Saturday, November 03, 2012

Music on My Mind

Lindsey Stirling, "Elements". A bit of instrumental and dance. There's also an amusing behind-the-scenes video.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Annette Baier (1929-2012)

Annette Baier, noted moral philosopher and scholar in early modern philosophy (her works on Hume are excellent), has recently died. This is a great loss to the profession. Her Paul Carus lectures, The Commons of the Mind, an argument for the inherently social nature of reason, should be more widely read than it is. She was extraordinarily -- although sometimes subtly -- original, always looking at things in a new way, in light of a new idea. She was thoroughly feminist, but at the same time vehemently opposed any attempt to confine feminist philosophy to a narrow range of topics: feminist philosophy was for her philosophy itself, as done with feminist interests.

She once said -- in Moral Prejudices, I think -- that ethics was a polyphonic art form, in which echoes of old voices bring out the quality in the new voices. Polyphony is a good word for describing her work: old woven with new, and ethics with epistemology, and reason with passion and imagination.

All Oceans Lead Homewards

by Stephan G. Stephanson

I put to sea from home,
for homeward I am bound.
My fatherland before me,
I leave my fosterland.
From the firm land's calm
my moorings I cast,
O blustery, blue deep
bound for your wide swell.

You, Sea, are my shipmate!
Now by your side I share
as a partner in the sky
and the world's every shore.
All oceans lead homewards.
Though the sea swamps your bows
you are travelling the fjord
between family's prints.

Thursday, November 01, 2012


So it's November, and I've wanted to try a NaNoWriMo for quite some time now. Given my schedule, how much of it gets done each day will be highly variable, but this round I don't think I'm going to worry too much about word count, beyond keeping track of it. I'll be putting it here:


It will be science fiction, at least of a sort. The opening paragraph of the first chapter:

Katja Ilkaiomenen stared at the ceiling, her eyes jolted open by the dream again. It had been the same for the past week. First she was in a field, the scent of spring around her and the sound of a man's laughter in the air, then the field caught fire and and everything was drenched in flames. The fire died out as swiftly as it began, and she was then sitting next to a large, glassy pool. Mist curled above it, and beside it the trees with their branches seemed to droop in weeping. Then the whole world turned upside down and she was no longer beside the pool but under it, staring up at the sky and drowning, unable to breathe. A great metallic hand pierced the surface of the water, reaching down toward her, and she woke. Every night for the past week she had awakened in the same way, always a good quarter-hour before her alarm. She was getting tired of it.

We'll see how it goes, anyway. This, the first part of the first chapter, took forever to write and ends up at 1750 words or so.

(The name, by the way, is pronounced KA-tya Il-kai-o-MEN-en; in Sylven the primary stress is always on the penultimate syllable (so it's Syl-ven-I-a, Me-tsen-I-a, etc.). 'Tanaver' is something of an exception, because it is not a Sylven word. Also, plurals in Sylven are made by doubling internal vowels, which lengthens the sound: suuvo, Syylven, etc. This all should become clear as the story progresses, but I mention it here to avoid confusion from the fact that it's all dribbled out in bits and pieces of the first few chapters.)

All Saints

The 2010 All Saints Post

The 2011 All Saints Post

Jadwiga of Poland

Jadwiga's girlhood was unusual; she became King. Daughter of Louis of Hungary and Elizabeth of Bosnia, she was born for royal courts and trained for the diplomatic life; she spoke six languages fluently. At the death of Louis, the throne of Hungary went to his eldest daughter Mary. However, Mary was married to a man, Sigismund of Luxembourg, who had a great many enemies in Poland, and the Polish nobles decided that the no longer wished to share a crown with Hungary. After some intense negotiation and outright fighting, the Polish nobles chose Jadwiga as their new monarch. It was the fourteenth century, and Polish law had no provisions for a ruling Queen. But as it happens, nowhere in Polish law did it explicitly say that the King had to be male. So Jadwiga was crowned King of Poland. She was only about ten or eleven at the time. Being a girl with a crown made her highly marriageable material, and the young monarch spent the next couple of years fighting off men trying to trick or force her into marrying them. She did officially marry Grand Duke Władysław Jaegila of Lithuania, who was fourteen years older; but she and the Polish nobles made very sure that she kept all royal rights over Poland.

The Kingdom of Poland was pretty much run by the nobles, and foreign policy was likely handled by Władysław Jaegila on her behalf, but the young girl was still active as a monarch, providing moral support for her armies, receiving diplomats, sponsoring artists, and founding scholarships for young students.She was very devout and active in charity. She is usually depicted with an apron of roses, due to the most famous legend about her. She would regularly smuggle food out of the castle at night to distribute to the poor, and the rumor began to go about that she was giving information to rebels who wanted to get rid of Jaegila. Furious, he waited for her one night by the door she always left and, when she appeared, sprang out and demanded to see what she had in her apron. She opened her apron and, instead of the food, it was full of roses.

In 1399 she gave birth to a girl, but both mother and child died due to complications in childbirth. Her feast day is July 17.

Kateri Tekakwitha

The Lily of the Mohawks was the daughter of a Mohawk chief and an Algonquin woman who had been baptized as a Catholic by French missionaries. The Mohawks at that time were in a state of expansion, being a relatively strong tribe that regularly assimilated captives from other tribes. When she was a young girl, a smallpox epidemic went around; Tekakwitha survived, but her face was ever after scarred from smallpox, and the disease left her with poor eyesight. Tekakwitha was baptized at age 20 in 1676, after several years of catechesis; it was not a good time to be both Mohawk and Catholic, because the Mohawks saw the Jesuit missionaries as the representatives of a foreign power that had humiliated them in war, forcing them into a peace treaty that included allowing unharrassed travel to the missionaries. But she lived an ascetic life as a consecrated virgin, and died in 1680.

André Bessette

Brother André was a lay brother in the Congregation of the Holy Cross. He was orphaned at the age of 12 and had to make his own way. His religious devotion was noticed by the pastor of his parish, and when he was in his twenties his pastor sent him with a recommendation to the C.S.C., but they rejected at him at first, because he, being in ill health and without much in the way of talent or training, didn't seem to be useful for much -- the C.S.C. is a teaching order, and it wasn't obvious what André, who couldn't even read and write, could do for him. However, he kept at it, and he was eventually admitted. He was assigned to be porter at Notre Dame College, a school for young boys, which meant that he was mostly there just to keep an eye on things, serve as a receptionist, and do various janitorial jobs. Everyone who came to the school had to talk with him, because he was the receptionist, and he turned out to be a great talker, and, even more importantly, a great listener. Soon people started showing up at the school just to talk with Brother Andr&eactue;, to tell him their troubles and get his advice. Brother André was devoted to St. Joseph, whom he insisted had helped him out many times in his difficult life, and began to advocate the building of a chapel dedicated to St. Joseph. The Archbishop rebuffed him, saying that it would not be wise to go into debt for such a thing. So Brother André started raising money. He put out a coin jar for nickels and dimes, and starting cutting boys' hair for donations. After a few years he had a few hundred dollars, so he did the best he could: he built a little shed dedicated to St. Joseph. But he kept collecting in the hopes that the shed would grow, and every so often he went back to the Archbishop. Finally the Archbishop told him he could have any building he wanted, as long as he did not go into debt building it. For years and years he collected and worked, until there was now an entire basilica being built. It still wasn't finished when André died in his nineties, but people kept building because of him, and the result was the Oratoire St.-Joseph in Montreal.

Rafqa Pietra Choboq Ar-Rayès

Rafqa, a young Maronite girl, became a nun so that she did not have to marry. Much of her life was just the simple life of a nun, but she was often brought up sharply against the sorrow and suffering of the world. Maronites in Lebanon often had tense relations with their neighbors, and every so often Maronites would be massacred by the hundreds or thousands. This contrast bothered Rafqa; she lived a relatively tranquil life, but all around her people were suffering and dying. Then when she was about fifty-three she was struck by violent pains that left her virtually paralyzed and nearly blind. The doctors could do nothing, and, in fact, made things worse: one doctor, attempting to understand why she had shooting pains in her eyes, accidentally popped her eyeball out. She eventually became blind, and her eye sockets often discharged blood; she often had frequent nosebleeds. It was a very miserable state, but Rafqa kept up her good spirits, and remained cheerful to the end. She did what little she could do for the community, which was mostly confined to prayer and knitting, which she could do by touch. She made socks for the other sisters, and simply knitted through the pain. The suffering, however, was not at its worse. Her body began quite literally falling apart as the attachments between her bones deteriorated. Sill she continued to be less distressed at what was happening to her than the people around her were. When she lay dying, one of the sisters begged her to tell of her life so it could be recorded, and she simply replied that nothing of importance had happened in her life. Her feast day is March 23.

Alberto Hurtado Cruchaga

Alberto Hurtado, although interested in labor law from an early age, joined the Jesuits and began to focus on catechesis and pedagogy. He was highly critical of catechetical practices in his native Chile, in which there were plenty of volunteers but insufficient training, and argued that they were the cause of Chile's shortage of priests. After he became the national director for Catholic Action he went so far as to write a book questioning whether Chile were a genuinely Catholic country -- rural populations were often forced to go priestless, over half the priests in the country were foreign, stable parishes with an assigned priest were nonexistent throughout much of the country, and most of Chilean religious life consisted of loose devotion to the Virgin and the saints rather than participation in the sacraments. Because of the book he was often accused by conservative Catholics of being a crypto-Communist. This did not stop Father Hurtado from following his interests in social action. He founded a movement, the Hogar de Cristo, to feed and shelter children who were either abandoned or were members of families too poor to care for them. The idea caught on, and a number of shelters were developed throughout the company. Still interested in labor law, he began to take a more active involvement in the labor movement, founding the Chilean Trade Union Association. In 1952 he suddenly one day doubled-over in pain; he had pancreatic cancer, and died soon after. His feast day is August 18.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Metric Standard

A somewhat odd claim by John Danaher, in the course of discussing Adams's divine command theory and an analogy using metric standard:

Particularist Predicates: The criterion for the application of a particularist predicate is determined by reference to one or more concrete individuals. An example might be the criterion for the application of the term “metre”. Whether it makes sense to say that a particular length is one metre long depends on whether it is isomorphic to the standard metre-stick which is kept in Paris.

Now, as it happens, the account of “metre-hood” offered here is historically inaccurate. It was not the case that a particular platinum-iridium bar was chosen to be standard against which all other purported metre-lengths would be judged. Rather, it was the case that a particular platinum-iridium bar was chosen because it most closely approximated the length of one metre (which was a measurement that was already being used). But this doesn’t matter. Suppose it was the other way round, then we would have an idea of what a particularist criterion for predicate application might involve.

I'm not sure what Danaher means by this. Prior to 1791, there were several different things called the 'meter'; in 1791 the French Academy of Sciences decided to standardize the meter by establishing that half the longitudinal meridian running through Paris, from the North Pole to the Equator, was ten million meters. But this required actually measuring that distance; the Academy of Sciences then established the prototype meter on the basis of the provisional results of an expedition to determine this length. This prototype meter, originally an iron bar, was then the standard meter. As it happens, the expedition did quite a good job, but the calculations for the meter did not get the earth's spheroidal deviation from a sphere exactly right -- because it spins, the earth is a little flattened on the ends, and this obviously has to be taken into account. So there was a very slight disparity, a fraction of a millimeter between the prototype meter and one ten-millionth of the half-meridian. However, it was the prototype meter bar that defined the meter -- it's why you have a prototype meter in the first place. Later platiniridium bars were put in place, it is true, to standardize the meter already in existence by allowing more precise definition under a wider range of circumstances; but it is precisely the case that once they were the prototype meter, anything one meter long was so entirely because it was isomorphic to the new prototype meter bar, to a relevant degree of precision. The prototype meter was then later replaced by wavelength definitions, and now by electromagnetic propagation definitions. But precisely the point of all of this has always been to to choose a standard "against which all other purported metre-length would be judged"; and it is even the case that when new standards have been put forward, they had first to be judged as a meter, to a given degree of precision, by the prior prototype. (You want to keep as a meter anything that already counted as a meter, to the extent practically possible, to avoid throwing measurements into confusion.) Thus it all goes back to a prototype meter bar that was, in fact, chosen to be a standard.

In any case, it is odd to bring up history here, since obviously the question is determination of reference, and history is related to determination of reference as etymology is related to meaning -- it's certainly relevant, but it is not constitutive. How reference is determined now necessarily has a history but it is not this history that determines how the reference is determined in cases of measurement -- it's comparison to the standard, and in the case of measurement this standard has to be something concretely identifiable. And it is clearly this, not originally historical choice, that is the governing feature in the account given of how the references of "particularist predicates" are determined.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Very Viking Miracle

I was following along with a discussion of probabilities a while back and was reminded of this memorable episode from the life of King St. Olaf of Norway, as related in the (fascinating, but not always very reliable) Heimskringla, which was written by the great Snorri Sturluson (whose most famous work was the Prose Edda). There was once a meeting between St. Olaf of Norway and various Swedish kings. The most important of these kings, Olaf of Sweden, turned out to be a fairly reasonable person; Olaf of Norway and Olaf of Sweden understood each other well.

Thorstein Frode relates of this meeting, that there was an inhabited district in Hising which had sometimes belonged to Norway, and sometimes to Gautland. The kings came to the agreement between themselves that they would cast lots by the dice to determine who should have this property, and that he who threw the highest should have the district. The Swedish king threw two sixes, and said King Olaf need scarcely throw. He replied, while shaking the dice in his hand, "Although there be two sixes on the dice, it would be easy, sire, for God Almighty to let them turn up in my favour." Then he threw, and had sixes also. Now the Swedish king threw again, and had again two sixes. Olaf king of Norway then threw, and had six upon one dice, and the other split in two, so as to make seven eyes in all upon it; and the district was adjudged to the king of Norway. We have heard nothing else of any interest that took place at this meeting; and the kings separated the dearest of friends with each other.

There are infinitely many things to like about this story. (1) It is a contest between Olaf and Olaf, and Olaf and Olaf end up good friends. (2) It makes complete sense for two reasonable Viking kings, having decided something wasn't worth bloodshed, to solve the dispute the other Viking way, by gambling. (3) Norway wins, which is the only appropriate solution to a dispute between Norway and Sweden. (4) It shows that probabilities are actually statements about models, such as models of dice, and only statements about the real world to the extent that those models fit the real world; in the real world, unlike in the abstract model we use to talk about probabilities with dice, it is indeed possible to roll a thirteen with two six-sided dice, because real dice can split in two.

Loud the Rivers Echo

The Lord reigns as king, robed in majesty;
royalty the Lord has for robe and girdle.
He it was that founded the solid earth,
to abide immovable.
Firm stood thy throne ere ever the world began;
from all eternity, thou art.
Loud the rivers echo, Lord, loud the rivers echo,
crashing down in flood.
Magnificent the roar of eddying waters;
magnificent the sea’s rage;
magnificent above these, the Lord reigns in heaven.
How faithful, Lord, are thy promises!
Holy is thy house,
and must needs be holy until the end of time.

Psalm 93 (Knox)

Monday, October 29, 2012

Links and Notes

Still on the busy side of things. In the meantime...

* David Biespel links to Pound, Yeats, and Dylan reading their poetry.

* Rob Knopp has a lovely post on the Higgs mechanism -- what it means, why it's important -- quite readable. He also had a good post this summer on common misconceptions about special relativity.

* Roderick Long discusses Ayn Rand's Anthem

* John Mikhail, Moral Grammar and Human Rights (PDF)

* Hadley Arkes, Is Religious Freedom a "Natural Right"?

* Michael Dominic O'Connor, OP, discusses Augustine's theory of preaching.

* Michael Flynn on truth, fact, and faith.

* Lillian Gilbreth and the invention of the modern kitchen (ht)

* Martha Nussbaum on the difficulties of social protest narratives.

* Derek Muller reviews a book defending the Electoral College. I'll definitely have to read it; apparently the author, Tara Ross, notes the voter eligibility issues with NPV that I've mentioned here, but also makes an argument on ballot eligibility, which is an interesting one of which I hadn't thought. Likewise, she notes a weakness in NPV that is commonly overlooked -- interstate activity is subject to regulation by Congress and interstate compacts often require Congressional consent; it is not, in other words, simply a matter of state legislatures choosing to opt in, as it is often treated, since it's an open Constitutional question whether states can, in fact, engage in this kind of legislation without Congressional authorization.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Fortnightly Book, October 28

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw a rise of interest in national roots, and thus in folklore as such, the antiquities of different nations. The most notorious case in the eighteenth century was MacPherson's Ossian, purportedly a cycle of poems drawn from Gaelic poetry and capable of constituting a Scottish national epic. The project eventually came to be regarded as a forgery, which is somewhat harsh, given that MacPherson's work was certainly based on real Gaelic oral tradition, albeit heavily worked-over to make it conform to the poetic conventions of the day and MacPherson's own sensibilities. In truth, MacPherson was simply too early. The real age of constructing national epics from folk poetry was yet to come, and the nineteenth century gives us the two greatest examples of such a constructed national epic, both related to each other (but very different): the Kalevala, compiled by Elias Lönnrot out of Finnish and Karelian folksongs; and the Kalevipoeg, constructed by Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald out of (a much more fragmentary set of) Estonian folksongs. The Kalevala will be our fortnightly book.

Elias Lönnrot (1802-1884) was a health officer for the district of Kajaani, a position that required him to interact with a very scattered rural population. Like many doctors in that time, however, he was something of a Renaissance man, with interests in language, folklore, and botany. Over the course of eleven major expeditions he collected a very large number of folksongs directly from folksingers. During one of theses expeditions the idea occurred to him that there might be an implicit overarching story in many of the narrative tales, and he set out to try to reconstruct -- or perhaps construct -- this architectonic narrative. The firstfruits of this was what is now known as the Old Kalevala, which was published in the 1830s. More extensive research allowed Lönnrot to develop and expand this first start, and the Kalevala as it is generally known today was published in 1849.

It is difficult to determine Lönnrot's exact contribution to it. There's reason to think that most of the particular verses are simply derived from folksongs. Lönnrot's genius, however, is in the ability to blend widely different folksongs into a single narrative, allowing each strand to play off the others in a sort of polyphonic harmony. In this sense, the Kalevala is one of the most eminently successful examples of the attempt to put Romantic ideals into practice, not merely in its close connection with Romantic nationalism, not merely in its Romantic interest in the heroic, but also in the very structure of the work, in which Lönnrot started with a relatively unformed chaos and created out of it an order. Novalis somewhere talks about the regulative ideal of writing being to create a Bible -- not the Bible, but a Bible; an unattainable ideal, an ideal that would be crazy to think you have achieved, but nonetheless an ideal that is inherent in writing itself -- writing tends not merely to scripture but to Scripture. The writer seeks to write something fit for God, or, at least, for the gods, the Muses, and saying that something is literarily great is another way of saying that it speaks the world in as close to this godlike way as human beings can achieve. Reading Homer or Virgil, you can believe that they record the voice of the Muses. In many ways, the Romantic attempt to create national epics is precisely a reaching for this, and the Kalevala is the Romantic work that comes closest to doing justice to it: it is a national book, and a universal book, touching the origins and the ends of the things as the backdrop of heroes, speaking of timeless themes in the context of a time (albeit a vague time) and place. There were several attempts at this extremely ambitious goal, and, as I noted, Kreutzwald's Kalevipoeg is a notable attempt; but none have ever been as successful as the Kalevala.

We are no longer Romantics, but this ambitious kind of project has an enduring appeal. It constitutes much of the interest in the work of Tolkien, for instance. And, indeed, Tolkien's work, although it transformed into something rather different, began as Tolkien's own attempt to build a national mythology and epic for England. And the influence of the Kalevala on Tolkien is clear sometimes palpable. Tolkien himself noted that the story of Túrin Turambar began as an attempt to rework the tale of Kullervo, from the Kalevala, into a form that fit his languages and tastes. This turned out to be a very major reworking indeed, especially as the work connected up with other stories original to Tolkien.

The translation I will be using is that of Keith Bosley. I'm not a huge fan of it; but it is the one I have on hand. The Finnish of the Kalevala is by all accounts colloquial and folksy, but Finnish is a language that can easily get away with that. English, being less alliterative, less flexible, more stress-driven, and, in short, more prosaic language, needs a little help. I do not think Bosley has managed to hit the sweetspot ; but in fairness, he does try while giving something as accurate and readable as possible. And there's something to be said for simply letting parallelism, which pervades the work in intricate ways and yet also is perhaps the most translatable feature, perform its task, even if it has to shoulder more than could be wished. And Bosley is, in all fairness, quite good at this.

There's simply no better way to end this post than with an excerpt from Jean Sibelius's Kullervo, Op. 7 (the whole thing, of course, is too long to post). From the introductory movement: