(Roughly) Daily

“I didn’t lie! I just created fiction with my mouth!”*…

 

Anybody who writes, directs, or consumes any form of entertainment owes a debt of gratitude to Homer. Had the ancient poet not written two of the best—and earliest—epic dramas in Western history, the Iliad and the Odyssey, who knows where our culture would be or what works of art we would cherish.

Would Shakespeare have become the genius bard? Would Cervantes, Faulkner, and Joyce have created the diverse masterpieces that they did, all with Homeric ancestry? Would we have cinematic gems like O Brother, Where Art Thou?

It’s impossible to know because our boy Homer (or whoever he was—more on that later) pulled through and set the foundation for modern day drama and tragedy. But what would have happened if he had written the first ever comedy?

That question is a siren song for scholars, though the work of comedy often attributed to the Greek poet was lost millennia ago. But while the text of Margites may have disappeared, we’re not completely in the dark about the form Homer’s comedic style may have taken…

Before The Iliad and The Odyssey, Homer’s very first work—if Homer actually existed—is named Margites, after its main character who was nothing short of a bumbling idiot: “Before The Iliad, Did Homer Write The World’s First Comedy?

* Homer

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As we honor humor, we might recall that it was on this date in 1687, during the Great Turkish War (1683-1699), that Venetian bombardment ignited an Ottoman gunpowder magazine stored in the Parthenon and nearly destroyed the temple to Athena that is the crown jewel of the Acropolis.

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Written by LW

September 26, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Your intellect may be confused, but your emotions will never lie to you”*…

 

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Psychology once assumed that most human emotions fall within the universal categories of happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear, and disgust. But a new study from Greater Good Science Center faculty director Dacher Keltner suggests that there are at least 27 distinct emotions—and they are intimately connected with each other.

Using novel statistical models to analyze the responses of more than 800 men and women to over 2,000 emotionally evocative video clips, Keltner and his colleagues at UC Berkeley created a multidimensional, interactive map to show how feelings like envy, joy, pride, and sadness relate to each other.

“We found that 27 distinct dimensions, not six, were necessary to account for the way hundreds of people reliably reported feeling in response to each video,” said study senior author Keltner, whose findings recently appeared in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Explore the range at: “How Many Different Human Emotions Are There?

[TotH to @MartyKrasney]

* Roger Ebert

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As we speculate on the spectrum, we might spare a thought for John Broadus Watson; he died on this date in 1958.  A psychologist inspired by the (then recent) work of Ivan Pavlov, Watson established the psychological school of behaviorism, most dramatically through his address Psychology as the Behaviorist Views it, at Columbia University in 1913.  Watson studied the biology, physiology, and behavior of animals, viewing them as extremely complex machines that responded to situations according to their “wiring,” or nerve pathways, which were conditioned by experience.  When he continued with studies of the behavior of children, his conclusion was that humans, while more complicated than animals, operated on the same principles; he was particularly interested in the conditioning of emotions.  Watson’s behaviorism dominated psychology in the U.S. in the 1920s and ’30s (and got a second wind with the ascendence of B.F. Skinner).

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Written by LW

September 25, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us”*…

 

On the occasion of Banned Books Week– which begins today– a short film from the American Library Association on the Top Ten Challenged Books of 2016:

Read ’em or weep…

* Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas

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As we get out our library cards, we might spare a thought for Theodor Seuss Geisel, AKA “Dr. Seuss”; he died on this date in 1991.  After a fascinating series of early-career explorations, Geisel settled on a style that created what turned out to be the perfect “gateway drug” to book addiction for generations of young readers.

The more that you read,

The more things you will know.

The more that you learn,

The more places you’ll go.

– I Can Read With My Eyes Shut! (1978)

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Written by LW

September 24, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Always be a poet, even in prose”*…

 

The Knight from the Ellesmere Manuscript of the Canterbury Tales.

In the 13th century, English poetry changed dramatically. There were no battles, no pamphleteering, or Ezra Pound-style polemics, and no warring factions. Yet by the end of the century, a poetic revolution had taken place. Modern readers and writers have long since forgotten what happened back then, but poetry today would not be the same without the 13th century.

In the Middle Ages, three major languages were spoken and written in England: Latin, French, and English. English was the least prestigious but, like the others, it had a thriving literary tradition. Before c1200, there was only one way to write poetry in English, known today as alliterative verse. This is the form of poetry used in BeowulfPiers PlowmanSir Gawain and the Green Knight, and approximately 300 other poems…

The revolution of English poetry began toward the end of the 12th century, when poets writing in English invented new metres…

For centuries, alliterative metre was the only way to write poetry in English. Then, rather suddenly, it wasn’t. It’s worth remembering the 13th century as an illustration of the unpredictability of historical change and the evanescence of normal, in literature and in life.

The full story– with lots of lovely examples– at: “The 13th-century revolution that made modern poetry possible.”

* Charles Baudelaire

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As we get high behind change, we might spare a thought for Snorri Sturluson; he died on this date in 1241.  A poet, historian, and politician (he was elected twice as lawspeaker at the Icelandic parliament, the Althing), he authored (among other works) the Prose Edda or (Younger Edda).

Snorri is remarkable for proposing (in the Prose Edda) that mythological gods begin as human war leaders and kings whose funeral sites develop cults (a form of euhemerism).

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Written by LW

September 23, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Whoever said crime doesn’t pay is an idiot. It pays great, which is why there is so much of it.”*…

 

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Low-level criminals in the US make an average of $900 per week, according to an estimate published in the academic journal Criminology.

So, people who commit small crimes, like robberies, forge checks, and deal drugs, are making more money per week than the average US worker ($885).

Low-level criminals are also making more money per week than high school dropouts ($504) and college dropouts ($756).

That might be in part because wage growth (in the formal economy) is so sluggish in the US, even though unemployment is low, at 4.4%. Wages grew only 2.5% between mid-2016 and mid-2017. While some analysts would expect it to be growing at 3.5%

More at Quartz Index.

* Jay Crownover

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As we sigh from the straight and narrow, we might send well-organized birthday greetings to Joseph Michael “Joe Cargo” Valachi; he was born on this date in 1904.  A member of Lucky Luciano’s mob family from the 1930s through the 1950s, Valachi was primarily involved in rackets and gambling– until his racketeering conviction in 1959, for which he was sentenced to 15 years in a federal prison.

Valachi attained his notoriety– and historical significance in 1963, when he was the star witness in a government inquiry into the Mob (the McClelland Committee).  He provided the Committee with graphic details of Mob life, and named six New York are Crime families.  The first member of the Italian-American Mafia to publicly acknowledge its existence, he is credited with popularization of the term “Cosa Nostra.”

After returning to prison, Valachi teamed with appointed writer Peter Maas to craft his memoirs, The Valachi Papers, which were published in 1968.

Valachi testifying

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Written by LW

September 22, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Race is an idea, not a fact”*…

 

White people- “Viewing the Performance of ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ in the Globe Theatre,” by David Scott. Photo courtesy the V&A Museum

The Jacobean playwright Thomas Middleton invented the concept of ‘white people’ on 29 October 1613, the date that his play The Triumphs of Truth was first performed. The phrase was first uttered by the character of an African king who looks out upon an English audience and declares: ‘I see amazement set upon the faces/Of these white people, wond’rings and strange gazes.’ As far as I, and others, have been able to tell, Middleton’s play is the earliest printed example of a European author referring to fellow Europeans as ‘white people’.

A year later, the English commoner John Rolfe of Jamestown in Virginia took as his bride an Algonquin princess named Matoaka, whom we call Pocahontas. The literary critic Christopher Hodgkins reports that King James I was ‘at first perturbed when he learned of the marriage’. But this was not out of fear of miscegenation: James’s reluctance, Hodgkins explained, was because ‘Rolfe, a commoner, had without his sovereign’s permission wed the daughter of a foreign prince.’ King James was not worried about the pollution of Rolfe’s line; he was worried about the pollution of Matoaka’s…

By examining how and when racial concepts became hardened, we can see how historically conditional these concepts are. There’s nothing essential about them. As the literature scholar Roxann Wheeler reminds us in The Complexion of Race (2000), there was ‘an earlier moment in which biological racism… [was] not inevitable’. Since Europeans didn’t always think of themselves as ‘white’, there is good reason to think that race is socially constructed, indeed arbitrary. If the idea of ‘white people’ (and thus every other ‘race’ as well) has a history – and a short one at that – then the concept itself is based less on any kind of biological reality than it is in the variable contingencies of social construction…

Black or White?  “How ‘white people’ were invented by a playwright in 1613.”

* Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People

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As we aspire to (self-)consciousness, we might recall that it was on this date in 1966 that  A Hand Is On The Gate, billed as “an evening of poetry and music by American Negroes,” opened on Broadway at the Longacre Theatre. The directorial debut of actor Roscoe Lee Browne, it featured a cast of eight, including Leon Bibb, James Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson, and Josephine Premice (who was nominated for a Tony).

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Written by LW

September 21, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Mystery has its own mysteries”*…

 

Finally, an answer to a question that puzzled Cantor and Hilbert (proprietor of The Infinite Hotel) and challenged Cohen and Gödel…

In a breakthrough that disproves decades of conventional wisdom [and confounds common sense], two mathematicians have shown that two different variants of infinity are actually the same size. The advance touches on one of the most famous and intractable problems in mathematics: whether there exist infinities between the infinite size of the natural numbers and the larger infinite size of the real numbers…

Connecting the sizes of infinities and the complexity of mathematical theories:                        “Mathematicians Measure Infinities and Find They’re Equal.”

* “Mystery has its own mysteries, and there are gods above gods. We have ours, they have theirs. That is what’s known as infinity.”  – Jean Cocteau

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As we go big, we might spare a thought for Paul Erdős; he died on this date in 1996.  One of the most prolific mathematicians of the 20th century (he published around 1,500 mathematical papers during his lifetime, a figure that remains unsurpassed), he is remembered both for his “social practice” of mathematics (he engaged more than 500 collaborators) and for his eccentric lifestyle (he spent his waking hours virtually entirely on math; he would typically show up at a colleague’s doorstep and announce “my brain is open”, staying long enough to collaborate on a few papers before moving on a few days later).

Erdős’s prolific output with co-authors prompted the creation of the Erdős number, the number of steps in the shortest path between a mathematician and Erdős in terms of co-authorships.  Low numbers are a badge of pride– and a usual marker of accomplishment: As of 2016, all Fields Medalists have a finite Erdős number, with values that range between 2 and 6, and a median of 3.  Physics Nobelists Einstein and Sheldon Glashow have an Erdős number of 2.   Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron can be considered to have an Erdős number of 1 because they both autographed the same baseball (for number theorist Carl Pomerance).  Natalie Portman’s undergraduate collaboration with a Harvard professor earned her an Erdős number of 5; Danica McKellar(“Winnie Cooper” in The Wonder Years) has an Erdős number of 4, for a mathematics paper coauthored while an undergraduate at UCLA.

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Written by LW

September 20, 2017 at 1:01 am

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