Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | July 29, 2014

Tuesday Art Blogging

Two Women at a Window c1655-1660 Murillo

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Two Women at a Window (or, A Girl and her Duenna), circa 1655-60.

Currently hanging at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | July 28, 2014

Blogging World War I: July 28, 1914: Austria Declares War on Serbia

On this day one hundred years ago, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on the Kingdom of Serbia.

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | July 25, 2014

Chaos Theory

Basically, Steven Spielberg and Jeff Goldblum lied to a generation of math students:

Image Credit: Used under a CC BY-NC 2.5 license.

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | July 18, 2014

Well, this is not reassuring



Now, the good news is that FX has renewed The Americans for a third season.

Even so, the viewership numbers (and trend) shown above do not auger well for the long-term prospects of the show. This is disconcerting for me, since (1) I really this this show, and (2) I would like to see how the main characters react to glasnost and perestroika. In the chronology of the show’s plot, season 1 begins in early 1981, a few weeks before the attempted assassination of President Reagan. I believe that season 2 finishes sometime in 1982 (although I’m not certain on that point). At this rate, it will take 4 or 5 seasons before we see Gorbachev come to power and begin to implement reforms.

So, we need enough people to watch The Americans that FX won’t cancel the show for another couple years at least.

(Graph is by me, based on numbers from Wikipedia. I think that the numbers above reflect only live viewing and same-day DVR viewing, so if there are a lot of people watching the episodes a few days after they air, then the picture may not look quite so bleak. For comparison, during this same 2013-14 time-frame, Justified, another FX one-hour drama series, averaged about 2.3 million viewers per episode.)

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | July 17, 2014

Random Art Blogging: The Emperor Honorius

John William Waterhouse - The Favorites of the Emperor Honorius - 1883

John William Waterhouse, The Favorites of the Emperor Honorius, 1883.

Currently hanging in the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

Some context for the scene: Honorius was Emperor of the Western Roman Empire from 395 until his death in 423 — a period of time when the Western Empire was well into its long, slow decline. He was ten years old when he became Emperor, and he died at 38. The Western Empire was already on a downward slope, but Honorius helped grease the skids. Toward the beginning of his reign, he was guided and served by Stilicho, one of the last competent generals in Roman history; Honorius had Stilicho executed in 408, which did not help the overall military situation, what with the German barbarians streaming across the borders. It was on Honorius’s watch that the Visigoths under Alaric sacked Rome in 410. It was also on his watch that the Romans abandoned Britain.

The scene shown above draws upon an episode reported by the Byzantine historian Procopius, writing about a century after the time of Honorius:

At that time they say that the Emperor Honorius in Ravenna received the message from one of the eunuchs, evidently a keeper of the poultry, that Rome had perished. And he cried out and said, “And yet it has just eaten from my hands!” For he had a very large cock, Rome by name; and the eunuch comprehending his words said that it was the city of Rome which had perished at the hands of Alaric, and the emperor with a sigh of relief answered quickly: “But I thought that my fowl Rome had perished.” So great, they say, was the folly with which this emperor was possessed.

FWIW, Gibbon was apparently skeptical of this story.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | July 17, 2014

How do I tell Judge Kopf…

…that Winston Churchill probably never spoke (or wrote) that quote commonly attributed to him?

(Judge Kopf’s post is here. Wiki informs me that “This quote has been attributed variously to George Bernard Shaw, Benjamin Disraeli, Otto von Bismarck, and others.”)

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | July 16, 2014

Assorted Links for Wednesday

1. Slate has an article by Brian Palmer on the health hazards of pilgrimages. The Hajj always carries the potential for catastrophe (“The most catastrophic Hajj in recent history occurred in 1990, when a rush to escape 112-degree heat resulted in 1,426 people being trampled to death inside an air-conditioned tunnel”), and this year Saudi authorities and the WHO get to deal with the potential ramifications of both MERS and the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa. But, according the Palmer, the dubious honor of “most dangerous religious festival” probably goes to the Kumbh Mela, a periodic Hindu festival that can draw crowds of up to 100 million. From the article:

The Kumbh dwarfs the Hajj in attendance, with as many as 100 million people, many of them unvaccinated, attending the event. It’s the largest religious festival in the world. To fire, which is the most terrifying elemental danger at large gatherings, the Kumbh adds water. Each festival is based around a holy river, and pilgrims surge in large groups to the water every few days to perform sacred rituals. Drownings are common, and they are a serious problem in a country where most people never learn to swim. Government boats patrol the shoreline looking for pilgrims struggling in the current.

The water is also a major source of disease. Pilgrims pitch their tents on a flood plain that is submerged 10 months out of the year. In that environment, mosquito-borne diseases are a major problem. So is giardia. Although Indian officials dig pit latrines around the tent city where pilgrims live for six weeks, there aren’t enough holes to handle the waste. Even if there were enough latrines, many people wouldn’t use them. The World Bank estimates that more than half of Indians practice open defecation, and one of the platforms of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign was building toilets before temples. When you live in a village, open defecation is bad. If you’re defecating on the banks of a river that supplies cooking and bathing water to millions of people within a couple of miles, it’s a disaster waiting to happen.

(FWIW, I have never heard of anyone being trampled to death on the Way of St. James. Yet.)

2. This cool map shows the 146 counties where half of the US population lives (out of some 3,000 counties). By my count, those 146 most-populous counties are spread out (not evenly) over 36 states, plus DC. (H/T: Anderson.)

3. In the Paris Review, Tara Isabella Burton writes “In Defense of Fanny Price” — the protagonist (?) of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Burton:

Fanny Price’s story is less about her individual virtue, or her richer relatives’ lack thereof, but about class, about privilege in its most insidious form — before the term ever cropped up in contemporary social justice discourse. Fanny isn’t moral or upright because she wants to be, but because the role — along with a whole host of so-called middle-class values — is forced upon her. For all we know, she may well wish to be as carefree, as filled with dynamic sprezzatura, as Woodhouse or Elizabeth Bennet, Austen’s more fortunate heroines, but the social dynamic, and the circumstances of her birth, deny her the security necessary for such frivolity. Fanny has too much at stake to be easygoing.

(H/T: 3 Quarks Daily.)

4. The oldest song in the world (that someone managed to write down).

5. Please, let this latest Harry Potter short story be the last one.

6. Alex Pappademas sets forth the case that Speed (which came out 20 years ago this summer) represents something of a transition point between the action movies of the 1980s (like Die Hard) and The Matrix:

It’s said Bruce Willis and Tom Cruise turned down the part of Jack Traven, an LAPD officer who boards a Santa Monica city bus that a madman has wired to explode if it slows down. So did Stephen Baldwin and Richard Grieco, who’d later admit to Movieline that he thought Graham Yost’s original script “sucked.” De Bont says he cast Reeves for his “innocence, sweetness and romantic quality,” which is not traditionally what you go to Cruise or Willis for; Reeves signed on only after a now-legendary uncredited rewrite by Joss Whedon transformed Traven from a wisecracking cowboy cop in the John McClane mold into a more earnest, thoughtful problem-solver caught up in an impossible situation. There are still traces in the finished movie of the Bruce Willis flick it might have been, especially at first. An elevator is in danger of falling, and someone asks if there’s anything that can stop it. Reeves — sporting a newly buff Gold’s Gym body, a buzz cut, and a light sweat-sheen — stops chewing gum long enough to quip, “Yeah — the basement.” It’s a funny line, but in the context of what Reeves does as Traven in the next 90 minutes, it rings retroactively false, a concession to the rules of the genre.

Cool guys don’t look at explosions; cool action-movie guys take command of a situation through physical force, borderline-nihilistic fearlessness, this-time-it’s-personal rage-channeling, and attitudinal one-liners. Reeves’s performance as Traven scrambles those masculine codes so thoroughly that he almost belongs in a conversation about the emergence of the female action hero, also a mid-’90s phenomenon. He exhibits toughness and bravery when required, but it’s his traditionally “feminine” qualities — his sensitivity, his compassion, his capacity for lateral thinking — that carry the day. When a confused passenger pulls a gun, Traven defuses the situation by persuading him that they’re all in this together; later, when an argument breaks out on the bus, he stops it by calmly placing his hand on one man’s shoulder instead of knocking him out. And he’s able to focus on the human factors in this crisis because of the partnership he’s forged with Sandra Bullock’s Annie, which — at least until it takes the inevitable romantic turn — is itself a subversion of the male savior/female victim dynamic traditionally asserted in movies like this one. Here it’s the woman who operates heavy machinery and the man who sees to her emotional needs. “Are you all right? Is there anything I can do?” he asks, after Annie watches the old lady get blown up after attempting to jump to freedom.

To Pappademas, there is “something Buddhist” about Reeves’s portrayal of Travern — and that of course ties into the portrayal of Neo some five years later.

7. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles makes for excellent binge-viewing. And the stand-out performances are, of course, from Summer Glau and Lena Headey.

Read More…

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | June 28, 2014

One Hundred Years Ago Today

Headline of the New York Times June-29-1914

Today is the centennial of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo. One can make an argument that that event marked the beginning of the “real” Twentieth Century (which of course ended on September 11, 2001). By this way of thinking, the “long” Nineteenth Century lasted from 1789 to 1914.

Ann Althouse points to a contemporary analysis in The Guardian that that is a noble entry in the annals of wrong predictions:

It is not to be supposed that the death of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand will have any immediate or salient effect on the politics of Europe.


Meanwhile, Anderson argues that we shouldn’t be celebrating this anniversary as the start of World War I (emphasis added):

Austria wanted an excuse to reduce Serbia to a subject power. Germany supported Austria’s dominating the Balkans, and if that meant war with Russia and its ally France, well better sooner than later, was the German attitude. Russia, rightly or wrongly, felt unable to allow its contest with Austria in the Balkans to end with Austrian supremacy. France wasn’t seeking a war in 1914, but didn’t dare risk renouncing its Russian ally and again facing Germany on its own. Britain, when it woke up to the crisis (it had an incipient rebellion in Ireland to distract it), suggested a mediation amongst the Powers–an invitation Germany rejected, because in the last analysis, Germany did not want peace.

Commemorating World War One on June 28 implicitly accepts the revisionist thesis that the war was inevitable, that the assassination began an avalanche that could not be resisted, that Europe “sleepwalked” into the disaster of the century. War is rarely, if ever, inevitable. It certainly wasn’t inevitable in 1914.

Image Credit: New York Times front page, June 29, 1914. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | June 16, 2014

Meandering Miscellaneous Monday Linkage

Happy Bloomsday!

Also, it seems that it was on this date, in 1858, that US Senate candidate Abraham Lincoln gave the address that came to be called the “House Divided” Speech. (Hat tip: Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac.)

Some other links for your consideration:

1. Another anniversary for today: it was, apparently, 200 years ago today that Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley came up with the idea for the novel Frankenstein:

The story begins, literally, in June 1816 at Villa Diodati overlooking Switzerland’s Lake Geneva. Here, on a dark and stormy night, Shelley—merely 18 at the time—attended a gathering with her future husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, her stepsister Claire Clairmont, Lord Byron and John Polidori. To pass the time, the group read a volume of ghost stories aloud, at which point Byron posed a challenge in which each member of the group would attempt to write such a tale.

“The chronology that’s in most books says Byron suggested they come up with ghost stories on June 16, and by June 17 she’s writing a scary story,” Olson said. “But Shelley has a very definite memory of several days passing where she couldn’t come up with an idea. If this chronology is correct, then she embellished and maybe fabricated her account of how it all happened.

“There’s another, different version of the chronology in which Byron makes his suggestion on June 16, and Shelley didn’t come up with her idea until June 22, which gives a gap of five or six days for conceiving a story,” he said. “But our calculations show that can’t be right, because there wouldn’t be any moonlight on the night that she says the moon was shining.”

Moonlight is the key. In Shelley’s account, she was unable to come up with a suitable idea until another late-night conversation—a philosophical discussion of the nature of life—that continued past the witching hour (midnight). When she finally went to bed, she experienced a terrifying waking dream in which a man attempted to bring life to a cadaverous figure via the engines of science. Shelley awoke from the horrific vision to find moonlight streaming in through her window, and by the next day was hard at work on her story.

According to astronomers at Texas State, the detail of Mary (I think she was still Wollstonecraft Godwin at that point) seeing moonlight over the Alps from her bedroom means that she must have awoken between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. on June 16, 1816.

(H/T: Christopher Frizzelle, SLOG.)

2. How to Talk to an Archaeologist. First point: “Do not liken the archaeologist to Indiana Jones. … yes, we love Indy as an action hero, but he was a terrible archaeologist. He swashbuckled and plundered. He had reckless methodology and demonstrated no knowledge of archaeological theory. He was not advancing the field; he was treasure hunting. Would I make out with him? Obviously. Would I award him tenure at the University of Chicago? No.”

3. This artist has illustrated the pivotal trial by combat from A Storm of Swords, which was depicted in season 4, episode 8 of Game of Thrones a few weekends ago. (Spoilers at the link, clearly.)

4. In Wired, Laura Hudson has a post that succinctly and poignantly captures the greatness and awfulness of the reimagined Battlestar Galactica (with tips for binge watching): “Five years after it ended, Battlestar is still famous for two things: how addictive it is, and how bad its ending was. It’s still a ride that’s very much worth taking, though I have a few suggestions for exactly when to consider jumping off the train.” (Basically, you can skip season 4.)

See also Charlie Jane Anders, “Did Battlestar Galactica Have The Worst Ending In Science Fiction History?” (Spoilers, obviously.)

5. Tod Kelly on “The Sterility of Fanboy Criticism”:

When a new work today draws heavily from an older piece, subsequent fanboy criticism is based not so much on that work within its own context, but rather on the degree to which it is or is not exactly like the original. In fact, fanboy criticism is not so much artistic evaluation as it is a purity test. Its language is more strident, and more… doctrinal. (Indeed, it is notable that the word fanboy critics use to determine the validity of a work drawn from a source they already know is “canonical.”) This is far more subversive than it appears at first blush, and if heeded potentially more damaging. Artistic creation has always required not only the pilfering but also the willful destruction of what has come before it. Fanboy criticism, therefore, is a new and twisted kind of artistic criticism that ardently demands of an artist the complete cessation of artistic impulse.

Posted by: Paul A. Forsyth | June 12, 2014

My Favorite Judicial Opinion of the Week: Dragons and Copyright

The decision itself is a few weeks old, but I only read about it this week. Kenneth Eng, acting pro se, sued L’Poni Baldwin for copyright infringement. Eng and Baldwin both write about dragons, you see. Toward the end of May, Judge Eric Vitaliano (of the Southern District of New York) dismissed the suit for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted (Rule 8). In other words, Eng failed to allege facts sufficient to show copyright infringement.

Here’s a key part of Judge Vitaliano’s opinion (which is also the part that made me chuckle):

It is clear that Eng, as told by him in his complaint, has seized hold of similarities between his ideas, as expressed in “Dragons: Lexicon Triumvirate,” and Baldwin’s, as expressed in her own works. Far from being “original” in a legal sense, the ideas which Eng purports to own are similarly common in the corpus of American science fiction and fantasy. Moreover, plaintiff entirely fails to identify how Baldwin’s expressions are in any way substantially similar to his own, and even the most cursory comparison of the works in question can make clear that the authors express their common ideas quite differently. For instance, Eng alleges that the “dragon gods” in Baldwin’s stories are “identical” to what the character Dennagon becomes in his own novel. But, where Eng’s supreme dragon realized singular, limitless power through contact with the titular Lexicon artifact, and made himself one with eternity itself, the “dragon gods” of Baldwin’s writings are many, less-than-omnipotent, and preoccupied with mundane concerns. In short, expressions which Eng calls “identical” to his own are anything but.

As Tim Cushing says, “Kudos to the judge for being willing to wade into roughly comparable texts dealing with dragons, techno-dragons, gun-wielding dragons and dragon gods in order to make this point.” Indeed. (Not all judges hearing copyright infringement cases are fortunate enough to be reading Faulkner or Joyce.)

The court dismissed the suit without prejudice and gave the pro se plaintiff 30 days to refile. (Somehow, I am dubious of the chances for success of any amended complaint Mr. Eng might file.)

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