Archive for July, 2012

01. The Epic Of Gilgamesh


a short and impassioned take on You Know Who…     RT

01. The Epic Of Gilgamesh.

The Brain–Quaggas of Creativity 1

July 29, 2012 5 comments

Zebras Grazing

hmm…just when we least expected it, our first quagga of creativity has been sighted on the horizon. This one may look a little dusty at first, even off-putting, but, as it turns out, is rather important: this Quagga is the brain, which is more flexible (and older) than many might imagine. And what a story it has to tell!


Putting aside our understandable pride in having the largest brain/body ratio of any animal, brains have been around for a ridiculously long time. 500 million years, to be precise (more or a less). And the first animal to develop a brain was none other than the humble flatworm. In fact, only a few invertebrates today lack a brain; all other animals possess one.

So what makes a brain so important?

Brain of a Malagasy Mongoose

A brain is the part of an animal that controls all the other parts. It is the center of the nervous system and is composed of two different kinds of cells: neurons and glial cells. While glial cells are important (providing structural and metabolic support, among other roles), the neuron constitutes the business end of the brain, processing and transmitting information by electronic and chemical signalling. The human cerebral cortex (the largest part of our brain) contains 15-33 billion neurons.

Chew them beans!







Vertebrate Brain Regions

And the next time you have a great thought, ponder this: almost all animal species are believed to have developed from a tube worm, the celebrated common ancestor, which lived about 575 million years ago. One reason that scientists believe this is the bilateral body shape most living species share with tube worms. And this bilaterality is reflected in the brain structure.

Skipping ahead a few hundred million years or so, let’s look at the brain components that comprise the brains of advanced vertebrates: 1) the medulla, located along the spinal cord, is involved in motor and sensory functions; 2) the pons, located directly above the medulla, regulates (among other things) sleep, respiration, swallowing, and equilibrium; 3) the hypothalamus controls sleep cycles, eating and drinking, and hormone release; 4) the thalamus is involved with motivation and information transmission; 5) the cerebellum modulates other brains systems, coordinating their activity to  make their output more precise–this precision is learned, say, for instance, as when we learn to ride a bike; 6) the optic tectum, which allows actions to be directed to specific points in space; 7) the pallium, which in reptiles and mammals is known as the cerebral cortex–it regulates smell and spatial memory (in mammals, the CC dominates the rest of the brain); 8) the basal ganglia, which control action, either inhibiting or activating the parts of the brain directly involved with action; and 9) the olfactory bulb, which process olfactory signals; in primates, the OB is greatly reduced in importance.

Whew! And we haven’t even gotten to dolphins yet!


Mammals: the brains of mammals are much larger than those of other vertebrates, twice as large as birds of comparable size and 10 times as large as reptiles of the same size.

Other differences in mammalian brains: the principle difference is the size of the cerebral cortex, which has developed into a six-layer structure. Mammalian brains also contain the hippocampus, which is involved in memory and spatial navigation.

Primates: the main difference here once again is in size: the encephalization quotient (EQ) for rats is .4; for elephants, up to 2.36; for, chimpanzees, up to 2.35; for bottlenose dolphins, 4.14, and for people, up to 7.8.


Neurotransmitters. These are the chemicals that neurons emit and receive when transmitting information. A partial list includes serotonin (involved in pleasure); norepinephrine (involved in arousal); acetylcholine; and dopamine.


OK, so that’s our first look at the brain, the mise-en-scene of creativity’s elaborate dramas. Certainly an elaborate stage, especially when we consider that we have yet to look at the human brain and its peculiarities. Something tells RT that this may be the next quagga to come galloping over the horizon.      RT


All Images: WikiCmns, Public Domain.


Stephane Mallarme–Apparition

July 25, 2012 9 comments

I cut my translator’s teeth in High School reading French novels with fairly sophisticated vocabulary (actually, the one I recall was science fiction). Leaving Paris after graduation, I had little time to continue my education in French literature–learning America was challenge enough. But recently I bought a book of 19th Century French verse with the original French texts in the back. So in the last couple of weeks Stephane Mallarme’s work has caught my attention.

Mallarme’s work is about as different from Gilgamesh as you can get. Whereas Gilgamesh tends to be precise and economical, wedded to the concrete, Mallarme was a poet of the emotions dedicated to the concept of pure poetry. His work is deliberately ambiguous and so challenges the translator to read more closely and consider unusual approaches to bringing a poem over into his own language. In particular, Mallarme’s minimal grammar and complex, multilayered images are both entrancing and difficult to work with.


In any case, here is RT’s first attempt at translating French poetry–Mallarme’s “Apparition.”



the moon disconsolate. angels in their tears,

dreaming–bow at hand, they weep

in the eye of vanishing

flowers, coax from azure throats

white, wingéd keening–

that blissful hour of your first passion

my idle thoughts, lodestone of my pain,

deliberately drank themselves into foam,

the gifts that a Dream trails behind in hearts

it harrows.

that day I drifted, eyes fixed on cobbles,

when you, sun playing at your hair, in streets

or in dusk, with sweet laughter appeared:

and I thought I saw a lady, crowned with

every light, who, in the darkness

of my gingerbread sleep, rewarded a child’s

appetite, letting fall from her half-opened hand

snowflake and star, a petal’s fragrance.


Copyright: The Rag Tree, 2012

Painting: Stephane Mallarme; Edouard Manet; WikiCmns; Public Domain.

Back At The Market


folks: something gorgeous from Washington, D.C.      RT

Back At The Market.

“In Death Ground, Fight.”

July 23, 2012 6 comments

This quote, from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, has been running through my head lately. It refers to a situation in which a capable general has led his army far into enemy territory and positioned it in such a way that retreat is impossible. According to Sun Tzu, men will fight far more fiercely (and without much need for oversight) than they would in normal circumstances, when they haven’t got everything on the line.

Life is a bit like this. We get farther and farther into our dreams and projects, farther and farther from retreat, until we have to give everything to the calling we follow. This is what we were meant to do.      RT


Photo: Page from the Art of War in Tangut Script; WikiCmns; Public Domain.


The Dead at Antietam

July 4, 2012 2 comments

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, fought on September 17, 1862 near the town of Sharpsburg, MD.

Gettysburg is better known, but this battle offered Abraham Lincoln the political strength he wanted to free the slaves of the United States. The battle itself was awful enough, the single bloodiest day of the Civil War (3,654 men killed, 23,100 total casualties), and the appalling death toll may well have spurred Lincoln on to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. But a deeper crisis was at work, one that Lincoln mentions briefly in his Second Inaugural Address, and which will always burden the nation’s conscience:

One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves…

Lincoln was a deliberate man, and early in his administration his first priority was the preservation of the Union–to prevent the Confederacy from forming and lure back the states that had already seceded. He faced a dicey political situation: he had to accommodate both the abolitionists in his own party and the border states that had not seceded. Lincoln himself was not an abolitionist, and he had married the daughter of a wealthy Kentucky slave-owner; nonetheless, he favored gradual, compensated emancipation.

But events were overtaking Lincoln. Though he had prohibited his generals from freeing slaves in captured territories, Gen. John Freemont did so in 1861; Lincoln was forced to replace him with a more conservative man. The New York Tribune published an editorial by Horace Greeley calling for complete emancipation. And then, after his victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run, Confederate General Robert E. Lee invaded Maryland.

Why was Antietam so costly in lives? One reason lay in the importance of a possible Confederate victory: if Lee won, Maryland might secede, Britain and France recognize the Confederacy, and serious damage be done to the Union economy. On the other hand, Lincoln desperately needed a victory that would demonstrate his abilities as a military leader.

Then there were the personalities of the generals leading the fight. The Union commander, George B. McClellan, was disinclined to taking risks, cautious and unaggressive; Lee was exactly the opposite, much more likely to engage and to follow-up on victory. Lee was clearly the better commander; however, McClellan had a two-to-one advantage in manpower. In short, both leaders had substantial advantages that would result in intense fighting and bloodshed.

Finally, there was the nature of the battlefield. While Lee chose a good initial defensive position near Sharpsburg, his disposition had its problems, chief of which was the Potomac River at his rear–to retreat, the river would have to be forded. In addition, fighting was intense around two landmarks in the battlefield: Sunken Lane, a sunken road that was the center of the Confederate line and Burnside Bridge, a narrow stone bridge over Antietam Creek that could be held by a small  force against much greater numbers. Both locations produced an appalling slaughter–Sunken Lane (which became known as Bloody Lane) was held at great cost by the Confederates until the early afternoon; the struggle over Burnside Bridge lasted from the morning into afternoon (and General Burnside has often been criticized for not attempting to ford the creek’s shallows). The Bridge was taken at 1:30 pm, but the Union advance was stymied when fresh Confederate troops arrived.

The whole landscape for an instant turned red.

By 5:30 pm, the battle was over. “The whole landscape for an instant turned red,” one Union soldier reported; another soldier remarked: “[The cornfield] was so full with bodies that a man could have walked through it without stepping on the ground.” Despite the carnage, the battle had been a draw, and the Confederates retreated–unharassed–across the Potomac.

Lincoln inspected the battle’s dead shortly afterwards. One can only speculate–and the decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation as soon as the Union had won a credible victory had been taken months earlier–but the spectacle of the dead at Antietam lying scattered and heaped across the battlefield surely underlined the situation’s urgency: slavery had to go. The Union needed a higher moral cause for which to fight the war, and nobody could reasonably doubt that “involuntary servitude” had been the principal cause of the South’s secession. The President, along with many other moderate white reformers, was acknowledging that while policy and political expedience had their place, the only goal that could justify bloodshed on this scale was the elimination of a monstrous evil–one in which the North was complicit.

That on the first day of January in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.  –Emancipation Proclamation, 1862

Photograph: Dead Soldiers at Antietam, A. Gardner, WikiCmns, Public Domain.

Photography Challenge: Insight

July 3, 2012 6 comments

folks: beauty and fun to start the day with… RT

Photography Challenge: Insight.

Du Fu–“From the Watchtower”

July 2, 2012 1 comment



I first heard about Du Fu (712-770) from a poetry buddy of mine, a wandering troubadour. As I started to read his work in translation, I found his words a bit journalistic–and certainly different from the work of other T’ang Dynasty Chinese poets. On reflection, that makes sense: Du Fu is by common consent the best poet China has ever produced. In a poetic tradition as rich as China’s, that is no small honor, and translating a poet as gifted as Du Fu into English requires no small skill (and plain old patience and luck).

A reputation like that is hard for RT to resist, so below I’m posting a first attempt at translating one of Du Fu’s pieces, written towards the end of his life.


From the Watch Tower


Time’s ovation, the year decamps to autumn–

frost, then snow, gleams in the immense night.

Bugles blare, summoning a profane regiment,

and men fall in; stars climb above the heights.


Now sobbing fills the gorge as battle rages,

mingled with raucous song, exultation in death.

Our armies, crouching dragon and leaping horse, crumble–

scatter our words on water; in silence, a depth.


Copyright: 2012, The Rag Tree


Image: Landscapes Inspired by Du Fu’s Poetry, Wang Shamin (1592-1680); WikiCmns; Public Domain