Monthly Archives: July 2011

Songs which can be sung simultaneously

From time to time (and increasingly often these days, it seems) I’ll be listening to a song and find that a completely different song is running through my head — and that, against all odds, it works — that, with a few adjustments to the tempo and the key, the two songs sound good sung simultaneously.

To see what I mean, try this. Play “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)” by the Monkees,

and while it’s playing, try to sing “Country Roads” by John Denver.

You’ll have to sing it quite a bit faster than John Denver does, and it can be a challenge to keep to the tune and not be distracted by what the Monkees are singing, but after a few tries you should be able to get it. (You should be singing “Country roads / take me home / to the place / where I was born” in sync with “I see / all kinds of sorrow / wish I / only loved one.”) If I had any musical talent I’d record the combination myself, but I don’t, so you’ll just have to try it yourself.

Here’s another you can try: “Climbing the Walls” by They Might Be Giants

and “Moonshadow” by Cat Stevens.

I find that for both of these mixes, the two songs go together lyrically as well as melodically.


Filed under Music

Sevenfold vengeance

I’m not a fan of colloquial, paraphrastic translations of the Bible (or of anything else for that matter); I generally stick with the Authorized Version, and when I use other translations as a supplement I choose the most strictly literal ones I can find. However, my wife having recently become interested in the Bible, but finding the archaic language of the Chinese Union Version and the King James to be rough going, I now have in my home something called the Good News Bible.

I’ve perused a few parts of it, and the very colloquial language (“Prophesy, who is it that smote thee?” becomes “Who hit you? Guess!”) turns out to be surprisingly useful at times, casting familiar passages in a very unfamiliar way and forcing me to notice what they actually mean. In an essay my brother Luther wrote a few years back (a good essay, by the way; read it), he mentions that

the grave danger of the scriptures is that they are church-talk, and we are so used to church-talk we can hear, understand, and discuss it without ever letting it penetrate beyond the churchy part of ourselves.

Luther goes on to say that we are so used to the word “eternity” that it means nothing to us, and that it can be helpful to mentally replace it with “85,000 years” (“for some reason, eighty-five thousand years seems a lot longer than eternity to me”). He’s right; it is helpful — and the same applies to any number of other overfamiliar “churchy” expressions. The Good News Bible (and other simplified translations) may avoid such expressions because they are unfamiliar to its intended readers, but in so doing it also provides a valuable service for readers with the opposite problem — those for whom such expressions are so familiar as to have lost all meaning.

Here’s how the Good News Bible renders Genesis 4:13-15.

And Cain said to the LORD, “This punishment is too hard for me to bear. You are driving me off the land and away from your presence. I will be a homeless wanderer on the earth, and anyone who finds me will kill me”

But the LORD answered, “No. If anyone kills you, seven lives will be taken in revenge.” So the LORD put a mark on Cain to warn anyone who met him not to kill him.

I don’t know how many times I’ve read the KJV rendition of this — “Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold” — without the meaning of those words ever really sinking in. The GNB spells it out in a way which comes as a shock but which is surely correct. To avenge a murder is to kill the murderer, and you can’t kill the same person seven times, so to avenge a murder sevenfold can only mean to kill seven people — including, presumably, six who are not guilty of the murder of the person supposedly being avenged.

It’s hard to see any justice in this, especially given that Abel, despite his blood crying from the ground, is not avenged at all. In fact, the whole point of the promise to avenge Cain seems to be to deter anyone from trying to avenge Abel! Why would Cain’s murderer be punished so much more severely than Abel’s? Perhaps it could be argued that Cain was not truly guilty of murder; since no one had ever died before, he could not have known the full meaning of his act — whereas anyone who might try to kill Cain in order to avenge Abel’s murder must eo ipso understand what it means to kill a man. But could Cain really have been ignorant of what killing meant? After all, he had seen Abel slaughter sacrificial animals before. And even if we assume that Cain’s murderer would deserve death in a way that Cain himself did not, what about the other six victims of the sevenfold vengeance? Why would they deserve any punishment? (And who would they be? As far as we know, the world population hasn’t even reached seven yet at this point.)

Another possible interpretation hinges on a different reading of “shall.” When the Lord says “shall,” we are used to understanding it as a commandment — but perhaps here the Lord is only making a prediction and giving a warning. Rather than ordering that Cain be avenged, or saying that he ought to be avenged, perhaps he is just warning that he will in fact be avenged if anyone kills him. If you kill Cain for killing Abel, someone will kill you for killing Cain, and then someone will kill that guy for killing you, and so on without end. “Sevenfold” could just mean “many times over.” Maybe Yahweh, still a young idealistic God at this point, is warning humanity that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. He may later have regretted this policy of allowing murder to go essentially unpunished, since before long “the earth was filled with violence” and he had to wipe everyone out and start over again. And one of the first things he did after the Flood was to introduce a new rule: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.”


Filed under Ethics, Old Testament, Translation

The New World is an older country

All the biggest land animals — elephants, rhinos, hippos, giraffes — live in Africa. Asia also has elephants and rhinos, but they are both smaller and less abundant than their African cousins, and no other continent is even a contender in terms of megafauna.

Even if we define megafauna more liberally and look only at abundant species, Africa still wins hands-down. I made a list of wild land mammal species which weigh 100 pounds or more and which are listed as “least concern” on the IUCN Red List. Even though many of Africa’s trademark megabeasts (elephants, rhinos, hippos, gorillas, and lions, among others) are excluded by the latter criterion, Africa still comes out on top. A full 50% of the species on the list (37 out of 74) live only in sub-Saharan Africa. By comparison, Eurasia (including North Africa) has 20 abundant megamammals, the Americas have 17, and Australia has 5. (The total is only 74 because 5 of the species are common to Eurasia and America.) The four heaviest species on the list (giraffe, Cape buffalo, and two species of eland) are all African. If I relaxed the conservation criteria a little, Africa’s dominance would be even more overwhelming.

Africa has not always been so exceptional, though. Until quite recently (geologically speaking), the other continents had significant megafauna of their own. North America in particular was home to several species of elephant, ground sloth, horse, and big cat. In his hunting memoir Green Hills of Africa, Hemingway comments on this and offers an explanation:

Looking at the way the [elephant] tracks graded down through the pleasant forest I thought that we had the mammoths too, a long time ago, and when they travelled through the hills in southern Illinois they made these same tracks. It was just that we were an older country in America and the biggest game was gone.

Hemingway surprises us a little here, turning our familiar ideas upside down and calling the New World “an older country.” What he presumably means is that humans have been hunting there for a longer time than in Africa and have killed off most of the big game — which is the exact opposite of the truth. Our species evolved in Africa, and the Americas were the very last continents we colonized. So why, if Africa has been subject to human hunting for so much longer than America, does America seem to be “hunted out” while Africa still abounds in big game? Later in Green Hills Hemingway writes:

A continent ages quickly once we come. The natives live in harmony with it. But the foreigner destroys . . . . Our people went to America because that was the place to go then. It had been a good country and we had made a bloody mess of it and I would go, now, somewhere else and as we had always gone. You could always come back. Let the others come to America who did not know that they had come too late. Our people had seen it at its best and fought for it when it was well worth fighting for. Now I would go somewhere else. We always went in the old days and there were still good places to go.

Nothing surprising here, at least at first glance. “The natives live in harmony with it. But the foreigner destroys” sounds like the familiar cliché about how every country was an ecological paradise until the white man showed up and ruined everything — a cliché to which there is admittedly some truth, since whites did in fact decimate the megafauna of both America and Africa. Whites couldn’t have killed off America’s mammoths, though, or her ground sloths and horses and the other Pleistocene megafauna, all of which went extinct millennia before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. If humans are to blame for those extinctions (and circumstantial evidence certainly points to us), the culprits were the Clovis people — Paleo-Indians, the ancestors of “the natives.” They were still “foreigners” when they killed off the mammoths, though, having recently arrived from Siberia. When “natives” and “foreigners” are understood in a general sense, rather than as referring to specific ethnic groups, Hemingway’s point makes sense and is consistent with his earlier reference to America as “an older country” — that is, a country with a longer history of depredation by foreigners — than Africa.

In the big picture, Africa is the only land that can properly be said to have natives, the only place on earth where humans are not an invasive species. Humans and the African megafauna evolved in tandem, adapting to each other; the game animals evolved the instincts they needed to survive in an environment which included human predation, and the humans developed sustainable hunting practices.

In America, on the other hand, the Clovis suddenly showed up in a land whose wildlife had no evolutionary history of living with humans, and the results were disastrous. Over time, the Paleo-Indians learned to live in harmony with their new habitat and became naturalized “natives,” and the surviving megafauna presumably evolved as well, developing an instinctive fear of humans and other adaptations which would help them survive in the new (humanized) America. Millennia later, when the next wave of “foreigners” arrived in the New World, there was to some extent a repeat of the Clovis apocalypse, but on a much smaller scale. After all, the animals had already adapted to living under human predation in a general sense and only had to deal with the somewhat different behavior and technology of the Europeans. Though the Europeans greatly reduced the numbers of several species (bison, wolves, etc.), there were few all-out extinctions. In comparison to the totally foreign Clovis invaders, the Europeans were only somewhat foreign and therefore easier to adapt to — like adapting to a new strain of flu, as opposed to a completely novel pathogen.

It would be hard to overstate the difference between Africa and America in terms of big game. America (North and South) is over twice as large as Sub-Saharan Africa in terms of land area; it includes a wider variety of climates, which should be conducive to the evolution of more species, and it includes the colder climates which Africa lacks and which (based on Bergmann’s rule) should tend to produce physically larger species — and yet Africa has over twice as many abundant species of large mammal as America. Perhaps the reason lies in the fact that Africa, alone among continents, has never been invaded by a truly foreign human population like the Clovis in America, only by foreign strains of a locally evolved species.


Filed under Animals, Evolution

Epistemological fashions

From Google Ngram Viewer.


Filed under Language, Philosophy, Statistics

Neither determined nor random

I found the following in David Wiggins’s paper “Towards a reasonable libertarianism” (from the 1973 anthology Essays on Freedom of Action, edited by Ted Honderlich) and found it relevant to my recent posts on free will.

[C]an the libertarian even specify a possible world, however different from the actual one, in which there are particular responsible actions which people can (in the libertarian’s sense) do but do not do? Hume has been followed by a large number of philosophers in holding that not even a possible world of the required sort could be specified. If it were false that every event and every action were causally determined then the causally undetermined events and actions would surely, to that extent, be simply random. So the argument goes. That a man could have done x would mean no more than that it might have turned out that way — at random. It will be asked if it makes any better sense to hold a man responsible for actions which happen at random than for ones which arise from his character. Surely then, if it doesn’t, we ought to prefer that our actions be caused?

This is essentially the same argument I’ve been making. I might have known that Hume came up with it first. (That I didn’t know Hume came up with it first is a humbling reminder of just how spotty and haphazard my philosophical education has been. And Hume is one of the thinkers I’m relatively more familiar with, compared to some of the other big names in philosophy!)

Considered simply as an argument this objection is circular, and flagrantly so. One cannot prove that determinism is a precondition of free will by an argument which employs as a premiss everything is either causally determined or random. This is nothing other than a form of the conclusion, that whatever is undetermined is random. This is what had to be shown. But in the form of a challenge something in the objection can stand. If an event is undetermined, if an event of different specification might have taken place, then what does it mean to deny that the event is simply random? What is it justifiably to ascribe the action identical with the event or comprised of the event to an agent whom one holds responsible for that action? In the unclaimed ground between the properly or determinatically [sic] caused and the random, what is there in fact to be found?

This is well put. (Okay, I take that back. I mean, determinatically?) The argument is indeed circular, because it isn’t really a proper argument at all, so much as a bare assertion of something which seems self-evident: that everything is either causally determined or random (or some combination of the two), that those two options exhaust the logical possibilities. The challenge for the libertarian is to show this to be a false dichotomy by coherently describing a third possibility. Later in the paper, Wiggins attempts to do so.

For indeterminism maybe all we really need to imagine or conceive is a world in which (a) there is some macroscopic indeterminacy founded in microscopic indeterminacy, and (b) an appreciable number of the free actions or policies or deliberations of individual agents, although they are not even in principle hypothetico-deductively derivable from antecedent conditions, can be such as to persuade us to fit them into meaningful sequences. We need not trace free actions back to volitions construed as little pushes aimed from outside the physical world. What we must find instead are patterns which are coherent and intelligible in the low level terms of practical deliberation, even though they are not amenable to the kind of generalisation or necessity which is the stuff of rigorous theory. On this conception the agent is conceived as an essentially and straightforwardly enmattered or embodied thing. His possible peculiarity as a natural thing among things in nature is that his biography unfolds not only non-deterministically but also intelligibly; non-deterministically in that personality and character are never something complete, and need not be the deterministic origin of action; intelligibly in that each new action or episode constitutes a comprehensible phase in the unfolding of the character, a further specification of what the man has by now become.

This is an intriguing line of thought. Thinking of intelligible (rather than determined) as the opposite of random offers a different angle from which to view the problem. I’m still not sure it really works, though.

Certainly it is possible in principle for something to be non-deterministic and yet intelligible. The proof of this is that extremely complex systems (the weather, the behavior of other people, etc.), even if it happens to be true that they are “really” completely deterministic, cannot be perceived that way by us. We can see some regularities, enough to make them intelligible to us, but we can’t possibly understand all the causes involved. Even if they are deterministic (which they may be), they are psychologically indistinguishable from truly non-deterministic systems; therefore, if they are intelligible to us, it follows that a truly non-deterministic system could also be intelligible.

But surely (and this is again an assertion of what seems self-evident, not an argument) what makes such systems intelligible is that the randomness is constrained, not that it is not random. Even if truly random processes played a role in, say, the weather, the weather would still be intelligible because it follows certain broadly predictable patterns, because the randomness is not unconstrained. A typhoon may happen to grow stronger or weaker, to last a certain number of days rather than a certain other number, to blow back out to the sea rather than making landfall. I don’t understand why it does the one thing rather than the other, and therefore those aspects of its behavior may as well be truly random as far as I am concerned — but it remains intelligible. If, on the other hand, the behavior of typhoons were pure unconstrained randomness, exhibiting no regularities at all, it would be unintelligible.

The same goes for human behavior. If it is truly non-deterministic and yet intelligible, all it seems to me that that could mean is that it contains randomness, but randomness which is constrained enough that it can still be broadly intelligible. But it’s still just a combination of determinism and randomness.


Filed under Philosophy


“No surplus words or unnecessary actions,” says Marcus Aurelius. “No random actions, none not based on underlying principles.” It’s an appealing principle by which to live, but in the end I always give it up because it itself seems random and unnecessary. It’s a principle of poetry, not ethics — and there’s something very unpoetic about a life lived consciously as poetry.


Filed under Ethics

The accidental is second only to the ideal

The following is Constantin Constantius (a.k.a. Kierkegaard) in Repetition, commenting on the farce (Posse, the German equivalent of vaudeville) performances at the Königstädter Theater in Berlin. The translation is Howard and Edna Hong’s, and I’ve added paragraph breaks.

Two . . . geniuses are enough for a farce theater; . . . The rest of the cast need not be talented; it is not even good if they are. Nor do the rest of the cast need to be recruited according to standards of good looks; they should instead be brought together by chance. . . . No one needs to be excluded even for a physical abnormality; on the contrary, such an accidental feature would be a splendid contribution. . . . That is, the accidental is second only to the ideal.

A wit has said that mankind can be divided into officers, servant girls, and chimney sweeps. In my opinion, this remark is not only witty but also profound, and it would take a great speculative talent to make a better classification. If a classification does not ideally exhaust its object, the accidental is preferable in every way, because it sets the imagination in motion. A somewhat true classification cannot satisfy the understanding, is nothing at all for the imagination, and for that reason it should be completely rejected, even though in daily use it enjoys great honor, because people for one thing are very stupid and for another have very little imagination.

If there is to be a representation of a person in the theater, what is required is either a concrete creation thoroughgoingly portrayed in ideality or the accidental. The theaters that exist not only for entertainment should produce the first. . . . In farce, however, the minor characters have their effect through that abstract category “in general” and achieve it by an accidental concretion.

In this way, one gets no further than actuality. Nor should one, but the spectator is comically reconciled to watching this accidental concretion make a claim to be the ideal, which it does by stepping onto the artificial world of the stage.

This is very perceptive, as the bit about officers, servant girls, and chimney sweeps demonstrates. That haphazard classification does indeed set the imagination in motion in a way that a more systematic attempt would not. Upon reading it, I immediately began to think about which category Kierkegaard himself would fit into, and then to consider myself and various people I know, and it was a very useful and mind-expanding exercise.

Tarot cards, when I first discovered them, had a similar effect on me. Any fortune-telling system is an attempt at a universal ontology of things that can happen. Cartomancy’s implicit claim is that anything that could conceivably happen to the querent can be symbolically represented in the 40-morpheme language which is the tarot deck — and trying to force the cards to make good on that promise sets the imagination in motion like nothing else. And the reason it works as well as it does is that the cards are such a haphazard conglomeration of what-have-you — the virtue of temperance, a conjuror, a tower being struck by lightning, and ten cups, to name a few. The haphazardness is indispensable; my attempts to create an alternative deck with a more systematic structure have been complete failures. I’ve also tried replacing the too-systematic Minor Arcana with an even more haphazard assortment, though (with such cards as “walking the dog,” “glyptodon,” “monkey with a shovel,” and “Zeppo”), and that works just fine.

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Filed under Literature, Tarot