Hark, the Harold!

Mikels Skele:

Yes, it’s that time of yesr again.

Originally posted on Omniop:

The season being what it is, all thoughts turn to balls of holly, and the Wee Three Kings of Orion Tar.  And who could forget Guy d’Stew, thy perfect knight?  Let there be peas on earth.  Remember, tri-star Xavier was bored on Christmas day.

I’m dreaming of a wide Christmas, Gloria’s dreams, from havin’ a dove.  So let the belle’s own bobtails ring.  We’ll sing a slaying song tonight, while riding in a one whore soapen sleigh.  In the meadow, you can build a snowman, and pretend that he is parson brown.  Or any other color, for that matter.  In the immortal words of the beloved Carol:

Frosty the snowman
Had a very shiny nose
And everywhere that Frosty went
The lamb was sure to go!

There must have been some cabbage in that old top hat you found.

Christmas, they say, should be year-round.  In that spirit, when Autumn…

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Why the Bad Guys are Winning

Mikels Skele:

An important essay by an old friend.

Originally posted on Analog Thoughts in a Digital World:

The police are getting away with murder. The country has been taken over during the past 30 plus years by corporate fascists, who now control the judiciary, the House of Representatives, and soon the Senate; in 2016 they will most likely take the White House as well, and the coup will be complete. They have accomplished this through the corruption of an already flawed and conservative system, using massive influxes of cash and the good old boy network of rich white males to whom all politicians must kowtow if they are to be elected. The rights of women and minorities are back where they were 50 years ago, and it is going to get worse. The environment has been degraded to the point of no return and the human population of the planet continues to increase in number and decrease in intelligence and compassion.

Where is the US left in…

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When work became work

Work, for many, if not most, is a drudge.  As the saying goes, that’s why they pay you to do it.  We take it as a kind of law of nature.  We’ve elevated leisure time to a kind of sacred status; that’s what all the advertising and consumerism is about, isn’t it?  Get more stuff to make the time you’re off work more awesome.  Of course, very little is not awesome these days, but that’s another post altogether.  And what’s the pinnacle of awesomeness?  Why, retirement, of course.  Picture yourself, free at last of your pointy-haired boss (and he of you, for that matter), lounging on a sunny beach somewhere, umbrella-topped drink tipping in your drowsy hand.  Or finally getting your golf handicap down to single digits.  It’s you time, unproductive by sacred right.

Only, when the time comes, the euphoria lasts a month or two, and then too often leisure replaces work as the major source of drudgery.  Some people decline so much they slip into chronic depression; some even die not long after.  Cruelly, it seems that, after all, drudgery was a personality trait, not an externally imposed condition.  What’s going on?  Was it always thus?

There’s a Twitter meme that rises to the top of the sludge periodically, one of those quote things that you get to attribute to anyone you like, as long as they’re sufficiently famous, that goes, “If you see a difference between play and work, you’re not doing one of them right.”  Seems vapid enough, as these things go, but it persists because it has the ring of truth to it.  Or is it the desire of truth?

You might be tempted to dismiss this whole issue as a First World problem; the overwhelming majority of people throughout the world have no time to spare for thinking about the quality of their work experience, let alone of their leisure time.  What they do is integral with their survival.

Is it possible that such a clear link between work and survival actually makes work more satisfying?  There have been, to my knowledge, no studies of this, but, given that roughly the first 250,000 years of human development were spent hunting and gathering, I would say that it’s a distinct possibility.  For better or worse, though, since it first occurred to someone to plant food and raise stock about 10,000 years ago, the link has grown increasingly obscure, and therein may lie the issue.  Most of us no longer get food and shelter directly from our work; what we get is the means to obtain these things, and not always to the degree we think necessary.

My father used to say there was no such thing as a job without dignity.  In my rebellious youth, I understood this to be a kind of statement of egalitarianism, a solidarity with the Working Class.  Collecting trash was just as good as producing it, from the standpoint of dignity.

Cool, I thought, that the stodgy old coot could express such an idea in spite of himself.

Although I can’t claim to be certain of what he actually meant to say, my own understanding of the sentiment has changed over the years.  Dignity, as such, is simply not a characteristic of work.  That is, such dignity as there is, is supplied by the worker.  Of course, it may be easier or more difficult, or even, rarely, impossible, depending on such things as difficulty, collegiality, and management.  This brings up the social factor, which I believe to be critical.

There has never been a documented case of a truly feral human.  Society, love it or hate it, is what we do; it’s how we’ve survived all these thousands of years despite our wimpy claws and fangs.  Maybe we find work satisfying to the degree that it enriches our social relationships, either by providing a context for them, or by creating a sense of significant contribution.  This is how cleaning sewers can be rewarding, and how pushing numbers around a hedge fund can be numbing, despite the vastly greater material rewards of the latter.  It’s why billionaires refuse to leave the rest of us alone, but insist on doing some kind of job, even (shudder) politics.

It also explains the retirement conundrum.  Even the most menial of jobs usually involves social contact with fellow workers, even if that interaction is limited to griping about working conditions, or tyrannical bosses.  Retire, and you’re suddenly booted out of a society that was, for better or worse, the milieu of the majority of your waking hours for most of your life.

I won’t say love your job and it will love you back, but maybe we shouldn’t be so hasty to jump the fence into those greener pastures.  We might find it considerably more swampy than we thought.

There used to be a town in Missouri called Ferguson

I wasn’t going to write about this. Not now. Too much emotion, too much bitterness, too much frustration. Anything I write, I thought, is likely to bring down vilification from one side or another. Later, maybe.

Only, I had to. So much has happened, is happening, that cries out for a statement of conscience. I couldn’t leave it alone.

The undisputed fact is that an unarmed man was shot dead by a police officer. What is disputed, and hotly, is whether the killing was justified. Some eyewitnesses said he had his hands up, in a gesture of surrender; others apparently disputed that. On the face of it, it’s a case that begs for investigation in a public trial.

Normally, either the prosecutor would indict, or he would take the case to the Grand Jury, which would be given a summary of the evidence, hear a few witnesses, and make a decision that the case was worthy of further investigation: in short, an indictment based on the facts presented. Instead, in this case the Grand Jury heard an unprecedented amount of evidence, took months to reach a decision, and decided there was no probable cause for even a charge of involuntary manslaughter, a charge for which you can be convicted for causing a fatal accident by texting while driving.

What we got, instead of a public trial, was essentially a secret trial, the result of which was simply announced, a done deal, no recourse.

It seems the prosecutor, Robert McCullough, not a man known for his humility, wanted to dazzle everyone with his thoroughness; he has released a complete transcript of the proceedings. We can, he is saying, see for ourselves if we want to wade through endless pages of transcripts. None of this matters; Ferguson is burning tonight.

Why, you might ask, would people destroy the town they live in? True, there are the customary “outside agitators,” but they are thriving on the visceral anger of the residents; without it, they would fade away.

It’s about Michael Brown, the young man who was killed; and yet, it isn’t. People are killed, justly and unjustly, every day, and apart from people close to them, no one really cares. Although this killing is the direct cause of these events, it goes much, much deeper than that. It’s about a people who have been harassed and vilified for years upon years, and finally are taking no more.

Imagine a life, where you were stopped by police for the mildest of violations, where you were charged for crimes out of proportion to the general population. Imagine being stopped for simply walking down a street, and ordered to identify yourself and justify your presence. Imagine being carefully watched any time you enter a store in a mall. Imagine ordinary people avoiding eye contact regularly. Imagine being an automatic suspect any time something goes missing. Imagine that the police, who are sworn to protect you, were abusive and threatening, and that any encounter, no matter how trivial, could escalate into tragedy.

Imagine that your people are filling prisons in proportions far exceeding the general population. Imagine indictments far more frequent, almost automatic convictions, and sentences that are routinely longer than average. What would you call this?

In Ferguson, even traffic tickets are disproportionately issued to black residents. Do they just drive faster than white people? When I taught at the University of Missouri – St. Louis, I regularly drove through Ferguson on my way to work along Florissant Ave. The speed limit through town is 30 mph; I rarely saw anyone, myself included, go slower than 35, and usually it was closer to 40. Speeders were easy pickings. Under the circumstances, you’d think a normal distribution of traffic tickets would mirror the proportions in the population in general. Apparently, though, the biggest vehicular offense in Ferguson is DWB – Driving While Black.

Its polite name is profiling. Racism and oppression are other names that suggest themselves. Am I exaggerating? Ask any white person, and you’re likely to get a resounding yes. Ask any black person, any black person, and the answer will be quite different.

We live in a country where the attorney general of the United States was stopped while shopping at an upscale mall. Where the president of the country is regularly insulted in the most obscene ways. There is nothing, apparently, that a black person can do to completely escape being considered subhuman, and fair game for suspicion and innuendo.

This is what Ferguson is all about. This is why, no matter what anyone in authority says, there will be protest and violence. Because murdering a young black man for no reason is just what the police would do, in the minds of a people subjected to such humiliation for so long.

Lost in translation?

I’ve been thinking. About life, of course, but also about writing, and especially poetry, and how the whole point of it is to transmit something ineffable – paradoxically – using language. Of course, the best prose does exactly the same thing, but still, something about poetry is different. The lineage of poetry probably goes back to the moment language escaped from the present, and allowed us to consider things that were not immediately before us.  It goes back to the invention of metaphor, which can be seen as arising from the inadequacy of vocabulary.  Lucky for us, the human mind runs on analogy.

It is without doubt the oldest form of literature we have; I can say that quite confidently because of the unique role that meter, repetition, and rhyme play in memorization. There’s something in the structure of the mind that makes things stick better in structured verse than in plain prose. That’s why all those pithy sayings we live by are usually in handy little couplets.

Some of the earliest recorded literature, the epics of Homer, consist largely of memorized stories subsequently written down for posterity. Even today, there are places where the story teller presents his wares orally; I’ve seen them myself in the souks of North Africa. We listen to these stories, or we read them, and we are moved by them, sometimes profoundly. Homer, however, composed in the first half of the 8th century BCE, in a language that is no longer current in the form that he used. This raise the question of what exactly we are responding to when we read Homer. Even if you are able to read in the original Homeric Greek, it is certain that you miss some of the meaning, and certainly the nuance, that would have been obvious to the native speaker hearing the same work, because no one today is a native speaker, nor has anyone alive even learned the language from a native speaker. Even scholars have variable levels of skill; my own experience of reading ancient Greek is more akin to solving a difficult crossword puzzle than to reading. It involves a large dictionary, a stout drink, and a great deal of squirming and cursing, and even then I’m not sure I’ve got it right. More likely, like me, you read Homer in translation, and this is the problem I’ve been wrestling with.

To illustrate the problem, let’s look at the opening lines of the Odyssey, which I reproduce here in the original for those of you who can read it:

ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ
πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν:
πολλῶν δ᾽ ἀνθρώπων ἴδεν ἄστεα καὶ νόον ἔγνω,
πολλὰ δ᾽ ὅ γ᾽ ἐν πόντῳ πάθεν ἄλγεα ὃν κατὰ θυμόν,
ἀρνύμενος ἥν τε ψυχὴν καὶ νόστον ἑταίρων.
ἀλλ᾽ οὐδ᾽ ὣς ἑτάρους ἐρρύσατο, ἱέμενός περ:
αὐτῶν γὰρ σφετέρῃσιν ἀτασθαλίῃσιν ὄλοντο,
νήπιοι, οἳ κατὰ βοῦς Ὑπερίονος Ἠελίοιο
ἤσθιον: αὐτὰρ ὁ τοῖσιν ἀφείλετο νόστιμον ἦμαρ.
10τῶν ἁμόθεν γε, θεά, θύγατερ Διός, εἰπὲ καὶ ἡμῖν.

Here’s a more or less literal translation by A. T. Murray, from the Loeb Classical Library edition:

Tell me, muse of the man of many devices, driven far astray after he had sacked the sacred citadel of Troy. Many were the men whose cities he saw and whose minds learned, and many the woes he suffered in his heart upon the sea, seeking to win his own life and the return of his comrades. Yet, even so, he did not save his comrades, for all his desire, for through their own blind folly they perished – fools, who devoured the cattle of Helios Hyperion; whereupon he took from them the day of their returning. Of these things, goddess, daughter of Zeus, beginning where you will, tell us in our turn.

I’ll forgive you if you’ve dozed off; such is the introduction to Homer for many generations of students who used the Loeb series. By contrast, here’s how Robert Fagles renders the same passage:

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.
But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove –
the recklessness of their own ways destroyed the all,
the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun
and the Sungod blotted out the day of their return.
Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
start from where you will – sing for time too.

Better? Or just subtly different? One last version, by Stanley Lombardo:

Speak, Memory –
Of the cunning hero,
The wanderer, blown off course time and again
After he plundered Troy’s sacred heights.
Speak
Of all the cities he saw, the minds he grasped,
The suffering deep in his heart at sea
As he struggled to survive and bring his men home
But could not save them, hard as he tried –
The fools – destroyed by theior own recklessness
When they ate the oxen of Hyperion the sun,
And that god snuffed out their day of return.
Of these things
Speak, Immortal One,
And tell the tale once more in our time.

Well, that’s something different. But which of these translations is the best? To answer that, we need to decide what we mean by “best,” for the most poetically satisfying might not be the most accurately reflective of the original meaning. Let’s say that we want the translation to capture not just the literal meanings of the words, but their connotations as well, and something of the experience of 8th century BCE Greeks hearing this.

First, we have to imagine each of these translations recited at night, around a fire, with a drum keeping time, for that was the experience in Homer’s own time. Or recited formally, at a competition four centuries later in a public theater, which is how the citizens of Classical Athens would have experienced it.

Are you beginning to see the problem?

There are, of course, many layers of meaning in even rather bad poems, including those of which the poet himself is unaware.  The reader also brings a world of experience to the poem and adds, willy-nilly, layers never conjured in the original, either consciously or otherwise.  There are, in essence, a minimum of two separate acts of translation in a poem: from the heart of the writer to the paper, and from the paper to the reader. Throw in a completely different language, with different natural rhythms, and you have a challenge indeed. And how to translate the cultural experience along with the words?

Homer presents a particularly sticky problem in all these aspects, but he’s by no means unique. What got me thinking about all this was my attempt (still unrealized) to translate a rather straightforward poem of Federico Garcia Lorca, a poet writing in a language with which I am reasonably familiar, in a European context.

What to do: be as literal as possible, or try to capture the mood at the expense of literalism?

What do you think?

Look upon my works, ye mighty

Among the privileges of a career  in archaeology is the great perspective it reveals on life and history, great and small.  Years of digging up abandoned settlements and graves of nameless, long-forgotten people leave one thing without doubt: all the fears and tribulations of the world we live in will one day be nothing but a mystery to any who might survive us.  Future archaeologists, if there are such people, will marvel at our occasional outbursts of technology amidst the overweening primitiveness.

The learned among them will imagine that they have come to understand us.  But whatever reconstruction of our cultures they will come up with would look bizarre to us, like some fun-house mirror image of what we hold to be reality.

They will give lectures in which they declare, with righteousness, that the 21st century wasn’t as bad as we seem to think, and point to evidence of some rudimentary technology.  Indignation at the prevailing opinion that we were savages will become trendy.

Or they will find, to their surprise, that there were empires and complex social structures, or that the one or two “great” civilizations of which they might be aware were not so great after all.  And all of this will be for reasons which we would find utterly perplexing today.

I will always remember looking down at the mummy of Ramses II at the Cairo Museum, in its controlled atmosphere glass case.  I looked down at the face of Ozymandias, hoping to gain some sort of empathy, some glint of recognition, some insight into that long ago place and time.  To my astonishment, only one thought came to me.

It’s just another corpse.

The Anti-Clickbait Movement and the Return of Long Form Writing

Mikels Skele:

Get smarter with thus one weird secret!

Originally posted on Drew Chial:

Fishing for another click

Fishing for another click

Depressed by the rise in Clickbait, One Blogger Does Something to Restore Readers’ Faith in Humanity

Bloggers have it tough, working long hours, paying to play, for an audience that may never stay. The world sees our failure as the punchline to an elaborate joke. As far as they’re concerned, our words are selfies for snobs, journals masquerading as journalism, vanity press that wouldn’t exist without the internet.

Scroll through your Facebook feed, compare the choices to what we’re offering. If readers have to pick between our editorial on net neutrality and a report on the death of The Walking Dead’s lead, it’s hard to compete (Andrew Lincoln is alive and well, but that article will be accurate eventually). Sure, we might have important information on OK Cupid’s psychological manipulation plan, but there’s a report going around that Orange is the New Black has been…

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