Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 Holiday Spectacular

Every year I face this post with a little bit of dread. I almost never know what it is going to be about, but does it really matter?  If I didn't write it no one else would notice. It reminds me of that Rodney Dangerfield joke about how unsuccessful his early career was - "At the time I quit, I was the only one who knew I quit!"

So, as usual, no battle plan here and I'm probably just going to wing it and make some predictions although, as with many of my topics, it's probably just an excuse to talk about whatever I feel like and I might even abandon the plan mid-stream. And, also usually, my holiday extravaganzas are light-hearted. I'm feeling something a little darker here. But, as Bilbo said about traveling - "You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no telling where you might be swept off to." The same is true for me when I first start writing one of these posts.

Good-bye, Deacon  

It's pretty well known that I am an awful predictor of Super Bowl outcomes. So, when I get anything right in football predictions, I'm happy.  My self-congratulations award (these are generally the only kind I get) goes to my prediction that Robert Quinn, a defensive end for the St. Louis Rams, was going to be the best defensive player in football.  I based it on seeing him in the first game of the year make one play. I decided then that he had one of those unique combinations of speed and strength that was going to make him almost unstoppable for one other man to block. I could have been completely wrong, but I thought he would be named defensive player of the year, though he came in second in the league to Robert Mathis in sacks and forced fumbles.  Whether he does or not win, I feel a small victory, though, of course, I have nothing to do with his success and was just watching. Sometimes we see someone perform and we expect great things from them. We forget when we think someone is going to be great and they are not (Ralph Sampson being the shining example for men my age of an exception to the rule). But, when we see their success become common knowledge, we feel a proprietary interest, almost like we managed them. For me, seeing Ivan Lendl, Billy Crystal, Billy Joel, and even Barack Obama (though, see below) perform near the beginning, but before they were super-stars, gave me some kind of bizarre ego boost. "Why I remember when he was just a lad and played a small hall."

But, that's just my intro to what I really want to talk about, which is a childhood sports hero who died this year.  The defensive player of the year award is named after the former NFL defensive end, Deacon Jones, who coincidentally, also played for the Rams for some years while they were in L. A.  It's hard to believe that he actually coined the name "sack" for tackling a quarterback behind the line of scrimmage, but he did. It is now the official word for it and kept as a statistic. His actual initial description was kind of comically violent - beyond even football violence - and involved putting opposing players in a burlap bag and beating them with a baseball bat, but that is generally forgotten nowadays. Of course, his real name wasn't Deacon. It was David, although he was so big he'd be easier to think of as Goliath.  He chose his own nickname, but not because he was religious. He just thought it was memorable.  His teammates on the defensive line on the Rams were Merlin Olsen,  Rosey Grier and some other guy whose name I'd have to google to find out, and if they weren't the all-time greatest defensive line, they are in the top two or three. They didn't count sacks back when he played, but twice unofficially he had more sacks in 14 game seasons than the official record in the longer season.  Probably, if you were making an all-time football line up, he'd be one of the two ends.  If being an all-time great football star is not enough, though not as successfully, he also sang professionally and had a back up group in the '70s which became much more famous than he did as a result of being heard singing behind him. They took the name War (if you aren't at least 35, you might never have heard of them unless you listen to oldies radio). Perhaps their biggest hit was "Why can't we be friends?" and he backed them up on it, coming full circle.  Now you have some unforgettable trivia to get you into the new year.

Obama-careless

I still haven't written my definitive Obama analysis, but not a fan. I shocked some liberally minded relatives in academia by saying that he was the worst president in my lifetime - and they both laughed at the idea that he could be worse than Nixon.  Yes, worse, and far more damaging.  It is not likely to get better in my opinion unless the Republicans win both houses decisively in 2016 and he forced to work with them or they create some sympathy for him if they try to destroy him personally unrelated to his policies and political actions, the way they did Clinton (for which it took me years to forgive them).

I have little doubt that he thinks some acts of political usurpation are just dandy, but I have always laughed at the idea that any of our presidents will seek to remain in power beyond their last constitutional term, but, will speak now only his monument to us - Obamacare.  I wonder when I read articles about whether it will ultimately fail. It seems like it already has. This is an old prediction for me, and one I take no pleasure in seeing come true. You can't always be right, but I'm a lot better at predicting politics than football.  Being a single person, I will have no choice soon to take part in it in some way.  Of course, though many played a role, and we often credit or blame presidents for things that have little or nothing to do with them, this is no doubt his work.  He has, while beating the pants off his Republican adversary in 2012 made the obvious and smart move of co-opting their derisive name for his Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. It will likely be the chain he carries around with him throughout history, walking the earth as a presidential Marley's ghost, just as Bush bears links forged from Iraq and Afghanistan around his neck.  So much for my attempts at literature for this post.

Like everyone, and I mean everyone, I didn't fully understand how it was going to work when it was enacted, as it was never complete to begin with and congress and the public were kept in the dark (we do though remember Nancy Pelosi saying we have to pass it before we can learn what is in it - one of the dumbest things any American politician has ever said). But it was pretty clear to me and apparently most Americans that it was going to be a disaster one way or another.  I don't intend here to list its demerits, but there is a reason so many big companies demanded and got waivers, why the Employer mandate and other parts were delayed at least a year to avoid creating greater unemployment (putting all the weight of it on individuals and insurance companies), a reason why the same general legislation didn't work in Massachusetts (RomneyCare actually failed there and is completely different now), why so many people lost the insurance they had and liked that the president promised them that they could keep, why the administration is trying to get the insurance companies to bring back those same discarded insurance policies now and why a law with so many popular giveaways for so many people has never been popular with the American public. While there are many people love it because it's goal is so admirable (and whatever is said to the contrary, pretty much everyone would like it if everyone could actually be affordably covered), more Americans have always disliked it. They recognize coercion when they see it. They understand it is financially ruinous to insurance companies to have to cover everyone regardless of their history. Many recognize it is only the first step for progressives towards socialized medicine (and many progressives boldly acknowledge this to be the case or actively seek it) and they remember the unpleasant and (many would argue) unlawful way it was forced down the throats of congress and the public.

Of course, for now, we will be forced to do it and there will be millions upon millions of people signing up  because we really won't have a choice if we don't have insurance through a job.  That's the main complaint with it, not surprisingly. We no longer have choice. It rankled in the colonial era and it rankles now (hence - the "tea party").  We are just less the revolting type now than we were then and the tea parties, for other reasons, has become more odious to more people than Obama.

But, as bad a piece of legislation as the ACA is, it signals many of the problems we face in a general way. These include the demise of equal protection and the rise of presidential tyrannical power (there, I said it), the continued implacability and domination of the two partisan ideological groups that pretty much exclusively dominate government, the inability to recognize that the saying - the road to hell is paved with good intentions - is not just a saying, the calcification of the "classes" into more antagonistic groups and a complete failure to take actual economics seriously, but instead the continued "handling" and "planning" of the economy by so-called experts and politicians who have no clue.

My thought at the time this was being enacted was that Obama just, like most politicians, had little understanding of the economy and didn't really care, so long as he could "fundamentally change" America in the direction he wanted.  For him, best as I can tell and by his own admission, the best way to fundamentally change America is by transferring wealth.  Socialized medicine is one piece of the puzzle for them.  It sounds fantastic to say that he built this system to fail - it seems like one more conspiracy theory.  But it is getting easier to believe with the revelations that the administration (if not him) knew that when he said we would be able to keep our insurance plans if we liked them - was a lie.  As he has apologized for it, the other possibility - his own near total ignorance of the workings of his namesake and signature piece of legislation, is not really much better.   In a nutshell, if you haven't followed it, the ACA grandfathers in existing policies - hence he felt he could say you can keep your policies -  but subsequent regulations removed the protection if the policies are changed - and that was almost inevitable.  In fact, the administration, if not Obama, recognized that millions would in fact lose their insurance. It's no longer a debatable point.

If you gave me my way right now, as a single person I would probably prefer a catastrophic policy, one with low premiums that prevents me from high costs of care, but under which I still pay the basic costs of my own health care directly. But as a result of Obamacare, I can apparently forget it. Anecdotally, I keep hearing that they have become are (thanks to the Affordable Care Act) unaffordable for all but the very rich, and the high price tag for them defeats the entire purpose of having one.  But, I do not even qualify to get one under Obamacare, because I do not meet the government's requirement for it. In other words, I cannot contract with a company as we desire, but must only have what the government tells me I must have.

My reason, however, for not signing up with NY's exchange (and the exchanges are the one good part of the law) is that I don't trust them as they are targets for hacking and you have to give them your social security number.  I might soon do it anyway, but, it is a little worrisome.  Now, I give out my social security number to various governmental departments and commercial companies all the time (like my bank, for example). But, though we know what a target they are for hacking (like, no pun intended, the retailer Target) I trust them more than I trust the exchanges, particularly after the exchange website fiascos that cannot even be denied in the usual government knee jerk fashion.  One of the major parts of the fiascos is that they didn't bother to try to see if they were hack proof until they were up and running.  A major hacking in the next year is my prediction in the coming year and I hope, really hope, I am wrong.

I don't know what will become of Obamacare.  It is hard to believe that it will be completely repealed while Democrats have any say in congress or the presidency.  If the Republicans get a majority in the Senate, they might very well end the filibuster completely as punishment for the Democrats doing so with respect to presidential appointments (which I approve of, though, as usual, both sides are unashamed to be remarkably hypocritical about it).  It is hard to believe that there are not aspects of Obamare will continue to exist, like coverage for children up to 26 years old living at home. But, I have always been one of those who have believed this legislature will fall upon its own weight or will so morph that all that remains is the name.  When, I don't know. But it seems to me, despite more and more people signing up, it is happening as we speak.

The World at Large

I'm 54, hopefully going on 55. I do not remember a time when the Middle East was a settled place.  I know that I would not go to it as a tourist.  This is just because it is a dangerous place but because as a result it is a sad place. A few years ago I begged my "idiot" friend not to go to Egypt a few years ago, and he ended up missing the riots by a few months by sheer luck. He still argues that it was reasonable to go because the "Arab Spring" hadn't happened yet. This misses the point. It is the same reason I don't live on volcanoes or faults. Some risk in life is natural if you want to do anything or go anywhere, but going where people live on the edge of savagery is not for me.  The safest prediction for the next four years is that the Middle East will remain as it is, so long as the Islamic religion world continues to reject  enlightenment values, especially religious and equality for women.  It would be interesting to see what would happen, historically, if either the Sunni world at large, or the Shi'a, gravitated towards the West en masse.  Though I have little doubt millions of Muslims in the world desire this, it is too hard to imagine it happening.  Much of what we call the Arab Spring was just an excuse to topple regimes and put in replacements that are as bad or worse.  I understand why many Muslims want to live here. Only a handful of Americans with warlord or Islamicist fantasies want to live there.

Two of the last three decisions the administration has made about the Middle East have been disastrous.  The forth remains to be seen.  Our intervention in Libya was a constitutional disaster for which congress had no stomach to contest. It was followed by our unprotected diplomatic presence there and the subsequent tragedy in Benghazi, whatever the reasons for the attacks (which may be several).   But, our threatened intervention in Syria, resulting in a chemical weapons agreement, has practically guaranteed Assad's survival for the foreseeable future, as his administration is necessary to carry it out.  I don't have a dog in the fight. Assad is bad enough and his death along with the end of the regime could not be a bad thing, but he is no worse than an Islamist government, which is probably what they'd get after an even worse Civil War.  It does not appear at all that we have helped the so-called moderate groups there ("moderate" being a very flexible term) and perhaps in protecting his future, we have fatally damaged theirs. It is hard to see how the international conference will accomplish anything as the U.S. and Russia fundamentally disagree on whether Assad could stay in power in a transitional government. This process was started a year and a half ago. Why would we expect progress now?

It can't be said enough, democracy is not enough. Uunless there is an interest in a Madisonian Democracy somewhere in any of these countries, there is no point in our helping either side.  What makes this clearer than Egypt. Obama called for the ouster of Mubarak, who was no doubt a tyrant, but also in some respects our ally. This was followed by our opposition to the military taking down Morsi. It is hard to say, with respect to the this last, whether our official disapproval is for show, and secretly we support Egypt's military, just as we continue to arm them and train with them. But, as it seems we can have little if any influence there on what form the government will take, our poor choices have not really harmed anyone.  However, our continued working with their military does not seem a mistake. Last, I cannot say yet whether the temporary agreement with Iran is a help or a hindrance to us. If Iran has a secret nuclear weapon program, then we have made a terrible mistake and aided them behind a friendlier mask. If they do not, we have made a wise choice. I don't know which is true, but I do know that anyone who tells you they know should not be listened to at this point.

Of course, the Middle East is not the whole world. There are many terrible things here in Middle Earth, but there are many good things too. On the whole, I am convinced that the world continues to get better, more peaceful, more technologically advanced (though, I am a level three inept when it comes to the digital world). For those who think about such things, we know that it ever balances on a dime.

Speaking about Middle Earth

My casual reference to Middle Earth above was just one of those things that pops out when you type away and not planned as a segue for this next section, which is about the second Hobbit film that came out a week ago. My love for Tolkien's work is obvious to anyone who chances upon this site. My appreciation for Peter Jackson's Lord of the Ring's ("LOTR") film trilogy is great. It was a magnificent achievement.  But, my dislike for the Hobbit trilogy deepens. Indeed, with it, a pall grows over the film world's Middle Earth as the dark power rises once again and corrupts all in its path.

My complaint is not difficult to understand. While there a few anachronisms in LOTR which annoyed me (dwarf tossing,  skateboarding and the turning of Aragon's love interest into a Xena like warrior maiden), they could be edited out with only ten seconds of the film lost. They did make changes from the books. And while I would have preferred a straight and unabridged transference, it was pretty close. The natures of the major characters and their roles were unchanged. But, in The Desolation of Smaug the whole thing has come off the tracks, in an effort to stretch Tolkien's children's story into something else, both by including parts from his over-all Middle Earth corpus which destroy the simple tale of a Hobbit on an adventure that became the basis for his great epic later.  Remember, at the time he wrote The Hobbit in the 1930s, Tolkien placed it in his Middle Earth scheme he had been playing with for years as a writer and linguist, but the story line that became LOTR simply did not exist at all. The first part of the Hobbit trilogy was just bad, in my view, but the second part, near awful. It is no longer mostly Tolkien's work, but shared with Jackson's fan-fiction. Unfortunately, Tolkien sold the rights to it, and this is what we get. But I don't want it.

I do not want a love story between a warrior maiden-elf and a young dwarf that isn't in the book. I do not want an enlarged role for Radagast, a Wizard who Tolkien barely saw fit to introduce in his books, but who is Jackson's Jar-Jar Binks. At least when Lucas stuck us with Binks - the canvas was his own and he wasn't reinterpreting someone else's work.  I want the dwarves to be as those from Norse mythology - which still have resonance with us - not Disneyesque dwarves, more like in many cases, short humans (if bigger than hobbits). I do not want Xena like elf-women. I loved Xena - but her type was not found in Tolkien amongst Elvish women. The closest we can come is to two humans - Haleth who became a warrior by necessity when her family was killed off and Éomer, who becomes a warrior against her father's will and without his knowledge, also out of a desire to protect her people when disaster befalls them. But, there is no history in Middle Earth of Elf-woman being intentionally trained to be warrior maidens and captains of the guard, as Tauriel is in Jackson's The Hobbit.

What next? We in the public learned that the actor who plays Gandalf (which character and actio is in some ways the life of the book and films), Ian Mckellen is gay.  We are also in the midst of the gay rights revolution. Will Jackson bow not just to the film and literary trend in making women the superior of man in combat but now to bring about a gay aspect to the story  à la Dumbledore in Harry Potter.  It would have infuriated Tolkien as such a touch could in no way be part of an English mythology he was trying to create.  Will we need some black or Hispanic character in our story, the way it seems virtually every police chief in tv and movies needs to be black? I understand they are trying to make up for past minority practices but they have created a new stereotype in place of old ones. To extend it to Tolkien, who was greatly imbued with a love of archetype, they were medieval and Nordic ones, not modern American. Tolkien, though very conservative in his ways, was not a bigot by any stretch as can be seen in his letter to a German publishing house that queried about his ancestry. But he created Middle Earth to be a haven for his vision of a world gone by and it did not include many things that are of Hollywood's concern today.  Concerns for anti-semitism, minority rights and so on were not part of his vision.

Try being safe - why brain damage is fun for me.

There is no doubt in my mind that the smugness or satisfaction one feels upon being validated in an unpopular or controversial thought is human, even when the prediction does not bode well for someone or some group. It's not that you want bad things to happen to them, but you feel satisfied that you what you thought inevitable, happened (whether inevitable or not).  At least, that is my excuse when I feel pride at having a prediction come true. I was just reading an article about the upswing in the use of helmets for skiing by 300 percent.  However, the article also notes that head and brain injuries haven't decreased at all and that was the whole purpose of the helmets. Leaving aside the joyous feeling of being able to say "I told you so," what gives? It is actually pretty simple.  Mildly increased safety in a sport is going to lead to riskier and more unsafe behavior without rigorous discipline or rule making to counter it (such as the NFL does) and will often either be useless or have a negative impact. It's part of the reason why, when I taught my daughter to ski and ride a bike, I did not make her wear a helmet.  She only wore one when biking when there were other kids riding so that the little brats wouldn't complain.  I told her (my kid) she was going to ski/ride safely as opposed to wearing a safety device.  There is an irony in it, of course, as my reckless behavior has led to many near death experiences.

On the other hand, you might say, why not teach her to ski/ride safely but to also wear a helmet?  I can't really argue about that. Of course, it would be safer. But, my refusal was also a little bit of a protest - you can call it petulance - against the law enforcement aspects of it and the trend towards so overprotecting our kids, they are becoming wimpy shades of children not in the past seen outside of the pampered peerage of royal families.

My daughter is grown now and I have no idea if she wears a helmet if she skis or bikes now. Maybe she think I unnecessarily risked her life. Maybe.  And hope I'm not setting myself up.  An accident can happen to anyone.

My anti-safety measures are really for things that don't really work or are what I believe subjectively are overkill.  One of the few rules I gave my daughter when she was a teenager was no motorcycles - period.  It's a good rule. For that matter, her first year of driving I did not want any boys in the car other than her very responsible boyfriend.  My little bit of research and personal experience told me that motorcycles were inherently unsafe and that for every teenage boy you added to a car, the death rate dramatically increased. You get in a car you should wear a seatbelt and you get on a motorcycle, which - apologies to riders for your hurt feelings - is about the most dangerous thing you can legally do, you should wear a helmet.  In fact, in the latter case - you should wear body armor.

Despite my lifetime of near death experiences, I won't scuba dive or parachute period. I like to hike and have scaled a few challenging rocks. But, I would not scale a mountain with a history of killing people either. Everest is out. Recreational activities which have almost a certainty of death when equipment fails is just not for me.  I'm a walking accident to begin with.  I've always thought that if there was a way to break air I would have suffocated as a child.

More books, books, books

I'm running out of room on this holiday catch-as-catch-can post and want to update my reading list, just because. Right now I'm reading -

Washington: A life by Ron Chernow. I've read a lot of GW biographies, enough so that I do not feel that I have a lot to learn. But, as with his Alexander Hamilton, it is proving to be an excellent one. Washington had a much more exciting young life than you would think looking at that solemn face on the dollar bill. Already on my recommendation list.

Lucian, Satirist and Artist by Frances G. Allinston. Lucian was once possibly the funniest writer in the world. Or at least writer that has come down to us. He was the Aristophanes of his time. But, he lived and wrote in the second century A.D., in Greek, though born in Syria. He's not real popular these days. Not even to quote.  And, to be honest, it is difficult for us to find a lot of mirth in his work as his schtick is dated.  But, he was interesting for his anti-superstition satire and willingness to mock just about everyone, real or imagined.  There is not much known about him so the book is largely about his work and can be, as he was, a bit repetitious. Not sure I will finish it, but it is sitting here right next to me, so . . . maybe.

The Ebony Tower by John Fowles. Lee Child and Robert Crais adventure novels aside, I do not read much fiction these days and can barely finish the ones I actually like. And Fowles is not reading.  But, his The Collector, The Magus and The Maggot are three of the best books I ever read back when I was a fiction reading machine. I figured I'd give this other classic of his a chance.  If I can't finish it, he will be in good company.

Dixie Betrayed - How the South Really Lost the Civil War by David J. Eicher.  Seems like in-fighting is his answer.  I'm 75 pages in and it's a keeper. I can't say I agree with him though. Books which argue why won side won the war or not are at best only partially right and at worst just wrong. The South primarily lost in my view due to the fact that the North had more men and more industry.  War of attrition. Of course there are other reasons, some of which, had they gone the other way, would have changed history, particularly if France or Britain had become antagonists.  Infighting applied to the North as well as the South and is probably a factor in most wars on both sides. We just notice it more with the losers. 

Die Trying by Lee Child. Did I say I read Reacher novels? He's basically a great big non-super hero, but whose ability to beat up just about any three men at a time, if not many more, without getting killed, even when they have guns, and his ability to make astonishing leaps of logic the way only people in literature can - "That paper has a green tint to it. It's likely been dipped in olive oil. Olive Oil is produced in Italy - THEY ARE GOING TO KILL THE POPE!!!!," to tell the time without a clock to within 20 seconds by some internal clock and shooting abilities (of course) seems super-human. I can't say it is literature and sometimes he is just a bad writer. But, like James Bond, it's fun. This one seems like all the others. He's thrown into yet one more impossible situation that can't possibly happen yet again to one guy, and includes a gorgeous woman he's sure to bed and . . . you get it.

Man on his nature by Charles Sherrington. Science, reason, man-body. That kind of thing. It was first a series of lectures in 1937-38. I have read some Irwin Schrödinger, the famous physicist who played a critical role in quantum mechanics back when they were actually a creative force and one man with his slide rule could change our understanding (I'm very unimpressed these days with big machine physics) and wrote on a number of philosophical topics including, notably, what is life, one of my favorite small books (the answer he says - is an aperiodic crystal. Read it if you care what that means.   I don't know if there is a better answer out there to date). Anyway, Schrödinger recommends Sherrington like nobody's business, so I thought I'd give him a try. I have just started it so I can't comment on it. I have this fear it will be more boring than enlightening. Maybe it's just the prosaic cover. I wish I could capture an image of his portrait shown on the inside of the book as someone forgot to say "Cheese" and it's kind of funny. Wait a second. I've been time-traveling a lot lately and forgot what century I'm in. I can do this. Here it is -
 
 
 
The Perennial Philosophy by Aldous Huxley. I'm not a mystic by any stretch. In fact, I am so unmystical, they probably need to coin a word to describe me. But, life is ironic and I enjoy reading mystics. Huxley is most famous for his Brave New World. I know what it is about and feel I must have read it, but I can't remember it at all. Maybe I didn't. He came from a family knee deep in intellectuals, scientists and writers. I've already thumbed through the book, which I had heard of before but also became interested in through Schrödinger. I don't believe in any of this stuff, but I read it because it is a cornucopia of great quotes.

Ancient Thoughts: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Studies by Thomas McEvilley. What a tome this is. It's about exactly what the title says. I realize that there is no practical reason for me to read it. But I love history. I love Indian philosophy. I love Greek philosophy. I love linguistics and comparative religion and science. So . . . I already started and it is going to take a long time to get through. Much of it is, as are all similar ambitious books, speculative to the max. But, in case there is a test for this kind of stuff to get into heaven, I'll be more ready than most.

Thomas Jefferson: A Strange Case of Mistaken Identity by Alf J. Mapp, Jr.   There are a lot of Jefferson books out there. I don't know how many I've read, but it's relatively a lot. Mr. Mapp promises that he will reveal the real TJ.  His premise is we really don't know him. Oh, I think I do. Probably he is more  positive about TJ than I am, but that would not be hard. I have been writing another Jefferson post for months now and keep getting sidetracked.  There's always something to learn about him, so maybe I'll get through this first.

Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World by Donald R. Howard. How can there be so much data about a 14th century poet, even one as famous as Chaucer. Yet, there is more than one would think. Not that some speculation isn't also necessary. But, is also a lot known about his works and his world and the latter in particular is usually what makes for a great biography.

The Hidden White House: Harry Truman and the Reconstruction of America's Most Famous Residence by Robert Klara.  My nephew gave me this one for Christmas. I don't know what to expect except that these days I prefer history about something I haven't read about before, rather than another biography of someone I've read about a lot. I read the first chapter and he sets up a little drama - Mrs. Truman unhappily hosting a party with the chandelier above her trembling as the house is about ready to come down around them. I don't know if it covers the assassination attempt on Truman by Puerto Rican terrorists (pardoned by Carter, to the ire of many), but I hope so.
 
That's twelve books to churn through. I'll buy a lot more before I finish them. These days I spend more time on translating than reading, but I just finished a major project after six years (or is it seven?) of work on it, so I might take a breather. Then again, maybe not. It's a lot more fun than working.
 
Movies
 
Last thing, I promise. Best movie of 2013 - Captain Phillips followed, surprisingly, by World War Z. Biggest disappointments - Man of Steel and The Hobbit. I may never see another Superman movie again.  No way I would even see The Lone Ranger.  Two that might have made the best movie list, but I didn't see yet - American Hustle and Kick-Ass 2 (Kick-Ass was a great and underrated movie).
 
Comments
 
I always do best comments award in my holiday spectacular. Due to a dearth of entries this year - none. How sad.
 
That's it. No doubt you are starting your New Year's celebration by seeing if I posted. Have a happy one.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Football

Football!!!!!!

I don't know what happened. I loved football when I was a kid. I was so upset once when Baltimore beat Dallas in a big game that I was furious at my little brother for teasing me about it (and, umm, I might have kicked him). This was only a few years after I was devastated that Baltimore had lost the World Series to the Mets - my local NY team and Cinderella story.  Anyway, after the Dallas debacle, I swore to myself that however exciting it might be, I would never to care so much again about a silly sport. I can't say I ever have cared that much since, but I came close last week.

For a while I actually stopped caring about football at all. Maybe it was the late 1980s. Then for years, there was nothing but the Super Bowl and sometimes a playoff game or so. When I moved to Va. in 2008 I decided to just put it on in the background on Sundays and maybe pick up a little more about it, so that when the playoffs came I could have a clue what was going on. I liked the ambiance of it, liked even to sit in pubs and watch it. But, I pretty much only watched Sunday. Super Bowl usually meant someone's house for a party.

Year after year, I watched more and more. Suddenly this year, 2013, I find myself virtually addicted to it. Suddenly all day Sunday, Monday and Thursday nights and then the NFL Network several hours almost every day. Suddenly, I care again which teams win. Suddenly, if my players don't do well, I feel bad about it. I can't believe it. I'm back.

A few weeks ago all the teams I wanted to win were getting the tar beaten out of them and I was frustrated and felt a little down. Then, they started to win again the last two weeks and it made me happy. When New England beat Denver a few weeks back, well, I was as exultant as I have been since the night Pres. Obama announced that Osama bin Laden was dead. I wish I could say that wasn't true.

So, here are some football thoughts.

Home teams: Not even when I was a young did I get the home team thing. What do I care that the Jets and Giants play in NY? Of course, they really haven't played in NY in years, which makes it even more senseless to me. And why them and not the Buffalo Bills, who actually play here?  But, it's not just NY teams. I don't get why I should care about a particular team anywhere over the years more than any other team, unless they merit it. It's not like I know the player's personally (well, one, my whole life - another time for that).

Teams often have mostly different players a few years down the road. The owners stay the same for a longer time, but, is that who we are rooting for when we root for the home team - the owners? Unlikely. Nothing is more annoying after a Triple Derby race when we have to listen to the owners take the credit.  I don't even know who owns the Jets and Giants any more. Is it still the Maras and Hess? I gave up and just took a look at the wiki list of owners, so there is still a Mara involved with the Giants. I recognized three names on the list and I'm pretty sure they are the children of owners whose names I knew. But, that begets the real question which is still - why do we care at all about the home team when the players change so much, perhaps other than some "franchise" players.

Maybe the real question for most people would be the reverse - why don't I care, since it seems like devotion to the home team is either a normal human affection or part of our culture?  It probably has something to do with my disinclination to join groups or feel like part of one in general.  I know I do feel like part of the country and my family -- and that is sort of like rooting for a home team. But, there are actual reasons for those associations. I am attached to my country because of American ideals, even though we execute them imperfectly and have no interest in jingoism or exhibiting patriotism. But, I do not extend even this little bit of seeming home teamism to the sports world. When I watch the Olympics I generally root for whoever I think is best and possibly will set a record, rather than who is the Americans. There are always exceptions. I had no interest in our gold medal Olympic hockey or basketball teams winning, except for the 1984 dream team, who were potentially the greatest team in history. With regard to my family I actually only speak with and like those I know and have something in common with - that is, I either grew up in the same household with them or know them all my life. I have had no interest in meeting relatives I don't know just because they are technically related.  I don't pick my friends based on proximity to my home either. What I'm trying to say over and over again here by these examples is - I don't care about the home team and I don't understand why others do. I know it's a little (strange, unconventional, weird - whatever?) but that's the way I feel.

This is the best I can do with it is this. If a home team - the Jets or Giants are in the Super Bowl, I admit it hypes my interest in the game because so many people around me are interested and the enthusiasm is a little contagious. On the other hand, I didn't root for the Jets when they won the first Super Bowl for the AFL. The one year that I rooted for the Giants to beat the almost perfect Patriots was because of the story line, and because when the Giants lost to them during the regular season I had made the prediction that they would likely beat them if they met them in the Super Bowl season because of Eli's rapid growth as a quarterback and I . . . just . . . wanted . . . to . . . be . . . right . . . for . . .  once about the Super Bowl (my record of incorrect Super Bowl predictions is legendary).

This year while some of my friends are in agony (seriously) over the Jets and Giants, I could care less. There's enough things in life to worry about if you want.

QBs

With the rare super star drawing equal attention - an LT, a Jerry Rice, a Walter Payton - QBs get most of the attention in the league. It's understandable. With rare, rare exception, you need a top performer in that position to win more than any other, though, of course, if you are going to win the Super Bowl, everything must be clicking. A little while ago I evaluated the greatest quarterbacks in history. I feel more confident about my top ten than I do about the bottom. I'm still not sure that Warren Moon and John Brodie and some others do not belong on the list somewhere and a few of them not on it. But, that's the nature of the beast when you make top ten lists. I once made a list of best animal cartoon characters here and the commenter known as Conchis pointed out that I had left off Rocky and Bullwinkle. Now that's embarrassing.

There have been a lot of rule changes in the last few years designed to protect the QB. It has changed the game. What it means to me is that records for passers and receivers are not going to be equivalent to those they are breaking. E.g., When Manning shatters Brady's TD record this year (unless he gets hurt, he will likely smash it) it will not be clear to me he broke an equivalent record. It's not like everyone is throwing 7 touchdown games this year, but one other guy did. Is it the same as throwing  7 touchdowns in game years ago? Probably not. That's not to say it isn't any amazing achievement. No knock on Peyton Manning at all - he is a hall of famer and easily one of the greatest QBs ever - I'm sure he will have supporters for no. 1 all time, but his statistics aren't really measureable against Dan Marino's, just as an example. Of course, in my humble opinion.

A pet peeve - I wish that commentators would stop saying after a QB throws a great touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone that only 2 or 3 other QBs could make that throw. It's not true. I've seen mediocre NFL QBs do it. They practice it and many of them, probably most starters, and a number of back ups can do it.

The following is actually not a list, But, recognizing how controversial these things are and how I might change my mind tomorrow, these are my QB thoughts.

How much is the team? - We look at history and almost reflexively assign to presidents the successes and failures of others that he had very little or more likely nothing to do with. We do the same with quarterbacks. Without a good line in front of them, some QBs will still thrive (they have to be either a great scrambler or have a quick release), but there's no doubt that great lines add to a QB's stats and preserve him for the next game. The same goes for receivers. You need people who can catch the ball just as they need someone who will give them a chance. Great lines and great receivers make great QBs and vise versa.

Young guys

RGIII - I was not a huge RGIII fan from the beginning. Nothing not to like. Great athlete, personal, smart, soft spoken and even male model looks. I liked him. I just didn't think he was all that. His first year came in the same year any number of great young quarterbacks arrived. He was certainly among the best of them, but I really didn't think he was better than Kaepernik (who didn't start until late in the season), Andrew Luck or Russell Wilson -- though he really became a star this year. Nick Foles didn't take off until this year, but I would take him over RGIII too and though I like Tannehill (also a high pick like Luck and Griffin) down in Miami, he hasn't garnered national attention. Most of them can throw and run. But, RGIII seemed to get most of the attention. Perhaps he was just more personable, better looking and media savvy than Andrew Luck, who seemed to be the professional commentators' favorite. RGIII's game was also very similar to Cam Newton, drafted the year before, who's star seemed to fade last year but is shining again now. RGIII also had an impossible great game, going 15/16 with 4 TD's, something accomplished only by Steve Young before him, my pick for the all time greatest QB. But, that's one game, not a season or career. There's no doubt, he may not be the "one," but he had the potential to be a great quarterback.

So, this week Mike Shanahan, the Redskins coach, suffering through a terrible year after looking so good late last year and watching his young quarterback struggle back from injury, announced they were benching him for the last three games of the season and set the football world on fire. The rationale was that because he was the franchise quarterback, he needed to be preserved for next season and it was not only for his own good, but done with the approval of the team ownership.

RGIII has been respectful, some arguing too respectful of the decision.

Reading and watching the professional commentators, there were two perspectives, but almost all of them were pro-playing him. The feeling was that a) he had earned the right to play and was the franchise quarterback b) the fans were entitled to it c) it would demoralize him d) it would demoralize the team, many of the players who play with pain and injury. The other perspective, that maybe Coach Shanahan was right that he needed to be preserved was correct, was in the definitive minority.

Me, I was very happy, but not because I don't like the guy or wish the team ill. Here's why. I've caught Redskin games the past couple of weeks. Three weeks ago I was stunned by what happened to him. I could barely watch as he got pummeled, sacked and speared. In turn, perhaps because self preservation kicked in or maybe on the coaches instruction, he just started getting rid of the ball almost as fast as he got it. I don't blame him. You hit me like that, I'm getting rid of the ball too. I thought Coach Shanahan had actually understated it, perhaps to preserve the morale of his team and especially his offensive line's. Because they were responsible. No different than the less highly praised Geno Smith in NY, I felt his confidence was being destroyed.

Ryan Tannehill

I'm going to make this prediction - if he stays healthy, in 5-7 years, people will say that RT is as good or better than any QB who came out with him. This is solely based on my impression watching him.

I like this kid. He was the third QB drafted in for the 2012-13 season after Luck and Griffin. He gets nowhere near the press though some think this is the greatest QB incoming group in perhaps 20 years.  He can throw. I don't know if it is measured anywhere, but I think he throws the long ball deeper than any QB in the league. If not, he's got to be up there. He is sometimes criticized for throwing interceptions and he should be. But, the equipment is there. Give him a team like the Patriots, Seattle, NO, NE, Denver, etc., and I think he would progress very fast.

Andrew Luck

Some commentators are very high on him. He definitely is a very good quarterback. Over and over again I hear that they love that he is always looking, when in the pocket, downfield. That doesn't seem like rocket science to me, but okay. He is also a pretty good runner and a great athlete though you wouldn't know it to look at him. I think many professional commentators like him because he reminds them of the classic pocket quarterback like the Mannings, Rodgers and Brady, though he can run better than them (actually, Rodgers can run too). I can understand that, because I think pocket quarterbacks aren't history yet, and may end up with the better careers than the runners. Like with Griffin, I just don't think he is all that. But, certainly good enough. Star? I don't see it yet.

Oh, and I wish he would lose the beard.

Russell Wilson

One more of the new breed of quarterback that runs like a half back. Tired of hearing that he's short, that he was drafted low (is 3rd round really that bad?) and that if he wasn't short, he would have been drafted much higher, perhaps first. Seattle is obviously awesome this year, and may be on their way to a Super Bowl. He's got a lot of protection and a great team. His defense keeps him on the field. Yet, his stats do not overwhelm. I think he will be around for a long time. I do not see anything that tells me all time great.

Nick Foles

Also a sophomore, he's obviously setting the world on fire in Philly. It is probably lucky for the team that Vicks got hurt, because he had probably reached his prime and wasn't leading them to a Super Bowl. Out of all the second year quarterbacks, he might actually be the most impressive. 7 TDs in one game, 19 in a row without a pick.  I wish I could see him play, but it hasn't happened yet. So, I'll shut up about him.

Cam Newton

I thought he might be overrated and the subject of hyperbole in his first year and thought he was picked upon and underappreciated in the light of RGIII last year. This year, he is playing better than the last, but really, he doesn't show me that he's a great either.

Colin Kaepernik

Another young QB who got a lucky break in 2012 when the starting QB went down and played not only well enough to keep the job, but to get to the Super Bowl. Out of the crop of thrower/runners, he actually impressed me more than RGIII, Newton, Wilson or others. But, obviously, he is not playing that great this year in any dimension. But, when you look at his stats compared to Russell Wilson, sure Wilson's are a little better, but, he's got a much better team. Kaepernick has a lot of potential. He's as much a franchise QB as any of the youngsters, but, he's got to throw the ball better. Pretty obvious, but that's the story. I think he will. In fact, everything being equal, but looking ahead 5-7 years, I am predicting him no. 2 rated among this impressive group.

Middle Group

Eli Manning

I rate him a very good QB, not a great one, despite the two Super Bowl victories. He doesn't have the arm though he has the head. Still, give me one game and the team of my choice, I'd be as happy or happier with him than most other QBs. And, I'm looking past this horrible season.

Phillip Rivers

I may be a little biased in this as the night I am writing this his Chargers beat the better team, the Broncos in Denver. That surprised me. Rivers could actually be as talented as any QB in the game, but his consistency is the problem. Often it is just not playing for as good a team as others, but it doesn't seem like it with him. He just blows hot and cold. Still, lots of potential to be elite there.

Ben Roethlisberger

He could be a great QB if he was healthier. He himself acknowledged that injuries in 2012 hurt his conference. My opinion. He's friggin' crazy to have played. But, he may be, probably is, the toughest QB in the league and has all the talent to do anything with the right team. Of course, he's already proven that.  I don't quite think he is in the very elite group, but he's at the very top of the next tier.

Tony Romo

I think Tony Romo takes so much abuse because people believe he could be in the elite group. He certainly seems to have the talent. I'm not sure he's ever had the team for it though.

Joe Flacco

He won the Super Bowl last year and some were saying he was now the man. I didn't believe it and this year kind of bears that out. He's sure good enough, and, actually, personally, I like him a lot. But he's not elite. I heard him say before the season started that some people didn't like his team because they thought they were not good enough to win a Super Bowl. He was right. I was one of them. Their year does not surprise me.

The elites

There are four right now that I see - Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. I don't know who is the best though I am going to give you my preference. They are all fantastic. Obviously, being a little older puts Brady and Manning in their own category, but I don't know that the other two aren't every bit as good. You'd be crazy not to take any of them even at later stages of their career.

But, Manning v. Brady - who is best? Look, you can't deny that both are hall of famers and great quarterbacks. I prefer Brady and think he is a little better. Feel free to disagree. You could compare stats and Manning surpasses him in many categories, but, stats are not everything (when you like the player with the lesser stats better). At the end of any game, I want the ball in Brady's hands. He reminds me of Larry Bird. If the Celtics were down 6 points with a minute to play, I felt the other team didn't have a chance if Bird was on the floor. Feel the same about Brady, and once he had a full healthy team of receivers, he won every QB match up - four in a row, and I think came back to win it late in each and every one. He has far fewer comeback winners than Manning historically (who has more than almost anyone ever), but I think part of that reason is that Brady's teams were usually ahead, at least more so than Manning's teams. I could be wrong about that and I don't have the stats to back it up. I thought about doing a post just on Manning-Brady, but decided against it. Maybe some day.

A few things interest me. For one thing, too many people say they hate Tom Brady. At the same time they usually say he is a great QB - they just hate him.  Part of that impression may be I live in NY and he is a natural target for Jet fans and thanks to the Super Bowl, also the Giants. I do not expect home team fans to be rational about these things. But, I also think some people hate him because he's not only great, but he's ridiculously good looking (my favorite line this week from an article was - "If Megyn Kelly were to paint a portrait of Jesus, I assume he would look like Tom Brady (written by Jeffrey Goldberg)" and he's married to one of the most beautiful women in the world. He almost always says exactly the right thing and maintains his poise off the field in answering questions better than any player in the league - though, that's not a stat we can measure. What I really like about him. First, he's a great story, being a six or seventh round draft pick (I forget which) who, worked his way from 4th string to 2nd string QB when he got his lucky break by Drew Bledsoe, NE's excellent starting QB, getting hurt. He's a three time SB champ who would be a four time champ if the last time his great receivers (including Welker) could have held onto the ball, he's ridiculously consistent and in my mind, the coolest hand in the league in the last minutes of a game. You can't measure these things, of course.

Another thing that interests me is that people don't follow the usual  win-weighted rules in comparing Brady and Manning that they usually do when unfairly putting one player over another - like Russell over Chamberlain.  It's not that I disagree. I think the win thing is overrated, though it has to mean something.  Brady has a 3-1 Super Bowl advantage. His  17 playoff wins with Championship advantage.  Brady has won a record 17 playoff games, Manning a record loser 11 (tied with Favre).  Brady's teams have beat Manning's 10-4. Their post-season passing ratings are almost identical (Manning's slightly better).  Manning has many more td passes but he has thrown a lot more. The same is true of interceptions and the two go together. Brady fumbles more, but has been sacked more and the two go together there also.  Frankly, Manning is at least equal if not superior in most statistical comparisons, though you have to balance for two extra years. Manning will likely break Brady's single season td record this year, but not by much and in a year where the rules for hitting QBs has changed significantly. I'm not positive it is comparable.

Unlike Manning, Brady is not having a record setting year. But, some commentators recognize he spend most of the season with  a severely depleted team. If for no other reason, he didn't have Welker this year and Manning did. It makes a big difference. In fact, despite Manning's fireworks all season, some commentators have said this year that Brady was actually more impressive, simply because he was working with so much less. There were four games this year when Gronkowski was healthy and we saw what Brady could do with his team at full strength, topped no doubt by the 34-31 victory over Denver after being down 24-0 at the half.

Feel free to disagree. Enough about quarterbacks.

My picks. 

As the season was about to start, the ferocious commenter known as Bear emailed me with his Super Bowl predictions - Seahawks versus Broncos. He's looking pretty prescient, although they've both come down to earth a little the past few weeks. Nevertheless, they are still looking like the cream of their conferences.

My picks were done with less confidence (probably because he's so much better at it than I am), but I picked San Francisco again in the NFC. I wasn't sure who I picked in the AFC - thought it might have been NE - and had to look it up in my emails and to my surprise, I picked Denver too. Not as dumb as I thought. My back ups picks were NE in the AFC, which is still a reasonable choice (Gronk going down may change that though) and GB in the NFC, which doesn't look very likely, but still technically a possibility.  Obviously Bear's Seattle pick was better than my SF, but that may have been true last year too and SF made it. We'll see, won't we?

Dancing

I cannot finish a post on the NFL without a word about how much I despise the end zone and sack dances. This is just a rant - I admit it. And, I've said it all before, but it really irks me. I love the NFL Network, but honestly, the fact that they do a segment every week doing a mock Dancing with the Stars type thing just irritates me, even if they don't take it seriously at all. I know, I'm a cranky, crusty old man (who doesn't dance, by the way, so . . . ), but these acts of self congratulation and unabashed crowing would have embarrassed Peter Pan, for crying out loud. It's down right cringe worthy. Yccchh.

If it were my kid who did something like that after a good moment, I would have taken her aside and said "Never do that again, honey."

The fact that some players do it when they are losing or their team has losing records is even worse. And if I were the coach and my team lost, the first film session the next day would be of them dancing in the end zone. I say again. Yccchh.

Rant over. Post over. Now I'm irritated and not going to even casually proof. Go easy on me.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Tolkien and the Greeks

I have spent some writing about Tolkien since soon after I started with this meshuggeneh blog back in September, 2006, mostly once a year, but this is the third one in 2013. If anyone has actually ever read my profile (honestly, I couldn't tell you how to find it, but most people with an I.Q. over 75 are more internet savvy than I am and you probably wouldn't have any trouble), you'd know the main point of this blog is really for me to write about things that interest me and which I don't get a lot of opportunity to talk about in the real world. So, I guess just because it's fun for me, I like to review my previous Tolkien posts each time I write about him, the way we like to look over old photographs or I sit in a chair and just look at my library. I used a search function Google provides and found six previous posts I've written which are all or mostly about Tolkien or his books except one on the movie trilogy.

Here's the list and what they are about. They all presuppose that if you haven't read the books, you've at least seen the movies (but read the books, please): 

7/10/07 Will the real Tom Bombadil please stand up - What was Tolkien's Tom Bombadil meant to represent?

4/10/08 The Greatest Epics ever made (in my humble opinion) - discussion of the Peter Jackson movies.

5/14/09 Fulfilling Edith Hamilton's prophecy: J.R.R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings - arguing that LOTR is the greatest book of the 20th century and far deeper than most people think.

2/21/10 Would you just finish it already, JRRT - The long and tortured process of Tolkien's writing of LOTR.

12/11/12 Tolkien's other stuff - discussing Tolkiens other books - many of which you probably never heard about. I just renamed this post, as I realized it was not mostly about what the old title suggested (it used to be called The Hobbit).

7/21/13 Oaks, rocks, stumps and stocks - from Ba'al to Tolkien - on the several thousand year life span of an earthy Proto-Indo-European expression ending with Tolkien.

11/3/13 Inspiration from Middle Earth - pretty sure that title is self evident.

Today's subject, Tolkien and ancient Greece may not seem a natural fit and there is a good reason. It's not what he was writing about for the most part. His work is suffused with Old English and Norse mythology. I make no claims that any substantial portion of the Greek classics whatsoever are represented in his work. Closer to the opposite is true. He learned ancient Greek and Latin when he was young and was in fact introduced to the Classical world through Homer. But it was not, as an adult and a professor, his area of study or forte. His work was definitively primarily concerned with northern European languages and mythology.  In fact, when I started gathering ideas for this post, I had a few items I thought I might include which I eventually discarded because I realized that though there might seem like there could be an ancient Greek connection present, it was not exclusively so, and it is more likely his inspiration came from the north. 

In some cases, I think the connections I point out are pretty clear, but there are degrees. I have to deal with some speculation because - well, d'uh, he wrote made up books about made up people in a made up era with made up histories. Nevertheless, I cut it off where I think the speculation goes too far. It's subjective to a degree, but then again, not so much. Tolkien himself, though a top philologist familiar with many languages, was quite skeptical of etymologies, which were by necessity always incomplete, and often based on homophones that might be just wrong. I agree with him. I am not convinced by many etymologies and supposed connections. Where I am trying to prove my own etymological connections, they are pretty obvious and not of the tortured variety I see in books that I've read on the subject.

Of course you can ask, if there are so few of these Greek connections, why bother at all? Mostly it's because I am interested in both ancient Greece and Tolkien I think I've found a few things that no one or certainly not too many people have noticed before. The world doesn't need this, but it didn't need Eat, Love, Pray either, and someone wrote that. I felt like writing this.  And, now, as the great Lawrence Welk would have said - a one and a two . . . .

Tolkien and Pythagoras

The connection here is not found in LOTR but in his earlier, more primitive and incomplete Simarillion (which is also sometimes boring and a little unpolished, because his son, Christopher, really patched together a number of texts after his father's death to create the published work).  At the outset of the book is Tolkien's creation myth. His "God" or Jehovah is called Eru Ilúvatar - sometimes just Ilúvatar.  Ilúvatar creates what I would call other gods but who Tolkien described as angelic.* They were called the Ainur  (plural). The Ainur create the universe in tandem with Ilúvatar, who then manifests it into creation with a single word and the Flame Imperishable - which I think you could equate to the big bang or making something out of nothing or First Cause, etc.

*I think Tolkien insists that these beings are only angels (the Greek word means "messenger"- and the oldest Bibles we know of are Greek translations), because to call them gods would be offensive to himself and others who would prefer his fantastic creation at  the very least be monotheistic. As it was, some people had problems with his work being too pagan. Tolkien felt they took it all too serious, comparing some stuffed shirt (not that he wasn't one too) once to those people who complained that priests were called "father," because that title should belong only to the big guy. Nevertheless, admitting to more than one God even in a fantasy universe might have been pushing the envelope too far for him. Nevertheless, I think we would call them gods.  While angels may have some powers in the Old and New Testament, they do not on the level of creating the universe.  But the Ainur did. Moreover, they were each imbued with knowledge from the part of Ilúvatar's mind from they sprang - very godlike and they are called by Ilúvatar the "holy ones" which is also more likely to be assigned to gods, not their messengers. Even most of the Ainur who themselves entered into creation once it was done, and became the Vala (pl., sg. is Valar), seem godlike. Some of the Maia (pl.; sg. - Maiar), like Gandalf, are the servants of the Vala, and are clearly more angelic in nature, each being associated with definitive Valar but not possessing any individual powers they are not imbued with by their superiors except perhaps their spirit form.






There is an interesting side note to this side note. Tolkien might have been playing with the fact that in the Hebrew creation story, God speaks of we and us in the creation process - "Let us . . . ". He actually uses the plural. Arguably, some of it is a function of ancient Hebrew grammar (so I've read), in that the plural adjective agrees with a plural list of items, but there is also no doubt God is speaking to a group of which he is a member.  But, they are not angels, to whom God reputedly never refers as "us" or "we" in either testament. Some Trinitarians (that is, those Christians who believe God is three in one - father, son and holy ghost) find this evidence of their belief. This strikes me as a very tenuous argument, and I believe the grammar is more a remnant of the fact that the ancestors of the Jews were not monotheistic at the outset, as they were elsewhere in the Bible. But, if this is so, it is other gods who are involved, not angels or messengers. So, I say - so shall it be.

I initially wrestled with whether Ilúvatar had an ancient Greek connection, linguistically. Tolkien, who created his own languages, said at various times that it meant  "Father of all," "Father for Always" and "Sky-Father."  In fact, the last 5 letters of it are virtually identical to the Greek word for father - patēr, because linguistically speaking b, v and p  are very closely related (in fact, in modern Greek, beta or B is pronounced the way we pronounce our letter v) as is the ph/f sound - such as in father. Sky-father is especially close to the Greek meaning. Zeus was not only frequently referred to as "father," but the name Zeus is derived from the word for day or sky itself. He is literally the "sky-father." Here's where this little theory runs into problems. The Germanic (also an Indo-European language related to Greek and Latin) word is actually even closer to vatar, in fact almost exactly the same, being vater.  It gets worse because Tolkien says that Ilúvatar is actually broken up (in his pseudo language) as iluve-atar, which kind of shoots down my whole f/p/v-atar analysis.  I can argue with him, of course, and conjecture that the name was nevertheless originally inspired by his deep classical training and undoubted knowledge that patēr in Greek meant father in English. However, I suppose if I allow him to be master of his own languages (though he frequently changed his mind as to them), it becomes less easy to concretely say there is a Greek connection. I say so, but you may say not.

Damn, I get lost in these tangents. Where was I? Oh, so the Simarillion creation myth has a very Old Testament creation feeling about it. In the OT, God created the heavens and the earth. You probably know the story well enough. But, Tolkien's Ilúvatar and Ainur created the universe in a different way than Jehovah - they use music. And with that there is a very special Greek connection.

Pythagoras, who most people know from the geometric theorem named after him (possibly not even knowing there was such a person), was an early and influential philosopher, geometer and religious figure about whom there isn't enough room to write about here with any substance. But, one thing that Pythagoras was undoubtedly known for, and was the first to consider, at least in cultures in which Tolkien would have been interested, was that the universe was not only mathematical but musically harmonic. From Pythagoras we get the so-called music or harmony of the spheres (meaning the sun, moon, earth, etc.) At least it was attributed to him. But, there are no other contenders with whom Tolkien would likely be very familiar. There may be some evidence that Pythagoras was preceded in this in Indian and Mesopotamian cultures, but these are more recent, speculative theories and they were not special areas of study for him. 
The connection here is fairly clear, though Pythagoras left no writings and we cannot take the connection any further than the general theme of the harmonic nature of creation. Of course, Tolkien put his own spin on it, particularly adding a musical battle between Ilúvatar and his version of Lucifer named Melkor. But, the overlaying concept is unmistakably Pythagorian and there is no reason to think it was not JRRT's inspiration. Others have noted it before me. Indeed, once you are familiar with Pythagoras' theory, it is impossible not to see it.
Radagast, the friend of birds
This one is pretty clear too.  Radagast was one of the five wizards who came to Middle Earth, and one of the three who stayed in the west. He was not very important and Saruman mockingly referred to him, among other names, as "the bird tamer." But Radagast had a name in another Elvish language, Quenya - which pseudo-language Tolkien had said was in part inspired by Greek. That name was Aiwendil - Aiwe ([bird) + ndil (lover or friend).   Here's the connection. In ancient Greek, a root word for bird is oiwn-.  The closeness of oiw- to Aiwe in Quenya, also meaning bird, seems way too close to be a coincidence, particularly as in the only example of it in LOTR, the letter "n" shortly follows as it does in Greek.

As with the Pythagoras connection the Aiwe-ndil/oiwn connection also seems obvious, because that odd combination of letters would be too much of a coincidence to ignore, particularly as it means the very same word. However, unlike with the Pythagoras connection, I haven't found anyone published or on the internet who has noted it before, though it is always possible it is out there somewhere, unnoticed by me.  

The Istari

Tolkien has said that Gandalf was an angel and I can go along with that. His powers are impressive for a mortal, but, not on the god-like level, even when he returns from the dead. He was of the Maia, as were balrogs and the great eagles. They were of the same order as the Vala, but they were helpers and servants of them and usually not as powerful. We know from a touching story in the corpus that Christopher published after his father's death that when the Maia who became Gandalf was in Valinor, where these spiritual beings dwelled, and went by the name Olórin, he was asked to go to Middle Earth to aid in defeating Sauron (another Maia, but belonging to Melkor).  Olórin said he did not want to go because he was afraid. This does not speak to great power. In fact, though I think Gandalf sometimes clearly violated his rules, he was not to dominate men by force, but to teach and inspire them.

He was not alone of his order. As mentioned above, there was Radagast (Oiwendil) and also Saruman, who was actually the chief of the group, and whose name is derived from Old English("OE") for cunning-man. There were also two more known as the Blue Wizards who went into the east and do not otherwise come into his stories. I have a feeling that someday, when the copyright expires, there will be many tales about them.

In any event, as a group Tolkien gave them a name -- the istari. I liked the name when I read it but never gave it any thought, presuming it was one more name that Tolkien made up, perhaps with some connection to OE the language of Beowulf and of which he was an acknowledged leading scholar. OE derivatives are used throughout Tolkien's corpus.

Imagine my surprise when reading The Iliad, I come across virtually the exact same word, with a very appropriate meaning. Keep in mind that in OE, Greek, Latin and all the Scandinavian and other Germanic languages, nouns are declined or changed depending on how they are used in the sentence. We don't really do this modern English except to put an s on the end of nouns to show it is plural. We also still conjugate verbs, like most other languages, but we do very little of, most often just slightly changing the present third person singular). Also, in German, Greek and Latin vowels and consonants are frequently changed by a gradation system that hurts to even think about. I went through all that to explain that when reading The Iliad, I did not come across the word istari but istōri. This is plenty close enough under the circumstances, as you will see. Tolkien warned us that just because words in different languages looked similar, that doesn't mean they are derived from the same ancestor word, and it is wise to heed him. However, when the words also have similar meanings, it is also wise to pay attention to the likelihood of a similar derivation and not unwise to make some inferences. One of the ways we can know an actual connection exists is when the meaning of the words or word/invented name is the same or very similar. Without getting too technical, the way the root word istōr- is used in The Iliad, an "i" (iota) was added. For reasons that I don't need to go into, it could have ended otherwise. But it has to be significant that Tolkien's word ends with the same vowel. Coincidence? Hardly.

But wait. There's more. What did Homer mean by istōr-? He meant technically - "one who knows." An istōr is also a judge of sorts, which is the role he played in Homer.  But, we know from all history that this means, in classical and traditional societies - an elder. And Gandalf was nothing if not elderly, even in his human appearance.  I am not going to bother to explain how well the description "one who knows" fits Gandalf and the other wizards. If you know the story it's obvious. But, the word "wizard" itself is partially made up of the word for "wise," a word frequently used by Tolkien, and is also related to the almost identical Old English words for "to see" and "to know" (which meanings can also stem from the same word in ancient Greek).

Thus, this Homeric word seems like an obvious connection to me. Yet, I have found no reference to it online or from anywhere in works by or on Tolkien. Nor in etymological reference books. I haven't read everything, of course, and there are people who spend a substantial part of their lives thinking and writing about Tolkien and his work (I can spare a few days a year, collectively), so there may be. I like to think I am first (if unread) for the same reason we all like to be first. It makes us feel good. But Gandalf would tell me in the common tongue of Middle Earth what was much later rendered in Ecclesiastes - there is nothing new under the sun, so don't get too cocky.

Sauron

Tolkien not only made up his own words, he made up his own etymologies. I have never studied them, actual etymology being much more interesting to me. But, when he warned against believing a word might be related to a similar sounding one in another language he used the name sauron and the Greek word for lizard - sauros (or actually sauron when it is the direct object) as an example.

Can we reasonably question Tolkien's own opinion when it comes to his work? I say we can. However much I revere him, he was a man, and as subject to arrogance, bad temper and mistake as were his characters. He was thought by some biographers to be an emotional man (though I'm  more skeptical than most when it comes to character assessment in biographies - it is too much dependent on what others think and that is often more about them than the subject) and he was naturally proud, protective and jealous of his own work. He was in love with nomenclature - the naming of things - and quite passionate about defending it. Sometimes he was quite direct about his borrowing from languages. I have no reason to believe that he was not always intentionally so, i.e., I do not believe he consciously took from others. But he cannot always know what he has unconsciously borrowed or what previously read word caused his synapses to connect that led to giving something the name he did. The best example of this is the word hobbit itself, which he expressly said was not a combination of rabbit and the British philosopher Hobbes, as some speculated, but that the word that just came to him when writing the first words of The Hobbit. That might be true. But not long ago, after his death, an old listing of names was found for various types of spirits. And, sure enough, there on the list, was the word - Hobbit. It is quite possible Tolkien had read this list at some point. Did he know he did this and hide it from us? I seriously doubt it. He was too interested in words to do so. Could he have hit upon the same word by accident? He might have but I doubt it too. I think he read it once and forgot about it. It popped into his head for a reason, just as his characters might get an idea which was actually planted in them by the ring or a more powerful being.

By stock and by stone

I can be brief with this one as I recently wrote a whole post on this expression which dates back thousands of years in the ancient near east and made its way through Indo-European languages until it probably for the last time ever, wound up in a speech by the giant tree-man or ent, Treebeard, in LOTR (see above, 7/21/13). I have no intention of going through it here again. But, I will say this. I did find it more than coincidental that the exact type of words used by Tolkien mirrored the same type of words used by Homer in The Iliad in the same order. Take a look at that post if it interests you.
The Eagles
I have to stretch a little further with this one because I don't have linguistic evidence or a dead on literary match like with Pythagoras. In both The Hobbit and LOTR, the eagles play an important, sometimes decisive role. They are rescuers, fierce fighters and messengers. We learn from other sources that like Gandalf, the great eagles are also Maia. These super-eagles presented Tolkien with a problem he couldn't settle. They were so powerful and they could fly. So, why couldn't they just fly Frodo and a small group to Mt. Doom in the first place?  Tolkien felt he could never satisfactorily explain this. Why wasn't it even thought of by the counsel of the wise as a possibility to reject. Probably there is no reason other than he felt it would have made too short a story. I have to tell you though, I think Tolkien was too hard on himself. There are many potential explanations. Just as Gandalf was not permitted to force men to follow him, the other Maia may have been instructed not to interfere with the fate of men and elves or, at least, too much. 

Eagles, of course, have a role in many mythologies, but, more importantly, also in Norse mythology, to which Tolkien was most deeply involved. There we must look first. But, the main references to eagles in Norse mythology do not bear much of a resemblance to Tolkien's mighty eagles. The primary reference is a creation myth. An unnamed eagle sits in the creation tree, Yggdrasil. He sends messages to the wyrm (dragon) that lied beneath the giant ash tree's roots, carried to him by a squirrel (no, not Rocky, but it is fun to think it is). It is a grim and weird picture and it is hard to get a vision of a Tolkienesqe mighty soaring eagle from it.

Much closer to the giant, noble and powerful eagles of Tolkien are Homer's version in The Iliad. Take the following lines from the Iliad from a translation by the noted Victorian novelist Samuel Butler (whose most well known novel was Erewhon) whose Iliad and Odyssey translations are still referred to by classicists today. Butler wrote:

"Forthwith he sent an eagle, the most unerring portent of all birds that fly, the dusky hunter that men also call the Black Eagle. His wings were spread abroad on either side as wide as the well-made and well-bolted door of a rich man's chamber. He came to them flying over the city upon their right hands, and when they saw him they were glad and their hearts took comfort within them."

This last line reminds me of the relief sounding in LOTR when the eagles were seen coming to the rescue at the battle before the gates of Mordor - "The eagles are coming!"

It is also interesting that the eagles in LOTR are associated with one of the Vala in particular, whose name is Manwë, who was associated with the sky and weather - clearly a representation of Zeus. To the contrary, we cannot easily associate Manwë with Thor, the Norse sky god, with whom you might think would be the first one that would come to mind with the Norse obsessed Tolkien. Thor was not associated with eagles and Zeus was. Also, Manwë, like Zeus, also lived on top of the highest mountain (Zeus was associated with Mt. Olympus and Mt. Ida) and like Zeus but not Thor, he was the leader of his group.
Hence, the great eagles were Homeric, not northern, in nature.

The Ring
That the ring is a very important concept in LOTR cannot be denied. The giving of rings is known in many ancient societies and most certainly in northern mythology. There is also the Germanic stories of Wagner that might give pause. You might wonder then why I feel confident enough to claim Tolkien was certainly most influenced by the Greeks. I'm going to tell you.

Did you know Plato had a brother? His name was Glaucon. He was not just a literary device used by Plato in a few of his dialogues, but real. We know this because he is also mentioned by a contemporary writer, Xenophon, as being Plato's brother and also by at least one famous biographer of the Greek philosophers later on. Anyway, in one of Plato's dialogues, his brother Glaucon tells a story about a ring. The similarities to the One Ring in Tolkien are unmistakable:

It was a golden ring.
It was found in a cave.
It rendered the wearer invisible.
It was used by Plato to discuss whether someone who has the ring becomes enslaved to it by abusing its powers (wearing it) or remains himself by refusing to use it.

The parallel to LOTR is so striking as to be unmistakable.
The ring, if you want to look it up, is often called the Ring of Gyges, a Lydian king who was an important character in a story told by Herodotus, but in Herodotus, without the ring.  If you are interested, I wrote an earlier post about this tale from very tale from Herodotus (6/20/10).
Quenya and Greek

By the way, someone has written a very in depth comparison of Quenya and ancient Greek at http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:http://home.agh.edu.pl/~evermind/pdf/andreou.pdf. I have glanced at it, but not gone in depth. I will leave him to explaining his own work.    

That's enough, right? I can't think of anything else right now and I am watching football. May you all find your ring of power and have the strength to resist (at least a little bit). 

About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .