Saturday, February 28, 2009

Moses Maimonides

I have been sampling sections of Moses Maimonides's treatise, The Guide for the Perplexed. His writings have left me more perplexed than when I began.

Maimonides (1135-1204) was a brilliant philosopher and Jewish theologian, born in Cordova in Mohammedan Spain. When Maimonides was thirteen, he and his family were forced to emigrate when Cordova was taken by an aggressively intolerant Mohammedan sect, the Alomhades. After many years of wandering in northern Africa, the family settled in Fostat, Egypt. Shortly thereafter, when Maimonides was thirty three, he finished his great work, the Commentary on the Mishnah. The Mishnah, the first major work of Rabbinic Judaism, was a consolidation of Jewish oral traditions arranged by subject matter into six orders: 1) prayer and blessings, tithes and agricultural laws; 2) laws of the Sabbath and the Festivals; 3) marriage and divorce, some forms of oaths and the laws of the nazirite; 4) civil and criminal law, the functioning of the courts and oaths; 5) sacrificial rites, the Temple, and the dietary laws; and 6) laws of purity and impurity. Maimonides's commentary gave notice that a new hotshot rabbi had arrived on the scene.

Maimonides, like Aristotle, his chief influence in natural philosophy, had a mind that was comprehensive and systematic. Maimonides's next work, a compilation of a complete code of the Written and the Oral Law, required all of his abilities to organize what amounted to a one-stop solution to every Jewish question about religious, moral, or social duties. The genius of the work was widely recognized. But a backlash from the rabbinic community arose in response to the sheer ambition of Maimonides's undertaking and the judgments that he made between figurative and literal interpretation as he fitted his material into a unified system.

Maimonides had little patience with his critics, whom he regarded as philosophical light-weights. This prickly attitude was reflected in his introduction to The Guide for the Perplexed, which was a later treatise on theology, metaphysics, and natural philosophy:

When I have a difficult subject before me -- when I find the road narrow, and can see no other way of teaching a well established truth except by pleasing one intelligent man and displeasing ten thousand fools -- I prefer to address myself to the one man, and to take no notice whatever of the condemnation of the multitude; I prefer to extricate that intelligent man from his embarrassment and show him the cause of his perplexity, so that he may attain perfection and be at peace.

The Guide for the Perplexed displays Maimonides's impressive skills in logical exposition, especially the sections that attempt to harmonize Old Testament teaching with Aristotle's teaching about the Cosmos. If you agree with Maimonides's assumptions, you are swept along by his reasoning to his inevitable conclusions. His self-confidence was supreme. He and Aristotle had everything figured out. Of course, if Maimonides's assumptions are baloney, everything collapses into a heap of nonsense. Take, as an example, Maimonides's linking of Scripture with the Aristotelian notions of the heavenly spheres that direct the motions of the sun, moon, stars, and planets:

Scripture supports the theory that the spheres are animate and intellectual, i.e., capable of comprehending things; that they are not, as ignorant persons believe, inanimate masses like fire and earth, but are, as the philosophers assert, endowed with life, and serve their Lord, whom they mightily praise and glorify; comp. "The heavens declare the glory of God," etc. (Ps. xix. 2). It is a great error to think that this is a mere figure of speech; for the verbs "to declare" and "to relate" when joined together, are, in Hebrew, only used of intellectual beings... Only ignorant or obstinate persons would refuse to admit this proof taken from Scripture.

I once worked with a man who would frequently buffalo others with the cleverness of his arguments. As long as he could keep the focus of the debate on his chain of reasoning, his position was unassailable. But his conclusions were only as valid as his initial assumptions. If you disagreed with his conclusions, you had to prod him to return to the very beginning and carefully examine his assumptions. However, he would often react to your challenging his assumptions by dismissing you as an ignoramus.

I quickly learned to restrict my conversations with this man to the topics of weather and sports.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Drumming up business with the Mohawk

It was as if I had traveled back in time fifty years. The Mohawk was still beating his tom-tom in front of the carpet store, heedless that the passing decades had rendered him politically incorrect.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Cities - Holy and Otherwise

I needed to return the last volume of Macaulay's History of England to the library yesterday. As my local branch library just closed for remodeling, I had to plan out my usual Saturday walk to include a visit to another branch, about six miles away. Most of the walk was along a spacious paved trail, built with State lottery proceeds, running alongside the posh country-club district. As the photo above indicates, the residents wished their mansions to be admired from a distance but not visited by the trail peasants. At least the residents graciously flattered us trail peasants in assuming that we could comprehend such a big word as "prosecute." (A kind of thinly sliced Italian ham, right?) I crept close enough to snap the photo and then scurried back to the trail before I got myself sliced.

My sons have often heard me deride the super-sized domiciles of the rich. "If I should ever acquire substantial wealth," I would say, "I will spend my money on more interesting things than a mansion." My sons politely refrain from pointing out that this statement is no more likely to have consequence than the statement: "If I should ever acquire a spaceship, I will visit the moons of Jupiter." Nonetheless, my opposition to grandiose houses is on record. And what kinds of houses my sons will choose once their careers prosper, time will tell.

Paolo Soleri (see two blog entries ago) shares my disdain for country-club mansions, but his reasons are grounded in his philosophy of how the city should support human communication and participation. I suppose that he would view the mansions as a grotesque attempt to recreate life in a simple country village. But instead of cottages surrounded by gardens and nature, you have hotel-sized houses separated by acres of grass. Comfort and security are desired. Waste and sterility result.

As Soleri says, in his own rococo style (Arcology: The City in the Image of Man, p. 15):

"The mechanisms channeling life positively may consist of the replacement of comfort and security by joy. In joy, motivations are carried, uplifted, while in comfort and security they seem to be drugged, sinking into naught. Possibly then wealth would instrumentalize a joyful state instead of a security at any price, the negative side of conservatism. Joy comes from plenitude. Plenitude, though basically an inner condition, can be invited by an inspiring and stimulating environment and the feeling of working toward achievements that overreach one's own limitation and embrace not just openness by otherness as well: therefrom, the fruitions of creativity."

Soleri is an acute diagnostician of the ills of the modern city. Even if one isn't convinced that everything can be fixed by the creation of "an inspiring and stimulating environment" in the form of a Soleri city having the proportions of a colossal house, one can be struck by the aptness of Soleri's criticism of the waste, fragmentation, and cultural poverty of how we live. Isolated mansions are a retreat from these ills, not a solution.

My own aversion to mansions is not solely due to peevish class envy. When I was a boy, I was puzzled by the King James translation of the well-known verses of John 14:2 and 3, which record Christ's promise to return for his disciples:

"In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you unto myself, that where I am, there ye may be also."

The translator has the challenge of describing the dwelling place that is being prepared, without making the place seemed detached from Christ and His hospitality. The King James Version's use of the word "mansions" captured the splendor of the place to be prepared but, to my young mind, portrayed Heaven as a country-club district filled with many scattered mansions. I was relieved to find that later translations replaced the word "mansions" with "rooms." While the word "rooms" may be too limited and pallid a description of what is in store for the believer, it preserves the necessary sense of closeness and hospitality. And, for my part, it is a greater privilege to have a room in the palace than to have an isolated mansion of my own.

Another glimpse of the believer's future dwelling place is provided symbolically at the end of Revelation. John is shown a vision of the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of Heaven. An angel accompanying John had a rod that he used to measure the city. According to John's account in Rev 21:16:

"The city was laid out like a square, as long as it was wide. He measured the city with the rod and found it to be 12,000 stadia in length, and as wide and high as it is long."

I believe that the number 12,000 should be interpreted as representing a perfect length, rather than a literal length of roughly 1400 miles. But no matter what one makes of the measurements, the description of the Holy City as a perfect cube is a surprise. An individual house in the Middle East could be shaped like a cube. But what city has ever had those proportions?

The Holy City is described as a self-contained living environment (Rev 22:1-2):

"Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations."

Although this symbolic description of the future Holy City is not intended to be taken as the basis for an engineering analysis, it is interesting to me that Soleri arrived at a very similar description of his ideal city, although he started from strictly humanistic premises (Arcology, p. 16):

"The surface of the earth, for all practical purposes, is by definition a two-dimensional configuration. The natural landscape is thus not the apt frame for the complex life of society. Man must make the metropolitan landscape in his own image: a physically compact, dense, three-dimensional, energetic bundle, not a tenuous film of organic matter. The man-made landscape has to be a multilevel landscape, a solid of three congruous dimensions. The only realistic direction toward a physically free community of man is toward the construction of truly three-dimensional cities."

Well, so much for idle speculations. And I am not endorsing Paolo Soleri as a prophet.

Friday, February 20, 2009

John M. Ford

About three years ago I became a regular reader of Making Light, a weblog run by science fiction/fantasy editors Teresa and Patrick Nielsen Hayden (recommended). Most of the postings and comments were by their professional colleagues: novelists, poets, journalists, editors and the like. Peer pressure kept the literary quality top-notch even if the writing sometimes outshone the thinking, like fine Waterford crystal cradling a bratwurst: the weblog's politics often leaned toward woolly-headed liberalism. I made a point of visiting the weblog several times per week to enjoy the stylish language and the snappy repartee.

From time to time, a comment from John M. Ford would appear on the weblog and throw all of this bright discussion into shadow. Ford, primarily a writer of science fiction and fantasy, had a quicksilver wit and an Olympian knowledge of history and literature. He seemed to have read everything under the sun and found delight in it all -- from Damon Runyan to Shakespeare, from Sophocles to Mad magazine. His comments ranged from the scholarly to the madcap. He had a special gift, almost amounting to genius, for impromptu versification. He could generate a comic sonnet for a weblog discussion thread as deftly as somebody else might write a paragraph. I was dazzled to see him lavish finely-crafted, marketable humor and commentary on a mere weblog. Lesser writers could have supported themselves selling the pieces that Ford lightly tossed on the Internet for the pleasure of his friends.

I had to seek out Ford's books through inter-library loan; the main library had just two of his titles. I enjoyed reading his work, but I was a bit disappointed that I saw only intermittent flashes of the humor and erudition he revealed on the weblog. The man himself was more interesting than his books.

John M. Ford died in September 2006 at the age of 49. His health had always been fragile, owing to complications from diabetes. His obituary and bibliography are summarized in a good Wikipedia entry, evidently written by one of his many friends.

His written legacy comprises his novels, short stories, poems, and his collected weblog comments on the Making Light website. I suspect that his greater legacy is to be found in the memories of those whose lives were touched by his generous sharing of his talent.

Here is John M. Ford in a playful mood.

A is for Ann, who a grey eye attracts
B is for Betsy, unclear on the facts
C is for Chris, who at least argued well
D is for Daisy, who never did tell
E is for Ellen, who’d never been close
F is for Fay, who bought rings by the gross
G is for Gilly, whose smile was a candle
H is for Hilda, who got quite dismantled
I is Isolde, who went down with laughter
J is for Jill, who was tumbled right after
K is for Kay, who was certain and sure
L is for Lynn, who strayed off the coach tour
M is for Molly, untied from her beau
N is for Nora, who never said No
O is for Olive, whose caution was small
P is for Peg, who liked Ewan MacColl
Q is for Quinn, who was startled but pleased
R is for Rosie, whose kirtle got creased
S is for Susan, who went with a nod
T is for Tessa, who woke feeling odd
U is for Ursula, old for her years
V is for Vicky, who dates balladeers
W is for Wanda, who asked and who got
X is for Xenia — well, X marks the spot
Y is Yolanda, who needed some force
While Z’s clever Zoë, who bet the right horse.

Ford had a knack for explaining history with a clear and lively style.

All kinds of interesting things happened inside the Nazi weapons-research establishment, and a lot of them were not exactly efficient and not particularly honest. Once the Leader became enamored of Wonder Weapons, Wunderwaffenprojekten became an excellent way of not being sent to the Russian Front.

There was a steadily escalating series of priority hierarchies, as teams tried to leapfrog their projects ahead of others. Note that while some money was involved, this was not an issue of the workers trying to get rich — they were trying to stay out of the front line, and to get some basic resources (food, a decent place to live) that were in short supply. New classes of “very important project” were continuously created. About midwar, someone came up with “Führer Priority,” projects that the Boss supposedly was personally interested in; this was intended to be a trump card, but by war’s end there were six levels of Führer priority.

The effect of this was much labor but no product. Germany was, for instance, trying to develop a ground-to-air AA missile, which obviously would have been of great use; they tested a variety of designs, with varying levels of success, but instead of focusing the research into one AA Missile Group, it was scattered around numerous little teams, who competed for dwindling resources and, of course, shared nothing with each other. At war’s end, there were over forty such projects.

Ford could effortlessly juggle lofty Shakespearean cadences and funky slang. Just try and get the words "hammer down is how the hard girls kiss" out of your head.

From Verona Total Breakdown (Liebestod), a forgotten early Infernokrusher work by Bill "Hoist This Petard" Shakespeare . . .

Ro-Mo. Your windows are still mirrored; taunt me not,
But show your colors, dare to challenge me,
These lips are two shaped charges, primed and hot,
That wait the go-code for delivery.
J-Cap. The flag is to the deadly, not the loud,
Yet aim as well as posing show in this;
The worthy throwdown's always to the proud,
And hammer down is how the hard girls kiss.
Ro-Mo. My draft is stopped; I struggle toward the clutch.
J-Cap. And would a charge of nitrous make thee run?
Ro-Mo. Too much; but what else is there but too much?
Let me take arms, and elevate the gun.
J-Cap.Small arms but hint what demolitions say.
Ro-Mo.Then, gunner, gimme one round.
J-Cap.On the way.

Ford wrote often and well about literature and the writer's craft.

The appreciation of literature isn’t binary, get it/don’t get it; many, if not most, works of depth can be read for their pleasures as adventure stories by almost anybody, and returned to when other themes have room to resonate, either against direct life experience or a knowledge of history. The Iliad is an obvious example, Dumas is another. To be crude and nasty, one of the distinguishing features of crap entertainment is that it offers nothing new to view on a repeat performance, and nothing new to the viewer who has changed/matured/learned/sobered up in the interval.

The perspective shift (the parallax?) is certainly true of Shakespeare for the reader — the Falstaff one wants to hit the streets with at seventeen turns into the abandoned scoundrel of a later age — but it’s also true that a high-school performance of Rude Boy Hal (never mind, gor’ save ‘un, Cordelia’s Bad Hair Day) is going to hit different notes than one with older actors, even if the older cast are not vastly more skilled actors. Which is entirely as it should be; student acting can be ruined as an experience (though I think this is much less common than it was) by teachers who are trying to get everyone to hit the marks from whatever taped production the class has been shown as a model, and not find their own modus locopodus, to new-mint the words, in John Barton’s phrase.

This has been tonight’s performance of Numbingly Obvious Points Theater.

The following poem and "110 Stories," a poem that John M. Ford wrote about the September 11th attack, revealed Ford's understanding of the deeper human emotions.

The worm drives helically through the wood
And does not know the dust left in the bore
Once made the table integral and good;
And suddenly the crystal hits the floor.
Electrons find their paths in subtle ways,
A massless eddy in a trail of smoke;
The names of lovers, light of other days --
Perhaps you will not miss them. That's the joke.
The universe winds down. That's how it's made.
But memory is everything to lose;
Although some of the colors have to fade,
Do not believe you'll get the chance to choose.
Regret, by definition, comes too late;
Say what you mean. Bear witness. Iterate.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Paolo Soleri

I picked up a used book from the dollar rack at my local branch library. It was an oddly shaped book, 9 inches by 16 inches. Some sort of coffee table book, I thought. On the front cover was a a draftsman's sketch of an imaginary city shown in cross section. The sketch resembled a cross-sectional view of an aircraft carrier. The keel was labeled Automated Production. The broad landing deck area was labeled Factories and Utilities. And there was a superstructure of three stacked upper decks labeled, bottom to top, as City Center, Neighborhood, and Residential. The book, published in 1969, was written by an Italian architect named Paolo Soleri and was entitled Arcology: The City in the Image of Man. "Arcology" was Soleri's coinage to describe a combination of architecture and ecology.

I leafed through the book to determine if I wanted to invest a dollar. The first half of the book consisted of tortured schematics of twisting arrows and geometric shapes accompanied by puzzling little essays with peculiar names, such as The Map of Despair, The Condition of Man, The Bulb of Reality, and Residual Anguish. An exercise in 1960s existential foofaraw, I thought. Much of the prose was impenetrable, rivaling Kierkegaard at his most abstruse:

"That which lives wants to become three-dimensional for the sake of complexity and intensity. But it has to keep itself two-dimensional in the whole so as to deploy itself and feed on the sun (less so in the seas). Nature harvests extensively so as to be able to become intensive by man's presence and evolution. In the cosmic context the massive statistical, just, and logical mass of the earth becomes sensitized and, groping with its surface, vectorial and aesthetocompassionate in its nodular focuses, the society of man."

Okay, I thought, it might be fun to wade through the bog of Soleri's philosophy, even though my first impression was that he was following a faulty syllogism:

Geniuses employ concepts that are difficult to understand.
I employ concepts that are difficult to understand.
Therefore, I am a genius.

This reasoning is no better than that of an analogous syllogism:

A banana cannot fly.
I cannot fly.
Therefore, I am a banana.

The second half of the book consisted of wonderful architectural sketches of prototype cities, each an ornate geometric shape whose height was comparable to its width. Some were cubical; some were cylindrical; others resembled a cluster of mushrooms. The draftsmanship was exquisite. Of course, the book was published in 1969, before the computer bled all of the beauty out of engineering.

Back when I was in high school, all aspiring engineers were required to take drafting. I had no aptitude for it. My lines lacked crispness and uniformity. My printing was childish and erratic. And my drafting assignments were frequently marred by smudges where my sleeve brushed the paper. In spite of these discouragements, I persevered, even going to the trouble of setting up a makeshift drafting table in the basement to permit extra practice. At the end of the term I received the grade of B and was prouder of that B than of the A that I had received in English for negligible effort. Ever since, I have held the highest regard for the draftsman's handiwork.

And so, I judged the book to be worth a dollar. I paid the librarian and took Soleri's book home with me. As I began reading, I found that Soleri's philosophy, when taken in small doses, was intelligible, at times even persuasive. His main thesis is that civilization works best when people live close together but still have ready access to open spaces and nature. And the only way to have high population density without the bad effects of urban sprawl is to build vertically. He maintained that "the city must be a solid not a surface."

Soleri summarized his view of the city in a set of propositions:
1. The liveliness of man's world is hindered by the physical extension of his shelter and the spatial dilution of his institutions.
2. The city must then be predicated on compactness. Lack of compactness is lack of efficiency. A functionally weak system is the worst foundation for a complex society.
3. In the three-dimensional city, man defines a human ecology. In it he is a country dweller and metropolitan man in one. By it the inner and the outer are at "skin" distance. He has made the city in his own image.

I have some sympathy with Soleri's notions. As a weekend walker, I sometimes regret that I can walk for ten or twenty miles and still be nowhere near the countryside. The scale of the modern city demands automobile transport. Cities are too spread out for humans. Soleri inveighed against the waste and sprawl of the modern city:

"Meaningless. Sterile life. The asphalt percentage in geometric function of the degree of proliferation. Proto-human coherence. No scale. Destruction of ecology. The Detroit perpetuum [auto]mobile: Whenever distance increases more cars are needed. More cars demand more space. Thus distances must increase, etc."

This was all written by Soleri forty years ago. I did an Internet search for his biography or obituary and was surprised to discover that Soleri was still actively promoting his philosophy of architecture. He turns 90 this June. Over the years, he attracted volunteer workers and hustled grant money to establish the architectural research community of Arcosanti, where he has implemented some of his Arcology ideas. Arcosanti is located 70 miles north of Phoenix.

The Arcosanti website ( portrays the site as part futuristic architectural laboratory and part artist colony. It looks like a fascinating place to visit.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Groovy new slang

Today I came across an acronym that I had never seen before: PEBCAK. A Google search gave me the definition: Problem Exists Between Chair And Keyboard. In the wry jargon of the Internet, a PEBCAK is a mistake made by a user, as opposed to a software or hardware error.

The Google references for PEBCAK appear to go back about three years. This is the closest that I get nowadays to cutting-edge slang. Maybe if I include PEBCAK in an email to the young engineers at work, they'll think I'm a hepcat or a groovy dude.

Or maybe not. Slang can be embarrassing if it misfires.

One summer long ago when I was a mere sprout of an engineering intern, a senior engineer directed my attention to a cute young secretary across the lobby and said, "Hubba. Hubba." This ancient slang, which fell out of fashion shortly after the troops returned from World War II, was a jarring surprise coming from the mouth of a gray-haired, pot-bellied engineer.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

How's your doomsday coverage?

If the killer asteroid Apophis hits the Earth in 2029, we'll know whom to call.

Giddy up!

I don't care how fancy the saddle is, mate. I'm not riding that kangaroo.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Nature and then Art

Today the mail brought me a CD of Telemann concertos by the Berliner Barock Solisten (Berlin Baroque Soloists). Most of the concertos had never been recorded before. The Solisten resuscitated the music from manuscripts that had gathered dust for generations in a Darmstadt library. (This is just a figure of speech. Germans are probably very fastidious about dusting their manuscripts.)

The concertos, especially the violin concerto in A major that imitates the sound of pond frogs, are bright and appealing. The movements range in mood from wistful to joyous, and the Solisten maintain a light touch throughout.

The CD liner notes provide a succinct credo in Telemann's own words:

"In my opinion, the art of music consists in arousing all manner of emotions in people's souls by means of harmonic writing, and at the same time, by virtue of well-arranged and meaningful writing, in providing amusement for the mind of the connoisseur.... Art without nature reaches its value only amongst such connoisseurs, being an arduous business; but nature without art can please a whole number of people, including, not infrequently, connoisseurs; this demonstrates the superiority of the latter to the former. But the best solution is for nature to precede art, and for the two subsequently to be linked."

This strikes me as a very fine artistic credo. I appreciate how he contrasts the emotion of the soul with the amusement of the mind.

Our cynical age is too much governed by mind and too focused on artificial amusement, at the expense of natural human emotion.

Does the simple, heartfelt expression of a Wordsworth poem have any effect on modern souls?

My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So it is now, I am a man:
So be it when I shall grow old, or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

William Wordsworth 1807

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


I took a stroll this evening past an apartment complex called The Savoy. This was an interesting coincidence: two blog entries ago, I included an excerpt of Thomas Macaulay's History of England describing The Savoy as a notoriously lawless area in London. However, the apartment complex, a quadrangle of three-story brick apartment buildings, showed no conspicuous signs of squalor or vice. No tawdry woman emerged from the shadows, purring, "A bit of grog and a bit of fun, guvnor?"

Thinking of London reminded me of my favorite Evangelical preacher, Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981), who for many years was the pastor of the Westminster Chapel in London. My bookshelves are full of transcripts of his majestic sermons, which have been described as "logic on fire." As I walked, I recalled that I had made a brief vacation stop in London in 1976. I could have visited the elderly Lloyd-Jones then. But, unfortunately, in 1976 I had not heard of him or been exposed to his fine books and the opportunity was lost.

I walked on, somberly considering that I could even have met Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965). Our life spans overlapped enough to make a meeting possible. I would have needed help getting to Africa, naturally, and I would have only been thirteen years old during his last year. But what a fine experience it would have been!

When I got home, I checked Wikipedia (a resource used by the lazy to acquire superficial knowledge) to answer the question: why name an apartment complex after a London slum? Wikipedia revealed that there is a famous five-star hotel named The Savoy in London. It appears that gentrification of the locale has taken hold in the past three hundred years. The apartment complex was merely trying to trade upon the hotel's reputation.

Wikipedia also explained why the 17th-century area of The Savoy was so lawless. The Savoy was land owned by the Duke of Lancaster and was not subject to the King's legal jurisdiction. Consequently, London debtors could flee to The Savoy to escape the King's justice.

Finally, I searched Wikipedia for Albert Schweitzer's biography and found he was an Alsatian. Another odd coincidence: Alsatia was the name of the other lawless area in London that I had referenced in my blog entry. Schweitzer wasn't born in London, of course. He was born in the province of Alsace-Lorraine, which before World War I was a region of Germany. But, nonetheless, what are the odds of encountering the names of The Savoy and Alsatia in the same evening?

These coincidences are making me feel like a character in a Douglas Adams story, like an Arthur Dent on the verge of some life-changing event. When I mention something in the blog, a coincidence propels it into my life. I have only one thing to say about this.

Daljit Dhaliwal

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Lucia di Lammermoor

Saturday I watched a Met HD movie theater broadcast of Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. I enjoyed all of it - the singing, the acting, the costumes, the elaborate sets - except for what happened during the last minute. Unfortunately, the last minute was crucial.

Here is a skeletal summary of the plot:

Act 1:
Enrico needs to arrange a marriage between his sister Lucia and the powerful Lord Arturo to save his family fortunes and his home, Lammermoor Castle. However, Lucia has fallen in love with Enrico's enemy, Edgardo.

Lucia goes to the woods for a rendezvous with Edgardo. She sees the troubled ghost of a girl who was stabbed by her lover. Edgardo arrives and says that he must go to France for political reasons. Lucia and Edgardo exchange rings and vows.

Act 2:
Two months later. Enrico has carried out dirty tricks to scuttle Lucia's romance with Edgardo. First, he has had all of their letters intercepted. Then he shows Lucia a forged letter, purportedly from her lover Edgardo, that says that Edgardo has found another woman in France. Lucia is bewildered and agrees to marry Lord Arturo.

During the wedding ceremony at Lammermore, Edgardo returns from France to claim Lucia for his bride. Shocked at seeing her signature on the wedding contract, Edgardo curses her and leaves.

Act 3:
Enrico slips away from the wedding celebration to visit Edgardo and challenge him to a duel. They agree to meet at dawn at the graveyard.

Back at Lammermoor, the wedding festivities are halted by the news that Lucia has lost her mind and killed her new husband, Lord Arturo. Lucia descends the long spiral staircase, her wedding gown covered in blood. She is dazed. Enrico returns and is enraged with her until he realizes that she has gone mad. Lucia collapses.

At dawn, Edgardo waits for his duel with Enrico. Guests returning from Lammermoor tell Edgardo that Lucia has died. Lucia appears as a ghost, only visible to Edgardo. Edgardo despairs of life. Wishing to join Lucia in death, he decides to stab himself to death.

Well, right here the opera went terribly wrong, in my opinion. Lucia, as a troubled ghost, bends over Edgardo to help him shove the knife blade into his chest. It was at this moment that the opera changed from the story of two doomed lovers to a horror story. Turning poor Lucia into a female Jack Kevorkian was a miserable mistake on the part of the opera producer. I was reminded of a 1960s zombie movie where a young man rescues his girlfriend only to find to his horror that she has turned into a zombie and wants to gnaw on his skull.

The opera's final moments offered no catharsis and no reason to hope that the two lovers might find peace together, if only as ghosts. (The idea of Heaven seemed foreign to the opera producer's vision.) The opera leaves the audience with the chilling thought that Edgardo would be joined in death to a Lucia who was still deranged and violent.

If I had been forewarned and had shut my eyes for the last minute of the opera, I would have been able to give this otherwise fine production a completely positive review. Sad to say, a bitter aftertaste remains.

Monday, February 9, 2009

London Urban Renewal 1697

I am nearing the end of the fifth and final volume of Thomas Macaulay's work, The History of England from the Accession of James the Second. It is an exhaustive work, taking 2500 pages to cover the short span from 1685 to 1700. And as I have been reading Macaulay's history, I have been listening to chamber music of the same era (Biber, Schmelzer, Buxtehude, Purcell, Corelli, etc.). With all the current anxiety of the early twenty-first century, it has been refreshing to find sanctuary in the late seventeenth century.

As I was reading this past week, I was struck by the virtuosity of the passages below, wherein Macaulay describes two wretched districts of urban decay in London. Perhaps you can guess how the government responded to the situation. (Hint: no social workers were involved.)

The larger and more infamous district was called Alsatia.

Bounded on the west by the great school of English jurisprudence, and on the east by the great mart of English trade, stood this labyrinth of squalid, tottering houses, close packed, every one, from cellar to cockloft, with outcasts whose life was one long war with society. The most respectable part of the population consisted of debtors who were in fear of bailiffs. The rest were attorneys struck off the roll, witnesses who carried straw in their shoes as a sign to inform the public where a false oath might be procured for half a crown, sharpers, receivers of stolen goods, clippers of coin, forgers of bank-notes, and tawdry women, blooming with paint and brandy, who, in their anger, made free use of their nails and their scissors, yet whose anger was less to be dreaded than their kindness.

The other district was called The Savoy.

The Savoy was another place of the same kind, smaller, indeed, and less renowned, but inhabited by a not less lawless population. An unfortunate tailor who ventured to go thither for the purpose of demanding payment of a debt, was set upon by the whole mob of cheats, ruffians, and courtesans. He offered to give a full discharge to the debtor and a treat to the rabble, but in vain. He had violated their franchises; and this crime was not to be pardoned. He was knocked down, stripped, tarred, and feathered. A rope was tied round his waist. He was dragged naked up and down the streets amidst yells of "A bailiff! A bailiff!" Finally he was compelled to kneel down and curse his father and mother. Having performed this ceremony, he was permitted - and the permission was blamed by many of the Savoyards - to limp home without a rag upon him.

At last the scandal of Alsatia and The Savoy had to be addressed by the government.

At length, in 1697, a bill for abolishing the franchises of these places passed both Houses, and received the royal assent. The Alsatians and Savoyards were furious. Anonymous letters, containing menaces of assassination, were received by members of Parliament who had made themselves conspicuous by the zeal with which they had supported the bill: but such threats only strengthened the general conviction that it was high time to destroy these nests of knaves and ruffians. A fortnight's grace was allowed; and it was made known that, when that time had expired, the vermin who had been the curse of London would be unearthed and hunted without mercy. There was a tumultuous flight to Ireland, to France, to the Colonies, to vaults and garrets in less notorious parts of the capital; and when, on the prescribed day, the Sheriff's officers ventured to cross the boundary, they found those streets where, a few weeks before, the cry of "A writ!" would have drawn together a thousand raging bullies and vixens, as quiet as the cloister of a cathedral.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

A spurious sign

I took a walk this afternoon and happened upon this sign for Sat'n Spurs. The name puzzled me. What could it mean? And what product or service was being sold? I pondered a while and arrived at three interpretations.

1. Sat and Spurs
The abbreviation 'n is sometimes used in place of and in advertisements. But even with the substitution of and, the name remains meaningless. Perhaps the store clerk who arranged the letters on the sign bungled the job.

2. Satin Spurs
Sometimes an apostrophe is used to mark a missing letter. Satin Spurs makes a kind of sense but is incongruous. As the old country-western song goes, spurs are meant to go "jingle jangle jingle," not make the delicate rustling sound of satin on a horse's flanks. Spurs of satin would be as surreal as Salvador Dali's drooping clocks.

3. Sat-On Spurs
The apostrophe could stand for the letter O but this would result in a very peculiar and disturbing name. Sitting on spurs sounds painful.

I decided to continue my walk and not visit the Sat'n Spurs store, as I had no desire to encounter illiterates, surrealists, or sadists. The name must remain a mystery.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Richard Armour

Years ago, my interest in old books was satisfied by a few visits per year to a used book store. I would walk in, nod to the proprietor – usually an old hippie about my age – and then leisurely browse through bookcases crammed to the ceiling with the literary residue of past generations. On a lucky day, I would greedily pluck my out-of-print treasure from the shelf, amazed that nobody had beaten me to the dog-eared 1906 edition of Tom Swift and His Electric Dirigible. But, more often, I would just wander about until I started sneezing from the musty air and had to depart. The pastime was harmless and inexpensive.

But now, the Internet has transformed everything. Amazon's website has links to used book stores across the nation. I click my mouse and any book that I select will arrive in the mail. The supply of books is immense. So is the danger of pauperizing myself.

Amazon eliminates the old-fashioned interval between desire and purchase. No time is wasted considering whether the purchase makes sense. Let me give an example. While reading a biblical commentary, I noticed that the author included a footnote that recommended other works. A few impulsive clicks of the mouse and soon in my mailbox appeared eight volumes by nineteenth-century Lutheran theologian Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg. This simple process – desire the book and then click the mouse – has grown into habit, almost a reflex, during the past several years and I can now boast two bookcases full of old books: mainly theology, philosophy, history, literature, adventure, and humor.

Two weeks ago, I was reminiscing about the humor books that I enjoyed reading in my youth. The familiar desire flamed within me. And so, thanks to Amazon and a surprisingly speedy U.S. postal service, within a week I had received two comic histories and one book of light verse by Richard Armour, an American humorist who made his reputation during the 1950s and 1960s.

But this was just the beginning. Armour's first comic history, It All Started with Columbus, was dedicated to two British gentlemen, Walter Carruthers Sellar and Robert Julian Yeatman, who had written a comic history of England in 1930 entitled 1066 and All That. Obviously, I had to have that predecessor book as well. It arrived three days ago. (Fortunately for my budget, Armour's literary lineage only went back to Sellar and Yeatman. Those two hadn't dedicated their book to any previous humor writer in the Victorian era.)

Wordplay, puns, and satire are the main comic techniques employed by Sellar and Yeatman. They assume that their readers have a good knowledge of English history and will recognize the comic distortions in the book. My own knowledge of English history is sketchy. Consequently, I missed some of the jokes about kings in the middle ages .

Here is a sample of 1066 and All That.

The first date in English History is 55 B.C., in which year Julius Caesar (the memorable Roman Emperor) landed, like all other successful invaders of these islands, at Thanet. This was in the Olden Days, when the Romans were top nation on account of their classical education, etc.

Julius Caesar advanced very energetically, throwing his cavalry several thousands of paces over the River Flumen; but the Ancient Britons, though all well over miliary age, painted themselves true blue, or woad, and fought as heroically under their dashing queen, Woadicea, as they did later in thin red lines under their good queen, Victoria.

Julius Caesar was therefore compelled to invade Britain again the following year (54 B.C., not 56, owing to the peculiar Roman method of counting), and having defeated the Ancient Britons by unfair means, such as battering-rams, tortoises, hippocausts, centipedes, axes, and bundles, set the memorable Latin sentence, "Veni, Vidi, Vici," which the Romans, who were all very well educated, construed correctly.

The Britons, however, who of course still used the old pronunciation, understanding him to have called them "Weeny, Weedy, and Weaky," lost heart and gave up the struggle, thinking that he had already divided them All into Three Parts.

In 1953, when Richard Armour undertook his own comic history of America, It All Started with Columbus, he patterned his style on this earlier British work:

America was founded by Columbus in 1492. This is an easy date to remember because it rhymes with "ocean blue," which was the color of the Atlantic in those days. If he had sailed a year later the date would still be easy to remember because it would rhyme with "boundless sea."

Columbus fled to this country because of persecution by Ferdinand and Isabella, who refused to believe the world was round, even when Columbus showed them an egg. Ferdinand later became famous because he objected to bullfights and said he preferred to smell flowers if he had to smell anything. He was stung in the end by a bee.

Before Columbus reached America, which he named after a man called American Vesuvius, he cried "Ceylon! Ceylon!" because he wanted to see India, which was engraved on his heart, before he died. When he arrived, he cried again. This time he cried "Excelsior!" meaning "I have founded it." Excelsior has been widely used ever since by persons returning with chinaware from China, with indiaware from India, and with underware from Down Under.

This first book ran only 115 pages; but even at that length, the constant stream of puns and satire tires the reader. For subsequent books, Armour adopted a more relaxed narrative style that I find preferable. In 1956 he turned his attention to notable women in history. The book was It All Started with Eve.

Here is an excerpt from the chapter on Eve. Armour manages to add a sensuous undertone to his humor, but with no trace of prurience.

One day while she was sitting in the shade of the old apple tree, a snake came up and introduced himself. In those days snakes were called serpents and walked upright and looked people straight in the eye. This snake had a receding forehead and small eyes, but he was slenderer than Adam, especially in the hips. There was a sophisticated, worldly look about him, too. He had obviously been places and seen things. At any rate, thought Eve, he was a change.

The snake bent over and kissed Eve's hand. "You're ravishing," he said.

"Stop kidding," said Eve, but she was pleased and a little embarrassed. A blush started in her cheeks and kept going. In Eve's time you could follow a blush all the way.

Here is an excerpt from the end of the chapter on Marie Antoinette. She is about to fall victim to the vengence of the French Revolution:

Meantime the Reign of Terror was in full sway. Revolutionists paraded the streets, singing the Marseillaise and frightening everybody with their grimaces when they tried to reach the high notes. Some carried the heads of unfortunate Aristocrats on their pikes, hoping they would keep until Halloween. A guillotine had been set up at the Place de la Discorde, and the people of Paris were enjoying themselves royally. When the knife blade flashed down, Madame Defarge and her ghoul friends dropped their knitting and stood up to see what was coming off.

One day they came for the King. He said good-by to his wife and promised he would be back shortly. Or maybe he said shorter.

Finally they came for the Queen. They were singing lustily, and asked her to accompany them. As she mounted the steps to the guillotine, there was a storm of cutting remarks. But Marie Antoinette held her head high. So, a few minutes later, did the headsman.

Armour's light verse is clever but much of it seems bland to modern tastes. At his most playful, Armour nearly rises to the level of Odgen Nash.

Here is his poem (from the collection The Medical Muse) written in response to a news item stating that among the greater metropolitan areas with populations of a million or over, the Boston area has the highest ratio of physicians to population.

Why is it doctors are the thickest
In Boston? Are the people sickest?
If so, and this is rather odd,
Is it from eating beans and cod?

Or do the doctors swarm in legions
Around the proper Back Bay regions
Because they find it elevated
To treat the Harvard educated?

We do not know the reason, but
To young M.D.s who know what's what
We'd say: Seek out, sir, some metropolis
Where doctors are not quite so popolis.

Friday, February 6, 2009

She's no angel

While strolling around a nearby mall, I lifted my eyes and saw her: a buxom woman customized with outswept wings.

What does this creature signify, I wondered. In contradistinction to a real angel, who presumably has no need of sex appeal (Matthew 22:30: At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.), the young woman who posed for this statue had oodles of appeal. This is aesthetic confusion and theological error, I thought.

But we should not blame the woman. Instead, I would prefer to take her aside and give her counsel. A woman should neither try to be an angel nor wish to be treated like one, I would explain to her.

Over dinner, perhaps.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Thoughts on Bands

My son the composer is part of a brand-new band. I was invited to watch one of their recent rehearsals. At first, the prospect of observing the raw creative process gave me pause, as my own instinct is to hide myself away whenever I do anything remotely creative. (For example, these simple blog entries are hammered out in the isolation of an upstairs bedroom.) I worried that I might feel like an intruder, like someone invited to a maternity ward to observe a strange woman giving birth. But once the music started, I put aside these qualms and enjoyed the musical commotion immensely.

In some ways, watching the rehearsal was like watching a new star as it coalesces from the hydrogen soup and begins to glow. And in other ways it was like watching a frantic pit crew, where the crew isn't sure whether they're at the Indy 500 or the demolition derby at the county fairgrounds. The band's musical experimentation was a fascinating mix of artsy falderal, retro French cabaret stylings, and garage band (or, to be exact, basement band) thunder.

The way that the band members worked together seemed analogous to how a small engineering team conducts a brainstorming session. Therefore, I can make use of the same categories that I used in the previous blog entry to characterize how a successful band works.


The heart of the band is expressed by how each member listens to the others and reacts to their music ideas. My son's band was excellent at this. Through a tumultuous exchange of suggestions, arguments, counter-arguments, revelations, and occasional buffoonery, the band started with a newly hatched song, a mere musical nubbin, and in short order turned it into a full-fledged opus ready for the concert stage.

I was impressed by how gracefully the band used good-natured conflict about aesthetic opinions to spur experimentation and problem solving. Creative people can often be touchy. As Carol Eikleberry notes in her book, The Career Guide for Creative and Unconventional People:

"Creative people often focus on what is wrong, what is missing, what needs to be changed to make something better. In fact, many creative people look like chronic malcontents to outsiders, because they are always searching for what can be improved."

The band was successful in balancing creative tension with a spirit of camaraderie.


The soul of the band is expressed in the band's adherence to a consistent music path. (I am defining a successful band as a band that has artistic integrity. I know that there are plenty of bands with no soul making money in music. But I am not considering hacks with big bank balances as successful bands.) Even if the band is in the earliest stages of groping to find their own sound, the band members must have the sense that they can invent or discover a path that will work for them, without having to copy someone else's approach.

Therefore, I was encouraged to hear some of the members of my son's new band wrestling with questions about the musical choices they were making and where the choices would lead them. A healthy question for a new band to ask is "What kind of band are we?"


The strength of the band is expressed in how dedicated the band members are in pursuing their music goals. This involves doing the hard work to make things right, to discover the right aesthetic solution, to work through the creative tension to a new and satisfying resolution.

At one point in the rehearsal, the band's singer noticed that my son had been experimenting with new guitar chords for the song's chorus. The singer asked if he were doing it for fun. He responded, "I never do anything for fun." In the sense that my son meant this, he was perfectly truthful. My son could have said, with equal truth: "I take my fun very seriously."