Saturday, January 26, 2013

George B. Markle IV, The Teka Stone


Opening Passage:

The first inkling I had that my immediate future would be anything but the usual routine of academic life was on the fifteenth of June, 1952. I was studying in the Sterling Library of Yale University, poring over a description of Pueblo customs of New Mexico. As usual, New Haven in June was hot and humid, and several flies (creatures which I abhor) were buzzing about me. Undergraduate classes had been suspended for the summer; therefore, the library was almost deserted.

Summary: This book was chosen to be a light read during a busy time, so there's not a huge amount to say about it, beyond the basics of the story itself. The narrator, who is never named, is an archeology professor at Yale; he joins an expedition to the Yucatan led by his department chair, William Appel. The department is putting together an archeological expedition, but due to severe budgetary shortfalls, they lack the money to fund the expedition completely. Because of this, they will be teaming up with Professor Hutchins from the Biology Department; Hutchins is a British entomologist with an independent grant. They also expect to cooperate with an independent British archeological expedition. In addition to Appel and Hutchins, there will be a graduate student whose specialization is Yucatan civilizations, Riccardo (sic) Diaz, and coming along to be research assistants are Ray Semple and his wife Pat, as well as our neighbor. But Semple and the narrator have archeological backgrounds in other areas (as noted in the above passage, the narrator specializes in New Mexico); and Pat Semple has a Master's degree that qualifies her to assist Professor Hutchins.

In an early conversation with the narrator, Diaz notes that a great deal is unknown about ancient Mexican civilizations, and gives as an example the Teka people, who are known only from one artifact, called the Teka Stone, which locates them just south of Uxmal. The Teka Stone has, instead of the usual serpent-based designs, a picture of a man composed entirely of carvings of little ants.

Shortly afterward they meet their pilot, Juan Hernandez, who flies them out in a tiny rickety plane that is decades old. A storm comes up and they crash. While they are waiting for search and rescue, Ray Semple stumbles on some ruins, which turn out to have patterns exactly like those of the Teka Stone. That night, they are forced to abandon camp in a hurry due to a massive column of army ants (the book doesn't use the term, but the usual word for this is a 'raid') moving in their direction. The column turns out to be immense, vastly larger than a typical army ant raid, and to box them in on three sides. They are forced to retreat to another ruin of Teka design, an ancient temple with a sacrifical altar. While briefly looking around, they stumble on skeletons of Spanish conquistadors in a cave, but when they attempt to leave the cave, they find the opening sealed by a living curtain of ants. In the morning they discover an inscription in Spanish that, translated, would be:

Fifth of May 1532
Fifteen Knights of the Santa Rosa
Four are alive now
Our captors are not human

Hutchins notes that none of the behavior they've witnessed is, in itself, unusual: legionary ants engage in large foraging raids, and even capture other insects. What is unusual is the sheer scale of it, which dwarfs anything he's ever heard of. Another case of it is soon discovered: the ants are leaving them mushrooms, which they seem to grow themselves. Ants growing fungus is not unusual, but actual farming mushrooms is a bit much. And soon it becomes even stranger. They are visited by large groups of ants that come into the cave, mill around, and then leave; and this behavior, when explained, only raises further questions, because it soon becomes clear that they are forming Mayan hieroglyphs. And then one day, it is Spanish sentences. They write sentences in response, and then one day the ants form a Spanish sentence that, translated, comes to:

"I am the ruling ants of Teka and Uxmal."

It turns out that the Teka civilization, which had a powerful ant-worshipping cult, had an unusual pasttime: they bred ants for things like running mazes and solving little games, on which they wagered heavily, and quite by accident they managed to stumble on a variant kind of ant that in turn began influencing the breeding of new generations of ants, continuing the intelligence-breeding of the Teka. The ants eventually began to manipulate the Teka themselves; the Teka already regarded ants superstitiously, and the ants, now starting to take over and re-organize other colonies of ants, began systematically to arrange raids to get what they wanted; in an attempt to placate the Ant God, the Teka began sacrificing humans to them, and the ants, always ratcheting things in their favor, began to take deliberate advantage of this new factor. Eventually this went too far, and the Teka civilization became irreparably weakened. The ruling colony of ants had by this time become partly dependent on the Teka, and it had to rethink its ways in order to survive over the next several centuries. Now, however, it is ready to re-emerge, and, again ratcheting things up, it has a more ambitious target in mind: it will begin a conquest of the entire human race by assassination (it has bred ants that are highly venomous) and blackmail (it has already begun extending its network of ants).

One by one the prisoners die in various ways. Appel is sacrificed on the altar to make clear that the prisoners should not try to escape, paralyzed by a particular kind of ant venom and torn apart by ants. Diaz is made the representative of the Teka ants to the Mexican government, and Ray Semple, to the U.S. government, and they are both poisoned when they fail. Hutchins lucks out by having a heart attack while trying to escape. Hernandez, the pilot, who blames himself for their predicament,sacrifices himself in order to make up for it.

How do the prisoners escape? How do they foil the plans of the ruling ants of Teka and Uxmal?

Since the whole story is bound up in these questions, it would be hardly fair to say, now, wouldn't it.

Favorite Passage: It's obviously the one that sticks in the mind:

Then one day our writing ants left us a message that worried us a great deal.

"You cannot escape me."
"I will destroy you."
"Do not anger me."

Again we exclaimed our innocence, and our desire to be friendly; we asked if we might be released. It seemed strange to us the first person singular was being used in all of the ants' questions and replies. I suggested we ask: "Who are you?"

The answer came later that day.

"I am the ruling ants of Teka and Uxmal."

Recommendation: You are not missing anything by not having read it. On the other hand, if you want a light, easy read of a pulp fiction kind, with a bit of H. Rider Haggard in its style, and it happens to come your way, it's an enjoyable read, in the way a fun short story might be.

Pig Latin

If you haven't seen Grant Snider's Pig Latin comics, you should:

Pig Latin
Pig Latin Redux


David Hardy has a post noting an amusing clarity problem with an Arizona law regarding explosives and firearms. Here is one part of the law:

Arizona Revised Statutes §13-3101(A). Definitions. In this chapter, unless the context otherwise requires:

3. "Explosive" means any dynamite, nitroglycerine, black powder, or other similar explosive material, including plastic explosives. Explosive does not include ammunition or ammunition components such as primers, percussion caps, smokeless powder, black powder and black powder substitutes used for hand loading purposes.

Given this definition, is black powder legally an explosive or not? I take it that they intend to make an exception for black powder "used for hand loading purposes," but people can be excused for being a bit baffled. However, it gets worse:

4. "Firearm" means any loaded or unloaded handgun, pistol, revolver, rifle, shotgun or other weapon that will expel, is designed to expel or may readily be converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive

Since, however, #3 told us that ammunition and ammunition components do not count as explosives, what counts as a firearm?

The problem is not strictly logical, since there is an interpretation on which the whole thing is consistent, namely, the one in which "used for hand loading purposes" modifies the whole phrase "ammunition or ammunitions components such as primers, percussion caps, smokeless powder, black powder and black powder substitutes", but rather functional, since the whole point of the 'Definitions' section of a law is to clarify things, and no English-speaker would interpret the definitions the way they would have to be interpreted unless forced to do so by context. Since the only 'context' for such definitions, however, is the whole statute, the only way to interpret these definitions is to look at the entire statute and eliminate logically impossible and strange interpretations; something has gone terribly wrong.

This is, incidentally, another bit of evidence that Socrates's insistence -- that we should try to avoid defining things by listing examples -- was very wise.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Music on My Mind

The Mediaeval Baebes, "All for Love of One".

Notable Links for Noting and Linking

* Bill Witt discusses the variety of answers to the question, "What is Anglican theology?".

* Elise Italiano discusses the possibilities for an alternative feminism.

* Jordan Ballor on Carl F. H. Henry and Christian social witness

Speaking of which, this is Carl Henry in a review of Hauerwas (PDF):

Precisely as the true Church the Christian community is to be reminded that she must not hide her light or withhold her salt from the world. She is to warn the world, as I see it, that law and justice have their ultimate ground and defining source in the transcendent will of the self-revealing God, is to proclaim to the world the universal criteria by which Christ will judge men and nations at his return, is to encourage society to judge itself anticipatively by the divine commandments that threaten impenitent humanity, is to exemplify in her own ranks what faithful obedience to the Lord of the Church and of history implies, and is to exhibit to the world the blessings of serving the true and living God.

* Paula Byrne discusses Pride and Prejudice and politics

* A reply to some criticisms of Scotus's doctrine of the absolute primacy of Christ.

* Sandra Miesel asks Catholic SF writers some questions. (ht)

* The International Prototype Kilogram is several dozen micrograms heavier than it used to be, due to the slow build-up of contaminating hydrocarbons.

* The Cedarville Philosophy Department is collecting testimonies from former philosophy students. It makes for fascinating reading. Cedarville was an originally Presbyterian college that I think is now affiliated with the Baptists; a recommendation was recently made to its Board of Trustees to close the department.

* Robert Merry discusses Oswald Spengler.

* Matthew Rees discusses Thomas Kuhn.

* A Wikipedia hoax in which the hoaxers invented an entire war between Portugal and India. Tlon, Uqbar, Orbius Tertius!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

A Boy Nicknamed Monkey

Not long after the Town had been set right, in regard to the foregoing Particular, a Boy, about four Years old, arriv'd in this City, from a very distant Part of the Country, where he had been nursed and brought up with great Privacy, but was now carried to the House of VANITY, who undertook the Care of him (as she said) for a Relation, whose Child he was. The Boy was exceeding lively and active, and with-all play'd so many comical Tricks, that she gave him the nick-name of Monkey, tho' his real Name (as it afterwards turn'd out) was HUMOUR--He had something so inexpressibly ridiculous in his Countenance, that no one could behold him without Laughing. In short, every Body was fond of the Boy, my Father in particular (who was an old Acquaintance of VANITY's) grew so enamour'd of him, that the Neighbours began to suspect something, which GENIUS who was privy to all my Father's Secrets, soon put out of all Dispute. For one Day playing with the Boy as usual at one End of the Room, without perceiving that there were three Ladies at the Other, he fays to him, my little Man, you're more like your Father than your Mother—-Ay, says the Boy--pray who is my Father? why WIT is your Father and VANITY is your Mother, Child. The Discovery was made—the Ladies burst out laughing, the Town feasted upon it for a Fortnight, and what was best of all, VANITY durst not shew her Face Abroad for a Month.

Herbert Lawrence (?), The Life and Adventures of Common Sense: A Historical Allegory (1769), pp. 49-50.

This is a very funny book, well worth reading. The narrator is Common Sense, whose mother was Truth and whose father was Wit -- Truth had originally been engaged to Wisdom, but Wit managed to trick her into a marriage. Common Sense is born around the time that Athena and Poseidon argued over who should be the patron of Athens, and the story then follows his life and career as a physician through the history of the Western world. In this particular passage, fairly early in the story, Vanity had recently engaged in some malicious slander of Truth (namely, that she was committing adultery with Wisdom) out of a malice that had developed when she tried to seduce Wisdom (attachment to whom would improve her reputation) but failed. So Lady Vanity gets her comeuppance. Both the style and the humor of the allegory hold up extraordinarily well.

The book, incidentally, is famous for launching the Baconian theory of Shakespearean authorship, which it does not actually do. The book clearly attributes the works of Shakespeare to Shakespeare. What it does say is that Shakespeare was a thief and con-man who fell in with Wit and his friends, and by pretending that they had been informed against to Queen Mary, thus causing them to flee, managed to steal their effects: Wit's common-place book, which was a collection of infinite ways to express human sentiment, Genius's eye-glass, which could look into the human heart, and Humour's mask, which made the sentences spoken by its wearer naturally pleasant. With these "and with good Parts of his own" he wrote his plays. Sir Francis Bacon is never even mentioned. There is no reasonable way to read the allegory except by interpreting it to mean that the name of the person who wrote Shakespeare's plays was Shakespeare, who did so with means that showed wit, genius, and humor.

What can explain this baffling attribution? Ah, well, here we see how the Shakespeare wars are conducted. You see, Sir Francis Bacon had a common-place book. Therefore Wit must represent Sir Francis Bacon. This is quite literally the argument used by some early Baconians (although they usually confuse Wit and Wisdom: Wit is Common Sense's father, not Wisdom, and it was Wit's common-place book that was stolen); later Baconians just take their word for it in claiming that it attributes Shakespeare's work to Bacon. Then everyone just takes their word for it, and it ends up in introductions to Shakespeare and the like.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Political Poetry

I didn't see the Inaugural, but afterward I did watch Richard Blanco's reading of his very prose-y and maudlin "One Today". There's a good sense of color in the poem, but it's drowned out by what used to be called 'excess verbiage'. There's a fairly straightforward test for this, at least for poems of this length and style: take away all the line breaks, and read the poem as if it were a speech. If it is in good shape, it should read in a very vivid, punchy way, so that you can genuinely say that if you cut it down any more you would lose something important. Take, for instance the first sentence:

One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores, peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.

Now, this is actually a very good opening image, vividly expressed, and one of the problems with the poem is that it does not keep this image before us the whole time. But it's also clear enough that this is a bit of jumble of things that could be slimmed down. How important is it, for instance, to talk about 'the faces' of the Great Lakes? They are never mentioned again, and the relation between these 'faces' and the other faces mentioned in the poem is left entirely unclear. Why is it important that the truth spread across the Great Plains be a 'simple' truth? And, again, we never see it again, so don't know what it is. Is unity-in-diversity, which most of the poem is about, this 'simple' truth'? And what's the significance of the series kindled-peeking-greeting-spreading-charging as the sun goes from East to West? There doesn't seem to be anything unifying the series.

Or take another sentence, one of the stonger ones:

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning's mirrors, each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day: pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights, fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows begging our praise.

We have an excellent beginning here -- "My face, your face, millions of faces in morning's mirrors" is very good, linking repetition and alliteration but sticking with the point. What does it mean, however, for millions of yawning faces to crescendo into day? And what does "crescendoing into our day" have to do with the very color-heavy list that follows? Something like "sparking the day into color" would work better with the "pencil-yellow school buses" (an excellent phrase) and the following. "The rhythm of traffic lights" doesn't draw out the color of traffic lights in the way it should; even just saying something like "the red-yellow-green of traffic lights" would do better. And the apples, limes, and oranges being "arrayed" doesn't give us any useful information. In a poem with strict meter, rhyme, or some other scheme, "begging our praise" might be an essential contributor, but, again, why is it important to think of the rainbows at fruit stands "begging our praise"? Praising the colors of fruit is not a common human activity; it needs to be given some grounding in the poem. In principle you could connect it with the poetry mentioned in the next sentence, but the shift in person from "begging our praise" to "I could write this poem" is jarring.

There are other issues with the poem; it is purportedly about us, as one nation, but Blanco goes out of his way to mention himself in particular four times. Only one of these, at least as written, melds well with the togetherness theme: yet one more way in which good images are weakened by wordiness.

Political poetry is very difficult to write; it tends easily to both the pompous and the maudlin. Robert Frost wrote a (rather weak) Inaugural Poem, but instead just recited "The Gift Outright," which Kennedy had specifically requested, and to which his new poem was supposed to have been the introduction. Because of this he is the only one of the four poets to read at an Inauguration who actually managed to give a very good Inaugural Poem. His was 16 lines, and conveys vastly more than Blanco's 69 lines. Maya Angelou's "On the Pulse of Morning", which was given at Clinton's first inauguration, is probably a very distant second. It is a completely baffling poem, and its relevance to the occasion is left obscure, but the steady tumble of images manages to avoid most of the obvious problems of extended free verse. Miller Williams wisely avoided free verse in favor of a stricter poetic structure in "Of History and Hope", but the poem ends up being lackluster and forgettable in a way that Angelou's wasn't. It was stronger than Elizabeth Alexander's "Praise Song for the Day, Praise Song for Struggle", however.

There's a reason most good political poetry -- Phyllis Wheatley's poem on George Washington, for instance, or Romantic poems about Napoleon -- is spontaneous and not written for occasion. Poets are not dancing ponies; they do not perform tricks on command. But the major problem that these poems have is that they are promiscuous: they don't capture a perfect image or series of images, but constantly have to grab at things to make the whole thing work. This can be done, if you're Shakespeare or something, but you need an unusually clear vision to do it. You have only to set Blanco's, Alexander's, Williams's, or Angelou's poems beside Langston Hughes's "Let America Be America Again" to see how bland and flabby they are by comparison.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Three Poem Re-Drafts

The Lady of the Garden

Here we find her vestiges,
Our Lady of the Rains,
baptized from conception,
our Mary without a stain,
never without redeeming grace
from God made flesh and slain.

Rain is falling, praying tears
beneath the cross she cried:
as flowers in this garden
we are planted, you and I;
yea, roses grow in splendor here,
with blooms that never die.

All-Father's Knowledge

Weird is the wyrd of man, and wild,
writ on stars with sacred stile,
carved on ash of ages blessed,
carved on leaves. They all confess
truth to those who hang for nine --
nine days, nine nights, in death sublime.
Eye then opens, source of awe,
wise becomes the Hanging God:
wise with lore of ancient runes,
wise in ways of birth and doom.
A draught fresh-drawn from prophet's well
(poets there will drink their fill,
the scops who with their eddas dream
of things to come and things unseen)
will wake from slumber sleeping thoughts;
wise becomes the prophet-God,
who gives an eye to be made wise,
who on the ash of ages dies.
Ravens from past the rainbow-bridge
with piercing eye for all things hid
go back and forth through all the lands --
of death, of elf, of god, of man;
through all the ages restless roam
from root to crown to Father's throne,
thought and memory turned to wing,
seeking out all truths unseen.
This he sees in town and wild:
strange is the fate of human child.


These words have brushed my lips, so take them as a kiss!
To get the flavor true and right it would not be amiss
to add a pinch of passion or a drop of quiet bliss.

A slight soup├žon will do! You must never overspice,
just let it linger softly-slow. But if you find it nice,
do not hesitate, my love, to read this poem twice.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Dignity and Worth of All Human Personality

I studied philosophy and theology at Boston University under Edgar S. Brightman and L. Harold DeWolf. I did most of my work under Dr. DeWolf, who is a very dear friend of mine, and, of course, I was greatly influenced by him and by Dr. Brightman, whom I had the privilege to study with before he passed on. It was mainly under these teachers that I studied Personalistic philosophy--the theory that the clue to the meaning of ultimate reality is found in personality. This personal idealism remains today my basic philosophical position. Personalism's insistence that only personality-finite and infinite-is ultimately real strengthened me in two convictions: it gave me metaphysical and philosophical grounding for the idea of a personal God, and it gave me a metaphysical basis for the dignity and worth of all human personality.

Martin Luther King, Jr., The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., Chapter 4. The reference is to what is known as "Boston Personalism," which is associated with Borden Parker Bowne (Brightman's own teacher). As King notes, Boston Personalism is a form of idealism, holding that everything that exists is either a person or an experience of a person; or, to put it in other words, that reality is constituted by persons, their mental life, and their interactions with each other.

Beulah and Hephzibah

I thought the first reading for yesterday, from Isaiah 62, was especially beautiful, even in the NAB, which usually takes beautiful passages and turns them into rather clunky ones. I thought I'd put up with three other versions that have a good reputation for doing poetic passages well.

[NAB] For Zion's sake I will not be silent, for Jerusalem's sake I will not be quiet, Until her vindication shines forth like the dawn and her victory like a burning torch. Nations shall behold your vindication, and all kings your glory; You shall be called by a new name pronounced by the mouth of the LORD. You shall be a glorious crown in the hand of the LORD, a royal diadem held by your God. No more shall men call you "Forsaken," or your land "Desolate," But you shall be called "My Delight," and your land "Espoused." For the LORD delights in you, and makes your land his spouse. As a young man marries a virgin, your Builder shall marry you; And as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride so shall your God rejoice in you.

[NRSV] For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.

[Ronald Knox] For love of Sion I will no more be silent, for love of Jerusalem I will never rest, until he, the Just One, is revealed to her like the dawn, until he, her deliverer, shines out like a flame. All the nations, all the kings of the nations, shall see him, the just, the glorious, and a new name shall be given thee by the Lord’s own lips. The Lord upholds thee, his crown, his pride; thy God upholds thee, his royal diadem. No longer shall men call thee Forsaken, or thy land Desolate; thou shall be called My Beloved, and thy land a Home, now the Lord takes delight in thee, now thy land is populous once again. Gladly as a man takes home the maiden of his choice, thy sons shall come home to thee; gladly the Lord shall greet thee, as bridegroom his bride.

[KJV] For Zion's sake will I not hold my peace, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest, until the righteousness thereof go forth as brightness, and the salvation thereof as a lamp that burneth. And the Gentiles shall see thy righteousness, and all kings thy glory: and thou shalt be called by a new name, which the mouth of the Lord shall name. Thou shalt also be a crown of glory in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of thy God. Thou shalt no more be termed Forsaken; neither shall thy land any more be termed Desolate: but thou shalt be called Hephzibah, and thy land Beulah: for the Lord delighteth in thee, and thy land shall be married. For as a young man marrieth a virgin, so shall thy sons marry thee: and as the bridegroom rejoiceth over the bride, so shall thy God rejoice over thee.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Uniformity Amidst Variety

The Figures which excite in us the Ideas of Beauty, seem to be those in which there is Uniformity amidst Variety. There are many Conceptions of Objects which are agreeable upon other accounts, such as Grandeur, Novelty, Sanctity, and some others, which shall be mention'd hereafter. But what we call Beautiful in Objects, to speak in the Mathematical Style, seems to be in a compound Ratio of Uniformity and Variety: so that where the Uniformity of Bodies is equal, the Beauty is as the Variety; and where the Variety is equal, the Beauty is as the Uniformity. This may seem probable, and hold pretty generally.

Francis Hutcheson, An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue, 1.2.3.