01/9/14

To err is human. And bureaucratic.


Roosevelt quoteErrare humanum est, perseverare diabolicum, et tertium non datur. To err is human; to persevere in error is diabolical; there is no third option.

Bit of a tough love phrase, that one. Most of us know this as the later paraphrase of Alexander Pope: to err is humane, to forgive divine. Yes, he wrote “humane” because that’s how they wrote “human” in the early 18th century. And he was making a statement about critics, not about religion. But you get the drift.*

Pope’s phrase is a staple in politics. To err is human, and governments are composed of people. In his speech to the Democratic National Convention, in 1936, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, said those words in the image above:

Governments can err, presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that Divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted on different scales. Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.

That’s worth repeating: Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.

Clearly others agreed, because Roosevelt was re-elected by a landslide that year. What impresses me is Roosevelt’s insistence that it is better to have a government that sometimes errs, yet cares for its constituents, than a government that doesn’t make the effort because it fears those mistakes. Or makes its decisions based on frozen ideology, rather than situational ethics, rather than looking for the greater good outside the myopic view.

Of course, we all err; we all have the benefit of hindsight that tells us what we might have done better, what we might have improved, which fork in the road would have been the better – not just the shortest or fastest – route. As Billy Wilder quipped, hindsight is always 20-20. We see the past better than the future.

In response to those armchair quarterbacks who were quick to point out the better way he might have followed, Roosevelt might have paraphrased John 8: “Let any one of you who has never made a mistake be the first to throw a stone at the decision makers.”
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12/25/13

Makes you feel happy, like an old time movie


Classic movies coverThere’s something touching about a classic film, something magical about a B&W movie, about a film shot between the wars in that period of recovery and optimism; a film that was new when my parents were young, full of life and hope. A movie from the days before CGI, before green screens and 3D. Before slasher films, before graphic sex and graphic violence.

It’s a combination of art and innocence, of technology just starting to blossom, of storytelling finding new avenues for expression and sometimes not quite sure about it. Others are bold statements about style and expression; avant-garde art.*

There were, of course, B films and bad movies then: not every film was a work of art;nor  a masterpiece of acting and direction. Yet I find I can sit through a 1930s’ B-flick, even a bad one, and still enjoy it, when I can barely keep still for today’s B-roll (movies like Transformers are like dentistry without anesthetic…).

Even a lot of the A list today has me fidgeting and looking at my iPhone (of course, we watch them at home, on DVD… that way I can get up and get a glass of wine to numb my aesthetic senses…).

I could watch some classic films endlessly – Casablanca, Maltese Falcon, the Hunchback of Notre Dame (almost anything with Charles Laughton is repeatable for me), King Kong, most of the early monster movies (Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolfman, the Invisible Man and the Mummy, although the sequels generally pale in comparison to the originals); the Thin Man films, The Big Sleep, The African Queen, Singing in the Rain, the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby “Road” series, the Marx Brothers, WC Fields…

Acting is sometimes histrionic, especially in the earlier films, as if the actors are not quite sure they’re in a talkie and have to overact rather than just speak their lines.

Gunfights without blood, car crashes without fiery explosions… without the sound and special effects we’re so used to today, actors had to get your attention by themselves, not depend on external effects. Directors had to use light and shadow in different ways, and some – like Alfred Hitchcock and Frtiz Lang – exploited the chiaroscuro very effectively.

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12/17/13

Selling the electric upright bass


Ergo electric upright 5-string bassMy first experience playing a bass guitar came when I was asked to join a local garage band in the mid-1960s. I was learning rhythm guitar back then, inspired by the Beatles and the wave of British pop bands that flooded the airwaves from around 1962.

But they already had two of those. They didn’t have a bass player, though, so I became the bass player. Not a terribly good one, mind you, but it was a fun experience. As soon as I left, a year or two later, I went back to rhythm guitar. But bass stuck with me and I’ve tinkered with it on and off since then.

In the 1980s, when I had an apartment full of musical instruments and recording devices, and jammed almost every weekend, I bought a couple of bass guitars to fool around with. I also needed something different to play when I went to a jam that already had half-a-dozen guitarists.

My favourite was a short-scale (23″? 25″?) Supra bass. Wish I’d never sold it, but that was 20+ years ago. Ab antiquo, as it were.

I started tinkering with bass again in 2011, when I bought an Epiphone Viola bass, a close clone of the Hofner bass Paul McCartney used in the Beatles, but a shorter scale.  Beautiful instrument. It was on sale as a ‘scratch and dent’ item at the local Blue Mountain Music store, but I couldn’t see a single blemish.

I’d been playing ukulele for more than three years by then, but when I saw it in the store, suddenly I had an urge to play bass again. I got it and a small practice amp.

Shortly after that, I picked up a used Ibanez six-string bass from a seller on Kijiji. Six string basses are oddities to me, but I’ve always loved playing odd instruments, so I added it to the collection. I didn’t play it a lot, though, after the initial plucking. Mostly I found the Epi easier to play and I didn’t want unplayed instruments cluttering the house. Pretty soon, I sold it.

I started looking at electric upright basses a couple of months after that, mostly out of curiosity. Fretless, upright basses have always sounded beautiful to me and I’ve been a big fan of Charlie Mingus for decades.

But size-wise, they are just way too big for my little house. Susan would be most unhappy were I to fill our already-crowded dining room with a fat bass. A loud bass, too. Not exactly something I could plunk away at without disturbing her. At least with an electric bass, I can play without amplification, or with headphones.

So the alternative  was an electric upright bass. But I knew as much about EUB as most people know about quantum mechanics or the mysteries of the apostrophe. I needed to do some research. I joined bass forums and asked the typical newbie questions: what to look for, brands, sizes, etc. Did I want a flat fretboard or radiussed?
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11/14/13

Coriolanus on Film


CoriolanusCoriolanus is a tough play, full of politics and angry people and shouting mobs. It has no comic relief, no jesters, no romance and no real heroes. No great soliloquies, unsympathetic characters, uncomfortable double dealing, treachery and plotting. No powerful subplot as a counterpoint. Pride, arrogance, and power dominate.

Coriolanus himself is empty, driven, bereft of the great passions that animate Shakespeare’s other main protagonists.

Except the passion for revenge, which comes upon him halfway through the play. Before that, he seems an automaton, as fixed in his role as an aristocrat and soldier as Tsar Nicholas was, with little softening humanity to give the audience something to like. And like as wedded to his fate as the Tsar.

Harold Bloom wrote:

Shakespeare subtly does not offer us any acceptable alternatives to Coriolanus’s sense of honor, even as we are shown how limited and crippling that sense becomes when it is challenged. The hero’s mother, his friends, and his enemies, both Roman and Volscian, move us to no sympathy whatsoever.

And yet… even if there’s not much noble in Caius Martius, he has honour and enough incipient tragedy about him that we feel keen interest in his story. He is, if nothing else, true to himself, with no apparent ulterior motives or hidden agendas to guide his deeds or words. He’s a soldier; he does his job without questioning.

Scholars aren’t even sure if the play was performed during Shakespeare’s lifetime. But after the Restoration, various directors dug it up and molded the play to fit some contemporary political event or cause. Even today, it’s considered popular as a symbolic political work, easily adapted to modern views.

Which is what Ralph Fiennes does well in his 2011 film of the play. Fiennes both directs and acts the central role, brilliantly in both cases.

I’m always leery of Shakespeare in modern clothes. It sometimes seems artificial and contrived to have modern-day characters strutting around speaking 16th century lines. But not in this Coriolanus. The stagecraft is remarkable, and the date language seems made fit for the setting. I was glued to the screen as it unfolded, and stuck to it for the entire two hours. The pacing is brisk, with plenty of action and emotion. It feels modern, relevant.

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11/6/13

The Fretful Porpentine


Fretful porpentineLike quills upon the fretful porpentine. That phrase just makes the modern reader stop and wonder. What, you ask yourself, is a porpentine? And why is it fretful?

We never learn, although later interpreters would knowingly tell us a porpentine is a porcupine in today’s argot. Porcupine itself dervices from the Old or Middle French term, “porc espin” or spined pig. Which it isn’t – it’s a rodent*

It’s an old word, encountered earlier as “purpentine” in 1589, but hardly a common word in any spelling after that, at least not in drama.**

Shakespeare wrote it as porpentine in 1602. One seldom encounters the word between his Hamlet and the middle of the 20th century, when it reappears in The Amazing Vacation, a children’s fantasy novel written in 1956 by Dan Wickenden. It also appears in P. G. Wodehouse’s 1960 novel about Bertie Wooster, Jeeves in the Offing.***

Today, of course, the word porpentine is frequently paired with the adjective fretful on may online sites and blogs. In more common use is the phrase “hair stand on end,” penned in the same verse of Hamlet. Phrases.org.uk tells us of that:

The allusion of makes your hair stand on end is to the actual sensation of hairs, especially those on the neck, standing upright when the skin contracts due to cold or to fear. This is otherwise known as ‘goose-flesh’ and the condition is, or rather was, known by the entirely splendid word horripilation. This was defined by Thomas Blount in his equally splendidly named book Glossographia, or a dictionary interpreting such hard words as are now used, 1656.

Horripilation. Love that word. We owe a lot to Shakespeare and the number of phrases of his we still write and speak today is truly astounding.

The Australian News commented on the longevity of Shakespearean phrases more than 400 years later:

Then there is the English language. The debt it owes to Shakespeare (and the slightly later King James Version of the Bible) is incalculable. No English speaker with any pretensions to culture (above that of phone texting or advertising brochures) can avoid using words or expressions that originated with the Bard of Avon. Not bad going for the son of a draper.

Porpentine isn’t one of Shakespeare’s many neologisms, but rather a nonce word: “a linguistic form which a speaker consciously invents or accidentally does on a single occasion.” Or in this situation, a word used rarely (but not singly). Perhaps it’s simply his unique spelling of purpentine.

Shakespeare was, regardless, an unprecedented source of neologisms and nonce words. According to the Oxford Dictionary, some 2,200 words first appear in writing in Shakespeare’s works, and linguist David Crystal says he invented about 1,700 of them. These are aside from the phrases mentioned above.

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11/4/13

What Bread Would Chaucer Have Eaten?


Starter mixI was mulling over the growth of the whole ‘artisan bread’  movement as I made another batch of dough last week to cold ferment in the fridge. As I lay in bed reading one night, I started to wonder what sort of bread Chaucer would have eaten. Or Shakespeare.

That led to: how was bread made 500 years ago? 1,000? What ingredients did they use? How did the technology and techniques develop? How was yeast’s work discovered and when? How authentic is today’s bread? Aside, that is, from the  refined flour, sugar, salt and highly domesticated yeast…

So I started to do a little online research. (Visual pun: That’s my latest starter on the left, with my latest effort, a modest pan bread made from a similar starter, a bit further below).

First stop: Gode Cookery, a website dedicated to historical – Medieval to Renaissance – cooking, recipes and food. It offers both pages on Chaucer’s food, but also numerous pages and recipes for bread and here.*

Lots of material for experimentation there, but not a lot of narrative history about how bread was developed and worked. Was it kneaded, or just allowed to rise naturally? Where did yeast come from? Flour? How were loaves shaped? Cooked?

A little note I found elsewhere says the English word “lord” comes from the old English “hlaford” (“loaf ward”) which means “keeper of the bread.” Zingerman’s notes:

Historically bread has played an important role in nearly every major European culture. In the Bible the word “bread” is synonymous with “nourishment.” The English word “lord” is derived from the old English “hlaford”, meaning “keeper of the bread.” The role of challah and matzoh in Judaism and the communion wafer in Christianity are, of course, well known. The word “companion” is derived from the Latin “companio”, meaning “one who shares bread.” And in our society, think about what the use of the slang terms “dough” and “bread” for money says about our 20th-century priorities.

Starter mixBack to Chaucer. Bread is mentioned several times in the Canterbury tales. In  The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, Chaucer wrote:

Her board was mostly garnished, white and black,
With milk and brown bread, whereof she’d no lack,
Broiled bacon and sometimes an egg or two,
For a small dairy business did she do.

Ah, but what kind of brown bread? Was this rye or a whole wheat? In the Wife of Bath’s Tale, he writes:

Let such be bread of purest white wheat-seed,
And let us wives be called but barley bread;
And yet with barley bread, if Mark you scan
Jesus Our Lord refreshed full many a man.

So clearly white and dark breads have different social connotations. Again, bread is mentioned in the General Prologue, in discussion of the Franklin:

He loved to dip his morning bread in wine.
A pleasing live was the custom he’d won,
For he was Epicurus’ very son,
That held opinion that plain and pure delight
Was true happiness, perfect and right.
A householder, and that a great, was he;
Saint Julian he was in his own country.
His bread, his ale were always good and fine;
No man had cellars better stocked with wine.

Bread also appears in other tales; brief mentions, not as a centrepiece, and seldom described with any more detail. Food and drink were literary props for Chaucer, but – according to Food in the Arts - weren’t all that important to him:

Food was simply not that important to him, and this attitude is reflected most in his early writings. There is scarcely any mention of food or eating in his courtly poems, only the occasional feast which is hardly discussed and certainly never described in great detail. Bread, ale, and wine are often mentioned, but other foods are not specifically defined: roasted meat, drink, etc. Such references are used only to add color or flavoring to the story, and don’t give the modern culinary historian much to work on.

Gode Cookery tells us bread was one of the :

 …most common and vital foodstuffs of the Middle Ages, it was, and has always been a daily staple of life. Essential to Medieval society, a rise in the cost of wheat or a scarcity of bread usually marked the beginning of a time of famine or economic calamity. Figures indicate that in England, the average lowly household allowed everyone about 2 to 3 pounds of wheat bread a day, while in France wheat records show that each citizen had enough wheat for about a 2-pound loaf each day. Clearly, bread was the basis of the Medieval diet. References to many varieties of bread appear throughout Chaucer’s writings.

Two to three pounds of bread a day? Of course, the loaves were smaller, and denser, not like the commercial sponge bread we have today.  Still…  This site suggests peasants ate as much as two loaves of bread every day: 2,200 to 3,000 calories in bread alone:

A prosperous English peasant in the 14th century would probably consume 2 – 3 pounds of bread, 8 ounces of meat or fish or other protein and 2 -3 pints of ale per day. The bread was usually mean of rye, oats, or barley. Meat was expensive and usually only available on special occasions. Often eggs, butter, or cheese were substituted for meat. Vegetables such as onions, leeks, cabbage, garlic, turnips, parsnips, peas and beans were staples. Fruits were available in season.

Rye could also be problematic: it is susceptible to a fungus called ergot, which can drive people mad, or even kill them. It might make them appears as ‘witches,’ too (many of the famous witch hunts happened after an outbreak of ergot poisoning, it seems):

Ergot thrives in a cold winter followed by a wet spring. The victims of ergot might suffer paranoia and hallucinations, twitches and spasms, cardiovascular trouble, and stillborn children. Ergot also seriously weakens the immune system.

Note to self: check rye flour before using. People already think I’m crazy. No need to confirm it for them.

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