Monthly Archives: July 2009

The old savanna calling

In my “One After 909” post, I showed that the titular number is 11/11 (that is, 1), which comes after 10/11 (that is, .909), and that moving over twice from 11/11 brings us to 9/11. I also mentioned, but didn’t discuss in any detail, the fact that the song ends with “Oh, Danny Boy, the old savanna calling.”

That the song ends with the word “calling” is significant, since 911 is also a phone number. A reference to a phone call also appears, together with the “move over once, move over twice” pattern, in another Beatles song, “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window,” which includes the line “Sunday’s on the phone to Monday, Tuesday’s on the phone to me.” (9/11 was a Tuesday.)

But in this post, instead of focusing on “calling,” I want to look at the significance of “the old savanna.” The original version of “Danny Boy” doesn’t say anything about a savanna; the first line is “Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling” (meaning, presumably, the bagpipes calling Danny off to war). But in the Beatles’ version, it’s not pipes but a savanna. This made me think of Magritte’s famous “this is not a pipe” painting:

As it happens, there’s another Magritte painting with the same concept, only it uses an apple (sorry, a non-apple) instead of a pipe.

The apple, of course, is a symbol of New York. It also occurs in several other Magritte paintings, including this one, which also includes shapes evocative of the Twin Towers.

The same apple appears in the Magritte painting below, which is called “The Son of Man” after a biblical figure who appears in the Book of Daniel.

So by conspicuously not being a pipe, the Beatles’ “savanna” leads us to Magritte and the Big Apple, a connection which is reinforced by the use of the name Danny. But there’s more to it than that. A savanna is, as I mentioned before, a kind of plain (sounds like “plane”). More specifically, the savanna is the natural habitat of the lion (or, in Arabic, osama). “The old savanna calling,” then, could refer to a phone call from a lion — or, as it says in the They Might Be Giants song “The Guitar,” “Hush my darling, be still my darling, the lion’s on the phone.”

I’ve mentioned the 9/11 references in “The Guitar” in a previous post. In addition to the phone reference (the number the lion is calling is of course 911, and the music video cuts to footage of buildings collapsing right after the word “phone”), it contains the line, “In the spaceship, the silver spaceship, the lion takes control.” The lion hijacks a spaceship rather than an airplane because this song is from the 1992 album Apollo 18, which has a space travel theme. (The year most closely associated with space travel is, naturally, 2001.) Here’s the album cover.

The reader will perhaps already have noticed the significance of the number 18 (9/11 = .8181818…) and the similarity of the words Apollo and apple. The name Apollo also resembles Apollyon, which in fact is an anagram of “Apollo NY.” This connection is reinforced by the giant squid on the cover. It brings to mind that other giant cephalopod, the North Pacific Giant Octopus. The standard scientific name for this species is currently Enteroctopus dofleini, but dated synonyms include Polypus apollyon, Octopus dofleini apollyon, and Octopus apollyon. Apollyon is the angel of the abyss, which is probably why the name was chosen for a deep-sea creature; as such, it would actually be more appropriate for the giant squid, which frequents much deeper waters than the octopus. What’s the big deal about Apollyon? Well, you see, the name appears in the Bible only once — in Revelation 9:11.

Aside from the apple/Apollyon connections, the Apollo 18 is clearly meant as a reference to the lunar missions of NASA’s Apollo program. The use of the number 18 in connection with the moon is significant, because the 18th tarot trump is called “The Moon” and features two towers.

If we move over once, move over twice, from XVIII to XVI, we find an image even more obviously evocative of 9/11.

A well-established occult tradition, derived from mapping the 22 Major Arcana to the 22 Hebrew letters and their astrological correspondences as given in the Sefer Yezirah, associates Arcanum XVI with the planet Mars. Nostradamus’s 9/11 quatrain (quoted here) mentions Mars, and Tuesday is also the day of Mars (diēs Mārtis). In most English-language decks, Arcanum XVI is called simple “The Tower,” but in the Tarot de Marseille its title is, oddly, “La Maison Diev” — that is, the house of God. If the god in question is Mars then the Tower represents the House of War or Dar al-Harb, the Islamist term for the infidel world. Another old name for this trump is “Sagitta,” the arrow, which brings us back to Apollo.

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Filed under Coincidence / Synchronicity, Music, Tarot

The 1 after 909

In a previous post I listed various song lyrics and such, most of them discovered by William John, which could be read as prophecies of 9/11. Many of these prophecies included internal clues that it was necessary to add two to the numbers given. For example, Nostradamus refers to “l’an mil neuf cens nonante neuf sept mois” (1999, 7th month) — but “sept mois” is ambiguous. If we add two to “sept,” we find another “Sept. mois,” September. If we apply the same add-two formula to the year, we get 2001.

In reference to this pattern, I titled the post “Move over once, move over twice,” a line from the Beatles song “One After 909”:

My baby says she’s trav’ling on the one after 909
I said move over honey I’m travelling on that line
I said move over once, move over twice
Come on baby don’t be cold as ice
I said I’m trav’ling on the one after 909

At first glance this seems to fit the pattern established by Nostradamus. We have 909, we have the line “move over once, move over twice” telling us to add two, and that brings us to 911. It’s always bothered me, though, that the math doesn’t really work — because we don’t start at 909, we start at the one after 909, which presumably means 910.

That takes us to 912, the wrong number — and the song does later say, “then I find I got the number wrong.” His baby said she was traveling on the one after 909, which he assumed was 910, so when he told her to move over once, move over twice, he expected to find her on 912 — but she wasn’t there. They misunderstood each other. What was his baby thinking? She must have interpreted the numbers or the moving over in a different way.

Then it hit me: what he got wrong was the sequence itself. He assumed, naturally enough, that 909 was followed by 910 — but what’s the song called? “One After 909.” The next number in the sequence isn’t 910, it’s one. But what kind of number sequence goes . . ., 909, 1, . . .? Try this one.

If you move over twice from 909 you get 911, but if you move over twice from the 1 after 909, you get something even better: 9/11, complete with the slash between month and day. This interpretation also fits with the end of the song:

I said we’re trav’ling on the one after 9 0,
I said we’re trav’ling on the one after 9 0,
I said we’re trav’ling on the one after 909.

“Nine oh” and “nine oh nine” are two completely different numbers if we read them as integers, but they are the same if we consider them as two different ways of referring to the repeating fraction .90909090909 . . . .

What about the singer, who “got the number wrong” and ended up at 12 instead of 11? Well, this song comes from the album “Let It Be,” which has 12 tracks — and the 12th one is called “Get Back.”

While listening to “One After 909” just now, I noticed for the first time that it ends with, “Oh, Danny Boy, the old savanna calling.” A savanna is a kind of plain (as in plane), and “calling” alludes to phone calls and therefore to the emergency number 9-1-1.

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A response to Anthony Grayling

(This is in response to A. C. Grayling’s comments on this post. Read them first.)

Dear Prof. Grayling,

You are correct that not all of the things I find “wrong” with The Reason of Things are simple errors. Rather, they exist on a continuum from things no informed person would agree with to things I personally don’t agree with, the line between factual error and difference of opinion not always being an easy one to draw. (Since you asked where I’m “coming from ideologically,” this might be the right time to mention that I’m an atheist, a Darwinian, and an anti-solipsist, and that I come from a conservative Mormon background.)

There are also a few grammatical infelicities, which I might as well get out of the way first. “Peninsular” is apparently just a typo, so we’ll say no more about it. The other one that got my attention was “Pushkin’s grandfather was thought to be an African slave in Moscow,” which means that Pushkin’s grandfather’s contemporaries were under the impression that he was an African slave. If you want to say (as I presume you do) is that it is now thought that Pushkin’s grandfather was a slave, try “Pushkin’s grandfather is thought to have been an African slave in Moscow.” But these are, as you will no doubt agree, trivialities. On to more substantive issues.

Regarding kosher laws, the problem is not that you made a trivial error about the precise reason that pigs are unclean, but that you confidently put forth a theory about the origin of kosher laws without actually being familiar with said laws, the content of which seems to me to be inconsistent with your theory. Under kashrut, the following classes of animals are unclean:

  • all mammals except those that both chew their cud and have cloven hoofs
  • all aquatic animals except those that have both fins and scales
  • all insects except four species of locust
  • a laundry list of birds, including many birds of prey but otherwise following no obvious rule

The list of unclean birds does contain some zoological oddities, such as the bat and the hoopoe, but overall it’s hard to see this as a list of monsters. The insects are a case in point: kosher locusts are so similar to unkosher locusts that the rabbis can’t agree on precisely which four species Moses had in mind, and so to be safe all insects are treated as unkosher. Can a “monster” still be considered a monster when it’s so similar to a non-monstrous animal that even those hairsplitting rabbis can’t tell the difference? Also, as I mentioned before, many unkosher animals are perfectly ordinary and were not seen as horrible or unclean, even by the Jews, except in the dietary sense. Horses, lions, and eagles, in particular, are portrayed in the Bible, as in our own culture, as noble and admirable animals, not as monsters. But the Jews still thought, as we too think, that eating them would be a little icky.

Every culture has its traditions about “kosher” food, though in most cultures the taboos are informal and unspoken. The Jews are unusual only in their insistence on codifying the list of unclean animals and trying to reduce it to a few simple principles. Before “Moses” or whoever it was, their traditions about what’s okay to eat were probably just as haphazard as ours. Where I come from, for example, civilized people can eat pigs but not dogs, cattle but not horses, rabbits but not opossums, crabs but not spiders, muscle tissue but not digestive-tract tissue, and so on. Some animals are taboo because we see them as dirty, others because we see them primarily as pets or beasts of burden, and others for no particular reason that I can see; if for whatever reason you’re not exposed to a particular kind of meat as a child, you’ll probably grow up to find it disgusting, a mechanism that allows for a considerable amount of random “kosher drift.” It’s interesting, too, that it’s always meat that’s unkosher. I’ll try any fruit or vegetable I’m served without a second thought, even if I’ve never seen it before and have no idea what it is, but I always experience a little hesitance (and sometimes more than a little) when faced with an unfamiliar meat dish such as dog meat, duck’s blood, or silkworm pupae.

Regarding Japanese pornography, it’s possible that our disagreement boils down to differing definitions of porn, but I doubt that. (For me, erotica is a kind of art, while porn is basically just a masturbation aid. Is that similar to the distinction you make?) China, Japan, and many other Asian countries do have a strong tradition of erotic art which philistines might regard as mere pornography, and perhaps this is all you have been exposed to. I’m sure your innocence does you credit, but let me assure you that, in addition to erotic art, these countries also produce a great deal of simple pornography which is virtually indistinguishable from the Western variety. By that I mean it portrays sex in a graphic and often degrading manner, has no artistic pretensions, is sold in sleazy shops with no windows, and is considered “dirty” or “perverted” just as in the West. Despite what you say, Japanese porn is regarded as porn by the Japanese and labeled as such. (In fact, porn is technically illegal in Japan and subject to strict censorship, though of course such laws are difficult to enforce.) The Chinese also produce a great deal of pornography (see the Taiwanese film Wayward Cloud for a touching and humorous look at the Taiwanese porn industry), and they even have a history of suppressing erotic novels as pornographic (the Ming novel The Plum in the Golden Vase, banned for years but now considered a classic, is the Chinese counterpart to Lady Chatterley) — all without any help from the Abrahamic religions.

Incidentally, your essay also cites monasticism as a manifestation of a uniquely Abrahamic hostility towards sex, but of course the dharmic religions also have a strong monastic tradition. This is especially pronounced in Buddhism, and artworks with a Buddhist agenda, from the Ming novel Journey to the West to the modern Korean film Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring, often outdo the Puritans themselves in their portrayal of sex as inherently dirty and corrupting.

Which brings us to the broader subject of sex and whether it is in need of control. Of course I don’t think you are actually in favor of rape or pedophilia. Nor am I necessarily opposed to the idea that many of the traditional sexual restraints imposed by the Abrahamic religions can and should be loosened a bit. What bothered me, rather, was your cavalier dismissal of the whole idea that sex ought to be controlled and limited, which you treated as a bizarre quirk meriting nothing more than a mixture of outrage and bemused curiosity, a good topic for etiological speculation but nothing we need to engage as a serious idea. That you hold the opinions that you do about sex is fine; but that you seem to take them as obviously true, that you seem not even to see the strength of the opposing position — that I find worrying.

The idea behind my reference to rape was that of course sex is in need of control. People may disagree over precisely how much control is necessary or reasonable, but sex is such a powerful force, both for good and for bad, that it should go without saying that some degree of control is necessary — because sometimes sex just is wrong, bad, and dirty. No matter how strong my urge to have sex with a given person, if she’s not willing to have sex with me, I control myself. If she’s a minor, I control myself. If there’s a strong risk of pregnancy and we are not in a position to become parents, I control myself. If she expects, even tacitly, a higher level of commitment than I am willing to give, I control myself. If I’ve promised loyalty to another woman and she’s not that woman, I control myself. If she’s promised loyalty to someone else, I control myself. Et cetera. I would go so far as to say that most people’s default relationship with their sexual urges is — and must be — one of control, because only a small minority of most people’s sexual urges are such that indulging them would be morally acceptable. Your dismissal of this whole line of thinking as beneath your notice makes you come across as an irresponsible thinker. (Of course it’s possible that your oracular pronouncements about sex are the end product of a long and rigorous process of thought to which I am not privy, but I know you only by your short essays, and that’s what I’m responding to.)

That’s about it, I guess. As you can see, “wrong so many times that I lost trust” doesn’t have to be all that many times, just as (according to a recent news article) it only takes a few typos on a resume to dramatically reduce one’s chances of being hired. The two clear errors — about kosher laws and pornography — were big ones, because you drew conclusions from these “facts” without having first checked them adequately. If I been less informed about those two fields, I would have trusted what you said and have gotten the wrong idea, and that realization led me to be more cautious about believing anything you said on topics about which I was less familiar. I nevertheless enjoyed and was stimulated by many of your essays. I especially liked your essay on autodidacts and your incisive take on Harold Bloom. And I perhaps should have paid more attention to your praise of Michael Hofmann as one who “in manifesting a willingness to be unreserved in praise but temperate in criticism … shows that [he] knows how much endeavour goes into writing, and how few rewards it usually gets.”

All the best,

Wm Jas

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Reading: A. C. Grayling

  • The Meaning of Things: Applying Philosophy to Life (25 Nov 2008)
  • The Reason of Things: Living with Philosophy (19 Jul 2009)

The Reason of Things

This is another collection of very short essays on various topics, essentially just another installment of The Meaning of Things. While it was readable and mildly stimulating, more often I found it frustratingly wrongheaded, full of errors and infelicities both minor and major. One can forgive an otherwise good writer who uses peninsular as a noun (repeatedly!), and perhaps only an English teacher would bristle at “Pushkin’s grandfather was thought to be an African slave in Moscow” — but what to do with a book that tells us that every culture throughout history, except those dominated by the Abrahamic religions, is marked by “a complete absence of pornography”? Has the author ever heard of, say, Japan? Does he just pull these fun facts out of a place that Judeo-Christian prudery forbids me to mention directly?

Then, in an essay entitled “Monsters,” Grayling offers this explanation of the Mosaic dietary code: “Ancient zoology identified three classes of creatures: feathered birds, furred quadrupeds, and scaly fish — and therefore Israel was forbidden to eat anything which failed to fit those categories neatly, such as snakes, rodents with their human-like hands, sea-dwellers without scales, and pigs because they have the wrong kind of feet.” Uh, actually, Mr. Grayling, the Bible goes out of its way to say explicitly that pigs have the right kind of feet; their problem is that they don’t chew their cud. But it’s not just the pigs; his whole theory is ridiculous. Are we really supposed to believe that the reason such everyday animals as horses, rabbits, donkeys, and dogs are unkosher is that the Jews considered them unclassifiable freaks of nature?

Grayling is so often wrong when writing about fields I’m familiar with that I found myself unable to trust him as an authority on anything else. Even his charming historical anecdotes left me thinking, “That’s a cool story. I’ll have to look it up and see if it really happened like that.”

Nor does he exactly inspire confidence in his discussions of morality. “What,” he asks, “is the source of the moralists’ strange idea that sex is wrong, bad, dirty, and in need of control? One answer is: the consequences of just such control.” Of course we enlightened moderns will all smile along with him at the idea that sex is wrong, bad, and dirty — but what to make of someone who so lightly dismisses the idea that it is in need of control? If Grayling really means what he implies here, then he’s a monster, and I don’t just mean that he’s got the wrong kind of feet! I suspect he doesn’t, though; while he seems to be okay with adultery and such, he’s far too much a man of his time to be pro-rape or pro-pedophilia. More likely he simply hasn’t thought out what he’s saying — which, while clearly a lesser sin here, is still not exactly what one looks for in a philosopher.

The Meaning of Things

This is a light but stimulating read, consisting of 61 very short essays on a wide variety of philosophical and moral issues. It’s not the sort of book that will convince you of anything — at three or four pages per topic, there is little room for sustained argument — but serves more as a lightly annotated list of interesting questions to think about. The author’s views are invariably conventional and in some cases (generally wherever biology is involved) obtuse — he assures us, for example, that concern for chastity is an arbitrary artifact of religion, and that racism is wrong because there is actually no such thing as race. On less politically charged topics his embrace of conventional wisdom is more thoughtful and thought-provoking. He points out several times that clichés are, after all, usually true and deserve to be thought about, which is true enough.

The words “famously” and “commonplace” are overused throughout the book, as are allusions to Hitler and the Holocaust, which turn up in at least 13 of the essays (I skimmed the book counting them to quantify my sense that the book seemed oddly Nazicentric). Other than that, the style is graceful and readable, which, combined with the shortness of the chapters, makes it all too easy to read just one more chapter and then just one more and end up going to bed far too late.

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Are non-sociopathic atheists hypocrites?

Bruce Charlton of Scientists considering Christianity has finally enabled comments on his blog, at least in theory, but my first attempt at taking advantage of this new feature was not a success. Not only was my comment not approved, but the post in question was completely rewritten and the paragraphs I was commenting on were deleted! So until I see an actual example of someone successfully leaving a comment on Dr. Charlton’s blog, I intend to play it safe and do my commenting here.

Charlton’s recent post about the alleged hypocrisy of atheists has me scratching me head. He makes the following main points:

  • If there is no God, then life doesn’t come with any predetermined meaning or purpose. The only meanings and purposes are those people choose for themselves based on their feelings. But human feelings are (according to atheists) biological products of evolution, and — follow me closely here — amoebae and clumps of grass are also biological products of evolution! Therefore human life is “as meaningless as the life of an amoeba.”
  • Hedonism logically follows from atheism, and if atheists were to “live by their beliefs,” they would “seek pleasure and avoid pain with utter ruthlessness,” suppressing any pangs of conscience as being merely biological in origin and therefore irrelevant. (Amoebae, you will recall, are also biological, and we don’t let them tell us what to do!) Dr. Charlton helpfully suggests “crack addict” and “serial killer” as possible career choices for the philosophically consistent atheist.
  • Fortunately most atheists are nice people who try to live morally just like anyone else. This is completely hypocritical, but Christians don’t usually call them on it because they’d rather the atheists be harmless hypocrites than murderous crack fiends. Of course the third option, the one Dr. Charlton hopes his atheist readers will go for, is to trade in their atheism for Christianity and no longer be forced to choose between sociopathy and hypocrisy.

So, where to begin? I guess the amoeba thing is as good a starting point as any. Does Christianity really do a better job than atheism of explaining why a human life is more meaningful than that of an amoebae? Atheism seems to put them on equal footing by ascribing the same origin — biological evolution — to both men and microbes. Christianity, on the other hand, teaches that human beings were created by God for a divine purpose, whereas amoebae — oh, wait, I forgot, Christianity teaches that amoebae (and plants and animals and rocks and everything else) were also created by God for a divine purpose! The crucial difference between man and amoeba must involve something other than their origins.

The “meaning of life” — where it comes from, what it is, whether the phrase itself has any meaning — is a tricky issue that I intend to explore in later posts, but for now the important thing is not to assess the validity of the ideas summarized in the first bullet point above, but to note how completely they are contradicted by those in the second. Under Charltonian atheism, all feelings and purposes and desires are supposed to be equal in their amoeba-like meaninglessness, but it quickly becomes clear that Charlton sees some on them — the hedonistic ones — as more equal than others. For reasons that are never made clear, an atheist who suppresses his meaningless biological hedonistic urges in order to follow his meaningless biological moral instincts is considered to be a hypocrite, while one who does the reverse is living by his beliefs!

The strongest case Charlton can logically make is that atheism gives us no compelling reason to choose either morality or hedonism — that, while thankfully most at least try for the former, atheists have no good arguments to make to the determined sociopath who wants to know why he should be moral. The worst you can say is that atheism places morality and hedonism on equal footing, giving us nothing higher to appeal to in choosing the one or the other. Charlton goes wrong when he tries to push the point even further, saying that hedonism follows from atheism and that morality is inconsistent with it. If, as Charlton maintains, an atheistic world provides man with no predetermined purpose or values, how could an atheist possibly be guilty of hypocritically living by the “wrong” set of values or pursuing the “wrong” purposes?

Of course, Christianity is equally unable to give a reason for choosing morality over hedonism. It avoids the whole issue by teaching that such a choice is unnecessary. In a world governed by a just God, no deep distinction between morality and hedonism is possible, since the only effective way for a hedonist to pursue pleasure (heaven) and avoid pain (hell) would be to behave in exactly the same way that a genuinely moral person would. (“If I have not charity,” as Paul infamously puts it, “it profiteth me nothing.“) Christianity deals with the problem of morality by concocting a world in which morality no longer has any meaning.

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Reading: Brian Greene

  • The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality (15 Jul 2009)

This is an excellent popularization of various topics in physics — relativity and quantum mechanics, entropy and time’s arrow, cosmology, and various versions of string theory. Greene explains these rather arcane theories very clearly and was able to give me what had previously eluded me — a basic layman’s literacy in contemporary physics.

My only quibble is the plethora of TV-show references, which I found unnecessary, patronizing, and (at least for someone like me, who knows even less about the Simpsons than about physics) distracting. One gets the distinct impression that Greene thinks his readers are a little dumb and are in need of kool pop culture references to help them realize that physics is, like, totally rad. (Steven Pinker’s books are also heavy on the pop culture, but he manages to do it in a non-grating, genuinely entertaining way. I should try to figure out what the difference is between their two techniques.)

Greene’s book also reminded me that some of the ideas I’ve been thinking of under the heading of “anti-solipsism” already have a prefectly good name: relativity. If you accept that all persons and points of view are equally real, then under Einstein’s theories it follows that all points in time are equally real.

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Religious labels for kids

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins comes out against the use of religious labels for children, arguing that we should find phrases such as “Christian child” and “Muslim child” just as bizarre and inappropriate as, say, “liberal child,” “Keynesian child” or “secular humanist child.” To describe children in religious terms is to label them “with the cosmic and theological opinions of their parents” — which is surely just as silly and offensive as ascribing to them age-inappropriate political or economic opinions, right? Dawkins chalks it all up to “the weirdly privileged status of religion.”

But wait a minute — do people really ascribe cosmic and theological opinions to young children? Although the act of writing this sentence will make it untrue, Google currently returns zero hits for “monotheist child,” zero hits for “Thomist child,” zero hits for “dualist child,” and zero hits for “premillennialist child.” Why? Because these are actually labels for theological opinions — as opposed to “Catholic child” and “Jewish child,” which are labels for group membership. Very young children might not be capable of having coherent opinions about complex topics, but they are certainly capable of group membership, whether in a formal organization like the Roman Catholic Church or a cultural entity like Judaism. Most people will accept group labels for children, even secular ones like “American citizen” or “Cub Scout,” and will balk at opinion labels, even religious ones like “monotheist.” There doesn’t seem to be any double standard at work here.

So I don’t see anything wrong with mentioning what religion a child belongs to. Of course there’s a case to be made that children ought not to be recruited into religious groups, but the fact is that they are, so we might as well call a spade a spade. Better to acknowledge the true state of affairs — that nearly every religious group in the world recruits children, especially children born to group members — than to deal in prissy euphemisms like “a child of Catholic parents.”

Actually, I have a hard time getting all indignant about parents indoctrinating their children. (Dawkins, with his characteristic tact, proclaims it equivalent to, if not worse than, child abuse.) If you really believe that something is true and important, then of course you’re going to want to teach it to your children. If you don’t, there’s something wrong with you. I would question the patriotism of any parents who said, “We both love our country, but we’ve decided not to raise Junior as a citizen. When he’s old enough, he can decide for himself which country he wants to be loyal to.” I’d question the morality of any parents who chose not to give their children any moral guidance, leaving them to “decide for themselves.” And I’d question the religious seriousness of any parents who chose not to indoctrinate their children. I can’t get behind the idea that you’re free to believe whatever crazy thing you like but that you mustn’t teach it to your children.

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Puns in translation: Mexi-CAN or Mexi-CAN’T?

I happened to pass a sign advertising a Mexican restaurant in Taiwan, and it got me to thinking how I would translate this line from Once Upon a Time in Mexico into Chinese.

Sands: Are you a Mexi-CAN or a Mexi-CAN’T?
Cucuy: I’m a Mexi-CAN.
Sands: Good. Then do as I say.

This is what I came up with:


It’s not a literal translation, but I think it captures the spirit of the original. 墨西哥人 means “Mexican,” but 哥 also means “big brother” and is used as a general term of address for men. For “Mexi-CAN’T,” I replaced 哥 with 妹, meaning “little sister.” (The line must be accompanied by appropriate body language, of course.) A little sexist, I know, but, hey, it’s Mexico.

Should Johnny Depp ever decide to do a movie called Once Upon a Time in Canada, I have a translation ready for that, too:


加拿大人 means Canadian, but 大 also means “big.” The opposite is 小, “small,” and a 小人 is a mean, ungenerous person.

Bilingual readers are encouraged to leave their own translations (into any language, not just Chinese) in the comments.

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William John on 9/11 prophecies

William John (see his sites here and here) writes:

William James,

I tried to paste the following in the comments box of your 9/11 blog but was told it held too many characters. When I tried to cut it in half and enter it as two comments I was told it contained illegal characters. So I’m giving up and just sending it to you regularly.

The 1977 movie “Saturday Night Fever” opens with the shot of a bridge in New York City. Behind the bridge, looming above it and dominating the shot, are seen the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. The camera holds this shot for quite some time. Finally the camera zooms in on the bridge and finds John Travolta prancing across it. After some exposition in which it is established that Travolta is a working class disco dancing fool, we are taken to the club where the disco dancing occurs. The name of the club is: 2001 Odyssey. Inside the club the large dance floor crowded with gyrating couples is bathed in the harsh glare of flickering red lights which create a fiery ambience fitting for the opening strains of the Trammps’ song “Disco Inferno,” which plays on the soundtrack. It begins with the phrase “Burn, baby, burn” repeated several times. This phrase comes from the ghetto riots of the 1960’s when bystanders shouted it as encouragement to arsonists. It turns out this is quite apt since the lyrics of the song which follow might be said to view 9/11 from the perpetrators perspective. “Two mass fires, yes! One hundred stories high. People gettin’ loose, y’all, gettin’ down on the roof. Do you hear? (The folks are flaming) Folks were screamin’, out of control. It was so entertainin’. When the boogie started to explode I heard somebody say: Burn, baby, burn! Disco inferno! Burn, baby, burn! Burn that mama down! Burnin’! Satisfaction (uhu hu hu) came in the chain reaction (burnin’) I couldn’t get enough, (till I had to self-destroy) so I had to self-destruct (uhu hu hu). The heat was on (burnin’), rising to the top, huh!”

The 1968 movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” itself is very interesting since it is a supposedly futuristic movie set in the year 9/11 occurred. This movie begins with a couple of packs of Darwinian predecessors to humanity squabbling over a water hole. Under the influence of a monolith planted by unseen extraterrestrials, one of these ape-men invents and murderously employs the first weapon of war. In triumph he throws his bludgeon into the air and it morphs into a commercial passenger spaceship in 2001 headed for the moon where the monolith has now been discovered. We didn’t have commercial space travel in the year 2001, but we did have commercial jetliners and some of these jetliners morphed into weapons on 9/11. Under secrecy and with a phony cover story, the spaceship headed for the monolith is evocative of the pirated jetliners headed for the Twin Towers. Furthermore, as the government official is making his spaceflight to the monolith, he makes a videophone call to his little daughter on Earth who’s birthday he is missing. During this call he asks her what she wants him to bring her as a present. She says, “I want a Bush baby.” “A Bush baby?” her father says. “Yes,” she replies. This too is evocative of 9/11, since President Bush, the son of another President Bush, used it to morph into a war president. I think it’s also suggestive that HAL the computer, when it is being disconnected, sings the song “A Bicycle Built for Two.” It suggests to me that the two movies, “2001” and “Saturday Night Fever,” know that they work in conjunction with each other as far as 9/11 is concerned.

The 1944 film noir movie “Double Indemnity” also teams well with a future movie which references it in terms of 9/11. Fred MacMurray is an insurance investigator who is trying to stage an accidental death for the husband of his paramour so they can collect double indemnity on the insurance. Having already bludgeoned the husband to death, MacMurray then boards a passenger train impersonating him. When he boards the train and hands in his ticket, the porter tells him that his compartment is train 9, section 11. After the porter puts his bags in the compartment and gives him the key, MacMurray goes to the platform on the back of the caboose. When the train slows down at a certain spot, MacMurray is going to jump off. The husband’s dead body is then to be placed at this spot so it looks like he fell off or tried to disembark while the train was moving and smashed his head on the tracks. But there is another man on the platform when MacMurray is trying to do this. Since there can be no witnesses to his nonlethal disembarkation if the plan is to succeed, MacMurray gives this man the key to his compartment and sends him there to get something for him. As he gives the man his key, MacMurray tells him that the compartment is train 9, section 11, just in case we missed it the first time.

This could more easily be dismissed as mere coincidence if it were not for the 1993 movie directed by Carl Reiner titled “Fatal Instinct.” This broad parody of cinematic thrillers, among its tricks, borrows and revises the “Double Indemnity” plot device for its own purposes. The hero is a cop/lawyer (he arrests you, then defends you) who is the unwitting target of a plot by his wife and her paramour to kill him on a train so they can collect triple indemnity on his insurance. The trick, however, is getting him to ride on a train in the first place since his entire family has been killed in various train mishaps, which, of course, explains the insurance policy. So the morning the hero has to leave on an important trip, his wife schemes to block his access to all modes of travel other than the train. His car is in the shop, there are no rental cars available, there’s a bus strike, etc. Finally, he says he’ll just have to take an airplane. “You can’t,” she tells him. “There’s been a terrorist attack at the airport. They flew a plane into the tower and all the runways are closed.”

There is a song written by the actor Hamilton Camp called “Pride of Man” which was recorded by the Quicksilver Messenger Service in the late 1960’s. The third verse of this song goes like this: “Turn around, go back down, back the way you came. Terror is on every side, though our leaders are dismayed. All those who place their faith in fire, in fire their faith shall be repaid. Oh, God, pride of man, broken in the dust again.” Further on, the ending chorus goes like this: “And it shall cause your tower to fall, make of you a pyre of flame. Oh, you who dwell on many waters, rich in treasure, wide in fame. You bow unto your god of gold, your pride of might shall be your shame, for only God can lead his people back unto the earth again. Oh, God, pride of man, broken in the dust again.” When I sing this song I take the liberty of pluralizing the word “tower.”

William John

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