30 sept 2011

The Argument from the Futility of Arguments

This argument, which I don't know whether to call good or bad, is that arguments about religion (for or against it, or within it) do not have the power to convince anyone. If you want to believe, you will, and it doesn't matter whether your arguments are particularly good or not.

Bad Arguments--Religious People Are Evil

To right the balance a bit, I would like to examine a fallacious argument against religion. The idea that religious people are much less moral than atheists. The jails are full of religious people, not because they are worse than others, but because less-educated people, who tend to be incarcerated at a higher rate, tend to be believers. In truth, believers and non-believers are about the same in this regard. Believers often derive morality from religion, and non-believers don't. That is about the only difference.

People argue that religious wars derive from religion. So they do. But all this shows is that religion makes no difference one way or another. Slaveowners and abolitionists were equally Christian, and equally willing to go to war.

Inadequate Analogies: The Argument from Aesthetics

People arguing religion with me often use analogies from aesthetics. The argumentative move consists of comparing a religious text to a novel, or a religious preference for an aesthetic one. There are a few reasons why this argument falls flat on its face. In the first place, everyone recognizes that aesthetic preferences are personal and subjective, and inarguable at some level for that reason. If religion were that, and only that, nobody would have a problem with it. There aren't people writing books saying how nobody should listen to music or look at art.

Religion does two things that art doesn't. It makes serious truth-claims, and it organizes people into groups devoted to those claims.

For example, my judgment in the Harry Potter novels does not depend on whether Harry Potter really exists or not. In fact, I'm pretty sure he doesn't, but that doesn't effect anyone's judgment, because everyone knows this. It's a made-up story. If it were a religious text I think it would be treated quite differently. Reading it would be a religious duty, and belief in its truth claims would be a test of devotion. People who said it was made up would be ostracized from the community.

So go ahead and use aesthetic analogies, but be aware of what their implications are.

Mtheny / Grenadier

I saw guitar demi-god Pat Metheny play with bassist Larry Grenadier last night at Liberty Hall here in Lawrence. He played a lot of guitar on several separate guitars, including a technologically advanced one with many bells and whistles that allowed him a great number of special effects, and a semi-acoustic-looking one that let him play a gentle flamenco-like song. They played several tunes I recognized from some of the trio albums in which Metheny and Grenadier played with drummer Bill Stewart.

The last time I saw PM he was in a trio format with Antonio Sánchez, I think, in the same hall. Curiously, I didn't miss having a drummer in this case. I have never seen Grenadier in person so this was a good experience for me.

Bad Arguments: "A Religion of Peace"

No religion is a "religion of peace" if it has a long history of war-like activity. You can't take the peaceful parts of it and say that that is what it represents. If its adherents are war-like over several centuries, if various sects of the religion wage holy war against one another, etc... I'm not talking about conflicts like WW I, in which a lot of the participants just happened to be adherents of a few of the major monotheistic religions, but about the Crusades and other conflicts in the name of religion.

Actually though, the fact that Christianity did nothing to stop secular wars, in societies where almost everyone was ostensibly Christian, is also pretty damning.

Your religion is a religion of peace, when you happen to be at peace, and a religion of war when you are at war. Religion is orthogonal to war and peace. That, in a way, is more terrifying than anything. Think of a French Catholic shooting against a German Catholic in the trenches of the Great War. Their religion simply makes no difference at all in this situation.

29 sept 2011

Pretty Good Arguments: The Argument from Awe

It is awe-inspiring to be alive and conscious. Even ordinary existence is awesome in this sense, but the contemplation of the natural world and of great works of art adds even more such awe. This is a religious or quasi-religious feeling, though I think that I, a non-believer, feel it more intensely than most people I know. Even when I am intensely depressed I never stop feeling it. I think this feeling of awe is the true "subject matter" of all poetry and music. Or, to be more precise, it is the only subject matter that I really care about.

The religious view of awe interprets this feeling as evidence of something that produces the awe, some deity of some kind as the ultimate source of "the awesome." This is a pretty good argument for religious feeling, though of course a feeling requires no intellectual justification at all. Just as religion can be metaphor for the unknown, it can be a concrete name for the marvelousness of merely existing.

Bad Arguments-True Religion

One spectacularly unsuccessful argument is that there is a true core of religion residing in the hearts of true believers and in sacred texts that is immune to the corruptions of actually existing religion. Any critique of forced conversions of indigenous populations to another religion, or religious wars, cannot touch the true core of the religion.

Religion, as I'm defining it here, is religion as it actually exists and has existed in the world, not some idealized version sanitized and modernized according to contemporary standards.

Philadelphia Squirrels

I dreamed I was in Philadelphia. It didn't look anything like the real city where I've been several times, but that's where I thought I was. People were interacting in strange ways with a large number of squirrels. Some had them on leashes. Other were holding them as they jumped through the air, getting a lift from the squrrels, etc... The animals were quite docile, and I remembered wondering why they didn't fight against the humans holding them.


Later in the night, my father came back to my childhood house. I was showing him how we hadn't altered his study at all. I opened a rare edition of Quevedo that I had acquired, but the text was illegible. My father died ten years ago, so a visit from him in a dream is always welcome. Interestingly, the study actually no longer exists, because my parents knocked out a wall of the house. The study in the dream was the small room that was once my father's study and later became my brother's bedroom.


The third dream must be censored, unfortunately.

A Possibly Good Argument: Religion as a Metaphor for the Unknown

John makes a very good comment to the last post. "Religion is a metaphor for the unknown." (My paraphrase.) I agree with this completely. My own position toward religion is a kind of radical agnosticism. If God is metaphor for the unknown, nobody knows anything about God. There is no positive knowledge. I don't have a "faith" or "belief" in a proposition that there are no Gods. Rather, I am rigorously non-theistic in terms of the entities that I do think exist, and agnostic about the possibility of knowing anything for sure. I think it is pretty pointless to argue about whether Christianity has a .2% chance of being the right answer and Hinduism a point .3% chance. People's metaphors are worthy of respect as long as they aren't taken as anything more than metaphors. If you think yours is better, it is like thinking your spouse is better than someone else's. You are correct about your spouse, but I am also correct about mine.

Of course, religion, historically speaking, is not an individual choice of that sort, but a communal organization of life. It is only late in the game that the idea of personal belief as a individualistic choice comes into play, the product of Protestantism and later of secularization itself. That might be a topic for another post.

28 sept 2011

Niño Josele

This tribute album to Bill Evans comes highly recommended (by me). It is very listenable as long as you don't expect it to be improvised jazz.

Bad Arguments-The Courtier's Reply

The "Courtier's Reply" is the argument that a high degree of theological sophistication is required to contest religious belief. Basically, theologians spin self-contradictory and often meaningless arguments that are ignored by the average religious believer. In fact, theology school is often the first step toward atheism, since really, really sophisticated theology is all but indistinguishable from atheism, making no real claims about anything.

Theories of the Proverb

So today for class I want to develop a half dozen theories of the proverb. I don't mean a theory that will explain everything, but just a half-way interesting idea. I'm doing it on my blog first because I am too lazy to come up with these ideas as part of my working day. If I do it on the blog it's just part of my blogging hobby and will be sheer play. and hence be much easier.

1. Proverbs are a form of cultural competence, or the place where linguistic and cultural competence meet. They draw on cultural concepts that are widely shared like Dios or pan (God; bread).

2. Proverbs are part of daily life; they are pragmatic and refer to ordinary experience, like the weather, eating, drinking, human relationships, animals that might be observed around the house or barn. They have a semantic field confined to the everyday, and have pragmatic implications.

3. The meaning of a proverb is its use, not the meaning of its semantic elements.

4. Proverbs are instantiations of conventional metaphorical schemata, like "The Great Chain of Being" as explained in Lakoff's and Turner's More than Cool Reason.

5. Proverbs have a definite ideology, when viewed as a whole and not individually. This ideology can be described as "cynical conservatism." In other words, wisdom is following the accepted path, but being distrustful of human motivations.

6. A proverb has to "click" or "snap" prosodically and structurally. A proverb is a small poem.

7. [Your job, dear reader, is to come up with the 7th idea.]

27 sept 2011


I began several months by downloading about 30 hours of Flamenco podcasts. When I discovered two more programs, I had quite a few to listen to, about 90 hours when I was the furthest behind. Now I am down to about 20, but the catch is that I six hours more every week, so I have to listen to seven to actually make headway during any given week. I've listened to all of the "Nuestro flamenco" broadcasts of 2011, except for 20 minutes, and most of the "Duendeando" and "Entre palos y quejíos" as well, for 2011 and a part of 2010. I've learned a lot, but not a lot, maybe, in proportion to the number of hours I've spent. I don't really care that it's inefficient, because I am also enjoying the music and the interviews. I have to think of the next step of the project after I am caught up in my listening. I guess it would be designing the course in detail by compiling a bibliography of readings.

Bad arguments: True Because I Want It To Be

A lot of people want their religion to be true. They desire what they believe to be true to actually be true. This desire, however, has no effect on the actual truth. Wishes have no weight here, even if the alternative makes you upset or drives you to despair.

Bad Arguments --the Ontological Proof

I will be examining some bad arguments in favor of (and against) religious belief in this blog. Once in a while I might find a good argument.


The ontological proof, associated with Anselm and later with Descartes, begins by imagining a perfect being. What would this perfect being be like? It would be all-knowing, all-powerful, etc... And to be really perfect it would have to exist. Therefore such a perfect being does, in fact, exist.

Now the spectacular flaw in such an argument, as Kant pointed out, is to view existence itself as a predicate similar to others. In other words, you cannot begin by imagining a being and then forget, at the end, that it is a fabrication of your imagination. Imagine a perfect swimming pool. It would have to bring together certain characteristics considered ideal in a pool. The water would always be the perfect temperature and would never be dirty; it would never allow anyone to drown it, etc... We cannot then add to this list of predicates that this swimming pool must also exist, and that therefore there is such a pool somewhere.

24 sept 2011


Luisa Puenzo directs this 2007 Argentine movie about a teenage hermaphrodite. Ricardo Darin plays his/her father. This was an excellent movie in all respects and comes highly recommended. I like films like this that cast a single mood.

22 sept 2011

A Motif

A certain time-traveler is sent back in time to assassinate Hitler. He decides the easiest way will be to go back to when Hitler was a baby in the cradle. No bodyguards, no fuss. When he arrives back at his own time, after fulfilling his mission, he is immediately put on trial for killing an innocent child. He tries to explain the evil that Hitler represented, etc... but the entire history of the world has been altered by his act, including his own orders. He himself does not understand what he has done, since his memory of learning of Hitler's evil in school seems like a bad dream. After all, he has never learned of Hitler, because Hitler was no longer a historical figure.

Stories for Nighttime / And Some for the Day

I received a free copy of this book by Ben Loory, published by Penguin. My first impression is that it is way too facile, taking the Lydia Davis or Paul Auster mode of postmodernism and making it even "liter." He is very smart to figure out that this was a place to go here, a niche for a dumbed-down postmodernism. If you know Borges, then Auster is not impressive. If you now Auster, than Loory will not be impressive either.

Of course, LD is far better than Auster so I don't mean to insult her, but Loory seems to be imitating her more than her ex-husband. The first story in the book is a blatant imitation of the opening of If On A Winter's Night a Traveler.

My impression might change as I get further into the book.

The Pure Products

I woke up at night with my cough, as has been happening lately. I have a sinus infection, which explains some of my recent difficulties. Insomnia is rare with me, but I couldn't get back to sleep. I reconstructed WCW's poem "For Elsie" in my mind, almost perfectly. Checking this morning I realize I left out two words "to work in some hard-pressed / house in the suburbs..." I had shortened this phrase to "to some hard pressed / house in the suburbs." I had a conversation about the poem recently with Denise Lowe, former poet laureate of Kansas, and had a slight advantage because I happened to have memorized the poem at some point in my life, and then rememorized it.

Curiously, I think the omission of those two words makes the poem better.

Then I tried to work out a 4 against 7 polyrhythm. I fell asleep before I could solve that one. Mathematically I knew what it had to be, but I couldn't get it to fall into place as a real rhythm, one that I could feel.

21 sept 2011

Suddenly (1954)

Frank Sinatra in a suit and fedora arrives in the small town of "Suddenly" to assassinate the president, who will be passing through there.. He and his henchman take over a house on a hill overlooking the town square, taking as hostages a retired secret service agent, his daughter (a war widow), and a young boy (her son), as well as the town sheriff.

Hostage situations provide good drama: a confined, stage-like place, an automatic situation of power and dominance, ready-made conflict. Sinatra is very good in this role, and doesn't even sing.

20 sept 2011

Thick As Thieves

There are at least a few movies with this title. This 1998 one features Alec Baldwin as a criminal who is brought in to Detroit to steal some plates used to print food stamps. He is double crossed by some local Detroit gangsters (one played by Andre Braugher) and has to kill two corrupt cops. He then goes on a rampage.

It is a pretty crappy movie, with bad dialogue and lame, half-hearted attempts at humor. Not recommended.

Widsom of Crowds

I like reposting this once in a while, one of my best ideas ever:

The Wisdom of Crowds in Translation.

The fiendishly simple idea is that the best translation is going to be a kind of consensus version derived from the average choice of a large group of translators. A good poetic translator with a great knowledge of the source language as well may or may not come up with something that approaches this statistical prevalence. If sh/e does, fine, but if sh/e doesn't, the crowd is still probably correct.


I'll be playing conga outside today from 4-5. Just come to Wescoe Hall outside the Spanish dept and listen for the sound of... amateurish conga playing. This is gong to be a regular thing, Tuesday and Thursday at 4ish, and Wed. at 2:30. I did it a few years ago but unaccountably stopped.

19 sept 2011

Film Aesthetics

Although I am not a film guy per se, I am very sensitive to film aesthetics: the look of a film (lighting, landscapes, costuming); the film score; the style of acting; the quality of dialogue. While Cantet's "Human Resources" is a very good film, I got no joy out its earnestly flat socialist realist style. I like the urban style of blaxploitation movies of the 70s, with their R&B soundtracks and overthetop costuming.

It's hard to beat classic hollywood film before the arrival of technicolor. I can't get enough of the stylized look of Back and White films of the 1940s. Of course, you can't just make a black and white film today and have it come out like those. Woody Allen tried it with "Manhattan." Others have too, but it isn't quite the same, is it?

Broken Symmetries (After MP 3)

Church bells announce a fire in the photo lab.
"Cultural Studies" is soon there with his buckets.

"Egg Roll" watches from the sidelines.
"Weather-Beaten Skeleton" can do nothing.

Do you want a piece of me?
Have you read Stones of Venice?

The stones appear there as themselves.
Those rains brought these muds.

Your tone is excessive, they said.
But it was what I was saying they hated.

They didn't like my insistence.
They didn't like me.

Those over-cautious bells, afraid to ring out the changes.
Or was it a problem with the entire system?


I admire the poetry of Michael Palmer very much, but it is not the kind of poetry I would write. I like more humor, more spoken language, and more directness. What I do in these poems, then, is to erase his and write mine on top of them, leaving nothing of the original except for a few "trace" words. I couldn't do this with a poet whose poems I would want to write, nor with a poet who holds no attraction for me at all. For some reason I cannot write out of myself, only in reaction to something already there. I fear the explanation is otiose, because if it is more interesting than the poem, it sinks it right there, but if it is less interesting, who needs it?

Clothes That Fit

I recently watched two movies from the 1950s, "The Bad Seed" and "Appointment with Danger." Watching them I couldn't get over how well the clothes fit the lead actors in both of these movies, Nancy Kelly and Alan Ladd respectively. Kelly's silhouette from head to toe was just exquisite in whatever clothes she wore: always that unbroken line down to the floor. Ladd's suit seemed like a second skin. Call me superficial, but that was what my attention was most drawn to, even though I'm far from a fashionista. There is something that is just not replicable in later movies that try to recreate the retro look of the 40s or 50s. You can't just slap a fedora on Kevin Costner and expect him to look like Bogart or Ladd.

18 sept 2011

Inspector Bellamy

This 2009 film starring a bloated Gérard Depardieu was directed by Chabrol. I had a hard time getting through it, with its twitchy, aimless plots and subplots. Depardieu is an aging famous police detective who is supposed to be on vacation or totally retired. He gets involved in a case when the murderer contacts him. This could almost work, were it not for the competing subplot of the relationship between Depardieu and his ne'er-do-well half-brother. I kept wishing that I was watching a movie with Al Pacino or Jack Nicholson in this role, someone who could give it some energy.

Human Resources

This 1999 film by Laurent Cantet is subtle look at family and class relations. The Socialist Government of France is introducing the 35-hour work week, so a bright college student takes a summer internship at the plant where his father works. His job is to help design the implementation of the 35 hour week (down from 39). Of course, this is an ostensibly progressive reform, but the union, headed by a wonderful firebrand of a woman, about 65-years old, is justifiably suspicious that management will use the reform for nefarious ends. Why not automate the plant and get by with less manual labor, and fewer laborers? The management trainee, Franck, moves from naivety to activism and conflict with his own father, a gentle and compliant factory worker.

While seemingly a dull subject for a film, it is well done. Of course, conservative governments in France have since eliminated the 35-hour work-week.

(Thanks to The Spanish Professor for this film recommendation.)

The Forgotten

This film, directed by Joseph Ruben, was released in 2004 and stars Julianne Moore as a mother who is in therapy for the tragic death of her son. Soon, it seems she is losing her mind as all evidence of the son's existence is erased. Her therapist and her husband both claim her son Sam never existed in the first place. Soon, she is running from Federal Agents and space aliens. Somehow, the aliens who have the power to rapture people from the earth instantaneously have trouble with the Power Of A True Mother's Love. A good premise for a movie, but the ode to motherly love at the end takes the movie into ideological fantasy.

17 sept 2011

Por bulerías

The basic 12 part count of Flamenco rhythm:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

See here for more details.

What's interesting here is that rhythms divided into 6 (or 12) beats are divisible by both 2 and 3, so they lend themselves to polyrhythms. Notice the way the accent on the third beat throws the whole compás into asymmetry. Otherwise all the beats would be on the even-numbered offbeats.

Compare the afro-cuban bell pattern in 6/8 time:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 .

Something similar happens there. One, three, and five are accented in the first part of the pattern, then the last note of that first part fall on 6, then 2, 4, and 6 in the second half. Both are twelve-beat cycles, so counting them as two groups of six or one of twelve is six of one thing and half dozen of the other.

Cry Danger

This 1951 film directed by Robert Parrish stars Dick Powell and Rhonda Fleming. An excellent example of classic film noir that had somehow escaped my attention until now.

Personal Experience

Personal experience is a horribly flawed way of reaching valid conclusions about reality. Nobody is a representative sample of anything significant, except by accident. You cannot go out in the street and find a "typical person." For example, I might conclude from my own experience that violent crime does not exist in the US. After all, I have never been the victim of such a crime while living here for 50 years. Zero percent of people I've met, Black, Latino, Asian, White, have sexually assaulted me or mugged me. Amazing. I might also say that the common cold is a rare occurrence, that it is easy to publish in the PMLA, that shaving one's face every other day is sufficient, that coffee does not cause insomnia, etc... After all, these statements are true of me. I could also explain how rock and roll is dull, but flamenco is pleasing to the human ear, or why even the strongest coffee requires no sweetener, why pitchers' duels are fascinating...

Yet, of course, but despite the extreme limitations on individual perspectives, we are very interested in people's personal stories. I would suggest that the main interest lies in their atypicality, or in their very curious combination of seemingly typical experience and wholly idiosyncratic outlier stuff. The statistical sample leading to the "average person" produces a kind of bland view of things.

Students often seem bland to me, because what they write is generic. They give me a standard view of things, not what they really think when that is stripped away. On the other hand, bloggers like Clarissa or Z always have something interesting to say because they are very much themselves. It doesn't even matter whether I agree with any particular statement they make or whether I think their personal viewpoint is generalizable to any other human being on the planet. Who cares?

Maybe that is why I am a not a great reader of fiction. Real people seem more interesting to me than generic agglomerations of character traits assigned to random proper names. You couldn't invent a fictional character as interesting as anyone I know because that wouldn't be "realistic."

16 sept 2011

After MP (2)

"I speak in the passive voice."
No, that's not quite right.

One would think rocks would get rough with age,
wouldn't you? An argument not worth having,

Camarón told him, he didn't believe it.
Spinoza told him, he didn't believe it.

But what? The thinness of strangers?
Gruel for thought?

I slept then woke, the usual order.
I emerged into the daylight.

That curious unfinished quality there,
a diagnosis cruel as glass in the pond.

I slipped into a patter designed to fool,
designed to defer or postpone.

You didn't deserve my deference,
you claimed, my condescension nor my recipes.

I replaced your walls with something stronger,
but they would be torn down the next day anyway.

It was worth it for the look on your face.
You should have seen yourself squirm!

I showed you better ways to do things.
I have small hopes for a better life.

Vision Quest

This 1985 movie directed by Harold Becker stars Matthew Modine as a high school wrestler who is going to make his mark by starving himself down two weight classes to wrestle Shute, the state champion at 168 lbs. Conveniently, he gets a gorgeous New Jersey girl (Linda Fiorentno) to move into his house and eventually loses his virginity to her right before pinning Shute in the climactic scene. The movie sounds cheesy in my description of it, but I've always liked films like this. A good soundtrack of 80s pop music.

15 sept 2011

After Michael Palmer

André Breton has been elected president.
He proclaims La République Surréaliste,

which it already was.
Mentira, mentira, mentira

mutter the jays.
If only they knew!

I've stolen your thunder.
I've stolen the milk from your coffee.


I wrote this poem several years ago. It doesn't have much to do with the MP poem that is was supposedly based on. The great thing is that I can admire this poem as though it were not mine, because I have forgotten it, and forgotten what I meant by it, yet recognize it as something I would have written. It is completely my style.

Dark City

Here is a 1950s film noir directed by William Dieterle starring a young Charlton Heston as a gambler. He and his crew lure a guy into a card game and fleece him, whereupon he hangs himself (the victim) and his psychopathic brother begins to take revenge on the gamblers. Heston must figure out what the psychopath looks like, and so begins to seduce the wife of the victim.

It is an excellent movie, though one I've never heard of before.

14 sept 2011

The Lone Gun

George Montgomery plays a sheriff who can't raise a posse to go after a group of cattle rustlers. In shades of High Noon, the townspeople chicken out. He has to depend on the wiles of a professional gambler.

This is an ok generic Western with the typical formulaic elements.

Facebook Page

My department now has its own facebook page. I suggested it at the last departmental meeting, and voilà.


This is going to be huge, for me personally and for my ability to teach classes the way I want to, with the books I need to order.

It is also going to cost me a shitload of money.


I have the possibility of giving a talk in Belfast next year. That would be really cool.


I spent all morning preparing a class on swearing in Spanish. Obviously this is a topic I could spend even more time on it if I were a real expert. Camilo José Cela wrote an entire dictionary of obscenities. One volume is devoted exclusively to testicles. Another volume is on the penis. It's a little awkward because all nine students in the class are women. Really, though, obscenity is not (mostly) about sex at all. Sex is the vehicle of the metaphor.

Some jokes

Stop me if you've heard these before.

An anthropologist was visiting a remote tribe. He was kept up all night be tribal drumming that never stopped. After a few days, he asked his native informant about the drumming. When would it ever stop? The informant told him, you don't want it to stop. When it stops, something very, very, very, bad happens. What? Asked the anthropologist?

Bass solo.

A couple was in marriage counseling. They could not communicate. Finally, the therapist brought in Ron Carter to play bass. Eventually, the couple began to talk to each other and ironed out their differences. They thanked their therapists profusely, and the therapist said, "It was easy: Everyone talks during the bass solo."

A lot of white saxophonist imitated Lester Young's style during the 1950s cool jazz craze and were quite successful. In fact, the whole movement was based on Lester's style. They asked Lester about it, and he replied: "What Lester plays, Stans Getz."

Why did the soprano arrive at 9 p.m. for the 8 p.m. show? --The singer always comes in late.

13 sept 2011

The Killing Jar

This 2010 film directed by Mark Young stars Michael Madsen and Amber Bensen. It takes place in a diner at night. There has been a murder in the area and the waitress, Noreen, prods the deputy sheriff to question a leather-jacketed stranger. The stranger goes to his car and gets a shotgun and holds the diner's customers hostage.

The film has the feel of a stage play; it is a real actor's movie, though it lets the violence do too much of the work. Imagine if Pinter had written the script and let the violence be more implicit than explicit? It would have been a better film. Still, Madsen and the rest of the cast are excellent.


I was reading Ruskin's book on drawing. It is worth reading whether you draw or not, simply because it is a fine book for learning to see better. I learned of it from a facebook friend--Mark Scroggins if memory serves.

Natural forms, according to Ruskin, have curved lines. Straight lines usually indicate something man-made. Natural curves are typically gradated, that is, they aren't perfect arcs of a circle but become more curved on one end than the other. Think of the typical shape of the branch of a tree. Ruskin also has some keen observations about the repetition and radiation of natural forms.

He says if you can draw a rock you can draw anything.

I'm also reading and working out of an interesting book about hand-drum soloing. What these two books have in common is the way they point to principles that might be obvious to people who know about them already, but have the force of revelation to other readers, like myself.

12 sept 2011


Guess who is co-principal trumpet in the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra this year?

9 sept 2011

Notating Speech Melody

A nice post here for those who can't get enough of prosody.

7 sept 2011

El Bloombito

A good question in the comments on this post by someone named Bernard:
I often wonder why the faculty to imitate an accent (≈ speak phonetically correctly) and to speak a language morphologically / syntactically / semantically / idiomatically /… correctly seem to be so independent – and why the latter has so little impact on people's judgement.

(This case may be a bit different, as anything beyond the phonetics is probably not Bloomberg's anyway.)

In other words, why can you learn to speak a language correctly, except for the phonetics and prosody, and still sound like a fool. Why can learners acquire all the rest of it, grammar, vocabulary, etc... without acquiring the phonetics? Why do phonetics enter in so strongly into our perception of speakers, so that, for example, a person with a relatively slight foreign accent (to my ears) and impeccable grammar will be told sh/e can't speak English at all?

Why am I tolerant of people speaking English in a wide variety of accents, but relatively intolerant of accents of non-Hispanophones trying to speak Spanish? (Well, maybe because I'm a Spanish teacher, duh.)

The Bravados

This classic Western stars Gregory Peck in a liberal guilt revenge drama. Peck thinks a group of four men is responsible for the rape and murder of his wife, so he goes after them, after they have escaped from jail the night before they were to be hanged. The female lead is played by a woman would later be a best-selling author: Joan Collins. I liked the fact that the movie just expects you to understand the portions of the dialogue that are in Spanish. But what does "The Bravados" mean? I could see "Los bravos" or "los embravecidos."

Along the Beach

We got off the train, my wife, my daughter, and myself, and had to walk a short distance. One of us suggested we walk along the beach, which was visible from where we were, so we took a different path. To get to the beach, though, we had to go through a swampy area. My daughter and I went first, each of us stepping in water up to our knees. The good thing was that, because it was a dream, the water did not feel wet in the least. I tried to convince my wife to go around the other way but she followed us and got considerably more wet.

Gypsy Cante: Deep Song of the Caves

I am a little disappointed by Will Kirkland's collection of Cante Jondo, published by New Directions in 1999. It is a sincere effort and collects some relevant lyrics for a reader with no Spanish. Aside from the limited selection, centered on earlier texts from the 19th century and the "Golden Age" of the 1920s, the translations themselves are not particularly distinguished. If you had to tranlate "porque mis penas nunca van a menos / siempre van a más," would you think the poetic device of parallelism is significant? Look at the stark simplicity of those lines. WK writes: "because these griefs will never get smaller, / will grow with the years." In the same poem he mistranslates the word "hasta." "Hasta l'alma me duele / de tanto llorar." He says "Even my soul feel the pain / of so many tears." What this really means, though, is "I have been crying so hard that hurts all the down to my soul." Converting llorar, a verb, into a noun, "tears," robs the line of its dynamism.

The words "tears" and "years" are obviously there just for the rhyme. This is the opposite of how rhyme works in the original. In other words, the rhyme never weakens the poem or distracts the reader, it is never forced. Machado y Álvarez says the flamenco cante never contains ripio or padding. Also, there is no excuse to not use colloquial English in the translation of these texts. Nobody talks like this: 'How is that for some crazy words /such love is gone."

I'm not even going to start on the introduction and critical apparatus. There is probably no way to present this poetry without the predictable appeal to Romantic Spain.

6 sept 2011


I thought it would be wearying to listen to all the Bill Evans music I own, but it is not. I really enjoy his rapport with bass players and drummers like Joe LaBarera, with guitars like Jim Hall. His solo work is fine as well. I could listen to him for days. In fact, that's just what I've been doing.

Expressions from "Los mares del sur"

I was reading Los mares del sur by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán simply to see what kind of idiomatic expressions I could find. Here are some I found in the first 51 pages. I have tried to explain them in very brief phrases. I like working from authentic material rather than from books designed to teach idioms to language learners, and to use exact quotes rather than converting the idioms to a single format. I realized when doing this that I don't have a very coherent definition of an idiom myself. I've included some that are single words or simply conventional periphrases like "poner a salvo." Also, obviously, I've left out many that I didn't think worthy of note.

Novels are probably the best source of idioms.

“te perdonan la vida” (perdonavidas) [they will forgive you for living or “spare your life” {condescending, bullying}]
“te parto la boca” [I’ll give you a split lip]
“me cago en Dios” [I shit on God]
“tres meses sin comernos un rosco” [without a crust of break]
“les importa un huevo” [they don’t give a damn; huevo = egg or testicle]
“hay que fastidiarse” [life is tough]
“me suena” [it sounds familiar]
“lo dejó todo atado”[he left everything very well arranged]
“hubo que hacer frente a una situación” [face up to a situation]
“hay muchos intereses en juego” [at stake]
“no era un hombre en sus cabales” [in his right mind. with all his faculties]
“he podido respirar a mis anchas” [I can breathe freely = do whatever I want without worrying]
“los bajos fondos”[the criminal underworld]
“invita la casa” [It’s on the house]
“Esto es más viejo que ir al pie.” [That’s older than walking on two feet.]
“editoriales de mala muerte” [marginal publishing houses]
“tíos y tías en pelota” [naked men and women]
“haciéndose pajas” [masturbating]
“poner a salvo” [to rescue; put out of reach {of a dog in this case}]
“es una chorrada, como todos los libros” [worthless chatter]
“el no va más de los sofás relax” [the ultimate, the latest thing...]
“que se jodan los médicos” [screw the doctors]
“ricos por los cuatro costados”[rich on all four sides {four grandparents?}]
“cantamañanas” [irreponsible, won’t keep his promises]
“se le miraba como bicho raro” [a rare beast]
“es para mearse de risa” [when you hear it you’ll pee in your pants]
“es un decir” [it’s an expression; I don’t mean it literally]
“una miseria para él” [pocket change for him]
“una declaración de principios” [“making a statement”: Like “su corbata era toda una declaración de principios”]
“de par en par” [wide open]
“sin prisas y sin pausas” [without hurrying, but without stopping either: slow and steady]
“a estas alturas del siglo” [at this point in history]
“un no sé que de ...” [je ne sais pas”]
“los negocios iban viento en popa” [wind in the sails]

5 sept 2011


The textbook I ordered for my class in idioms and proverbs is rather a mishmash. It has items like "dedo del pie" (toe) as an idiom. That is simply a catachresis*, in my book, like "las patas de la mesa" (the legs of the table.) In Spanish there is no (single) word for toe, rather you say the "finger of the foot."

The book seems to define an idiom as "how you say something in Spanish." So anything over a word in length is an idiom, like "a la izquierda" (on the left). At first I was angry with myself for getting this poor textbook, but don't the students also need to know how to say "toe"? Don't they need to know that you say "las patas de la mesa" and not '"las piernas de la mesa"? Shouldn't I introduce the concept of catachresis? La cara de la moneda...


*The metaphor for which there is no more literal word in common use. "Tropo que consiste en dar a una palabra sentido traslaticio para designar algo que carece de nombre especial; p. ej., la hoja de la espada; una hoja de papel." We say the "legs of a table" with the implied metaphor from biology, but there is no other, more literal word for this. The face and hands of a clock, the eye of a storm or of a needle, the foot of a mountain, the mouth of a river, the head of a company, the teeth of gears. Most of the examples I can think of use body parts, or the body itself (a body of water). A "root" in the mathematical sense of a "square root" is a catachresis. That's biological but not related to the human body. A sheet of paper is "hoja de papel" or "leaf of paper."

Catachresis also means a mixed or absurd metaphor, but that meaning does not concern me here.

4 sept 2011

I still don't quite look like James Joyce. I need rounder glasses and a slightly different shape mustache.

Taking Flamenco Seriously as Poetry

That would be the main focus of the Flamenco course. In other words, taking the actual texts of Flamenco lyrics seriously, taking seriously the connections between Flamenco and poetry generally, in both directions. As usual, with me, I get great ideas for courses that might last, say, 5 weeks. I'm not saying this topic wouldn't dar más de sí, but I wouldn't have enough material now for more than that. Also, why do we assume that 15 weeks is the ideal length of time to study something? Why not just give the best five weeks of three separate topics?

Gratuitously Flattering Character Detail

There ought to be a better name for this; a character has multiple talents or positive traits not necessary for the plot. In Clint Eastwood's "Absolute Power," for example, the burglar Luther (played by Eastwood himself) is a Harvard Graduate, a war hero, and an expert draughtsman. Maybe we could call it the "vanity package." (Especially when a director also stars in his own movie.) You know Eastwood the director would always give Eastwood the character good taste in jazz and a good SAT score. I can imagine a lower level producer telling the scriptwriter: "Hey, the boss wants a better vanity package."

In some ways, it's just Hollywoodization. It's just as easy to put the word Harvard in the script than Cornell. Easier, in fact. Interior decor can be overly elegant, except when it is meant to be deliberately run-down and seedy.

3 sept 2011

Portrait of the Professor as James Joyce

From Berlin to Bessie

It was a relief to go from the Berlin Symphony to Bessie Smith. Not because I don't like Brahms, Dvorak, and Tchaikovsky, but because of my listening habits, a little bit in the car, or waiting for the bus with my headphones. The dynamic contrasts in symphonies don't work on the car very well: I'm always turning up the volume to hear the quiet parts or turning down the fff passages. Also, the 3:30 minute segments of popular genres work much better with fragmented modern life.

Rio Bravo

This ponderous beast of a 1959 Western by director Howard Hawks stars John Wayne, Angie Dickenson camping it up, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson. Martin and Nelson even sing. The chemistry between Angie and the Duke is non-existent. She tries hard, but he is just unresponsive. His scenes with Martin, typecast as a drunk whom Wayne is trying to redeem, are much more impassioned. At least Grace Kelly in High Noon gets to shoot someone.

This movie lasts 2:21 but could easily have been a tight, tense drama of 1:21. I never liked anything about John Wayne and this movie made me like him even less. It is fine to project cool self-confidence under pressure, but here he takes the short-cut of not even seeming to care most of the time.

Papeles flamencos

This is a pretty amazing blog consisting entirely of documents about Flamenco, in their original form. If I ever teach my course in Flamenco this kind of resource is going to be what makes it possible.

Language is an obdurate obstacle here. If you don't know Spanish, there is nothing I can do.

2 sept 2011

Drum Lesson

I was supposed to have a drum lesson. When it came my turn to play, there were no drums and I couldn't reach the sticks I saw on the other side of the room, so I just banged my hands on my knees and spoke percussive sounds, trying to get a groove going that way. I could see by the expression on the face of the two teachers, men in their late twenties or thirties, that my tempo was dragging. I wasn't wearing a shirt and they commented that the muscular tension in my back would prevent me from playing well.

1 sept 2011


I have spotify now. It's legal, right? Anyway, I haven't put much time in with it yet, because there is music on my ipod I've barely heard, or not at all, and I also am going through my Flamenco podcasts and have 2.4 days to go with those. Of course I still subscribe to those podcasts so I need to listen to six hours a week just not to fall behind.

Also, having almost infinite music at my disposal leads me to flit from one thing to another and barely stop to enjoy anything. That was the problem I had with Rhapsody. I would download endless music and hardly have time to listen to it, since I used the time to download more music instead. It's a finitude problem, ultimately.

Is Swearing Creative?

Some believe that the use of blasphemy, obscenity, and scatological language reveals a limited vocabulary and a poor command of language. It is actually hard to swear correctly, however. It requires a very well-developed sense of pragmatics and sociolinguistics. An obscene oath is usually not literal in its meaning. In Spanish swearing offers enormous regional variations.

Of course, fixed expressions always seem less creative (in Chomsky's sense of linguistic creativity) in that they are formulaic. It is the language itself, then, that seems creative in its ability to generate such a large number of variations on a seemingly limited number of bodily functions.

Effective Swearing in DF

This blog is a fun one. I've never been to Mexico City and am unfamiliar with how to swear there, though I am good at swearing in Madrid. I remember it took me a long time to figure out "Me cago en la hostia." When I did figure it out, it seemed rather extreme, even for a blasphemous person like myself. In contrast, the Mexican "cagado" seems very innocent.


I'm on the Berliner Philharmonic now. Brahms is surprisingly hard to get through. It's beautiful, mellifluous music, but somehow I don't feel a personal connection to Brahms the way I do to Mahler or Beethoven.