Archive for the ‘A. Habilis: habit, hand, and how we learned to speak’ Category

Music Covers, Translation, and Perpetuum Jazille

April 23, 2014 1 comment

File:Toto in concert.jpg


chez RT, the muses have been on self-ordered R&R, the Dragons of Grammar have only been occasionally sighted over distant ocean horizons, and RT himself has been attending to such nitty-gritties as the extermination of bed-bugs (victory seems imminent) and the rearrangement of household furniture after knock-down, drag-out fights with the insect world.

Whew! No wonder RT has recently immersed himself in the world of YouTube, listening to old favs and checking out the impressive poetry offerings to be found on that site. But as always, discovery awaits the explorer.

Now for the details: RT has long been a fan of the pop group Toto, a phenom of the 70s and 80s best known for its ballad-style lyrics and dramatic musical arrangements. Love and corn have been the bailiwick of this group, and more power to them: where would poetry be without love and corn?

As a result of this surfing, RT has discovered the field of musical covers, that is, versions of well-known songs performed by musicians other than those who originally created the song. Is the cover better than the original? You the listener decide. The process can’t help but remind RT of literary translations from language to language (and in particular, poetry translations), and so he has decided to volunteer his critical two cents.

Surely, covers as an endeavor are more precise and accurate than poetry translations. Music is the international language, its notation standardized (for the most part) centuries ago. Western staff notation, as it is known, tells the performer the pitchspeedmeter, and individual rhythms of a particular musical work. To balance out this precision in European classical music, improvisation, the practice of creating spontaneous music during a performance, has developed. Together with musical ornamentation, improvisation allows the musician(s) performing a piece to add his, her, or their individual interpretations, greatly enriching the musical possibilities of a particular performance. 

Needless to say, poetry has a far less precise muse, yet produces its own beauty. What is the difference between poetry translation and musical interpretation?  RT has suggested several times that poetry exists in the tension between meaning and music, between the thought and beauty; it grows out of the roots of the spoken word. He will now suggest that music has a similar set of roots,  not in speech, but in movement. To take the argument further, RT thinks that movement is a primary means of remaining connected to the external world;  spatial coordination, overseen by sight, is music’s basic mental function. On the other hand, speech is deeply internal, arising out of inner silence, the stillness that human meaning arises from.  Speech, in contrast, may be rooted in some kind of crisis.

Does tension between movement and music exist? As far as RT can see, the opposite is the case: movement and motion reinforce each other.

So we are looking at what may be two very different ways of creating beauty.


Take it on home, RT! A few nights ago, YouTube introduced RT to Perpetuum Jazille‘s cover of Toto’s hit, Africa. RT was impressed by the degree to which PJ reproduced Africa using an entirely different orchestration. RT will venture that PJ’s approach to the song resembles a pointillist painting. He encourages readers to watch the YouTube videos of Toto’s and PJ’s versions of the song (the links to YouTube are below) and asks his readers to pay attention to the very different motions (and number of musicians) associated with each version. Though the two versions are meant to sound the same, do they? Which approach to the musical notation is better?


1) Toto Africa Link:

2) Perpetuum Jazzile Africa Link:


Photo: Toto in Concert (Trondheim, Norway, 4 August 2007). Author: Milford. Wikimedia; Public Domain.


Honeycomb & the Mind

September 21, 2013 2 comments



RT is staggered by the mysteries of the mind. He read Euclid in college, but he is struggling to understand how a colony of bees can produce a structure as complicated as a honeycomb. And not only complicated, but efficient as well. Do honeybees compose elaborate poems as they work away? Some of the honeycomb maker’s art informs the efforts of the poet; maybe Yeats was onto something in the “Lake Isle of Innishfree.”

In any case, here is the description of a honeycomb from the Wikipedia Page:

“The axes of honeycomb cells are always quasi-horizontal, and the non-angled rows of honeycomb cells are always horizontally (not vertically) aligned. Thus, each cell has two vertical walls, with “floors” and “ceilings” composed of two angled walls. The cells slope slightly upwards, between 9 and 14 degrees, towards the open ends.

There are two possible explanations for the reason that honeycomb is composed of hexagons, rather than any other shape. One, given by Jan Brożek and proved much later by Thomas Hales, is that the hexagon tiles the plane with minimal surface area. Thus, a hexagonal structure uses the least material to create a lattice of cells within a given volume. Another, given by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, is that the shape simply results from the process of individual bees putting cells together: somewhat analogous to the boundary shapes created in a field of soap bubbles. In support of this, he notes that queen cells, which are constructed singly, are irregular and lumpy with no apparent attempt at efficiency.

The closed ends of the honeycomb cells are also an example of geometric efficiency, albeit three-dimensional and little-noticed. The ends are trihedral (i.e., composed of three planes) sections of rhombic dodecahedra, with the dihedral angles of all adjacent surfaces measuring 120°, the angle that minimizes surface area for a given volume. (The angle formed by the edges at the pyramidal apex, known as the tetrahedral angle, is approximately 109° 28′ 16″ (= arccos(−1/3)).)”


RT’s Related Posts: 1) Intelligence and Desire–“I’m Smart”


Photo: The Honeycomb Process; User: Achille. WikiCmns; Public Domain.



Intelligence and Desire–“I’m Smart”

August 7, 2013 7 comments


πάντες ἄνθρωποι τοῦ εἰδέναι ὀρέγονται φύσει.

People in their deepest core desire knowledge.

–Aristotle, first line of the Metaphysics.


Epiphanies are a more motley experience than often supposed. They can come at any time of the day–say, 3 am in the morning while you’re fixing a Dagwood sandwich–and they can appear crisp, bright-eyed, and bushy-tailed (ready for a good day’s work) or bedraggled and apologetic (they didn’t make it across to the other side). Yes, sometimes the recipient must do some extra decoding to make the final connection(s).

So here is a epiphany RT received a couple of nights ago (he can’t even remember what he was reading at the time). The message? Intelligence doesn’t reflect any special accomplishment (and in this regard RT remembers that there’s a book out there that contains more than 500 proofs of the Pythagorean Theorem), but rather the desire to know.

In other words, Einstein was certainly intelligent, but it was his deep desire to understand, to go beyond the accepted theories of the time, that enabled him to achieve the fundamental insights that he did. Can the two–desire and achievement–really be separated?

And who doesn’t want to know? Everyone wants to know how the story turns out, and why. Intelligence manifests itself in so many ways–a child’s decision to climb a tree, the ability to tell a particular wine’s origins by sampling its bouquet, the ability to mimic someone’s mannerisms–that we tend to dismiss many indications of the mind’s activity as “normal” or “common.” So much the worse for us.

People alienated and outraged that their worth in the world has been overlooked or ridiculed–that is what we want to avoid. The answer? To get people to acknowledge, “I’m smart.”


And here is the connection that RT had to make: that the RT thread, “The Alphabet and Redefining Intelligence,” is one way of helping people to see themselves as fundamentally intelligent–in this case, by adopting an alphabet that is more truly phonetic and taught in a more logical way. A 6-year-old’s comment, “I like learning to read and write,” is what we’re aiming for. Teaching must first uncover the desire for knowledge, then proceed to teach the specifics.

The great majority of us are smarter than we realize.     RT


Photo: Bridge in Use During the Rainy Season (2008); Rutahsa Adventures. WikiCmns; CC 1.0 Generic.


Beauty and the Body

March 21, 2013 5 comments

File:Study of a Kneeling Nude Girl for The Entombment.jpg

We are physical beings. This fact is so difficult–reminding us of death as it does–that it has led entire societies to reject the world and our place in it. People suspect that much of our mind is also physical, rooted in the body, and therefore on death that part of our thought is lost. Does any part of our consciousness survive, or do we face oblivion?

Actually, it was a comment by fellow-blogger Simon H. Lilly that got RT to thinking about this.

If beauty is recognised, felt, experienced as right, then that suggests a deep brain nerve path, as you say. We tend to think of that sense of rightness as equivalent to a spiritual perspective of the ‘true’, whereas it may just be the familiarity and ease of recognition of well-worn neural pathways. Yikes. Beauty, Truth, Justice, Ethics, Morality, etc all just a learned pattern of synaptic fireworks….

No one, I think, really wants this to be the case; don’t most of us prefer the thought that beauty is an eruption of truth, a proof of something existing beyond ourselves? And what about morality?


RT likes to eat his cake and have it too. Maybe there is something in this metaphor that can help us with our dilemma. What we really want is the impossible: a mind that is undeniably physical, at least in part, but a mind which also doesn’t disappear at death. How can we accomplish this? By taking as our premise the impossible: the mind is rooted in the body, but doesn’t decay after we die. And how can that possibly be true? Because matter is not dumb clay sitting in a brick-mold.

In fact, the greatest minds among us have failed to understand the physical universe. Look at particle physics: just what is the smallest possible particle? How do the particles work together? And here is a fearsome question:

Will mathematics actually be able to lead us to a full understanding of the universe?


RT has been picking away at a possible answer: the problem is that we lack a unified understanding and experience of the world. Maybe we need to start creating a discipline that unifies poetry and mathematics. Wow! Now we’re really chewing away at the magic cake while it continues to stare at us from the table.

How do we do this? Mathematics students need to start writing poetry as undergraduates and continue the practice lifelong. Poetry students need to start studying mathematics and read and understand three or four equations a day.

Then we need to get them all into a classroom talking about how the brain works.


RT prefers coconut creme pie, himself…what about you?


ImageStudy of a Kneeling Nude Girl for The Entombment; Michelangelo (1500-1501). WikiCmns; Public Domain.


Aesthetics–the Quest for Beauty

March 19, 2013 2 comments

File:Collection of Philippine shells (4808526378).jpg

Why is something beautiful? Studying the answers to this question is the domain of aesthetics, a branch of philosophy that deals with art, beauty, and taste.

Many people have tried to understand the mystery of beauty, and perhaps the most common answer to the question is, “I know beauty when I see it.” To this we can add that our sense of the beautiful seems to be tied to the culture we grew up in–for instance, French, American, Haitian, and Indian culture, all of which have differing aesthetics.

And, then again, as the photograph above reminds us, certain kinds of beauty are appreciated everywhere.

Let me suggest that this thing that is everywhere but also seemingly different from place to place is an aspect of our sense of community. Our sense of home is learned early in life–certainly before we’re 10 years old. What we are talking about here is the way that the brain incorporates its environment as it grows–and RT has a hunch that the middle brain and hindbrain are highly sensitive to their environment, processing and then imprinting such things as native language, our sense of right and wrong, and what we feel to be beautiful. We learn what is beautiful by watching how our parents and others desire or reject the things around us.

This is only one of many aesthetic theories, but for RT it more than any other explains why the study of aesthetics (including visual art and poetry) is so important: the conscious mind, by experiencing and evaluating a larger sample of beautiful art and poetic thought can enrich and, at least to some extent, alter its conception of what is beautiful, enabling the student of beauty to enter a more cosmopolitan world of experiences and ideas. Reserving judgment until we have thought through our reaction to something is only part of the process–we must be capable of feeling the particular beauty set before us.

Art helps us experience the world more fully–and enables us to recognize the beauty in other people much more easily.   RT

Photo: Collection of Philippine Shells, Roberto Verzo from the Phillipines, WikiCmns, CC 2.0 Generic.


The K-T Event and Your Morning Cup of Coffee

February 14, 2013 Leave a comment


small, furry, and anonymous can have its advantages. Especially if you happened to be living 66 million years ago and somehow managed to survive the dinosaur K-T event, the impact of an asteroid at least 2½ miles in diameter (and perhaps as large as 12 miles) that killed 75% of all life on the planet–including, most famously, the dinosaurs.

The impact left behind a crater 110 miles across and generated a dust cloud that reduced sunlight by 10-20% for a year. Global firestorms caused by the collision’s heat pulse and a brief but intense burst of infrared radiation may have attended the event. As if all that were not enough, oxygen levels in the atmosphere plummeted, the O² consumed by the conflagrations.

You had to be tough to survive K-T.


But why, finally, is this important? In fact, scientists distinguish five global extinctions that involved major loss of life. And when we think of the devastation wrought by the recent tsunamis that came ashore on Japan, Indonesia, and elsewhere, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that the status quo can be rather fragile.


People are only too aware of the possibility of another asteroid hitting our planet, and what with global warming, seaside property has lost some of its allure. But what is seldom noted is that we are living in the midst of slow-motion boundary event, the development of speech, the rational mind, and modern people. RT believes that the nub of the problem lies in feeling and speech, integrating our emotions with our ego in a way that encourages respect for each other–and even love.

There is still the morning cup of coffee; RT never fails to be amazed by the way it stimulates conversation in people. We are discovering a new, interior landscape, one that may prove impervious to asteroids and global warming. If we are to get there, it helps to remember the importance of the seemingly unimportant–the crisis of speech that surrounds us and the coffee beans and other discoveries that may help us survive it.    RT


PhotoTyrannosaurus rex skeleton (the specimen AMNH 5027) at American Museum of Natural History. Author: J.M. Luijt. WikiCmns. CC Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Netherlands license.


Near People–Bottlenose Dolphins and Others

December 22, 2012 1 comment

File:Tursiops aduncus, Port River, Adelaide, Australia - 2003.jpg


It’s been a while since RT has posted on the development of the human brain. RT is thinking in particular of his Habilis thread, which mentions the role of our hands in the development of thinking: the making of stone tools preceded the first spoken words by about a million years, so it seems likely that the first lithic industry shaped both our thoughts and words.

Not so with bottlenose dolphins. Here is a creature whose ancestors disappeared into the ocean 50 million years ago. RT cannot help but remember our own ancestors leaving the tropical forest (only about 8 million years ago). Could it be that changes in fundamental environment trigger brain growth as a species learns to cope with its new surroundings? Furthermore, could the difference between dolphin and human intelligence depend largely on the usefulness of their limbs?



At right we have models of the brains of three different animals: from left, a wild pig’s, a bottlenose dolpin’s, and a human’s. The relative size of a human and dolphin’s brains can be difficult to determine: the encephalization quotient (EQ) of human’s is far greater than the BND’s (7.44 vs. 4.14); on the other hand, the absolute brain mass of the BND slightly exceeds that of humans’ (1500-1700 vs. 1300-1400 grams), and the BND’s brain is more convoluted than ours is. Another consideration is the degree that the brain grows after birth: a human is born with a brain 28% of its adult weight; a dolphin, with a brain 42.5% of its adult weight.

Finally, dolphins possess a large brain structure missing in humans: the paralimbic lobe. Neurologists connect this structure to the regulation of sensation, emotion, and social interactions. Could the BND be social in some way that we are not?


So here is a plausible reading of what we know so far: a bottlenose dolphin has the second-largest brain in the animal kingdom, but its brain nonetheless trails the size of our brain significantly. But then that dread enforcer of the truth shows up: a question (or a whole gang of them!)…does the size of the brain have anything to do with complexity of function and mental experience? …how, as a matter of fact, do we measure the brain’s complexity? …is there anyway of knowing what it is that a dolphin’s brain does? …Or what the inner life of a dolphin is like?


In a previous post, RT listed the mental abilities the primates, cetaceans, and smaller-brained animals possess. The list is impressive, but being focused on function, does not answer the question of inner life–what kind of mind do bottle-nosed dolphins have? Looking at human consciousness, we might divide our own mental life as follows:

Human mental activity

1) maintaining automatic physical activities such as respiration and heart function;

2) experiencing our immediate environment and generating emotions and other automatic responses to the things we sense;

3) imposing control on our environment at a primate-level: establishing a territory, creating and maintaining a social hierarchy and relationships generally;

4) communicating between ourselves in a more precise way via language and the total mental experience it conveys; creating sophisticated tools that expand and refine our control of the environment;

5) generating and manipulating abstract concepts to solve problems via mathematics and logic; and

6) maintaining overall control and harmony of our minds through artistic activities such as music and poetry;

How many of these abilities do dolphins share?

Items 1-3, certainly. There is plenty of evidence for the basic physical and emotional functions, as well as a rich social life, in BNDs. Readers should also note that BNDs pass the self-recognition test and even use individualized signature whistles to identify themselves–suggesting that they have personal names.

A further consideration is the active sex life of the BND; many researchers connect sexplay in animals generally with higher levels of intelligence.

Item 4, maybe. Like us, dolphins seem to have basic units of mental communication–in our case, words and sensory experiences; in theirs, clicks, whistles, and images of their surroundings generated by echolocation. It has been shown that BNDs use some of this sound information to construct mental images of their surroundings. Could it be that BNDs are capable of altering and manipulating these images to convey comments and even full language? Since humans have used artificial languages to communicate (at a low level) with dolphins, it’s clear that BNDs can learn syntax and grammar.

Item 5, probably. The ability to create 3-D mental images argues for a powerful understanding of space and volume in BNDs–and, by extension, an advanced grasp of number.

Item 6, probably. Dolphins are great singers and dancers. An early researcher reported receiving a powerful, controlled, multi-frequency sound burst from a dolphin that made him feel completely aware of the physical structure of first his head and then his body–almost like he was being scanned to create an image. This is communication at its most physical, precise, and intense. Could it also be part of a medical diagnostic? Many anecdotes suggest that dolphins are capable of moral behavior.


In light of these intellectual similarities, RT would like to suggest the creation of a legal category–near people. Other animals that RT would include as near people–bonobos, gorillas, and chimpanzees. Near people would be entitled to protected environments, and killing them would be legally forbidden across the globe. Additional funding would be devoted to studying and understanding near humans.

We cannot afford to let near people go extinct–they have too much to teach us about the mind and ourselves. Do we really want to kill an animal that gave itself a name at birth?



Photos: top: Tursiops aduncus, WikiCmns; CC 1.0 attribution; Author: Aude Steiner. bottom: WikiCmns; CC 1.0 attribution; Author: Boksi.