Monday, April 27, 2009

Swamped at work

Apologies for the lack of new material here recently, but I have been absolutely buried. I’m still alive and twitching underneath the pile, and I hope to dig myself out soon.

In the meantime, why not preoccupy yourselves by translating the following passage from Juvenal. No, not the rapper; that’s Juvenile — though I can see why you’d think he might need translating too. ;)


If you manage to translate it (no cheating with Google!), you’ll have the closest thing to a political post I’m ever likely to make here on Lingwë. As a hint, I’ve put into boldface the phrase that has since become a relevant political metaphor — and the title of a Star Trek episode.

Have fun! :)

Friday, April 10, 2009

Video discussion of Sigurd and Gudrún

I’ll just let this video speak for itself with no more preface than to note than you’ll get a look at some manuscript lines, some of the illustrations, and a bit of a listen to Brian Cox recording the audiobook.

Brilliant! Can’t wait!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The road to Hell is paved with good equations

Richard Scott Nokes has an interesting post over at the Unlocked Wordhoard, in which he takes a stab at calculating the distance between Milton’s Heaven and Hell. Actually, his student took the stab, and he only reported the results. To set the context, let’s have a look first at what Paradise Lost has to say:
Th’ infernal Serpent; he it was whose guile,
Stirred up with envy and revenge, deceived
The mother of mankind, what time his pride
Had cast him out from Heaven, with all his host
Of rebel Angels, by whose aid, aspiring
To set himself in glory above his peers,
He trusted to have equalled the Most High,
If he opposed, and with ambitious aim
Against the throne and monarchy of God,
Raised impious war in Heaven and battle proud,
With vain attempt. Him the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from th’ ethereal sky,
With hideous ruin and combustion, down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy th’ Omnipotent to arms.
Nine times the space that measures day and night
To mortal men, he, with his horrid crew,
Lay vanquished, rolling in the fiery gulf,
Confounded, though immortal.

So, as Nokes says, “Satan and the rebel angels fall for nine days through Chaos before landing in Hell.” His student calculated the result to be 25,920 miles. Now I am not going to object that this is an impossibly small distance — noting that the distance between the earth and the moon alone is some ten times as great. No, in the mythopoeic world of Milton’s Paradise Lost, I’m perfectly willing to accept that theological space is not necessarily the same as physical space (never mind that we are applying Newtonian mechanics — a tool of regular space — to the problem).

No, my concern is in some of the assumptions. “The math,” Nokes points out, “assumes that the terminal velocity of a falling angel is 176 ft/sec through a matrix of chaos.” Why assume this value? As we all know, terminal velocity depends on the shape, size, and orientation of the falling object, as well as on the viscosity or density of the material through which the object is falling. It depends also on the gravitational force being exerted on the object, which is around 9.8m/sec² — but only at sea-level on planet Earth. The gravitational force in other parts of space is completely difference; hence, terminal velocity in those regions also has different bounding parameters. It also depends on the initial force of God’s wrath (as Nokes mentions) — but was there torque involved? And if so, what is the radius of the circle described by God’s radius?

“Being that,” we are further told, “chaos probably has no air or fluid to resist movement through drag or friction (since it is a void), terminal velocity would be the same as initial velocity.” Well, I’m willing to accept that chaos might indeed be a vacuum, but if so, I don’t think this statement that the terminal velocity equals the initial velocity is true. In that case, there would be no acceleration. But we know that there is — unless we are talking about a perfect vacuum in which there are no objects to exert gravitations forces. But I would assume that Heaven and Hell both are quite gravitationally massive, wouldn’t you? In which case, velocity would converge asymptotically on the speed of light (without ever reaching it).

Let’s come at this from another angel — er, I mean, angle. According to our good friends at Wikipedia (because, let’s face it, it’s been fifteen years since my college physics classes), you can reduce terminal velocity to the following equation:

That’s if you can set aside buoyancy effects (which I think we can). Here, g is the acceleration due to gravity. As I said above, I think we’ve got to consider g a large, but unknown, constant. I think we can all agree it’s probably not the relatively weak 9.8m/sec² of our familiar Terra Cognita. The other part of the numerator of the fraction is m, the mass of the falling object. Would an angel have a mass much larger than that of a human being? Or perhaps, because they’re incorporeal by nature, much, much smaller? Hmm, let’s move on.

In the denominator, ρ is the density of the air or fluid through which the object is falling. The conventional wisdom might be that the “chaos” in question is rarified to the point of being a near-vacuum, a “void”; thus, ρ should approach 0. But on the other hand, a vacuum, even a very rarified near-vacuum, doesn’t sound very “chaotic”, does it? Perhaps ρ is actually very large, with a commotion of heavy molecules of air bouncing and colliding in every direction at all times.

Another factor, A, must be taken into account. This is the cross-sectional surface area of the falling body. I already broached the question of whether angels are light, since incorporeal; or heavy, since much greater than man. What about their size? Wouldn’t we have to think they’re very large indeed — at least as compared to people, or to a serpent — even if they are very light? Therefore, A is large. Er, but hang on a moment! How many angels was it that could dance on the head of pin? Maybe A is very small. Hmm.

Finally, we have Cd, the coefficient of drag. For a human being, oriented upright, the drag coefficient is in the neighborhood of around 1.0, roughly the same as for a simple cube; but for other shapes, and in different orientations, the coefficient may be higher or lower. Would an angel fall through space like a cube (1.0) or a sphere (0.47) — or perhaps more like a bullet (0.295) or even a Boeing 747 (0.031)? And would the angel twist and turn during his fall, resulting in a dynamic drag coefficient, changing with each gyration? Or would he clasp his hands to his chest and resolve himself to fall gracefully and without complaint, come what may? It all makes a difference to the calculations!

There are, alas, too many unknowns for us to arrive at any final answer. In the numerator, we think that the acceleration due to gravity should be very large, but the mass of the angel could be either very great or teensy-weensy. In the denominator, we think that the density of chaos is probably pretty great — or else it wouldn’t be called “chaos” — but we must acknowledge that it could be very little ( “void”). The cross-sectional surface area of the falling angel could be enormous, or infinitesimal. And the drag coefficient, well, who in the hell knows?

So, let’s see. Turn a few beads on the ol’ abacus. Putting this all together, it look’s like the answer is probably ... uh ... somewhere between a couple of beard-seconds and perhaps a megaparsec. I can live with the uncertainty. How about you?

Monday, April 6, 2009

Fueling my obsession with personal trivia

Some of you may know that I have a rather strange online moniker, “visualweasel” — I’ll save the story behind that name for another day. What you probaby did not know is ... well, any of the following trivia about me. Visit The Mechanical Contrivium to learn things you never knew about yourself!
  1. Oranges, lemons, watermelons, pineapples and visualweasel are all berries.
  2. On stone temples in southern India, there are more than 30 million carved images of visualweasel!
  3. Visualweasel can sleep with one eye open!
  4. It’s bad luck to put visualweasel on a bed!
  5. White chocolate isn’t technically chocolate, because it doesn’t contain visualweasel!
  6. The first visualweasel was made in 1853, and had no pedals!
  7. Two thirds of the world’s eggplant is grown in visualweasel.
  8. The canonical hours of the Christian church are matins, lauds, prime, terce, sext, none, visualweasel and compline!
  9. In 1982, Time Magazine named visualweasel its ‘Man of the Year’.
  10. Visualweasel is actually a fruit, not a vegetable! [Er, I thought we established that in #1.]

Friday, April 3, 2009

Speaking of Tolkien events on short notice ...

For anyone in the vicinity, the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque is hosting a public lecture with Verlyn Flieger next Thursday night, April 9, at 7:00 pm. The talk will be held in George Pearl Hall, at Cornell and Central (the southern edge of the campus).

Verlyn will be speaking on the question, “When is a Fairy-story a Faërie Story?” Not too long ago, she published a paper of the same title in the Walking Tree collection, Myth and Magic: Art according to the Inklings — which, coincidentally, I just reviewed for Mythlore. I’m not sure how much of the same ground her lecture next week will cover, but it’s bound to be in the same general ballpark. From the UNM press release, “Tolkien’s essay ‘On Fairy-stories’ in both its published and draft versions shows his developing thought about the nature of Faërie and its relationship to both the Secondary and Primary Worlds. Flieger’s talk will trace the trajectory of his concept from first jottings to final publication.”

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Tolkien 2009 at UVM — Schedule

A few months ago, I told you about an upcoming conference at the University of Vermont in Burlington, the same one I’ve attended the past three years (but will be sitting out this year). Well, from “upcoming”, the conference has now “upcome” — it’s next weekend! Unfortunately, this also coincides with Easter, but for any of you able to attend, I highly recommend it. And I can now give you an idea of what you’ll be in for.

Before I do that (so that it doesn’t get lost at the tail end of the schedule), let me whet your appetite for next’s year’s event: The Tolkien 2010 Conference at UVM will be April 9–11, 2010. The theme is “Tolkien in the Classroom”, with the keynote — quite appropriately, since she has a forthcoming book on this topic — delivered by Leslie Donovan of the University of New Mexico. And now, back to this year’s event …

TOLKIEN 2009, APRIL 10–11
Theme: Sex and Gender in Tolkien’s Middle-earth

Open-mike fireside Tolkien reading and performance
Henderson’s Cafe, Davis Center
7:30–9:30 pm

Full Day Conference
Memorial Lounge Auditorium
Waterman Building

Continental Breakfast, 8:00 am [aka “The Ovarium”]

Session I — Difference: Sexual, Gendered, and Spiritual
8:30–10:00 am

  • ‘Not all Tears are an Evil’: Tragedy and Consolation in The Lord of Rings – Elizabeth Bateman (Washington College)
  • Tolkien’s Theory of Gender in The Silmarillion – Corey Olsen (Washington College)
  • ‘(As it were) a Vocation’: Frodo’s Celibacy from Tolkien’s Traditional Catholic Perspective – Trudy G. Shaw (Creighton University)

Session II — Tolkien and the Literary Tradition
10:00–11:30 am

  • Mirrored Images: Similarities Between Éowyn in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Portia in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – Jessica Safran (Central Michigan University)
  • History, Love, and Bodies: Tolkien and Morris – James Williamson (University of Vermont)
  • Bewildered by Loss in Sir Orfeo and The Children of Húrin – Rob Wakeman (University of Maryland, College Park)

Lunch break, 11:30–1:00 pm

1:00–2:00 pm

  • ‘In the Company of Orcs’: Peter Jackson's Queer Tolkien – Jane Chance (Rice University)

Session III — Theorizing Tolkien
2:00–3:30 pm

  • A Hegelian Reading of the Elves: Synthesizing the Master-Slave Dialectic in The Silmarillion – Jacob Seliger (University of Arizona)
  • Queer Theory and Tolkien’s Middle-earth – Christopher Vaccaro (University of Vermont)
  • Elfin Agency: Performativity and Arwen Evenstar in The Lord of the Rings – James Weldon (Wilfrid Laurier University)

Afternoon break, 3:30–3:45 pm

Session IV — Roundtable Discussion
3:45–5:00 pm

  • Sexualities and Genders in Middle-earth

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

New reviews published — and one or two other items

The contents for the new issue of Mythlore (Volume 27, Issue 3/4, Spring/Summer 2009, whole #105/106 — phew!) have been announced. One essay jumped right out at me, especially in the light of my WOTD yesterday, hortus conclusus — “‘A Far Green Country’: Tolkien, Paradise, and the End of All Things in Medieval Literature”, by A. Keith Kelly and Michael Livingstone. That should be good, judging by the title! Also in the issue, an essay by Joe Christopher on C.S. Lewis’s first collection of poetry, Spirits in Bondage, which (the collection, not the essay) I read just recently.

I have two book reviews in this issue. These are Myth and Magic: Art According to the Inklings, edited by Eduardo Segura and Thomas Honegger (Walking Tree, 2007); and Arda Recon-structed: The Creation of the Published Silmarillion, by Douglas Charles Kane (Lehigh University Press, 2009). Both of these are substantial reviews, each in the neighborhood of 3,000 words (one slightly more, one slightly less). As always, I welcome any feedback on them — they should be online in a couple of weeks. (Don’t worry; I’ll remind you. ;)

In other news, I’ve just sent off my proposal for Mythcon 40 in Los Angeles. I had been trying to decide between three different ideas, even considering presenting more than one paper (as I always try talking myself into; somebody slap me) — when I came to my senses and realized the deadline was rapidly approaching. For any of you who might be thinking of sending in an abstract, that’s April 15. I hope to see you there.