Sunday, July 16, 2017

long-term reading.

I finished Moby-Dick a while back, and I've been a bit at loose ends trying to find something to replace it. I tried Don Quixote, but it turns out Moby-Dick's "stultifying, yet brilliant" character (1851) is quite unusual, and if Cervantes has that quality in Spanish--not likely, in 1605--he definitely loses it in English.

Sorting my e-book collection by word count, I've had Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire teed up for a while: at 1.3 million words, published starting in 1776, it's the biggest book I have, so the obvious candidate. The somewhat awe-inspiring hitch has been that I upload e-books to the Kindle service, so my page location syncs across the 3 devices I read on, but...the Kindle service won't accept anything bigger than 50 megabytes for upload, and the complete Gibbon is 58 megabytes.

I finally realized that:
  • My e-book files are all in uncomplicated pure-text formats, so it's not like trying to parse a Microsoft Word document;
  • All my books are in Calibre, which is not user-friendly, but does do almost anything you want; and
  • I'm a huge nerd and this just isn't a hard problem.
 (Calibre's user-hostility is proverbial. One example is that you can assign a book to a series, like Harry Potter, and you can assign a number within the series, like "1," except that instead of a boring integer like "1," you can use a real number, like "1.4," according to whatever scheme you prefer to use: publishing order, chronological order, both, whatever. Calibre doesn't judge. I myself did designate some book as number 0.6 for some reason, but that's more power than most people want to deal with.)

Naturally, Calibre has a Split plugin, which seamlessly split apart the three volumes into manageable bits. Then comes the weird part.

It's a really good book.

I don't mean that in a "there's footnotes with obsolete vocabulary and if you squint and place it in its proper historical context it's a lot less boring" kind of way. I mean that in a "this prose must have been sent back to 1781 from the future" kind of way. My only comparable experience is with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818, and one of the best science fiction books ever written). It's enough to start you thinking that all those people writing centuries of boring prose were actually bad writers, when they were probably like postmodernist scholars, imprisoned in an authorial Purgatory where they only get tenure if they use an incomprehensible writing style.

Seriously, though, Gibbon's writing is so approachable that I think its mystical aura I absorbed as a child came from never having seen it, and from adults overawed by the effort necessary to write what amounts to several PhD dissertations back-to-back, albeit without having to deal with Professor Jerkface on the Dissertation Board who's now rejected the thing, for the fifth time, with the same helpful comment "Too many semicolons; they tell the reader you don't believe in your topic."

Caveats!
  1. We know waaaaay more about the ancient world than Gibbon did. Topping the list of academic disciplines that would have knocked his socks off: archeology! Also anthropology, sociology, paleobiology, psychology, and quantum mechanics. Also feminism.
  2. I've traipsed through Roman history 3-4 times now: the podcasts The Ancient World and (surprise) The History of Rome, Anthony Everitt's The Rise of Rome, Christopher Wickham's The Inheritance of Rome, and maybe one or two others. I have a decent sense of where Gibbon has probably been superseded.
  3. I am the kind of person who would read Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to relax before bed.
See you at the end of Volume 1!

Saturday, July 8, 2017

inter alia.

Evidently I don't write blog posts these days. I started the blog when I went to Chile, and happily my life is not so eventful as it was in Chile; I'm unraveling a bunch of emotional stuff that I don't want to blog about, and then I have this fabulous job, but I'm a manager and that comes with an extra need for discretion. Even the dog has settled into a routine, as long as that routine involves alternating between "lying on hot pavement," "lying on Chris," and "lying next to Chris," with food scattered throughout, especially if the humans are thoughtful enough to drop bits of cheese.


Walks are also important.


(I've considered assembling some sections of fence just so she can stick her head through them.)

Work is quite nice, on the whole, although I have 14 direct reports across 4 different teams, and both those numbers are too big. I mean, I can do it, inasfar as it can be done, and I'm doing it successfully, but it's far from the best thing either for me or for my army of dreaded minions. I can't track the work very deeply, or get much into the product/business end of things, and it turns out that with this much scope, it can be very difficult to catch little problems before they become medium-size problems.

Anna got the house painted! It was a horrid, peeling taupe, and now it's a nice light sage with a purple door. It spruces up the whole intersection. She's currently mulling over plans for our small back patio, and advancing the garage replacement as quickly as possible, which is not very quick at all: we didn't know this at the time, but if replacing the garage were going to be easy, someone would have paid cash for the house long before we got to it.

The boy! The boy is very large, scarcely qualifying as boy-sized, now. He's scarce months away from being taller than me, and he's 12! We may end up putting bumper-foam on our doorway lintels, until he gets the hang of whatever awe-inspiring height he ends up at. (I don't think he's gangly or awkward. He's always had his own quite distinct manners of movement, and so far he's just a bigger, adolescent version of that.)

The Snugglehaus abides.

Monday, March 27, 2017

history.

One thing I do like about Facebook is that it reminds me of stuff I said years ago, and very often it's about J. (Not sure if that's because most of my Facebook posts are about J, or if their magical computers pick them more for some reason.) There are many, many Great Moments in Chris-J Conversation™.

March 27, 2014:
"You shouldn't have let me sleep so long, now we're gonna be late for school."
"It'll be fine, Mama will handle it."
"But we're gonna be late!"
"Do you trust Mama?"
"Well, normally I trust Mama, but this time--"
"So, here's the thing about trust. It's really easy when things are going well, and it only becomes really valuable when things are hard."
That was at least sufficiently confusing to stop the complaining for 30 seconds.
March 26, 2011:
Mama goes for a run, and I am quickly informed that I do not have as fun ideas as Mama and am not as good as Mama. Hopefully I can at least boil hot dogs as well as she can.
Last night he had some kind of scary dream or thought--he didn't want to talk about it--and when I laid down next to him, fell asleep about 30 seconds after putting his hand on my arm. (Chrises are very reassuring.)

We're turning out pretty well, I think.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

dactyls.

I'm still reading The Iliad to the boy at bedtime, a few dozen lines per night. I'm still nerding out about it Homer and Bronze Age Europe. Because I need slow-moving things to read before bed, I actually read the Introduction to my version of The Iliad--I doubt any author of an Introduction really expects anyone to read it, but whoever Bernard Knox is, he may have written the most engaging essay for the lay reader that can still contain a paragraph like this:
The Homeric epithets were created to meet the demands of the meter of Greek heroic poetry, the dactylic hexameter. They offer the improvising bard different ways of fitting the name of his god, hero or object into whatever section of the line is left after he has, so to speak, filled up the first half (that too, quite possibly, with another formulaic phrase). The Achaeans, for example—one of the names used for the Greeks, Achaioi—are often “strong-greaved”: ěūknēmīděs Ăchāiδi a line ending. “Stay your ground, all of you strong-greaved Achaeans,” says the prophet Calchas, encouraging the troops: āll’ ăgě, mīmnět pāntěs, ěū- knēmīděs Ăchāiδi. A few lines earlier, however, he has asked them, “Why have you fallen silent?”: tīpt’ ăněō ěgěnēsthě ... How will the bard finish this line? Ĕūknēmīděs Ăchāiδi will fit the meter, for the two opening phrases are of the same metrical length. But it will produce a junction of two short open vowels: ěgěnēsthě ěūknēmīděs Ăchāiδi, and this usually results in elision, the suppression of one of the two short vowels—ēgēnēsth’ ěūknēmīděs—an unacceptable metrical combination. The solution is simple. The Achaeans cease to be “strong-greaved” and become “long-haired”—a formula starting with a consonant, which avoids the hiatus: tīpt’ ănēō ěgěnēsthě, kărē kŏmŏōntěs Ăchāiδi. The bard may also need to fit the Achaeans into a different part of the line and in a different grammatical case. In Book 7, for example, the gods watch the Greeks toil and suffer in the battle. “So they toiled . . .”—hŏs hōi mēn pŏněōntŏ—“the long-haired Achaeans”—kărē kŏmŏōntěs Ăchāiδi (not “strong-greaved” —that would have produced elision: pŏněōnt‘ ěūknēmīděs). Two lines later, however, “the gods, seated by Zeus of the lightning bolt, watched the great labor”—měgā ērgŏn—“of the Achaeans”:Ăchāiōn—genitive case. To fill the rest of this line the bard needs an epithet of the form - - - - -. The Achaeans can’t be “strong-greaved” or “long-haired,” then; they have to be “bronze-cloaked”: chālkŏchĭtōnōn. The choice of the epithet is dictated by the meter. Agamemnon is “shepherd of the people,” “lord of men,” “son of Atreus,” “wide-ruling” or “brilliant” according to his grammatical case and his position in the line. So for Achilles and Zeus, Hera and Hector. As for ships, their position in the line and case determines whether they are “black,” “round,” “seagoing” or “well-benched.”
I did skim those bits, since I am not really a Poetry Person™, and poetic features escape me even in English. I'm also reading Jonathan Burgess's Homer entry in the "Understanding Classics" series--no others are available as library e-books, though given the topics, I don't think I care--and Burgess steps up the game:
The venerable resonance of epic diction would have been appreciated by ancient Greeks. But the mix of forms is not just poetic colouring; it results from the requirements of metre. Metre is the ‘measure’ of verse, the system of how syllables are organized. In English poetry, this involves (or once did) the placement of accent-stressed syllables, perhaps with rhyme. In Greek verse rhyme is not sought, and syllables are not marked by stress (words have accents, but this involves pitch and is not relevant to metre). It is the length of time required for vocalizing each syllable that is important. Ones that take longer to pronounce are arranged with ones that take less time. Certain arrangements form a metrical unit (a ‘foot’), and several such units formed a line of verse (where a sentence need not end; grammatical units often spilt over to the next line).
The metre of epic requires six units (or feet) in a line. Each foot could either have an initial long syllable followed by two short ones, or two short ones. The first lines of the Iliad and Odyssey (transliterated into the Latin alphabet) could be represented metrically this way:
Each line has six feet. The three-syllable foot is more common, and so the rhythm tends to be one of tripping momentum. There are exceptions to the rules on what constitutes a long and short syllable; for example, because of pausing at the end of the line, even a final long-short sequence (as in the examples) in effect equals the length of time of two longs.
Got that?

I'm also listening to the fabulous Literature & History podcast, which has 3 episodes on The Iliad, telling me that I'll be doing some on-the-fly editing of my own, since, improbably enough, the back half of the book is even bloodier than the front (the podcaster's favorite example is the guy(s) who die of a very graphic spear to the face).

There's a lot of amazing archeology going on around Troy this past couple decades, and the best thing I've seen or read so far is this German geologist (huge swaths of archeology and linguistics are built by Germans) talking about the Luwian (pronounced "Luvian," because Germans) civilization, with sooooo much context.





The whole thing is amazing, but my favorite single factoid is the explanation for how these enormous mounds (tells) grow to hundreds of feet high over millennia of human habitation: they build houses out of mud bricks, that lasts for a couple generations, then it falls down, and you flatten the surface and build the new house on top of it. I've read lots of books, and nothing anywhere has ever explained that.