December 29, 2006


Filed under: ephemera — ted @ 1:46 pm

Over the next few days or weeks, I’m going to be trying out different themes for this space. I’ve grown tired of the old grey theme, and don’t want to make a hasty decision like I did last time.

I’ll probably keep a theme up for day or two, so that I can look at it, play around with it, and see if it feels right. Please bear with me as I try things on.

Happy New Year!


December 28, 2006

A Whole Imbroglio of Capabilities

Filed under: books, literature — ted @ 4:56 pm

I’m presently working my way through Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, and it makes for tough-going. The text is difficult not only on account of Carlyle’s notoriously elaborate and eccentric prose, but because of the text’s near Kierkegaardian level of indirection. The narrator (not Carlyle) is an Englishman who is in possession of a disorderly collection of papers left by a German professor, Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, who developed a “philosophy of Clothes” which encompasses all of life. The meaning works on a wide range of levels: the professor is clearly a pastiche of Hegel, and Transcendentalist philosophy in general, but he’s also — just as evidently — very dear to Carlyle, and certain parts of the professor’s story are autobiographical. Add to this the fact that it aims to communicate deep truths about human existence while simultaneously mocking the very effort.

Presently, I’m one hundred pages in, which puts me at the beginning of the middle. The good stuff is still to come. Carlyle’s detachment and ability to pile on detail and mockery effectively lull the reader into a false sense of boredom — and then he’ll hit you with a passage like the one below. The Professor is writing about his post-university days, and the feelings of possibility and despair he is experiencing. It hits close to home:

“Not what I Have,” continues he, “but what I Do is my Kingdom. To each is given a certain inward Talent, a certain outward Environment of Fortune; to each, by wisest combination of these two, a certain maximum of Capability. But the hardest problem were ever this first: To find by study of yourself, and of the ground you stand on, what your combined inward and outward Capability specially is. For, alas, our young soul is all budding with Capabilities, and we see not yet which is the main and true one. Always too the new man is in a new time, under new conditions; his course can be the fac-simile of no prior one, but is by its nature original. And then how seldom will the outward Capability fit the inward: though talented wonderfully enough, we are poor, unfriended, dyspeptical, bashful; nay what is worse than all, we are foolish. Thus, in a whole imbroglio of Capabilities, we go stupidly groping about, to grope which is ours, and often clutch the wrong one: in this mad work must several years of our small term be spent, till the purblind Youth, by practice, acquire notions of distance, and become a seeing Man. Nay, many so spend their whole term, and in ever-new expectation, ever-new disappointment, shift from enterprise to enterprise, and from side to side: till at length, as exasperated striplings of threescore-and-ten, they shift into their last enterprise, that of getting buried.

I’ll write a full review of Sartor Resartus after I finish it, but I may have to post more fragments along the way.

December 27, 2006

Web Plenty

Filed under: ephemera, web — ted @ 5:32 pm

While I was on holiday, the Internet was working hard. Here’s what I found when I plugged back in:

(“Hi Dad” on Flickr — probably by Banksy)

I love map quizzes like this one, where you have to place all the countries onto map using only their outlines. Europe was much tougher than I expected.

Among the “50 Things We Know Now (That We Didn’t Know This Time Last Year)” are:

1. U.S. life expectancy in 2005 inched up to a record high of 77.9 years.

25. Women gain weight when they move in with a boyfriend because their diet deteriorates, but men begin to eat more healthy food when they set up a home with a female partner.

26. Some 45 percent of Internet users, or about 60 million Americans, said they sought online help to make big decisions or negotiate their way through major episodes in their lives during the previous two years.

45. During the past five years, the existence of a peanut allergy in children has doubled.

47. A python was the first god worshipped by mankind, according to 70,000-year-old evidence found in a cave in Botswana’s Tosodilo hills.

This collection of comics brought me great joy: A special tribute to Calvin, Hobbes and the Underappreciated Art of the Snowman.

But this picture of the Pope at Christmas Mass is unfortunately creepy:

I’m sure he’s trying to look kind and approachable…

A very useful Wordie list: Watch Your Language, Young Man

If you’re looking to read the Iraq Study Group Report, but don’t find the .pdf appealing, check out the version the Institute for the Future of the Book has created. Their online edition is not only broken down into appetizing chunks, but also features commentary by a handful of experts.

Finally, the biggest buzz of late is the NRA’s “secret graphic novel,” a too-good-to-be-true piece of propaganda entitled Freedom In Peril: Guarding the 2nd Amendment in the 21st Century. After Wonkette’s post on Friday, and Boing Boing’s take shortly thereafter, it’s no longer a secret. Skeptics thought it was sure to be a hoax — but the detail and quality of the drawings (you can download the full .pdf on the links above) suggest otherwise. Seems it’s real. And it’s scary:

December 21, 2006

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Filed under: books, nerd — ted @ 2:15 pm

From The Guardian:

Christmas came early for fans of the Harry Potter series this year, with the revelation of the title of the long-awaited seventh book. The final instalment of the adventures of the boy wizard who, has captured the imagination of children (and adults) the world over, will be called Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Well, this is exciting news. A nice splash page at Bloomsbury confirms it.

The publication date for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is still unknown, but is expected to be set in early 2007.

December 20, 2006

Neuroscience & Free Will

Filed under: science — ted @ 1:29 pm

A brief piece in The Economist summarizes current trends in neuroscience and it affects the way we think about ourselves an our decisions:

For millennia the question of free will was the province of philosophers and theologians, but it actually turns on how the brain works. Only in the past decade and a half, however, has it been possible to watch the living human brain in action in a way that begins to show in detail what happens while it is happening (see survey). This ability is doing more than merely adding to science’s knowledge of the brain’s mechanism. It is also emphasising to a wider public that the brain really is a just mechanism, rather than a magician’s box that is somehow outside the normal laws of cause and effect.

Science is not yet threatening free will’s existence: for the moment there seems little prospect of anybody being able to answer definitively the question of whether it really exists or not. But science will shrink the space in which free will can operate by slowly exposing the mechanism of decision making.

The link within the text points to another piece in the same issue, which deals with the question of identity in light of the findings of neuroscience:

On September 13th 1848 a navvy called Phineas Gage was helping to build a railway in Vermont. As gang foreman, he had the job of setting explosive charges to blast a path through the hills near a town called Cavendish. While he was tamping down one of the charges with an iron bar, it went off prematurely, driving the bar clean through his head.

Accidents on construction projects happen all the time. The reason that people remember Gage’s is that he survived it. Or, rather, his body survived it. For the Gage that returned to work was not the Gage who had stuck the tamping rod into that explosive-filled hole. Before, he had been a sober, industrious individual, well respected and destined for success. Afterwards, he was a foul-mouthed drunkard, a drifter and a failure. His identity had been changed in a specific way by specific damage to a specific part of his brain.

December 19, 2006

Four Days Worth…

Filed under: ephemera, web — ted @ 5:31 pm

…of webby goodness. This post is nothing more than an aggregation of a few things that have amused me recently.

But first, a moment of perspective:


This picture of astronauts manning a space station is awesome.

Simonsez Santa 2.0 might divert you for a while. I recommend “hit rudolph.”

“Kathleen Fent Read This Story” — she did, and now they’re getting married.

During the ALCS, the Tiger’s best relief pitcher, Joel Zumaya, injured his wrist and had to miss three games. Zumaya didn’t hurt himself throwing (despite the fact that he consistently hits 100 mph and above) but playing Guitar Hero.

Booklog: Mosby’s Memoirs & Other Stories

Filed under: booklog — ted @ 3:52 pm

Mosby’s Memoirs & Other Stories
Saul Bellow
Read: 12.13.06
Rating: Good

Mosby’s Memoirs is another checkmark in my attempt to read the entire Saul Bellow catalog, one that probably qualifies as a “deep cut.” The six stories in this collection were written between 1951 and 1968, a period spanning Bellow’s best years, which began with the publication of his breakthrough novel, The Adventures of Augie March (1953). During these years, Bellow also published Seize the Day (1956), Henderson the Rain King (1959) and Herzog (1964), which one the National Book Award (and is, coincidentally, my personal favorite). Two years after the publication of Mosby’s Memoirs, Bellow won the National Book Award again, for Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970); six years later he won the Nobel Prize.

All of this to say that, unlike the two other published short story collections, the tales in Mosby’s Memoirs were written while Bellow was at the peak of his powers. I was very much underwhelmed by the shorter works Bellow published later in life, and my hope was that this collection would be equal in quality to his best novels. I did not find this to be the case, but I did come to a number of helpful realizations about Bellow and how I approach his writing.

First, I have a tendency, with fiction in general and Bellow specifically, to zoom impatiently through setting and details (scenery, mood, points of character), hoping to reach epiphanic sentences and paragraphs where deeper aspects of philosophical meaning break through. With Bellow, this is especially the case: his descriptions are good, of course, but what truly separates him from other novelists is his intellect, erudition, and existential insight. This is why I like Herzog best, and why Augie March, even though it is clearly a masterpiece, ranks lower on my list than it probably should. I found the short stories in Mosby’s Memoirs unsatisfying for this reason; they’re heavy on detail and character, but don’t offer much in the way of deeper meaning. As a result, I’ve realized that I should refine my approach to Bellow, namely by paying more attention to his range of experience and description, which is marvelous. The short story as a form lends itself to smaller matters: creating a single finely crafted episode, slicing a few hours out of a character’s life, leading a protagonist towards a small realization about himself. The fact that Bellow (largely) succeeds in his attempts to do so is yet more evidence of his skill.

The two best stories in the book are “The Gonzaga Manuscripts” (1954) and “Mosby’s Memoirs” (1968). They are similar: both protagonists are distinctly Bellowian men-of-letters who find themselves in a Spanish speaking country (Spain and Mexico) on a literary quest. For Clarence Feiler in “Gonzaga,” the grail is a lost collection of manuscripts written by a recently deceased Spanish poet named Gonzaga. Feiler arrives in Spain with his own theories on Gonzaga and his writing, and is distressed when he finds that no one he meets is particularly interested in helping him or sharing his enthusiasm. One of the poet’s friends mocks Clarence’s rapturous attempt to find the lost poems, saying, “‘There’s plenty of poetry already, for everyone. Homer, Dante, Calerdon, Shakespeare. Have you noticed how much different it makes?'” Ultimately, “The Gonzaga Manuscripts” is a meditation on the gap between the ideal of poetry in the mind of the reader — what we think it tells us about the poet — and the actual life lived by great writers.

“Mosby’s Memoirs” is the best story in this collection. The protagonist, Willis Mosby, is an aging public intellectual who hopes to write his memoirs during an extended stay in Mexico. Mosby has the excellent idea to read biographies written by other elderly men-of-letters (Henry Adams, Bertrand Russell), and hopes that the book he’s working on will stand side by side with these. The story has a fine structure, as the narration swerves around Mosby’s thoughts, memories, and the actual memoir he’s writing. Of the stories in this collection, “Mosby’s Memoirs” comes the closest to realizing the level of philosophic and existential weight found in Bellow’s best novels. In the story’s final pages, Mosby takes a trip to an ancient, pre-Christian church, and is driven there by a rather obnoxious tour-guide, who insists on commenting on every aspect of the landscape. In classic form, Bellow inserts this plea in the middle of a paragraph of scenery description: “Inform me no further! Vex not my soul with more detail. I cannot use what I have!”

December 18, 2006

World’s Smallest Man

Filed under: video — ted @ 3:09 pm

This video wouldn’t be anywhere near as amusing if it didn’t feature the gentleman dancing:

Incidentally, Nelson de la Rosa probably wasn’t the world’s smallest man (he died this past October), just the most famous. But he did help the Red Sox win the World Series — so he did good while he was around.


Filed under: nature — ted @ 10:56 am

What you see above is a sketch for a planned “Skywalk” above the Grand Canyon, which will open next year. Magnificent. Read more here.

December 15, 2006

Friday Comics

Filed under: comics — ted @ 1:54 pm

Three great comics for a Friday:

In which Libs are enmaddened (Wondermark)

I wish I could bat-quit you (Bigger than Cheeses)

Ninja Turtles (xkcd)

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