pallas_athena: (tarot)
My good friend, author and singer [livejournal.com profile] simonsatori, has posted some intriguing thoughts on atheism, which has given rise to some thoughts on my part.

You should go read his post, first of all, which ends thus:

If god doesn’t exist [...] then I will not just ‘… go and enjoy my life’. I will suddenly live in a meaningless universe. Not only will there be no hope or chance of any higher power guiding or interacting with us but I will have the sure knowledge that there never was and never will be and the infinite universe becomes a smaller and finite one. This is not my definition of enjoyment.


I agree with many of Simon's fundamental points, including that Richard Dawkins is a bit of an arse and that smug evangelical atheists are just as annoying as smug evangelical anything else.

Here's where I differ, though: a universe devoid of deities would not, to me, be meaningless. It would still contain wonders aplenty, and it would still beckon us to search industriously for any theories or systems underlying it all. It would still be expanding, challenging us to understand that. It would still contain the light and radio waves emanating from distant stars, quasars, pulsars and all their relations. It would still contain billions of other planets and their satellites, of which (even within our own solar system) we have sent probes to the surfaces of only two (plus two moons and two asteroids.) It would still contain whales, elephants, great apes and other social animals whose ways of communication and interrelation are largely unknown to us. It would still contain rocks whose crystalline structure the human eye finds elegant, and water droplets whose prismatic refraction the human brain finds beautiful. It would still contain us and our insanely complex biology, about which a hell of a lot still remains to be discovered. It would still contain the silky black cat with white feet currently attempting interspecies communication by arranging herself on my lap and purring. It would still contain the human affection I feel towards the aforementioned black cat, as well as the urges which would prompt other humans to kick her, or kill and eat her. And my desire to punch them in the face.

In short, a definitely-godless universe would still contain all the things previously thought to be evidence for the hand of an omniscient creator, only now they would be evidence that the universe is an amazing, fucking awe-inspiring place. Perhaps, in the absence of gods, we would begin to personify that universe which reveals its secrets so slowly and dangles its veiled areas so tantalisingly before us, daring us to discover it and cheering us on as we do. Within a generation or two, humans might not even miss the concept of God-- or might have redefined it along the foregoing lines.
Further thoughts below )
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US-siders already know about this, but I thought it might prove interesting to the UK contingent. Here's the background:

After a years-long fight, same-sex marriage was finally legalised in Maryland this year. However, opponents of the new law managed to get enough signatures to put it to a referendum on this November's election ballot: a final chance for them to strike down the law before it is due to take effect on 1 January 2013. The campaign is heating up on both sides.

Brendon Ayanbadejo, a football player for the Baltimore Ravens, has been vocal in his support for marriage equality, even offering a pair of game tickets as a fundraising incentive. This has provoked the ire of one Emmett C. Burns Jr., a local politician and church leader who called on the team "to inhibit such expressions from your employee." (Single-page pdf of letter here.)

The team, of course, is rallying behind Ayanbadejo. But the real cherry on the sundae is an open letter written to Burns by another NFL player, Chris Kluwe. With Olympian eloquence, Kluwe writes:

I can assure you that gay people getting married will have zero effect on your life. They won't come into your house and steal your children. They won't magically turn you into a lustful cockmonster. They won't even overthrow the government in an orgy of hedonistic debauchery because all of a sudden they have the same legal rights as the other 90 percent of our population [...] You know what having these rights will make gays? Full-fledged American citizens just like everyone else, with the freedom to pursue happiness and all that entails.


That's just one abridged paragraph from a truly glorious panegyric, the full text of which is available here. I heartily advise clicking, though the text does contain language that may offend any prudes reading over your shoulder at the workplace.

I take away from this incident a certain optimism: it seems NFL football culture has come a long way since I was a kid. Polls show that a narrow majority of Marylanders support same-sex marriage in principle, which makes this primarily a fight for turnout. I very much hope that the state on my doorstep will show itself an enlightened place come November.
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Today I have discovered Olga of Kiev: princess, saint and historic badass. She was the grandmother of Saint Vladimir of Kiev, whose statue stands near Holland Park. Both she and Vladimir had extremely non-saintly careers before being canonised.
Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of the pigeons )
pallas_athena: (Default)
My friend Pete was just told, by a former member of Monty Python, that he was being too silly onstage and should tone it down.

I am so proud.
pallas_athena: (Default)
Cool random things noticed recently:

A construction worker singing the High Noon theme on the job.

A guy next to me on the Tube reading a trade paperback of Straczynski's run on Thor. Before I got off, I broke the customary Tube silence and told him I liked that run too (though Simonson's really my favourite.) As I stepped off the train I noticed him smiling to himself.

Last night on my way to a concert, the lower deck of the bus was empty, so I started quietly doing a bit of warming up. Since I was about to sing French arias, I warmed up with a simple French song, Belle qui tiens ma vie. After I'd finished, the bus driver called out "You sing beautifully!" "Thanks!" I said, after a surprised pause.

After the concert, I got on the bus back to the station, and it was the same driver. He said "Oh, it's you! With the voice!" When we got to my stop, I gave him the rest of the chocolate eggs I'd brought to share backstage.

I don't know why I'm so ridiculously grateful when someone catches me singing in public and doesn't mock me. London is an abrasive city, and I think acts of kindness are more to be celebrated here than elsewhere.

Oh, and: the Book Meme (a day late) )

Words

Nov. 19th, 2010 09:43 pm
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Today was a day of interesting conversations with random people.

It started out with a couple of non-random meetings which went well, including getting some excellent language coaching from a Welsh friend. It's a lovely feeling when an entirely new language starts to make sense of a sort. I feel rather elated by it. The key to it, so far, seems to be that Welsh has a whole different alphabet which just happens to use English letters. Once you've learnt the alphabet the pronunciations seem to be mostly phonetic, except the letter Y, which is just weird.

In the evening I went to Borough Market, where I ended up chatting to the amiable proprietor of East Teas. His stall is always an oasis of calm, even when Borough is heaving. He let me taste some Chinese tea which had been aged since the 1970s! That's pretty old. They dry the leaves, then dampen them, then make them into a sort of round brick called a bing and leave them with a weight on top until they dry out again. The resulting tea tastes sort of like lake water-- that warm-decaying-vegetation smell-- but in a good way.

Then on the Tube home I got talking to a man in full Highland dress who was about to do some bagpipe busking on Westminster Bridge. He turned out to have served in the military-- I didn't ask where. We had a surprisingly interesting conversation about waterboarding.

So... Welsh, tea and waterboarding: just another day in this fascinating city of ours.
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From a recent Pepysdiary entry:

Nelly and Beck Marshall, falling out the other day, the latter called the other my Lord Buckhurst’s whore. Nell answered then:

“I was but one man’s whore, though I was brought up in a bawdy-house to fill strong waters to the guests; and you are a whore to three or four, though a Presbyter’s praying daughter!”


Of course, this reminds me of the story-- you know the one, right?-- of when Gwyn's carriage was besieged in an Oxford street by a crowd of zealots who thought the passenger was King Charles's French mistress Louise de Kerouaille. The crowd shoved at the coach, rocking it on its springs, yelling imprecations against the "Catholic whore." Gwyn, realising the mistake, drew the curtains aside, put her head out the door and called:

"Be civil, good people, be civil! I am not she. I am the Protestant whore."

And they let her pass. Gwyn and Kerouaille (anglicised to "Carwell") both appear in Rochester's Satire on Charles II, the poem that got him exiled when he accidentally handed a copy to the King:
Ouch. )
Gwyn is also the subject of one of my favourite portraits in the National Portrait Gallery. Her expression there pretty much defines "come hither."

Nell Gwyn didn't die of the pox. The pox died of Nell Gwyn. Fact.
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I'm typing this from a pub with wi-fi somewhere in the depths of Gloucestershire. Normally when I'm on one of these sleeping-in-a-tent weekends I just declare myself offline, but certain bits of business that I have to catch up on have necessitated my committing the cardinal sin of bringing a laptop to a medieval event for fuck's sake. I'm glad this pub has wi-fi, but I could do without the hideous piped 80s music. You know the kind of 80s they play around 2AM in goth clubs? Yeah, this is the other '80s. The '80s you were glad to forget. The '80s you hoped would never, ever come back after you bludgeoned them to death with a shovel and buried their still-twitching corpse at the crossroads. Those '80s.

Anyway, it's rare that I'm in a position to blog in mid-reenactment, so I thought I would put down a few thoughts to try and give people who don't do this madness an impression of what it's like.
Getting seriously medieval )
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It's all over the internet today (and by "the internet", I of course mean MetaFilter): the unveiling of a new structural theory on the works of Plato. It's being described in grand terms (not least by the author, who modestly claims his theories will "revolutionise the history of the birth of Western thought". ) What it really does at the moment is open the possibility of interpreting Plato's work, and possibly his creative process, in a new way.
On rhetoric )
The hypothesised relationship between Plato's rhetoric and the diatonic scale sounds a bit far-fetched, but it's certainly an interesting theory, and I'll be watching to see if it holds up to analysis. If it does, it would be interesting to see if, in any of his works, he employs a symbolic modality.
In which I attempt to explain what modality is )
So what I'm wondering is: Since so much of Plato's writing is in the form of dialogues between various characters, who tend each to represent a certain idea, viewpoint or philosophy-- might he have assigned to each prominent character a symbolic musical mode? Or each stage of the argument?

Obviously this depends on whether Barker's musical scale theory turns out to have any foundation. (Some preliminary responses can be found in the comments here at Leiter Reports.) But I can see how appealing it would be for a Platonist to associate the ascending scale with the reader's ascension toward wisdom, and the argument's ascension toward resolution.

I do think that the stuff about a "code" is overly sensationalistic; this is more likely to be about structure and interpretation than about arcane hidden messages. Still, it will be interesting to see how it pans out.

Disclaimer:My knowledge of Plato is a lay person's at best; my degree is in English, not Classics. Still, I've read most of his work in translation, and love it. (If you're new to Plato, start with the Symposium. It's basically a dinner party where everyone gets drunk and talks about love.)
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Whitby was quiet, but far from boring. Sure, the place was empty and echoing without [livejournal.com profile] wyte_phantom, [livejournal.com profile] orkamedies and [livejournal.com profile] esdi_leanne -- but there was time and space for conversation, wandering at leisure and generally doing weird things in the name of entertainment.

On Friday afternoon, I took my friend Zanni for a walk. Zanni looks something like this: he's a leather commedia mask that I found on my first and only trip to Venice, years ago, with [livejournal.com profile] mothninja (whose birthday it is today. Happy birthday, ninja!)

Ever since high school, commedia dell'arte has been a major source of happiness to me. It appeals to everything I like best about theatre. Say you're a travelling commedia player in the 1500s, about to go onstage: You know the character you're playing, you know the plot, you've worked out a few set jokes and physical comedy routines (known as lazzi) with your fellow players... but there's no script. What words you say when you step out onstage are completely down to you. I recommend the ones least likely to make the crowd of peasants out there start throwing rotten root vegetables.
Commedia, ragazzi )
pallas_athena: (Default)
Whitby was quiet, but far from boring. Sure, the place was empty and echoing without [livejournal.com profile] wyte_phantom, [livejournal.com profile] orkamedies and [livejournal.com profile] esdi_leanne -- but there was time and space for conversation, wandering at leisure and generally doing weird things in the name of entertainment.

On Friday afternoon, I took my friend Zanni for a walk. Zanni looks something like this: he's a leather commedia mask that I found on my first and only trip to Venice, years ago, with [livejournal.com profile] mothninja (whose birthday it is today. Happy birthday, ninja!)

Ever since high school, commedia dell'arte has been a major source of happiness to me. It appeals to everything I like best about theatre. Say you're a travelling commedia player in the 1500s, about to go onstage: You know the character you're playing, you know the plot, you've worked out a few set jokes and physical comedy routines (known as lazzi) with your fellow players... but there's no script. What words you say when you step out onstage are completely down to you. I recommend the ones least likely to make the crowd of peasants out there start throwing rotten root vegetables.
Commedia, ragazzi )
pallas_athena: (Default)
I've recently joined a local fencing salle. Turns out fencing is just as much fun now as it was when I was sixteen. I'm taking the beginner's course, and it seems to be coming back gradually. This is mostly due to our excellent instructor, Jean-Christophe, and his outrrrrrrageous accent.

Tonight's session mostly involved the the beat attack, which involved Jean-Christophe using the word "beat" a lot with great urgency. In French, la bitte means something not polite at all, so I was grinning filthily beneath my mask. At one point he said it three times in a row, at high volume. I guess it's inevitable that I'll be thinking about cocks every time I make this attack now. But will this make my fencing better, or worse?
pallas_athena: (Default)
I've recently joined a local fencing salle. Turns out fencing is just as much fun now as it was when I was sixteen. I'm taking the beginner's course, and it seems to be coming back gradually. This is mostly due to our excellent instructor, Jean-Christophe, and his outrrrrrrageous accent.

Tonight's session mostly involved the the beat attack, which involved Jean-Christophe using the word "beat" a lot with great urgency. In French, la bitte means something not polite at all, so I was grinning filthily beneath my mask. At one point he said it three times in a row, at high volume. I guess it's inevitable that I'll be thinking about cocks every time I make this attack now. But will this make my fencing better, or worse?
pallas_athena: (Default)
This year's birthday is a square.

A square birthday is sort of satisfying. A long-lived person will have nine of them; on the tenth, the Queen sends you a telegram. (US readers: this is perfectly true.) Assuming I don't make it to 121, I have now gone through more than half of my squares.

Cubes are rarer. A person who lives a "normal" lifespan for a developed country can expect to see four cubic birthdays; I've had three of them.

If you're lucky, three of your birthdays will be exponents at the fourth power; if you're even luckier, three will be at the fifth. I did a web search to find out what these are called. This was what I learnt:

In the 16th century Robert Recorde used the terms square, cube, zenzizenzic (fourth power), surfolide (fifth), zenzicube (sixth), second surfolide (seventh) and Zenzizenzizenzic (eighth). Biquadrate has been used to refer to the fourth power as well.


(So who the hell was Robert Recorde? I'm glad you asked.)

On a more frivolous note, this birthday being a multiple of twelve means that this is my year on the Chinese calendar: the year of the Rat. I shall take my hat off to the next of my rodent brethren I see scuttling about.
pallas_athena: (Default)
This year's birthday is a square.

A square birthday is sort of satisfying. A long-lived person will have nine of them; on the tenth, the Queen sends you a telegram. (US readers: this is perfectly true.) Assuming I don't make it to 121, I have now gone through more than half of my squares.

Cubes are rarer. A person who lives a "normal" lifespan for a developed country can expect to see four cubic birthdays; I've had three of them.

If you're lucky, three of your birthdays will be exponents at the fourth power; if you're even luckier, three will be at the fifth. I did a web search to find out what these are called. This was what I learnt:

In the 16th century Robert Recorde used the terms square, cube, zenzizenzic (fourth power), surfolide (fifth), zenzicube (sixth), second surfolide (seventh) and Zenzizenzizenzic (eighth). Biquadrate has been used to refer to the fourth power as well.


(So who the hell was Robert Recorde? I'm glad you asked.)

On a more frivolous note, this birthday being a multiple of twelve means that this is my year on the Chinese calendar: the year of the Rat. I shall take my hat off to the next of my rodent brethren I see scuttling about.
pallas_athena: (Default)
It's Halloween and I'm not in Whitby, which is sad. (Still, I get to direct an opera instead, which is pretty cool.)

When I was young in the US, people always asked "What are you going to be for Halloween?" Not "What are you going to dress up as," or "what will you wear," but "What are you going to be." And so I grew up loving this day because it meant you could be anything.

I hope you all have a wild, amazing Halloween, wherever and whoever you may be.
pallas_athena: (Default)
It's Halloween and I'm not in Whitby, which is sad. (Still, I get to direct an opera instead, which is pretty cool.)

When I was young in the US, people always asked "What are you going to be for Halloween?" Not "What are you going to dress up as," or "what will you wear," but "What are you going to be." And so I grew up loving this day because it meant you could be anything.

I hope you all have a wild, amazing Halloween, wherever and whoever you may be.

Overawed

Oct. 14th, 2008 01:08 pm
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Those who hang out with me know that I chronically overuse the word "awesome."

I've heard it argued that "awesome" should be held in reserve for things that genuinely inspire awe-- that people who use "awesome" to describe, say, colourful socks would find themselves vocabulary-impoverished when beholding, say, a sunset in the mountains.

Yesterday, something happened that made me feel a mixture of ohmygodohmygodohmygod shock and OHMYFUCKINGGODTHISISSOFUCKINGCOOL fascination and !!!!!!!!! sheer saucer-pupilled joy.

Through an odd set of coincidences, I have a friend who's a curator of maps at the British Library. I'd normally never have dared do this, but I emailed him at the behest of my visiting antique-map-obsessed mother and asked if he might have time to show her a map or two.

Tom met us, smiled a mischievous smile and said he had some rather special things to show us. He led us up to the map library, which is full of large tables on which large maps may be unrolled. He got out some early printed maps-- a Frisius, a book of Ptolemaic maps compared with "modern" ones from the 1500s -- and then he got a vellum scroll out of a very long rectangular box and unrolled it. (On the library tables, they have little weights that you put on the edges of old vellum scrolls to stop them rolling up again.)

On the scroll was a very plain hand-drawn map in black ink, mostly of the countries surrounding the North Atlantic: Europe, Iceland, Greenland, Nova Zembla, the east coast of North America. It also had an island called Estotiland out in the middle of nowhere, as well as a Northwest Passage past the Pole. The coastlines were drawn in much greater detail than one would find in a printed woodcut map. The whole expanse was cris-crossed with a fine warp and weft of precisely-spaced latitude and longitude lines about half a centimeter apart. At the North Pole, one could feel a slight indentation in the vellum where the fixed foot of a compass had pierced it.

"This is the map drawn in 1580 by Doctor John Dee," said Tom.
in which King Arthur conquers the North Pole )

Overawed

Oct. 14th, 2008 01:08 pm
pallas_athena: (Default)
Those who hang out with me know that I chronically overuse the word "awesome."

I've heard it argued that "awesome" should be held in reserve for things that genuinely inspire awe-- that people who use "awesome" to describe, say, colourful socks would find themselves vocabulary-impoverished when beholding, say, a sunset in the mountains.

Yesterday, something happened that made me feel a mixture of ohmygodohmygodohmygod shock and OHMYFUCKINGGODTHISISSOFUCKINGCOOL fascination and !!!!!!!!! sheer saucer-pupilled joy.

Through an odd set of coincidences, I have a friend who's a curator of maps at the British Library. I'd normally never have dared do this, but I emailed him at the behest of my visiting antique-map-obsessed mother and asked if he might have time to show her a map or two.

Tom met us, smiled a mischievous smile and said he had some rather special things to show us. He led us up to the map library, which is full of large tables on which large maps may be unrolled. He got out some early printed maps-- a Frisius, a book of Ptolemaic maps compared with "modern" ones from the 1500s -- and then he got a vellum scroll out of a very long rectangular box and unrolled it. (On the library tables, they have little weights that you put on the edges of old vellum scrolls to stop them rolling up again.)

On the scroll was a very plain hand-drawn map in black ink, mostly of the countries surrounding the North Atlantic: Europe, Iceland, Greenland, Nova Zembla, the east coast of North America. It also had an island called Estotiland out in the middle of nowhere, as well as a Northwest Passage past the Pole. The coastlines were drawn in much greater detail than one would find in a printed woodcut map. The whole expanse was cris-crossed with a fine warp and weft of precisely-spaced latitude and longitude lines about half a centimeter apart. At the North Pole, one could feel a slight indentation in the vellum where the fixed foot of a compass had pierced it.

"This is the map drawn in 1580 by Doctor John Dee," said Tom.
in which King Arthur conquers the North Pole )
pallas_athena: (Default)
"It is terrifying, it is meant to be," said John Taylor, the creator and funder of an extraordinary new clock to be unveiled tomorrow by Stephen Hawking at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge. "Basically I view time as not on your side. He'll eat up every minute of your life, and as soon as one has gone he's salivating for the next."

Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, has a new clock.

The hour approaches. The beast's jaws gape, its tail quivers and then snap! Another minute has been devoured, and the hour strikes with the ominous clonk of a chain dropping into a coffin. The creature blinks twice in satisfaction.

The clock in action, with a short talk by Dr Taylor, on YouTube. Fullscreen it or the clock will eat you.

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