Sunday, December 31, 2017

looking back.

I'm not near the end of any more books, so it looks like I'll be finishing out 2017 at 90 books read. I read quite a lot of comics this year, but decided to leave those out of the counting. That still leaves me finishing 1.73 books every week; by habit (more about this in another post) I would tend to minimize it by pointing out it was a handful re-reads and a whole lot of Terry Pratchett, but that's a lot of books, even if I didn't finish The Iliad.

(Gonna go ahead and spoil you for that one: Gandalf isn't actually dead, and Gollum dies at the end.)

How was 2017, really?

I still love my job managing software engineers. Faltered a few times as my anxiety got in the way, but by and large I did the job and I'm good at it.

The dog has settled down quite a bit--inasfar as anything with Jack Russell Terrier heritage can be said to settle down--and she learned some new behaviors, some intentional, others not. My favorite, far and away, is that she inadvertently learned that "Rat check!" means she should run outside and check the back patio for rodents. (It started because I would open the door and summon her for a walk, and then I was in the bathroom and saw a squirrel, said "Leela! Rat check!" and from somewhere inside the house she bolted out her door, to chase the offender with the special joy of any animal fulfilling its purpose.) She's also extremely soft. Even J pets her now.

I suddenly had the unstoppable urge to learn to play the violin. Go figure. It's fun: "play" in the most kid-like sense. My ambition extends as far as playing for dance nights at bars; that will carry me for at least a couple of years. It's the least forgiving instrument I've ever encountered.

Related: there's a whole world of Scandinavian fiddle music! Kismet being what it is, of course there's an active fiddle jam close to home, playing at the monthly dance party.

I finally learned the difference between a fiddle and a violin:
Nobody cares if you spill beer on a fiddle.
J is taller than me. If his shoulders are not yet wider than mine, they will be in 2018. In theory, this is not his "major" growth spurt. He has hit the choppy adolescent cross-currents from "child" to "adult," and it's tossing him, and us, every which way. We all suffer an extra bit because his other household is...less amenable to angry disagreement, let's say. We knew it was coming, but the map is not the territory.

Anna has been hard at work with Garage Project (tearing down our horrible decaying garage and replacing it with an Accessory Dwelling Unit). Besides not having a horrible decaying garage, we want to scaffold J's entry into adult life with a place he can pay an achievable rent on without technically living with his parents.

It's been a year of heavy-duty therapy work, which I summarize for people as "My childhood was not nearly as healthy as I thought it was." My life has never made sense, in a way that lives should make sense: I could see the problems I had, but never found a theory to understand where they came from, and I just assumed I was born with a package that included striking emotional issues along with the freakish intelligence. Now I have a theory that fits all the facts! I am excited. My family-of-origin does not share the excitement.

(Fun fact: I am the only one of my siblings to make it out of my teens without injuring a hand by punching a fire door in anger. That's normal, though. Right?)

Tentatively, I'm feeling better in the past couple weeks. I've been sleeping more or less like a normal person, feeling pretty awake during the day. Anna and I even overlap for an hour or two in the evenings, which restores some important time that we haven't had in a few years. We're remarkable people to talk to, it turns out.

My 2017 was better than most recent years. I hope 2018 goes better still.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

O Tannenhund, O Tannenhund

The dog grew a winter coat! She didn't, last winter, so I guess we can chalk it up to another 12 months of love, scritches, and yogurt on her morning kibble.

The year in review:

I didn't even have to stage this. Once she can't move her body any farther, her neck extends another 2-4 inches.

Mid-October brings the almost inconceivable gift of her sunbeam, delivered directly to her bed next to Chris's desk. None of this depth-of-winter nonsense where she has to disturb her morning nap every ten minutes to see if her sunbeam is on the back steps yet.
Dog? What dog? No dogs here.
[David Attenborough voice]: "In winter, the tiny brown-and-white dog hibernates. It forms a tight, energy-efficient coil, with the tail over the nose to prevent the formation of frost. This will help the dog absorb enough warmth from its electric heating pad to survive until the sun returns in the new year."

Monday, December 25, 2017

Happy Violinmas

Anna got me the sparkly blue electric violin I'd been ogling for weeks, as well as appropriate stickers:

("This machine kills demons" is on a violin case in Charles Stross's "Laundry Files" Lovecraftian spy novels, which in turn is a riff on Woody Guthrie.)

It actually plays decent, for the price ($100 or so). Not a good choice for absolute beginners, though. And I'm renting an upgrade violin from one of the many high-quality luthier shops in the area, which leads me to recommend that you do that instead of buying one from Amazon. Having had the experience with guitars, I was starting to sense that I'd outgrown the instrument.
[Chris]:  Okay, tell me straight up: how crappy is my violin?
[violin teacher] It's not crappy! It's not like it's impossible to play. For an Internet violin, it's great.
I went into the shop and said, "I bought an Internet violin, and it's been fine, but I've never played a nicer violin, and I have no idea what the differences are, so I would like to try a nicer violin." And behold, I have a nicer violin on a rent-to-own plan.

Sometimes I back into things, so now I'm learning more about this finicky instrument I thought it'd be fun to learn. Having read Stradivari's Genius: Five Violins, One Cello, and Three Centuries of Enduring Perfection, I'm now reading Gone: A Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung. I'd heard the author in passing doing a radio interview, and was struck not that she'd had her Stradivarius stolen, but that she'd felt moved to write a book about it (and apparently a good one).

(If you couldn't quite catch that, another violinist does an interview to talk about the Caprices and what's special about it:)

Happily, my violin ambitions don't really go farther than playing Irish music in bars.

Min Kym does an amazing job of laying out the connection between a virtuosa and her instrument, so we can later understand why--besides the loss of an essentially priceless instrument--the theft was so disabling for her. There are aspects of her life I can relate to, though.
We’re eight, or five, or seven. We race ahead (of course we do). We are child prodigies. We can’t help it. That’s what we are. We don’t ask for it (we don’t train to be it), haven’t been driven by ambition (not yet). We are child prodigies, cuckoos in the nest, oddities, freaks. Later, when we go to music school or college, we might meet someone who is like us, who has lived through the same experiences (there won’t be many), but in the meantime we are on our own. No matter the love and support we get from our families or friends, no matter the guidance from our tutors, we are on our own. We’re not like anyone else. Yes, we can ride a bike or play in the streets, watch TV or jump in the pool, but we are also child prodigies with an ability outside all that. Maybe it will peter out, maybe we’ll crash and burn, maybe turn out to be the best exponent since…since the last one, who knows? We are child prodigies. We don’t quite know it yet, but there’s a long way to go.
I wasn't a music prodigy; maybe I would have been, in a musical family? would I have been a math genius? Impossible to say. I was really, uncomfortably, smart, in a way that set me apart from everyone around me.

I think I've never really talked or written about that part of my life.

It's probably time to start.

Friday, December 8, 2017

like a Rolex from a street vendor

As usual when I catch a new project, I've been doing some reading and documentary-watching about violins, and here is my biggest takeaway:
The world of violins is a snake-pit of treachery and blind faith, and we guitarists should appreciate how lucky we are.
Really truly old guitars don't sound very good. Guitar manufacture has responded wonderfully to modern techniques and materials, and then the guitar in its current form is at most 200 years old. If you actually had a 200-year old guitar, you would donate it to a museum and probably play something from the past 60 years instead.

By contrast, the violin achieved its final form in the 1700s (Stradivari died in 1737), to the extent that modern violins are mostly copies (often quite carefully done) of examples made by the Stradivari, Amati, or Guarneri shops. There's no shame in this: my guitar is a brilliant, patent-infringing postwar Japanese copy of a classic Martin style. It doesn't say "Martin" on it, though. It says "Nashville," which doesn't really make any sense, but sends an honest signal of "this guitar was made by a company that never really existed, and contains no original design work whatsoever."

People have been copying Cremonese violin designs for centuries, but they've also never been shy about just sticking a "ANTONIUS STRADIVARIUS CREMONENSIS FACIEBAT 1713" label inside and calling it good to go. In that case the one thing you know you haven't got is a Stradivarius, but then you're at a loss as to what you actually have. Following the old adage that "90% of everything is crap," that's probably what you have. Much like wine, get some pointers from someone in the know, then get whatever you enjoy.

Monday, November 20, 2017

3 reasons to take up violin.

1. Ciaccona comp. Maurizio Cazzati.

2. Forked Deer, trad. perf. by Tony Trischka (banjo) & Barbara Lamb (fiddle).


3. Folkrotsvalsen comp. Ale Carr / Mitt i Juli comp. Jonas Olsson, perf. by Dreamers' Circus.

I've been listening to this on repeat for weeks now, because it's virtuosic Vikings, referring to a bunch of Scandinavian music things that I know are there but I can't really access. That weird-ass folk-fiddle on the right is a "träskofiol," made by--I swear I'm not making this up--taking a giant wooden shoe and gluing violin fittings on it.

This raises more questions than it answers: are actual real-life clogs that big? if not, someone must make them just to be made into instruments?

There's also the nyckelharpa, with keys that look unsettlingly like a rack of ribs. As my friend once said about her year living in Finland, "the long winter does funny things to people."

(The träskofiol player wrote the waltz-y first piece, before swapping the träskofiol for a cittern, member of a bizarrely diverse and widespread family of similarly-shaped instruments, including that great harbinger of globalization, the Irish bouzouki.)

I particularly want to play Mitt i Juli someday, which means I probably will, since the melody line is freely available, and its basic form is not rocket science. I can't find anything about the fiddle player who wrote it, though, except Dreamers' Circus saying he died fairly recently.

Funny story: I was playing this for my violin teacher:
"Wait... that guy in the middle..."
"Danish String Quartet?"
"Yes! Those guys are awesome!"

And of course she's met them, which hadn't occurred to me, but of course the world of professional string quartets would be small, and even more so for the under-40 crowd.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

not entirely unlike music.

One unsurprising outcome in my violin lessons: given how much better I get when practicing 10 minutes every week, I would get quite a bit better if I practiced more than that. I'm sure I will, someday, but the important thing is that I'm doing it for fun, and if I don't have it in me to practice more, that's actually okay. In fact, it's important that it be okay. Fun things should be fun.

Did you know there's a whole, living body of Scandinavian fiddle music? And can you imagine a more Nordic trio of brilliant musicians playing it? I'm not finding a ton of information about this weird-ass thing on the right, but apparently "clog-fiddle" is the literal translation of träskofiol, and it's a violin made from a giant wooden shoe. (I have many questions about this instrument, viz. why would anyone make wooden shoes that big? If they started making fake shoes big enough to make it sound better, why keep the shoe shape? I found a video of a woman playing one with 8 strings instead of 4, and how does she do that?)

(The other weird-ass thing, played by the same Viking, is called a cittern. Wikipedia helpfully says they "generally have four courses of strings," and then of course the Viking's and most others I'm finding actually have five.)

I've noticed in the past that the dog is often soothed by my guitar-playing, which is, if repetitive, pretty competent. But! I was practicing violin this afternoon when the noisy, food-spilling Dungeons & Dragons kids were here, and she fell asleep--then woke up when I stopped playing. Even to me, my violin playing sounds like I'm getting to do more than just more reliably avoiding the screeching.

It's fun to see music with new eyes.

Hands? Ears?

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

squeak squeak squeak

I'm enjoying my violin, which sounds mostly tolerable and only occasionally appalling. It's often said the violin family are the instruments best able to mimic the human voice, and at the right moments, my violin certainly sounds just like the voice of someone in extreme torment. At other moments, it sings the unhappy keening of a cat in heat: truly a versatile instrument!

I do come to the violin with several advantages over 5th-grade children in the 80s:

  1. Decades of experience teaching me that difficult things are difficult, and the only rational response is to accept that you're a beginner and practice a lot.
  2. 25(!) years of playing guitar, which is, from a broad physics perspective, identical to the violin.
#2 may not be entirely obvious, but they share more terminology than not. The strings start at the head, wrapping around the tuning pegs (which are often just called tuners on a guitar, where they are also geared, as on the violin's larger siblings); pass over the nut and continue down the neck, over the fingerboard to the bridge and ending in the tailpiece. There are also top/back/sides, and, one of my favorite names, purfling.

I know all this because (a) I learn stuff easily enough that it's my all-consuming hobby; (b) when I first picked up the guitar, I had a copy of The Guitar Handbook, which, along with a string-winder, should be issued to every new guitarist; and (c) the Internet.

One handy thing the guitar has are frets, metal bars on the fingerboard which show you where to put your fingers. The violin presents you with an undifferentiated expanse of black. You get to learn, probably by ear-abusive trial and error, the muscle memory of where your fingers go.

Happily, the frets on a fretted instrument (guitar, bass, banjo, mandolin, etc.) are not placed and spaced by accident, nor even by art, but by the glories of science! The quick version is that the frets get predictably closer together as the string gets shorter and the pitch gets higher. The violin is quite a bit shorter than the guitar, but I've been playing guitar a long, long time and I have a pretty good feel for where the frets should be.

...leaving me free to observe how cramped my fingers are.

Here are the things that have to go right for a violin to make some basic, passable music:
  • The bow must be at the right tension.
  • The bow must have the right amount of rosin on it.
  • You must be applying the right amount of pressure on the bow.
    • The right amount of pressure is different on the ends and the middle.
  • You must be moving the bow at the right speed.
  • You must be moving the bow perpendicular to the strings.
  • You must place your fingers precisely on the unmarked fingerboard, with a margin of error that is essentially zero.
  • You must do all of these things at the same time and coordinated with each other.
This leaves out how you hold the bow, angle of the violin, and various other body mechanics.

Sooo, yeah. That's why I'm taking violin lessons. Should keep me off the streets for a while.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

I bought a violin.

I'm not entirely sure why I do these things. It goes from "hey, that looks like fun" and progresses to "those movements look almost entirely alien to my body" and finally peak at "student violins aren't very expensive at all," and only afterward do I remember that when we were choosing instruments back in 5th grade, I avoided the violin because everyone said it was relatively difficult. I chose the trumpet, instead.

Now that I've become acquainted with the violin's 17th-century technology--no joke, it's like the Plimoth Plantation of musical instruments--I see that in the general case, everyone was more or less correct.

In my specific case, however, I chose the trumpet and then also had braces for 4 years, and these were the old-school braces where they glue caltrops onto (most relevantly) your incisors for the duration, which amped up the difficulty of the trumpet to where its only competition would have been other horns.

I often do things because they're challenging--

Hmm. It's possible I only do things when they're challenging, unless there's no other choice.

I have my reasons, I guess.

Friday, September 8, 2017

part of the problem.

We've lived in this house well over 4 years now, and the neighborhood is changing. I don't know how much it was accelerating before we adopted Leela last year; now that I have a roommate who will literally start jumping up and down and barking at me if not walked soon enough after eating, I see the change very clearly. Houses do change hands, it's true, but mostly what I see is Latino families moving out.

I'd never bothered to think about it, but it takes a much longer time to move out than to move in. Moving in, your new place ingests whatever boxes and couches you've chosen to bring with you, and you put the bed together and unpack a couple pots and then you're officially living there.

Moving out, especially as a tenant, should just be the mirror end of the process, but instead it drags on and on. Maybe your housemate leaves some stuff behind. Maybe you like your new girlfriend more than she hates your couch. Stuff has to be Freecycled, or put out through Craigslist, or left out on the curb. If you're using the Friends & Family Moving Company, just moving stuff takes days and days, depending on when your someone's co-worker or relative has a truck available. Then the place has to be cleaned up enough to get the security deposit back.

So it takes a week or two or three, and the dog routes are arbitrary enough that I rarely pass a house less than once every week or two. The people on the streets are more white and Asian, with some black and Southeast Asian. More dogs and babies being walked; fewer poorly-behaved, stir-crazy dogs barrelling into their deadbolt-weight screen doors as we go past. Cars become newer, unmodified, European: Mini, Fiat, BMW, Volvo, Audi.

The problem with gentrification is that it's an inevitable outcome of having cities where people can buy and sell real estate. The Latino couple who raised their kids in this house, before retiring to Gilroy to be full-time absentee slumlords, were going to sell the house, one way or another. There was no scenario in which that didn't happen. Probably flippers wouldn't have bought it--too much work for too little profit--but the way it had appreciated, its days as a run-down low-income rental property were over.

The neighborhood does better when the homes are cared for: after the two very exciting police incidents in the first few months, our intersection is quieter, and seems to be calmer every time Anna has some dismal trees removed, or has a fence put up, or engineers the window replacements, or gets the house painted.

The evenings smell less and less like delicious Mexican food, though. We're losing so much diversity, and I don't know where it ends up.

I'm betting it's gonna be messy.

Monday, August 14, 2017

the wrong coast for dogs.

Leela is the first dog to actually be my responsibility, and being from the Northeast, we had a remarkable lesson to learn:
There are plants out here which will physically (i.e. not by poisoning) kill your dog.
These are called "foxtails," or "spikelets" if you're going to get all semi-educated about it. They work on the same principle as a barbed hook or arrowhead, only they're also like cluster-bombs, in that they will just keep breaking into smaller pieces which are still barbed and can only move in one direction. Spikelet fragments just keep working their way into the body, to the extent that, though it sounds like science fiction, a bit of spikelet stuck in the paw can eventually work its way through the bloodstream to the heart.

Or direct to the lungs, if they get one up the nose. Lethal plants! You'd think we were in Australia.

It's more a concern with bigger dogs and their bigger noses, but Leela's number finally came up, as one spikelet was randomly loose, and at the right angle, and had some fascinating scent that made her snort it up. Luckily, she started convulsively sneezing uncomfortably, and scrunching her face up, and I could see the tips of the spikelet in her nostril. I carried her home (because she continued sneezing when on the ground) and got her to the vet, and they sedated her and got the pieces out.

I'm pretty sure this was more expensive per ounce than marijuana.

She's a pretty unhappy camper under sedation: she lies there immobile, but the arrangement of her legs is all wrong. And then she'll suddenly have a burst of determination and get up, and then she'll stand still and then start wobbling like an AT-AT falling.

So, yeah. Plants that can physically kill your dog. Way to go, West Coast!

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."

  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


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


I'm still reading The Iliad to the boy at bedtime, a few dozen lines per night. I'm still nerding out about 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.