Sunday, November 30, 2008

Wally Wallington's "Stonehenge Tech"

How was Stonehenge built? One of the world's most recognizable prehistoric sites, Stonhenge was built over a very long period, with the visible dyke and standing stones having been modified over a period of at least 1500 years. Post holes at the site have been dated to as early as 8,000 BC. It is believed that Stonehenge's purpose is religious. Burials have been discovered dating from its earliest history. The stones themselves apparently served as a celestial calendar, lining up with events that have been celebrated as pre-Christian religious holidays. But is it possible just plain boredom led neolithich man to construct this wonder?

Wally Wallington, a retired construction worker of Flint Michigan, has found that he can relieve his boredom by showing how just one man could erect a standing stone as large as any at Stonehenge. Using a walnut-sized rock as a pivot, he can show how a single man can move a stone that outweighs a car. Using the same method, he moved his son's barn. And using similarly simple yet effective methods, he has shown that a single man, with no modern tools, or even rope, could, with enough time, erect Stonehenge. Here is Wally Wallington's fascinating website,Forgotten Technology. And you can watch a six-minute video of Wally's accomplishment at, a site which also features many other interesting clips. My thanks to Michael Marotta for bringing this to my attention.

Friday, November 28, 2008

"Ne me pique pas" Court Bans French Pricks

Some news items are their own ironic commentary. From Fox News: PARIS — A French appeals court says Voodoo dolls of President Nicolas Sarkozy may remain on sale, but must carry a notice saying that pricking them harms the president's dignity.

From Le Figaro: Nicolas Sarkozy invoque la «violation du droit à l'image» pour demander le retrait de poupées vaudou à son effigie, vendues sur Internet depuis quinze jours. Le président de la République vient en effet d'assigner en référé les éditions K&B, qui commercialise les lots incriminés: des manuels vaudous, tirés à environ 12.000 exemplaires et vendus 12,95 euros, auxquels sont jointes des poupées à l'effigie de Nicolas Sarkozy ou de Ségolène Royal (bleu pour lui, rouge pour elle), ainsi qu'un lot de 12 aiguilles.

Jacques Brel sings "Ne me quitte pas" or "Don't leave me."

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Monty Python's Fliegender Zirkus wünscht Ihnen ein Glückliches Dankfest!

In 1972, in an attempt to enter the German market, The Monty Python troop filmed two 45 minute episodes entirely in German. Except for the famous lumberjack skit, all the material was new, although some was adapted from At Last, the 1948 Show. Skits include Little Red Riding Hood and The Merchant of Venice performed by cows. One particularly funny installment is the Bavarian Restaurant Sketch (featuring "Soup a la Clown") which you can see subtitled and in its entirety below. However you spend your Dankfest, be happy you are not spending it in this establishment.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Tom Snyder interviews Ayn Rand

Tom Snyder, 1936-2007 is one of the legends of broadcasting. With his golden voice and engaging manner he sought to make the subjects he investigated clear to the common man without dumbing down the dialog or chasing after glitz. A true gentleman, he got his start in radio, moved on to national broadcasting for NBC, and secured his fame with the beloved Tomorrow Show which ran late nights from 1973 to 1982. He was the last to interview John Lennon, and the first to interview U2 for an American audience.

The Tomorrow Show was canceled to make room for a distinctly different type of program, Late Night, with David Letterman. But after a stint on radio he returned to TV with the Late Late Show which he hosted from 1995-1999. He died of complications from leukemia in 2007.

Here is a classic interview from the Tomorrow Show with a brilliant but tough guest, Ayn Rand. Enjoy this three part clip. My thanks to J. Hoyle for bringing it to my attention.

Click here for Part 2.
Click here for part 3.

Friday, November 14, 2008

A Good Woman: "Lady Windermere's Fan"

The ancients held that the happiness of men is equal to the happiness of the gods, that it admits of no degree. One wonders if this standard applies to works of art? Is any truly good play just as perfect as any other? Oscar Wilde's "Lady Windermere's Fan" would sorely test that notion, for although it is, in its own way perfect, it would also, I have to think, admit of improvement. Let me explain why this play is so satisfying, yet so frustrating.

Read here an extract from the opening dialog of the play, available in full at the Gutenburg Project. Lady Windermere, married a year, in love, and newly a mother, with an acquaintance, Lord Darlington, who has not yet openly revealed that he is madly in love with her:

"Oh, nowadays so many conceited people go about Society pretending to be good, that I think it shows rather a sweet and modest disposition to pretend to be bad. Besides, there is this to be said. If you pretend to be good, the world takes you very seriously. If you pretend to be bad, it doesn’t. Such is the astounding stupidity of optimism."
"Don’t you want the world to take you seriously then, Lord Darlington?"
"No, not the world. Who are the people the world takes seriously? All the dull people one can think of, from the Bishops down to the bores. I should like you to take me very seriously, Lady Windermere, you more than any one else in life."
..."I think we’re very good friends already, Lord Darlington. We can always remain so as long as you don’t -"
"Don’t what?"
"Don’t spoil it by saying extravagant silly things to me. You think I am a Puritan, I suppose? Well, I have something of the Puritan in me. I was brought up like that. I am glad of it. My mother died when I was a mere child. I lived always with Lady Julia, my father’s elder sister, you know. She was stern to me, but she taught me what the world is forgetting, the difference that there is between what is right and what is wrong. She allowed of no compromise. I allow of none."
"My dear Lady Windermere!"
"You look on me as being behind the age. - Well, I am! I should be sorry to be on the same level as an age like this."
"You think the age very bad?"
"Yes. Nowadays people seem to look on life as a speculation. It is not a speculation. It is a sacrament. Its ideal is Love. Its purification is sacrifice."
"Oh, anything is better than being sacrificed!"
"Don’t say that."
"I do say it. I feel it - I know it."

Darlington is a charming wit and we sympathize with his rejection of conventional hypocrisy. As the plot develops, we learn from Darlington that Lord Windermere has been fraternizing with a Mrs. Erlynne, (here as played by Helen Hunt,) a woman of questionable reputation. Darlington, an honorable and not unforthright man suspects that Lady Windermere will find herself betrayed, and makes it clear that he intends to "be there for her" when she needs him. Later that evening, when Mrs. Erlynne mortifies Lady Windermere by showing up as her husband's guest at Lady Windermere's party, Darlington repeats his offer, explicitly and urgently:

Lady Windermere: "Yes. Her coming here is monstrous, unbearable. I know now what you meant to-day at tea-time. Why didn’t you tell me right out? You should have!"
"I couldn’t! A man can’t tell these things about another man! But if I had known he was going to make you ask her here to-night, I think I would have told you. That insult, at any rate, you would have been spared."
"I did not ask her. He insisted on her coming - against my entreaties - against my commands. Oh! the house is tainted for me! I feel that every woman here sneers at me as she dances by with my husband. What have I done to deserve this? I gave him all my life. He took it - used it - spoiled it! I am degraded in my own eyes; and I lack courage - I am a coward!"
"If I know you at all, I know that you can’t live with a man who treats you like this! What sort of life would you have with him? You would feel that he was lying to you every moment of the day. You would feel that the look in his eyes was false, his voice false, his touch false, his passion false. He would come to you when he was weary of others; you would have to comfort him. He would come to you when he was devoted to others; you would have to charm him. You would have to be to him the mask of his real life, the cloak to hide his secret."
"You are right - you are terribly right. But where am I to turn? You said you would be my friend, Lord Darlington. - Tell me, what am I to do? Be my friend now."
"Between men and women there is no friendship possible. There is passion, enmity, worship, love, but no friendship. I love you -"
"No, no!"
"Yes, I love you! You are more to me than anything in the whole world. What does your husband give you? Nothing. Whatever is in him he gives to this wretched woman, whom he has thrust into your society, into your home, to shame you before every one. I offer you my life-"
"Lord Darlington!"
"My life - my whole life. Take it, and do with it what you will. . . . I love you - love you as I have never loved any living thing. From the moment I met you I loved you, loved you blindly, adoringly, madly! You did not know it then - you know it now! Leave this house to-night. I won’t tell you that the world matters nothing, or the world’s voice, or the voice of society. They matter a great deal. They matter far too much. But there are moments when one has to choose between living one’s own life, fully, entirely, completely - or dragging out some false, shallow, degrading existence that the world in its hypocrisy demands. You have that moment now. Choose! Oh, my love, choose."
"I have not the courage."
"Yes; you have the courage. There may be six months of pain, of disgrace even, but when you no longer bear his name, when you bear mine, all will be well. Margaret, my love, my wife that shall be some day - yes, my wife! You know it! What are you now? This woman has the place that belongs by right to you. Oh! go - go out of this house, with head erect, with a smile upon your lips, with courage in your eyes. All London will know why you did it; and who will blame you? No one. If they do, what matter? Wrong? What is wrong? It’s wrong for a man to abandon his wife for a shameless woman. It is wrong for a wife to remain with a man who so dishonours her. You said once you would make no compromise with things. Make none now. Be brave! Be yourself!"
"I am afraid of being myself. Let me think! Let me wait! My husband may return to me."
"And you would take him back! You are not what I thought you were. You are just the same as every other woman. You would stand anything rather than face the censure of a world, whose praise you would despise. In a week you will be driving with this woman in the Park. She will be your constant guest - your dearest friend. You would endure anything rather than break with one blow this monstrous tie. You are right. You have no courage; none!"
"Ah, give me time to think. I cannot answer you now."
"It must be now or not at all."
"Then, not at all!"
"You break my heart!"
"Mine is already broken."
"To-morrow I leave England. This is the last time I shall ever look on you. You will never see me again. For one moment our lives met - our souls touched. They must never meet or touch again. Good-bye, Margaret."

And of course, she breaks our hearts too! How could she not go with this man, this man willing to suffer all to gain her, to face the world's scorn for true love? But herein lies the play. Lady Windermere does not abscond with a man worthy of her love. We are denied the happy ending we expect in the second act. Yet Wilde has a trick up his sleave, a twist of the plot, and he pulls off a happy ending with which we are, in the end, satisfied. Is the satisfaction the same as it would have been had the Lady run off? She does end the play happily. And if all happiness is equal, then we too should be happy. Yet...

Given our modern view of the Victorian virtues, and especially our knowledge as ominpotent spectators in this play, we can imagine an ending to it other than Wilde's which would satisfy us completely. Yet the play's internal logic is sound. The drama works. Wilde is still a dramatic genius. I am not a dramatist, and while I could imagine a great play with a different ending, I could not write it. I do not know if anyone could. But that does not matter. This work stands on its own, and stands up very well. And it contains some of Wilde's best humor, which I will not ruin by telling trying to tell any of it here.

The play is availble in several versions. Scarlet Johansson stars in the most recent remake which goes by the subtitle of the original, "A Good Woman." The BBC television production which is in stock at Netflix is also available in full at YouTube. Here is part one:

Download the text of Lady Windermere's Fan for free at Project Gutenberg.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Barbara Tuchman "The Guns of August"

As I have previously argued, World war I, not World war II, is the formative event of our era. Its effects, which include the Second World War are still being played out in Russia, the Balkans and the Middle East.

One of the most famous works on World War I is Barbara Tuchman's Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Guns of August. This work deals with the circumstances and events leading up to the outbreak of the First World War and the stalemate along the Western Front that ensured a war of attrition settled only by the historically contingent and by no means inevitable intervention of the U.S. in 1917.

Tuchman's book is excellent not only as history, but also as analysis and even as drama. Not a work of art, its artistic touches include grand aphoristic language and a sense of suspense that reads as much like narrative fiction as it does a clinical account.

Neither the actual outbreak nor the course of the war was predetermined. Even up to mobilization the war could have been averted, although, Tuchman argues, the principles often did not see this. Although the reader knows the outcome, through the first half of the book one is kept turning the pages, hoping that war will be avoided. As diplomats and European royalty work sometimes diligently and sometimes fecklessly to achieve some accomodation, others argue that once the wheels are in motion it would be suicide to attempt a delay of action. The Kaiser is shown as too week to avoid a war (one that he both feared and longed for) as well as too conflicted to win it. The effect of Bristish diplomacy was to support France well enough morally that she would not seriously seek to avoid war with Prussia, but not well enough materially to break the German lines once that war broke out. "No more distressing moment can ever face a British government than that which requires it to come to a hard, fast and specific decision," says Tuchman.

One particularly tragic event that Tuchman documents is the bombardment of the Belgian city of Louvain and the destruction of its university library, the oldest in Europe, with the loss of countless unique treasures. Cardinal Désiré Mercier, author of the Manual of Modern Scholastic Philosophy would arise as a hero of the Belgian resistance and of civilzed Europe.

This best-seller has been in print continuously since its publication in 1962. Tuchman's interpretation has influenced historians and the work played a pivotal role in the Kennedy Administration's handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Read it as drama, as history, and as a book of ideas.

Pictured are the iconic "you country needs you" poster with Lord Kitchener, killed in WWI, The Kaiser in his warlord costume and the ruins of the library of Louvain University.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Beethoven's Sixth Symphony "The Pastoral"

Little compares to Ludwig van Beethoven. One of the strangest opinions I've ever heard of Beethoven is that his music is malevolent. He certainly can convey darker themes with his compositions. The Fifth Symphony, with its "Fate knocking at the door" is far from lighthearted. Indeed, Beethoven can be seen as the first Heavy Metal artist, with the booming epic style of his symphonies. Considered a member of the Classical school along with Mozart and Haydn we can hear echoes of Shubert and a foretaste of the Romantics that is absent mostly, say, in Mozart. To make a grossly inadequate analogy for the student of pop music, Beethoven's dramatic range is like Led Zepellin to Mozart's saccharine early Beatles.

Beethoven's place in Western culture is unparalleled. Consider Stanley Kubrick's dystopian masterpiece, A Clockwork Orange. The anti-hero Alexander De Large could hardly have been portrayed as a Tschaikovsky fanatic. When the Berlin Wall fell, they did not hold a Mahler or a Wagner concert to celebrate. One of the greatest of all human accomplishments is Beethoven's nine symphonies. Especially the last seven, from the "Eroica" (3rd) from which he ripped the dedication to Napoleon when Bonaparte betrayed the Republic and crowned himself Emperor, to the Ninth, the wildly popular "Choral Symphony" based on Schiller's romantic poem, the Ode to Joy.

One of my favorite of all classical pieces is Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, "The Pastoral." Composed, rehearsed and debuted along with the more ominous Fifth, The Sixth, with its buoyant mood, provides a perfect complement. The Pastoral Symphony, which is intentionally meant to evoke "recollections of country life" has been famously adapted to two iconic movies of the Twentieth Century. The first is Walt Disney's animated masterpiece Fantasia. The full five movements, performed by Leopold Stokowski directing the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, are illustrated with scenes of Greek and European mythology that comprise one of my earliest and most joyful childhood memories.

The second iconic film usage is in 1973's sci-fi noir, Soylent Green. The fatherly police archivist Sol Roth, (Edward G. Robinson in his last role,) has watched America decay from greatness to mindless rioting and self-delusion. Choosing to die, he patronizes a state-run euthansia clinic. With all the world's wildlife dead, Roth watches images of the countryside and listens to Beethoven's Pastoral as the fatal cocktail takes effect. Of course its use in Soylent Green is darkly ironic. The piece itself conjures no malevolent images, at least nothing worse than a soon-passed summer thunderstorm.

Click here to see part one of the Pastoral in Disney's Fantasia. Click here for Sol's departure in Soylent Green. And here is Herbert von Karajan, renowned for his beethoven Interpretations, directing the Berlin Philharmonic in a performance of the complete symphony:

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Monday, November 10, 2008

"Heathers" Femmes Fatales II

A mix of Nietzsche and teen angst ending with the words, "There's a new sheriff in town," Heathers, a 1989 dark comedy starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, is a wicked satire of high school cliques, disfunctional families, and the therapeutic culture. While the film was not a box office success, it has attained cult status, with continuingly solid DVD slaes and rental revenue. It was a critical success for first-time director Michael Lehmann, and the first major lead for co-stars Slater and Ryder after his appearanced in Name of the Rose and hers in Beetlejuice.

Heather Chandler, Heather Duke and Heather McNamara are three vicious, sexually manipulative, and deeply unhappy "popular girls" whose clique terrorizes the student body of Westerburg High. The pretty and intelligent but alienated Veronica Sawyer (Ryder) joins the croquet-playing prank-planning sorority as an "honorary Heather." Her first assignment is to humiliate her former friend, Martha "Dumptruck" Dunnstock. Veronica, whose parents show their concern for her well-being by assuming, as they sip their martinis, that she must be suffering every fad teenage syndrome they hear of on TV, is just going through the motions. There is nothing more empty than a teenage suburban limbo where "that's so 1987" is the worst imaginable put-down.

Then bad-boy Jason "J.D." Dean (Slater) transfers in to Westerburg. With his shades and leather jacket and his disdain not only for authority but also the Heathers, he embodies for Veronica the possibility of a sufficient self. But J.D., for all his apparent bravado, is an empty shell as well. With no real values of his own, this nihilist lives to expose the emptiness in others. Finding the lone wolf in him attractive, Veronica decides to explore the dark side, beginning with a visit to the top Heather who is suffering the effects of a hangover. But J.D. switches the pick-me-up Veronica pours for her with poison. In a frantic attempt to avoid blame for her surpise demise, Veronica forges a suicide note. Not only is the note successful, but Heather's suicide is seen as an example by her classmates, and the ensuing farcical deaths are celebrated as an "opportunity to heal" by the school guidance counselor.

Veronica begins this movie as a burned out cynic. In search of the thrill that she can no longer get from Barbie Dolls, she joins the "elites" of her school to prey on her former friends who are seen as nerds and losers. Finding this even more barren, she turns on the predators with J.D.'s help and takes down the Heathers and top Jocks. J.D., a true psychopath, revels in the destruction. When Veronica abandons him, he plans murder to silence her, and a holocaust for the school. But Veronica, realizing the real worth, if not the supposed glamor of her former true friends, realizes that she has a value she wants to protect. A woman with a mission, she goes up against a killer, and completes her metamorphosis from delinquent to champion.

With its dark humor, over-the-top performances, stylized lunacy, and disdain for convention, Heathers resembles many critical hits of the seventies such as A Clockwork Orange and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The top-grossing teenage flick of the 80's, The Breakfast Club, would have us believe that mean teachers and low self-esteem are the central problems of youth, and that the cure is self-therapeutic weekend bull-sessions. Heathers blows that unintentional farce out of the water. At times surreal, almost psychadelic, Heathers succeeds as black comedy and as biting social commentary. But while Heathers succeeds as satire, it does not settle for mere cynicism. While Veronica flirts with nihilism, she never commits, ultimately withdrawing in horror once she sees the nature of that drooling beast. Beautiful and brilliant, a lack of strength was never Veronica's problem. Once she is wakened from her funk, she acts with courage. Veronica goes beyond the femme fatale, and choses to be a heroine instead.

Rent the film, buy the film, watch the film in full at YouTube:

Read Femmes Fatales, Part I and Part III

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Google Mars

You are probably familiar with Google Earth, the satellite image website that lets you zoom in from space on any site on the planet. If you aren't familiar with the site, you should check it out immediately. No Roman emperor or god on Mount Olympus could command such wonders as the poorest of citizens with an airport connection or a card to his local library. But even if you have seen Google Earth, have you checked out Google Mars? Through NASA and the Hubble Telescope we can see wonders so grand that mere words cannot describe a millionth of their splendor; the surface of distant stars, the creation of new suns, millions of galaxies billions of years distant.

Google Mars lets us zoom in on the Red Planet as if it were in our living rooms, and not a barely visible red speck in the night sky some 100 million miles away. You can look at Mars photographed in visible light or infrared or you can enjoy the false-color relief map which doesn't show any canals, but which does show plain signs of crater impacts, flowing water, and mountains over ten miles high.

Right Click on the NASA images of Mars above to see them full-sized. Click here for Google Earth, download required, but worth the effort. Click here for Google Mars, no download necessary.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Little Red Riding Hood Redux

There once was a young person named Little Red Riding Hood who lived on the edge of a large forest full of endangered owls and rare plants that would probably provide a cure for cancer if only someone took the time to study them.

Red Riding Hood lived with a nurture giver whom she sometimes referred to as “Mother,” although she didn’t mean to imply by this term that she would have thought less of that person if a close biological link did not in fact exist. Nor did she intend to denigrate the equal value of nontraditional households, and she was sorry if this was the impression conveyed.

One day her mother asked her to take a basket of organically grown fruit and mineral water to her grandmother’s house.

“But mother, won’t this be stealing work from the unionized people who have struggled for years to earn the right to carry all packages between various people in the woods?”

Red Riding Hood’s mother assured her that she had called the union boss and gotten a special compassionate mission exemption form.

“But mother, aren’t you oppressing me by ordering me to do this?”

Red Riding Hood’s mother pointed out that it was impossible for women to oppress each other, since all women were equally oppressed until all women were free.

“But mother, then shouldn’t you have my brother carry the basket, since he’s an oppressor, and should learn what it’s like to be oppressed?”

Red Riding Hood’s mother explained that her brother was attending a special rally for animal rights, and besides, this wasn’t stereotypical women’s work, but an empowering deed that would help engender a feeling of community.

“But won’t I be oppressing Grandma, by implying that she’s sick and hence unable to independently further her own selfhood?”

But Red Riding Hood’s mother explained that her grandmother wasn’t actually sick or incapacitated or mentally handicapped in any way, although that was not to imply that any of these conditions were inferior to what some people called “health.” Thus Red Riding Hood felt that she could get behind the idea of delivering the basket to her grandmother, and so she set off.

Many people believed that the forest was a foreboding and dangerous place, but Red Riding Hood knew that this was an irrational fear based on cultural paradigms instilled by a patriarchal society that regarded the natural world as an exploitable resource, and hence believed that natural predators were in fact intolerable competitors.

Other people avoided the woods for fear of thieves and deviants, but Red Riding Hood felt that in a truly classless society all marginalized peoples would be able to “come out” of the woods and be accepted as valid lifestyle role models.

On her way to Grandma’s house, Red Riding Hood passed a woodchopper, and wandered off the path, in order to examine some flowers. She was startled to find herself standing before a Wolf, who asked her what was in her basket. Red Riding Hood’s teacher had warned her never to talk to strangers, but she was confident in taking control of her own budding sexuality, and chose to dialogue with the Wolf.

She replied, “I am taking my Grandmother some healthful snacks in a gesture of solidarity.”

The Wolf said, “You know, my dear, it isn’t safe for a little girl to walk through these woods alone.”

Red Riding Hood said, “I find your sexist remark offensive in the extreme, but I will ignore it because of your traditional status as an outcast from society, the stress of which has caused you to develop an alternative and yet entirely valid world view. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I would prefer to be on my way.”

Red Riding Hood returned to the main path, and proceeded towards her Grandmother’s house. But because his status outside society had freed him from slavish adherence to linear, Western-style thought, the Wolf knew of a quicker route to Grandma’s house.

He burst into the house and ate Grandma, a course of action affirmative of his nature as a predator. Then, unhampered by rigid, traditionalist gender role notions, he put on Grandma’s nightclothes, crawled under the bedclothes, and awaited developments.

Red Riding Hood entered the cottage and said, “Grandma, I have brought you some cruelty-free snacks to salute you in your role of wise and nurturing matriarch.”

The Wolf said softly, “Come closer, child, so that I might see you.”

Red Riding Hood said, “Goddess[es]! Grandma, what big eyes you have!”

“You forget that I am optically challenged.”

“And Grandma, what an enormous, what a fine nose you have.”

“Naturally, I could have had it fixed to help my acting career, but I didn’t give in to such societal pressures, my child.”

“And Grandma, what very big, sharp teeth you have!”

The Wolf could not take any more of these speciesist slurs, and, in a reaction appropriate for his accustomed milieu, he leaped out of bed, grabbed Little Red Riding Hood, and opened his jaws so wide that she could see her poor Grandmother cowering in his belly.

“Aren’t you forgetting something?” Red Riding Hood bravely shouted. “You must request my permission before proceeding to a new level of intimacy!”

The Wolf was so startled by this statement that he loosened his grasp on her. At the same time, the woodchopper burst into the cottage, brandishing an axe.

“Hands off!” cried the woodchopper.

“And what do you think you’re doing?” cried Little Red Riding Hood. “If I let you help me now, I would be expressing a lack of confidence in my own abilities, which would lead to poor self-esteem and lower achievement scores on college entrance exams.”

“Last chance, sister! Get your hands off that endangered species! This is an FBI sting!” screamed the woodchopper, and when Little Red Riding Hood nonetheless made a sudden motion, he swung the axe and sliced off her head.

“Thank goodness you got here in time,” said the Wolf. “The brat and her grandmother lured me in here. I thought I was a goner.”

“No, I think I’m the real victim, here,” said the woodchopper. “I’ve been dealing with my anger ever since I saw her picking those protected flowers earlier. And now I’m going to have such a trauma. Do you have any aspirin?”

“Sure,” said the Wolf.


“I feel your pain,” said the Wolf, and he patted the woodchopper on his firm, well padded back, gave a little belch, and said “Do you have any Maalox?”

My thanks to Hilton (HWH) for passing this on. I am unaware of the originator. The Illustrations are by Gustave Doré.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Carl Orff "Carmina Burana"

Discovered in 1803 in the Benediktbeuern abbey by the German scholar Johann Andreas Schmeller, the Codex Burana is a collection of 228 poems written in Latin, Middle German and Old Provençal. They were recorded by students and clergy about the year 1230 in southern Bavaria. Meant to be set to music they include love songs, drinking songs and scandalous chucrh parodies. The songs provide a fascinating uncensored view into the cultural life of the high middle ages.

Schmeller published the codex and named it the Carmina Burana (Songs of Beuern) in 1847. In 1935 and '36 the German composer Carl Orff set 24 of the songs to new music, producing a work meant for orchestra, soloists and choir. Subtitled cantiones profanae, the styles range from plaintive and pastoral to comical to demonic to ecstatic. The composition was highly successful, long outliving the Nazi regime which at first found the work too controversial for public performance.

It premiered at the Alte Oper, Frankfurt, in 1937. The opening movement, O Fortuna, is one of the most well known pieces of classical music, familiar to many as the theme to the film The Omen. Covered by performers from the Doors' Ray Manzarek to Enya and by every classical venue on the planet, performances of this work are a guaranteed to sell out.

The Carmina Burana is meant to be performed operatically, and in 1975, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle produced a West German film version which faithfully produces scenes from mediaeval festivals and morality plays with an effect that seems to cross Easter with Halloween.

The text of Orff's Carmina Burana is available at Teach Yourself Latin. It includes the Latin, French and German lyrics with a loose English translation. The 1975 film by Ponnelle, with a fine musical recording is available in full, starting here with O Fortuna, at YouTube:

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Ayn Rand "The Right Stuff" BBC documentary

"I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York's skyline and the will of man made visible. What other religion do we need? I feel that If a war came to threaten this I would throw myself into space over the city and protect these buildings with my body." This quote of Ayn Rand comes from "The Right Stuff" a half-hour BBC radio documentary by former Conservative Party cabinet minister Michael Portillo. balanced by introductory, the documentarry brings up many more questions that it answers, Jeff Britting's laudatory Academy Award nominated film A Sense of Life is much more full of detail, if less balanced.

Ayn Rand was a Hollywood screen writer, a Broadway playwrite, a novelist and a philosopher. Her Philosophy, Objectivism, could be characterized as common sense and American values systematized - yet no school of thought arouses more controversy, from the religious right to the academic left. According to Wikipedia, "Objectivism holds that reality exists independent from consciousness; that individual persons are in contact with this reality through sensory perception; that human beings can gain objective knowledge from perception through the process of concept formation; that the proper moral purpose of one's life is the pursuit of one's own happiness or rational self-interest; that the only social system consistent with this morality is full respect for individual rights, embodied in pure laissez-faire capitalism; and that the role of art in human life is to transform man's widest metaphysical ideas, by selective reproduction of reality, into a physical form—a work of art—that he can comprehend and respond to."

Dave Kliman's World Trade Center at Night.

In the concrete this meant a glorification of the individual and human achievement as embodied in the moon landings and the skyline of New York. It meant a rejection of skepticism, relativism and what is now considered political correctness. It meant books of philosophy with such provocative titles as The Virtue of Selfishness, Capitalism – The Unknown Ideal, and The Romantic Manifesto. And it meant novels such as The Fountainhead, made into a movie with Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal, in which the hero erects New York City skyscrapers and the epic Atlas Shrugged, voted most popular novel of the 20th century, and second in influence in reader's lives only to the Bible, in which the skyline of Manhattan is extinguished.

You can listen to Portillo's documentary here
at the BBC.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Paganini "Caprice 24" by Li Jie

Researching the guitarist Francisco Tárrega, [considered the father of modern classical guitar] I ran across the amazing Chinese guitar vituosa Li Jie (here at Wikipedia) playing Niccolò Paganini's Caprice #24. I'm was so amazed I had to post it on Radicals for Happiness. There are lots of very, very good classical guitar performances by various people on YouTube. Who knew?

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

At Last, The 1948 Show "Four Yorkshire Men"

When I was young, there was no such thing as The Simpsons. No iPods, (Nor even Sony Walkmen. Or is that Walksman?) no cell phones, no Department of Homeland Security. All we had were such antiquities as the moon landings, the Concorde, and the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Of course, my father's generation had it worse, what with no TV, no FM radio, and having to see WWII won long before they could even dream of moonwalks. Kids nowadays have it easy with their GPS, their CNN, and their TRL. Oh, wait, I understand MTV has cancelled Total Request Live. The horrors!

But none of us ever had it as bad as the old days. Having to walk up hill in the snow both to and home from school. Whether you want to rue or reminisce the olden days, you certainly don't remember them as they are. Neither do these gentlemen. (Or is it gentlesman?) Here are "Four Yorkshire Men" remembering the good old days, with Jim Brooke Taylor, John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Marty Feldman of At Last, The 1948 Show. Enjoy.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Works of Joy: The Music of YES

The music of the band Yes stands out among other rock bands, even fellow progressive rock bands, for one quality that most others lack. Though they may share all of the technical virtuosity, grand vision, and the triple-gatefold sleeves of King Crimson, Genesis, ELP, and Pink Floyd – Yes cornered the market on one commodity – joy.

The work of Yes presents a sense of life that can only be described through Ayn Rand's favored term, "sunlit universe." Indeed, many of the lyrics of Jon Anderson, not only in his Yes work, but his solo work as well, mention the glory of the sun. (See his contribution to the film Legend, "Loved By The Sun." As a motivating factor, they use religion in the best sense that one can, one that Rand, an atheist, would approve of. The music of Yes is an anthem to life, and the very name of the group is a reflection of that.

The band is given a lot of flack from more cynical rock fans who dismiss them as little more than "sunshine and rainbows." But that is a superficial reading. Yes is not ignorant to pain and suffering. The music of Yes, which is, admittedly, something of a "utopian" project, addresses the suffering in the world in relation to their songs of elation...theirs is not a Pollyanna solution. And they offer no sanction of the victim. "If the summer changed to winter, yours is no disgrace!" They do not celebrate the dark, they fight through it to make their way towards the sun.

With that said, let's take a look at some of their key "works of joy":

"Sweetness" from YES (1969) From the first album, the lyrics to this song may seem a bit treacly to us today, but it was a perfect sentiment for the summer of love. A nice love song from a strong first album:

She brings the sunshine to a rainy afternoon;
She puts the sweetness in, stirs it with a spoon.

"Time and A Word" (1970) The title song provides the group's first anthem, with the sing-along lines:

There's a time and the time is now and it's right for me,
It's right for me, and the time is now.
There's a word and the word is love and it's right for me,
It's right for me, and the word is love.

"I've Seen All Good People" (1971) The Yes Album song that showed a new dimension through the exuberant guitar work of Steve Howe, and the immortal line:

I've seen all good people turn their heads each day
So satisfied I'm on my way

The song starts off in a pastoral mood and kicks into a rockabilly rock-out that shows the lie that rock music can't be anything but "anger, hurt, and rage."

"And You & I" (1972) When Yes went Close to the Edge, you knew they wouldn't abandon you, as demonstrated by this magnificent musical piece, at once childlike and mature, simple yet orchestral...

Tales from Topographic Oceans (1974) This whole album, a tribute to what religion can represent at its best, is a tour de force, with several highlights of soaring vocal chorals, spiraling guitars, and orchestral keyboards, all culminating in the finale "Nous Sommes Du Soleil." It's a challenging work, not only musically, but spiritually, which is probably why it is so hated among many "rock" fans, but for those who seek something more, nothing less than a journey of joy.

Going for the One (1977) Another album of continuous joy and clarity. From the exhaustingly joyous "Going For the One" to the gracefulness of "Wondrous Stories..." "Turn of the Century" tells the love story of Pygmalion in a hymn to creation itself, while the album culminates in the last great epic of the Jon Anderson-led yes, "Awaken."

"Future Times/Rejoice" (1979) may be considered the poorest of the Yes albums, but Yes at their worst offers much more than most rock bands at their height. The opening track here is a very creative one, encompassing many moods and textures, and a childlike sense of possibility in an era of increasing despair. That a band could still find a way to rejoice in the age of punk was no mean feat...

"It Can Happen" (1983) The band had changed by the time Jon Anderson rejoined the band for 90125, but the spirit lived on, most notably in this track, a song of optimism that was perfect for the "morning in America" ushered in during the Reagan administration.

These songs are the key highlights to the joys of YES, but are by no means exhaustive. If you've never taken them seriously, you may want to give them another try. You have nothing to lose, but a world of joy to gain...

The distinctive album-cover art of Yes is designed by Roger Dean. Here is a live performance of the band's signature cover of Simon and Garfunkel's "America."

Sunday, November 2, 2008

From Lovecraft to Roerich on the WorldWideWeb

Glancing through the news the other day, my eye was caught by the headline "The Mountains of Madness." The article was about an expedition to the Gamburtsev Mountain Range in central Antarctica. The mountains were discovered 50 years ago in the International Geophysical Year of 1958. This year (2008) is the International Polar Year, and a team of scientists has returned to the Gamburtsevs to try, among other things, to explain their formation. But the headline itself, "Mountains of Madness," is an allusion to a novella by science fiction author H. P. Lovecraft, At The Mountains of Madness, written in 1931.

Lovecraft is at best an acquired taste. He is generally described as a writer of horror or Gothic stories. His style is clear and his imagery quite visual, if his subject matter tends toward the alien and demonic. I read many of his stories as a teen, but hadn't revisited them since. After seeing the headline though, I thought I would try him again and see what I thought. His works are available for download at Project Gutenberg Australia.

First I read The Colour out of Space, a Gothic tale about an asteroid which crashes to earth in a small New England town, bringing with it a malevolent alien influence. The story was not very enthralling. Told as a flashback, and with no human conflicts, it lacked any real drama. But one thing was of interest. Lovecraft was apparently fascinated with science, and he mentioned several phenomena with which I was unfamiliar, including Widmanstätten patterns, which he mentioned were revealed when a cut section of the meteorite was treated with acid. Unfamiliar with the term, and suspecting he might simply have made it up, like some technology out of a Star Trek episode, I checked with Wikipedia. It turns out such beautiful fractal patterns do indeed exist, and I have pictured them here.

Next, I decided to read the longer work, At the Mountains of Madness, to which the headline had alluded and which I had remembered particularly liking as a teen. The story involves an expedition to a massive mountain range in the central wastes of Antarctica. Journeying inward the adveturers discover the remains of an ancient, alien civilization, finding to their horror that even after millions of years there is still some living presence in the cyclopean ruins. Once again I was struck by an allusion of Lovecraft's. Upon first encountering the alien habitations in the mountains, his protagonist describes them as "like the old Asian castles clinging to steep mountains in Roerich's paintings." Who was Roerich? Curious, I again checked Wikipedia, and came across an interesting artist, Nicholas Roerich, seven of whose works I have reproduced here.

Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947) was a painter, archeologist, philosopher and Orientalist from St. Petersburg, Russia. An accomplished illustrator and folklorist, he suggested the subject, collaborated with the composer, and did the stage designs for the riotous Paris debut of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, subtitled "Pictures from Pagan Russia." He was thrice nominated for the Nobel Peace prize for his work to preserve cultural artifacts. He was a noted theospohist and painted on Buddhist, Pagan and Eastern Orthodox Christian themes. His life and work are featured at the Roerich Museum (here is their website) here in Manhattan. I hope to visit it soon. Here we see an accurrate depiction of a Pagan shrine, probably in the Altai Mountains of Greater Mongolia.

Roerich travelled through Asia and the Russian Orient. He documented the area's geography and cultural artifacts and painted real, historical, and mythological landscapes and events. His style is notable for its stylization, color, clarity and dynamic themes. He is not a great figurative artist. His human figures are simple. Nature, rather than man, plays the central role in his works. But he does depict themes which evoke wonder and awe, and subjects of epic beauty. Here in Ashram we see his typical combination of the contemplative individual set in a monumental landscape of brilliant color. Note the Hindu religious iconography on the rocks.

Visitors from Overseas
, directly above, depicts the Varangians, Norse Vikings who explored the waterways of Russia, travelling as far as Constantinople and the Caspian. The Varangians or Varyags are mentioned in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings as a people decieved by Sauron, and Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead (adapted as the movie The Thirteenth Warrior) tells the tale of Beowulf from the perspective of an Arab adventurer who travels with Varangians from Baghdad to Denmark and back. (In an interesting twist in light of this essay, Crichton actually cites Lovecraft's fictional Necronomicon in the biography to his book.)

The Arcadian painting For Snegurochka (the Snow Maiden) is a set design for an Operatic adaptation of the Tale by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Of a similar theme to The Little Mermaid, Snegurochka is the subject of Russian fairy tales, where she is depicted as the granddaughter of Father Christmas, or as a creation out of snow. Longing to love a mortal man she is granted her wish but at the cost of her immortality.

Descent into Hell is one of Roerich's religious works. Here we see Christ after his crucifiction but before his resurrection descending into Sheol. According to Christian belief, Christ takes upon the suffering of man, not only on the cross, but also in the afterlife. He travels to hell, throws open the gates, and allows those in the grace of God to depart. Here, in place of devils, Roerich uses deep sea angler fish, a recently discovered demonic denizen of the deep.

Battle of the Heavens, directly above, depicts a theme common to the Eurasian Steppe. The vast plains of Central Aisa, like the Tornado Alley of the American Midwest, are an area of dramatic meteorological phenomena. The worship of Father Sky has roots in the fascination of the Hyperboreans with great storms and standing cloud formations that exist where the Jet Stream, passing over the high mountains of Central Asia, causes animated hovering storm clouds to condense.

You can read about Nicholas Roerich at Wikipedia and check out Roerich's artwork the Nicholas Roerich Museum.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Delibes "Lakmé" The Flower Duet

While I do enjoy classical music, I mostly prefer instrumental pieces, for example Beethoven's Symphonies or tone poems such as Liszt's Preludes. I am not much of an opera fan. Having greatly enjoyed the musical Amadeus I was disappointed to find that just about everything of Mozart's that I liked was already in the film, and I found such works of his as Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute unappealing.

In college, a friend rented a favorite movie of his, The Hunger, with Susan Sarandon, David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve. A stylish vampire movie, it is just a bit too bloody for my taste, but it is quite worth seeing for those who like the genre. The greatest reward from watching it was learning of the "Flower Duet" from Léo Delibes' opera Lakmé. I immediately piurchased the opera. The bulk of it did not interest me. But the price was well paid to have a recording of that song. The story is simple. The daughter of a Hindu priest and her servant girl sing of a garden filled with flowers, jasmine and birds. I have placed some of the French lyrics and the English translation below, under the YouTube clip. The lyrics are for the part about 1:09 into the song.

In the movie The Hunger Catherine Deneuve says the "Flower Duet" is a love song, and Susan Sarandon asks Deneuve if Deneuve is seducing her. (Deneuve is.) But whether we imagine the duet as a love song or a vision of some oriental paradise, or even recall it as a theme that we have heard in commercials for Godiva Chocolate or British Airways, the melody is incomparable, the music transcendant. If you do not recognize this piece by the title, you will recognize it, and enjoy it immensely, upon hearing it.

I have chosen a performance by Carolyn Withers & Melissa Batalles accompanied only by Piano. There are other versions, with full orchestra. I think this simple arrangement shows the power of the music, without any need for strong back-up orchestration. It is divine without need for special devices. Enjoy.

Sous le dôme épais, où le blanc jasmin
À la rose s’assemble
Sur la rive en fleurs, riant au matin
Viens, descendons ensemble.

Doucement glissons de son flot charmant
Suivons le courant fuyant
Dans l’onde frémissante
D’une main nonchalante
Viens, gagnons le bord,
Où la source dort
Et l’oiseau, l’oiseau chante.

"Under the thick dome, where the white jasmine
Gathers with the rose,
On the riverbank in bloom, laughing in the morning,
Come, let us go down together.

"Gently let us slip from the pleasant rising flow,
Let us follow the fleeting current
In the shimmering stream,
Without any care,
Come, let us reach the bank,
Where the spring waters slumber
And the bird, the bird, she sings."