09/20/13

Swimming with Vivaldi


VivaldiToday, for an hour, I swam with Vivaldi. Not the actual composer, of course. He died in 1741 at the age of 63. Would have made a mess of the pool to dig him up and toss him in.

The “red priest,” as he was called (for his red hair), probably couldn’t even swim. Not a lot of people back then could. but he could write music, and play the violin beautifully. Almost 300 years later his music is still as powerful and moving as when he was alive.*

Rather, as you guessed, I swam with his music, the Four Seasons to be exact. Gil Shaham/Orpheus Chamber Orchestra version from 1995, Deutsche Grammophon, my favourite of many versions I own. Crisp, clear and full of life, that version. And almost perfectly timed – not quite an hour long.

Composed in 1723, The Four Seasons remains Vivaldi’s most famous work. Justifiably so, in my estimation. It is instantly recognizable even by those unfamiliar with classical music, and has graced many a Hollywood production. Surprisingly, it doesn’t feel over-used. But maybe I’m just a sentimental fool for it.

Vivaldi was born in Venice, a city built on the water, a city of canals and gondoliers, bridges and sweepingly beautiful architecture that towers over the water. The city permeates his music, as does – to my ears – water. The rhythms of waves, of tides. Which seems entirely appropriate for the waves I make as I swim laps.

He actually wrote his masterpiece while working out of town. In 1718, Vivaldi took a position at the court of the governor of Mantua. He moved from there to Milan in 1721, then in 1722 he moved to Rome. He didn’t return to Venice until 1725. During his absence, he wrote the Four Seasons. It wasn’t published until 1725, however.

Vivaldi’s concerto was written the year before another famous Venetian – and one of the historical characters I both admire and delight in reading – Giacomo Casanova was born. Not quite contemporaries, Vivaldi died in Casanova’s 17th year, but no doubt Casanova heard the piece – and many other Vivaldi compositions – when he lived there. The concerto has been used in TV and movie biographies of Casanova, and in my mind they are intrinsically linked.

The Four Seasons, as its name suggests, has four movements, each dedicated to a different season. It’s actually four mini-concertos linked by thematic components. Wikipedia suggests Mantua was his inspiration:

The inspiration for the concertos was probably the countryside around Mantua. They were a revolution in musical conception: in them Vivaldi represented flowing creeks, singing birds (of different species, each specifically characterized), barking dogs, buzzing mosquitoes, crying shepherds, storms, drunken dancers, silent nights, hunting parties from both the hunters’ and the prey’s point of view, frozen landscapes, ice-skating children, and warming winter fires.

But I can’t help but hear the busy plazas and streets of Venice, see the masks and the palaces when I hear it. I imagine Vivaldi sitting indoors in Mantua, writing out the notes, thinking of his Venice, not the hills outside his window.
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09/18/13

Should Latin Return to Ontario Schools?


Teaching LatinWhen I was a young lad, all I ever wanted to be was a paleontologist. Dinosaurs were the most important thing in my life until around age 14 or 15. That’s when I barely scraped through my high-school Latin course. After that, my interests shifted to other, more attainable career goals.

Basic Latin was, at least back then, required for a career in paleontology. Greek, too*. My ability to learn languages was, as a young teenager, not up to the mark. I barely passed Latin, probably given a pass by a teacher who felt sorry for my linguistic disability (and didn’t want to suffer me through a remedial summer class).

Which is odd, given that today Latin fascinates me and I delight in reading about it and its etymological influence in our language.  I often spend time online looking for Latin phrases or translations. I happily struggled with some phrases from Livy when researching my book on Machiavelli.

But back in high school, it was more a drudgery than a delight.

According to a 2010 story in the Toronto Star, Latin was mandatory in Ontario high schools until 1968. It started falling off curricula after that.

For centuries, Latin and ancient Greek were staples of general education, and working knowledge of authors like Cicero and Virgil was required for university admission. Latin was mandatory in Ontario’s high schools until 1968.
But since 1994, the number of Ontario schools offering Latin has fallen to 60 from 159 — a 62 per cent drop. Classical educators face a battery of pressures: tight student timetables, teacher shortages, and underlying it all, the perennial accusations of irrelevance and Eurocentrism.

Irrelevance? Latin has a firm grip on the English language, a millennium-and-a-half after the Roman Empire collapsed. As Wikipedia notes:

…a significant portion of the English vocabulary comes from Romance and Latinate sources. Estimates of native words (derived from Old English) range from 20%–33%, with the rest made up of outside borrowings. A portion of these borrowings come directly from Latin, or through one of the Romance languages, particularly Anglo-Norman and French, but some also from Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish; or from other languages (such as Gothic, Frankish or Greek) into Latin and then into English. The influence of Latin in English, therefore, is primarily lexical in nature, being confined mainly to words derived from Latin roots.

Many neologoisms are based in Latin – especially the “classical compounds,” although the word neologism is actually from the Greek (neo-new, logos-word). But that’s just a reinforced argument for teaching at least rudimentary Greek as well.

The Star story goes on to say,

One American study showed that students who learn Latin in high school have average GPA scores of 2.89 in university compared to 2.38 for those who didn’t study any language and 2.80 for those who studied a modern language. Latin students also consistently out-perform on the SAT.

Because SAT scores are paramount for admission at American colleges, in the U.S. “they can’t get enough Latin teachers,” according to Margaret-Anne Gillis, a board member of the Ontario Classical Association and Latin teacher at Barrie Central Collegiate. Two teachers she helped train had their green cards expedited.

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09/17/13

The Cosmic Origins of Life


CometHere’s one to confound the creationist crowd: life may have begun as a result of organic molecules resulting from impacts by comets or meteorites. No supernatural foundation, no invisible hand guiding the process. Just random crashes, a little physics, some chemistry, a while lot of time, and voila: life.

But wait, there’s more…

How did these molecules go from static organic molecules to self-reproducing you ask? Ah, therein lies another tale… that of enzymes, the little engines of life. More randomness, more chemistry. No intelligent design.

Let’s start with the comets.

According to a recent article in Science Daily,

Scientists … from Imperial College London, the University of Kent and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory discovered that when icy comets collide into a planet, amino acids can be produced. These essential building blocks are also produced if a rocky meteorite crashes into a planet with an icy surface.

The researchers suggest that this process provides another piece to the puzzle of how life was kick-started on Earth, after a period of time between 4.5 and 3.8 billion years ago when the planet had been bombarded by comets and meteorites.

The intrepid researchers fired projectiles at comet-like speeds into icy surfaces similar to what we know comets are made from.  They discovered that the shock wave slams simple molecules together into more complex forms. The heat from the impact  then transforms these more complex molecules into amino acids such as glycine and D-and L-alanine.

Dr Mark Price, co-author from the University of Kent, adds: “This process demonstrates a very simple mechanism whereby we can go from a mix of simple molecules, such as water and carbon-dioxide ice, to a more complicated molecule, such as an amino acid. This is the first step towards life. The next step is to work out how to go from an amino acid to even more complex molecules such as proteins.”

In a similar experiment, published in July,2013, scientists simulated an icy comet-like snowball using carbon dioxide, ammonia, methane, ethane and propane. They zapped it with high-energy electrons to “simulate the cosmic rays in space” and discovered that the result was “complex, organic compounds, specifically dipeptides, essential to life.”

Chemists from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Hawaii, Manoa, showed that conditions in space are capable of creating complex dipeptides – linked pairs of amino acids – that are essential building blocks shared by all living things. The discovery opens the door to the possibility that these molecules were brought to Earth aboard a comet or possibly meteorites, catalyzing the formation of proteins (polypeptides), enzymes and even more complex molecules, such as sugars, that are necessary for life.

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09/17/13

$35 Million Costs Confirmed in Report


GossipI was told recently that the $35 million projected capital costs  for the Central Park redevelopment had been called a “red herring.” That’s verifiably untrue.

The actual total amount shown in the final report is $35,251,965.11.

This isn’t a made up number, an inflated number or an imaginary number. It isn’t a council number, either. In fact the two council PRC representatives did not even attend those steering committee meetings that came up with that figure.

Thirty-five million dollars is what the steering committee calculated and approved themselves, working in conjunction with several consultants, planners, architects and engineers over more than a year – and at a cost to taxpayers of more than $42,000 in fees to those professionals – to come up with that total.*

The Central Park Redevelopment final report, presented to Council by the steering committee in March, 2012, shows the full projected costs on page 37.

That page is reproduced here:

Page 37

You can see that the proposed cost in the steering committee’s final report was more than $35 million plus HST. That’s fact. Read it above. You can download a PDF of the page here.

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09/16/13

Of Type and Typography


Just My TypeHumans have remarkable ability that is shared by – as far as we know – no other animal. We can turn abstract images and symbols into meaning. Words are, of course, the prime example, as old as our history. We can turn a  word like dog, tree, table or vacation into a broad and deep understanding of what that word means to us.

Of course when I write “dog” and you read it, they’re not the same thing. I need to add qualifiers – adjectives, descriptions, anecdotes – for you to come close to appreciating my meaning. Even then, it’s still based on your and my individual emotional experiences. And they’re likely not aligned or similar. Nonetheless, it doesn’t stop writers from discussing dogs, from describing dogs.

But like molecules are made of atoms, and atoms of smaller particles yet, and those made up of quarks, sentences are made of words, words are made of letters, and letters are made strokes. The jot and tittle of Biblical phrase.

The amazing thing with the human brain is that we can take a collection of slashes, lines, strokes and dots and transform it into a letter and thus into a word. We take the abstract and solidify it.

Dissect an ‘A’ and what do you have? Two angled and one horizontal line. In lowercase – ‘a’ – we see two curves, one cupped against the other.

But in the human brain that’s a letter; a vowel, an indefinite article. It’s a crucial component in writing and speech, one of  five (and sometimes six) sounds that connect the vertebra of consonants. Tens of thousands of words depend on those simple lines. We could not do without the letter A. it is part of the genetic makeup of language. Yet by itself it’s just some lines on a page.

The letter “A,” we told, comes from the Phoenician aleph: a stylized bull’s head, rotated with use (see here). Today we’re using symbols created 3,000 years ago (although our Western alphabet - Latin - is really a creation of the Romans, dating back more than 2,700 years, although in today’s form and content about 2,100 years old. Consider the heritage in that, every time you type a Facebook post, an email or write a letter: the history of writing is ancient.

The alphabet is a remarkable invention. It turned human vocal sounds into abstract symbols, it codified the world into abstract symbols. Humans assembled a series of strokes, lines and curves to define language. And we did it a long time ago – in Egypt in the 27th century BCE by most accounts. More than 4,700 years ago. Others identify it with Sumerian culture, somewhat earlier. Either way, it’s pretty impressive and probably the most important human invention.  Clive Thomson writes in his book, Smarter Than You Think,

Writing — the original technology for externalizing information — emerged around five thousand years ago, when Mesopotamian merchants began tallying their wares using etchings on clay tablets. It emerged first as an economic tool. As with photography and the telephone and the computer, newfangled technologies for communication nearly always emerge in the world of commerce. The notion of using them for everyday, personal expression seems wasteful, risible, or debased. Then slowly it becomes merely lavish, what “wealthy people” do; then teenagers take over and the technology becomes common to the point of banality.

(I don’t agree entirely with Thompson’s assessment that writing is on the same technological level as, say, an iPad or the internet, nor that technology makes us smarter; in fact I argue the opposite in that technology makes it simpler to do things, so we work less at them. But I sigress and will save that argument for another post.)

But letters are not rocks: they are not fixed in the firmament. They change, they evolve like living things.

The design of those letters has been debated and developed since the first words were scratched into rock. But it really became an art when the printing press was invented, thanks to Johannes Gutenberg. And ever since his invention, people have been debating what makes a good, readable, legible and aesthetically pleasing typeface. Sometimes with great emotion.

Robert Bringhurst, in his book The Elements of Typographic Style, made a comment typical of the passion that type raises in its aficionados, designers and critics:

In a badly designed book, the letters mill and stand like starving horses in a field. In a book designed by rote, they sit like stale bread and mutton on the page. In a well-made book, where designer, compositor and printer have all done their jobs, no matter how many thousands of lines and pages, the letters are alive. They dance in their seats. Sometimes they rise and dance in the margins and aisles.

Type and typography creates in some people the fiery emotions we see in other arts.*

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09/14/13

In Wildness is the Preservation of the World


Walking quoteThe title of this post is a quote from Henry David Thoreau’s essay, Walking, published posthumously in 1862, but which he wrote and rewrote during the 1850s. I was thinking of that line this week when Council officially opened the new Black Ash Creek Park, in the northeast of the Georgian Meadows subdivision.*

I was thinking of it not in terms of the park – a pleasant, family-oriented, structured space with playground equipment, a small pavilion, basketball court and a chess table – but rather about the untamed green spaces around the park. It is this small patch of wildness that delights me, not the carefully manicured grass or artfully curved sidewalk that borders it.

I’m sure kids – the older ones – will see those woods, the trail, the fields as a magnet for play. I’d hate to think we live in such a paranoid, dangerous world that children can’t be free to explore such spaces, to discover for themselves the magic of the woods. Maybe I’m naive, but I want to believe children can still play outside the confines adults build for them. At the very least, I hope parents take their children for walks into those woods: teach them to love, appreciate and respect the wild, to care for it, to protect and defend it.

Not all unbuilt space should be clear-cut for a housing development. Some wild space has to be retained for our collective enjoyment, and sanity. We need, as Thoreau wrote, wildness to complete ourselves.

I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements. You may safely say, A penny for your thoughts, or a thousand pounds. When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them—as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon—I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago. I, who cannot stay in my chamber for a single day without acquiring some rust, and when sometimes I have stolen forth for a walk at the eleventh hour, or four o’clock in the afternoon, too late to redeem the day, when the shades of night were already beginning to be mingled with the daylight, have felt as if I had committed some sin to be atoned for—I confess that I am astonished at the power of endurance, to say nothing of the moral insensibility, of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day for weeks and months, aye, and years almost together.

Walking defined Thoreau’s philosophy of nature, described through his experiences while walking into the nearby woods; like Buddhist walking meditations on our role in nature and civilization. It later became one of the key essays in the American Transcendentalist-environmentalist movement of the mid-late 19th century. It still has resonance today.

I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.

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