can’t see the forest

High hopes

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In keeping with the holiday spirit of reflection and renewal, I wanted to share with you a few of my hopes for humanity. Some will cry “unabashed idealism.” Others will recognize real solutions that, combined with real attention, just might achieve real results.

  • I hope that people will realize that consumerism is making a tiny percentage of the world’s population wealthy, a slightly less tiny percentage comfortable, and most of the world miserable—while wrecking all that is decent and wholesome in human values and destroying the planet in a blaze of absolutely needless waste.
  • I hope that people will strive to respect and learn from one another by understanding this: the power of myth is necessarily stronger than and prerequisite to the power of divinity.
  • I hope individuals and society will realize that a hungry, active, open mind is the best defense against being manipulated by unseen forces, to quote a popular term from economics—and that those forces are operating in new quarters and new ways all the time, with the singular goal of making money to the exclusion of all other concerns.
  • I hope that people will come to grips with the fact that, if one views our planet as a functioning organic entity and not merely a collection of resources to be exploited, then one must realize that free market capitalism indeed promotes growth—in exactly the same way as does cancer.
  • I hope that people will consider that a society in which obesity is a more pressing problem than hunger is not necessarily on the right track.
  • I hope that the citizens of privileged nations will first realize how privileged they in fact are, and next realize that dissent against establishment corruption and misdirection is the highest form of patriotism and the world’s best shot at peace and harmony.
  • I hope people will realize that science is only as trustworthy and as productive as the values of the society that guide it.
  • I hope people will realize that religion is only as trustworthy and as productive as the values of the society that guide it.
  • I hope that individuals will come to understand that their relationships with nature define, more than anything else, who they are.
  • I hope that people will spread the message that institutions of authority must be directly challenged if they are to remain responsible.
  • I hope more of us will choose love over fear more of the time.
  • I hope it will become more apparent to more people that, if each of us does a little, together we achieve a lot.

earth-in-hand

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The Winter Solstice

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holly-wreath

I don’t like Christmas very much (I’m a mean one, I guess), but I certainly have learned to dig the winter solstice.

While plenty of good folks are campaigning to “keep the Christ in Christmas,” a pursuit I happen to think is actually a worthy one on its own terms, it seems that not as many realize that, long before anyone had ever heard of Jesus Christ, the astronomical/-logical event known as the winter solstice already played a starring role in human civilization. Were this not the case, Christians might very likely celebrate the birth of their savior in March, May, or just whenever.

So Jesus isn’t the only reason for the season. Far from it. Give me that, and we’ll be okay forever and ever.

What is the winter solstice?

Diagram of the winter solstice

The winter solstice can be defined celestially as the point at which the Sun appears at the greatest distance on the other side of the equatorial plane from the observer. In the northern hemisphere, it is the instant at which the sun could be said to ‘stand still’ (Lat. sol “Sun” + sistere “to be still”) at its southernmost point in the sky before beginning the return track northward towards summer. This happens sometime between December 20-23 in the northern hemisphere, and between June 20-23 in the southern hemisphere. Reverse those dates, and you have the dates of the opposite phenomenon, the summer solstice, for each hemisphere.

The cause of the solstices is that, at the instant of solstice, one hemisphere of the Earth is at its maximum tilt away from the Sun. This is why the day of the winter solstice is the shortest, in terms of daylight, of all the days of the year (again, from the perspective of those in the North—it naturally marks the longest day in the South).

Why is it culturally significant?

Because people didn’t always have supermarkets and refrigerators. These are, in fact, extremely recent developments!

In the cultures of the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice marks the onset of ‘deep winter.’ In primitive societies, particularly hunter-gatherer and early agrarian societies which had not yet developed means of harvesting and storing surplus food, it was not always a given that a community would survive through the winter. Cattle were slaughtered at about the time of the solstice so that they would not have to be fed through the winter, creating a temporary supply of fresh meat—this is why we associate winter holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas with feasting.

solstice-at-stonehengeAside from such practical concerns, the winter solstice was ceremonially important as an astrological event of spiritual/ritual significance. On the night of the solstice, the stars of Orion’s belt form a line with Sirius, the ‘Dog Star,’ which points to the exact spot where the Sun will rise the following morning. This fact was well-known to the skywatching ancients; important Celtic religious sites such as Stonehenge and New Grange are obviously aligned with the solstice sunrise or sunset, and we see similar reverence for the solstice in even completely unrelated cultures, such as those of neolithic Mesoamerica.

Symbolically, because the winter solstice marks the point at which the Sun reverses course and begins to climb back toward its summer posture, it was associated with the concept of spiritual renewal and with the birth dates of certain Sun deities, such as the Roman god Sol and the Persian god Mithras. According to many scholars, this is both why the birth of Jesus, the son (read: “Sun”) of God, is celebrated near the winter solstice, and why the Western New Year falls just behind it.

The winter solstice is culturally significant in and of itself even today because of the effects of deep winter on the minds and lifestyles of people in the more extreme latitudes. Winter is a dark, cold time in which people tend to spend more time indoors, are generally somewhat more sedate, and can sometimes even suffer seasonal depression—although it should be noted that many others claim the winter months as their favorite time of year (most of them own ski passes, no doubt).  Having a celebration of feasting and communal fellowship to look forward to is a nice way to add spark and charm to a bleak season.

What is the relationship of the winter solstice to Christmas?

December 25 was the date of the winter solstice on the old Julian calendar; this date was known as Dies natalis Sol invictus (“Birthday of the Unconquered Sun”) in Rome, and conveniently allowed people in various parts of the Roman Empire to celebrate the birth of their sundry Sun deities together. In Rome itself, the solstice marked approximately the end of the festival of Saturnalia, during which masters and slaves swapped roles for a time, there was much feasting and licentious merry-making, and the giving of gifts and alms was encouraged. Aside from the obvious similarities between the “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun” and the “Birthday of the Unconquered Son,” meaning Christ, the Christian celebration of the Nativity very likely inherited the tradition of “merry” gift-giving from Saturnalia.

saturnaliaWe know that, as late as the 3rd Century A.D., at least some Coptic Christians in Egypt celebrated the Nativity in May. The earliest known reference to a Nativity feast corresponding to the winter solstice comes from an illuminated Roman manuscript dated from 354 A.D., although, at least through the early Middle Ages, the celebration of the Nativity in and of itself was not usually distinguished from the early January celebration of the Epiphany.

Many of the traditions of Christmas were undoubtedly incorporated through the assimilation of other cultures into the Roman Empire. We have already mentioned that Saturnalia likely passed certain traditions into the Christmas holiday; the Germanic winter solstice festival of Jul (Yule), marked by feasting, decorating with greenery and candlelight, visits from a gift-giving demigod, and the burning of the infamous Yule Log, made a particularly strong imprint on Christmas traditions both because the Germans were the last major culture in the Empire to be christianized, and because Christmas as a holiday first became popular in Western and Northern Europe at approximately the time of Charlemagne, who was crowned on Christmas Day of 800 A.D.

It was not until about this time that Christmas became the major Christian observance of the Nativity, and this was a development that was later challenged throughout Christianity. Early American Puritans particularly disapproved of Christmas, and ever since, there have been religious movements, especially in North America, which have sought to disentangle Christmas from its primarily non-Christian origins and heritage.

What are some other winter solstice celebrations around the world?

A small sampling:

  • Wayeb (Maya) – the five unnamed days completing the end of the Maya solar calendar, thought to be an ominous and unlucky time in which divisions between the mortal and immortal worlds were partially broken. People often avoided leaving their houses during this period.
  • Amaterasu (Japan) – in ancient Japan, the winter solstice was celebrated as the reemergence of Amaterasu, the sun goddess, from her hibernation in a cave. The celebrations were marked by observances for the dead and theatrical performances, among other events.
  • Yalda (Persia) – dating from as long ago as the 2nd millennium BCE, this Persian festival originally marked the birth of the Sun-god Mithras. It is roughly synonymous with the modern Shabe Celle, associated with socializing and feasting on nuts and dried fruits.
  • Şeva Zistanê (Kurdish) – this winter solstice observance dates to ancient times and is marked by feasting and the giving of sweets to children, similar in nature to Halloween in America.
  • Beiwe (Saami) – the Saami, the indigenous people of northern Scandinavia, have worshipped this goddess of the Sun and of fertility since antiquity. On the night of the winter solstice, many Saami would sacrifice white female animals and paint their doorways with butter for Beiwe to eat, nourishing her for her return from the solstice to the heights of the summer skies.

Also note:

  • The Jewish holiday of Chanukah is not specifically related to the winter solstice, although it roughly coincides with it. However, because Chanukah is a celebration of the rededication of a holy temple (similar to Saturnalia), it may be associated de facto with the more ancient traditions of the midwinter feast.

I hope to have amply shown than, while Jesus may be the reason for Christmas proper, He is not the only reason for our celebrations of the winter solstice. The winter solstice is of a deep, broad, and ancient significance which touches on biology, ecology, psychology, sociology, astronomy—practically all aspects of human existence—and has been interpreted in many ways by many cultures.

So, by all means, put the Christ back in Christmas. Just remember that ‘Happy Holidays’ is far more warm, welcoming, and inclusive.

Happy holidays!

christmas-lights-in-japan

These are a few of my favorite cyberthings

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successoryinternet400

I submit to you five of my favorite things about the Internet, and encourage you to feel free to add your own in the comments:

  1. The Blogosphere
    Yeah, the term is cliché now, and then some. I know. It’s a mot d’habitude, much like that French term I basically just made up to mean “a word of convenience.” Not bad, eh? NOT BAD, EH?

    Ahem.

    Printing Press 1568 To me, blogging represents the sociological nuts and bolts of the Internet, if you will. We’ve had enough of epoch after epoch of ‘centralized capital-intensive source projecting outwards to the masses’ communications models, and the Internet, if it is to be anything at all, ought to serve primarily as a means for user-generated content to flourish.

    This is why I rejoice that, if the Internet is going to be used as a vehicle for pornography, at least there are now sites where users can upload their homebrew. It’s a crass thing to say, I know, and therefore *incredibly* unlike me, but you get my drift.

    Blogs out there really run the gamut. Here’s another cliché for you: there as many different kinds of x out there as there are y who z them, where x = blogs, y = bloggers, and z = post. Some of them are great for entertainment purely by virtue of the excellent writing and/or the zany subject matter; some are incredibly informative and thought-provoking. And, sure, a lot of them are crappy, but who defines ‘crappy’ these days, anyway? The important thing is that blogging at its best promotes literacy, creativity, and communication, and is not a Barnes & Noble.

  2. StumpleUpon
    StumbleUpon is my favorite browser plug-in of all time, ever, amen. I can’t say it has done very much for my insomnia, but it has contributed smartly in some way to practically every other area of my life. StumbleUpon provides a randomized browsing experience that you can tailor to your interests, and which is regulated by a user ratings system to which you constantly contribute through your Stumbling. It also functions as a social networking/bookmarking platform where users can review websites and set up groups to share links, among other things.

    When you know exactly what you want and you want it right by-God now, use a search engine. When you’re ready to come down off your high horse and have some fun, try StumbleUpon. It will change your browsing forever, especially if alcohol is somehow involved. Either way.

  3. Wikipedia
    Wikipedia gets a lot of bad rap in academia, and that’s an understatement. It didn’t exist back when I was in high school and when I went through college the first time (I feel old now), but in the past few years I’ve sat in front of at least a couple dozen different professors and only one of them has made positive statements about Wikipedia to the class. “It’s so dangerous.” “It’s not reliable.” “It’s not peer-reviewed.” “Anyone can edit it.” To contrarian interpolations such as these, I find it most effective to reply:

    DUH!

    wikipedia-logo Fortunately, people have sensors called eyes that, in healthy specimens, are connected to computers known as brains. Working together, these tools can determine how well-cited a given Wikipedia article is, and whether or not it makes outlandish claims like “Columbus made landfall in the West Indies in 1942” or contains bizarre statements such as “SASSAFRASS420 IS AWESUM.” When these assessments are conscientiously carried out before citing Wikipedia as a source, good things occur.

    I remember how excited I was as a kid to get my first PC with a CD-ROM drive. Know why I was stoked about it? Because the first CD my dad brought home with it was Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia. I could never have dreamed that there would one day be something called the Internet and that it would contain a much, much larger encyclopedia full of user-generated content to which I–little old me–could responsibly contribute through copyediting and content editing in my areas of expertise. It is a stunning resource of unprecedented breadth and depth which is accessible worldwide for free. ‘Nuff said.

    I’m also partial to Wikipedia because founder Jimmy Wales is from my hometown of Huntsville, AL.

    Did I mention most of those professors were really old and probably not a little pissed off that Wikipedia wasn’t around for their undergraduate research?

  4. IMSLP
    I have to throw this one in there for my fellow musicians. IMSLP stands for the International Music Score Library Project, an astounding compilation of scanned, PDF-ified public domain editions of classical (and other) music scores. In this sense, it is an analogue of the literary-minded Project Gutenberg. As a piano performance student, I can go online and, free of charge, obtain perfectly sound editions of works from the (roughly) pre-1920 literature, and the collection–which also includes orchestral scores, operas, you name it–is vociferously expanding as we speak. As should have been expected, IMSLP has had to deal with its share of flak from music publishers . . . like, say, Universal Edition. As a result, the project was offline from late October 2007 through June of 2008, but has been faring much better since.

    The amount of money I could have saved on sheet music in my younger years is . . . not something I’m going to think about right now. Suffice it to say, the folks who do document processing and general maintenance for IMSLP can redeem this empty promise for a free foot rub from me–any old time.

  5. eBay
    I know, I know . . . some of youse guys may be hatin’ on me for this one. I am about as far from a consumerist as one could get without being absolutely frickin’ ascetic, but there is something way cool about eBay. Going once . . . going twice . . . SOLD! A perfectly good pedicurist wall clock for US$17.99!

    eBay is not something I use a lot, but I have, in the past, conducted fairly major transactions through the service as both buyer and seller. My mom trades crystal dinnerware and other collectibles through eBay and actually manages to turn quite the profit through her dealings.

    In them fancy city places, they’s even got eBay stores!

    Like liquor, mascara, hot sauce, electric fences, and guaranteed blockbuster comic book-themed film sequels, eBay is subject to user-end error of the obsessive variety. Too much of a good thing is not always wonderful. But even if you haven’t a penny to spend, it can be mighty fun to see just who’s trying to rip the world off over what lamentable piece of junk under the auspices of the world’s largest virtual flea market.

We can only guess what the future holds for Al Gore’s brainchild. Given what I guessed twenty years ago that computers would be used for in the future–like doing my algebra homework for me–I feel sorely unqualified to speculate. I suppose we’ll just StumbleUpon it as it comes our way.

NOT BAD, EH?

Al Gore - Internet

What on Earth has been going on?

Posted in Blogging, Life, Personal by Curtis on 12/4/08

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Now, this blog has never been a “Here’s how my day was; how in the hell was yours?” kind of affair. I’m a little more journalistic than that, if only marginally so.

But I’ve been gone from the site for quite nearly a year, so I figured a few words as to what I’ve been up to might be in order.

The big picture hasn’t changed much. I’m progressing nicely in college, earning good marks, soaking up as much as I can and making some wonderful new friends in the process. One of the biggest changes is that I am now spending much more time studying and working in music than I have in a number of years. I view this as an overwhelmingly positive development purely by virtue of the wonders it has done for my general mood and outlook. It’s been an adjustment, and I’m learning to balance being a full-time musician with my studies in philosophy and other subjects. That, in case you were wondering, is code for “I no longer have a life. Haaaaalp.” Okay, not really.

The largest project I’ve been stuck headfirst in lately is a new musical composition, Selections from Chamber Music, which consists of five poems from the eponymous collection by James Joyce set for soprano and chamber orchestra. If all goes well, the work will be debuted in March at the inaugural New Music Festival at UAHuntsville, my university. The festival is going to be an exciting event, especially for a small school like ours, with lots of new music by composers from within and without. I’ll keep you abreast and will try to post the performances afterwards.

Earlier this evening (sometime before it turned into morning) I was gazing expectantly into the five lines and four spaces of the English horn part , thinking to myself, “Yeah, that’s a great little piece of counterpoint you got there, English horn part, but what in the bejeezus is missing from my life?”

The whole rest at the end of the phrase I’d just completed stared back at me, blankly, for about four beats. Since there was obviously something missing from his bar of music, I thought he might have some insight for me.

“You’re RIGHT!” I exclaimed. “My BLOG! Eureka!

I will freely admit, I actually waxed very sentimental there for a minute, thinking about how–despite the past twelve months of abject neglect–this blog has followed me literally from one side of the continent to the other; has seen me go from lonely, frustrated office worker to purposeful, slightly hoity-toity collegiate with a boyfriend. Did I just come out on my website? I think I may have. No matter. It’s cool.

I thought about the wonderful friends I’ve made through blogging, people like Ann at PG, BlueBear, and raincoaster, to name just a few of my favorites, about what their posts and their antics have taught me about the world, the human spirit, and myself.

Most of all, I merely arrived at the conclusion that, as much as things are going right in my life, I’m just not myself if I’m not on here, reading and writing. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: this is why I believe in the Internet. Sorry, guys; there was a lot ’twas happening, and I totally spaced. For, like, a year.

I’m not sure exactly what I’ll be writing about in the coming posts. Only time will tell. Expected the unexpected–that way, if the unexpected expected is what you get, I’ll expect you to get a good chuckle out of it.

Before long I’ll be going through old comments trying to give them the attention they deserve; I also want to do a little pruning here and there in the archives, depending on how it goes.

I hope your winter holidays, however you choose to celebrate them, are looking bright. I’ve got a lot to think about and a world literature final exam to take in the morning; and since it is the morning, I’d best let you go for now.

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Warming Up to Change

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I couldn’t resist the temptation to steal this from the always insightful Winter Patriot (sorry, WP!):

Tom Toles

(cartoon by Tom Toles)

Also, from I Can Has Cheezburger:

I Has Icecap

Why I Detest “Writing in Class”

Posted in college, Education, English, language, Life, Literature, Personal, writing by Curtis on 10/2/07

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Within the English department of my college, there is a general policy whereby students are expected to do the majority of their creative and expository writing—if not all of it—in class.

So, given a topic upon which to expound, one has, at most, two and a half hours over the course of a couple of class sessions in which to come up with a finished essay. The topic is not disclosed until the beginning of the first class session. Even for experienced writers, building an A essay from the ground up under such conditions is not a pleasant or particularly fruitful task, especially when the professor is stringent and demanding in scoring (as, I believe, he should be).

The reasons given for this asinine quirk of procedure typically include the elimination of plagiarism and the prevention of student collaboration. Collaboration: we wouldn’t want that, now, would we? People working together? How 1960s. And, I’m sorry, but no English professor of any repute is going to be concerned about problems in identifying plagiarism. It is painfully easy to spot, particularly in 100-level coursework.

Currently my class is working on an essay concerning the theme of Graham Greene’s excellent short story “The Destructors.” The narrative is rich in symbolism and double meanings, so producing a worthwhile catalog of its potential is not something that can be done in broad strokes.

The point is this: no one does his or her best writing under buzzing fluorescent lights and with such stringent limitations of time and space, and consulting reference works and the opinions of other students should not be considered “cheating” in the world of composition. If the point isn’t to draw from the students their best possible work, then, what is it?