Thursday, March 31, 2011

the face of goodwill

Sometimes you just don't notice things. For instance, the fact that the negative space in the FedEx logo creates a rightward-pointing arrow.

In the past few weeks, it's come out that Catherine has never noticed that the Goodwill logo's smiling face fragment is a lowercase g, the same as the smaller g that begins the wordmark down below. It's a G! It's a face! Notice it!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

greta models

These incredible pictures of Greta were taken by the Jazz Protagonists' official photographer, Julia Novikova.

Click on the picture to see 'em all.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

freedom and religion

The other day, on March 17th, the House Judiciary Committee approved House Concurrent Resolution 13 "Reaffirming 'In God We Trust' as the official motto of the United States and supporting and encouraging the public display of the national motto in all public buildings, public schools, and other government institutions."

Bleuch! My immediate and cynical reaction is, what a bunch of opportunistic blowhards. But maybe I'm wrong: maybe they're sincere; maybe they really do feel that they're not betraying anything by "reaffirming" what never should have been affirmed in the first place.

The fact is that we didn't have that motto on all our currency until the McCarthyist 50s. Something that *has* been on our currency from the beginning, though, is "E Pluribus Unum." One out of many. Many people, of many beliefs, of many political stripes, of many backgrounds, of many languages, of many faiths or no faith at all. Oh, that it would somehow be so today.

I'm showing my traditional Baptist ideas here. I'm distressed that some of my fellow Baptists have so easily abandoned their true roots (proof that power corrupts). The further religion and government get from each other, the stronger each is, as evidenced by the great state of Rhode Island, founded by Baptist Roger Williams as one of the first places on planet Earth where a person truly could worship in whatever way he or she wished, or worship not at all, with complete freedom — no special districts, no special taxes or fees, certainly no beheadings or deportations, complete freedom.

When will we return to this wonderful ideal? (Of course, this wonderful ideal was never completely bought into by all Americans in the first place, so there you have it. Let's not be guilty either of romanticing or homogenizing the past, or of co-opting the Founders for our convenience.) But it's a glorious badge of honor in this country, something for us to be proud of, and with every public prayer at a Presidential inauguration, football game, or graduation ceremony, we not only disobey the Christ who very tartly ordered his followers to pray behind closed doors, "not like the hypocrites do" (and I'll add that those who follow him do indeed do the former and eschew the latter, given the logical fact that those who don't are quite simply not following Him), but we besmirch our greatest traditions as a country that affirms the freedom of every man's and woman's conscience.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

hangin with jon anderson

Last week I was the Chorus Master for the YOSA concert "An Acoustic Evening with Jon Anderson, the Voice of Yes." That means I rehearsed the choir and then stuck around for troubleshooting, a job that expanded as the weekend progressed. I even ended up whipping up a choral arrangement for the show. Jon sounds great as ever: that distinctive piping voice hasn't changed a bit. Further, his work ethic was impressive: he had no less than 3 two-hour-or-more rehearsals with the orchestra. He was a model of patience, hard work, and good cheer. Total professional. The concert, in the outlandish Majestic Theater, was a blast.

Here's a picture of Jon and me doing some last-minute polishing, while the superb conductor Troy Peters looks on.

click the picture to enlarge

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

the choices of a translator

You only imagine that you have read the Bible, or Les Miserables, or Anna Karenina. In fact, you've read translations of all these things. (Unless you've read them in the original, in which case I apologize.)

The weird thing is to see how much one translation can differ from another. If you're translating a German novel, after all, you can say:

"Herr Kaufmann left his house and walked down Ulmstrasse to get his favorite wurst."


"Herr Kaufmann left his house and walked down Ulmstrasse to get his favorite sausage."


"Mr. Kaufmann left his house and walked down Ulmstrasse to get his favorite sausage."


"Mr. Kaufmann left his house and walked down Elm Street to get his favorite sausage."


"Mr. Sellers left his house and walked down Elm Street to get his favorite sausage."

At some point along the way, most of us would say "that's enough translation; any more would be entering into the realm of the absurd." Furthermore, when we read a German novel, we might want to get a taste of Germanness, and so we might actually prefer street names and food names that sound exotic — though it's likely that the original author never intended for the work to sound exotic to his or her readers.

You can sometimes tell, then, what kind of translation experience you're going to have when you look at the title of a work. Is it done by a details person? A sweeping popularizer? A modernist? A conservative?

Just think of Marcel Proust's most recognizable title: Á la Recherche du Temps Perdu. You know, the one that starts with him taking a whiff of a ... biscuit? madeleine? Which? No matter: in English there are two popular titles for it: In Search of Lost Time and Remembrance of Things Past.

Chew on that one for a moment: even before you open the book, you know which translator you're getting. "In Search of Lost Time" is a direct translation of the words. You can expect a meticulous word-for-word translation. "Remembrance of Things Past," on the other hand, is a quote from the opening lines of Shakespeare's thirtieth Sonnet: "When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past...." You can then expect a translation that translates ideas and images rather than just terms. "The little man in my eye" becomes "the apple of my eye," because the former term has no meaning for English speakers and the latter one is a common term. (The little man is, of course, the reflection of the beloved other, so close as to see a reflection in a pupil. "Pupil" itself comes from the Latin word for a little person, giving us, in a pun of grammar, our word for both schoolkids and the part of the eye that reflects the beloved in miniature.)

I was just reading an article by a person who mentioned the book, calling it by its "Remembrance" title, and I immediately knew more about the article's author.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

iocaine logic

Catherine and I were playing a card game of deceptive simplicity and maddening strategic depth. It's one of those things where you say, "Hm. She can win if she does A and I do B; but I'll win if she does C and I do D. But she knows that too, and she can guard against my one-upping her by super-one-upping me; but I know that too, and I can super-duper-one-up her. But she knows that too, and she can lowball, thus letting me win the hand but saving her power for the next hand. But I know that too, and I can lowball too. But if she figures I can lowball, she may one-up me...."

And on and on. This is what sociologist Erving Goffman called an "expression game." I usually call it iocaine logic. You recognize that term from the scene in The Princess Bride where Wallace Shawn shows his strategic power.
Man in Black: The battle of wits has begun. It ends when you decide and we both drink, and find out who is right... and who is dead.
Vizzini: But it's so simple. All I have to do is divine from what I know of you: are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own goblet or his enemy's? Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet, because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I am not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool. You would have counted on it. So I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.
Man in Black: You've made your decision then?
Vizzini: Not remotely. Because iocaine comes from Australia, as everyone knows, and Australia is entirely peopled with criminals, and criminals are used to having people not trust them, as you are not trusted by me, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you.
Man in Black: Truly, you have a dizzying intellect.
Vizzini: Wait til I get going! Now, where was I?
Man in Black: Australia.
Vizzini: Yes, Australia. And you must have suspected I would have known the powder's origin, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.
Man in Black: You're just stalling now.
Vizzini: You'd like to think that, wouldn't you? You've beaten my giant, which means you're exceptionally strong, so you could've put the poison in your own goblet, trusting on your strength to save you, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But, you've also bested my Spaniard, which means you must have studied, and in studying you must have learned that man is mortal, so you would have put the poison as far from yourself as possible, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.
Man in Black: You're trying to trick me into giving away something. It won't work.
Vizzini: It has worked! You've given everything away! I know where the poison is!

This kind of thinking stretches into a whole episode of Friends, in which only Joey knows that Chandler and Monica are secretly dating. Joey becomes the fulcrum of an escalating expression game between the couple and the other friends. Being a comedy, the episode obeys Aristotle's rules of comedy by ending with a (symbolic) marriage: all come clean, and Chandler professes his love to Monica before all witnesses. In spy fiction, which often follows the rules of tragedy, such things are more likely to end in death. In The Princess Bride, which is a farce, Vizzini's game ends in his own death, played farcically for laughs.

Peter Ustinoff put a great expression game (and displayed both the futility of expression games and the folly of military brass who use them instead of real strategy) in his play "Romanoff and Juliet." (It was also a delightful but evaporative movie in 1961, with Ustinoff and Sandra Dee.) The unnamed general of a small country reveals to the US that the Soviets have broken their code.
Moulsworth: (beaming) We know they know our code. We only give them things we want them to know.
General: (puzzles over this twisted logic, then crosses the street to the Russian Embassy)
General: (to Soviet Ambassador Romanoff) They know you know their code.
Romanov: We have known for some time that they knew we knew our code. We have acted accordingly — by pretending to be duped.
Romanov: (returning to the US Embassy) They know you know they know you know.
Moulsworth: WHAT! Are you sure?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

more more greta

Just because you can't get enough, here are more pictures of the delectable Greta Brake.

click on the picture to see more

Sunday, March 13, 2011

what you wish were true, what you think is true, what's true

What percentage of our country's wealth should be owned by the richest 20 percent of folks? How about the poorest? The middle ones? Ask a bunch of Americans what they think the ideal distribution of wealth should be, and you'll get a pretty uniform answer. Across boundaries, from rich and poor, most folks, proving that we're an equality-minded bunch who nonetheless believe that it's fair for the rich to have more and the poor less, will draw you something like this.

Then ask them what they think the actual distribution of wealth really is, and you'll get, once again, a pretty uniform answer, proving that we have an idea that things aren't quite as we might wish, that looks like this.

Now let's take a look at what it actually is.

Note that the bottom two categories, representing forty percent of America, don't even show up on the graph. (I added a darker bar to represent how much of that top category represents the top 1 percent.)

This is all from an interesting article that goes into some depth, with graph and analysis, on the subject. I don't agree with some of their "shoulds," explicit or implicit, but the raw numbers are there for you to see and interpret.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

"several," defined

What's the upper limit on your definition of "several?" Is 6 too many to be "several?" 4? 9?

I asked some friends, and got a really interesting discussion about how we perceive things.

Mallory's answer: "More than a few. Which is more than a couple. And there can never be too many in a several." So, does she then think "several" could mean 20? 100? I'm not convinced.

MPD says: "1= single, 2= couple, 3= few, ?= several and ?= many... 'Several' should be no less than 4 and upwards of 6. 'Several' of anything is not overwhelming like 'many.' 7 and beyond start falling into that category." Definitely a good start.

Greg points out that "it depends on what's being counted. Several beers or several blows to the head...."

Collyn, meanwhile, weighs in with a confident definition: several is 4-6.

Daniel defines it as being more than two but fewer than many; further, he says: "I think 6 is ok to be described as 'several.' I think anything more than 10 can be loads or I GUESS many." He also points out that you can JUST SAY the number. "I had many people over" vs "I had 10 people over?" — "it’s a single-syllable even number!" Hm. Good point. Daniel also gets credit for noting that “craploads” is an actual unit of measurement south of Kansas City.

Erin, like Collyn, is concrete-minded: she places the upper limit of "several" at 9. Mike Brannon agrees that it has to single digits: less than 10.

In my mind, "a couple" is 2. You say "they're such an interesting couple!" and you don't mean that they're a threesome. Though that would be interesting. In general, you say, "I filled up my gas tank only a couple of times in January," and you mean two or maybe three-but-you-can't-quite-put-your-finger-on-it. (Also, not being able to put your finger on it is a good rule for threesomes.)

I'll also agree with MPD that "a few" is pretty much 3. I'd never say "a few" to mean two. I'd possibly say "there were only a few people at the restaurant" when there were 5, but no more than that, and I think that's mainly because in a large restaurant 5 customers seems small. I'd say "she had a few drinks" and mean three or, maybe, four. But 3 is the main number in my mind when using "few."

For "several," I'll agree with Erin and Mike that single digits are the upper limit. Maybe, maybe 10. I'd never use it to mean upwards of 10. And I personally would never use it to mean anything lower than 5 or 6. The main number in my mind for "several" is 7, possibly because they sound similar.

If you say "there are several candies left in the bag," I'll picture anywhere from 6 to (maybe) 10. I would never picture 3. That's "a few." Maybe, maybe 5. If you say "there are several people in the restaurant," or "I filled up my gas tank several times last week," I'll always picture right around 7, and possibly 9 or 10, and maybe 6 or 5.

I've heard people use "several" to mean 3 or 4, which puzzles me. Just not right, is it?

MPD agreed with others that "real life usage makes a difference. If my assistant told me, 'The store buyers ordered quite a few styles, in many colors and would like several sizes,' this would be relative to the size of the store (boutique? chain store?) and of the collection as to what 'few,' 'several,' and 'many' could mean."

Rick, scientific mind that he has, breaks it down thus: "Single (1), couple or pair or brace (2), few (3), bunch or group (5), several (7), crowd (9), dozen (12). Many seems to have no upper limit." Brace! Extra points for brace!

One interesting thing about all this is that, historically, humans don't conceptualize numbers more than about 3 or 4 too well. Even in our advanced civilization, we have methods for making large numbers fall into small chunks so we can understand them.

Just about anywhere you go in the world, among primitive peoples, their numbering system is 1, 2, many; or possibly 1, 2, 3, many. That's it. They just don't count further than about 3. There's something hardwired in the human brain that makes that happen. We have all sorts of tools for expanding that, but those tools are like the ones we use for computers, which really, as you know, only understand two numbers, 0 and 1.

Take a look at our writing systems: China has a single line for "one," two lines for "two," three lines for "three," ... and a symbol for "four" and above. Suddenly the tallying has to become a concept rather than a visual number.

Same with Arabic numerals: a single line for "one," two lines rendered in a sort of cursive for "two," three cursive lines for "three," ... and a symbol for "four" and above.

Roman numerals are a bit more advanced, but basically the same: one line for "one," two lines for "two," three lines for "three," four lines for "four," ... and a symbol for "five" and above. (The use of "IV" for "four" doesn't show up until they appear on modern clocks.)

So, there's something going on there, right? There's some information we can use about the human brain, encoded into our very thoughts about numbers.