Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Drawing a Computer in Chinese Characters

The other day my son wanted to draw so, in part for fun, in part to help him focus, in part to help him feel like I was playing with him and not just watching him, I got out a piece of paper and began to draw too. Jospeh (being two) started scribbling everywhere, and said he was drawing a cave. (Why a cave, I don't know.) So I began doodling and -- given my recent fooling around with Chinese -- what I doodled were a couple of Chinese characters:


Joseph looked over. "Why are you drawing a computer," he asked, "and not a cave?"

So I stopped drawing characters and began drawing a cave.

But I really liked the idea that those two represented a computer. Not a bad interpretation, really.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Goodnight Irene

Good advice for tonight, at least for those of you on the East Coast of the US:
Stop your rambling, stop your gambling
Stop staying out late at night
Go home to your wife and family
Stay there by the fireside bright
Stay safe, everyone. It's a hard rain's a gonna fall.

(Source)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Quote of the Day: A List of Things to Do

"Help!" cried Toad. "My list is blowing away. What will I do without my list?"
"Hurry!" said Frog. "We will run and catch it."
"No!" shouted Toad. "I cannot do that."
"Why not?" asked Frog.
"Because," wailed Toad, "running after my list is not one of the things that I wrote on my list of things to do!"

-- Arnold Lobel, Frog and Toad Together (1972)
(...but how does he know that without it?)

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Civil War as Tragedy

Ta-Nehisi Coates has been writing a series of blog posts (first, second, third, fourth) on the question of whether the Civil War was a tragedy. He argues that it isn't. Now, Coates is, as I've noted before, one of the most perceptive and interesting writers writing about American history today, so I don't disagree with him lightly, but I think he's wrong about this.

I don't think, however, that he's wrong because he's wrong about what the Civil War was; I think he's wrong because he's wrong because he's wrong about what tragedy is.

Let me see if I can explain.

The first thing to say is that, until fairly recently, to say that the Civil War was a tragedy was not false so much as a category error. "Tragedy" was a literary genre (and still is -- but it's no longer, as used, only that). You could write a play (or, by extension, a novel or a history) of the event as a tragedy -- or you could write it as a comedy, or a chronicle, or a farce, or a horror. This is particularly true since the Civil War as a big, complex event, and had tragic, comedic, farcical, horrific, and many other elements besides. But the event itself was just an event.

I grant that the word "tragedy" has moved on, and so should we; but it's worth remembering its literary roots, because they're still important. In particular, their persistence entangles the common word "tragedy" in two almost-contradictory meanings. Coates is using one; I am going to argue that the word should be reserved for the other. So he's right, by his definition; but I think his definition is a poorer one, so that (in another sense) he's wrong.

Coates is using the word tragedy in a way that has two overarching implications: first, that the event in question was avoidable -- it was a tragedy, and if only we'd done something different and better, then it wouldn't have happened. Secondly, that the event in question was negative -- if not entirely negative for every person on Earth, then overwhelmingly so. Ultimately, a tragedy is something you wish hadn't happened -- meaning that it might not have happened, and that it was bad that it did happen.

It is in this sense of the word that Coates argues that the Civil War was not a tragedy. And, of course, he's perfectly correct. He points out the overwhelming good -- emancipation -- that arose from the war (this first point is, at least in his bit of the internet, fairly uncontroversial). And then the bulk of the argument tends to be about whether this good could have come about otherwise -- could we have had a peaceful end to slavery, as happened (for instance) in Brazil or with Serfdom in Russia, or was a war the only way that it could have ended? So that people who disagree with Coates -- such as Matt Yglesias here -- tend to imagine that another, less violent way to end slavery might have been found. In reply, Coates argues -- correctly, to my mind -- that the nature of the South as a slave society* made no other ending possible. So the Civil War was neither evitable nor (on balance) negative in its consequences; hence, it was not a tragedy. As Coates writes, "Shorter me: I'm glad the Civil War happened". Because if it hadn't happened, slavery would have continued; and slavery was an evil that had to be ended, and there was no other way. QED.

In this use of the word, any sort of bad thing, or at least any avoidable bad thing, is a tragedy. On the news airplane crashes and the like are referred to as "tragedies" -- they were evitable, and they were bad. And, I grant, this use of the word is very common, probably increasingly so. Perhaps the change of the word's meaning has gone too far to be reversed (not unlike, say, "beg the question" -- or "novel", which every year my students seem to think refers to any book, nonfiction or otherwise). But I hope not, because I think "tragedy" has a different meaning than that (even aside, that is, from its earlier one defining a literary genre) -- one for which there are not other synonyms.

You see, I don't think that evitable things with bad consequences -- say, airplane crashes -- are tragedies. I think they're horrors, calamities, catastrophes. One might write them up as tragedies, but they aren't, in and of themselves, just by happening, tragedies.

Because, traditionally, tragedies were not evitable; traditionally, tragedies were the working out of inevitable fate. In the classical Greek tragedies, this tends to be a fate decreed by the Gods, inhuman in their purposes and methods.** In Shakespearean tragedies, this element of inevitability is turned inward: no longer brought upon by the capriciousness of the Gods, it's brought about by the tragic figure's own character.*** This is a version of tragedy that I (and a great many other people) ultimately feel is richer than the Greek version -- his shift of the locus of tragedy from outer fate to inner character is one of the reasons that Shakespeare is, well, Shakespeare.

In this sense, tragedies are the working out of the inevitable consequences of character flaws of great (in the sense that they tend to be kings rather than peasants) figures. They're not, perhaps, inevitable in the sense that if they person in question had been other than they are the events needn't have happened. But the person's character is too deeply embedded in them to make this a live possibility. Othello without his jealousy, Macbeth without his ambition, Hamlet without his hesitation, Lear without his arrogance, simply would have been other people. Once those people were placed in those situations the tragedy was inevitable.****

In this sense, the Civil War was a tragedy: it was the horrific working out of a deep character flaw. America's racism (and, really, it was America's, not just the South's, although the role the South played was of course unique) led to the bodies all over the floor at the end of Act Five.

Nor is the other element that Coates focuses on -- the unquestionable good that arose from the Civil War -- incidental to this understanding; rather, it's essential.

In the traditional literary sense, tragedy is not simply the working out of horrors due to inevitable character flaws (or fate); it is an elevated version of that. In a literary context, the elevation is largely due to the language and the literary presentation: Hamlet is a tragedy because it's Shakespeare writing it as Hamlet, and not me nattering on about some Danish prince who saw a ghost, spazzed out and killed a bunch of people.

In a historical context, however, the element of literary presentation drops away. What replaces it -- what elevates mere horror into tragedy -- is that some good comes out of the horror. The case is even tighter if the good could have come about no other way, and if the good is proportionate in scale to the horror needed to bring it about. In the context of the Civil War, more than six hundred thousand dead are elevated by the fact that it lead to the end of slavery for millions. Coates recently asked whether seeing the Civil War as a tragedy involved "saying something like, 'It's really tragic the South was, uhm, the South?'"; and that, I claim, is precisely right: the sin of slavery was embedded in the South (really, I think, in America's) nature, just as ambition was in Macbeth's or jealousy was in Othello's. The Civil War was the working out of the character flaw; what elevated it to tragedy is that it was the only way a good end -- emancipation -- could have happened, given the character of the nation involved.

(Note that in a literary context the good outcome is optional because the nobility is supplied by the literary form. It's not necessarily absent -- there's no good at the end of Hamlet or Lear, but Macbeth ends pretty well for the people of Scotland, with the rightful King restored and villainy punished. But it's not a necessary component. With the switch of the term from literary genre to classification of an event, the good outcome not otherwise achievable becomes necessary as the ennobling element.)

This is not, I should note, a sense of "tragedy" that I am introducing; it is an established usage -- a stage between the purely literary usage and the common habit of making "tragedy" synonymous with "catastrophe". For example, mid-Twentieth Century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr uses the word in a similar way in his 1952 book The Irony of American History:

The tragic element in a human situation is constituted of conscious choices of evil for the sake of good. If men or nations do evil in a good cause; if they cover themselves with guilt in order to fulfill some high responsibility; or if they sacrifice some high value for the sake of a higher or equal one they make a tragic choice. Thus the necessity of using the threat of atomic destruction as an instrument for the preservation of peace is a tragic element in our contemporary situation. Tragedy elicits admiration as well as pity because it combines nobility with guilt.
This is not, to be sure, precisely the use I'm suggesting here -- Niebuhr focuses on a conscious choice, what W. H. Auden famously called "the conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder"*****, which doesn't fit the case of the Civil War since emancipation was very much an unintended consequence of the decision to go war -- but it's pretty close. As for why this usage is preferable to the modern usage, I think it's because, first, it is more closely connected to the traditional meanings which we still closely identify with the word -- we still see Lear and Hamlet and Othello as tragedies -- and, second, because there is no other word which means this, whereas the airplane-crash sense of tragedy (the sense in which Coates correctly argues the Civil War was not a tragedy) has lots of available synonyms, such as "catastrophe" or "calamity".

To clarify further, let's contrast the Civil War with another war which, while a horror and a catastrophe, was not a tragedy: World War One. World War One was not a tragedy partly because it seems like it ought to have been avoidable -- perhaps not, it's arguable -- but above all because nothing good came out of it, certainly nothing comparable to emancipation. World War One is simply a calamity, out of which arose a great many other calamities of a calamitous century. There is nothing ennobling about it at all -- nothing equal to the scale of the horror, nothing that couldn't have come about in a better way. We can, simply, wish that World War One hadn't happened. That's why it's not a tragedy.

Whereas we can't wish the Civil War hadn't happened -- not given who we, as a country, were. We can wish that we were otherwise -- that the South was not the South, that America was not racist. Which is like wishing that Hamlet wasn't Hamlet -- better, perhaps, but it's not him any more.

The Civil War involved terrible, mass death, but it was the only way to end American slavery, which had to end; that defines rather than denies its tragic character.

Perhaps the first person to see the Civil War in this way -- as a horror, but a necessary horror, a horror that came about due to character flaws too deep to be dealt with in any other way -- was none other than Abraham Lincoln, in the famous passage from his second inaugural:

The Almighty has his own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!" If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether".
Lincoln here mixes the Greek sense of tragedy (brought about by the will of the gods or, in his case, God) with the Shakespearean (the consequences of a character flaw, namely, slavery). But the basic elements are the same: he sees the horror ("this mighty scourge of war") but also sees that, perhaps, it is necessary to right the wrong that lay at America's heart.

So yes, given what America was -- a nation built on racism and slavery -- one has to be, in some sense, glad that the Civil War happened -- sad, perhaps, that it was necessary: sad that we were who we were, that we couldn't have ended slavery another way as other countries did, or, better yet, never committed that sin to begin with. But we were who we were, we did what we did, and thus it had to end as it did: in a horrific war with a morally necessary outcome that could not have been otherwise achieved.

In other words, a tragedy.

Update: Some hours after I wrote this, I saw this post by Freddie deBoer (via) making some similar arguments to what I'm making here, in particular this passage:

...the classic definition of tragedy [is] that the tragic is the downfall that springs from character, that tragedy occurs because there is some failing within the tragic character (here the United States) which makes that tragedy inevitable. In this sense I would say that the Civil War is precisely tragic: given the character of the early United States, it was both inevitable and necessary. That equality was codified in so many of our foundational texts while simultaneously denied to many millions of the country's people isn't merely an ugly contradiction but one which made violent correction inevitable.
deBoer is rather less impressed with Coates than I am overall, and he says a lot in his post that I disagree with; indeed, the post might be fairly characterized as something of an anti-Coates rant. But he's clearly thinking along the same lines as I as far as how to understand "tragedy" goes. (deBoer has a follow-up post here, presenting a somewhat more nuanced take on Coates's work (although still a critical one); but don't follow it for more on my topic here, because by that point deBoer's mostly talking about something else.)

__________________________________
* Historians use "slave society" as a technical term, contrasting it with a "society with slavery": the latter includes slavery as one of its features, but not as a foundational one. In a slave society, the entire economy, society and culture are inextricably entwined with slavery's role within it. The American South was a slave society; in the Eighteenth Century (and stretching into the early Nineteenth in some places) the American North was a society with slavery.

** It is in this sense that David Simon has defined The Wire as a Greek tragedy, with our (post-modern, post-industrial) institutions standing in as the capricious and cruel Gods.

*** Following the Greek philosopher Heraclitus's famous aphorism that "Character is fate".

**** There's a nice commonplace -- I think it might be due to A. C. Bradley, but I'm not sure -- that if you switch the heroes of Shakespeare's tragedies, there's no play. Othello in Hamlet's situation would have simply dispatched his uncle; Hamlet in Othello's would have seen right through Iago. A tragedy is the working out of the flaws of a particular person as embedded in a particular situation; change either and it is no longer a tragedy.

***** Which George Orwell equally famously castigated as a phrase which "could only be written by a person to whom murder is at most a word," adding, "[p]ersonally I would not speak so lightly of murder." -- an attack which was, apparently, one reason that Auden disavowed the poem and excluded it from his Collected Poems.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Wonderful Coal Consumption

In my recent foolin' around with Chinese*, I was looking at this bilingual web comic -- which, in this instance, was simply a translation of the opening phrases (no, not even the entire opening sentence**) of Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities. (Note that I have no idea whether or not it's a good translation.) Looking at the way the comics artists translated "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" I was drawn to the characters that looked different in the two sentences (meaning, presumptively, "best" and "worst"):
那是最美好的时代,
那是最糟糕的时代;
The characters for "best" are 美好.

Now, one of the things I've found is that different dictionaries will translate the same Chinese word*** in different ways. So that if you look up 美好 in this dictionary it is translated as "happy, fine, ok"; but this dictionary gives "beautiful, fine" -- not quite the same. And then this dictionary gives "wonderful". All three, that is, give quite different meanings to the same word. (And none of them, incidentally, make it sound like a good translation for the English word "best". Now, I'm not saying the translators were wrong -- it's quite possible that in the context 美好 is a perfectly good translation for "best" -- but either they were wrong, or the dictionaries aren't giving very complete answers, or the context dependence is doing a lot of work here.)

But as it happened, I didn't actually look up 美好 directly. It happened that I knew the pinyin for those two characters (isn't true for a lot of characters, but it was of those), so it seemed easier just to type "meihao" into a dictionary (as it happened, this one) instead. As pinyin goes, that's incomplete, since I didn't mark the tones, either through accents or through the (far less aesthetic but easier to type) numbers. But it seemed like it would work.

And it did. It gave two options for meihao, spoken with different tones. It could either mean 美好, wonderful, or 煤耗, coal consumption.

Now, note the difference between the pronunciation of these two words is just the tone of the second syllable. (Ordinarily 美 is pronounced third tone, but before another third tone it switches to second, and comes to match 煤.) In other words, a tone slip in a single syllable could have you say, accidentally, "It was the coal consumption of times".

This is why I'm not studying Mandarin. I'm just fooling around with Mandarin. Because it's too damn hard to actually learn for real.

__________________________
* A reminder of what this means, from the earlier post: "The difference between fooling around with Chinese and studying Chinese is that I'm not expecting it to go anywhere, that I'm not claiming (even, or perhaps especially, to myself) to have learned anything, that I'm not being systematic about it, and that it's just for the pleasure of discovery rather than for anything that may result from it (since probably nothing will). It's less about Growth, Self-Improvement and Opportunity than it is about idle procrastination and lazy curiosity."

** "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way -- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only." -- The comic gives about two-thirds of the sentence -- up to "other way".

*** Yes, I said word: most modern Chinese words are made up of more than one character.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Tale of Elizabeth and Hazel -- Updated and Longer

Four years ago I wrote a post plugging a magazine article about these two women:



The young African American girl is named Elizabeth Eckford, and she was one of the Little Rock Nine -- nine heroic high-school students who endured incredible things to integrate Little Rock Central High School (with the help of armed federalized troops) in 1957-1958. This incredibly famous picture of her is from what was supposed to be her first day at Little Rock Central High, when she got separated from her eight fellows and walked alone into a mob of segregationists. The young woman behind her, who was immortalized in this posture of hatred, is named Hazel Bryan Massery. It's one of the classic photos from the Civil Rights Movement, about one of the central events of that world-changing struggle.

In point of fact, it's two of the classic photos, because (although the fact is little-known), the incident in question was captured twice -- perhaps both by Will Counts, perhaps by two different news photographers. (Counts definitely took one of the two, which was named by the AP as one of the top 100 photos of the century, although I'm not certain which, because I've seen both of the images labeled as Counts's photo!) At any rate, here's the other version:

So far as I can tell, they were taken at almost the precise same moment -- note that the woman who turned to look behind her, clearly visible in the upper photograph to the left of the screaming Hazel, is also looking behind her in the lower photograph (half-hidden behind Elizabeth from the second angle). This seems to belie the claim I've seen made that Counts took both of them. On the other hand, maybe the woman behind Elizabeth, next to Hazel was simply carrying on a conversation with someone behind her, and turned around twice. And since it wasn't a planned event, the notion that one photographer happened to be there seems more plausible than that there were two. But I'm not sure. Anyone have any information on the provenance of these two images?

It's interesting to compare the two -- the subtle differences conveyed by different angles is fascinating. (Hazel's face in particular changes -- she's screaming and full of hate in both, but she looks wilder and closer to the edge of violence in the latter.) I think the top one is better purely as an image, but the latter one better captures Elizabeth's isolation and danger and bravery. I guess it's good to have both.

But life is odd, and it turns out that Hazel eventually apologized, became friends with Elizabeth -- and then had a falling out with her. The incredible, complex story was told in this incredible article in Vanity Fair by reporter David Margolick, which I recommend no less strongly today than I did four years ago when I first read it. It's a fabulous recounting of a key, powerful piece of the American story.

But I bring this up not just because the article is a perennial (although it is), nor because I'm about to start teaching my seminar on the 1960's in a month or so (although I am), but because its author, David Margolick, saw my post and was kind enough to write and tell me that he's expanded the article into a full-length book, which will be published by Yale University Press one month from today, under the title Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock. If the book is anything like as good as the article, it'll be a terrific read, one which will speak to the history both of the Civil Rights Movement and to the complex racial landscape of post-CRM America. I don't know too much about how the book was updated, although apparently Margolick was able to interview Hazel more than the first time around.

Anyway, check out the article. (Vanity Fair's site seems a bit twitchy, so if that link doesn't work, try here.) Then, if you're so inclined, you can pre-order the book from Amazon here, or Powells here. Margolick's official web site is here. It's a powerful tale in the shorter form, and I have high expectations that it will be even better in the long.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Links to Funny Things, Mostly Over a Year Old

As with this earlier post, these links are old, but still working (as of a few days ago), and still funny.

• The classic list of Star Wars Lines Improved by Replacing a Word with "Pants" is one of the funniest things ever on the internet -- and, sadly, its original location seems to have vanished. Fortunately, this site has saved the top twenty five of them (which, frankly, were by far the best). Here are the first five:
  1. I find your lack of pants disturbing.
  2. You are unwise to lower your pants.
  3. The Force is strong in my pants.
  4. Chewie and me got into a lot of pants more heavily guarded than this.
  5. I cannot teach him. The boy has no pants.
11 Funniest Classified Ads ever.

11 Ridiculous Signs.

Lincoln's Facebook Page.

Truthful titles for fantasy novels.

My first dictionary. Biting and bitter, but brilliant.

• Every year the New Yorker has a contest for redesigns of its classic Eustace Tilley cover. These were the ones from 2009.

Accidental maps.

Neil Gaiman on winning the Newbery Medal.

• Everyone remembers Matt Taibi's classic evisceration of Thomas Friedman's 2005 book The World is Flat, right? Well, for some reason, his 2009 evisceration of Thomas Friedman's Hot, Flat and Crowded has never gotten the same level of internet love, despite being just as funny.

Hang this up in your time machine.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Oh Yeah, Play Them Duì Bù Qǐ Blues - I Like That

As part of my recent fooling around with Chinese, I stumbled upon (via) this video of a song from the perspective of a struggling learner of Chinese. It's in Chinese, but the chorus (save in the final iteration, where it changes) translates as follows:
Sorry, my Chinese is not so good!
Really sorry
I don't understand what you're saying!
Sorry, my Chinese is not so good!
Really sorry
I just want to be friends!
(That's as given in the subtitles of the video). The pinyin lyrics (although without tones, so sort of crippled pinyin) can be found here, and the Chinese lyrics here. (Warning: both of those links open with automatic sound playing -- and not the song in question, either.)

I'm not quite sure what people who haven't taken Chinese as a foreign language, or been fooling around with Chinese on their own, will make of it -- it might not be at all funny or fun to Chinese-free English speakers (on the one hand) or native Chinese speakers (on the other). But for anyone who's spent time in the vast region in between those two places, it's highly recommended.

Getting information about the song and the band is a bit tricky, because the name of the band (Transition) is a very non-googleable word -- and if you manage to target it more precisely (perhaps by googling the name of the band as they always give it, first in English then in Chinese -- "Transition 前進樂團"), then you get a lot of pages in Chinese. So for the benefit of those who's 中文不好 (zhōng wén bù hǎo -- Chinese is not so good), I thought I'd give a bit of information & links that I managed to find.

First, the song. In the Roman Alphabet (which is as close as the title gets to English) it seems to be called Duì Bù Qǐ (which means "sorry"), but in Chinese characters the song seems to be called by its entire first line -- 對不起我的中文不好 (duì bù qǐ wǒ de zhōng wén bù hǎo -- Sorry, my Chinese is not so good). Presumably this is because calling the song just "對不起" would make it identical to a thousand other songs, whereas (in the Roman script verse) there aren't that many songs called "duì bù qǐ". Anyway, once again, the video is here. (I'm not going to embed it, because in general I find that doesn't work that well on this site -- so click through if you're interested). The band's official page has a page offering a free mp3 download of the song, but the user interface on the page is pretty bad; you have to go to what looks like the play bar of a video, but is actually a song under a jpg image, and use the button on the far right to either save as source (which is an mp4, I think, although it's not labeled as such) or as a quicktime movie (which isn't actually a movie, just a sound file). Basically, it's less a free mp3 than a really irritating scavenger hunt. TANSTAAFL, I guess.

(Incidentally, the video begins with a little dialogue which is not on the mp3. A person working at a store calls to one of the band members (in Chinese), "Hey, American, Hello!" And the band member replies, "I'm English". The rest I couldn't catch, but I think it was about a misunderstanding anyway.)

Second, the band. It's called, as noted above, Transition 前進樂團*. It's an English band, but seems to be based mainly (entirely? I'm not sure) in Taiwan, and it's fanbase seems to be more Chinese than British. That link goes to their official site, but the site is, as noted above, not great. They don't, for instance, have links to their albums, either to buy or sample, or any information on what they've recorded -- let alone useful extras like lyrics or an actual, honest-to-God introduction to the band (they have one, but it's poor). They also have an official facebook page, but honestly it's not all that much better -- fairly little information, and what there is is in Chinese. Their Wikipedia page is brief and out of date. Frankly, it's a pretty good lesson on how not to present your public face in the digital age (2011 version). The best source of info I've found on them is this (translated) article from a Taiwanese newspaper. The band is made up of two pairs of brothers (although, judging from their web site & videos, one of the four has now left), has done three albums, and now lives in Taipei.

The other song of theirs I've found so far that I like is a bilingual song called "Turn Me Around", which is done in collaboration with some musician named "Wing 羅文裕"**, about whom I've been able to find out nothing (even less information via English-language google*** -- but since he seems to be just a Chinese audience, it makes more sense than the equivalent situation with a British band). Anyway, click here if you want to hear it -- as far as I can tell, the band is not on iTunes nor Amazon, so I think youtube is the only way to hear them.

But mostly I recommend duì bù qǐ 對不起我的中文不好, at least to those who have ever expressed the sentiment.

_____________________
* Google translate turns their Chinese name into "Forward orchestra", which this dictionary breaks down into "advance" (前进, qiánjìn) and "orchestra" (乐团, yuètuán) -- take with the usual boatloads of salt for trying to unearth meaning from such sources, and add salt.

** My best guess about "羅文裕" is that it's just a Chinese name, and has nothing to do with "Wing" -- "羅" is the traditional form of 罗 (luó), which is the twentieth most common Chinese surname. But again: salt, salt, salt.

*** The thin gruel I found: a few photos of him posted by the photographer; a brief reference in a post about another singer; a livejournal post that might have an album of his for (illegal?) download. That's it in English.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Comics-Related Links, Mostly Over a Year Old

These have been sitting in my "I should link to these" folder for a long time. They're all still fun.

Snoopy writes a Batman story. Really.

Scott Eric Kaufman on teaching Warren Ellis's Planetary.

Comics (and cartoon) characters' names in Chinese.

Scott McDaneil analyzes the layout of a page of Promethea. Anyone who likes my 100 Great Comics Pages series (which I do intend to resume, some day) will like this one.

Tom Neeley boils down an old X-Men comic to a single page. The comic in question is X-Men #143 (discussion).

The Peanuts as Marvel characters.

More Peanuts-related humor.

Watchmen characters as manga-style young girls.

Todd Klein on making the "Library of Dream" poster.

Ng Suat Tong writes about superhero comics, collaboration and writers.

Sean T. Collins disagrees with ibid.

Superuseless Superpowers.

Stuart McMillen's Amusing Ourselves to Death: the Comics Adaptation.

Ten most iconic Marvel comics panels of all time, from a poll. With links to #70 - 11, in case the top ten isn't enough for you.

Government comic books.

Sandman as a quintessential novel about/from the 1990's.

• And, a cri de coeur from two and a half years ago: Tom Spurgeon on why there's hope for comics in the recession (from December, 2008). Since, thanks to the action of our politicians, we're going to be dealing with economic misery for the foreseeable future, still timely.

Friday, August 05, 2011

"Inept or Evil?" is the new "Stupid or Lying?"

Round about 2005, someone on the internets -- I think it was Tom Tomorrow, but maybe he got it from somewhere -- summarized the issue with the (then) contemporary Republican party in a single question: stupid or lying? It was a brilliant question, one that captured so much about the Republican party. (They didn't believe in climate change? They didn't believe in evolution? Saddam Hussein had WMDs? Michael D. Brown was doing "a heckava job"? etc, etc, ad nauseum.)

Well, in the wake of the recent national-game-of-chicken that the Democrats played with the Republicans, a new question seems to be being asked a lot -- this time of the Democrats: are they inept or evil? That is, are the Democrats, in particular Obama, getting the results they want -- letting the Tea Party "force" them to enact right-wing policies that they (or their paymasters) want to enact, but not to be seen to enact? Or is Obama simply such a bad negotiator, so willfully stupid in his insistence on trying to negotiate with hostage takers who will never, ever negotiate in good faith, that he ends up doing a lousy job despite his best intentions? Inept or Evil?

First a nice, brief quotation summing up the charges to which inept or evil? will be the plea:
The fact that John Boehner walked away shouldn’t obscure the facts: A Democratic president offered to pay for the Bush tax cuts by handing over the health care, education, safety, and savings of the American people.
That's just on the most recent political own-goal, of course; there have been so many, many others, it's hard to count.

Oh, and before you say: yes, there were some things Obama could have done -- if he wasn't so...

Well, which is it?

Most of the mainstream left is going with "inept", with only occasional questions about whether there's a certain amount of evil involved; see Paul Krugman, Robert Reich, James Fallows (also here), Matt Yglesias. But here are some arguments which weigh in on the side on "evil": Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibi, Chris Floyd, Johnathan Schwartz. Unsurprisingly, there's a lot of splitting the difference -- Robert Kuttner, for example, or pretty much everything Digby's written over the past few weeks. For a variety of views in one conversation, check out this interesting debate here between a variety of left-wing intellectuals, basically going back and forth between various points on the inept or evil? spectrum.

So what do you think?

To be sure, Obama still has a few defenders -- Kevin Drum, Steven Bennen, Mark Rosenfelder -- who argue he's neither Inept nor evil, but in fact he's doing pretty well. Some of these assume that the Democrats will actually show a little spine in the future, however, which strikes me as unlikely in the extreme. (The only thing I'm not sure about is why (inept? evil?)) The rest just strike me as aiming so low you shoot your own foot.

In all fairness, I don't really think the inept or evil? question really captures the complexity of what's going on (any more than stupid or lying? did); it's a useful summary of the poles, of which the truth is somewhere in the middle. Which is to say, I think Obama is essentially partly evil and partly just inept.

Odd as it sounds, I don't find that particularly comforting.

(Post Scriptum: For one link that I couldn't fit into the above, but which is nevertheless interesting, here is David Frum, an actual grown-up Republican, bewailing the Republicans' role in all this... in a way that places him to the left of where Obama currently is. Depressing, when you think about it.)

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Clicke, lege

As part of the desacralization of the world, we have moved from tolle, lege followed by a spiritual experience, to clicke, lege*, followed by amusement. Whether this is a diminishment or not is one of the points where the so-called New Atheists disagree with Nietzsche.

In the meantime: clicke, lege. You won't find God, but the following are all worth reading anyway:

• I began reading Curzio Malaparte's astonishing story "The Traitor" (translated by Walter Murch) under the misapprehension that it was a true story. At some point along the way I figured out it couldn't be. But I have to admit that I enjoyed it more thanks to the false belief that led me into it. Still, it is an utterly fabulous story -- a hilarious story in a black-humor vein. Highly recommended. If you only click one link in this post, make it this one.

Michael Moorcock on how to write a novel in three days. (via)

John Holbo talks about books about the history of reading. The part that stuck with me over the past month is this paragraph from Silent Reading and the Birth of the Narrator by Elspeth Jajdelska:
A change from reading aloud to skilled silent reading is important because it radically changes the underlying model of what writing and reading are. Reading aloud creates an identification between the writer and the reader. The reader is a speaker, the writer’s mouthpiece, with the writer’s words in his or her mouth. Silent reading creates a different relationship between writer and reader. Instead of identifying with the writer as a speaker of his or her words, the reader becomes an (internal) hearer of the writer’s words. So the move from reading aloud to reading silently involves a move from reading as speaking to reading as hearing, and from reading as declamation to reading as silent participation in an imaginary conversation between writer and reader. This is a radical change in the orientation of both writer and reader to the text.
Click through to read what Holbo has to say about that, and another book on a similar topic, too. The earlier post referenced therein is also worth reading.

Cool word: deepity, "term coined by Daniel Dennett in his 2009 speech to the American Atheists Institution conference. It refers to a statement that has (at least) two meanings; one that is true but trivial, and another that sounds profound, but is essentially false, or meaningless with respect to this deeper meaning, but would be "earth-shattering" if true."

• This is pretty much the whole thing, this paragraph:
Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht frist and lsat ltteer is at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by it slef but the wrod as a wlohe. ceehiro.
...but this is the post that made it go viral, and it has lots of follow-up links trying (and mostly failing) to identify the source.

• For those who liked this post: how long do the events of Goodnight, Moon take? An astrophysicist investigates.

The shortest Choose-Your-Own-Adventure ever written.

Geoffry Pullum versus Strunk and White. Blood everywhere.

The Nobel Prize in Literature from an alternative universe. Y'know, the one where Tolstoy, Ibsen, Mark Twain, Henry James, Proust, Kafka, Borges and Philip K. Dick won it.

Atlas of True Names: maps with the etymological roots of names instead of the names themselves. Highly cool.

Uncomfortable plot summaries. Four samples:
FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF: Amoral narcissist makes world dance for his amusement.
LORD OF THE RINGS: Midget destroys stolen property.
RISKY BUSINESS: Privileged rich kid gets everything he wants with no consequences.
STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE: Religious extremist terrorists destroy government installation, killing thousands.
If you liked those, click through for loads more.

• Not to read, but to look at: really awesome art made of Chinese characters. Sample:
美丽的姞娘
The characters at the bottom are, of course, the components of the art (if you don't see it, look at the woman's forehead and compare to the first character). Google translate it as "beautiful Jí mother" -- whether that's "beautiful Mother Jí" or "Jí's beautiful mother", I don't know. (This dictionary confirms that 姞 (Jí) is a family name, but otherwise gives no particular guidance.) At any rate, the rest are wonderful too, so clicke, vulticuláte**.

• Incidentally, the full iPhone/iPad app version of that dictionary is on sale this week. They also have a stunted version which is free (which is all I've tried).

• A second one to look at it: a very cool optical illusion.

• And one more just for looking: life in four bottles. Utterly brilliant.

Update: I added a few links after this was first posted.

Update 2: Mammothly stupid mistake about the Chinese corrected.

_____________________
* Note bene: "clicke" is pulled out of thin air, not actual Latin, since I don't really know what verb the ancient Romans used to speak about following a link on the internet.

** My deep apologies to Mr. ------,*** my 9th & 10th grade Latin teacher, for this entire post. He was a much better teacher than I was a student, so the butchery of Latin in this post should not be laid at his feet.

*** Name omitted to avoid besmirching the innocent.

Monday, August 01, 2011