The Rants, Raves, Gripes, and Prophecies of Paul R. Potts

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Wed, 26 Feb 2003 Channeling Tolkien

A few weekends ago at our monthly potluck my friend John and I did an impromptu performance of a little-known work by J.R.R. Tolkien: a read-through of his short drama in verse "The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son." In his essays accompanying the text, in a footnote, Tolkien mentions that the work has never been performed. Well, now it has, in a rather unrehearsed read-through, for a small audience. (I have a feeling it is not likely to be the first performance; the work was supposedly published in 1953; surely, a group of drunken Oxford students has performed it in a darkened dormitory lounge by now?)*

John and I sat in our darkened living room, with our guests. On the coffee table was a single candle. We read through the text by the light of a flashlight, covering and uncovering it to simulate the cloaking of a lantern, and making the occasional silly rocking motion and sound effects to indicate that the characters were riding in a horse-drawn cart. The verses end with the chanting a portion of a Latin mass, spoken for dead Beorhtnoth.

Our guests told us that the simple read-through, two voices in the dark discussing stumbling over the dead, headless body of their slain leader, was highly effective. My son, Isaac, eight years old, was quite freaked out; it is a highly effective ghost-story. The verses are quite evocative:

    TOR.                          To the left yonder.
            There's a shade creeping, a shadow darker
            than the western sky, there walking crouched!
            Two now together! Troll-shapes, I guess,
            or hell-walkers. The've a halting gait,
            groping groundwards with grisly arms.

Nameless hell beasts, or wounded men shuffling along in the dark in pain, looting the corpses? We don't know, and now can't know; this world is a thousand years gone.

The play itself has quite a sense of strangeness about it: it is part ghost story, part gruesome and comic meditation on the nature of death (like Hamlet's chat with the undertaker and the discovery of Yorick's skull), and possibly even a Christian resurrection story. (Tolkien was notoriously opposed to "allegory," but it seems to me that Beorhtnoth's homecoming is at least symbolic, and there is at the least an interesting juxtaposition of the pre-Christian and Christian cultures. In The Lord of the Rings, when Boromir is slain, his companions take valuable minutes away from their pursuit of the Orcs carrying Merry and Pippin to give him a boat-burial, and more importantly, to compose a traditional lay remembering his valiant life (although he struggled at the last against the unbearable temptation to seize the one ring and use it himself). Why do they do this? It is a pre-Christian world, and Middle Earth's notions of life after death are vague; in a profound sense, the lay of Boromir is Boromir's immortality. Torhthelm seems to be in two worlds: Beorhtnoth is being taken to a Christian burial, but for good measure, he chants a eulogy along the way. His eulogy, though, has a surprisingly Christian echo to it:

    His head was higher than the helm of kinds
    with heathen crowns, his heart keener
    and his soul clearer than swords of heroes
    polished and proven: than plated gold
    his worth was greater. From the world has
    passed a prince peerless in peace and war,
    just in judgment, generous-handed
    as the golden lords of long ago.
    He has gone to God glory seeking,
    Beorhtnoth beloved.

But, above all, it is a grim, dark, and doubtful world that Torhthelm and Tídwald inhabit; perhaps there was beauty in it, but beauty is not there now, in the aftermath of a grisly battle:

    There are candles in the dark and cold voices.
    I hear mass chanted for master's soul
    in Ely isle. Thus ages pass,
    and men after men. Mourning voices
    of women weeping. So the world passes;
    day follows day, and the dust gathers,
    his tomb crumbles, as time gnaws it,
    and his kith and kindred out of ken dwindle.
    So men flicker and in the mirk go out.
    The world withers and the wind rises;
    the candles are quenched. Cold falls the night.

I'd like the chance to perform this again. It's a short piece, and should not be difficult to memorize; staging requirements would be absolutely minimal. The reading took only fifteen or twenty minutes. It would make an excellent brief radio drama: a project to be explored when I am able to put my home studio back together. John has a talent for breathing life into a text and coming up with characterizations on the fly. Thanks to everyone who helped and listened and expressed their enjoyment.

Follow-up note: I found a reference to a performance: at the Maldon Millennium Celebration here. Oh, well; we weren't the first. I wonder what their performances were like? It isn't likely I'll be able to attend the 2,000th anniversary of the Battle of Maldon to find out. Apparently there is also a recording available of Tolkien himself reading the play, and it has been re-issued in a transcription from vinyl record to CD, as part of the Spitter Spatter Sounds collection available here.

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Tue, 25 Feb 2003 Got Shoe?

Nike basketball shoes are washing up along the northwest coast of North America, the result of a sunken cargo container. Allegedly, they are in wearable condition. The drawback? The shoes weren't tied together in pairs; there is nothing to guarantee that one shoe of a pair won't wind up on a beach in California and the other in Alaska. The solution would seem obvious: an online shoe-trading registry to match up the singles!

Addendum 23 Mar 2004: dead link, sorry.

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Mon, 24 Feb 2003 A Festival of Gulf War-Related Links

Here's a small plethora of interesting links on the topic of Iraq.

Right after Colin Powell's speech before the U.N. Security Council, I found two links: this one, from Slate, called "Smoking Gun - Colin Powell delivers the goods on Saddam," and this one, from The Nation, entitled "Powell Fails to Make the Case." I listened to Powell's speech live, and felt that he failed to announce anything truly damning; most of what he said was highly speculative (the nature of the truck on the grounds of a former chemical facility; drawings based on an eyewitness account of a mobile bioweapon lab; arguments regarding the exact nature and purpose of those aluminum tubes). His rhetoric was strong but his "smoking gun" -- clear evidence that Iraq has undisclosed weapons of mass destruction ready to throw at us or a regional target -- was, as Powell himself acknowledged before his talk, not there.

For some alternate takes on Powell's evidence, check out The Democratic Underground which discusses how the alleged mobile bioweapons labs are not backed up by much in the way of compelling evidence, along with other cases of Bush himself presenting lies regarding Iraq. In a page from the Traprock Peace Center Glen Rangwala dissects many of Powell's claims and states convincingly that "In general, Powell makes some plausible claims that Iraq has not stood by the letter of the law in all respects. However, he does not show that Iraq has developed weapons on any scale, or that it has the potential to threaten Iraq's own people or its neighbors, much less the U.S. Nor does he show that Iraq may be able to develop its non-conventional capacity if weapons inspectors continue their work in Iraq." And if you can't sleep out of concern that Iraq may have nukes, this article from Alternet may help to calm you.

It should be obvious that Iraq can only prove that it has destroyed particular weapons or provided access to particular sites; Iraq cannot prove that it has no banned weapons. Can you prove there is no anthrax stockpiled in Texas? Georl Parrish writes in this essay that "The onus is not on Iraq to prove a negative... it is instead Washington's responsibility to prove a positive: not only does a threat exist, but it is so grave and so immediate that it endangers the security of the United States, and that no other options exist but to invade." In his discussion on The Connection (see my previous weblog entries) Noam Chomsky argued that the case against war should, of course, be automatic; the case for war must be strong enough to overwhelm the normal moral objections that should automatically arise when contemplating the use of force. We seem to have that backwards, at least in our president's rhetoric: he wants what can't be given, and when he doesn't get it, he'll start bombing.

Indeed, Iraq has improved its level of cooperation and is now allowing flyovers and other improved intelligence-gathering, but you wouldn't necessarily know about the extent of Iraq's cooperation, if you got your news from cnn.com. This article shows how CNN removed 750 words from the transcript of Hans Blix's speech before the U.N. Fortunately, I also listened to that talk live, and so heard the entire thing; this illustrates the importance of using primary sources wherever possible!

For some background material on the Iraqui regime and how to counter some of the persistent misconceptions out there, see "Counterspin: Pro-war mythology" here and for a pair of articles about the war from Alternet, see what Nobel laureate Jimmy Carter has to say about the necessity of a war in Iraq, and what Wendell Berry has to say about the New New World Order (the White House's National Security Strategy, published, as they say, "in the wake of September 11th.")

I'm proud to say that I have exposed myself to exactly ZERO minutes of network or cable television news coverage about this issue, and I think everyone could benefit from doing the same. Do a little independent reading and thinking and you will quickly conclude that there is far from a consensus for a repeat of Gulf War I or the need for such an action. And don't forget to remember to take a look at what your government is busy doing while your attention is directed from national events to this international "crisis."

Meanwhile, if you've found yourself receiving an e-mail petition to forward to the United Nations, please don't forward it; it's a hoax. A well-meaning hoax no doubt, but the U.N. has no means of validating, receiving, and processing an enormous number of "e-petitions," and nothing in particular to do with them once they are received. See snopes.com.

For a reminder of why all this matters, read Sen. Robert Byrd's speech "War: The Most Horrible Human Experience."

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Fri, 21 Feb 2003 iTunes MP3 Encoder Doesn't Handle Poor CDs Well?

I'm a fan of the Lord of the Rings film soundtracks; I've purchased both the Fellowship and Towers soundtrack. A couple of days ago I was attempting to use TTT on a new dual-processor 867 Mhz G4 Mac running MacOS X 10.2.4. The first thing I noticed was that trying to open the MacOS volume containing the CD "extras" would kill my finder, kill iTunes, and eventually lock up the machine to the point where a hard reboot was necessary.

I've seen this before; the MacOS CD-ROM drivers don't respond very well to flakey discs, and a reboot is often the only answer. For comparison, I tried mounting the same disc in an older 400 MHz G4, and it mounted fine. Ditto with my personal older 400 MHz TiBook. But, on all machines, listening to the CD resulted in a lot of skips and dropouts. There were only a few minor scratches visible, but the audio was terrible. This was not the case with the Fellowship CD, which was actually much more scratched. Unfortunately I have long since lost the receipt for TTT disc and cannot return it.

To try to salvage the situation, I attempted to encode the disc on my TiBook, whose internal drive seemed to have the best luck at reading the disc. I was disappointed to find that the MP3 encoding failed badly, although it worked a little better than it had on the new G4. Hoping to get a clean listenable copy of "Gollum's Song," given that I had paid for the disc, I tried again using the AIFF encoder.

To my surprise the AIFF encoder chugged away and seemed to produce a much better rip, with no pops, skips, or dropouts. It tortured the drive: I could hear the drive scrambling back and forth, perhaps re-reading bad data in an attempt to correct errors. It seems to be the case that the AIFF encoder does its best to re-read the disc when it encounters errors, but the MP3 encoder does not. Could this be the case? Or does the AIFF encoder just do better interpolation to hide errors?

In any case, I found that the path to get a listenable MP3 encoding was to encode the whole disc to AIFF at native quality, then write an audio CD from the AIFF rip, then re-MP3-encode the resulting audio CD. This long and stupid procedure seems to have completely salvaged the situation and I have a listenable copy of the Two Towers soundtrack now. The audio quality emerging from the Mac headphone jack is not sufficient for me to hear whether this has truly repaired the situation; there seems to be some distortion on parts of Gollum's song, but it is bearable. I should try listening to the CD burned from AIFFs on a conventional CD player to determine what kind of job it did.

No profound lesson here, except I'm left wondering if the MP3 encoder could be improved with the addition of some better error-handling code, and also left musing on how if I was not able to so easily attempt various methods of encoding and burning this music I'd be left holding an unusable copy of a CD I paid good money for. One could speculate about this quality control, although I have not heard reports of a high defect rate. It brings home to me again just how fragile CDs are and the need for a more robust medium.

Followup 23 Mar 2004: It appears that more recent versions of iTunes have an option to use error correction when importing audio CDs. The preferences dialog notes that this may reduce the speed of importing. That's far preferable (to me, at least) than ignoring bad audio data.

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Sat, 01 Feb 2003 Hi, My Name is FAT

OK. Let's face it. I'm fat.

Not "mature." I'm fat.

Not "muscular." Not "beefy." I'm fat.

How many of ideas do you believe in?

The above are all, basically, lies. We as Americans are, truly, the fattest people in the world. We're seeing something quite new and disturbing: not just fat adults, but grossly obese children; rap stars dying of obesity at a young age, carrying hundreds of extra pounds; two- and three-hundred pound sixteen-year-old children who can't walk without canes. We can pretend that the problem is scrawny supermodels and their negative effect on our self-esteem, but the truth has more to do with the 90% of American children who eat at McDonald's at least once a week, the servings of fries that have gone from 200 calories to over 600 calories, and people who have time to watch four hours of television a day but apparently no time for exercise. I know the reason I don't exercise; these days I don't even walk to work. It has nothing to do with negative role models or low self-esteem; I'm lazy. I wasn't quite this lazy a few years ago, but paradoxically, when I was working out four days a week at a gym and biking, I weighed more. The body is a confusing thing, and getting it to do what we want is difficult.

Anyway, what brought on this rant? I've just been reading the book Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World, by Greg Critser. Think of it as a companion volume to Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, which I read last week. Whereas FFN focused specifically on the history and consequences of the fast food industry, Fat Land covers, literally, what its subtitle indicates, in a series of chapters on where the calories came from, how we came to eat them, why they stayed with us. The book is short and sweet; obviously a highly biased and antagonistic treatment of the subject, and Critser is not quite the investigative reporter that Schlosser is. But we don't necessarily need every detail of his argument to be correct; we need to get off our asses and stop believing that it is OK to be obese.

Critser is not quite a scientist, and this shows; some of what he says about saturated fats and carbohydrates will be disputed and is still controversial. Sometimes he is glib; it's a short book, and he breezes by his discussion of (for example) the Atkins diet. He can be taken to task for some of his elisions and omissions. A reviewer on Amazon, Joel M. Kauffman, notes, in a comment about glycemic index, "One of the things that creates high (bad) insulin levels is high blood glucose levels. Since all the common complex carbohydrates (starches) in foods are polymers of glucose, and some of them are metabolized very rapidly, and we eat more of them by weight, the contribution of wheat, corn, potato and other forms of high-GI starches to poor health is greater than that of the simple sugars."

It's true; Critser's brief analysis focuses primarily on high-fructose corn syrup as a factor in causing the development of Type II diabetes. Perhaps in looking for a smoking gun here he should have been focusing a bit more on the french fries as well. But to Critser's credit, the pronouncements made by health "authorities" can be endlessly confusing; researchers with advanced degrees do not necessarily agree, and apparently we are still discovering fundamental issues in the way humans metabolize fats and sugars. The general public hears that that best way to lose weight is by following the Atkins diet, eating minimal carbohydrate, and all the protein and fat we want, without reducing our overall calorie intake. Or they hear that we should follow the Ornish model, a very low-fat vegetarian diet with lots of carbs. My doctor told me my LDL was a bit high. Is it all about the carbs? The protein? Or all about the fats? How many servings of whole grains are we supposed to eat? Is pasta bad for you? Over the course of my lifetime I've heard that the best fat is polyunsaturated, unsaturated, monosaturated, or just plain saturated. Is saturated fat the antichrist, or is hydrogenated fat the great Satan? Weren't trans-fatty acids the problem? What about non-hydrogenated saturated fats like coconut oil? Should you ban butter from your diet? Can you eat avocado? Should you cook with olive oil, safflower oil, peanut oil, rapeseed oil, grapeseed oil, or bacon grease?

I grew up eating skim milk and skinless chicken breasts; my wife was raised on greens, heavy cream and bacon fat. She was an athlete in college; I was a sedentary computer geek, for the most part. I believe our diet is generally pretty good these days, and I've been losing weight, but she's continued to gain weight while eating considerably less than I do. Should my diet be very different from my wife's diet?

It's all very confusing: but to debate endlessly the metabolic pathway taken by high-fructose corn syrup, the glycemic index of french fries, our fat-gram count, our resting heart rate, our VO2 max, or the merits of eliminating carbohydrates is, quite possibly, to miss the forest for the trees: we're eating too damned much, given our level of physical activity. One side, or preferably, both sides, of the equation desperately need to change. And yes, it is hard. Especially hard for people who have grown up thinking life should be quick, clean, and convenient, but above all, that we should be able to have it all, our way, and quickly. Hard enough that we start to believe our bodies are not on our side -- and they may not be, given our various genetic predispositions to store calories rather than burn them, and after the various ways we've damaged ourselves with gluttony and sloth -- or that there is a magic bullet that represents "the secret" of why we got this way and how to fix it. There isn't. There are a number of key insights, but we ate all those fries, and no one else can sweat for us to burn them off.

Particularly disturbing is the chapter on what obesity does to the body; the relationship between class and obesity is the fascinating subtext here, especially when it comes to the vast differential in the deployment of medical intervention. It used to be that the rich were fat; now the poor whites, but especially Blacks and Latinos, are the fat ones, and they aren't being helped. It doesn't take a Faith Popcorn to predict that as the costs of health care and the increasing lack of access to involved and concerned physicians hits people in the upper classes, rich white males like me also won't be hearing much in the way of useful health information over the din of food advertising and the self-serving infomercial telling us how we can eat all we want as long as we also purchase product X.

Of great interest to me was the history of how American guidelines and standards for physical fitness have been eased, and eased, and eased, and eased again. I grew up with the dreaded President's Council of Physical Fitness tests, and flunked the pull-up in grade school; I was the kid, not fat but weak, who couldn't climb the rope. (These days I could probably do the pull-up, but the rope climb will likely forever elude me). Yes, PhysEd class did turn me off exercise for many years, and I was humiliated at dodge ball; but in no sense can this be a justification for throwing the fat baby out with the bathwater; children must be encouraged to earn their self-esteem by gaining strength and endurance. Myself, I learned later in life the fitness activities I enjoy: weightlifting, biking, and hiking, instead of competitive team sports. These are things I can do my whole life, but (thank god) the dodge ball days are long-gone.

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