Ultima Thule

In ancient times the northernmost region of the habitable world - hence, any distant, unknown or mysterious land.

Monday, December 31, 2007

"Ring out the old, ring in the new, Ring, happy bells, across the snow; The year is going, let him go; Ring out the false, ring in the true."

"An accountant in India House in London for more than 30 years and caregiver for his sister Mary (who, in a fit of mania, had stabbed their mother to death), Charles Lamb (1775-1834) was one of the great masters of the English essay.
The most intimate of the early-19th-century essayists, Lamb relied on stylistic artifice ('whim-whams', as he referred to his antique diction and far-fetched comparisons) and a contrived persona known as 'Elia'. As George L. Barnett has observed, 'Lamb's egoism suggests more than Lamb's person: it awakens in the reader reflections of kindred feelings and affections' (Charles Lamb: The Evolution of Elia, 1964). In the essay 'New Year's Eve', which first appeared in the January 1821 issue of The London Magazine, Lamb reflects wistfully on the passage of time." -- Richard Nordquist.

(My title is from Tennyson's In Memoriam; the illustration, published in 1890, is an engraving of Tron Church, Edinburgh, on New Year's Eve.)


"New Year's Eve"
by Charles Lamb

Every man hath two birth-days: two days, at least, in every year, which set him upon revolving the lapse of time, as it affects his mortal duration.

The one is that which in an especial manner he termeth his. In the gradual desuetude of old observances, this custom of solemnizing our proper birth-day hath nearly passed away, or is left to children, who reflect nothing at all about the matter, nor understand any thing in it beyond cake and orange. But the birth of a New Year is of an interest too wide to be pretermitted by king or cobbler. No one ever regarded the First of January with indifference. It is that from which all date their time, and count upon what is left. It is the nativity of our common Adam.

Of all sounds of all bells--(bells, the music nighest bordering upon heaven)--most solemn and touching is the peal which rings out the Old Year. I never hear it without a gathering-up of my mind to a concentration of all the images that have been diffused over the past twelvemonth; all I have done or suffered, performed or neglected--in that regretted time. I begin to know its worth, as when a person dies. It takes a personal colour; nor was it a poetical flight in a contemporary, when he exclaimed

I saw the skirts of the departing Year.

It is no more than what in sober sadness every one of us seems to be conscious of, in that awful leave-taking. I am sure I felt it, and all felt it with me, last night; though some of my companions affected rather to manifest an exhilaration at the birth of the coming year, than any very tender regrets for the decease of its predecessor. But I am none of those who--

Welcome the coming, speed the parting guest.

I am naturally, beforehand, shy of novelties; new books, new faces, new years,--from some mental twist which makes it difficult in me to face the prospective. I have almost ceased to hope; and am sanguine only in the prospects of other (former) years. I plunge into foregone visions and conclusions. I encounter pell-mell with past disappointments. I am armour-proof against old discouragements. I forgive, or overcome in fancy, old adversaries. I play over again for love, as the gamesters phrase it, games, for which I once paid so dear. I would scarce now have any of those untoward accidents and events of my life reversed. I would no more alter them than the incidents of some well-contrived novel. Methinks, it is better that I should have pined away seven of my goldenest years, when I was thrall to the fair hair, and fairer eyes, of Alice W----n, than that so passionate a love-adventure should be lost. It was better that our family should have missed that legacy, which old Dorrell cheated us of, than that I should have at this moment two thousand pounds in banco, and be without the idea of that specious old rogue.

In a degree beneath manhood, it is my infirmity to look back upon those early days. Do I advance a paradox, when I say, that, skipping over the intervention of forty years, a man may have leave to love himself, without the imputation of self-love?

If I know aught of myself, no one whose mind is introspective--and mine is painfully so--can have a less respect for his present identity, than I have for the man Elia. I know him to be light, and vain, and humorsome; a notorious ***; addicted to ****: averse from counsel, neither taking it, nor offering it;--*** besides; a stammering buffoon; what you will; lay it on, and spare not; I subscribe to it all, and much more, than thou canst be willing to lay at his door--but for the child Elia--that "other me," there, in the back-ground--I must take leave to cherish the remembrance of that young master--with as little reference, I protest, to this stupid changeling of five-and-forty, as if it had been a child of some other house, and not of my parents. I can cry over its patient small-pox at five, and rougher medicaments. I can lay its poor fevered head upon the sick pillow at Christ's, and wake with it in surprise at the gentle posture of maternal tenderness hanging over it, that unknown had watched its sleep. I know how it shrank from any the least colour of falsehood.--God help thee, Elia, how art thou changed! Thou art sophisticated.--I know how honest, how courageous (for a weakling) it was--how religious, how imaginative, how hopeful! From what have I not fallen, if the child I remember was indeed myself,--and not some dissembling guardian, presenting a false identity, to give the rule to my unpractised steps, and regulate the tone of my moral being!

That I am fond of indulging, beyond a hope of sympathy, in such retrospection, may be the symptom of some sickly idiosyncrasy. Or is it owing to another cause; simply, that being without wife or family, I have not learned to project myself enough out of myself; and having no offspring of my own to dally with, I turn back upon memory and adopt my own early idea, as my heir and favourite? If these speculations seem fantastical to thee, reader--(a busy man, perchance), if I tread out of the way of thy sympathy, and am singularly-conceited only, I retire, impenetrable to ridicule, under the phantom cloud of Elia.

The elders, with whom I was brought up, were of a character not likely to let slip the sacred observance of any old institution; and the ringing out of the Old Year was kept by them with circumstances of peculiar ceremony.--In those days the sound of those midnight chimes, though it seemed to raise hilarity in all around me, never failed to bring a train of pensive imagery into my fancy. Yet I then scarce conceived what it meant, or thought of it as a reckoning that concerned me. Not childhood alone, but the young man till thirty, never feels practically that he is mortal. He knows it indeed, and, if need were, he could preach a homily on the fragility of life; but he brings it not home to himself, any more than in a hot June we can appropriate to our imagination the freezing days of December.

But now, shall I confess a truth?--I feel these audits but too powerfully. I begin to count the probabilities of my duration, and to grudge at the expenditure of moments and shortest periods, like miser's farthings. In proportion as the years both lessen and shorten, I set more count upon their periods, and would fain lay my ineffectual finger upon the spoke of the great wheel. I am not content to pass away "like a weaver's shuttle." Those metaphors solace me not, nor sweeten the unpalatable draught of mortality. I care not to be carried with the tide, that smoothly bears human life to eternity; and reluct at the inevitable course of destiny. I am in love with this green earth; the face of town and country; the unspeakable rural solitudes, and the sweet security of streets. I would set up my tabernacle here. I am content to stand still at the age to which I am arrived; I, and my friends: to be no younger, no richer, no handsomer. I do not want to be weaned by age; or drop, like mellow fruit, as they say, into the grave.--Any alteration, on this earth of mine, in diet or in lodging, puzzles and discomposes me. My household-gods plant a terrible fixed foot, and are not rooted up without blood. They do not willingly seek Lavinian shores. A new state of being staggers me.

Sun, and sky, and breeze, and solitary walks, and summer holidays, and the greenness of fields, and the delicious juices of meats and fishes, and society, and the cheerful glass, and candle-light, and fire-side conversations, and innocent vanities, and jests, and irony itself--do these things go out with life?

Can a ghost laugh, or shake his gaunt sides, when you are pleasant with him?

And you, my midnight darlings, my Folios! must I part with the intense delight of having you (huge armfuls) in my embraces? Must knowledge come to me, if it come at all, by some awkward experiment of intuition, and no longer by this familiar process of reading?

Shall I enjoy friendships there, wanting the smiling indications which point me to them here,--the recognisable face--the "sweet assurance of a look"--?

In winter this intolerable disinclination to dying--to give it its mildest name--does more especially haunt and beset me. In a genial August noon, beneath a sweltering sky, death is almost problematic. At those times do such poor snakes as myself enjoy an immortality. Then we expand and burgeon. Then are we as strong again, as valiant again, as wise again, and a great deal taller. The blast that nips and shrinks me, puts me in thoughts of death. All things allied to the insubstantial, wait upon that master feeling; cold, numbness, dreams, perplexity; moonlight itself, with its shadowy and spectral appearances,--that cold ghost of the sun, or Phoebus' sickly sister, like that innutritious one denounced in the Canticles:--I am none of her minions--I hold with the Persian.

Whatsoever thwarts, or puts me out of my way, brings death into my mind. All partial evils, like humours, run into that capital plague-sore.--I have heard some profess an indifference to life. Such hail the end of their existence as a port of refuge; and speak of the grave as of some soft arms, in which they may slumber as on a pillow. Some have wooed death--but out upon thee, I say, thou foul, ugly phantom! I detest, abhor, execrate, and (with Friar John) give thee to six-score thousand devils, as in no instance to be excused or tolerated, but shunned as a universal viper; to be branded, proscribed, and spoken evil of! In no way can I be brought to digest thee, thou thin, melancholy Privation, or more frightful and confounding Positive!

Those antidotes, prescribed against the fear of thee, are altogether frigid and insulting, like thyself. For what satisfaction hath a man, that he shall "lie down with kings and emperors in death," who in his life-time never greatly coveted the society of such bed-fellows?--or, forsooth, that "so shall the fairest face appear?"--why, to comfort me, must Alice W----n be a goblin? More than all, I conceive disgust at those impertinent and misbecoming familiarities, inscribed upon your ordinary tombstones. Every dead man must take upon himself to be lecturing me with his odious truism, that "such as he now is, I must shortly be." Not so shortly, friend, perhaps, as thou imaginest. In the meantime I am alive. I move about. I am worth twenty of thee. Know thy betters! Thy New Years' Days are past. I survive, a jolly candidate for 1821. Another cup of wine--and while that turn-coat bell, that just now mournfully chanted the obsequies of 1820 departed, with changed notes lustily rings in a successor, let us attune to its peal the song made on a like occasion, by hearty, cheerful Mr. Cotton.--


Hark, the cock crows, and yon bright star
Tells us, the day himself's not far;
And see where, breaking from the night,
He gilds the western hills with light.
With him old Janus doth appear,
Peeping into the future year,
With such a look as seems to say,
The prospect is not good that way.
Thus do we rise ill sights to see,
And 'gainst ourselves to prophesy;
When the prophetic fear of things
A more tormenting mischief brings,
More full of soul-tormenting gall,
Than direst mischiefs can befall.
But stay! but stay! methinks my sight,
Better inform'd by clearer light,
Discerns sereneness in that brow,
That all contracted seem'd but now.
His revers'd face may show distaste,
And frown upon the ills are past;
But that which this way looks is clear,
And smiles upon the New-born Year.
He looks too from a place so high,
The Year lies open to his eye;
And all the moments open are
To the exact discoverer.
Yet more and more he smiles upon
The happy revolution.
Why should we then suspect or fear
The influences of a year,
So smiles upon us the first morn,
And speaks us good so soon as born?
Plague on't! the last was ill enough,
This cannot but make better proof;
Or, at the worst, as we brush'd through
The last, why so we may this too;
And then the next in reason shou'd
Be superexcellently good:
For the worst ills (we daily see)
Have no more perpetuity,
Than the best fortunes that do fall;
Which also bring us wherewithal
Longer their being to support,
Than those do of the other sort:
And who has one good year in three,
And yet repines at destiny,
Appears ungrateful in the case,
And merits not the good he has.
Then let us welcome the New Guest
With lusty brimmers of the best;
Mirth always should Good Fortune meet,
And renders e'en Disaster sweet:
And though the Princess turn her back,
Let us but line ourselves with sack,
We better shall by far hold out,
Till the next Year she face about.

How say you, reader--do not these verses smack of the rough magnanimity of the old English vein? Do they not fortify like a cordial; enlarging the heart, and productive of sweet blood, and generous spirits, in the concoction? Where be those puling fears of death, just now expressed or affected?--Passed like a cloud--absorbed in the purging sunlight of clear poetry--clean washed away by a wave of genuine Helicon, your only Spa for these hypochondries--And now another cup of the generous! and a merry New Year, and many of them, to you all, my masters!


Sunday, December 16, 2007

"Music, the greatest good that mortals know, And all of heaven we have below."

The immortal Beethoven was born on this day in 1770, 237 long years ago. There is, however, some dispute as to the exact day. According to Wikipedia: Beethoven's date of birth—usually given as December 16—is not known with certainty, but is inferred from circumstantial evidence. Well into adulthood, Beethoven believed he had been born in 1772, and told friends the 1770 baptism was of his older brother Ludwig Maria, who died in infancy; but Ludwig Maria's baptism is recorded as taking place in 1769. Some biographers assert that his father falsified his date of birth in an attempt to pass him off as a child prodigy like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but this is disputed. Children of that era were usually baptized the day after birth, but there is no documentary evidence that this occurred in Beethoven's case. It is known that his family and his teacher Johann Albrechtsberger celebrated his birthday on 16 December. While the evidence supports the probability that 16 December 1770, was Beethoven's date of birth, this cannot be stated with certainty.

What is not in dispute is the magnitude of his genius and the ineffable beauty of his music. Here is Leonard Bernstein, in his The Joy of Music, on one aspect of that music:

Many, many composers have been able to write heavenly tunes and respectable fugues. Some composers can orchestrate the C-major scale so that it sounds like a masterpiece, or fool with notes so that a harmonic novelty is achieved. But this is all mere dust—nothing compared to the magic ingredient sought by them all: the inexplicable ability to know what the next note has to be. Beethoven had this gift in a degree that leaves them all panting in the rear guard.

Beethoven broke all the rules, and turned out pieces of breath-taking rightness. Rightness—that's the word! When you get the feeling that whatever note succeeds the last is the only possible note that can rightly happen at that instant, in that context, then chances are you're listening to Beethoven. Melodies, fugues, rhythms—leave them to the Chaikovskys and Hindemiths and Ravels. Our boy has the real goods, the stuff from Heaven, the power to make you feel at the finish: Something is right in the world. There is something that checks throughout, that follows its own law consistently: something we can trust, that will never let us down.

(My title is from Joseph Addison's Song for St. Cecilia's Day; the piano illustrated is Beethoven's; the top piece of music is part of his manuscript for his sonata for piano and cello, Op. 69; the bottom is part of his manuscript for the supremely beautiful Op. 111, Beethoven's last piano sonata.)


Friday, December 14, 2007

"A profusion of pink roses bending ragged in the rain speaks to me of all gentleness and its enduring."

WHEN daisies pied and violets blue,
And lady-smocks all silver-white,
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue
Do paint the meadows with delight,

I found these unbelievably beautiful photographs in the July 31, 2007 issue of the Daily Mail. From the article:

"It's incredible what you can find in an ordinary garden if you look closely enough.
Amateur photographer Brian Valentine specialises in making the everyday look exotic with the wonders of macro photography, using special lens to magnify his subjects."

By the way, the title of this post is from William Carlos Williams, and the verse quoted above, from Loves's Labours Lost, concludes with this warning:

The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men; for thus sings he,
Cuckoo, cuckoo!—O word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear!


A drop of magic: Amazing pictures of flowers captured in a drop of rain | the Daily Mail

Thursday, December 13, 2007

"The imperial ensign, which, full high advanced, Shone like a meteor, streaming to the wind"

Today is the 200th anniversary of the first recorded meteorite fall in America, in Weston, Conn. Below is an article about this famous incident
from the December 13th edition of The Christian Science Monitor .

The top illustration is a rather fanciful depiction of the meteorite fall from a contemporaneous broadside; the bottom illustration is a photograph of the actual meteorite. If you are interested in buying pieces of meteorites, I found a website for you: Michael Blood Meteorites.

Meteors are rarely mentioned in poetry; my title is from Milton's Paradise Lost.

First recorded U.S. meteorite blazes back for bicentennial | csmonitor.com

from the December 13, 2007 edition

First recorded U.S. meteorite blazes back for bicentennial --
Connecticut towns celebrate a 'thunder stone' of significance

By Cathryn J. Prince, Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
Weston, Conn.

Darkness clung to the early morning sky on Dec. 14, 1807, as Judge Nathan Wheeler started out on his morning constitutional along a country road near here. Suddenly the heavens exploded as a fireball raced across the horizon – whizzing sounds and three sonic booms cracked the quiet as rock rained down.

Judge Wheeler ran back to his home, and, for a brief moment, thought Armageddon had arrived.

At the same time, 30 miles down the road, Isaac Bronson, a former field surgeon in the American Revolution, dozed in a speeding stagecoach. Suddenly the cab rattled and shook, and the inside lit up like daylight. Nearby houses shuddered.

Dr. Bronson urged the terrified driver to continue, even though he, too, feared the end of the world was nigh. He'd seen horrible things on the battlefield, but nothing had prepared him for this.

Both learned men, Wheeler and Bronson were sought by journalists and scientists for testimony of the event. According to their accounts, the two were positively stumped about what had zoomed before their – and much of New England's – eyes.

Though scientific understanding of what happened would not jell for decades, the awesome event is considered a scientific turning point: It was the first recorded meteorite fall in America.

What became known as the "Weston Fall" was the last in "a triumvirate of well-documented and analyzed falls that conclusively swayed acceptance of their extraterrestrial origin," says Richard Binzel, chairman of planetary sciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (Preceding Weston were falls in Wold Cottage, England, in 1795 and L'Aigle, France, in 1803.)

The bicentennial is being commemorated here Dec. 14. At 6 a.m., history buffs, space enthusiasts, and interested locals will gather with the historical societies of Weston and nearby Easton (the actual ground zero spot) to bury a time capsule containing the history of scientific knowledge gained since the sonic boom shook the towns. In this way a forgotten piece of history is being reintroduced to this bucolic town. A panel of scientists from the likes of MIT and Yale University – who are still parsing the significance of the Fall – is planned. Local students are writing essays on the scientific strides since the Fall; and throughout the year schools are incorporating meteor-themed science, math, and language arts in the curriculum.

• • •

The way news of the Weston Fall ricocheted around the young nation offers telling – if quaint – hindsight, considering today's great scientific speculations about asteroids hitting the earth.

Upon hearing of the Weston Fall, President Thomas Jefferson was rumored to have said: "I would more easily believe that two Yankee professors would lie than that stones would fall from heaven." Although no evidence exists that he uttered those words, "It typifies the thinking of the day," Dr. Binzel says. "It was the turn of the century and it was a turning point in understanding meteorites. Until then, meteorites were thought to be a weather phenomenon. Another name for them was actually thunder stones."

Indeed, most people scoffed at the notion that meteorites came from outer space – a belief not far removed from those held as long as three centuries earlier in Europe. Accounts from 1492 detail a meteorite falling on Eisenheim, Germany. Locals hauled it into a church where they kept it chained, lest it fly away.

"I can't stop thinking about Chicken Little," says Judy Albin, a trustee of the Weston Historical Society and co-chair of the meteorite committee. "The sky was falling; it must have been an absolutely amazing, incredible, frightening thing."

Certainly Mrs. Gardner of Wrentham, Mass. was concerned over the Weston Fall. Heeding Benjamin Franklin's advice, she rose before sun-up to log her daily weather observation. Peering out her window, she saw a fiery orb race through the sky. The sphere, which looked about half the size of the full moon to her, was traveling south between 40,000 and 50,000 m.p.h. before it entered the atmosphere. She wondered, according to her account in a local newspaper, "Where was the moon going to?"

The Weston Fall faded from local historic markers as well as the national conscience. But it has staying power in the scientific community, which continues to study the meteorite, a 26-pound chunk of which sits on a lighted pedestal at Yale's Peabody Museum. (Scattered magnetized shards of it remain in the backyards of local residents.)

"The grains, the seeds, of the solar system are inside meteorites," says Dr. Karl Turekian, a Peabody curator and professor of geology and geophysics at Yale. "Weston retains some of these seeds and so that's important. If we didn't have meteorites we wouldn't know what the Earth was made of or how old it is."

While the meteorite's importance wasn't fully understood in 1807, certainly many divined a significance in the event and the debris it left.

When farmer Elijah Seeley went to check on his cattle he found them in a neighboring pasture. The terrified bovines had jumped a wall. Seeley called his wife, and they began carting away pieces of the still warm meteorite. These black-crusted stones differed from the usual crop of rocks otherwise known as New England potatoes.

Upon reaching Weston that cold morning, Bronson sent word to Yale about the otherworldly event. The university dispatched Benjamin Silliman and James Kingsley to interview witnesses. When they interviewed Wheeler they decided that because he wasn't "influenced by fear or imagination" his word could be trusted.

But when they visited the home of William Prince, they were just plain disgusted. Clearly the Prince family (no relation to this reporter) didn't believe the early bird caught the worm. They barely noticed the explosions, according to Silliman's 1807 report published in The Connecticut Herald. "Not even a fresh hole made through the turf ... about twenty-five feet from the house, led to any conception of the cause, or induce any other enquiry than why a new post hole should have been dug where there was no use for it," according to Silliman's.

When the Princes finally checked the hole, they found a "noble specimen," wrote Silliman.

Aside from interviews, Silliman collected as many stones as possible to study. And a tug of war erupted between locals and the Yale professors for pieces of the meteorite.

But today Yale, Weston, and Easton are cooperating quite nicely – without the help of a planetary Dr. Phil to celebrate this little big bang.

Copyright © 2007 The Christian Science Monitor. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

"Can such things be, And overcome us like a summer's cloud, Without our special wonder?"

I found this beautiful photograph of an immense cumulonimbus on a fascinating website, The Cloud Appreciation Society. It was taken by © Karen Titchener in Lusk, Wyoming. (My title is from Anthony and Cleopatra.)


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

"Sweet compulsion doth in music lie"

Today had almost slipped by me when my daily email from Composers Datebook arrived, and I read the following note:

"[Today we celebrate the birthday] of the great 19th century Italian opera composer, Giuseppe Verdi, whose mother had told him he was born on October 9th. Like a good son, Verdi always celebrated that day -- even when he later learned that a church registry proved the date was actually October 10th.

"Verdi was born in Parma in 1813 at a time when that part of Italy was under French rule. And so, Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi was registered at birth as Joseph Fortunin François Verdi. His parent were dirt poor, but when Verdi died at the age of 87 in 1901, he was the most famous Italian of his time and his funeral was a state event involving thousands."

Today would therefore be a good time to send Verdi lovers to two long and passionate essays that Helen posted last year about her beloved Verdi, and that I reposted earlier this year: the first one, Musings on Verdi's Requiem, on February 8th; and the second one, Further thoughts on Verdi's Requiem, on February 18th.


Sunday, October 07, 2007

"How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank."

“How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank.
Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears; soft stillness, and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.” -- The Merchant of Venice

I doubt that even Shakespeare could have imagined a more magically beautiful scene than this! It accompanied Aussiegirl's September 29, 2006 post, which I have pasted in below. Rarely have I seen a more evocative photograph -- so I decided it deserved one more showing,


Feeling blue? Maybe it's the moonlight!

By Aussiegirl

Moonlight becomes you -- or does it? Maybe the lyricist enjoyed seeing his beloved bathed in a blue haze? Her lipstick probably looked blue too. Read on about the mysterious properties of moonlight.

NASA - Strange Moonlight

Sept. 28, 2006: Not so long ago, before electric lights, farmers relied on moonlight to harvest autumn crops. With everything ripening at once, there was too much work to to do to stop at sundown. A bright full moon—a "Harvest Moon"—allowed work to continue into the night.

The moonlight was welcome, but as any farmer could tell you, it was strange stuff. How so? See for yourself. The Harvest Moon of 2006 rises on October 6th, and if you pay attention, you may notice a few puzzling things:

1. Moonlight steals color from whatever it touches. Regard a rose. In full moonlight, the flower is brightly lit and even casts a shadow, but the red is gone, replaced by shades of gray. In fact, the whole landscape is that way. It's a bit like seeing the world through an old black and white TV set.

"Moon gardens" turn this 1950s-quality of moonlight to advantage. White or silver flowers that bloom at night are both fragrant and vivid beneath a full moon. Favorites include Four-O'clocks, Moonflower Vines, Angel's Trumpets—but seldom red roses.

2. If you stare at the gray landscape long enough, it turns blue. The best place to see this effect, called the "blueshift" or "Purkinje shift" after the 19th century scientist Johannes Purkinje who first described it, is in the countryside far from artificial lights. As your eyes become maximally dark adapted, the blue appears. Film producers often put a blue filter over the lens when filming night scenes to create a more natural feel, and artists add blue to paintings of nightscapes for the same reason. Yet if you look up at the full moon, it is certainly not blue. (Note: Fine ash from volcanoes or forest fires can turn moons blue, but that's another story.)

3. Moonlight won't let you read. Open a book beneath the full moon. At first glance, the page seems bright enough. Yet when you try to make out the words, you can't. Moreover, if you stare too long at a word it might fade away. Moonlight not only blurs your vision but also makes a little blind spot. (Another note: As with all things human, there are exceptions. Some people have extra-sensitive cones or an extra helping of rods that do allow them to read in the brightest moonlight.)

This is all very strange. Moonlight, remember, is no more exotic than sunlight reflected from the dusty surface of the moon. The only difference is intensity: Moonlight is about 400,000 times fainter than direct sunlight.

So what do we make of it all? The answer lies in the eye of the beholder. The human retina is responsible.

The retina is like an organic digital camera with two kinds of pixels: rods and cones. Cones allow us to see colors (red roses) and fine details (words in a book), but they only work in bright light. After sunset, the rods take over.

Rods are marvelously sensitive (1000 times more so than cones) and are responsible for our night vision. According to some reports, rods can detect as little as a single photon of light! There's only one drawback: rods are colorblind. Roses at night thus appear gray.

If rods are so sensitive, why can't we use them to read by moonlight? The problem is, rods are almost completely absent from a central patch of retina called the fovea, which the brain uses for reading. The fovea is densely packed with cones, so we can read during the day. At night, however, the fovea becomes a blind spot. The remaining peripheral vision isn't sharp enough to make out individual letters and words.

Finally, we come to the blueshift. Consider this passage from a 2004 issue of the Journal of Vision:

"It should be noted that the perception of blue color or any color for that matter in a purely moonlit environment is surprising, considering that the light intensity is below the detection threshold for cone cells. Therefore if the cones are not being stimulated how do we perceive the blueness?" --"Modeling Blueshift in Moonlit Scenes using Rod-Cone Interaction" by Saad M. Khan and Sumanta N. Pattanaik, University of Central Florida.

The authors of the study went on to propose a bio-electrical explanation--that signals from rods can spill into adjacent blue-sensitive cones under conditions of full-moon illumination (see the diagram, right). This would create an illusion of blue. "Unfortunately," they point out, "direct physiological evidence to support or negate the hypothesis is not yet available."

So there are still some mysteries in the moonlight. Look for them on Oct. 6th under the Harvest Moon.

Caveat Lunar: This story makes some generalizations about what people can see at night but, as with all things human, there are exceptions: Some people can read by moonlight; others have no trouble seeing the red petals of a moonlit rose. These people have "moonvision," boosted by an extra-helping of rods or unusually sensitive cones. Are you one of them?

Saturday, October 06, 2007

"The Book of Life begins with a man and a woman in a garden. It ends with Revelations."

Oscar Wilde seems to have been one of history's great conversationalists. In The Epigrams of Oscar Wilde, an anthology by Alvin Redman, we find a fascinating example of the rarefied heights that his conversation could reach. The following quotation is from page 22 of this book. (The title of this post is of course another fine example of Wilde's wit.)


"Few remain of those who heard his talk, but his many biographers are unanimous in acclaiming Wilde as the supreme conversationalist. The descriptions are many and varied, and Wilde himself, in the character of Lord Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray, has left a most apt description, by example, of his conversation. He describes Lord Wotton's talk in the following short extract:

'He played with the idea, grew wilful; tossed it into the air and tranformed it; let it escape and recaptured it; made it iridescent with fancy, and winged it with paradox. The praise of folly, as he went on, soared into a philosophy, and Philosophy herself became young, and catching the mad music of Pleasure wearing, one might fancy, her wine-stained robe and wreath of ivy, danced like a Bacchante over the hills of Life, and mocked the slow Silenus for being sober. Facts spread before her like frightened forest things. Her white feet trod the huge press at which the wise Omar sits, till the seething grape-juice rose round her bare limbs in waves of purple bubbles, or crawled in red foam over the vat's black, dripping, sloping sides. It was an extraordinary improvisation.'
"This was Wilde himself, buoyantly guiding the narrative through many bright bejewelled caverns until he reached the daylight of his story, and then smilingly turning back to find new adventures for his words."

Friday, October 05, 2007

"I am as vigilant as a cat to steal cream"

Looking through a collection of clippings I had saved, I came across this article from 1994; it may have been from the New York Times. At any rate, the author, whose name is not given, is obviously a very keen observer of cats, and writes wittily as well as lovingly of these wonderful creatures. (My quote is from Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1, and belongs to that irrepressibly charming rogue, Falstaff.)


Strategy on four paws

The first thing you should know about strategic thinking in cats is this: Sometimes cats don't think strategically.

Sometimes cats just fall deeply asleep and have no idea of what is going on around them. Mongol cat-eating hordes could be laying waste the countryside; a cat would not be aware.

I have one cat who sleeps on her back with her paws up in the air. All she needs are little X's on her eyes and a lily between her paws, and she could become a cartoon dead cat. She is not, at these moments, thinking strategically.

But many times she is.

One concept familiar to strategically oriented cats is the lap as redoubt or watchtower. The cat will leap into the lap of the homeowner, apparently to have a nice snuggle and general all-around stroke event. That is her "cover story", as we say in cat-strategy circles.

Actually, she is waiting for her enemies. She is uniquely sensitive to all the entrances to the room. She has selected one particular doorway as the most likely direction from which her enemies might emerge. She stares fixedly at that doorway, ears alert, eyes wide.

Suppose the homeowner were to stroke the cat at that moment. Foolish, foolish homeowner. The homeowner, in this instance, is merely high ground--his job is to remain motionless and carry on with whatever sedentary activity he was pursuing before the cat arrived.

In this scenario, the homeowner is the peaceful villager going about his agrarian lifestyle. The cat is the samurai, protecting the village from marauders. And you don't pet a samurai. Get a clue!

Like all warriors, cats get restless in the absence of real enemies. A cat patrols its territory for weeks on end, ceaselessly on guard against all predators, also ceaselessly searching for living sources of food--your very dumb birds, your very slow mice--and yet finding nothing of interest.

A cat will hide in the shrubbery or position itself behind potted plants. A cat will select the top of a fence or a crockery cabinet and stare through slitted eyes at the landscape below. Ever alert to the slightest sound, the slightest change in air pressure, the slightest flicker of shadow, it will remain true to its sacred duty unless there's new food in the bowl or something.

And yet, nothing comes. A cat gets a little paranoid at times like that. All that watchfulness and no enemies--perhaps there is a larger plot to confound it. That's it, a conspiracy to devalue its function and make its mission in life meaningless. And the conspiracy is obviously being masterminded by--that thin strip of plastic!

Pounce! Slash! Disembowel! Dash about meaningfully! Hurl yourself on your back as though in the final stages of a death struggle! Leap up! Attack! Stand still! Wash!

It's a display designed to strike fear into the hearts of all who see it. It's the slaughter demo, a key ingredient in the strategic thinking of cats.

Sometimes a cat will be taking just a little nap and suddenly a suspicious sound will arouse it. It will gaze frantically about like a police constable arriving too late at an accident. "Now then, what's all this?" it will seem to say, in the bogus British accent it employs on these sad occasions.

Then it will assume control. It will patrol the perimeters of its territory. Sometimes it will get down on its belly and inch slowly through a particularly dicey bit of landscape. Once again, the craven enemy has fled; once again, peace has returned to the valley.

Ostentatiously, the cat goes to a prominent place, lies down gracefully, and arranges itself in a perfect circle.

The unwary might think that it was resting and unvigilant. But its eyes move and its tail lashes; it is setting a trap.

But soon it is time for a nap again.

Hamsters on Viagra take center stage at Ig Nobel awards

In addition to overcoming jet lag, it looks like Viagra can also help a hamster with its golf swing.

Hamsters on Viagra take center stage at Ig Nobel awards

Scientists who discovered that Viagra helps hamsters overcome jet lag and a Japanese researcher who extracted vanilla favoring from cow dung won top honors Thursday at the 17th annual Ig Nobel Awards.

The Igs, as they are known, are chosen by the Annals of Improbable Research magazine to highlight scientific achievements that, in the words of editor Marc Abrahams, "first make people laugh and then make them think."

Among the winners were a British-US duo for a penetrating report on the effects of sword swallowing and a Spain-based team who answered the question of whether rats can discriminate between Japanese and Dutch spoken backwards.

"It was a surprise, it was the last thing we expected," said Nuria Sebastian-Galles, one of the Barcelona team of scientists, of the findings. The awards, she said, "bring out the freak inside most scientists."

Seven of the 10 winners this year paid their own way to accept the awards, which were handed out by six real Nobel Prize laureates.

Although pelted by paper airplanes, as per tradition, each winner expressed delight at receiving the small trophies affixed with a chicken and an egg.

Asked why chickens were chosen as this year's theme, master of ceremonies Abrahams looked astonished and said only: "How could you not?"

Some scientists have complained that the satirical awards unfairly tarnish legitimate research. Others say a sense of fun humanizes scientists.

"I don't take it as an insult at all," said Brian Witcome, a British radiologist who won the medicine prize for his sword-swallowing research.

"Humor adds to research," he said. His co-author, US scientist Dan Meyer even gulped down a short sword before thanking the whooping crowd with the hilt between his teeth.

Past winners who showed up included the creator of the pink plastic flamingo, the inventor of a hiding alarm clock and a researcher who reported the first known case of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard duck.

"To the best of my knowledge, this behavior has not been observed in chickens," Dutchman Kees Moeliker deadpanned.

Research highlighted by this year's awards ranged from a study of how sheets wrinkle and how the word "the" causes headaches for indexes, to why humans can't stop eating when presented with an apparently endless bowl of soup.

Some winners tried to explain their research but if they talked for more than 60 seconds they were interrupted by an eight-year-old girl who repeatedly intoned, "Please stop, I'm bored."

Nonetheless, Dutch scientist Johanna van Bronswijk managed to describe why she is doing a census of the mites, insects, spiders and other creatures with which humans share their bed. "I found that you never sleep alone," she said.

Diego Golombek, the Argentine who found the cure for hamster jet lag, thanked his assistants "for going to the store to get the Viagra for us."

Also honored was a Taiwanese man who patented a device to net bank robbers, but who could not attend the ceremony because he has apparently vanished.

"Someone in Taiwan suggested the man is trapped inside his machine and is there to this day," Abrahams said.

The highly-coveted peace prize was given to a US Air Force laboratory for researching what the committee dubbed the "gay bomb" -- a chemical weapon that would make enemy soldiers become sexually irresistible to each other.

No one showed up to collect the award but a disco ball dropped over the stage and Abrahams said the bomb would be demonstrated before an official censor of the evening's activities intervened.

Japanese researcher Mayu Yamamoto, who received the chemistry Ig for her work extracting vanilla flavor from cow dung, got an additional honor: a local ice cream shop created a new flavor, the "Yum-a-Moto Vanilla Twist," in her honor.

Yamamoto said she first learned of her award by email and thought it was a joke but decided to go to the ceremony because "I want everyone to know about my research."

As if further levity were needed, the ceremony was punctuated with goofy "Moments of Science" and a contest to win a date with a Nobel laureate billed with the slogan: "He's shapely, he's sassy and he's smarter than you."

© 2007 AFP

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Scientist invents computer pillow to stop snoring

Our life is twofold; Sleep hath its own world,
A boundary between the things misnamed
Death and existence: Sleep hath its own world,
And a wide realm of wild reality,
And dreams in their development have breath,
And tears, and tortures, and the touch of joy;
They leave a weight upon our waking thoughts,
They take a weight from off waking toils,
They do divide our being; they become
A portion of ourselves as of our time,
And look like heralds of eternity;
They pass like spirits of the past—they speak
Like sibyls of the future; they have power—
The tyranny of pleasure and of pain;
They make us what we were not—what they will,
And shake us with the vision that’s gone by,
The dread of vanished shadows—Are they so?
Is not the past all shadow?—What are they?
Creations of the mind?—The mind can make
Substances, and people planets of its own
With beings brighter than have been, and give
A breath to forms which can outlive all flesh.

This beautiful passage is from the beginning of Byron's long poem, The Dream. It's not clear just how we might find out what this peaceful cat is dreaming about, but I think it is clear that cats, able to sleep just about anywhere, will never have need of such a pillow.


October 03, 2007

BERLIN (Reuters) - A German scientist has come up with a solution for snoring -- a computerized pillow that shifts the head's sleeping position until the noise stops.

Daryoush Bazargani, professor of computer science at the University of Rostock and the pillow's inventor, was displaying a prototype of his pillow at a health conference in Germany on Wednesday.

"The pillow is attached to a computer, which is the size of a book, rests on a bedside table, and analyses snoring noises," Bazargani told Reuters.

"The computer then reduces or enlarges air compartments within the pillow to facilitate nasal airflow to minimize snoring as the user shifts during sleep," he said.

The ergonomic pillow can also be used for neck massages.

Bazargani said several U.S. firms were interested in manufacturing the pillow.

"I invented it because I snore," he said. "I tried all sorts of products, but nothing worked. I hope people who use it will sleep more peacefully."

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

"A cat may looke on a King"

I first found this striking photograph of what appears to be a staring contest between a cat and a goldfish -- then I decided to post Gray's fine poem to accompany it.


Thomas Gray (1716-1771)

Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes

'Twas on a lofty vase's side,
Where China's gayest art had dy'd
The azure flow'rs that blow;
Demurest of the tabby kind,
The pensive Selima, reclin'd,
Gazed on the lake below.

Her conscious tail her joy declar'd;
The fair round face, the snowy beard,
The velvet of her paws,
Her coat, that with the tortoise vies,
Her ears of jet, and emerald eyes,
She saw: and purr'd applause.

Still had she gaz'd; but 'midst the tide
Two angel forms were seen to glide,
The Genii of the stream;
Their scaly armour's Tyrian hue
Thro' richest purple to the view
Betray'd a golden gleam.

The hapless Nymph with wonder saw:
A whisker first and then a claw,
With many an ardent wish,
She stretch'd in vain to reach the prize.
What female heart can gold despise?
What cat's averse to fish?

Presumptuous Maid! with looks intent
Again she stretch'd, again she bent,
Nor knew the gulf between.
(Malignant Fate sat by, and smil'd)
The slipp'ry verge her feet beguil'd,
She tumbled headlong in.

Eight times emerging from the flood
She mew'd to ev'ry wat'ry god,
Some speedy aid to send.
No Dolphin came, no Nereid stirr'd;
Nor cruel Tom, nor Susan heard.
A Fav'rite has no friend!

From hence, ye Beauties, undeceiv'd,
Know, one false step is ne'er retriev'd,
And be with caution bold.
Not all that tempts your wand'ring eyes
And heedless hearts is lawful prize,
Nor all, that glisters, gold.

The Triune God of Christianity

This is a long essay that Helen wrote last November as an email to an internet friend.


[By Aussiegirl]

There is an aspect of Buddhism and Hinduism that speaks to
the mystical truths and certainly their techniques of meditation are
quite sophisticated. But I think that true universal Christianity comes
closest to expressing the ideal relationship of man to God. However,
there are charlatans in Christianity, and the various sects get
overinvolved in their dogmatic arguments with one another. If you get
back to the very basic message that Christ brought -- that the kingdom
of God is within you -- and that you are one with the Father -- in other
words -- you and God are made of the same stuff -- if you recognize that
indwelling God spirit and commune with it -- if you come to an awareness of
love for your fellow man as a reflection of God's love for his creation,
you understand that it is only through the love of one person to another
that the glory of the Creator and his love can be expressed. Then the
cycle is complete. In addition, I've learned a great deal from the true
Jewish Kaballah -- this is my distillation of what I've read. In the
beginning there was a Prime Creative Force in the universe -- we cannot
imagine what it was because we are too limited in our minds -- this
great creative energy -- a great Wisdom -- a great Thought -- for some
reason decided to make itself manifest in a physical universe -- hence
the Big Bang. In doing so he made Himself manifest in the world through
his creation -- he does not stand outside it -- he is immanent
throughout what we see (which is in reality an illusion -- there the
Hindus and Buddhists have it right -- quantum physics points to that
very idea when we realize that there is a curious necessity for an
observer to collapse the wave function into the quantum function that we
can then measure). As such, you and I, and everyone in the world -- and
everything in the world are not just made of stardust, but we are like
shards of the shattered glass of God's creation. And in this creation
is life -- and man -- who is possessed of the same God spirit as the
creator -- and who has the power to rise above his physical being and to
recognize his spiritual origins, recognize that he was once part of a
great whole -- a great unity. That is why we feel an existential
loneliness, I believe, even in the midst of happy company. We know deep
down that we have been cleaved off some great Unity -- and when we have
those transcendant moments when our soul and our spirit merges with all
creation and we feel "at one" -- then that is one of the greatest
religious experiences we can have. We recognize our unity with all
creation, and that is why we cannot kill, nor hate nor destroy --
because it would be like destroying your own house, or your own family.
Of course on a day to day level we cannot live this way, but we have
this realization always at the core of our being. For years I thought
little of the "Father, Son and Holy Ghost" aspect of Christianity -- I
said the words and crossed myself in church and said my prayers.
Many people seek Islam because they find the idea of a unitary God who
is like a stern master to be more understandable than a Triune God.
Now, if the Church fathers were interested in making a religion that
would appeal to all Gentiles (Christ came to bring the true spirit of the teaching of the Jewish God to all mankind), they would not have invented such a difficult concept as the Triune God.

Well, this is my conception -- purely my own but based on much reading
of Orthodox theology and quantum physics (it's amazing to me how
congruent science and religion truly are). God the Father -- is the
Great Wisdom that existed prior to the Big Bang -- and expressed himself
in the great explosion of creation -- but that is not enough -- a God
that creates a plaything and then sits outside his creation is nothing
more than a little despot who builds an ant farm and watches the little
ants scurrying about. No -- this God IS his creation. And for some
reason God saw fit to create life -- and man -- perhaps because in our
primitive understanding -- how else could he appreciate his creation
without also taking part in it in a physical way. And in order to fully
comprehend that difficult lot of man and his suffering here on earth,
God became a man -- Jesus Christ -- and suffered all the humiliation,
injustice, pain and death that men suffer -- and taking it upon himself
he assured man that this life was not the end -- that this was but one
manifestation of his spirit, but that the eternal dance of the spirit
has gone on from before time -- and will continue until the end of time
- through eternity. We are like bubbles on a sea that bubble up, and
disappear -- but the essential element returns to the water it came
from. And so we have God as The Son -- God has experienced physical
life through his son and understood the grief and loneliness and pain of
existence. Who could have been more abandoned than Christ in Gethsemane
and on the Cross? Even his disciples abandoned him. Yet something
happened to convince these cowardly men to suddenly be filled with
spirit and to preach the gospel even upon pain of torturous death. This
must give us pause. And then we have "The Holy Ghost" -- or the Holy
Spirit -- and this is the spirit of God that is always present in the
universe, that we can tap into at any time, that is working in us even
when we are not aware of it. Well, these are my current beliefs. I
cringe at the Christians who blithely quote scripture without a true
understanding of what the scripture says. I don't like any sects that
narrow the view of God that is so all-encompassing and possesses such
surpassing beauty and harmony. But we are on Earth, where nothing is
perfect, certainly not people and certainly not institutions. So I am
left with my own deep beliefs that encompass many ideas.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

September musing

It was on this day, September 19, in 2004 that Helen -- Aussiegirl -- began her blog. Over the next 27 months she managed to add nearly 2200 posts. It's been half a year since anything new has been added, and I thought it only appropriate to start the fourth year by posting a meditative essay that she wrote a little over a year ago but never published.

The beautiful illustration, of the month of September, is from an old edition of Edmund Spenser's The Shepheardes Calendar, his first major poetic work, published in 1579.


By Aussiegirl

As always, September has brought a sudden end to summer. It always seems to happen that way here in Washington. August hung on for what seemed an eternity with its hazy heat and late-summer cricket-serenaded doldrums, and then September came along and rang the curtain down with cool rains and cooler temperatures. There is always something to the change of seasons which brings thoughts of the death of what has been and the birth of what is yet to come. Perhaps this is why those of us who live in temperate climes tend to a more philosophical frame of mind. And it makes us aware of the passage of time, that flow that we are all on that carries us along the wave of existence, yet weaving an illusion of permanence and reality. In truth, the present moment is but an illusion, a knife-edge of an infinitesimal point between the past and the present - the moment that has just passed and the one that has yet to transpire. It is only our consciousness that bridges this divide and creates the bubble of awareness that creates a sense of reality. Perhaps the Eastern philosophies are correct when they tell us that all is illusion, and current physics also leads us to contemplate such mysteries. This, however, is a subject for another time. I find that I am in a melancholy mood as the seasons change inevitably, as I see the death of one season and the onset of another. And these thoughts bring me to contemplate the state of our civilization, and I can't help but feel that I am witnessing the twilight, or the autumn, of our once glorious age. I find that I am returning to and reveling in the glories of our Western Civilization, and cherishing them as you would something which you know may soon vanish. I'm only glad I won't be here to see it, but there are so many young ones who will inherit a horrible future, and the present political class has abandoned all pretense at leading and courage in deference to political power and money. Complete and utter corruption rules the day. Was it ever any different? I wonder if we have become too civilized? Too peaceful? Too rational and intellectual, while at the same time emotionally committed to retreat and pacification and appeasement. We are addicted to postponing the unpleasant medicine for our short-term pleasure and comfort. Sometimes I think that there are certain racial tribes or types in this world that have by their history and genetic selection become adapted to a more warlike makeup. I think that those in the West have over the centuries of civilization bred aggression out of their genes. The genes that contributed to success in our Western culture were genes that favored intellectual achievement and high intelligence, a cooperative nature to enable someone to work in and participate in a complex industrial and technological culture. We may simply have evolved into two distinct genetic types -- and when it comes to war -- the aggressive and warlike is likely to win. But perhaps there's still time for Western man to rediscover his inner savage. After all, homo sapiens was able to kill off the far stronger Neanderthals.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Happy birthday, Fryderyk, may your music live forever!

Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin (in French, Frederic Francois Chopin) was born on this day in 1810 -- he was to die after only 39 short years on October 17, 1849. Helen has written elsewhere about her beloved musical pantheon that included, in addition to Chopin, only Beethoven and Verdi. Here I have gathered four interesting and perceptive observations about Chopin.
[Concerning the illustrations: The top one is the famous portrait painted in 1838 by Chopin's friend, Eugene Delacroix -- the bottom one is the only known photograph of Chopin (commonly mistaken for a daguerreotype), believed to have been taken by Louis-Auguste Bisson in 1849.]


A distinguished English amateur pianist described Chopin at a salon:
Imagine a delicate man of extreme refinement of mien and manner, sitting at the piano and playing with no sway of the body and scarcely any movement of the arms, depending entirely upon his narrow feminine hand and slender fingers. The wide arpeggios in the left hand, maintained in a continuous stream of tone by the strict legato and fine and constant use of the damper pedal, formed a harmonious substructure for a wonderfully poetic cantabile. His delicate pianissimo, the ever-changing modifications of tone and time (tempo rubato) were of indescribable effect. Even in energetic passages he scarcely ever exceeded an ordinary mezzoforte.

One of his students, Friederike Muller, wrote the following in her diary about Chopin's playing style: His playing was always noble and beautiful; his tones sang, whether in full forte or softest piano. He took infinite pains to teach his pupils this legato, cantabile style of playing. His most severe criticism was "He—or she—does not know how to join two notes together." He also demanded the strictest adherence to rhythm. He hated all lingering and dragging, misplaced rubatos, as well as exaggerated ritardandos ... and it is precisely in this respect that people make such terrible errors in playing his works.

Artur Rubenstein said of Chopin: Chopin was a genius of universal appeal. His music conquers the most diverse audiences. When the first notes of Chopin sound through the concert hall there is a happy sigh of recognition. All over the world men and women know his music. They love it. They are moved by it. Yet it is not "Romantic music" in the Byronic sense. It does not tell stories or paint pictures. It is expressive and personal, but still a pure art. Even in this abstract atomic age, where emotion is not fashionable, Chopin endures. His music is the universal language of human communication. When I play Chopin I know I speak directly to the hearts of people!

Ernest Hutcheson, in his The Literature of the Piano, has this to say: Chopin's greatest distinction, the quality in which he outpointed all others, lay undoubtedly in the astonishing originality and appropriateness of his writing for the piano. He divined the soul of the instrument, and his every phrase, technical pattern, and ornament sounds inevitably proper to the chosen medium. ... The utter originality of Chopin's genius has never been questioned. He had no predecessor and no successor. ... Chopin came and departed like a comet from remote space.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Aussiegirl reviews Kobzar's Children

This is a review that Helen wrote for Amazon.com last July. It is a well-writen and impassioned review, and I think it deserves to be reprinted on her blog so a greater number of people can read it.

Kobzar's Children: A Century of Untold Stories by Ukrainians
by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.01

A superb and gripping book about the Ukrainian immigrant experience, July 10, 2006 Reviewer: Aussiegirl

In the introduction to this collection of short historical fiction, memoirs, and poems touching upon a century of the history of Ukrainian immigrant experience, Marsha Skrypuch writes the following:

"When you don't write your own stories, others will write them for you."

And in publishing this marvelous collection of stories she begins the process of putting the record straight. Like Marsha, I too grew up with the realization that I belonged essentially to an invisible and completely unknown ethnic group -- Ukrainians, whom no one seemed to have ever heard of, and if they had, they said things like -- "That's the same as Russian, isn't it?"

As Marsha explains in the foreword, the kobzars were Ukraine's wandering blind minstrels, who in the ancient tradition of Homer memorized long epic historical poems that spoke of the great events of Ukrainian history, and in doing so kept a population that was largely illiterate in touch with their great heritage.

During Stalin's times, in addition to their traditional role they kept people apprised of the repressions and persecutions and famine, and so they came to the notice of Josef Stalin, who called for a national conference of kobzars. Hundreds showed up, and all were shot. There are a few kobzars who survived to tell the tale, and a very few who carry on the tradition today.

Because Marsha does not speak Ukrainian, she did not have access to the emigre literature that spoke of the immigrant experience, and of experiences in Ukraine. But Ukrainians are inveterate story tellers, and as fortune would have it, the writers of these tales are either witnesses themselves to the events they describe, or are children of parents who told vivid tales of their own experiences, and as such the works have a compelling and hypnotic interest.

I couldn't put the book down. I frankly had expected a charming work aimed at children, but how mistaken I was. Although this book is suitable for all ages capable of reading at this level, it is of no less interest to the adult reader as to the young reader. It never talks down to its audience. In the same way that I remember my own parents relating the many stories of our family, no punches are pulled. Harsh reality and horror and danger take their place alongside tales of humor, childhood pranks, and misunderstandings.

Beginning in the early part of the century, the stories span everything from a memoir of homesteading in the early 1900's in the wilds of western Canada, to a first-hand horrifying account of a young child's suffering and survival during the Stalin-created Ukrainian famine genocide of 1933, in which at least seven million Ukrainians perished. Tales of helping out in a family grocery store take their place alongside a psychologically insightful meditation on the interior life of an elderly Ukrainian woman living in her memories while confined to a nursing home. One of the stories relates the shocking history of how Ukrainians were unjustly interned in hard labor camps by the Canadian government during WWI, and subjected to treatment that is sadly reminiscent of Soviet gulags. This is a chapter of immigrant history I knew absolutely nothing about. There's a delightful tale about the tragicomedy of attempts to move the grave of one family member from one cemetery to another, followed by a grim personal memoir of surviving Auschwitz. The stories span a century of experience, beginning in the early 1900's and ending with a charming Christmas time tale that takes place during the exciting days of the Orange Revolution.

Ukrainians do not talk down to their children. We do not protect them from the harsh realities of history and of repression. Perhaps this is why Americans and Canadians of Ukrainian descent are generally highly sensitive to any encroachments upon their freedoms and dangers gathering in the world. We have experienced, if not first-hand, then through the tales of our parents, the kinds of things that can happen if people forget their history.

As such, Marsha Skrypuch has done a great service by publishing this book. Not only has she introduced the literature and history of Ukraine to immigrants who may no longer be in touch with the language of their ancestors, but she also exposes the stories of these people to a wider American and Canadian audience.

This book must and will, by its very nature, find a wide audience. It is gripping, well-written, well-balanced, and paced with a mixture of lighter and darker topics, and in the end is a testament to the basic humanity that binds us all into one common human experience.

History comes alive when we read about the lives of individuals. What once existed only as a page in a history book or a phrase with a date attached, suddenly becomes a gripping personal drama that anyone can identify with.

Buy this book, read it. You don't have to be Ukrainian to thoroughly enjoy it and to profit by it. We are all enriched by enlarging our knowledge of history and the very human stories that make up that history.

The kobzars indeed live, and this book carries on that great Ukrainian tradition. Every country needs its kobzars.

Further thoughts on Verdi's Requiem

In April 2003 Helen sent this email to her internet friend veritas about the Requiem that she loved so much. Half of the email are quotes from George Martin's book, but the quotes only strengthen her own ideas about this magnificent work. Half a year later she attended a performance at Kennedy Center, and her impressions and thoughts about that performance I have already posted below. By the way, this portrait of her beloved Verdi was her favorite -- in it she saw virility yet sensitivity, a flair and appetite for life, great intelligence -- in Matthew Arnold's words, Who saw life steadily, and saw it whole -- everything that she felt in his music.


veritas -- I mentioned Verdi's Requiem the other day --- indulge me while I
ramble -- as promised -- my little exigesis on the Verdi Requiem -- a
Requiem for the living -- not the dead -- as Verdi was an agnostic --
and unafraid.

Unlike Berlioz, Cherubini and Mozart, all of whom used the traditional
text of the Requiem Mass based on a medieval poem written by Thomas of
Celano containing a terrifying vision of the judgement day (Dies Irae)
which was calculated to terrify the listener into virtue, Verdi added
an additional text, the "Libera Me", which although not an integral
of the mass, could follow it on solemn occasions and was occasionally
set to music: "Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna, in die illa
tremenda..." "Free me, oh Lord, from eternal death, on that terrifying day."

This has the effect of changing the emotional impact of the Requiem in
typical Verdian fashion. First -- he hammers the first line of the
"Dies Irae" portion over and over giving the whole section an undertone
of terror -- rather than the way Mozart did it which is to recite the
whole text in order. Then -- he ends the whole Requiem on a note of
uncertainty and supplication as first the soprano pleads urgently
"Libera me Domine, de morte, in die illa tremenda..." Free me, oh Lord,
from death, on that terrible day..." and then --- the chorus joins in
in an almost frightened whisper ---- "Libera me, libera me, libera me...."

From George Martin's Verdi: His Music, Life and Times:

"He [Verdi] succeeded, not only by the excellence of his music, but
by stirring in the audience the ancient feelings and fears of primitive
man peering nervously into the night, trying to find his God and
establish some sort of relationship with him. By the end of his
Verdi has his singers and audience praying for peace and light, not for
the dead, but for themselves, the living. .... In both Berlioz and
Mozart the musical climax of the poem comes on "Rex Tremendae
Majestatis", making the poem primarily one in praise of God. Verdi, on
the other hand, emphasized the Salva Me which, with the constantly
recurring Dies Irae, make the poem of an individual's terror on the day
of judgment. It is as though an angry God had come down in the
Holocaust and, standing on the altar, was pointing a fiery finger at
"you, you, and you: damned"; while of the people some pressed forward,
others knelt where they were, and all called out to Jesus: "Salva Me!"

".... Verdi's final section plunges the singers and audience back into
the personal drama as though someone had said the wrong thing and God
had suddenly reappeared. The soprano is the soloist, asking to be
from eternal death (Libera Me), and at the mention of judgment by fire,
the Dies Irae begins to build up in the orchestra. Suddenly it bursts
out in all its fury, terrifying and awful, and the broken suppliants
almost sob their request for peace and light for the dead. But then,
in the Dies Irae section, their thoughts turn to themselves: Libera Me,
Libera Me. .... Libera Me, they sing, calling on the magic of music
words to save them from the terror of the unknown. But magic, even in
group, does not answer an individual's fears. One by one they fall
silent, drop their neighbor's hand and peer out into the night, alone.
"Libera me", the soprano pleads alone, "Free me, Lord, from eternal
death on that awful day." "Free me", each one breathes. "Free me".
.... The audience, whether it intellectually wants to or not, becomes
emotionally involved in the sheer rush of sound in the final fugue and,
like the chorus and soloists, asks for some sort of emotional release.
This Verdi, also quite deliberately, refuses to give it. There is no
sudden burst into a sunny amen, no vision of a kind God or promise of
intersession; there is only dwindling power and continued uncertainly.
Such, said Verdi, is man's lot in life."

"No church gives such an answer; they all offer some happy solution to
the quest for assurance that life and life after death have certainty
and meaning. In this respect Verdi's Requiem is not a religious work
and the Roman Church is quite right to ban it. In not offering a clear
solution Verdi reflected the increasing uncertainty of the end of the
nineteenth century when Darwin and the new science were shaking
traditional beliefs. And Verdi, who anyway had never held them, was
too honest an artist to fake an ending that he did not himself feel.
.... But even if the Requiem is agnostic in that it does not offer a
Catholic, Lutheran or Hindu resolution to the fears it raises, it is
religious in the sense that it recognizes the fears and needs of man
suggests that there is some sort of Creator or Being with whom man
to develop a relationship."

Well -- that's about it --- I hope you enjoyed your trip through Verdi
land at least as much as I enjoyed musing on it. Like Beethoven, a
world unto himself, in which one can lose one's self -- and find the
heart of humanity, God and truth.

All the best -- Helen

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Musings on Verdi's Requiem

This is another very long and very beautiful email that Helen wrote to veritas, her internet friend, on October 20, 2003, soon after -- perhaps the same evening -- we had returned from hearing a performance of Verdi's immortal Requiem at the Kennedy Center. Her heart was full of the beauty we had just experienced, and as always, she just had to get it down in words before it had vanished.

Towards the end of the email her thoughts naturally turn to the mystery of life -- and to music: how beautiful and sad that everything beautiful in life passes ---like music -- only
exists in time --- we cannot freeze it --- we cannot hold it --- we cannot admire it when we like --- only in the passage of time does it exist -- like us ---- so ---the ultimate mystery -- and perhaps --- this is why music moves us so deeply.

She was delighted when I found this quotation from The Leaden Echo, a poem by Gerald Manley Hopkins, in which he poses the same question: How to kéep—is there ány any, is there none such, nowhere known some, bow or brooch or braid or brace, láce, latch or catch or key to keep
Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty, … from vanishing away?
-- and then gives his answer, in the companion poem The Golden Echo, that beauty comes from God, and returns to God. This seemed to match her own feelings.


Hi veritas --- well --- we had a wonderful time -- beautiful weather --
beautiful drive into Washington through the foliage of Rock Creek
Parkway -- almost all the way from our house down directly to the
Kennedy Center - makes a beautiful drive -- beautiful winding creek,
heavy forests on either side with a strip of bike/hike trail and picnic
areas -- people jogging, biking, picnicking -- lovers strolling and
taking pictures of one another -- leaves drifting softly down and
over the pavement everywhere -- soft rich colors -- blue sky -- perfect
October day in Washington - and then the Ken Cen -- nice architecture
sort of neo-Greco-classical -- you'd know the correct phrase -- echoing
the rest of the monuments nearby -- the Washington monument looming in
the distance - the famous/infamous Watergate Hotel next door -- all
those expensive shchmancy-fancy stores -- Christian Dior, etc. -- a
little taste of how the other half lives --- but all lovely. We've
there before of course -- but not for about a year.

Inside -- red carpets, crystal chandeliers, mirrored walls and
enormous ceilings -- a fitting place for a center for the performing
arts - housing the Opera House, Concert Hall and the Eisenhower Theater
-- lovely. The place was sold out --- I love to people watch -- all
sorts -- young, old, frumpy and dowdy and casually dressed (why don't
people make an effort?) some sweet old things in wheelchairs being
pushed up the ramp and I thought - you dear, dear sweet ones -- once so
young -- your hearts so full -- and now -- is this what you want to
-- the Requiem -- is it not a bit too close to home? -- but then I
thought -- no it is always the right time for beauty and at that age --
perhaps a Requiem is perfect -- as a little reminder of where they are
headed perhaps. Sweet and sad thought.

The house was sold out -- the seats were divine --- the music --
heavenly --- 2 choruses combined in strength -- must have been 200
voices -- some even in the little balconies surrounding the stage ---
offstage trumpets -- glorious -- wonderful -- and at the end -- the
quiet libera me, libera me, libera me ---- it ended --- hushed silence
from the audience -- the conductor slowly lowered his arms and bowed
head almost as if in prayer --- and still the audience was so
spell-bound that no one wanted to spoil the effect or intrude on the
spell -- until finally someone began to applaud -- and then -- a
standing ovation -- people were cheering!!! shouting!!! --- it was
like a football game -- but these people were cheering beauty and
transcendence -- how happy that made me.

(I wrote the following impressions down shortly after I got home --
sorry for being prolix -- just thought I'd include them)

Heaven, I'm in heaven ---------or -- to be more exact I was -- I have
drifted a little lower now that it is over but still I can hear the
melodies -- the heartache - the supplication -- the truth --- the drama
---- of mankind -- of his lot --- of his fate -- cast down here on
-- not understanding why or where -- but still --- with moments like
this -- and with geniuses like this that have been bestowed on us --
we doubt that God exists? That something or someone created us --- with
these feelings, these emotions, this intellect, this questing feeling,
and the ultimate knowledge --- the knowledge of death -- which animals
sense but do not know or fear the way we do --- why was this given to

Verdi has taken me on a journey -- even though I know this piece by
heart -- have heard it many times -- hearing it in that great hall --
live -- with real people pouring their hearts and talents and energies
into it -- I understood it and experienced it fully for the first time
--- Verdi -- that unbelievable colossus --- how could he have been
to create such music -- but Verdi --- who spent his life in the theater
-- giving us drama -- the drama of people living and loving and killing
and dying --- he understood the human heart like no other ---- gave us
his final drama in the Requiem --- and gave us the truth --- a glimpse
of something immortal we should all pursue -- that we are driven to
pursue -- but --- ultimately --- he is right -- Verdi the agnostic ---
laid it out --- ultimately we cannot know -- ultimately it is all a
question ---- and he was so honest ---- there it is in all its majesty
and pathos and tragedy and joy -- the human drama -- La Divina Comedia
---- mankind --- gifted or cursed with these sensibilities, faced with
the knowledge of his own extinction -- yet has inklings and strivings

In the music I experienced the highs and the lows of human existence
the doubt, the fear, the supplication, the joy, the ecstasy, the wrath
of God and possible judgement -- the calls of the trumpets heralding
judgment day --- the casting out from heaven -- and then -- the
pleading, the fear, the childish appeal -- please -- save me -- don't
leave me here alone --- remember me --- free me -- free me ---- yes --
this is the ultimate human drama and Verdi saved it for his last -- and
he truly understood it and gave it to us straight -- we can never be
sure --- and so it all ends on an uncertain whisper --- no amen -- no
glorious radiant modulation into major key as the sun breaks out -- no
-- uncertainty and doubt - after all the tumult and pleading and drama
--- a whisper -- libera me -- libera me -- libera me.

If men like this existed --- if talent like this existed -- if music
like this exists -- there must be a God --- else where does all this
magnificence point? What is its purpose ---- it has nothing to do with
procreating the species -- or survival of the fittest --- no ---
music like this exists I KNOW there is a God and something divine and
mysterious that we can only dimly apprehend -- but I know it -- and
is why I cannot live without it. It is not in the churches with the
silly robes and the pointy hats and the sermons and the piece of bread
and wine in the mouth or even in the cloying insufferable quoting of
bible in your face -- flung --- here --- take this and this --- you are
nothing because I read the bible and quote it --- but do these people
look into the heart of another human being -- truly look? that is
where the answer lies --- no --- it is there --- in humanity's quest
higher things and beauty.

So --- I soared on angel's wings -- on Verdi's mighty talent -- and the
talents of all those people who played and sang so magnificently -- the
soprano -- my God -- 5 feet wide --- but what a voice!! --- soaring,
ringing tones -- with supple, pliant lines and beautiful control --
feeling -- just exactly the way I would hope it would be sung --
excellent mezzo-soprano -- lovely bass --- with a flexible lyrical
-- not too strident -- and a heavenly tenor -- a last-minute substitute
but wonderful -- lyrical clear tones -- a singer of lieder -- which
suits this piece more than a heavier tenor like Domingo -- the
is one of the loveliest and most tender melodies -- and he sang it
divinely -- hitting the high C effortlessly and brilliantly. The
ends the whole piece along with the chorus and orchestra -- singing a
reprise and fullfilment of the beautiful theme adumbrated in the
-- Requiem -- rising each time to a high note -- and finally to the
highest -- gliding up effortlessly to heaven.

Well -- this is me -- now -- tonight --- but such a perfect performance
will not soon be forgotten -- and such a lovely day -- how beautiful
sad that everything beautiful in life passes --- like music -- only
exists in time --- we cannot freeze it --- we cannot hold it --- we
cannot admire it when we like --- only in the passage of time does it
exist -- like us ---- so --- the ultimate mystery -- and perhaps ---
this is why music moves us so deeply.

Well, veritas ----- this has been long --- but you know how I love this
stuff -- and Verdi --- and Beethoven and Chopin --- they point the way
because they saw inklings of something higher --- and that's where I
look for inspiration -- to the great artists through history -- not the
forgotten priests with their intrigues and their politics and their
indulgences --- who remembers them now ---- we remember beauty --- we
remember art --- we remember Christ ----- but all who claim to tell us
how to live our lives are just as we are --- and just as mystified if
they would but look into their hearts.

Have I gone on too long??? I usually do --- but you are a good friend
and will not mind ---- my love to you all --- truly --- let me
know how you are --- Helen

Tea and milk -- nonmiscible

It's not that they can't be mixed, but, according to the following article, they shouldn't be. Aussiegirl -- Helen -- was always concerned about the health of her readers -- their political health, their spiritual health, and of course their physical health. She never saw this report, but I think she would have wanted me to post it.
Helen, being from Australia, loved her tea, but lately she had become enamoured of mocha java -- we bought the beans at our local Safeway and ground them in our little handy-dandy Braun grinder. After a few minutes the delectable fragrance of coffee would waft its way in to her. She said that the fragrance seemed to arouse her little grey cells, at which point another Aussiegirl post was on its way.


cbs4denver.com - Researchers Find Milk Blocks Antioxidants In Tea

Researchers Find Milk Blocks Antioxidants In Tea
Dr. Dave Hnida

(CBS4) DENVER Drinking tea improves heart health but something as tiny as a splash of milk can cancel the benefits.

Doctors have known for a long time that tea, whether it be green, black, orange or pekoe, contains substances that protect the heart.

"I grew up adding milk to my tea," said CBS4's Dr. Dave Hnida. "My mom and grandmother did it so I did it. They are English and that's what this study is all about."

Researchers were trying to figure out why England has more heart disease than Germany, France, or Asia where nearly everyone drinks tea without milk.

In England, they typically add milk.

Researchers tested the blood vessels of people who drank tea with milk and without milk and there was a huge difference in how the blood vessels of the body reacted.

Tea contains antioxidants called catechins and polyphenols which cause the blood vessels of the body to relax. However, researchers found that a milk protein, called casein, blocks the effects of the antioxidants.

So they experimented on humans who drank tea with and without milk. The milk drinkers did in fact have blood vessels that stayed stiff and rigid. They measured it with ultrasounds.

The study only included 16 people but it was 16 out of 16 that lost the protection.

"That makes you wonder if milk also may block other heart protective effects and cancer fighting substances normally found in tea," said CBS4's Dr. Dave Hnida.

Coffee also has catechins and polyphenols that are found in tea.

© MMVII CBS Television Stations, Inc.