Sunday, May 31, 2015

Walt Whitman: a birthday today

 from A Book of Days for the Literary Year

On this day in "1819  Walt Whitman is born in West Hills, Long Island.  Robert Louis Stevenson will find the poet  'a most surprising compound of plain grandeur, sentimental affection, and downright nonsense,' while Whitman's self-appraisal is: 'I am as bad as the worst, but thank God I am as good as the best.' "

This is one of my favorite poems by Whitman.  It is posted at the bottom of the blog page, but I doubt few ever get down that far.  I have posted it before and even suggested it be named the Official World Wide Web Poem.

A Noiseless Patient Spider 

A NOISELESS patient spider,
I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to
connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

-- Walt Whitman --

"Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space"  

"Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of cyberspace"

Is it not the WWW Poem?

Can you suggest one you think would be more appropriate?   I would love to read it. 

Robert Grudin: Which is most important: History or Interpretations of history?


From his exile at San Casciano, Machiavelli wrote a friend that he spent much time reading the works of ancient writers, adding curiously that he asked them questions which they "answered.What he probably meant was that, like Machiavelli himself, the ancients wrote subtly, that they raised questions in the reader's mind and encouraged him to seek out the answers to these questions between the lines, in the stylistic and structural implications of their work.  Good historians treat the past in general this way, asking it questions rather than contenting themselves with its overt and specific messages.  And intelligent individuals treat their memories in the same way, realizing that their past is no more finished or dead than their ability to understand it. 

-- Robert Grudin --
from Time and the Art of Living

What's most important about history is not the events nor even the overt or specific lessons learned from it.  Apparently one should go further than merely look at surface events and look into the questions raised by these surface phenomena.  This certainly argues against a literal interpretation of texts and suggests that the important issues are those questions raised by those phenomena. 

And, this last sentence seems perplexing to me, for it includes memories as well as history and could one argue that memories can be seen as one's private history?

And intelligent individuals treat their memories in the same way, realizing that their past is no more finished or dead than their ability to understand it. 

What does Grudin mean when he says that the past is no more finished or dead than their ability to understand it? Longfellow in his "A Psalm of Life" would certainly disagree here for he insisted that we should "Let the dead Past bury its dead!"

Is Grudin arguing that our past is only as dead as our ability to understand it, or even more curiously is no more finished than (our) ability to understand it?"  Does our past change as our ability to understand it changes?

If so, then what is the relationship between our past and our memories of the past? 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Four SF films

Predestination  (2014)

The Edge of Tomorrow  (2014)

Solaris  (1972)

The Zero Theorem   (2013)

I watched Predestination last night. It's, of course, Heinlein's "All You Zombies" embedded within a time-traveling anti-terrorist organization which is attempting to prevent the Fizzle Bomber from blowing up a goodly part of NYC.  As far as I can remember, Robert A. Heinlein's core story was treated accurately.  I enjoyed the film, once I accepted the premise that the expanded version was necessary for making the film.   After all, who would want to watch a film solely based on RAH's short story?  The only weakness I found was in the role of "the unmarried mother."   That character just didn't come across as convincing to me.  Perhaps Sarah Snook, who played "the unmarried mother," wasn't convinced either by the character.
I watched some of the special features, and one of the comments made by a producer? director? actor? was that this was an entirely unique concept in time-travel stories.  However I can think of at least two other stories which played with the same paradox, and there probably are others.

A time-traveler goes into the future and finds a world destroyed, probably by war.  He finds the remains of a building and inside is a display case with a knife in perfect condition inside  it.  He brings the knife back to his time.  The knife is analyzed and even a small sliver is taken from it.  The material is unlike anything the scientists have seen before.  Eventually they lose interest in the knife and it is placed in a small display case near the entrance of the research institute.  The story is "As Never Was" and was written by P. Schuyer  Miller.  A similar incident is found in Ford Madox Ford's novel, Ladies Whose Bright Eyes.

I would rate the film as at least a 4 on a 5 point scale.

The Edge of Tomorrow  aka Live Die Repeat

Tom Cruise plays  the role of  a smarmy self-involved PR person in the military in the midst of an alien invasion.  It's a role perfectly suited to him.  He irritates a general and ends up busted in rank and headed for the front lines, more specifically an invasion of Europe from England, a futuristic replay of WWII's Normandy invasion, with far more disastrous results.  The humans are wiped out.  Through a rather unbelievable set of circumstances,  Cage,  Cruise's character, is time-warped back to the time when he is forcibly united with the squad that he will join in its ill-fated invasion.  Again, he is killed and so on.  Each time he presumably learns a bit more and survives a bit longer.  

The star of the show is actually the battle suit--see Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers.  The special features or bonus features focuses solely on the battle suit and on the creation of the aliens.  What we see of Cruise involves the heroic struggles he makes in learning to manipulate the suit.  Nothing was mentioned about anything else in the film: plot, setting, characterization. It was all suit, suit, suit.  

The reason is simple: there really isn't much in the way of plot, setting, characterization.  If the action scenes were removed, only about 2-3 minutes would remain of the total running time of 113 minutes.
If you want action, this is your film.

I'd give it 3.5/5.0 for the action scenes which were technically highly effective and kept one from thinking about the implausibility of the plot, what there was of it.

The film is based on Stanislaw Lem's novel of the same name and is directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.
It has his signature film elements--long and loving takes on nature and humans doing nothing or sleeping.  I would also be more likely to recognize  Donatas Banionis' (he plays the major character Kris Kelvin) profile than his face, as the camera spent some time focused on his ear (right one, I think)

It's my fault, probably,  that I didn't get Tarkovsky's message:  for example: the commentary regarding Kris, the psychologist, who supposedly functions solely by reason and with no emotions or feelings,  tells us that he has no love for nature.  Not knowing this, I thought the first few minutes of the film which portrays him wandering through the grounds where he lives suggested that he was enjoying his wanderings.  Later, when I found out he was leaving the planet, I thought he was soaking up memories of nature for the future when he would be surrounded by metal and plastic in the space ship and on the station around Solaris.  But, no, according to the commentary,  this part shows he is detached from nature, and that he does have only some minimal feelings is demonstrated when he washes his hands in the small lake.

Once aboard the space station in orbit around Solaris, he encounters the same sort of visitations that affect the other crew members.  His dead wife suddenly appears to him in a physical form and not just as an image or vision.  He now begins to understand the problems faced by the other researchers on the station.  Are these visitations an attempt by the inhabitants of the planet, or even the planet itself, to study the strange visitors in orbit or an attempt to communicate with them or both?  Or are the humans suffering from hallucinations which have little to do with the planet? The viewers are left to decide this for themselves.  The ending?-- well, the film just sort of stopped.  Perhaps someone reading this can leave a comment that will help me understand it. 

It's been long since I read Solaris, so I can't do any reasonable commentary on the faithfulness of the film to the novel, but I do remember being confused by the film in much the same way I was confused by the novel, which probably is as it should be.  How alien can a being or race be, if one is not confused or bewildered by at least some aspects?

Rating:  ??  This was my second viewing, and I suppose I will try again sometime down the road.

The Zero Theorem
Dir.  Terry Gilliam
In Henry James' short work, "The Beast in the Jungle," John Marcher has the strange fixation that something unusual, either good or bad, is going to happen to him.  So, he avoids getting too close to people and does not propose to a woman who would certainly accept him because he fears to subject others, including a wife, to his fate, whatever it may be.  At the end of the story he wonders if the marvelous thing that was supposed to happen to him had already happened, and he failed to recognize it when it did.

Qohen Leth, in a similar fashion, has isolated himself while he awaits a phone call.  Many years ago, he received a phone call from a stranger who asked if he wanted to learn the answer to the mystery of life and existence which would then make him a supremely happy person.  Before he could answer "yes," he was disconnected.  Since then he has thought about nothing except waiting for this phone call.  He is even afraid to leave the house for fear of missing the call.  Since he isn't rich, he has to go to work, but he hurries home immediately after work in order to be there when the phone rings.  He has also been haranguing Management, unsuccessfully so far, to allow him to work at home.

He is considered a computer genius whose job is "entity crunching," and exactly what that entails is beyond me.  He finally persuades Management to allow him to work at home, and it proves the point that getting what one wants is not always a good thing.  He has been assigned to work on the Zero Theorum, a task which has defeated many others before him, and the need for secrecy is likely what prompts Management to allow him to work at home.  The Zero Theorem is a mathematical formula which, when proven, will support the theory that the universe is meaningless.  The universe is an accident that will not happen again for there's no reason for it to happen again. Ironically, his home is a burned out cathedral. 

Aside from the plot, the costumes, setting, and special effects are part of the charm of the film.  The film was shot in Bucharest, Rumania, and Gilliam takes full advantage of the varied architecture of the city.   It supposedly takes place in London, but this is clearly not the London of today.

I found the costumes to be bizarre:  one of the scenes is a costume party, but I couldn't see much difference between what they were wearing at the party and the clothing worn by people on the street.  This effect was brought about by using clothing styles from the '40s, '50s, and '60s, but not made of the expected fabrics of cotton, wool, or silk or even polyester.  Instead (and this was forced to some extent by the film's low budget), the costumes were made from shower curtains and other items made of a shiny plastic material.  The exception was the main character, who work black and other dark colors, which clearly set him aside from the rest of the cast.

The story is the conflict that develops when he becomes distracted by a young woman which interferes with his devotion to his job and his constant preoccupation with The Phone Call.   She offers him a way out, an escape, but he can't let go of solving the problem of the Zero Theorem and of waiting for the phone to ring.  (One hint:  the film does not end when you might think it does.)

It's an interesting story with an intelligent plot and some serious questions that have been around since humans started wondering about when and where and how and why.  It's also a feast for the eyes with the bright colors, with a tinge of the steampunk universe hovering about.  
Rating:  4/5

Friday, May 22, 2015

Loren Eiseley: "The Sandburs Say No"

Life is persistent and patient.  I think Life is the source of the saying, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."  Loren Eiseley's poem is an example of this.

The Sandburs Say No

Along the edge of the airfield between the jet blasts
from ascending bombers,
low life, the tougher
seeds from the far Cretaceous, surreptitiously test the concrete,
with the old mindlessness
sow crevices and and wait.

The blue devil's darning needles
dance their mating ecstasy across the bombing targets--
nature's archaic first streamlining,
still magnificent in a small way but useless,
the guns ships deadlier, more purposeful, but

the sandburs say no, the sandburs
are older, the sandburs
toughen the seed containers, the life bombs,
against thermite, napalm, tear gas.  The sandburs
like spendthrift governments pack the little brown
                                            bullets and send them
 out on each wind.

Each season they test the concrete and the bomber's targets.
The explosions are soundless but the stone fractures.      
The sandburs say no with the life bombs,
the sandburs say no.

I like the juxtaposition Eiseley chooses here:  the destructive power of the bomber's weaponry and the life affirming actions of the sandburs.  Although the sandburs' life bombs are at first destructive, the fracturing of the concrete, this destruction then makes life possible as it frees the soil for various plants and animals and insects and provides nutrients and a habitat for other creatures.  It's a duel between the destructive thermite and napalm bombs and the sandburs' life bombs.

A bit of trivia here:

"Field sandbur (grassbur) is a summer annual grassy weed that can be found in home lawns, sports fields, parks and along roadsides. This weed is especially adapted to dry, sandy soils but can be found growing in other types of soils as well. The big problem with this weed is the sharp, spiny burs that are part of the inflorescence. These burs can be painful and are difficult to remove from clothing material. Field sandburs (grassburs) generally start germinating in late spring and will continue to germinate until late summer or early fall months. This weed will continue to grow until the first hard frost or freeze occurs in the fall."
James A. McAfee, Ph.D.
Associate Professor and Extension Turfgrass Specialist
Dallas, Texas

"In their 2005 book A Dazzle of Dragonflies, Forrest Mitchell and James Lasswell explain that the dragonfly-epithet “devil’s darning needle” has its origins in the Europe of the Middle Ages. The long and slender shape of the insect’s body, combined with the superstitious belief that it, like the fly—consort of Beelzebub—was in league with the darkest of forces, produced a myth durable enough to make the journey with the colonists to the United States. Today in Iowa, the authors write, “devil’s darning needles sew together the fingers or toes of a person who falls asleep…in Kansas, they may sew up the mouths of scolding women, saucy children…and profane men.”

Monday, May 18, 2015

Favorite Mystery Series--Books

This is the growing list--both in the sense that authors are occasionally added to it and that many of the authors are still providing us with more adventures of their detectives. I have attempted to list them according to the following pattern:

Mystery category
Name of featured detective
Usual location for the series
Time of the novel
Prequel, if any
First novel in the series

Ingrid Black (husband and wife collab)
Former Law-enforcement Officer
Saxon, ex-FBI profiler
Dublin, Ireland 
First novel in the series:  The Dead  (2003)
May move this to a different list as there hasn't been a new novel since 2008

Giles Blunt
Police Procedural
Detective John Cardinal
Algonquin Bay, fictional town near Toronto, Canada
First novel in the  series: Forty Words for Sorrow  (2000)

Karin Fossum,
Police Procedural
Inspector Konrad Sejer
Elvestad, Norway
First novel in the series:  In the Darkness aka Eva's Eye (1995)

Michael Gregorio (wife and husband collab)
Judicial Detective
Magistrate Hanno Stiffeniis
Konigsberg, Prussia
Historical mystery set in Prussia during the Napoleonic wars in 1804.
First Book in Series   Critique of Criminal Reason  (2006)
They may have ended the series as there hasn't been a new one since 2010.

Eliot Pattison
Former Law-enforcement Officer
Shan Tao Yun,
Tibet: Former police officer in Beijing, China, whose duty was to investigate corruption in the party and ends up in a work camp in Tibet for being too diligent in his duties.
First novel in the series: The Skull Mantra (1999)

Peter Robinson
Police Procedural
Chief Inspector Alan Banks
Yorkshire, England
First novel in series: Gallows View  (1987)

C. J. Sansom
Judicial detective
Matthew Shardlake,  lawyer
London, England
Historical mystery, 16th century,  during the reign of King Henry VIII,
First novel in the series:  Dissolution   (2003)

Steven Saylor
Private Professional
Gordianus the Finder
Historical mystery,  1st century BC
Prequel:  The Seven Wonders.
Second Prequel:  Raiders of the Nile
First novel in the series:  Roman Blood  (1991)

Charles Todd (mother and son collab)
Police Procedural
Inspector Ian Rutledge
London, England and countryside
Historical mystery, just after WWI
Prequel:  A Fine Summer's Day, set in 1914. 
First novel in the series:  A Test of Wills, (1996)

Fred Vargas
Police Procedural
Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg
Paris, France
First novel in the series:  The Chalk Circle Man  (1991)

The following is the sad list--those favorite series that have ended, usually because of the author's death but sometimes because of the author's decision to end the series.

Agatha Christie
Talented amateur
Miss Jane Marple
St. Mary Mead,  England
Contemporary when written in 1930
First novel in the series:  The Murder at the Vicarage  (1930)

Colin Dexter
Police Procedural
Inspector Morse
Oxford, England
First novel in the series: Last Bus to Woodstock  (1975)
Colin Dexter ended the series

Batya Gur
Police procedural
Inspector Michael Ohayon,
Jerusalem, Israel
First novel in the series:  The Saturday Morning Murder: a psychoanalytic case  (1992)

P. D. James
Police Procedural
Commander Adam Dalgliesh
London, England
First novel in the series:  Cover Her Face  (1962)

Bernard Knight
Technical professionals
Sir John de Wolfe (coroner)
County of Devon, England
Historical mystery, 1196 AD
First novel in the series:  The Sanctuary Seeker  (19980
Bernard Knight ended the series and now has two other series

Ellis Peters
Talented Amateur
Brother Cadfael  (a Benedictine monk)
Shrewsbury Abbey, Shrewsbury,  Shropshire, England
Historical mystery set in mid 12th century
Prequel:  A Rare Benedictine
First novel in the series:  A Morbid Taste for Bones  (1977)

Dorothy Sayers
Talented Amateur
Lord Peter Wimsey
London, England
Contemporary when written
First novel in the series: Whose Body   (1923)

Arthur Upfield
Police procedural
Inspector Napoleon (Bony) Bonaparte
Australia, various fictional locations
Contemporary when written
First novel in the series:  The Barrakee Mystery (1928)

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Man from Earth and "The Gnarly Man"

I just read L. Sprague de Camp's short story, "The Gnarly Man."  It's included in The Best of L. Sprague de Camp.

The Gnarly Man is a Neanderthal, about 50,000 years old.  He says he was "normal" until struck by lightning.  After that he never aged.  He was working in a carnival as the Cave Man in the side show when an anthropologist discovered him.  At one point in the story, he is being questioned in a room surrounded by a number of anthropologists and historians.  This, of course, is the setting of Bixby's The Man from Earth. 

Like Bixby's John Oldman, he says that he moves on every ten or fifteen years because he doesn't age and eventually people begin to wonder about his secret, much as one of Oldman's friends, early in the film,  commented about his secret of avoiding aging.  Both the Gnarly Man and Oldman prefer to keep a low profile.  Like Oldman, he really can't help the historians that much, as the centuries tend to blur after a while.  One of Oldman's friends asked him what happened on this day hundreds of years ago, and Oldman responded by asking what he had for breakfast several days ago, or some such similar question.

Was Jerome Bixby influenced by de Camp's short story?  I don't know, but if  Bixby was, then he certainly expanded it far beyond de Camp's  tale.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Baltasar Gracian: go with the crowd?

No. 133

 "Better a fool with the crowd, than a sage by yourself;  the politicians say, that if all men are fools, no one of them can be counted such; wherefore the wise man who stands apart, must be a fool;  it is important therefore to go with the current:  the greatest knowledge at times, to know nothing, or to affect to know nothing; we have to live with others, and the stupid make up the majority; to live alone one must have within himself, either much of God, or much of the beast: I am strongly urged to turn this aphorism about and say: better wise with the rest of the wise, than a fool by yourself: still some find distinction in making  fools of themselves."


"Better a fool with the crowd, than a sage by yourself;  the politicians say, that if all men are fools, no one of them can be counted such; wherefore the wise man who stands apart, must be a fool;  it is important therefore to go with the current:  the greatest knowledge at times, to know nothing, or to affect to know nothing;"

Numerous politicians in a particular party today frequently begin their speeches by saying "While I'm no expert" or some such statement, and then go on to discuss a particular scientific issue and express opinions about something they have said that they know little about.  I have yet to see anyone point out the contradiction here.   But, to be fair, their opinions do demonstrate their ignorance, or supposed ignorance.  It is clear that Gracian's observations still hold true today.

These politicians, according to Gracian, then go on to say that   "we have to live with others, and the stupid make up the majority; to live alone one must have within himself, either much of God, or much of the beast:"

Of course these politicians never come out and say this publicly for they must flatter their followers into believing that they are the intelligent ones, for they are not blinded by study, knowledge, and research on a particular issue.  And, of course, it is hard to say whether these politicians are as ignorant as they seem to be or are pretending such ignorance or imbecility in some cases, as Gracian suggests, to maintain the support of their followers.  

Within the past few days, we have seen a governor show his support of a conspiracy theory that claims that the US Army plans to take over his state.  ISIS troops are stationed just outside El Paso, and when they invade, the US Army will use this as an excuse to take over the state.  Wal-Mart stores that were closed specifically for that purpose will be used to hold political prisoners.  To prevent this, the governor has now called out the State Guard to protect the citizens of this state from this invasion.  He has now gained the support of at least one of his party's presidential hopefuls.  Several others, no doubt, are waiting to see the results of the governor's actions.  If there is considerable support shown, they will join the chorus of fools.  If the overall reaction is ridicule and laughter, they will remain silent or even join in with criticism.

The question, of course, is whether the governor really is a fool who believes this or lacks the courage to stand up and say this is stupid and thereby possibly lose those whom he might consider to be his strongest supporters.   

Those of you who know this governor well can better answer the question than I can.

At the end Gracian here interjects his own opinion: "I am strongly urged to turn this aphorism about and say: better wise with the rest of the wise, than a fool by yourself: still some find distinction in making  fools of themselves."

Overall, I think Gracian presents strong evidence in support of the theory that human nature really hasn't changed that much over the centuries.  The issues may change, but a fool is still a fool and to gain the support of fools, one must act accordingly.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Rubaiyat: Second Edition--Quatrain XLIII

This is another in my second set of posts about a favorite work--Edward FitzGerald's version? adaptation? interpretation? of Omar Khayyam's The Rubaiyat.  In the first set, I focused on the First Edition and included corresponding quatrains from the Second and Fifth Editions.  However, the First Edition had only seventy-five quatrains while the Second had one hundred and ten, so, I'm now concentrating on those that were added for the Second Edition and including the related quatrains from the Fifth Edition.  Since the Fifth Edition had only one hundred and one, I expect that when I have completed my posts on the Second Edition, I will also have included all of the quatrains from the Fifth Edition. 

Second Edition:  Quatrain XLIII

As then the Tulip for her wonted sup
Of Heavenly Vintage lifts her chalice up,
    Do you, twin offspring of the soil, till Heav'n
To Earth invert you like an empty Cup.

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain  XL
As then the Tulip for her morning sup
Of Heav'nly Vintage from the soil looks up,
    Do you devoutly do the like, till Heav'n
To Earth invert you--like an empty Cup.

FitzGerald makes only one change in the first line, and that is to substitute "morning" for "wonted."
"Wonted" means usual or normal, so the change makes it more specific, moving from usual to a particular time of day--the morning.  I'm not sure why he made the change, but perhaps he felt that "wonted" may be confusing and more readers would easily understand "morning."

FitzGerald has replaced "lifts her chalice up" with "from the soil looks up" in the Fifth Edition.  He changes the poetic "chalice" with the more prosaic "soil" as she catches the "Heav'nly Vintage, which is either rain or perhaps the morning dew as suggested in the Fifth Quatrain version.  

In the third line of the Second Edition, we are reminded that we and the Tulip come from soil, as it is related in Genesis, but that reference to soil is moved to the second line in the Fifth Edition and seems to refer now more specifically to the Tulip.  In addition, the Second Edition includes a very strong pairing of  us and the Tulip, "twin offspring of the soil."  By calling us "twin offspring," FitzGerald puts us in the same family, which goes beyond mere resemblance in behavior.  This strong pairing, however, disappears in the Fifth Edition as it now tells us to do the same with no suggestion of the relationship brought out in the Second Edition.

The fourth line is the same for both, aside from the dashes inserted in the Fifth Edition.   I think the dashes act as a pause, forcing us to now think about that empty cup.  The inverted and empty cup is a foreshadowing of themes brought out in later quatrains, especially those that introduce the Potter and also the last quatrain.  The inverted cup is symbolic of death and burial.

The quatrain is one more example of the Poet's philosophy of enjoying what is given us for death awaits us all.  The nature of that "Heavenly Vintage" is ambiguous enough to satisfy most readers: it could be water, it could be wine, and it could even be Grace from above.