Thursday, December 13, 2007

Returns to normalcy

Tuesday, July 22. Mr. Foulon...was hanged by the people from a lantern...his head was cut off and his body was paraded and dragged through the streets.

Wednesday, July 23. Opera closed.

Thursday, July 24. Alceste.

---From the theater log of Louis-Joseph Francoeur, assistant director of the Paris Opera, 1789

It starts with a beheading, but it ends with Alceste--an opera about love, and substitution for one condemned to die. I wonder if this performance was widely known--or is it just coincidence that The Tale of Two Cities brings the Alcestis story into the context of the French Revolution?

In terms of plot, what better way to translate 'fate' or 'the will of the gods' into modern (even early modern) terms than 'an unstoppable social force'--war, or revolution? Theologically, well, theologically it makes sense in terms of the turn from pre-modern to modern, whether one agrees with it or not.

And maybe this is another aspect of Shakespeare's greatness: his ability to work in either medium. The gods of Cymbelline, the politics of Richard II, the churning mix of the two in Macbeth.

(Credit for the quote is due to a forthcoming book by Victoria Johnson entitled Backstage at the Revolution: How the Paris Opera Survived the End of the Old Regime. More from this, to be sure, later; it's fascinating stuff.)

Smugness and Safety

So I've taken to obeying traffic laws on my bike, as sort of a hobby. I'm coming to a dead stop at every stop sign, stopping and waiting for red lights, even if there's no crossing traffic, those are the particular ones I'm thinking of. And it's had some salutary effects, I think. I'm trying not to piss off drivers ("those %$#@*ing bikers, always breaking the law") and ride more predictably, i.e., more safely, and I'm also trying to slow down a bit. Part of the pleasure of riding is the slowness of it--you have a little time to think, or not think, and you force yourself to take a break from hurryhurryhurry of work, etc.

However, there are downsides to obeying all the rules. First off, I've become less tolerant of others' (e.g. automobile drivers') rolling through stop signs, and hurtling through lights after they've turned red. Bike Snob NYC hits the nail on the head (as crudely and intelligently as ever) in his Holiday Gift Guide. "Commuting by bicycle is all about two things: smugness and safety." The two things are tied together pretty tightly. Unless you're willing to adopt an "all the cagers [people in iron cages, i.e. cars] are evil petrocrats out to destroy the earth, starting with me" outlook, and the concomitant defensive war policy (they have no concern for anything, I have no need to obey any rules in my interaction with them), the alternatives are either "Oh, I'll just stay out of their way, and maybe they won't hurt me" or, "Alrighty, people, we're all on the road together. I'm going to take my share of the road, we'll all obey the rules, and nobody gets hurt."

All this means that offenses against the commonweal can be taken very personally; that might be a good thing. There's too rarely a cop present when someone screams through a red light and my helpful reminders of the illegality of such practices remind drivers that someone, at least, is standing up for the rule of law. But, aside from shading into vigilantism, it may just piss people off to have someone ostentatiously stopping at the stop signs, and taking my turn like any other vehicle--especially when I'd clear the intersection quicker by rolling through at speed! (Not to mention that my idea of predictability is to obey the law, and since that's pretty uncommon, it might in fact be the unexpected behavior!)

Aside from the social effects of this habit, I also wonder about the habits of thought it is inculcating in myself: Am I outsourcing my safety to the rules of the road (which are poorly known and even less respected?)? Should I not ride aggressively, saying to myself, "No one is responsible for me, but me!"?

On balance, taking responsibility for my polity (to borrow, with alteration, the title of a current book) encompasses responsibility for my person. As the Cub Scouts taught, "God, Country, Family, Self."

Monday, December 10, 2007

Irish Ancestry

Via Crooked Timber

  • Anyone who has recent-ish Irish ancestry may be interested to know that Ireland’s National Archives are putting up the data from the 1911 Irish census. At the moment, only data from Dublin are available.
For those who have more time.

Physics at home

You know the toy with the three or four stacked bouncy balls (with a rod through their centers, to keep them in line)? You drop it, and all the energy of the collision(s) goes back into the top bouncy ball, and it rebounds WAY high in the air, leaving the others on the ground.

It turns out a cylindrical container of viscous fluid behaves much the same way. Before you even realize you've knocked the yogurt off the table, the top three tablespoons of it are shooting straight up at you like slingshotted pink goo.

The paranoid reading of this incident is that the strawberry yogurt (or is it Bat Jr. ? hmm...) is out to get me, as almost none of the yogurt got on the carpet, instead landing direct hits on
  1. my head (from above)
  2. my mobile phone and
  3. a lovely long streak on both pant legs.
How many shots were fired? Where's Zapruder when you need him?