Archive for September, 2007

Two months of music

September 30, 2007

These last few months have been rather busy, and in consequence there’s been relatively little time for listening to music, much less for writing about it. Yet, however much circumstances may press, music is not something that can simply slip away, not for me at any rate, and I have taken advantage of the occasional unstructured hour to turn my ears in some delightful directions.

All summer I have been exploring Italian bel canto opera, and in particular the popular works of the big three: Donizetti, Bellini, and Rossini. For reasons I won’t go into right now I have overlooked these composers in the past, and the experience of correcting that error has been very enjoyable. Even so, I feel that I haven’t been able to give them as much attention as they deserve, so I’m going to postpone any commentary until I am more prepared.

There are two other things that have snatched my musical focus these past few months. The first concerns certain happy goings-on at eMusic. eMusic, if you don’t know, is an online music store specializing in independent and import labels. Music may be downloaded in mid-to-high quality mp3 format, with no Apple-like restrictions on where and how you can play the files subsequently. They have a large catalogue of music available, but this month they really struck gold, adding an avalanche of recordings from the French label Harmonia Mundi, which just might be the best classical label in the world, especially for medieval, renaissance, and baroque repertoire. Some of the world’s finest musicians record for the label: Theatre of Voices, Ensemble Organum, Anonymous 4, Huelgas-Ensemble, Cantus Cölln, Ensemble Clément Janequin, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Andrew Manze, Philippe Herreweghe . . . the list goes on and on. Of course, one can buy Harmonia Mundi recordings at the local record shop, but each will typically set you back about $30. At eMusic, one pays around $0.30/track, which means the price of an album varies from just over a dollar (for a Bruckner symphony) to around five dollars (for a collection of medieval music). In either case, the savings are very considerable. There are disadvantages to buying music this way: lower sound quality than on a CD (though I have trouble hearing it), the bother of moving the music off the computer and onto a proper audio system (though at the present time my computer is the only stereo I have), and no texts nor translations (which can be a significant deterrent for vocal and choral music). But at this price, it’s hard to complain. I’m much more inclined to rejoice.

I am also inclined to rejoice at my second bit of news: my discovery of the composer Pēteris Vasks. Vasks is a Lithuanian, born just after the Second World War and still very much alive. Now, I am sympathetic to those who are wary of contemporary classical music – the long shadows of Schoenberg and Stockhausen have blackened wide swaths of the musical landscape, and it is frightening, and maybe even dangerous, to venture too far from home when such beasties are afoot – but it is too little known that outside of the circuit of those unluminaries, much fine and beautiful music has been, and is being, written. Many of my favourite composers – Debussy, Britten, Stravinsky, Messiaen, Vaughan Williams, Pärt – have been writing in the twentieth century, and their music is approachable, compelling, and very beautiful. Vasks is composing in this same tradition. Apparently in earlier times he did experiment with aleatory music (the kind that can be written by monkeys at typewriters), but in recent decades he has turned back to his Latvian musical roots, which themselves branch from the deeper musical roots of Western culture, and the results, as I have been discovering, are lovely.

I have been listening to a few of his major works, both orchestral and choral, but it is the latter to which I’d like to draw special attention today. In particular, I’ve been spinning a splendid disc (also available on eMusic, as it turns out) from the Latvian Radio Choir containing three works: a setting of the Pater noster, an ambitious piece called Dona nobis pacem, and Missa, a complete setting of the Mass ordinary. All are scored for chorus with orchestral accompaniment. Pater noster is the least characterful of the lot, though it illustrates Vasks’ clear, clean sound. At nearly 15 minutes in duration, yet consisting of only three (oft repeated) words, Dona nobis pacem is something of a tour de force. It’s a very dramatic piece with memorable melodic contours that gradually rises to an ecstatic climax before dissolving back into silence. It’s very effective, and I’ve been listening to it again and again. But the main event on the disc is the Mass. It’s a superb setting: dignified, momentous, and shot through with a cool beauty, like sunlight striking snow under a clear blue sky. The Latvian Radio Choir do their countryman proud: the singing is very capable and the recording is transparent.

A final word: I’ve praised eMusic for taking Harmonia Mundi on board, but the eMusic catalogue is enormous and there are many other fine things to discover, both in the classical and popular veins. You won’t find the latest chart toppers, but you can find legends like Johnny Cash and Ralph Stanley, not to mention lesser-known but still marvelous folks like The Innocence Mission, The Hold Steady, Gillian Welch, or Richard Buckner. It’s a great resource.

Cheap geek: The basics

September 27, 2007

This is the second in a projected series of posts on good, free software. Today the theme is “the basics”: software that provides the basic functionality that few people can do without. I will break the discussion into two main parts: office software, and web browsers.

Office Software

Most people have the need to deal with text documents, often in Microsoft Word format; many people need to handle spreadsheets, often in Microsoft Excel format; many must handle presentations, often in Microsoft PowerPoint format; a few people need to deal with databases, often in Microsoft Access format. But Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Access are — you guessed it — not free. Nevertheless, such is the happy state of things, there are free alternatives.

The main alternative, as far as I know, is OpenOffice. It contains a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation maker, and database, all of which are compatible with Microsoft’s software. With OpenOffice you can read Microsoft files sent by your friends, or send files that your friends can read with Microsoft’s software. (This interoperability is not yet a reality for the new Microsoft Office 2007, but they are working on it.) There might occasionally be problems with files that incorporate rarely used features of MS Office, but I myself have not encountered them.

Another option, if you have a persistent internet connection, is to use Google Docs. For this you’ll need a Google account, and you’ll get only word processing and spreadsheet functionality, but you’ll also have the convenience of being able to access your files from anywhere that you can access Google. Your files are stored remotely on the Google servers, and you access and edit them over the web. Initially this might seem odd, but the interface feels very much like that common in desktop software, and I find the service easy to use. I would hesitate, however, to use Google Docs with personal documents; the files are certainly supposed to be secure and private, but mistakes can happen, and there may be wisdom in the view that mistrusts giving Google too much information about ourselves. The choice is up to you.

When I am writing documents, I prefer to edit simple text files in a light-weight word processor. For this purpose, I use either Vim or EditPad Lite. Vim is based on the old Unix program vi, and, like its predecessor, it is the ideal word processor for people who like their software to be as difficult as possible to use — at least at first. The functionality is all tied to keyboard shortcuts, so that you need never touch the mouse, and the shortcuts are wonderfully difficult to guess: xG to move to line x, dd to delete a line, yy to copy text, / to search, and so forth. There is a learning curve, but when mastery is achieved (which phenomenon I have witnessed but never truly experienced) the results are dazzling. Actually, there is a version of the software called gVim that provides a mouse-based interface in addition to the older, more revered keyboard-based one.

As good as vi undoubtedly is, my editor of choice is EditPad Lite. It is a glorified NotePad, in that it can handle only basic text files, but it adds helpful functionality like search/replace, as well as a convenient and intuitive set of buttons in a toolbar. It’s very clean, neat, and easy to use. In fact, I’m using it to write these very words.

Finally, a word about PDF documents. This file format is quite common, and most people have Adobe Reader installed in order to handle it. It’s true that Adobe Reader is free, and in that sense fits under the present rubric, but I don’t like it. It is simply too bulky, and loads too slowly. In its place, I use FoxIt Reader. It is super light-weight, and in my experience it has never met a PDF document it couldn’t open. Highly recommended!

Web browsers

By far the most commonly used web browser is Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE), now in version 7. Perhaps you are reading this using it. It is free, but I don’t use it, and for two main reasons: first, I find it big and slow, and second, it is the most frequently targeted web browser by Internet ne’er-do-wells, which makes its use risky from a security point of view. All software has bugs, and some of them affect security, but IE, simply because of its huge market share, has attracted the most attention, and new vulnerabilities are found in it all the time. That makes me uncomfortable.

Instead, I use Firefox. In recent months a number of vulnerabilities have also been found in it, but they seem to be patched quickly, and the update process is quick and painless. Firefox is not exactly light-weight, but for some reason it feels more responsive than IE. Perhaps the biggest advantage of this browser is its extensibility: it has been designed such that new features, written by whomever, can be added to it. There are now a large set of Add-ons to choose from, and some of them are really useful. Here are those that I most appreciate:

  • ForecastFox Enhanced: Gives the local weather forecast in the bottom bar of the browser.
  • Get Directions from Google Maps: Highlight any address in a web page, right click, and launch a map showing the location. Very helpful!
  • IE Tab: Some sites, which shall remain unnamed, require that you use IE. This Add-on will, at the touch of a button, make Firefox pretend that it is IE.
  • McAfee Site Advisor: Warns you away from malicious web sites. I’ll discuss this more in a few weeks when I cover security software.
  • Scrapbook: Allows you to save, in their entirety, local copies of web pages. It’s rather like bookmarking, except that instead of saving the location of the page, you save a snapshot of the page itself.
  • Tab Catalog: Shows thumbnail images of all open tabs, which is helpful when quickly jumping from one tab to another when you have many open.
  • Gmail Manager: Monitors your Gmail account, discreetly indicating whether new mail has arrived.

There are many other Add-ons for Firefox, but I haven’t explored them. If you know of any others that are useful, don’t hesitate to leave a comment.

In fact, the same goes for anything I’ve written here today. I’m really just shooting the breeze, and am happy to receive recommendations or corrections.

I think I Kant

September 26, 2007

I don’t know why I do this to myself. My reading plan has brought me around once again to readings in philosophy. I am sitting here trying to plough my way through Kant’s Prolegomena to every Future Metaphysics that may be Presented as a Science. This is the entry-level version of his terrifying tome Critique of Pure Reason, a version written especially for the slothful and dim-witted. Nonetheless, I am undone. This passage will serve as well as many others:

The solution of the problem [something to do with the relationship of reason and intellect] is as follows: Pure reason does not have particular objects in view which lie outside the field of experience, but has in view objects denoted by its ideas. Pure reason requires completeness in the use of the intellect in dealing with experience. This completeness can only be a completeness of principles, not one of images and objects. But in order to be able to present such principles as definite, reason conceives of them as the knowledge of an object. Such knowledge is completely determined in regard to those principles. But, this object is only an idea designed to bring the knowledge of the intellect as near as possible to the completeness indicated by that idea.

I’ve tried. If anyone can explain what it means, please help.

The ways of Rome

September 25, 2007

Where All Roads Lead (1922)
G. K. Chesterton (Ignatius Press, 1990)
33 p. First reading.

Chesterton, who had long been a vocal defender of the Catholic foundations of Western civilization, was himself received into the Church in 1922. Shortly thereafter a series of short columns were published on both sides of the Atlantic in which he briefly set forth his reasons for converting. Those reasons were expanded and elaborated in his later books The Catholic Church and Conversion and The Thing, but the initial columns themselves were collected into this small volume entitled Where All Roads Lead.

He acknowledges at the outset that there are really only two fundamental reasons for a man to become a Catholic:

One is that he believes it to be the solid objective truth, which is true whether he likes it or not; and the other that he seeks liberation from his sins. If there be any man for whom these are not the main motives, it is idle to inquire what were his philosophical or historical or emotional reasons for joining the old religion; for he has not joined it at all.

Chesterton did himself affirm both of those reasons, which freed him to discuss his own philosophical, historical, and emotional reasons as well. He begins by remarking on the surprising historical resilience of the Church, which does not simply outlast its many challengers, but does so through recurring bursts of vitality and freshness. As an example he takes the challenge that Christianity faced from Islam in the Middle Ages, the response to which was the Crusades and a renewal of devotion and confidence: “The actual effect of danger from the younger religion was renewal of our own youth. It was the sons of St. Francis, the Jugglers of God, wandering singing over all the roads of the world; it was the Gothic going up like a flight of arrows; it was a rejuvenation of Europe.”

In his own day, Chesterton saw the Church as in the midst of another such revival, and it is true that those decades before and between the great wars saw a number of prominent European intellectuals, not to mention many lay people, crossing over to Rome. The Second Vatican Council has intervened between then and now, and it is not clear how much of the momentum Chesterton observed survived the upheaval that the Council caused in the Church’s inner life. The revival of Thomism, for instance, which Chesterton so much admired, appears to have wilted away, and the elaborate ritual element he loved has taken a steady beating, and in many respects the communal, visible Catholic culture has suffered serious attrition in the face of an aggressive secular culture, such that many Catholics ignore and even deny the Church’s teachings, and are ignorant of the reasons for them. But even this may, paradoxically, be part of a revival. As Chesterton himself said, “There has been a happy increase in the number of Catholics; but there has also been, if I may so express it, a happy increase in the number of non-Catholics; in the sense of conscious non-Catholics.” We are living through a time of clarification in which the moral and spiritual vision of Catholicism is increasingly distinct from, and therefore increasingly a challenge to, the advance of secularism. It is up to each person to choose, but at least the choice is evident. The result, as Pope Benedict has often said, is likely to be a smaller, but more unified and dedicated Church. To the extent that she lives her calling faithfully, how can she help being an attractive alternative to her sterile competitors?

Chesterton draws our attention to the range and subtle variety of Catholic thought, contrasting it favourably with the simple doctrines of modern movements. To Chesterton’s mind these modern movements are oversimple; they are “too simple to be true”. Be they political or religious in nature, they are born out of particular circumstances, often in reaction against particular circumstances, and when those circumstances pass the movements pass along with them. Catholicism, too, was born out of a particular historic situation, but its founding ideas were of such richness and variety that it was able to survive the great changes that brought the world of its origins to an end, and it has over the centuries built up a wealth of resources that equip it to deal with whatever may come. By approaching the matter in this way, Chesterton evinces some of the joyful swagger to which Pascal alluded when, in a very similar context, he remarked that there was a special pleasure to be had in sailing through a violent storm when you know that the ship cannot sink. The winds may blow and the waves may pound, but the tempest never lasts, or the wind changes direction so often that it can never seriously threaten to overturn the vessel.

The Church cannot change quite so fast as the charges against her do. She is sometimes caught napping and still disproving what was said about her on Monday, to the neglect of the completely contrary thing that is said about her on Tuesday. She does sometimes live pathetically in the past, to the extent of innocently supposing the modern thinker may think today what he thought yesterday. Modern thought does outstrip her, in the sense that it disappears, of itself, before she has done disproving it. She is slow and belated, in the sense that she studies a heresy more seriously than the heresiarch does.

He says that he himself became a Catholic in order to pass into possession of this rich heritage of thought and devotion, which he saw could not but enlarge his own heart and mind. He was well aware of the danger that the modern world faces when it takes a half-truth for the whole truth, as it so often does. (It is a simple matter to enumerate the half-truths that animate our political and moral discourse: “war causes suffering”, “a pregnancy is life-altering”, “diversity enriches us”, “democracy is good”, and so forth.) In his own youth, Chesterton had reacted against the then-fashionable pessimism of the cultured classes by stressing the foundational goodness of life and existence itself. This was a truth: existence is a great good. But it was only a half-truth, for he realized that if not balanced against other goods it could become an instrument in the hands of tyranny, as when a despot says that the people should be happy just to be alive. He found in the Catholic Church a teacher who refused to grasp one truth alone, or pit one truth against another, but instead patiently elaborated and held in concert a great web of truths. She has, he said, proved herself to be “a truth-telling thing”, and a man in possession of a half-truth should turn to her to have it completed.

He should take his half-truth into the culture of the Catholic Church, which really is a culture and where it really will be cultivated. For that place is really a garden; and the noisy world outside, nowadays, is none the less a wilderness because it is a howling wilderness. That is, he can take his idea where it will be valued for what is true in it, where it will be balanced by other truths and often supported by better arguments. In other words, it will become a part, however small a part, of a permanent civilization…

To Autumn

September 23, 2007

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease;
For Summer has o’erbrimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twinèd flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too, —-
While barrèd clouds bloom the soft-dying day
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river-sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

- John Keats

Reading Inferno, Canto XIX

September 21, 2007

Among the many striking aspects of The Divine Comedy is the manner in which Dante sees the spiritual condition of the souls he encounters imaged in their physical manifestations. Think, for instance, of the thieves in Inferno who continually exchange identities with serpents, a vivid portrayal both of their spiritual state and of their incapacity to distinguish what properly belongs to them from what properly belongs to others. The same principle runs through the whole Comedy: the souls show their insides on their outsides. The special punishments, purgations, and beatitudes of those he meets are frequently peculiar, but always worth pondering for what they reveal about that soul’s state. Today I would like to reflect in some detail on one such soul.

We are in the eighth circle, called Malebolge, getting close to the dark, icy heart of Hell. Malebolge is the special domain of the fraudulent; it is divided into a series of concentric ditches, within each of which a particular kind of sinner is enjoying his eternal reward. Dante and Virgil have passed the seducers and flatterers in the first two ditches, and come now to the third. Dante the poet exclaims:

O Simon Magus, O you wretched crew
of his disciples! The things of God should be
espoused to righteousness and love, and you
Rapacious wolves, you pander them for gold,
foul them for silver! Sound the trumpet now
for you — for this third pocket is your place. (l.1-6)

Simon Magus is that same Simon written of in Acts:

But there was a man named Simon who had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the nations of Samaria, saying that he himself was somebody great. They all gave heed to him, from the least to the greatest, saying “This man is that power of God which is called Great.” And they all gave heed to him, because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. (8:9-11)

From that description, one might think that Simon’s special sin was that of pride — a pride bordering on derangement. But Simon’s sense of entitlement was so highly developed that he actually founded a new sort of sin, that sin which has hereafter been named for him: simony. Acts continues with the story:

Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me also this power, that any one on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” (8:18-19)

It’s a neat trick if you can manage it. Catch the wind that blows where it will, and bottle it up for later use; turn the gift of the Holy Spirit into an item of trade. Peter sees immediately what is at stake, and rebukes Simon in no uncertain terms. To assimilate the things of the spirit to the logic of the market is futile; to subject spiritual authority, or a spiritual office, to that same logic may not be futile, in worldly terms, but where it succeeds it strikes at the heart of that authority. It is this proximate danger that draws Peter’s sharp rebuke, and Simon responds:

“Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.” (8:24)

It could be read as a penitent response. As far as I know, this is the last we hear from Simon Magus in the New Testament, and on the strength of this story it seems to me that Simon could have come down to us as an example of a repentant sinner. But, for whatever reason, that has not happened. Instead we inherit a rich suite of colourful legends about Simon in which he plays the role of arch-villain to the apostles.

Dante knows these stories well, and draws on them for his study of simony. Describing the appearance of this third ditch, he says:

I saw that on both walls and on the ground
the livid iron stone was full of holes,
all of a size, and every one was round. (l.13-15)

The description continues with a seemingly peculiar allusion to an event from Dante’s own life:

No bigger, and no narrower they appeared
than the holes in my lovely baptistery
of San Giovanni, made for holy fonts,
One of which, and not many years ago,
I had to break to save a boy from drowning –
and let men take that for the stamp of truth. (l.16-21)

He is referring to the famous baptistery in Florence, of course. If this seems a strange time to introduce a tale of rescue, note that it ties into the theme of the destruction of sacred things (though in this case for defensible reasons: he had to smash the font to save the child), and also serves to illustrate the scene, at least for those familiar with the barrel-shaped fonts of the San Giovanni baptistery. The familiarity ends there, however, for Dante sees a strange sight:

Out of the mouth of every hole there stuck
a sinner’s feet and legs up to the fat
above the knee; the rest remained inside. (l.22-24)

There is a comical element here, I think. But it is worth digging deeper and thinking about why Dante chose this particular punishment for the simonists. There are at least two reasons. One is related by Dante the pilgrim a few lines later when one of the barrel-dwellers begins to address him:

There I stood like a friar who hears the sins
of a faithless assassin, head in grave,
who calls him back to hold death off awhile (l.49-51)

In Dante’s day, assassins were executed by being buried alive, but upside down. He therefore draws a direct connection between assassins and simonists; the former kill the political authority, the latter the spiritual. But there is more to it. Consider this story, taken from Christian legend, of the death of Simon Magus:

The day arrived and he [Simon Magus] climbed a high tower. . .wearing a crown of laurel. He jumped off and began to fly. Paul said to Peter: “I’m the one to pray now; you’re the one to command!”. . . Peter said to Paul: “Paul, raise your head and look up!” When Paul looked up, he saw Simon flying and said to Peter: “Peter, what are you waiting for? Finish what you’ve started, because the Lord is already calling us!” Then Peter said: “I adjure you, angels of Satan, you who are holding Simon up in the air, I adjure you in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord! Stop holding him up and let him fall!” They released him at once and he crashed to the ground, his skull was fractured, and he expired.” (Legenda Aurea)

In other variations on the story, Simon plummeted with such force that he rested embedded in the ground, his legs protruding. Thus I think it plausible that Dante here intends the very posture of the sinners to mark them as followers of Simon. In fact, he makes this point more clearly a little further on. The soul to whom he speaks, which turns out to be that of Pope Nicholas III (1277-80), says:

Under my head the others are all crammed –
my predecessor popes in simony,
squashed flat into the fissure of the stone. (l.73-75)

They are stacked one upon the other, literal followers of Simon, who, one presumes, is first in line, now deep in the rock. The fact that these are Popes only heightens the wickedness of their actions, for they bore special responsibility for the welfare of the Church, but sold her for a profit. They have turned the spiritual order upside down by subjecting it to worldly concerns, and that inversion too is reflected in their posture. Dante continues his description:

And everywhere the soles were set afire,
making them kick and wrench their joints so hard
they’d have snapped twisted ropes or cords in two.
As flame upon a thing anointed goes
darting and dancing on the peel, so here
flames flickered from their heels up to the toes. (l.22-30)

Here we have a direct allusion to Pentecost as described in Acts:

And when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. (2:1-3)

But here, in Hell, the flames rest not on the head, but burn the soles of the feet. It would be hard to imagine a more fitting representation of the perversion of the gift of the Holy Spirit.

I like this Canto because I find it particularly rich in resonances. It makes sense that when dealing with simony Dante should allude to the events related in Acts, for the contrast highlights the way in which simony, especially in high places, prevents the Church being what she is meant to be. He brings in legend, history, Scripture, public and personal life, and ties them all together with a deceptively simple device: by turning his sinners upside down and lighting their feet on fire. Marvellous.

**

The translation I have used in my quotations from Dante is that of Anthony Esolen.

Inferno, Canto XIX

Cheap geek: Prologue

September 19, 2007

This is the first in a series of posts recommending good, useful software that is completely free. I hope the series will be of some use to those who, like me, don’t like to pay for software, but also don’t want to use pirated software. It turns out that one can equip one’s computer very well without spending a cent, and without breaking any laws. It seems incredible, but the days when it was necessary to buy software are, for most purposes and for most people, well and truly over. I’m not entirely sure what kinds of software I’ll discuss in these posts, but I am likely to cover security and multimedia applications, as well as helpful utilities. The only over-arching criterion will be that everything be free.

I was about to remark that this topic is a rather nerdy departure from the usual fare around here, but actually I’m not sure that’s true.

I must stress that I’m not attempting anything like a thorough survey; my remarks are not offered in a magisterial spirit. I simply intend to talk about the software I myself find useful. If you disagree with what I say, or have other suggestions, by all means let me know in the comments. I am always happy to find ways to improve my system.

I run Windows XP (which, alas, one does have to pay for), and that will affect some of the suggestions I make. If you have a Mac or a Linux machine, you may have different, better options, and you can rest secure in your superiority. Please, no taunting of Windows users.

Since this is only a prologue, I’m not actually going to recommend anything specific today. I hope to have the next Cheap Geek post ready within the week. Until then, enjoy your non-free software – while you still can.

Lonely moon

September 16, 2007

It’s Sunday night again, and I’ve a few minutes to enjoy some good music before I sleep. Not long ago I was reflecting that it has been fifteen years since the great, but much neglected, songwriter Mark Heard passed away so suddenly and unexpectedly. At the time of his death, I had hardly begun to appreciate his songs, and further exploration of his music over the years has only heightened the sense of loss. Evidently I’m not the only one who misses him, for someone has gone to considerable trouble to produce this music video for his wonderful song “Lonely Moon”, from the album Second Hand. (Duration: about 5 min)

Fairy gloom

September 14, 2007

The Golden Key (1867)
George MacDonald (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1984)
85 p. First reading.

This small book is my first exposure to the writing of George MacDonald. Well, that’s not strictly true, for some years ago I did pick up his novel Lilith, but as I quickly put it down again — whether from absentmindedness or disinterest I don’t recall — this is the first of his books that I have read through. He comes highly recommended by people whom I respect, most notably C.S. Lewis. This edition of the story has a blurb on the back from J.R.R. Tolkien praising it as a tale “of power and beauty”, and W.H. Auden contributes an appreciative afterword.

I can’t help noticing that each of those endorsers — C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and W.H. Auden — are customarily called by a collection of initials followed by a surname. Perhaps the story is possessed of a magical property such that only persons so called can truly enjoy it? This, I admit, is pure speculation.

The story is an allegory. A young boy, Mossy, ventures one day into the woods in search of the rainbow’s end, where, he has been told, he will find a golden key. He succeeds in finding it, but having done so he must set out on a quest for the corresponding lock, not knowing what he will find behind it. This seems to me a good premise for a story. He is joined by a young girl, Tangle, though for much of their journey they are separated. I suppose I don’t want to give away too many plot details, on the off chance that somebody reads this and I ruin their day.

I’ve said that the tale is an allegory, but I’m somewhat at a loss to say what it is an allegory of. The quest for the lock may represent the journey of life; but what, then, is the key? The story is replete with phantasmagoric details that beg for interpretation but fail to suggest anything to me. What am I to do with a flying, feathered fish which, when boiled, delivers itself of a fairy sprite?

Some of the imagery is quite striking, and MacDonald does succeed, I think, in conjuring a sustained mood. This atmosphere is mysterious and aweful, but also, at the same time, I found it remote and murky. It was the opacity of the symbolism that left me feeling an outsider, enchanted but malnourished.

I suppose that in the end I didn’t care much for the story, but perhaps one day I’ll give it another try.

Thanks, Mr. Dylan!

September 11, 2007

Over the past week, in the wake of the announcement of our engagement, congratulations and warm wishes (and expressions of relief) have been pouring in from all quarters. It now seems that even Bob Dylan has visited this web log, seen the happy news, and, as requested, is busily preparing an epithalamion for the occasion. I guess that takes care of the musical entertainment at the reception!

Dylan's letter

Click on the image to see Bob’s message.
(The message is not “Look Out!”)

Thanks, Bob!

(If you don’t know the original video, you can see it here.)

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