Archive for June, 2008

A small mathematical joke

June 28, 2008

You’ll need passing familiarity with maths to understand this one.

A mathematician, lecturing, starts to write on the blackboard some assumption about an analytical function: “Ass. f anal. but” — and then he stops to think: “Why am I thinking of these recreational things when I should be lecturing?”

Real quote, assumed thought.

* * *

Another thing: Posting might be a bit erratic for a few weeks, since I’m holiday-ing the best I can. This means reading a lot (too many choices to mention any: fact, fantasy, science fiction, and Jon Krakauer) — and maybe I’ll get lost doing some creepy short-story writing in Finnish.

If you want to know what I mean by creepy short stories, just go read Liverwurst: A Fairy Tale, one of mine I translated into English a while back.

A Guide to Finland: History 3 (Swedes)

June 25, 2008

Another chapter of the Guide to Finland. It goes after Pagans (the first history chapter, being the pre-circa-1100 history of Finland), and Lalli (the second history chapter; a mythical tangent around year 1100), and concerns the period from c. 1100 to 1809, when Finland was a province of Sweden.

Enjoy!

* * *

The medieval history of Sweden (and Finland as a part of it) is long and complex, and since I mostly don’t know squat about it, I won’t discuss it beyond this short chapter.

Besides, it quite soon degenerates into royal feuds between Sweden, Denmark and whatever other neighbors exist, including generations of cross-border raiding and border post moving between Sweden and Russia, much to the bebotherment of Finnish peons, in whose lands this squabbling took place.

While there was a Swedish king in Stockholm, in Sweden, there was in Finland, opposite to that capital city, a castle and a city called Åbo in Swedish and Turku in Finnish. It’s the oldest city of Finland, and still one of the largest. Most of modern Finland was either under Swedish rule, or then unclaimed wasteland (natives don’t count), or, in the eastern reaches, claimed by the various pre-Russian and Russian princes.

Beyond Turku and a few similar coastal cities, there were villages and occasional castles and manors inland, but most of Finland was just forests and swamps, snows and darkness.

Ah well, most of Finland is still that, and there isn’t anything it could be that would be better.

In my old schoolbooks that Stockholm-ruled kingdom was called “Ruotsi-Suomi” or Sweden-Finland. I don’t know if Swedish schoolbooks call it Finland-Sweden; probably not. Finland was just a province, though a large one, and I think a province much like any other, except that the peons were a bit more drunken and disorderly.

Oh, and they had a crude, brutish language of their own, totally unrelated to the dulcet tones of Swedish.

(There was slight sarcasm in the previous sentence. Still, I won’t even mention that some think spoken Swedish sounds like a legion of cats yarking hair-balls of gigantic-enormous size. That would be an outright scurrilous hint.)

The few well-educated Finns learned Swedish because that was the language of education and business, the language of writing and of royal proclamations. There weren’t many of them, but in those times there weren’t many educated people anywhere.

So, Swedes evolved from crude Vikings into stolid late medievals, and after a 16th-century king called Gustav Vasa (or in Finnish, Kustaa Vaasa), Sweden evolved into a real world power.

Well, Europe-power. Let’s not exaggerate.

A kingdom, an empire even, that included Sweden and Finland and the Baltic states of today, and the site where St. Petersburg stands today (it hadn’t been founded by the Russian 17th-century reformer-king Peter the Great yet), and in due time Sweden even took some disunited German states under its wing, and even sent colonists into newly-found North America.

Those colonies didn’t stick. If you live in Delaware, you might be treading former Swedish ground. You might even have brave Swedish blood — or dour Finnish blood — in your veins. If you’re eminently sensible and calm, or prone to violent binges of drinking and manslaughter, well, then it surely is so.

Being a great power in the north of Europe (heck, all of Europe) meant fighting many bloody wars, and Finns were very good in fighting as long as someone told them who they were supposed to fight. After the Protestant Reformation swept over Sweden, Swedes and Finns fought in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48 ) under their king Gustavus Adolphus, gleefully raping and pillaging Germany for the glorious Protestant cause.

In those wars Finnish light cavalry was known as hakkapeliitat (sing. hakkapeliitta), which probably comes from their war-cry of “Hakkaa päälle!”, which best translates as “Cut them down!”

I trust that the opposing forces understood their intent, if not their words. When a troop of frothing, sword-waving, screaming, pistol-shooting soldiers charges at you, heavy horses churning the ground and the riders yelling strange broken backwards-Latin curses, you can usually trust they mean to cut you down, or worse.

It’s a common view in Finland that these Finnish cavalrymen were widely feared and respected, instrumental in Sweden’s success in the wars the kingdom fought, and maybe even thought invulnerable by their Catholic opponents because of some dark Protestant witchcraft. Swedes apparently think the victories were because of their advanced military tactics, but since this is a Guide to Finland, we shan’t believe that.

Scary witchy Finnish kill-riders! Booga booga! Hakkaa päälle!

Sweden was a great power of varying success and extent, and Finland a part of it. All the various medieval and post-medieval shenanigans happened: mad kings, noblemen thrown out of windows, strife over Polish princesses and Catholic queens, the whole lot. Finland contributed a general here and there, a governor now and then, maybe a bishop or a professor, and quite a lot of dumb country boys willing to die for a few coins or some yellow-and-blue piece of cloth: the same as any province of Sweden. Then, with the ending of the 18th century, the Napoleonic Wars began, and in one of that bloody snarl of wars Russia battered Sweden.

Apparently Russia was allied with France at that time — the year 1807 — and thought that the best way of getting Sweden to their side was to batter it a bit. The war consisted mostly of the Swedish troops retreating, and the Russian ones advancing. All of Finland was overran, there was a coup in Stockholm, and then a hurried peace. Some Finns weren’t so disappointed by this, since this seemed like a chance for autonomy, and maybe even outright independence.

Finland was first occupied and then annexed by the Russians — since this is 1809, these are Imperial Russians, ruled by an Emperor, also called a Czar — and, quite curiously, Finland became a separate Grand Duchy, with the Czar as its Grand Duke. The old Swedish laws and customs were preserved in this strangely separate part of the great Russian empire.

And with that semi-independent Grand Duchy the next part of this brief history of Finland continues, later.

Oh, one thing more about the war. There are some monuments to it, the so-called Finnish War (Suomen sota), but it’s mostly remembered because of a famous epic poem or cycle of poems called The Tales of Ensign Stål (in Finnish, Vänrikki Stålin tarinat), penned by a Finn called Runeberg some fifty years later. It contains all the usual ingredients: heroes, dunderheads and the occasional combinations of the two, and plenty of death, sorrow and machismo. The curious part of it is that it was originally written in Swedish, which at the time of its writing still was the language of the civilized elite.

Well, just at that time, the halfpoint of the nineteenth century, things were about to change: Finns began to think that since they were no longer a part of Sweden, and not quite a part of Russia, maybe they could just as well be something else entirely: Finns?

But that’s something the next chapter will tell more about.

What will be in the second Hobbit movie?

June 24, 2008

I am a Tolkien fan (maybe even a fanatic), and thus, having been quite well pleased (see endnote) by the Lord of the Rings movies, I am already salivating thinking about the Hobbit movies.

Well, except that that plural troubles me. Movies. The first will be the actual book called “The Hobbit”; the second will be a bridge between it and the Lord of the Rings. There isn’t an actual book to base that second film on, and that brings an ugly, distasteful word into my pessimistic little mind —

Filler.

If that word doesn’t strike terror into your heart, consider Expanded Universe, Inspired By, Spin-Off, and similar yark-inducing red flags.

(more…)

This day sucks

June 23, 2008

Oh unspeakable four-letter expletive and a name for a woman’s private parts.

AP says George Carlin is dead.

I don’t know of anyone that ever was funnier and more insightful than Carlin. This is — and St. Carlin wouldn’t forgive me if I held my expletives back — a fucking immense loss to all friends of shocking honesty, masterful humor and unspeakable cruelty.

I’m too sad and shocked to write more now.

Summer solstice

June 20, 2008

A good summer solstice to you all: this is, in the northern hemisphere, the longest of days and the shortest of nights for this year. If you go further north, you will find even longer days, even shorter nights, until the sun doesn’t set at all. If you go southwards, the opposite happens. If you go west or east, the days and nights stay the same length they are in your present location.

How can such a simple thing as days and nights be so complicated?

It is all because Earth goes in circles around the sun, one orbit in one year, and at the same time turns around itself, on the axis determined by the north and south poles, one rotation every 24 hours.

Earth’s quite like a swiftly spinning top somehow slowly crawling in a circle around a brilliant flashlight, our Sun. Thus if you imagine yourself sitting fly-sized on the top and gazing outwards, you might see the flashlight — behold a day — and as the top turned, the flashlight would be lost from view, obscured by the edge of the top’s surface — a sunset and then a night, because for you it would seem like Sun moved and not you.

If you were to look at nightly skies, you would see stars rising and setting, the heavens wheeling above you. One point in the skies would stay constant, the rest turning around it in great circles — this is exactly the place high in the skies where our north pole points. And of course the stars don’t move: that is but an illusion, and the stars stand still while Earth turns, and we stand flyspeck-like on the surface of Earth, seldom noticing how our home does its endless revolutions.

If we continue on the top and the flashlight, we must note that the top’s tilted a bit — its north pole doesn’t point quite straight up, but instead seems to be constantly pointing at some unimaginably distant point somewhere there, far above, a bit to the side. As our top crawls around the sun, its north pole keeps pointing at that same spot, sometimes pointing towards the sun and above it, sometimes up and away from the light, depending on where the sun happens to be.

And that gives us the variance of seasons, and the nightless nights of northern summers.

This is how: If you were again a fly sitting on the spinning top of our Mother Earth, your days and nights would not be equal in length. If you were close to the north pole, the pole pointing at some fixed distant stellar spot, and the spot was somewhere beyond the sun, far above it but partly in its direction, then you would be bathed in light almost all the time; only briefly would the turning of our world obscure the Sun from your view.

Because of that sunlight your air would be warmed, your fields lighted, your spirits lifted: that is, you would have a summer, and on the day when the direction of that distant place in the sky most perfectly aligned with Sun’s direction, you would have a summer solstice, a day like today.

Isn’t that enough to celebrate this day?

Who needs religion, whether Christian, pagan or some other fever dream, when there is such true beauty as these turning, wheeling circles of summers and days?

(Sorry for getting all poetic on you. Also, for nitpickers: Yes, the point in the sky varies, but very slowly. Also some other constants of this description may be slow variables too, and everything’s of course a lot more complicated. And things are a negative image of this description on the southern hemisphere. For more on the heliocentric view of seasons, see Wikipedia. They even have pictures!)

This is how great ideas are born

June 18, 2008

Just take something that already exists — say a book called “How to draw faces” — and change it just a little bit — say one letter.

Anyone interested in actually writing and illustrating “How to draw feces”?

Like George Carlin said, “I got a lot of good ideas! Trouble is, most of them suck.”

Things balance

June 18, 2008

In this world whose laws work with blind, pitiless indifference, good things and bad things often balance each other, resulting in a big, polished null.

For example, consider my day today: It began nicely, being sunny and hot, and so I grabbed a very light jacket and cycled to the university.

There I engaged in lots of successful mathematical equation-bashing, and even the sole source of real trouble was bypassed by my advisor, who commented that it was not essential right now, and maybe not even possible; so don’t stress too much, you callow grad student.

Then the other shoe dropped: I looked outside, and it had started to rain, and I was miles from home with a bicycle and a really, really thin jacket.

Ah well.

More often than not, things balance; that’s not karma, but just the nature of statistics.

(Oh, and “blind pitiless indifference” is Dawkins’s phrase. It was also, almost, this blog’s name.)

(Also, things will end up positive for me today, because there will be others out in the rain too, griping and moaning, and I am a passionovore (or is it an agonophage?): the more others curse and suffer, the better I feel. That’s why I am a reserve NCO…)

Hugleikur Dagsson…

June 17, 2008

…is a cartoonist, and the funniest Icelander* I know.

Well, he’s also one-half of all the Icelanders I know. The other half is Silvia Night: she’s an enchantingly air-headed assumed persona, and was in Eurovision a few years back; and if there was justice in the world, she would have won.

Anyway, Hugleikur: If you’re as deep in the laugh-at-suicide, rape-can-be-funny George Carlin territory as I, then Dagsson’s just the thing for you. See for yourself, and then go to Amazon and read all.

And just remember: If you can’t laugh at something, sooner or later it will make you cry.

More faux aphorisms? Okay. “Life will make you either laugh or cry, and the only choice you have is between these two. I’ve chosen laughter.” — this is a quote from the great thinker me myself.

* (You know, Icelander, a guy from Iceland. Though “Icelander” sounds like the villain from some old comic book… “I hav you nov, Mr. Hott!”)

Bulk reviews Hulk

June 16, 2008

Just got back from seeing the Incredible Hulk. (The movie; not some real-life version of the unstoppable Bulk himself.)

It was nice, except for two things.

Thing the first: One glass of water too much before the movie. By the middle of it, I was squirming on my seat and smiling a rather fixed smile. And have you noticed the entire middle third of the movie happens in the rain? Drip, drip, pour, gush, doesn’t help at all.

When the credits finally rolled, I sprang to the closest toilet like Hulk himself (I wonder if the name Bulk is taken?) and shot a steady stream for at least thirty seconds.

I trust you don’t want any details beyond that.

Thing the second: the Abomination. Everything was fine as long as Blonsky was a man and a super soldier; when he became a taller-than-Hulk monster, things kind of went bad. (Just a little bit.) I would have liked to see a movie that ended without the hero-like thing fighting a bigger, badder version of himself. (Curiously, Iron Man had the same trouble.) And of course in the end Hulk had to become soft, and good, and all nice —

Ah, that’s not the Hulk I was scared shitless by when, a long time ago, I read the good old Marvels. The old Hulk was something that would — if it noticed you — would kill you, without even quite understanding what it was doing, and you just couldn’t do a thing.

(And if you wonder: comics like that are good for children. Who ever gained anything from feeding on nothing but bland pap?)

I would have liked a more ambiguous ending, with Blonsky being the recognizable cocky human until the very end: a fearless but mercenary man against a bipedal avalanche.

Ah well.

This is all griping, though. It was overall excellent entertainment and a good movie. If you are swayed by nameless net nobodies — the Incredible Hulk, go and see it!

(Tony Stark’s in it, pretty briefly, and so is Nick Fury.)

(Ooh! And that scientist Sterns was, indeed and really, the former life of the Leader. I want a sequel! And a She-Hulk movie! Or otherwise… the Bulk smash!)

Crossing paths with a rabbit

June 15, 2008

Just came back from shopping, me riding my bicycle like the Blob on wheels, close to home, in a pretty quiet and dead neighborhood, the evening getting late, though not dark since this is Finland of the Endless Days, the land of light summers.

And then, quite suddenly, in front of me a rabbit ran from the cover of a fence, right across the bicycle path and the road, and disappeared into someone’s back yard.

A big, brown rabbit with long ears flecked with black and white.

I’m not a superstitious person (being an atheist, that would be outright bizarre), but I still see it as a good sign when a rabbit or a squirrel crosses paths with me.

No, not because I’d eat well that day; I’m not that nimble. (Omnivorous, yes; nimble, no.)

Rabbits and squirrels are a good sign for me simply because they cheer me up. They’re quiet and graceful creatures; like cats, except not even pretend-tame. Having a nice thing like this that comes your way randomly once a month or so is really good for your spirits.

It’s nice to live on the outskirts of a small city.

(I guess blogging can be like this: sometimes it’s a rabbit you talk about; other times it’s the ice-filled prehistory of Finland, or some subset of the rules of religious debate.)