Archive for January, 2008

First lines

January 30, 2008

If I were writing a book, I am sure that I would take great care with the very first sentence. You never get a second chance, as they say.  I know that authors are aware of this, and so, like many others, I take a special interest in the first sentences of books. I have a few favourites.

Most people know the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice, and with good reason:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

Hardly less famous, and equally fitting, is the opening of Anna Karenina:

Happy families are all alike; unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way.

But then I have a few personal favourites that are perhaps less well-known. For instance, I’m partial to the opening of Kafka’s The Trial:

Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.

In one sentence it not only introduces the main character and sets the narrative tone, but even slips in the central struggle of the novel against an irrational bureaucracy. It’s a marvel of economy. Another personal favourite is Frederick Buechner’s Godric, which begins:

Five friends I had, and three of them snakes.

(Actually, now that I check it, I see that it says, “Five friends I had, and two of them snakes.” That’s good, though I think my version an incremental improvement.)

It’s not only fictional works that have memorable beginnings. The first sentence of John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society is wonderfully wry:

Wealth is not without its advantages and the case to the contrary, although it has often been made, has never proved widely persuasive.

And who could possibly forget the opening sentiment of Burrell’s Nonperturbative Aspects of B Meson Decays?

The Standard Model (SM) of particle physics is a theory of the basic constituents of matter and their interactions.

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I know that I am not alone in this enthusiasm. If you’ve a favourite first line and would care to share it, please leave a comment!

Peugeot flambée

January 28, 2008

The numbers are in: when it comes to roasting roadsters, nobody outdoes French arsonists. The French government recently announced that a whopping 46 000 vehicles went up in flames on French streets in 2007. That’s an average of 126 each night. Shall we admire la fraternité that draws French “youths”, bearing bags of marshmallows and jugs of gasoline, into the streets for nightly community bonfires? Probably not. It seems that 90% of these pyro-Peugeots were the result of protests, albeit “normal” ones. As Bruce Cockburn sang, “The trouble with normal is it always gets worse.”

Academic genealogies III

January 25, 2008

Welcome to “Academic Genealogy: The von Haller Edition”. In a series of previous posts (I, II) I have been exploring my academic genealogy, and one of the men I encountered was Albrecht von Haller (1708-1777), an eminent Swiss physician. Haller pursued studies in a variety of different fields at institutions across Europe, which intellectual promiscuity produces a substantial set of new genealogical branches for me to examine. In particular, I identified the following advisors and mentors:

  • In Tübingen: Johann Duvernoy (1691-1759) and Elias Camerarius (1673-1734)
  • In Leiden: Hermann Boerhaave (1668-1738) and Bernhard Albinus (1697-1770)
  • In Paris: Henri François le Dran (1685-1770) and Jacob Winsløw (1669-1760)
  • In Basel: Johann Bernoulli (1667-1748)

In Academic genealogies II I discussed the Tübingen connections; the others are the subject of this post.

I am aware that the genealogical relationships can be quite confusing — and that is especially true of the tangled web I shall discuss today — so I have generated some helpful diagrams. This one shows the people I covered in previous posts; this one shows only those in Haller’s lineage. At the bottom of this post is a diagram showing the combination of the two.

Haller’s M.D. was earned in 1727 at Universiteit Leiden, working under Hermann Boerhaave. Let us begin there:

Hermann Boerhaave (1668-1738): Boerhaave obtained an M.D. in 1693 from the University of Harderwijk. It was an inauspicious beginning, for the Dutch have a saying: “He’s from the University of Harderwijk” means that his scientific expertise is doubtful. How the institution earned its doleful reputation I don’t know, but it was certainly not on account of Boerhaave, who went on to a very distinguished career. He was given three professorships in Leiden, in medicine, botany, and chemistry, and he eventually became rector of the university. His lectures were very popular, and he received as guests such eminent figures as Linnaeus and Voltaire; his student Haller called him communis Europae praeceptor (the teacher of Europe). In his research, he established that smallpox was spread by contact, and in a work entitled De utilitate explorandorum in ageris excrementorum, ut signorum he pioneered the study of excrement for medical purposes. (No doubt he left aspects of the work to his students.) He also did valuable work in chemistry, discovering that water is a product of the combustion of alcohol, and carrying out some of the first calorimetric studies. By the end of his life, he was among the most famous medical men of Europe — so much so that, incredibly, the great Dr. Johnson actually wrote a laudatory biography about him! Today Leiden has a Boerhaave Museum.

Boerhaave’s academic lineage is long and distinguished; were we to follow it now, we would wander far before reaching the end. Let us postpone that journey to a later post, and consider Haller’s other academic mentors.

Bernhard Siegfried Albinus (1697-1770): Albinus was a noted anatomist at Universiteit Leiden, where he was a popular teacher, and eventally became rector. His most famous published work is Tabulae sceleti et musculorum corporis humani (1747), a monumental anatomical text that significantly advanced the art of anatomical illustration. His illustrator and collaborator was Jan Wandelaar (1690-1759), who was criticized for the sometimes whimsical background imagery he added to the anatomical drawings. To posterity, however, these additions are charming. (Numerous pages from the Tabulae can be viewed online. This one is especially endearing. Wandelaar sketched the rhinoceros in Amsterdam in 1741; it was the first living specimen to have been brought to Europe.) As a young man, Albinus studied first in Leiden, and then pursued medical studies in Paris under Jakob Winsløw and Sébastien Vaillant. His M.D. was awarded honoris causa in 1719 upon his return to Leiden. I shall treat Winsløw and Vaillant as his advisors.

Jacob Benignus Winsløw (1669-1760): Winsløw was a Danish anatomist. As a young man, he studied theology at the University of Copenhagen, but became interested in the natural sciences. He studied under Johannes de Buchwald, a barber-surgeon in Copenhagen, but, because he was averse to the sight of blood, he focused on anatomical studies instead of surgery. He won a royal scholarship to study medicine, and went first to Leiden and then to Paris, where he studied anatomy and surgery under Joseph-Guichard Duverney. Shortly after arriving in Paris, in 1699, Winsløw converted to Catholicism, losing his scholarship as a result. He was nevertheless able to continue his studies with Duverney, and earned an M.D. in 1705. He taught anatomy at the Académie des Sciences and the Jardin du Roi, and remained in Paris for the rest of his life, never returning to Denmark.

We will discuss both of Winsløw’s academic mentors in sequence.

Johannes de Buchwald (1658-1738): Buchwald is quite an obscure figure. My primary source for him is a biographical entry written in Danish. My Danish is next door to non-existent (I don’t even like danishes), but I have done my best. He lived first in Copenhagen, but went to Vienna to study medicine, and then to Paris to study surgery. In 1689 he returned to Copenhagen, where he became both barber and surgeon (Sweeney Todd, anyone?). In 1692 he made a grand tour of Italy with Frederick IV. From 1697-1700 he studied anatomy under Caspar Bartholin, after which he finally obtained, at the age of 42, an M.D. He had a successful, if modest, career thereafter.

Caspar Bartholin the Younger (1655–1738): Bartholin the Younger (so called because he shared his name with his grandfather) apprenticed in Paris under Joseph-Guichard Duverney. He taught anatomy at Copenhagen, and late in life became involved in politics, becoming a supreme court judge and, later, Deputy of Finance. In 1731 the Bartholin family was raised to the nobility. The Bartholinsgade, a street in Copenhagen, is named for them. Caspar obtained his M.D. in 1678, under the watchful eye of his father, Thomas Bartholin.

Thomas Bartholin (1616-1680): Thomas Bartholin was a Danish physician, philosopher, and philologist. He taught philosophy and philology at the University of Copenhagen, but later became a member of the medical faculty, and eventually was recognized as the most eminent Danish physician of his day. He published the first full description of the human lymphatic system (1652), and pioneered the use of refrigeration anaethesia (cooling the flesh to reduce pain). In 1670 his family’s country home was destroyed by fire, taking his library of texts and manuscripts, and much of his wealth, with it. The Danish king then appointed him his personal physician, and gave him a stable income. The whole affair was documented in his book De bibliothecae incendio (1670). In 1673 he founded the first Danish scientific journal, Acta medica et philosophica hafniensa.

As a young man, Bartholin travelled from university to university, studying at Copenhagen, Paris, Leiden, Basel, Montpellier, and Padua. He studied a wide variety of subjects — philosophy, archaeology, law, philology, Arabic — but his main interests were medicine and anatomy. He was three years in Leiden as a pupil of Johannes Walaeus, and his time in Padua was spent working under Johann Vesling. He eventually acquired an M.D. degree in 1645 from Basel, where his official advisor was Johann Caspar Bauhin. Each of these three connections seems substantial enough to include in the family tree.

Johannes Walaeus (1604-1649): Walaeus was a Dutch physician who taught at Universiteit Leiden. He was involved in the controversy over William Harvey’s proposal that the blood circulates through the body. At first he opposed the theory, but changed his mind after seeing some experiments done, and is remembered for two letters he sent (to Thomas Bartholin, as it turns out) defending Harvey’s ideas. Walaeus studied at Leiden, but I have been unable to find the name of his advisor.

Johann Vesling (1598-1649): Born in Germany, Vesling travelled extensively through Egypt and Palestine studying the local flora. In 1632 we went to Padua where he became professor of anatomy, and later the director of the Paduan botanical gardens. Presumably he studied medicine or botany or both, and various sources have him enrolling at the universities in Vienna, Leiden, Venice, Padua, and Bologna, but so inconsistently that I don’t trust them. Pending further clarifications, this branch too comes to an end.

Johann Caspar Bauhin (1606-1685): Little information is available about him; he is nearly entirely overshadowed by his eminent father, Caspar Bauhin. The younger Bauhin succeeded his father in 1629 as professor of anatomy and botany in Basel, and became professor of the practice of medicine in 1660. As to his education, I have discovered that he studied in Paris, England, and the Netherlands, but no names have appeared.

Having exhausted Winsløw’s lineage through Johannes de Buchwald, we consider the line through Duverney:

Joseph-Guichard Duverney (1648-1730): Duverney was educated in Avignon, where he earned an M.D. in 1667. He moved to Paris and lived and taught there for the remainder of his career. He was an anatomical specialist; his major work was the first comprehensive treatise on the structure and function of the ear (Traité de l’organe de l’ouie, contenant la structure, les usages & les maladies de toutes les parties de l’oreille, 1683). He also studied animal anatomy, including a ground-breaking study of fish found off the coast of Brittany. He eventually became the dauphin’s tutor in natural philosophy, and entertained the court with his dissections. This wonderful report from a contemporary describes the eloquence with which Duverney conducted these public anatomical demonstrations:

“This eloquence consisted not only of clarity, order, seemliness, and all the cold perfections which dogmatic subjects require; there was a fire in his expressions, in his comportment, and even in his pronunciation, which would almost have been worthy of an orator. He was incapable even of announcing the discovery of a vessel, or of the new use of part of a vessel, with moderation; his eyes would shine with joy and his whole person would become excited; this warmth would communicate itself to his audience, or at least prevent it from sinking into an involuntary languor. One can add that he was young and had a fine figure; these small qualities had an effect on a certain number of women, who were themselves curious to hear him.” — from D.J. Sturdy, Science and Social Status: The Members of the Academie Des Sciences 1666-1750.

Duverney was a member of the Académie des Sciences from 1676. Unfortunately, I am unable to discover the names of his teachers during his medical studies in Avignon, so this branch ends.

That concludes the branch of Albinus’ lineage that passes through Winsløw; next we consider the branch through Vaillant:

Sébastien Vaillant (1669-1722): Vaillant was a botanist. He first studied medicine in Pontoise, but moved to Paris in 1691 to studied botany under Joseph Pitton de Tournefort. He become professor at the Jardin du Roi, where he did important work on plant reproduction. It was he who first applied the terms “stamen” and “pistil” to plants. His major work, Botanicon Parisiense, was an illustrated study of Parisian flora. He died before its completion, and the work was finally published under the direction of his friend Hermann Boerhaave in 1727. It can be viewed online.

Since Vaillant’s teacher was Tournefort, whom we have already met, there is no need to pursue this branch any further. We return to Haller and examine those with whom he studied while in Paris. We already encountered Jacob Winsløw by another route, so let us consider Henri le Dran.

Henri François le Dran (1685-1770): le Dran was a French surgeon who taught at the Royal Academy of Medicine in Paris. He did pioneering research on cancer, proposing that it was an initially localized disease carried through the body by the lymphatic system, and advocating that it be treated surgically. He himself conducted such surgeries, and was regarded as one of the leading surgeons of the eighteenth-century. His best known published work is a surgical treatise called Traité des opérations de chirurgie (1749). From 1745 he was a member of the Royal Society of London. I have been unable to discover where le Dran completed his studies, nor with whom, so this branch terminates abruptly.

The last of Haller’s branches is short but distinguished! I’ll waste no time:

Johann Bernoulli (1667-1748): Johann Bernoulli was one of the many notable mathematicians in this famous family. His formal studies were in medicine, and he obtained an M.D. from Universität Basel in 1694. His passion, however, was mathematics, and particularly the calculus, in the development of which he and his older brother Jakob are considered important figures. In 1691 he solved the catenary problem. Several years later, he issued a public challenge for a solution to the brachistochrone problem, which asks for the shape of the curve along which a sliding bead will take the least time to travel between two points. He himself already had a solution in hand, but his challenge elicited correct solutions from some of Europe’s most eminent mathematicians: his brother Jakob, Guillaume de l’Hôpital, Gottfried Leibniz, and Isaac Newton. The methods employed to solve these problems were eventually incorporated, by Johann’s brilliant student Leonard Euler, into the calculus of variations. The technique usually called l’Hôpital’s rule is thought to have actually been the work of Johann. Late in his life, he became involved in a bitter priority dispute with his son Daniel over developments in hydrodynamic theory; posterity has given the palm to Daniel. It is Jakob Bernoulli who is usually cited as Johann’s academic mentor, and I shall follow that convention.

Jakob Bernoulli (1654-1705): As a young man, Jakob studied philosophy and theology, obtaining an M.A. in the former and a licentiate in the latter by 1676. After completing these studies, he went from Basel to Paris where for two years he studied with a group of Cartesian scholars led by Nicolas Malebranche. Throughout this period, however, he studied astronomy and mathematics on the side, and they were his deepest interests throughout his life. (It is worth noting that he was the first of the Bernoullis to study these subjects.) He made a number of important contributions to mathematics: with his brother he made a careful study of Leibniz’s calculus, which had been recently published, and together they were responsible for clarifying and popularizing many of Leibniz’s ideas; he studied infinite series, and proved that the harmonic series diverges; he studied differential equations, and developed the technique of separation of variables; he was the first to use the word “integral” in its modern mathematical sense. His most significant work was Ars Conjectandi, a study of probability theory published posthumously. In it, he developed a general theory of permutations and combinations, gave a proof of the binomial theorem, and made the first study of the Bernoulli numbers. When he died in 1705, his brother Johann succeeded him in the chair of mathematics at Universität Basel.

I now face a dilemma. A number of online sources list Leibniz as Jakob Bernoulli’s academic mentor, and this is a terribly tempting connection to make. Few figures of the modern era are more eminent. But while it is true that Bernoulli’s mathematical thinking was decisively affected by Leibniz’s works, I can find no evidence that he actually studied under, or, for that matter, even met Leibniz. Therefore, as much as I would like to, I cannot justify the link. I could follow the trail through Malebranche, but until I better understand the nature of that relationship, I hesitate. For the time being, then, this branch comes to an end.

Let me not end on a sad note, however, for having the Bernoullis is ample heritage — at least enough to find a good wife and possibly enough to produce fine children.

This diagram shows the entire lineage I have discussed so far in this series of posts.

Llenlleawg, Dygyflwng, and other brave knights

January 23, 2008

The Mabinogion (c.1200)
Anonymous (Everyman’s Library, 2000)
303 p. First reading.

The Mabinogion is a collection of medieval Welsh folk-tales and legends. It was compiled in the mid-fourteenth century, but most of the stories are thought to date from a few hundred years prior. They fall into three groups: The Mabinogi, a set of four tales from which the collection derives its name; a matching set of four stories on Welsh legends; and a group of three Arthurian romances. The translations, from the 1940s, superbly render these tales into gracefully archaic English.

The idiom is mostly rather close to Malory or Chrètien de Troyes, and scholars argue about the direction in which influence ran. The stories are populated by brave, handsomely armoured men, strong horses, beautiful maidens, and the tales turn on quests, prophecies, jousts, dreams, and magic. The story-teller is frequently at pains to articulate just who sat where at dinner, and what sort of silk draped the lovely form of the lady loved best by the hero (yellow brocaded appears to be the most illustrious variety). At times the narrative is absorbed by long passages detailing the members of hunting parties, and their lineages (particularly thorny-going with Welsh names), but for the most part they are very engaging stories. This is particularly true of the three Arthurian tales, which are among the best I have encountered in the genre; they are clearly the work of a master.

There is an art to reading such tales; they ask of the reader a certain inner disposition. The stories are dominated by plot, as is typical of medieval literature, and the hero sometimes moves from episode to episode, marvel to marvel, with amazing rapidity, and perplexingly little unity. Does one read these tales for self-understanding, as modern literature has taught us to do? Perhaps it is possible, but I think these stories want to give the reader something else. They ask us to simply enter the story, wide-eyed with wonder, willing to marvel at marvels and honour the nobility of true, pledged love. There is, it seems, more than one kind of kingdom which one must be a child to enter.

The consolation of natural philosophy

January 21, 2008

I was walking this evening, through the bitter cold, along the bank of the river. It was dark and silent as death, and I realized how much I miss the sound of bird-song. It has been months now since we’ve heard any. Why do they leave us? And then I looked at the river, and I remembered that they were closer than I had thought:

He seemed pleased to talk of natural philosophy. “That woodcocks, (said he,) fly over to the northern countries is proved, because they have been observed at sea. Swallows certainly sleep all the winter. A number of them conglobulate together, by flying round and round, and then all in a heap throw themselves under water, and lye in the bed of a river.” (Boswell, Life of Johnson)

I was greatly consoled.

Sunday night symphonic finale

January 20, 2008

This is glorious. Leonard Bernstein brings Mahler’s immense Symphony No. 2 to an ecstatic conclusion. Bernstein’s involvement with the music is extraordinary; his whole body is filled with it. Would you sing for this man? What would you not sing for this man?


(Duration: 4 minutes)

Forced conversions

January 20, 2008

I’ve been ruminating a little about these “Human Rights Commissions” that I wrote of yesterday. One of the peculiarities of the Levant case — and perhaps others as well — is that the complainant is formally seeking, among other things, an apology from the person who offended him. Presumably he wants this apology to be sincere; he wants Levant to have a change of heart. It reminds me of another Canadian case: Robert Latimer, who murdered his disabled twelve-year old daughter Tracy in a “mercy-killing”, was recently denied early parole, not because of the seriousness of his crime, but because he would not express remorse for his action. Both of these cases have something in common: the system is seeking to coerce, with the authority and force of the state, an interior conversion in the wrong-doer. The legal and punitive process appears to be not so much about punishment as it is about therapy.

A classic statement of opposition to this view of judicial process is C.S. Lewis’ essay “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment”:

According to the Humanitarian theory, to punish a man because he deserves it, and as much as he deserves, is mere revenge, and, therefore, barbarous and immoral. It is maintained that the only legitimate motives for punishing are the desire to deter others by example or to mend the criminal.

The problem, of course, is that deterrence and therapy have no intrinsic connection to justice. We must not forget that if the aim is to reform, to change the heart, to bring to repentance, then the instruments of the state are blunt instruments.  They can succeed only by breaking the spirit, and that is a tyrant’s game.

The whole essay is worth reading.

True, north, strong, and—

January 19, 2008

Two cases now before various Canadian “Human Rights Commissions” have begun to attract attention recently. Both Ezra Levant, former publisher of Western Standard magazine, and Mark Steyn, a popular columnist, have been brought up on charges for allegedly causing offense to some Muslim readers.

The complaint against Ezra Levant stems from his decision, in 2005, to print the famous “Danish cartoons” in his magazine. You will recall that most news media, both then and since, refused to print them. Accusations were flung at the mainstream media for its reticence — alleging double standards and cowardice — and at the Western Standard for its eagerness — alleging insensitivity and self-aggrandizement. Each party defended itself, most citing a tender concern for religious sensibilities (the press, after all, would never [well, sometimes] publish religiously offensive pictures) and Levant citing journalistic integrity (the cartoons were, after all, the occasion for the biggest news story of the time). But the details of the dispute are beside the point. Whether the cartoons’ publication was evidence of responsible journalism or just bad taste, I hope we can agree that Levant had the right to publish them. No doubt the cartoons are not “nice”, but political cartoons seldom are. (Most people are, I think, surprised at how tame these cartoons are.) In any case, Levant did not publish them as political cartoons, but as highly relevant illustrations to accompany a story covering the world-wide riots. Latitude for such an editorial decision is surely covered by our principles of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Those rights are being challenged by one Syed Soharwardy of the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada, who filed the complaint.

I have no doubt that freedom of speech and freedom of the press are obnoxious to Mr. Soharwardy, for they are frequently obnoxious to me. I am therefore not surprised that he would wish to punish Mr. Levant, nor am I entirely surprised that he would solicit the state’s assistance to do so — for all I know, his strategy would be quite effective in Saudi Arabia or Iran, and he may believe that “that’s how things are done”. But in our polity, that’s not how things are done. Worse, therefore, than the original complaint is the decision of the Alberta Human Rights Commission to hear the complaint and initiate an inquiry, for by doing so they lend it the appearance of legitimacy. As a result, we are treated to the spectacle of a publisher forced to justify its editorial decisions to the state.

Some argue that, since the complaint may yet be thrown out, a judgment on the justice of the affair must wait for the Commission’s ruling. But in the world of Human Rights Commissions, the process is itself the punishment. The accused, for example, is forced to pay for their legal defence, while the government picks up the complainant’s tab. It’s a system ripe for abuse, a veritable solicitation for frivolous accusations.

Ezra Levant was questioned by the Alberta Human Rights Commission last week, and much, I’m sure, to the chagrin of said Commission, has posted videos of the proceedings on YouTube. (For instance, here are his opening and closing statements.) There are a few different tacks Levant could have taken when forced to testify; he chose to be as uncooperative as possible, refusing to recognize the Commission’s legitimacy and jurisdiction over him. Instead, he used the opportunity to give an angry, but largely eloquent, defence of those basic freedoms which should protect him from state censure.

Given the harm the Commission is able to inflict on the accused, and the belligerence with which Levant sallied forth, one cannot but be bitterly disappointed by the lame dramatic showing of his foe. The Commission’s interrogator — even the word seems too stern — responded to his anger with a shrug and some platitudes. Just another day at the office.

The case against Mark Steyn is even more ridiculous. Last year Maclean’s magazine published an excerpt from Steyn’s book America Alone. His theme concerns demographic changes in Western Europe, and he quoted a Norwegian Muslim leader, Mullah Krekar, who proudly claimed that “The number of Muslims is expanding like mosquitoes. Every western woman in the EU is producing an average of 1.4 children. Every Muslim woman in the same countries is producing 3.5 children.” It was the entomological comparison that provoked the complaint, filed by the Canadian Islamic Congress. To their shame, the BC Human Rights Commission and the federal Canadian Human Rights Commission have agreed to hear the case. I am at a loss to comprehend the nature of the harm Steyn has allegedly perpetrated. If free speech does not cover accurate quotation, especially when it ruffles a few feathers, what does it cover?

A few public voices have begun to be raised in the defence of Levant and Steyn. Alan Borovoy, general counsel to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, who helped found these Human Rights Commissions several decades ago, has said that “during the years when my colleagues and I were labouring to create such commissions, we never imagined that they might ultimately be used against freedom of speech”. A few Canadian columnists have also begun to speak up. For instance:

There is much more that could be said: about legitimate restrictions on speech; about the virtue of civility in public life; about the compelling of apologies; about the other, lower profile cases that have been and are now being prosecuted by these Commissions; about the irregularities in due process that the Commissions permit; about the foundations of free speech rights; about the political challenges of cultural pluralism; about the limits of government power; and so on. But not today.

Perhaps the best thing about these affairs is that they are shining a bright light on these Kafka-esque tribunals that exist on the fringes of our justice system. My hope is that they will provoke a serious re-examination and reform of these bodies, or even their abolition.

A yearling!

January 18, 2008

One year old!

Today marks the first birthday of this web log! The first post, a tentative toe-dip, went up on January 18, 2007. All Manner of Thing started as an experiment, and as I look back over the past twelve months, I think I may justly judge it a success. To celebrate, I would like to give a brief retrospective.

My records show that in the past year I have written 177 posts. It has been great fun. Along the way, I have made no deliberate attempt to limit the scope of my subject matter; for the most part I have simply roamed wherever my interests took me. I knew at the outset that this model could prevent my attracting many readers, for few are going to consistently have the same interests as me, and consequently few will have a reason to make regular visits. Nonetheless, the site has received a fair number of hits all the same: on a typical week, several hundred people stop by. I know, too, that a handful of friends are regular readers. To them, and to everyone who takes the time to read the things I write, I offer my sincere and humble thanks.

Over the course of the year the ease with which this site can be found with Google has been improving. For the past few months, in fact, it has been the top search result for the phrase “All Manner of Thing” (with or without quotes). This proves that even Google’s much-lauded search algorithm has some serious problems, for a world in which I am ranked higher than Dame Julian or Mr. Eliot is a world without justice. I ask their pardon.

Given the number of visitors the site receives, I am somewhat puzzled by how few leave comments. There are a group of folks who regularly comment, but they are small in comparison to the whole, and I wonder what keeps the others quiet? Perhaps it is partly attributable to the coolness of my online “persona”. I think it is true that the person people meet here is rather tightly buttoned and reserved. This is partly due to my native temperament, but also partly to my awareness that what I write here will be accessible to anyone for a long, long time. Consequently, I step somewhat warily, and mute my trumpet, and that may well keep visitors from engaging with what I write. I wish I could change that, because I really enjoy reading and responding to the comments people leave. I am still waiting for the day when my comment-ers start talking to one another! Then, even for the briefest instant, this site will have taken on a life of its own. Perhaps I’ll experiment a little with inflammatory rhetoric to provoke more comments in the future.

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I think it would be fun to take a few moments to dig into the statistics that have been accumulating over the past year. They tell me, for instance, how many people came to the site to read particular posts. The results are fascinating. (The numbers don’t count those who only visit the main page; to be counted the reader must click on a particular post.) The basic point the statistics make is that I have no sound instincts for what will attract readers.

No-one is more surprised than I am to learn that the most popular post over the past year, by a wide margin, is my Book Note about Thomas Wharton’s novel Icefields. It was originally posted in March, and has consistently attracted readers. I have no idea why; I had thought this a pretty obscure book. Thankfully, I think I did a half-decent job with that Book Note, so I need not be embarrassed. What is more, the number of hits has recently begun to increase on account of the novel’s selection as a finalist in the Canada Reads 2008 program. It seems its good fortunes will continue for a while yet.

The second most popular Book Note I wrote was for Josef Pieper’s intellectual history Scholasticism: Personalities and Problems of Medieval Philosophy (from February). In third and fourth place were Karl Sabbagh’s The Riemann Hypothesis (from March) and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (from August). I would not have guessed it.

The second most popular post of the past year, from July, was my account of the Van Morrison concert I attended at Bluesfest. The reason for its popularity is that a local newspaper linked to my post in their festival coverage, and some proportion of their readers trickled (clickled?) through to me. This is a great way for a small-scale web log like mine to get readers. I felt like Lazarus, getting the scraps from the rich man’s table. Something similar happened when Amy Welborn linked to me: it resulted in the highest number of hits I saw in a single day (94). The difficulty is to somehow contrive to have these incoming links more frequently.

The third most popular post — though it received fewer than half of those garnered by the Icefields Book Note — was my unfolding of my Ptolomeic reading plan. Like some horrible disease, the mirth this post provoked at my expense was infectious. I am glad that everyone enjoyed themselves.

In some cases, posts which I thought would be popular turned out to be duds. When I wrote Rome Recommended, for instance, I thought that it had a good chance of shooting to the top of my hit parade. Plenty of people go to Rome, right? And surely some them will look online for suggestions? I was sort of right. It did creep into the Top 10, but barely.

**

It has been a good year: I have greatly enjoyed writing for this web log, and there are apparently at least a few people who enjoy reading it. I tip my hat to each of you, and carry on.

Fowl play

January 15, 2008

The Birds (414 BC)
Aristophanes (Meridian, 1994; trans. W. Arrowsmith)
168 p. First reading.

I’ve been surprised, and pleasantly so. Coming to this play my ignorance of Greek drama was near total — a shameful state of affairs, to be sure. For some reason I was expecting something formal, spacious, and sombre. I was way off.

Aristophanes is a comic playwright, and the play is a comic delight. It’s ironic, ribald and impious, and just plain goofy. There’s a splendid bright-eyed freshness to the whimsy, yet it doesn’t lose its satiric edge. It must have been wonderful for the original audience. Certain aspects of the play, however, pose hard challenges for the translator. In this version, Arrowsmith copes manfully with the frequent wordplay, translating for effect rather than literal meaning, but the many references to specific Athenians and (then) current events are harder to dance around. There are plenty of notes to help the reader with this, but even so it does inevitably blunt the spontaneity of the humour.

We have two Athenians, Pisthetairos (Plausible) and Euelpides (Hopeful), who are fed up with the merciless politics and cut-throat business practices of their fellow citizens. They decide to leave and live with the birds. In fact, they befriend the birds and hatch a plan together: they will build an enormous city in the sky, especially for birds, and because all the prayers and sacrifices from earth will have to pass through the city to reach the gods, and because the blessings of the gods will have to do the same to reach the earth, they’ll become masters of both men and gods. By inserting themselves in the middle and controllng traffic, they’ll be able to extort demands from everyone! This city, which they imagine will be a kind of utopia, they call “Cloudcuckooland”.

The irony, of course, is that as they build the city and begin to carry out the plan, they slowly become the powerful figures they fled Athens to escape: arbitrary, cruel, and haughty. Even when the gods come begging, Pisthetairos treats them with contempt. And it works! He gets the sceptre of Zeus and marries Miss Universe. Tricky old bird.

[An impious prayer]
Chorus:
Again we raise
the hymn of praise
and pour the sacred wine.

With solemn rite
we now invite
the blessed gods to dine.

But don’t all come –
perhaps just one,
and maybe then again

there’s not enough
(besides, it’s tough)
so stay away. Amen.

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