By Rod Dav4is
Wednesday, November 08, 2006
The problem of literal interpretations

These states which have passed laws outlawing so-called same sex marriages make me laugh -- as if male and female were that well defined! All sorts of variations exist: hermaphrodites, for example.

hermaphrodite - one having both male and female sexual characteristics and organs; at birth an unambiguous assignment of male or female cannot be made.

What are these poor souls supposed to do? And don't try to tell me that we'll sort it out based on their chromosomes. There are lots of ambiguous combinations there, too: Normal are XX and XY, but what about XXY, or YY, or just X?

I suppose that we could just take them outside the city gates and stone them. After all, if it's not in the Bible it's an abomination, right?

God knows everything, but He missed out a few important things, like hermaphrodites, when He dictated the books of the Bible. He finished all of creation in six days; He tells up so in Genesis. OK, maybe He meant six arbitrary periods of time. But why did He not tell us about such things as:

  1. The Earth is round like a ball. It rotates on its axis and also around the sun with a number of companion worlds, such as Mars.
  2. The universe is vast beyond comprehension. The stars are distant objects like our sun.
  3. Matter is made up of tiny particles called molecules, and these are made up of tinier particles, called atoms, which are made up of yet tinier...
  4. E=mc2
  5. Most diseases are caused by tiny living things called germs. It is possible to immunize people against many diseases.
  6. Lightning is a gigantic spark, like what you can draw from your finger after walking across a carpeted room. This is electricity, a sort of invisible fluid which can be made to flow through solid metal wires, and will one day transform mankind.
  7. Man will one day walk upon the moon.

Did He just forget about these important things, or did He leave them out on purpose? He could have saved mankind a lot of trouble, for example, if He had just told us about disease. Maybe there are other things He forgot to mention, like:

  1. The universe is unimaginably old, and the Earth itself is several billions of years old.
  2. There were previous populations of creatures who walked the Earth which no longer exist. Their imprints are captured in stone which was laid down millions of years ago.
  3. Species are not immutable.

Friday, July 28, 2006
RootsWeb adopts Mailman as new mail list manager

The new list processor is in beta test with a few selected extant mail lists. I have issues with some unnecessary changes that have been made.


The new listnames, e.g. "ny-longisland" from "NY-LONGISLAND-L" and "...-D", are causing problems for users who use their email client filter capabilities, like myself. This change guarantees that all such users must adjust their filters.

While I appreciate that it was not possible to continue the SmartList fiction of distinct -L and -D listnames, the change could be made such that at least some users would not be required to adjust their filters. The way would be to name all the lists in Mailman as "listname-L".

Some will object on the basis of this nomenclature (i.e. -L) having previously been associated with a particular mode of delivery under SmartList. In fact, this nomenclature is a return to the even earlier convention under ListServ, where the -L in all list names simply identified them as mail lists. I should point out that the new naming (in the beta test) allows no easy way for users to distinguish RW mail list traffic from other RW mail.

Some may object on the basis of earlier failed attempts in the beta test to perpetuate the SmartList fiction of -L and -D lists in Mailman. Some have even associated those problems with the suffixes -L and -D, and have complained that naming the Mailman lists as "listname-L" would present great technical difficulties. According to the response to my recent posting on the Mailman-users list, this nomenclature is not a problem for Mailman.

Some may object on the basis of beta experience thus far having impacted few users -- at least few reported impacts. Be that as it may, at least some users will be impacted, such as myself. The impacted users will be those using their email client filters who have included the -L or -D part of the email name in their filters. I can only ask: Why make a change guaranteed to impact these users? A different naming strategy, i.e. to name all Mailman lists with the -L suffix, would absolve some of these users from impact, specifically those with list-mode subscriptions.

Upper case vs mixed case in listnames

Some have advocated the use of case differences to distinguish surname lists from similar place name lists.

This will impact some users of Netscape, where a bug in its filter mechanism makes some filter rules case sensitive, i.e. the string tested must be in the exact case coded in the rule. This bug has been reported, but there is no guarantee it will be fixed. (Yes, this hit me also, when NY-LONGISLAND-L became ny-longisland.)

The two sorts of list must anyway be otherwise distinguished because case matters not in email addressing. That is, "fonda" and "FONDA" are the same, email-wise.

Monday, May 22, 2006
About that toilet seat issue

Any guy who has lived with a woman knows what I'm talking about. Girls like us to put the toilet seat down when we are finished.

Let's explore that for a moment.

Why should the natural state of the toilet seat be down rather than up? I maintain that it is because they (females) are lazy creatures who don't want to have to think about repositioning the seat every time they use the john. They have much more important issues on their mind. Like should it be canapés for tomorrow's Bridge Club and, if so, what kinds?

Besides, they want to be able to go in the dark. I've seen them do it!

Men, on the other hand, due to anatomical quirks, may require the seat to be up sometimes, and down at other times. So they always have to check first. This is one reason why they have little empathy for the female... er, position on the subject.

So, guys: If you want to cure your woman of this nag, always put that seat down -- and the cover, too. The first time I did that was when I discovered that girls like to go in the dark. Boy, was she angry! Until I pointed out the gender-neutral aspects of that state -- and that it just plain looks better that way.

End of argument. She was no doubt impressed by my sense of style.

Of course, I had to train her to put the cover down...

Movie review: Vi hade i alla fall tur med vädret (1980) (TV)

Swedish TV movie: At Least the Weather was Nice, a very funny precursor to Chevy Chase's Vacation.

Monday, May 08, 2006
Movie Review: Blue Velvet (1986)

Dennis Hopper's scariest role ever, in a most disturbing film

Monday, May 01, 2006
MAY is Mental Health Month
   Hip, hip, hooray.
   The first of May.
   Outdoor fornication
   Starts today!

Friday, April 28, 2006
Movie Review: Smoke (1995)

Sunday, April 23, 2006
Does Music Have Intrinsic Meaning?

Just as visual art can be classified as representational (figurative, realistic, mimetic) or non-representational (abstractionist, nonfigurative), so is music usually similarly classified as (program) or (absolute, abstract).

I will begin with a brief discussion of the analogous forms in the field of visual art (meaning: sculpture, painting, drawing, photography, etc.), then move to the main topic of music.


Art is fundamentally metaphorical in the sense that this canvas with smears of colored pigments has additional meaning beyond its physical aspect. It represents something else. It is the connection between the work and what it represents that is my chief interest here.

Representational art has intrinsic meaning. That is, the connection between the work and its source -- its meaning -- is so easily apprehended as to seem "obvious" and not easily recognized for the metaphor that it is. Look at a Frederick Church painting. You will immediately recognize various objects: rivers, mountains, trees, icebergs, clouds, sky. Those paintings are, or intend to be, more or less realistic representations of recognizable objects.

Representational art seems to be the earlier form, as far as we can tell. The Lascaux caves are decorated with quite astonishing ancient images of large animals, some now extinct. (But who is to say that those squiggles in the corner are not the work of a Paleolithic Jackson Pollack?)

Non-representational art, on the other hand, claims to depict either that which has no physical form -- an emotion, perhaps -- or depicts physical objects in metaphorical ways. I say claims because without clues from the artist -- the title of the work, perhaps -- the meaning of the work is necessarily obscure.

Abstract art is not a new development. The origin of the totally abstract traditional Navajo sandpainting (iikaah) is lost in prehistory, for example.

The art landscape is not sharply delineated. There is a gradient on the representionality dimension, and a particular work can fall anywhere on this line. Van Gogh's The Starry Night contains elements of both representational and abstract art, while Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase is barely recognizable as such and lies much farther to the abstract end of the scale.

Also, a work of art may have additional allegorical meaning beyond its obvious representational components. Edward Hicks's many renditions of the Peaceable Kingdom are easily recognized as being something more than an unusual collection of animals and a little child. We may not know that these paintings represent a particular verse from The Bible, but we are pretty sure that they mean something!


Now we come to the main question: Does music have intrinsic meaning?

I contend that, mostly, it does not. Only to the extent that music is imitative of real sounds of nature is music representational, with intrinsic meaning. Otherwise it is abstract, as Jackson Pollack's Galaxy is abstract, and conveys no meaning of itself.

This is not to say that music cannot have beauty -- or its antonym, ugliness. Such impressions are entirely subjective, however. One person may find a particular passage exquisitely beautiful, while another does not. Some folks claim an appreciation for atonal music, for example, but I do not. I find such works physically painful, and wonder how anyone could compose such rubbish on purpose! I think of a chocolatier mixing mud into his creations for people to experience the grit.

Without clues from the composer, such as the title, or from Music Appreciation classes and such, I maintain that Debussey's La Mer, for example, would convey no image of the sea. Its meaning is entirely subjective and learned -- scholarly opinion notwithstanding. It is described as It is a masterpiece of suggestion and subtlety in its rich depiction of the ocean, which combines unusual orchestration with daring impressionistic harmonies. Not to detract from the beauty of the piece, but this is pure hokum.

It is only by education that we come to associate particular keys, rhythms or instruments with certain moods, feelings or other abstractions. This is why we often find music of another culture entirely opaque and meaningless -- i.e. without intrinsic meaning.

There are numerous examples to support my case. Take Smetana's tone poem collection, Má vlast, especially the second movement, Vltava, better known by its German name, The Moldau, certainly one of the most beautiful pieces in the literature. In his own words, Smetana describes the movement:

The composition describes the course of the Vltava, starting from the two small springs, the cold and warm Vltava, to the unification of both streams into a single current, the course of the Vltava through woods and meadows, through landscapes where a farmer's wedding is celebrated, the round dance of the mermaids in the night's moonshine: on the nearby rocks loom proud castles, palaces and ruins aloft. The Vltava swirls into the St. John's Rapids; then it widens and flows toward Prague, past the Vyšehrad, and then magestically vanishes into the distance, ending at the Elbe.
I'm sure that this image is not presented in any listener's mind without having read the composer's words.

Is all music abstract, then?

In a word: No.

Some music is representational to an extent, if it is successful in evoking a particular image on its own. Here are some examples:

  1. Rimsky-Korsakov: Flight of the Bumblebee, an orchestral interlude from his opera, Tsar Saltan.
    Rimsky-Korsakov does a pretty good job in this short piece (100 seconds, give or take) of presenting an image of a busy bee fossicking around some blossoms.
  2. Grofé: Grand Canyon Suite, final movement, "Cloudburst".
    This whole work, of five movements, is loaded with images, some more successful than others. But none is as successful as the storm of the last movement. Anyone who has experienced an intense thunderstorm will be taken back there by this music.
  3. Saint-Saëns: Danse Macabre
    It's hard to say how much of the success of this piece in evoking an image of bizarre revelry is due solely to the music and how much is due to Disney! Certainly the image of dancing obtains, and there is a measure of weirdness in the unconventional tuning of the violin.
  4. Mussorgsky: St John's Night on the Bare Mountain (commonly known in English as "A Night on Bald Mountain")
    The piece presents an excellent image of a violent storm, but cannot go so far as to evoke a mountain, bare or otherwise, and, of course, St John is nowhere to be found. But the tempest -- in arrival, maelstrom, and the calm after -- are very well done.
  5. Marais: Sonnerie de Ste-Geneviève du Mont-de-Paris (in English "The Bells of St. Genevieve")
    Here is an astonishing evocationation of church bells tolling -- played entirely on a stringed instrument, the viol (a/k/a viola da gamba).

See this related article on tone poems.

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