Ph.D. Octopus

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“The Minstrel Boy” Unites in Song: Star Trek, Paul Robeson, Great Big Sea, and Beyond

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by David

One of my favourite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation is called “The Wounded.” It aired in season four, on January 28, 1991, so I might have caught it as an eight-year-old, but more likely on reruns. In this episode, a renegade Starfleet captain goes on a rampage with his ship, destroying a bunch of Cardassian vessels, thinking the Cardassians were preparing for war. The Enterprise has hunt him down, and they use transporter chief Miles O’Brien (played by the terrific Colm Meaney), that captain’s former crewman, to try to reason with him. It’s a great episode for a number of reasons: great plot, great acting, heck, anything with an O’Brien focus is pretty great. But the best part of the episode by far is when O’Brien and the rogue captain get together and sing the Irish war ballad, “The Minstrel Boy.”

From the moment I heard it. I loved that song. Perhaps is was because I played Dungeons and Dragons as a boy, and the song had very D&Dish lyrics. At that point in my life,  I was attracted to anything that talked of swords and battles. But I think early on, even at this juncture, it was the Irishness of the song, the ethnic-ness of the song. It had survived into the fictional 24th century, yet we still felt its Irish roots, perhaps because O’Brien sang it.

A few years later I encountered the song again. It was a bizarre experience.

If you’re a secular Jewish child of a certain age, and your parents have a record collection, it’s very likely that one of those records is of Paul Robeson. Yes, I’m referring to Paul Robeson, everyone’s favourite African American Communist football player/lawyer/actor, who also sang African American spirituals and gospel music along with traditional folk songs from all over the world. My father introduced me to Robeson through his rendition of the song of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising aka the “Partisan Song” aka in Yiddish “Der Partizaner Lid” or “Zog Nit Keyn Mol” (“Never Say”). It’s a song that energizes me. I always imagined that if I were to have become a professional prizefighter, that would have been my entrance music.

But Paul Robeson has many other great songs. He sang powerful spirituals like “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” He sang passionate renditions of “Joe Hill” and “John Brown’s Body.” He sang the Scottish hymn “Loch Lomond” and the Irish tune “Danny Boy.” And sure enough, he also sang a hauntingly beautiful version  of “The Minstrel Boy.”

It makes me shiver every time I hear it. Through song, Robeson united himself to ethnic traditions that were not his own, and yet of course, they were his own, for they resonated with him the way Black spirituals did.

So what is “The Minstrel Boy” exactly? Wikipedia writes:

The Minstrel Boy is an Irish patriotic song written by Thomas Moore (1779–1852) who set it to the melody of The Moreen, an old Irish air. It is widely believed that Moore composed the song in remembrance of a number of his friends, whom he met while studying at Trinity College, Dublin and who had participated in (and were killed during) the Irish Rebellion of 1798.

The article goes on to note that the song was popular among Irish soldiers in the American Civil War and then again in the First World War. It became commonplace at funeral services held by institutions with disproportionately Irish membership like police and fire departments. Though often only the melody is played, the lyrics are simple and beautiful:

The minstrel boy to the war is gone,
In the ranks of death you’ll find him;
His father’s sword he has girded on,
And his wild harp slung behind him;
“Land of Song!” said the warrior bard,
“Though all the world betrays thee,
One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!”

The Minstrel fell! But the foreman’s chain
Could not bring his proud soul under;
The harp he loved ne’er spoke again,
For he tore its chords asunder;
And said “No chains shall sully thee,
Thou soul of love and bravery!
Thy songs were made for the pure and free
They shall never sound in slavery!”

Much to my surprise and delight, I heard the song again, the melody without the lyrics, in the middle of the song “Wandering Ways” by my favourite band, Great Big Sea. Great Big Sea are a folk/celtic/rock bank from Newfoundland. They play traditional Newfoundland, English, Irish, Scottish, Canadian, and French Canadian music spiced up a bit to sound more like rock n’ roll. Their concerts have the intensity of heavy metal/punk performances, but instead of mosh pits there is Irish jigging (I’ve been to seven). Though they write some of their own songs, most are traditional folk songs, and their album liner notes come with explanations of their origins. Their songs are also often medleys, with different ditties contained as a bridge between verses. “The Minstrel Boy” is contained within the recording of “Wandering Ways” from the 2012 album Safe Upon The Shore.

One of the great appeals of Great Big Sea is their incredible respect for the tradition of music that came before them, that made what they do possible. And this reminded me of a passage from one of my favourite novel, The Joke by Milan Kundera. It’s Kundera’s first novel, written in 1965 (published in 1967), a brilliant and hilarious commentary on the absurdities of Soviet era Communism in Czechoslovakia before the Prague Spring of 1968. But Kundera also has a background in ethnomusicology, and in one passage, one of the characters, Ludvik, explains the strength of folk music, and its appeal to socialists and communists:

The romantics imagined that a girl cutting grass was struck by inspiration and immediately a song gushed from her like stream from a rock. But a folk song is born differently from a formal poem. Poets create in order to express themselves, to say what it is that makes them unique. In the folk song, one does not stand out from others but joins with them. The folk song grew like a stalactite. Drop by drop enveloping itself in new motifs, in new variants. It was passed from generation to generation, and everyone who sang it added something new to it. Every song had many creators, and all of  them modestly disappeared behind their creation. 

While this conception of the folk song may be even too anti-individualistic for my tastes, I appreciate the sentiment greatly. The music I like most is that which makes me feel like I am part of something bigger than myself, bigger than that particular song or artist. Maybe that’s why I love the hora so much. The individual artist is basically irrelevant in the joy of the hora circle. I feel a similar communal spirit at Great Big Sea concerts, or really whenever I hear folk music, especially celtic folk music. I’m not Irish, but I respect and understand the tradition.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the creativity of individual artists. But I’m also amused when they fail to recognize what came before. A few years ago I was at Nields concert, the folk-singing sister duo of Nerissa and Katrina Nields. In 2008, they had released an album, called Sister Holler, where all the tracks were in some sense folk songs that borrowed (or stole, as they admitted) from works that had come before. To introduce one such song, “Abbington Sea Fair,”they told a story. First, the admitted that “Abbington Sea Fair” bore a clear (though not overwhelming) resemblance to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” in music and lyrics. Of course, when Simon and Garfunkel had released “Scarborough Fair,” Bob Dylan got upset because it resembled his song “Girl From the North Country.” Nerissa Nields explained that all this was kind of silly, because all three songs are based on a late medieval melody and lyrics. Nothing comes from nothing, and tradition trumps originality.

And so “The Minstrel Boy” fits in to this tradition. It appears in different but similar iterations across the generations and even centuries, forever retaining its communal and ethnic power, uniting people not because of the creativity of who wrote it or performed it, but by the feelings it invokes. You don’t want to be listening to these kinds of songs alone, but rather singing and dancing with other people. “The Minstrel Boy” is a sad song,  but it is still communal, to be sung solemnly together.  Songs like “The Minstrel Boy” allow you to appreciate that which exists outside of yourself, that which existed before, and that which will exist after. It’s not divine, it’s the power of people, community, and art merging together. You don’t need to be Irish to feel Irish when you listen, to feel intertwined with that proud history and tradition. From Thomas More in the 18th century to Paul Robeson in the 20th, Great Big Sea in the 21st and Miles O’Brien in the 24th, the minstrel boy, forever slain, continues to sing.

Written by David Weinfeld

October 18, 2013 at 15:41

A “Moral Equivalent of War” for Tomorrow: A Renewed Space Program

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by David

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, visionary

In light of my recent post extolling the altruistic virtue of scientific pursuit and advancement, I want to call attention to the work of astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, and his recent pitch before the U.S. Senate for a renewed commitment to NASA and to the American space program.

Tyson is brilliant, and charismatic, and actually hilarious (I’ve seen him perform with the awesome comedian Eugene Mirman, and he’s been great on the The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and on Real Time with Bill Maher). And I think he’s on to something here. Because I think that even from a pro-market capitalist perspective, a renewed commitment to America’s space program will create jobs, and inspire a nation in the midst of doldrums.  “How much would you pay to launch our economy?” He aks. “How much would you pay for the universe?” That’s a stimulus we can all believe in.

If the words sound familiar, maybe it’s because you heard every Saturday evening at 7 PM while growing up, as I did. Only then, they were spoken by Patrick Stewart, and sounded like this: “Space: The Final Frontier…”

As an American historian, I can’t but think of Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous “frontier thesis” of 1893, where he argued that “the existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.” Change the words “land” to “space” and “westward” to “upward” and perhaps we can have a new frontier for America to explore, one that advances not rugged individualism (even though, as conservatives forget, the westward settlement was heavily subsidized by the government) and oppressive colonialism (as it certainly did against the Native peoples of America) but peaceful scientific exploration and collective economic growth.

But as a blogger for a site named after a William James essay, I’m reminded even more of James’ 1906 essay on “The Moral Equivalent of War.” In the spirit of the Progressive Era, James thought America could channel the energy, order, and discipline of military endeavours towards more peaceful, and less destructive manual labour. By conscripting America’s men off “to coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clotheswashing, and windowwashing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers,” James thought America could develop a more cohesive, moral, and productive citizenry.

Though I’m a big fan of mandatory national service programs, I’m not sure this is the answer now. But James’ principle, that the energy of the military need not be directed to martial pursuits, is a very good one. This relates to Tyson’s claim that, despite the inspirational nature of JFK’s words, America’s past glories in space came largely because a commitment to fighting the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Well, America is still at war (whether the government admits it or not), but US fighting in the Middle East has not channeled the dreams of the country’s young scientists, and the nation’s brightest minds have been heading off to Wall Street.

In 1906, James admitted that “mankind cannot afford to adopt a peace economy.” The same was true during the Cold War, the same is true today. But today America’s enemy is not the Soviet Union, or even militant Islam: it is recession, plutocracy, inequality, and perhaps worst of all, complacency. These are enemies worth fighting. This is Tyson’s call to arms. Like a war on “terror,” this war is more difficult to fight, because it is being fought against abstractions. But outer space, despite its vastness, is concrete. A passion for discovery in the stars can bring Americans together, and can indeed bind America with the rest of the planet. Looking upward and outward can, perhaps paradoxically, help fight social ills at home. And even for curiosity’s sake, I think it’s worth it. To quote Jean-Luc Picard, as I’ve written before, “let’s see what’s out there.”

Written by David Weinfeld

March 10, 2012 at 16:49

Hedge Funds, Holodecks, and the Science of Altruism

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by David

Leaf-cutter Ants Carrying Leaves Back to the Nest

I just read a great article in last week’s New Yorker, “Kin and Kind: A Fight About the Genetics of Altruism,” by Jonah Lehrer. Unfortunately, it’s behind a pay-wall, so you should try to find a paper copy somewhere. As a humanities major, I can’t really do it justice, but it’s all about how various species, from vampire bats to the above pictured leaf-cutter ants, engage in different degrees of altruism, from the Darwinian phenomenon known as “inclusive fitness,” where animals look after not only their own offspring but also their nephews and nieces, to the “eusociality” of ants and other insects, “in which individuals live together in vast cooperative societies.” Human beings, of course, also live in complex cooperative societies, regardless of what Republicans might tell you about rugged individualism. The article is also about the academics attempting understand the biology behind benevolence, the “genetics of altruism,” and includes interesting discussion on the difference between mathematicians and biologists, who have been working together to understand these phenomena.

Dr. Corina Tarnita, math whiz/altruist

What interested me the most, however, was an apparent throw-away paragraph (that was clearly not a throw-away paragraph) about one of the scholars involved. Corina Tarnita, a math prodigy who grew up in rural Romania, had excelled at Harvard as an undergraduate, but was becoming bored in a doctoral program there until she discovered a textbook on “the mathematics of evolution.” Unlike her previous research on abstract algebraic geometry, this seemed more concrete, and got her excited. She emailed the author of the textbook, Austrian biologist Martin Nowak, also at Harvard, to see if she could work with him on this. But her life remained at a crossroads:

At the time she emailed Nowak,Tarnita had a dilemma. She’d recently received a job offer from a large hedge fund, for a lucrative position as a quantitative analyst. She was tempted by the money. “I like fancy clothes and fast cars,” she says. “I told myself that if Martin didn’t email me back then maybe I would leave Harvard.” Fortunately, Nowak responded and soon invited Tarnita to join his working group.

The word “fortunately” in the final sentence reflects a bit of editorializing on the part of the piece’s author, Jonah Lehrer, but it’s an opinion I’m sympathetic to. I think it would have been rather disappointing had Tarnita given up a potentially path-breaking career in the academy for the rewards of Wall Street.

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Written by David Weinfeld

March 6, 2012 at 08:21

Syria and the Star Trek Universe

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by David

Forces of the Syrian Uprising Reach the Edge of Damascus

What the hell is going on in Syria?

The short version is that in the early 1990s Bashar al-Assad left his cushy opthalmology gig in England to return home to the Syrian army and ultimately succeed his dad as divinely appointed monarch dictator. And he’s been a pretty brutal dictator ever since, ruling as the Ba’athist leader and part of the Alawite minority (a Shi’a sect) that dominates the military class in a majority Sunni country.

Bashar al-Assad would make a good Romulan

So he ran what was essentially a police state, but things weren’t really so bad until a bunch of the other Arab nations decided that the good ol’fashioned decades long dictator model may not be the best way to go. But whereas leaders of Tunisia and Egypt fell quickly and relatively non-violently, in Libya, as we know, it took an armed struggle to oust Ghaddafi, and in Syria, well, they’re still fighting it out. The uprising against Assad has turned very violent, the military is involved in a brutal repression of the movement, killing thousands over the past several months. What is the world to do?

For some intelligent and realistic answers, you can watch this video of Karam Nachar (a Ph.D. Candidate at Princeton in history!) on MSNBC’s Up With Chris Hayes. Nachar thinks that while at first the Syrian opposition seemed to want to go it alone, now they want outside intervention, not just in terms of sanctions, but a “credible military threat.” The Arab League admirably initiated a UN resolution called for Assad’s peaceful ouster and a transition to a new government, and the resolution would have passed but not for China and Russia’s vetos. And so we’re at an impasse. Nachar thinks that we should follow the “Korean precedent” of the early 1950s, and set up a “Friends of Syria” coalition, led by Nicolas Sarkozy of France, and any intervention should be carried out by the Arab League and Turkey at the helm. The idea of course, seems to be that only other (non-Iranian) Muslim nations should get involved in this Syrian Arab-on-Arab violence.

Maybe that’s what will happen. But let’s do a little what if. Recall one of the more interesting episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, from season 3 back in 1990, called “Yesterday’s Enterprise.” In that episode, the Enterprise we know and love, NCC-1701-D, encounters a space-time rift (as one does). Out of the rift emerges the previous Enterprise, NCC-1701-C, which had been en route to answer a distress call from a Klingon outpost under attack by Romulan Warbirds (Romulans!). In the original timeline, the Enterprise-C intercepted the Romulan Warbirds but was destroyed in battle, along with the Klingon outpost. The Klingons, however, being an honour-bound race, appreciated Starfleet’s rescue effort so much this led to a peace agreement between the Klingon Empire and the Federation. But… because of the space-time rift, the Enterprise-C no longer made it to its destination, and thus there was no Federation attempt to assist the Klingons, and no peace treaty. As a result, the normally peaceful exploration vessel became a Starfleet battleship, and the Federation was engaged in a life and death struggle with the Klingons Empire, which in fact they were on the verge of losing (in this new time-line). In the end, Captain Picard agrees to help send the Enterprise-C back through the space-time  rift to the past (along with security chief Tasha Yar, but that info isn’t relevant to this post) to complete their rescue attempt, even though that means certain death for all their crew, because it will prevent the war between the Federation and the Klingons. And that’s what happens (Mission Accomplished!). The original timeline is restored, and the Enterprise-D can go back to seeking out new life and new civilizations and boldly going where no one has gone before.

USS Enterprise NCC-1701-C Emerging from the Space-Time Rift

You got that? Good. So how does this relate to Syria?

Well, in Nachar’s real word, an Arab/Turkish coalition, with international backing, would intervene against Assad’s Baathist regime in support of the Syrian rebels. That makes sense. But in my Star Trek fantasy version, Israel would do the intervening. That’s right: the Israeli Defense Forces would assist the Syrian rebels against Assad. Heck, they might even engage in some conventional warfare with the Syrian army and kick some ass like they did in 1967. They’d succeed in removing Assad from power. And the honour-bound Arab League would be so impressed that that they would agree to a peace agreement with Israel provided that Israel withdrew from the Sheba Farms and the Golan Heights, which they would then do. And then the the new Syrian regime would cut off all funds to Hamas and Hezbollah, and refuse to offer their fighters safe haven. And then Israel would withdraw from the West Bank and the international community would compensate Palestinian refugees and both sides would apologize for atrocities and there’d be a peaceful two-state solution between Israel and Palestine.

Of course, that would never happen, and so I’m NOT ADVOCATING ANY ACTUAL ISRAELI INTERVENTION IN SYRIA. Let me make that clear. In the real world, that would lead to the IDF killing Syrian civilians in their attempt to target military operations, and the entire Arab world turning even harder against Israel, probably leading to rocket attacks and civilian casualties in Israel, and then possibly the whole region erupting into a broader conflict. So that would be very bad. But wouldn’t it be nice if we could have our own space-time rift that could take us to that Star Trek world, if only just for a moment? Beam me up.

Written by David Weinfeld

February 15, 2012 at 18:04

Global History, Intergalactic War

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by apini

Following weiner’s suggestion, I went to see X-Men: First Class this weekend and really enjoyed it (particularly the parts filmed in Oxford!).  During the previews, we saw one for the Green Lantern movie.  This movie, which I haven’t seen because it hasn’t come out yet over here (not sure if it already has in the states) has a familiar premise: some alien force is going around the universe/galaxy wiping out civilizations and/or taking over planets.  Like Independence Day  (awesome film), War of the Worlds, and dozens of others, the assumption seems to be that humanity will band together as a global community to defeat the invading force.

Now, call me a cynic, but it’s just not going to happen like that.

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Written by apini

June 16, 2011 at 04:14

There’s a Tooth in my Vagina: Horror, Sci-Fi, and Feminism

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by Weiner

A few nights ago, my wife and I had the distinct pleasure of watching Teeth, the 2007 comedy/horror by writer, director, and co-producer Mitchell Lichtenstein, son of the famous artist Roy Lichtenstein. As some readers of this blog may know, I’m a big horror movie fan. But Teeth interested me for political reasons as well. Call it a horror film or a dark comedy, Teeth was in fact a brilliant political satire. And it was totally awesome.

The plot is simple enough: protagonist Dawn O’Keefe suffers from the mythological condition of vagina dentata: she has razor sharp teeth in her vagina. What gives the film its gravitas, and its humour, is the broader context. Dawn is the leader of an abstinence group in her high school, she dons a promise ring vowing to wait until marriage, and embraces traditional gender roles prizing women’s purity, all in a clearly over-the-top satirical manner. It seems as if nearly all the male characters are potential rapists, and several appendages meet their untimely demise beneath the sharp, interlocking teeth at Dawn’s crotch, and no, I’m not talking about her zipper.

Though I know many are turned off by gruesome horror (I’m thinking of you, Luce), this movie is really the ultimate in feminist schadenfreude. It’s a little scary, a little gory, but mostly funny, and with brilliant parodies of the Religious Right and the latent sexism and fear of women that lurks in the hearts of heterosexual men. This movie is truly great.

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Written by David Weinfeld

May 27, 2011 at 21:05

Waking from Dogmatic Slumber without The Matrix

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by weiner

Immanuel Kant supposedly said that reading David Hume roused him from his “dogmatic slumber.” I used to say that reading Rene Descartes‘ famous Meditations woke me from the dogmatic slumber induced through years of rote learning. Keep in mind, I read the Meditations back in 2000 for my modern philosophy class at Dawson College. True, The Matrix* had already come out in 1999, but I didn’t see it until 2001, when it was required viewing for my intro to philosophy class freshman year (I recall being one of about five out of 100 students who hadn’t yet seen it). So even before I heard Keanu Reeves say “whoa” as Neo (not too different from saying “whoa” as Ted “Theodore” Logan), I began to imagine the solipsistic universe that Descartes’ endless doubting led me to.

I think Descartes has that effect on a lot of people. In his lucid, friendly style, he introduced accessible concepts: the ball of wax, the evil genius, even his famous dictum, cogito ergo sum, “I think therefore I am.” He wrote clearly what so many adolescents have been thinking for so long: How do I know I exist? Is anything else out there? Am I dreaming or awake? How do I know reality is real? For those of us who hadn’t yet seen The Matrix, Descartes put to powerful prose ideas that were familiar yet just out of our reach. He made thinking interesting in a way that it had not been before.

I abandoned philosophy for history a few years after my own meditations, but reading Descartes made me consider the life of the mind a pretty worthwhile way to live.

*Incidentally, while the first Matrix movie is pretty good (the other two are shit, save for the unintentionally hilarious casting of Cornel West), in 1990, Total Recall dealt with similar Cartesian themes in a far more intelligent and entertaining manner.

Not only is it based on a Philip K. Dick short story, “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” it also features Arnold Schwarzenegger kicking ass on Mars.  One of the best and most underrated sci-fi movies of all time.

Written by David Weinfeld

March 19, 2010 at 21:36