phrases. When Oxford University Press turned down a proposal for a book on the elegy, partly on the grounds that internal evidence could not make a reliable case for authorship, Foster cheekily wrote to the anonymous author of the reader's report, on the basis that his style was indistinguishable from that of Samuel Schoenbaum. He was right, though no one was especially impressed by the stunt; Schoenbaum had the English Department secretary reply to the letter. When Foster finished the book, he submitted it, was turned down again, and pulled the same trick again, this time identifying the anonymous reader as Stanley Wells. Foster wrote to Wells, without letting on how he had worked out who wrote the reader's report, and Wells wrote back, thanking Foster for his letter and expressing surprise that his editor at OUP had let on who he was. "I wrote back, explaining to Dr Wells with imperfectly concealed glee that . . . it was by relying on methods employed in Elegy by W.S.: A Study in Attribution that I had established Dr Wells's authorship of that anonymous reader's report. Dr Wells was not amused." No surprise there. What is amusing is that Foster would think this piece of detective work might in any way advance his case over attributing the elegy. Wells was, as Foster points out, co-editing the OUP's new complete Shakespeare, and establishing him as the author of the anonymous report was close to a no-brainer; a very different business from establishing a highly contestable 17th-century attribution with no external evidence. Here as elsewhere, Author Unknown tells a story a little different from the one it thinks it is telling. The reader sees Foster as a much more bumptious, aggressive, disingenuous, insensitive, on-the-make figure than the country-mouse-cum-fearless-quester-after truth he presents himself as being.

There's also considerable debate about the Clement Clark Moore chapter, as Stephen Nissenbaum points out in this thoughtful essay from the Common-place. I can't remember whether Foster ever points out that some of these projects seem Pynchon-esque in and of themselves--less strange versions of Oedipa Maas' investigations into the Tristero mystery in The Crying of Lot 49. Here's this passage from the final pages of the book:
For there either was some Tristero beyond the appearance of the legacy America, or there was just America and if there was just America then it seemed the only way she could continue, and manage to be at all relevant to it, was as an alien, unfurrowed, assumed full circle into paranoia.

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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Dreaming of 3-pointers

I started watching the Larry Bird Celtics at a young age in the 80s, and 3-pointers were such a central part of Bird's greatness that I never imagined they were a recent invention. It seems that a Columbia University coach invented the 3-pointer in 1945 as one of several experiments in a single regular-season game with Fordham. Coach Howard Hobson also widened the key from 6 feet to the now-standard 12, and gave fouled players the option of shooting free throws from 21 feet instead of the usual 15--the farther free throws were worth two points instead of one.

Players and spectators liked the innovations, but remarkably, it took 34 years for the NBA to catch on. (Former Celtic and later Celtics coach Chris Ford made the first 3-pointer in the NBA in 1979.) 3-pointers were counted in the smaller American Basketball Association from its first season in 1968, and the ABA apparently (so says Wikipedia) used them, along with slam dunks, which were frowned upon by the NBA, to attract audiences (to famous effect with Julius Erving, Dr. J.). College basketball was even more slow to notice the improvement: the NCAA didn't adopt the rule until 1986, 41 years after Hobson's experiment.

As I age and realize how powerful inertia is, stories like this have an arresting power that they never had for me when I was younger. History is full of stories that children are taught as fact and not as wild risks: rebellions, sacrifices, gambles. And while It's not exactly becoming a partisan fighter against Franco or working the Underground Railroad, Coach Hobson's experiment took an uncommon amount of vision and chutzpah. He was probably laughed at by some and ignored by most, but he pushed to have his proposals tried in a real game and made it happen. Decades later, the game caught up with him and is deeper and more fun to play and watch.

I've been thinking basketball since it became clear that 1) the Celtics are at rock bottom and will have their best draft pick in years, and 2) Kevin Durant, a brilliant freshman adept at all positions, could be next year a brilliant NBA rookie adept at all positions.

Boston sportswriter Bill Simmons is rabid with lust for Durant (he calls Durant "an unfathomable cross between T-Mac and Plastic Man who can score facing the basket and from 25 feet away"), and has vowed to move back to Boston (from LA, where he pretends for ESPN to care about teams besides the Red Sox, the Patriots, the Celtics, and the Holy Cross Crusaders) if the stars align and Durant becomes a Celtic this summer. (By the way, it's always awkward to be reminded of the name "Holy Cross Crusaders".)

Simmons has reposted his 2002 paean to the NCAA Final Four/March Madness tournament. It captures the intense personal involvement you feel when watching your favorite teams play, and in Simmons's signature style, airs the passionate and potentially embarrassing feelings of being a fan:
You check the clock. Ten minutes gone and we're still tied. One-fourth of the game. Not bad. You don't want to believe, not yet ... but you're intrigued. You fight off the urge to call one of your friends. Can't jinx it. Not yet.

You notice the television cameras keep showing the raucous rooting section for your school, those same familiar colors that you wore once upon a time. Your school. Makes you jealous. You wish you were there. You should have gone. You feel left out. But maybe if you had ventured to the game, they wouldn't be playing this well. You start thinking about weird stuff like that.

Now you're glancing at the clock incessantly. As long as the score remains close, you want that clock moving at warp speed. Faster. Faster.
The Elite Eight games are on tonight, and possible future Celtic Greg Oden is playing. Maybe one day soon the Celtics will have him or Durant and actually make the playoffs!

A final note--on the subject of Celtics and 3s, there are some great Larry Bird clips on YouTube. Just like many of the greatest Michael Jordan clips are really Jordan-Pippen plays, most of these are true Celtics plays, including several that include Bird, McHale, and Parrish passing to each other as if they were of one mind.

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Anonymous ash on Fri Mar 23, 01:27:00 AM:
I find the three point shot in today's college and pro ball both exciting and frustrating at the same time. Exciting in its ability to drive momentum - anyone who watched the Sweet 16 matchup between Tennessee and Ohio State would have seen Tennessee almost burying Ohio State with big three point shooting. Exciting also when seven footers like Dirk Nowitzski are draining big-time long distance shots. But then frustrating when guys like Jamal Crawford and Antoine Walker shoot 3's at close to 30%.

As for "possible future Celtic Greg Oden", here's to the emphasis on FUTURE. I hope we get him at Ohio State for another year - it'd be a terrible shame to see him toiling away in Celtic green at the bottom of the division.
 
Blogger Alice on Fri Mar 23, 04:53:00 PM:
OK, but Simmons' running diary of the first two days of this year's tournament was unreadable. You know how when you watch sports or 24 or something that inspires obsessive devotion, and you're hanging out with your friends, and you've all been friends long enough that you know one another's jokes before they say them, but you laugh at them anyway because it's a genial atmosphere... you don't really want to make a running transcript of these interactions because they're obnoxious to people who aren't there. Even when I thought so-and-so's joke about Billy Packer was funny, I was still gritting my teeth because I'd heard a variation on it a million times before.

Brette pointed out that I didn't need to read the running diary if I was going to fume about it. It's not like I didn't know the format and its limitations. But this running diary took all the worst tendencies of his other running diaries and magnified them to an infuriating degree. But that's the point of reading Simmons, right? And I did quote some of the comments later on that evening in recapping the games. So maybe it wasn't unreadable, I just hate myself for reading it.

I didn't make brackets this year because I'm so bad at it and I embarrass myself every year. So I had imaginary brackets that were still intact after the first round--but even those are destroyed now after Texas A&M's loss last night due to a questionable call from the refs. (I had the Aggies in the Final Four in these imaginary brackets. I'm very honest in scrupulously accounting for the non-recorded record of my failure.)
 

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Discover's "20 Things" lists

Discover magazine has several lists in a series called "Twenty things you didn't know about..."

From their list about meteors:
2 The Perseids are also called the "Tears of Saint Lawrence" after a martyred Christian deacon whom the Romans burned to death on an outdoor iron stove in A.D. 258. Before dying, he was said to have cried out: "I am already roasted on one side. If thou wouldst have me well cooked, it is time to turn me on the other."

6 Meteorites contain the oldest known rocks in the solar system, as well as pre-solar grains, minerals that formed around other stars perhaps billions of years before our solar system was born.

7 To protect it from the estimated 100,000 meteoroids that will slam into it during its expected 20-year life span, the International Space Station is covered with a foot-thick blanket of Kevlar, the material used to make bulletproof vests.

8 Each day, up to 4 billion meteoroids fall to Earth.

9 Don't worry. Most of them are minuscule in size.

10 Meteorite impacts have been blamed for hundreds of injuries, but only one has been verified by scientists. In 1954, Annie Hodges of Sylacauga, Alabama, was struck by an eight-pound meteorite that crashed though her roof and bounced off a radio into her hip while she was napping.

13 One way of deflecting a Near Earth Object is to explode a nuclear device in its vicinity. The resulting radiation pulse would vaporize the object's surface; as the vapor streamed away, it would deliver a thrust that could throw the body off course. This push is known as an X-ray slap.

15 To communicate over long distances, NATO and the National Weather Service still bounce radio signals off the ionized trails left by meteors when they enter Earth's atmosphere.
About death:
3 No American has died of old age since 1951.

4 That was the year the government eliminated that classification on death certificates.

5 The trigger of death, in all cases, is lack of oxygen. Its decline may prompt muscle spasms, or the "agonal phase," from the Greek word agon, or contest.

19 If you can't make it here . . . More people commit suicide in New York City than are murdered.

20 It is estimated that 100 billion people have died since humans began.
About lab accidents:
2 German scientist Hennig Brand stored 50 buckets of urine in his cellar for months in 1675, hoping that it would turn into gold. Instead, an obscure mix of alchemy and chemistry yielded a waxy, glowing goo that spontaneously burst into flame—the element now known as phosphorus.

5 Kevlar, superglue, cellophane, Post-it notes, photographs, and the phonograph: They all emerged from laboratory blunders.

13 After a 1992 drug trial in the Welsh mining town of Merthyr Tydfil, male subjects reported that sildenafil citrate hadn't done much for their angina, but it did have an unusual side effect on another part of their anatomy. Today the drug is sold as Viagra.

14 In 1943 Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman inadvertently absorbed a small quantity of lysergic acid through his fingertips and experienced "dizziness . . . visual distortions . . . [a] desire to laugh." The age of LSD had begun.

17 In 1965 astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson scrubbed their Bell Labs radio antenna to rid it of pigeon droppings, which they suspected were causing the instrument's annoying steady hiss.

18 That noise turned out to be the microwave echo of the Big Bang.

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Monday, March 19, 2007

Ranking professors and everything in sight; or, the fourth-best thing I've written this month

On Gary Becker and Richard Posner's blog, they have been discussing rankings and anonymous ratings. This pricked my ear because of Culpa, Columbia's course review site, which I built with my friend Ashran while an undergrad. When we launched our version of Culpa (it was then a defunct review site that had few reviews but lots of attitude), we weren't sure if students would be fair and honest in their reviews. More than 10,000 reviews later, we still aren't sure, and we've had to pull some offensive reviews, but on the whole I think it adds more than it takes away.

But there's one troubling side-effect: many reviews applaud teachers for being easy graders and, worse, for being entertaining rather than substantial. Not all review do this, and there are much-loved profs with rave reviews who are notorious stiffs with the curve. But there are few reviews that fault profs for demanding of students too little learning. And it hurts to know that at least one professor friend of mine is irked by the site, though she is reviewed favorably.

Becker writes of this type of unintended side effect:

Perhaps the most serious problem with rankings is that institutions "game the measure". So if the ratio of admissions to acceptances were used, then as Posner indicates, schools might tend to admit applicants who do not have good alternatives. If hospitals are ranked partly by the death rate among patients, then hospitals have an incentive to shy away from admitting terminally ill patients, or those with difficult-to cure conditions.
And if professors are rated by how pleased students are with their grades at the end of the semester, they have an incentive not only to be lenient graders, not only to demand less work of their students, but also to be less intellectually challenging, less confrontative and less eccentric, all of which can translate into negative reviews.

Life is full of initially off-putting experiences that we come to appreciate. A by-product of giving students information about professors is that it gets in the way of surprising and serendipitous encounters. On the other hand, it allows students who crave inspiring teachers to find ones they might never otherwise come across.

And there's always the possibility that a professor might improve after reading the feedback. Becker:
Yet schools and other organizations respond to their ranking position not only by gaming the measure, but also by improving what they provide. In this way, some business schools and colleges ranked low in the amenities and other characteristics of the learning experience provided students have responded by improving physical facilities and the guidance offered to students, reducing class size, and increasing networking.
Becker, in his concern about gaming the rankings systems, doesn't realize what a bigger problem it is that rankings systems so often measure the wrong thing. On Culpa, the satisfaction of the mouthiest student must stand in for the quality of a lecturer; I wonder sometimes if these elements are not negatively correlated.

Meanwhile, the Wealth Project blog, by a clandestine friend of mine, asks regarding college rankings, is the value of an Ivy League education overrated?
...a fair number of the Ivy Leaguers also point out that the undergraduate experience at an Ivy League school is not all about intense intellectual debate and curiosity, and you may be surprised by what goes on within the student body - everything from stereotypical StateU-type binge drinking and partying to rampant cheating and plagiarism to a more than uncommon intellectual non-curiosity. So, while certain synergies come from putting a bunch of smart people together, does a driven high achiever excel because of the environment or is that same person going to excel no matter where he or she goes to school?
The author isn't overstating the case. I majored in history and computer science, and while I seldom heard of plagiarism in history (Alice? Do you hear scuttlebutt among the English professors about this at Columbia?), cheating was rampant in engineering. Friends joked that the major "industrial engineering and operations research", or IEOR, was actually a major in cheating. Intellectual non-curiosity ruled even a large number of ostensible intellectuals, including quite a few at the Columbia Spectator, where Alice and I met (she edited me and many others, and she'd have demanded heavy cuts in this piece). And while Ivy academics is harder for some and easier for others, I think that even if you never read the books, it would be hard to major in history, attend the lectures and turn in gramatically-correct assignments on time and earn less than a B average.

Meanwhile, it's clearly possible to be smart and successful without going to a top school. Look at the heads of most businesses and organizations you care about; few went to Ivy League schools. Even most Ivy League professors didn't go to Ivies as undergraduates. So that's another problem with rankings: ordering imposes a sense of relative value that may not apply. Surely a Culpa reader can find a few professors who sound right up their alley, but I wonder if graduating students would rate their professors higher today, under the Culpa regime, than they would have ten years ago.

It might be that ratings and rankings are more about our instinct to organize--like John Cusack in High Fidelity, I would happily make top ten lists of things in a corner all day--than they are about the underlying quality of the ordered things themselves. I'm not kidding about the title of this post; the three better entries are The bells and barbarus of Seville, Internet comes to town, Internet leaves town, and What I'd pay for a mind free of DC subway minutiae, and I loved choosing them. Is my desire to select, rank and order proto-autistic? Or is it as powerful in most people?

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Blogger Alice on Fri Mar 23, 05:28:00 PM:
Jaime pointed out the other day that the posters on review sites such as CULPA tend to be writing to impress one another, not to add to a general ethic of recommendation or appraisal. He also sent this parody of what Socrates' course evaluations would have looked like:

http://chronicle.com/temp/reprint.php?%20id=6fnxs4gx7j6qr4v7qn567y5hb52ywb33

I guess I'm more optimistic about student work than those who decry the current state of intellectual debate on college campuses. I have two reactions to those claims: 1) certainly there are anti-intellectual people out there and instances of bad behavior or inflated senses of entitlement are disheartening--and familiar. 2) Nevertheless, what if, for every article about student anti-intellectualism--which tend to sound very similar and always hearken back to some unspecified past when everyone was alert and engaged and brilliant--someone wrote another article about something inspiring that happened in the classroom? I guess that's what the Gold Stars were for on CULPA. I don't mean this recommendation in a Pollyanna-ish way, or even in a Heidi Julavits anti-snark book review kind of way: people do good work in college classes sometimes, and we should come up with new ways to generate excitement so we can see what works. I'm much more interested to hear someone be excited about their work than someone give a litany of complaints I've heard before. It's something like that essay you like so much, Ben, about making your own projects when you're bored in school.
 
Blogger Ben on Sat May 19, 05:13:00 PM:
There's truth to Jaime's observation, but I think the reality of the matter is more mundane, as is so often the case with pronouncements of doom (or at least, valuelessness), and as is the case, as you point out, Alice, with my own worries about the dearth of intellectualism on campuses.

(Whew! If being an intellectual means writing sentences like that, no wonder it's not a more popular pastime.)

Thankfully, the median review on CULPA is pretty straightforward -- prof X was pretty good/bad for reason Y. But I am proud of the overall tone of the site, which has stayed surprisingly close to the tone that Alex Feerst and I set with our 25 or so reviews each when CULPA started. I like to think it's irreverent but not arrogant, and informative but not neutral.

Ironically, I think the joking reviews of Socrates are actually pretty useful. There's a lot of information you can draw from the contrasting reviews. Take, for example, "I was amazed at how he could take just about any argument and prove it wrong" and "He makes students feel bad by criticizing them all the time. He pretends like he's teaching them, but he's really ramming his ideas down student's throtes." It's pretty clear to me that I would more agree with the first reviewer than the second.

I think many folks are so enamored of sharing their opinions that they don't notice how often their less attractive qualities show. The reviewer who says "I spend serious money for my education and I need something I can use in the real world" may be petty, but that's useful information to be able to draw from a review. Building a model of the author's intention while you read their text--that's pomo thinking in action!
 

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Out of the Oscar limelight, great short films do win

You can see the Oscar-winning short animated film The Danish Poet online (for now), with crisp and understated narration from Liv Ullmann. It's a simple story well told.

I saw it at New York's newish IFC theater with the Oscar-nominated animated and live action shorts, and picked it and live action satire West Bank Story to win because I liked them most. And they won! It's reassuring that while the big awards might still go to The Departed, Crash and American Beauty, many Academy voters show good taste when hype and industry politics are removed. Oscar predictions and critics--including the NY Times--favored Disney's faithful but cutesy remake of Hans Christian Andersen's oft-filmed story The Little Match Girl (the haunting 1937 trick film is on YouTube) and the overwrought UNICEF-sponsored Binta and the Great Idea.

In 2003, the brilliant Danish short There is a Lovely Man won; it followed a white man whose dating service erroneously reports that he is Muslim, thus attracting a Danish woman fascinated by his foreignness. Smitten, he begins impersonating a Pakistani, calling himself El Hassan, and desperately trying to avoid conversations in Urdu.

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Blogger ksf on Mon Mar 19, 12:22:00 AM:
Thank you for the link to The Danish Poet. I saw it at a Oscar shorts screening and have been looking for it online ever since.
 

Friday, March 16, 2007

Daniel Mendelsohn on Pedro Almodovar

I've been meaning to mention a wonderful review of Volver in the New York Review of Books by Daniel Mendelsohn, who Alice and I both love. He is the author of the family history/nonfiction detective story The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, which I bet is great since his movie reviews glow with introspection.

See Alice, I'm not just spiteful towards writers whose jobs I wish I had! (E.g. & i.e., New Yorker film critic David Denby.) And there's another that Alice and I both like, we realized last week: the rascally Terrence Rafferty, formerly of the New Yorker and GQ (Alice directed me to his latest, a review in the NY Times of Chris Rock's I Think I Love My Wife, where Rafferty is typically witty and sexy), who gets as ecstatic as Denby does but leaves me knowing and seeing more than before, as opposed to sucking my brain out with a straw.

Mendelsohn's review (called "The Women of Pedro Almodovar") discusses the trends in Almodovar's filmmaking, especially his move from camp to sincere drama. But it also mentions several surprises in the plot of Volver and (though less so) other Amodovar films, FYI. From the essay:
In the 1995 Almodóvar film The Flower of My Secret—a work that stands at the chronological midpoint between the director's earliest movies, with their DayGlo emotions and Benzedrine-driven plots, and the technically smoother and emotionally subtler films of the past few years—a successful middle-aged writer called Leocadia (Leo) Macìas... is an author of a series of very popular novelas rosa, romance novels (literally, "pink novels"), but her life of late has been so tortured—her handsome army officer husband is leaving her, very likely for another woman; her impossible mother is driving her and her put-upon sister nuts—that, as she tells her bemused editor, whatever she writes comes out not pink, but black.

This wry pun is meant by Leo to explain the manuscript she's just submitted, to which the editor, Alicia, has reacted not at all well. As Alicia points out to a weary Leo, the new novel... [is] about
a mother who discovers her daughter has killed her father, who had tried to rape her. And so that no one finds out, she hides the body in the cold storage room of a neighbor's restaurant...!
When Leo, defending the artistry of The Cold Storage Room, gently protests that "reality is like that," Alicia launches into an outburst about "reality":
Reality! We all have enough reality in our homes! Reality is for newspapers and TV. Look at the result! With so much reality, the country's ready to explode. Reality should be banned!
...
Since [The Flower of My Secret], too, there's been an emphasis in the films on intense feelings that somehow do not lead to seduction, murder, and suicide. (The will to survive, the desire to nurture, and the need to commemorate, for instance.) If the Oscar-winning Talk to Her, like Matador sixteen years earlier, is about bullfighters and gorings, the tone of the movie, the passions that animate it—that of a journalist for the torera, and of the great torero who is his rival for her affections—are restrained, almost somber.
...
Looking back at the complex evolution of Almodóvar's style over the past two decades allows you, among other things, to see a secret and symbolic irony at play in Leo's argument with her editor in The Flower of My Secret. For Leo, greater artistic seriousness was represented by a commitment to subjects that seemed to her more grittily real, more violent, more working-class—more noir, in every sense—than the rose-colored fantasy world of her romance novels, with (presumably) their reveries about intense attentions of men to the erotic and emotional needs of women. And yet the director's own progress to greater depth and maturity has moved, if anything, in the opposite direction.

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

It's a golden age of cinema


Rescue Dawn: Batman falls on hard times

Offside: Can only men become drunk,
obnoxious football hooligans?

Sunshine: We've assembled a crack
team of sexy people

The Hoax: Can you imagine Richard Gere as
a suave slimeball with too much surgery!?

Paprika: Another naturalistic biopic
about Warren Harding

Upcoming and currently-running films I'm excited about:

Paprika (Anime)

Jindabyne (Gabriel Byrne and Laura Linney)

Gray Matters (brother-sister stuff)

Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog)

Sunshine (Danny Boyle sci-fi)

The Hoax (Richard Gere, finally making a movie good enough to have Stanley Tucci in it)

The Lives of Others (already saw it, still excited)

Offside (Jafar Panahi, director of The White Balloon)

Cats of Mirikitani (film journal about encounter between New York artist and aging, homeless Japanese internment survivor)

Blockade (new archival footage of siege of St. Petersburg)

Indigenes/Days of Glory (Algeria and France)

The Blue Kite (Cultural Revolution)

Beyond the Gates/Shooting Dogs (Rob Roy director, Rwanda-Burundi genocide)

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How many esses in possessive?

I just had to ask my mom what she thought my Arkansan grandparents--both teachers, both known to be concerned with grammar--would have made of recent legislation in Arkansas to mandate the use of the apostrophe-s in possessive forms of the state's name. Here's her response:
I would think that the entire family would be on the side of "Arkansas's." There's no meaningful reason to use "Arkansas'." except a silly expediency, and the possessive form, even as troubled as it is, should not bow to that.

The NY Times has some fun with the story:
Although not every manual of style agrees with the resolution, which does not specify criminal sanctions for failure to comply, the silent second “s” in Arkansas demands an apostrophe and a third “s” to form the possessive, Mr. Westbrook insisted, lest precision count for nothing. (For the record, the style manual at The New York Times agrees with Mr. Westbrook.)

Had the State Legislature not decreed in 1881 that the name “Arkansas” would end with a silent ‘s,’ there would be no cause for concern, he said.

“This is not an apostrophe battle,” he added. “It’s a war to recognize the definition of the word ‘silent.’ ”

There was some silent rolling of eyes amid the ayes, but no legislator dared seriously challenge the research or the resolve of Mr. Westbrook.

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Blogger Xopo on Fri Mar 16, 02:36:00 PM:
I had really never thought about this, I guess that's because I've never had to use the possessive with Arkansas. I love language battles, they are oh so entertaining! It reminds me of one similarly brilliant episode in the history of Spanish when Garcia Marquez of all people argue that there is no difference between lastima with an accent in the first syllable (pity) and without an accent which means (it hurts, me lastima)and that therefore the accent should be dropped. The main claim for this was that the accent was a "waste of time," talk about silly expediency, especially in a country where most people forget to accentuate their words anyway!
 

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Archive fever, vol. 8: Mouldy and moth-eaten lucubrations

At one end of the room, in a recess, were a number of barrels, piled one upon another, containing bundles of official documents. Large quantities of similar rubbish lay lumbering on the floor. It was sorrowful to think how many days, and weeks, and months of toil, had been wasted on these musty papers, which were now only an encumbrance on earth, and were hidden away in this forgotten corner, never more to be glanced at by human eyes. But, then, what reams of other manuscripts--filled, not with the dulness of official formalities, but with the thought of inventive brains and the rich effusion of deep hearts--had gone equally to oblivion...

Hey, we're back in Nathaniel Hawthorne's nineteenth-century Salem, Massachusetts. There was a great article in the NY Times this weekend about the problem of digitizing archives and everything that gets left behind or isn't conducive to archival preservation. The article begins with a look at how John Steinbeck ephemera that's not easily scanned is faring:
These Steinbeck artifacts are not the only important pieces of history that are at risk of disappearing or being ignored in the digital age. As more museums and archives become digital domains, and as electronic resources become the main tool for gathering information, items left behind in nondigital form, scholars and archivists say, are in danger of disappearing from the collective cultural memory, potentially leaving our historical fabric riddled with holes.

"There's an illusion being created that all the world's knowledge is on the Web, but we haven't begun to glimpse what is out there in local archives and libraries," said Edward L. Ayers, a historian and dean of the college and graduate school of arts and sciences at the University of Virginia. "Material that is not digitized risks being neglected as it would not have been in the past, virtually lost to the great majority of potential users."

To be sure, digitization efforts over the last 10 years have been ambitious and far-reaching. For many institutions, putting collections online, for both preservation and accessibility, is a priority. Yet for every letter from Abraham Lincoln to William Seward that can be found online, millions of documents bearing fine-grained witness to the Civil War will never be digitized. And for every CD re-release of Bessie Smith singing "Gimme a Pigfoot," the work of hundreds of lesser-known musicians from the early 20th century are unlikely to be converted to digital form. Money, technology and copyright complications are huge impediments.

Reading it, I thought once again of The Scarlet Letter and how the story is based around the narrator's discovery of the letter and an account of its owner, Hester Prynne, in the Salem Custom-House.
Poking and burrowing into the heaped-up rubbish in the corner; unfolding one and another document, ... glancing at such matters with the saddened, weary, half-reluctant interest which we bestow on the corpse of dead activity,--and exerting my fancy, sluggish with little use, to raise up from these dry bones an image of the old town's brighter aspect, when India was a new region, and only Salem knew the way thither--I chanced to lay my hand on a small package, carefully done up in a piece of ancient yellow parchment. This envelope had the air of an official record of some period long past, when clerks engrossed their stiff and formal chirography on more substantial materials than at present.

I'm thinking that the scarlet letter would not be easily archivable or preservable today. This framing device of a found manuscript among artifacts of forgotten history allows Hawthorne to riff on how historical memory can be transformed into a popular romance. The romance-writer needs only moonlight to transform an ordinary room--say, a dusty archive storage room--into "neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other. ... If a man, sitting all alone, cannot dream strange things, and make them look like truth, he need never try to write romances."

The other day I read Thomas Pownall's Antiquarian Romance, a truly bizarre book published in 1795 by the former colonial governor of Massachusetts, who had an obsessive interest in applying Newtonian theory to...just about everything, including colonial politics and archaeology. He issued a six-volume report on managing the American colonies in the 1760s that compared the relationship between England and her colony as equivalent to the gravitational pull between planetary bodies, and he warned that this gravitational pull could change in time with other factors acting on it. Pownall found Newtonian theory everywhere he looked, and his goal in the Antiquarian Romance is to re-establish the lost "system" that connects the past to the present through complex (read: suspect) feats of comparative etymology, numismatism, and archaeology.

It would be difficult to describe just how bizarre the book is, but I'm really interested in what Pownall gets out of calling the book a romance. He makes the distinction between history and romance, and he insists that romance is his vehicle because it allows readers to piece together facts on their own:
Some men will pick out truths from a Romance, or at least from what is so called, rather than from history. Those facts, which are offered to them as history, they will dispute and reject; whereas truths, which come forward veiled in the fable of Romance, will, whilst they indulge flattering pride of unveiling them, steal upon their belief. Truths which lie thus concealed from the common eye, lie like the rough ore in the mine, which the student, by an exertion of his ingenuity, can elicit, refine, and bring to light, on the face of the world, as bullion, the fruits of their own discovery.

How many similes of discovery were there in those sentences? A lot! Counting them up, I'm reminded that the act of discovery is so susceptible to effusive description because it mirrors the act of reading itself. Keep reading, the narrators seem to say, and you'll discover something as spectacular as what I've just discovered! Or, in Hawthorne's case, the ghost of the orignial archivist will guide your path of discovery:
With his ghostly hand, the obscurely seen, but majestic, figure had imparted to me the scarlet symbol, and the little roll of explanatory manuscript. With his own ghostly voice, he had exhorted me, on the sacred consideration of my filial duty and reverence towards him...to bring his mouldy and moth-eaten lucubrations before the public.

It is a romance after all.

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Blogger Scriblerus on Fri Mar 16, 01:17:00 PM:
I saw this article as well, and will probably use it in introducing my dissertation proposal. I am addressing the problematic of durability in the 18th, and it seems that starting with the problem of what went into print from manuscript versus what didn't (and when) is a fine place to start, especially given the tech changeover we're experiencing now. How to arrive at posterity? How to remain relevant to it? What lasts? Why? Please answer these questions and save me the trouble of writing a dissertation!
 

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

If you liked The Lives of Others...

If you liked The Lives of Others (I saw it this weekend and loved it)...

...you'd like the 2000 Czech film Divided We Fall:

This was a recommendation by Charles Kaiser, author of two books I love, The Gay Metropolis (to be rereleased soon with an extended essay covering the ten years since the first edition) and 1968 in America, a year which I now remember better than 1988 despite being -11 years old at the time. Charlie's turning me on to Divided We Fall and D.A. Pennebaker's 1967 Bob Dylan documentary Don't Look Back almost makes up for the fact that he walked out of my precious Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

One thing I didn't expect from The Lives of Others was sexiness; leave it to the Spanish to focus on this and have the sexiest version of the poster! Divided We Fall similarly finds sexual tension in a very unexpected place.

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Saturday, March 03, 2007

Lurid!

There is a lunar eclipse tonight, and the moon is going to turn bright red! The last time this event happened, I was walking around the Upper West Side, when I noticed that every person on the street was staring at the sky and pointing. I had forgotten about the eclipse, so I was startled to see the red moon.

There was a great article in the Times yesterday about the off-season tourism industry in Fairbanks, Alaska, where Japanese tourists are frequent visitors to see the Northern Lights. It is my life's dream to see the Northern Lights (or the Southern Lights, I guess, although it's more likely that I'll see them up north--they're visible 200 nights a year in Fairbanks). It is also my life's dream to see Halley's Comet twice, but I have less control over that one--2062 isn't that far off, though. When I was in fourth and fifth grade, we read "The Cremation of Sam McGee" every single day, and I've been obsessed with them ever since.

I've been getting in the mood for it by reading my favorite passage from The Scarlet Letter--the phenomenon in the book isn't a lunar eclipse, but it's close enough:
...a light gleamed far and wide over all the muffled sky. It was doubtless caused by one of those meteors, which the night-watcher may so often observe burning out to waste, in the vacant regions of the atmosphere. So powerful was its radiance, that it thoroughly illuminated the dense medium of cloud betwixt the sky and earth. The great vault brightened, like the dome of an immense lamp. It showed the familiar scene of the street, with the distinctness of mid-day, but also with the awfulness that is always imparted to familiar objects by an unaccustomed light. The wooden houses, with their jutting stories and quaint gable-peaks; the door-steps and thresholds, with the early grass springing up about them; the garden-plots, black with freshly turned earth; the wheel-track, little worn, and, even in the market-place, margined with green on either side; all were visible, but with a singularity of aspect that seemed to give another moral interpretation to the things of this world than they had ever borne before. And there stood the minister, with his hand over his heart; and Hester Prynne, with the embroidered letter glimmering on her bosom; and little Pearl, herself a symbol, and the connecting link between those two. They stood in the noon of that strange and solemn splendor, as if it were the light that is to reveal all secrets, and the daybreak that shall unite all who belong to one another.
...
Nothing was more common in those days, than to interpret all meteoric appearances, and other natural phenomena, that occurred with less regularity than the rise and set of the moon, as so many revelations from a supernatural source. Thus, a burning spear, a sword of flame, a bow, a sheaf of arrows, seen in the midnight sky, prefigured Indian warfare. Pestilence was known to have been foreboded by a shower of crimson light. We doubt whether any marked event, for good or evil, ever befell New England, from its settlement, down to Revolutionary times, of which the inhabitants had not been previously warned by some spectacle of this nature. Not seldom it had been seen by the multitudes. Oftener, however, its credibility rested on the faith of some lonely eyewitness, who beheld the wonder through the colored, magnifying, and distorting medium of his imagination, and shaped it more distinctly in his afterthought. It was, indeed, a majestic idea, that the destiny of nations should be revealed, in these awful hieroglyphics, on the cope of heaven. A scroll so wide might not be deemed too expansive for Providence to write a people's doom upon. The belief was a favorite one with our forefathers, as betokening that their infant commonwealtlh was under a celestial guardianship of peculiar intimacy and strictness. But what shall we say, when an individual discovers a revelation, addressed to him alone, on the same vast sheet of record! In such a case, it could only be the symptom of a highly disordered mental state; when a man, rendered morbidly self-contemplative by long, intense, and secret pain had extended his egotism over the whole expanse of nature, until the firmament itself should appear no more than a fitting page for his soul's history and fate. We impute it, therefore, solely to the disease in his own eye and heart that the minister, looking upward to the zenith, beheld there the appearance of an immense letter--the letter A--marked out in lines of dull red light. Not but the meteor may have shown itself at that point, burning duskily through a veil of cloud; but with no such shape as his guilty imagination gave it; or, at least, with so little definiteness, that another's guilt might have seen another symbol in it.

Oh, I always see my name (or initial) in lights!

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Blogger anhaga on Sun Mar 04, 12:26:00 AM:
You saw Halley's Comet? When? Has it been by in our life time? Yikes. Where was I?

I've always wanted to see a lunar eclipse again. The last time I saw it the moon looked HUGE and was shining down, all brownish and intimidating, over the lake in my backyard in NC. I...was...well, scared, mostly, but I thought it was pretty neat.

Though nothing, really, beats the solar eclipse that happened during rehearsal for the May Procession at my Catholic elementary school. (and they said that Catholicism didn't pick up non-Christian celebrations and convert them to celebrate the Virgin Mary!) Try telling 250 kids that they *can't* look up or they'll go blind. I pity my teachers.
 
Blogger Alice on Sun Mar 04, 06:20:00 PM:
Halley's Comet last appeared in 1986.
Check out this note on Mark Twain's famous claim that he came into this world with the Comet (1835) and left with it, too (1910): http://faculty.citadel.edu/leonard/budd.htm
(I can't get the html tag to work right)