This can’t be true, can it?

I picked up a used book a few days ago and was just leafing through it.  The book is the Wordsworth Reference 1993 paperback of James George Frazer’s 1922 abridgment of his massive work of comparative religion, The Golden Bough.  On virtually every page, I find something which moves me to exclaim “Interesting, if true!”  I’m pretty sure that 99% of Frazer’s factual claims are total bullshit, as for example this story, chosen entirely at random, alleged to be a description of the practices of traditional healers among the indigenous people of British Columbia:

The Indians of the Nass river, in British Columbia, are impressed with a belief that a physician may swallow his patient’s soul by mistake.  A doctor who is believed to have done so is made by the other members of the faculty to stand over the patient, while one of them thrusts his fingers down the doctor’s throat, another kneads him in the stomach with his knuckles, and a third slaps him on the back.  If the soul is not in him after all, and if the same process has been repeated upon all the medical men without success, it is concluded that the soul must be in the head-doctor’s box.  A party of doctors, therefore, waits upon him at his house and requests him to produce his box.  When he has done so and arranged its contents on a new mat, they take the votary of Aesculapius and hold him up by the heels with his head in a hole in the floor.  In this position they wash his head, and “any water remaining from the ablution is taken and poured upon the sick man’s head.”  No doubt the lost soul is in the water.

I take it the characters in this tale of Frazer’s are supposed to be the Nisga’a people of the Nass river valley; if any Nisga’a are reading these, please use the comments to tell me whether you think Frazer may by some odd chance be telling the truth about what your ancestors did a hundred years ago.

When I was typing the passage above up, I realized something about it seemed familiar.  Then I remembered Star Trek 3, a 1984 movie in which the ship’s surgeon has somehow ingested the soul of one of his patients.  It is by no means impossible that this passage may have inspired that story.  Comparative mythology was very much in vogue in Hollywood in those days, especially in the person of Joseph Campbell, and Frazer is a small step from Campbell.

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The Rite to Remain Silent

There was also a nun, a prioress, who in her smiling modest was and coy, and her greatest oath was but “By Saint Eloy!”

In 2002, I took in a dog.  He’d lived in my neighbors’ backyard, and they couldn’t take care of him any more.  For those first few weeks, training him to live in my apartment kept me from getting much sleep.

Something else that was new to me at about that time was cable television.  Since I was now up at all hours, I started turning on the TV at all hours, looking for something to watch. I quickly found that there were always reruns of Law & Order on some channel or other.  I’d never seen the show, and was soon hooked on it.  When the announcer started in with, “In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important groups,” I would turn to to the dog and say “While the dogs aren’t represented at all!  That’s not fair, is it, boy?”  He never expressed an opinion.*

Anyway, I kept watching reruns of Law & Order long after the dog was housebroken.  I wondered why, and formed a theory.  Each episode starts with a very small group of people, usually two, sometimes more, minding their own business when they stumble upon a murdered corpse.  They make these opening sequences evocative of as many aspects of ordinary life on the island of Manhattan as possible, creating the impression that Manhattan is a place where you might find a murdered corpse at any moment.  Then they go on to explore the relationships the murdered person had with people still living; any relationship, between spouses, lovers, friends, relatives, business associates, anything, is established as a potential prelude to murder.  Having thus painted Manhattan as Hell, as the ultimate disorder, they move on through the police and courtroom procedural to culminate in a jury verdict, a symbol of Order.  So it’s a ritual that dramatizes the survival of order in a world of disorder.  As such, it can function as a substitute for a conventional religion.

I was quite sure from the beginning that this insight was not new with me, but was recently jolted when I saw a movie I’d heard about for many years and saw that it was already so familiar that it was the topic of a filmed spoof as long ago as 1979.   The movie was Mr Mike’s Mondo Video.  The police procedural in the sketch isn’t Law & Order; in 1979, Law & Order was still eleven years from its debut.**   Instead, it was Hawaii Five-O.  In the sketch, there is a religious group that worships Jack Lord, star of Hawaii Five-O.  The sketch goes on too long; if they’d cut after the singer finishes the first line of the hymn “Were You There When They Crucified Jack Lord,” it would have been a lot better.  Still makes the point, though:

*The dog is still around, and I still say that to him whenever I happen on the opening of Law & Order.  He still isn’t talking.

**Eleven years is less time than has passed since 2002 and now, and less time than passed between the debut of the show in 1990 and 2002.

Goodbye, Girls With Slingshots!

Danielle Corsetto has announced that yesterday’s installment of Girls With Slingshots is the final one.  It will be missed.

Does anyone know who the cartoonist is?

I’ve seen this cartoon several places, but nowhere have I seen an attribution.  Searching for it on Google just pulls up more unattributed copies.  So, does anyone know who did it?

“The author’s intent” and the pronunciations /dʒɪf/ and /ɡɪf/

Recently there’s been a flareup of interest in that great question of our age, the correct pronunciation of the acronym “gif.”

An abbreviation for “graphics interface format,” some people pronounce this acronym /dʒɪf/ (as if it were spelled “jiff,”) while others say /ɡɪf/ (as if it were spelled, um, “gif.”)

Here’s a remark from Rachel Larimore, prompted by RuPaul’s declaration in favor of the pronunciation /dʒɪf/ (“jiff”):

One of the flashpoints in this weighty debate is the fact that the inventor of the gif format, Steve Wilhite, prefers to pronounce it as /dʒɪf/, while most other people pronounce it /ɡɪf/.   For my part, whatever authority Mr Wilhite might want to claim in this matter because of his role in creating the format is seriously undercut by the fact that he at least consented to, and possibly suggested, the acronym “gif.”  If he’d wanted us to say /dʒɪf/, the time to take that stand was when the acronym was being chosen.  The abbreviation “G.P.” on American military vehicles in the late 1930’s combined with the name of a character in Popeye comics gave rise to the pronunciation /dʒiːp/ and eventually to the word “jeep”; abbreviating “graphics interface format” as “gf” would likely have started people saying either /dʒɪf/ or /dʒiːf/ (“jeef,” as if it were the singular of “Jeeves.”) Once Mr Wilhite agreed to the abbreviation “gif,” it would be as silly for him to get upset with people for saying /ɡɪf/ as it would for the inventors of Play-Doh to be upset that their product is now used as something other than wallpaper cleaner.

I think that a lot of the emotional heat in this argument comes from a sense of unease about something basic to communication that is strangely difficult to put into words.  It is generally taken for granted that there is a relationship between the interpretation we ought to put on a message and the interpretation that the author of that message would have wanted us to put on it.  But when we set out to explain exactly what that relationship is, and how it applies to different kinds of messages, and how far it restricts the proper use of material objects created for the purpose of sending messages, and how exactly we came to have this moral obligation to recreate the author’s intended message inside our heads, and what the proper penalty is for failing to do so, and who counts as the author of what, and which of the various ideas that might have been in a particular person’s mind at various points in time count as authorial intent, the whole thing gets very slippery very fast. It’s one of those things like “time” or “truth” or “love” which we are all quite sure exists and makes demands on us, but which no one can satisfactorily explain. If authorial intent can’t settle a question as basic as the pronunciation of a three letter word, then it begins to seem as if we won’t be able to hold onto the concept of authorial intent at all. Without such a concept, it is by no means obvious how any form of communication would be possible.

On the other hand, it is also obvious that a work of art always says more than its creator intended it to say.  D. H. Lawrence (almost) said* “Never trust the teller, trust the tale,” and that is wise advice.  If that were not so, not only would it be impossible for any work of art to outlive the cultural moment in which it was produced; it would also be necessary for artists to go around continually explaining the meaning of each of their works to each person encountering that work.  If you’ve ever written a work of fiction, you know how this goes; you set to work thinking you’re going to tell one story, then find another story telling itself. After the writing is done, your readers start asking you questions about what you had intended by various things you put in the story, and half your challenge is coming up with non-embarrassing ways to admit that you hadn’t realized you put those things in until the reader pointed them out to you.

Even people who start discussions of the dispute between /dʒɪf/ and /ɡɪf/ by joking about the insignificance of the issue, and who never, in their conscious minds, accept the proposition that it matters very much which pronunciation becomes and remains most widespread, do often become quite passionate about their preferred pronunciation.  I think they do that because they have an uneasy feeling that, while the author’s intent matters, it is not the only thing that matters as we interpret a text.  The feeling is uneasy because it isn’t attached to a clear explanation of why and in what sense it is so.

That in turn gives us another example of the difficulty of using “authorial intent” as a standard of interpretation.  On the one hand, very few people would agree with the proposition that much is at stake in a debate about the pronunciations /dʒɪf/ and /ɡɪf/.  Even fewer are moved by such debates to write essays about the role of authorial intent in interpretation of text.  On the other hand, a great many people raise their voices, spend time contributing vitriolic posts to online forums, and take other actions that strongly suggest that they do believe that something important is hanging in the balance.  This raises the question of levels of intentionality.  At the level of willingness to assent to particular propositions, the authors of these passionate messages have no intention to send the message that it matters which pronunciation catches on.  At the level of behavior and affect, that is precisely the message they are sending.

*Lawrence actually said “Never trust the artist, trust the tale,” which is not only less memorable than the common misquotation, but is also confusing.  Is he saying that we should look for narrative content even in artworks that don’t seem to have it, and cast a leery eye on artists who don’t seem to be telling stories?  I’m sure it wasn’t his chief conscious intent to do so, but something like that may have been in the back of his mind somewhere.  Whether or not some such idea was rumbling around in Lawrence’s mind when he crafted the aphorism, it distracts from the point which “Never trust the teller, trust the tale” makes so pungently.

Want to buy some real estate on Venus?

I just saw this video on io9:

I’ve recently been rereading some of Arthur Clarke’s science fiction stories, so I was primed and ready for this topic.  Here’s the comment I offered on the post:

Step one would be to establish orbiting stations around Venus, with artificial gravity produced in centrifuges.  On these stations, we would carry out step two, the genetic engineering and then the deployment of some kind of plant that would take the form of tiny particles that would float in the clouds of Venus. Even if these plants were too small to do much individually, they could be the basis of a future ecosystem if they could temporarily link together to absorb CO2, conduct photosynthesis, and reproduce.  Those linkages would be brief, broken well before their weight caused them to sink very far into the atmosphere.

Step three would be to create and deploy a series of larger creatures that would feed on these microscopic plants, and step four to create and deploy smaller creatures that would be symbiotic with the larger creatures.  From there, the ecosystem of the cloud tops would begin to evolve on its own; in step five, we would supervise and direct that evolution to produce food and other useful products for future floating cities, while also sequestering as much carbon and sulfur as possible in order to expand the habitable regions of the atmosphere.      ​

All of those preliminaries would take generations, probably centuries. And all the while, the orbiting stations would be growing in population and complexity. So by the time we got around to building habitations in the atmosphere, it would be an open question of why we would bother.  You talk about surfacism; decades ago, Gerard K. O’Neill derided planetism, and predicted that “The High Frontier” of human settlement in space would be on stations with artificial gravity, not on planets where gravity is fixed at levels lethal to human life. I suspect O’Neill will turn out to have been right, and that the prime spot for stations will be inside the orbit of Mercury, where solar power is at its most abundant.  But it would still be nice to turn the clouds of Venus into a huge farm of some kind.

So I envision a future in which the majority of the human race will live in a collection of huge, solar-powered cylinders clustered near to the Sun, each spinning at a rate giving it an interior surface gravity equal to that under which their ancestors evolved on Earth.  Presumably the interior surface areas of this collection of cylinders will be vastly greater than that of the Earth.  I’m not at all sure this is a desirable future; if the Earth isn’t enough for humanity, then it’s unlikely that anything larger than the Earth will be.  Rather than the peaceful age of abundance foreseen by Clarke, O’Neill, and others, the settlement of space may well be a new age of conflict among grasping, covetous powers.  But it does seem likelier than settlement of any planetary body, either on its surface or in its atmosphere.

Click Mort

Somehow I had been unaware of artist Click Mort until this morning, when a friend posted a link on a social media site. As a devotee of ViewMaster, I can only wish that a company like Berezin would bring out a set of reels devoted to these intricate little studies in three-dimensional form.