Obdormio.com Unwasted Hours

14 June, 2012

Of Gods and Men

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Obdormio @ 00:00

I have an exam tomorrow. I also need a post for tomorrow. In a beautiful union of rocks and birds, I’m going revise and write a post at the same time. I’m afraid the result might be a bit disjointed, lacking an overarching unity, or indeed point, but I’m going to risk it.

Gods crop up in plenty of religions, and certainly in all the ones I’m currently studying. They all have some different ideas on how the relationship between gods and men work, however.

Ancient Mesopotamia is probably the most pessimistic in its outlook: Humans were created as slaves for the gods, so that the gods wouldn’t have to do any work themselves. Tilling the soil, building irrigation channels, growing food and building temples are all really boring tasks that the gods didn’t feel like doing themselves. Serving the gods meant performing labour, and giving them its fruits. Prayers and rituals were about warding off misfortune, and keeping the god-kings happy. Such a cheery time.

The ancient Egyptians were also big on serving the gods, but with a less pessimistic outlook. The creation of Man wasn’t elaborated on much, but humans were part of the ordered cosmos the gods maintained. The gods also held back the chaos of the barren desert and lifeless night, maintaining the constant cycle of birth and rebirth in the universe. Priests, a special class, performed daily rituals of service and sacrifice in the temples, on behalf of the king, whose job it actually was. The king was both divine and human, the point of intersection that linked the two spheres.

The ancient Greeks were a bit unclear on the creation of Man, though the Orphic cycle held that human were created from the ashes of the titans that devoured Dionysus. What is more clear is the creation of woman – Zeus sent woman to men as a punishment, forcing them to endure them if they wanted to procreate and have their families live on. Zeus was a bit miffed at having been tricked into taking the useless bits of the animal as his share in a sacrifice, and then shortly thereafter having fire stolen from him by Prometheus. Here, the gods were rulers of the cosmos, who had shaped the world order and had great power over people’s lives. When an animal was sacrificed, the bones and fat were burned, while the people performing the sacrifice ate the meat in a feast – sharing a meal with the gods. Prayers were almost contracts – Man honoured the gods, in exchange for blessings.

The Romans took this further, there’s a reason do ut des is in Latin. There were gods all over the place, and if you honoured them properly, but not excessively, they’d smile on you. The Romans figured the reason for their prosperity was their great piety. They resembled the Greeks in their ritual practice, in many cases at least. They also imported gods and cults from all over their empire, so there was obviously some variety.

Making a leap north, and ahead a millennium or so, we get to the Vikings. Here, too, we have the gods as beings of order, holding back the forces of chaos – and doing an ever worsening job of it. Seriously, they keep giving away weapons and losing members and in general weakening, all leading up to the big collapse to come. Anyway, humans are in the middle, between the realm of gods and the realm of chaos, and can use all the protection they can get, and therefore sacrifice and hold festivals in the gods’ honour. Meanwhile, Odin collects dead people to boost his forces for the last battle – great plan, Odin! An army of all the people who didn’t survive their battles! Cream of the crop, I’m sure. Can’t go wrong.

I think I’m going to stop here. This did end up feeling a bit disjointed and rushed, but meh. I have an exam, what do you want from me?!

11 June, 2012

Je Ne Parle Pas Français

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Obdormio @ 00:00

I don’t speak French.

That’s not really a remarkable fact in and of itself; there are actually a great number of languages I do not speak a word of, but French is the one that eats at me.

It’s not that I have a great interest in French, or indeed France, either. I have no particular plans or desires to visit France or travel in the Francophone world. One summer, I was given the opportunity to go either to Paris or Fredrikstad. I chose the latter. I have no special fascination with French culture, no interest in its literature so great that I cannot read translation, no love for its film so great that I cannot read subtitles. I do own a CD entitled “The Best of Bizet”, but I don’t think learning the language would have any real impact on my enjoyment of the music.

No, the reason why not speaking French eats at me is the  fact that I spent several hours, every week, for three years, in a class that aimed to teach me French.

Now, there were plenty of subjects in school I didn’t particularly care for, and several in which I was no good, but I think I still walked away from those with something. I can calculate the area of a circle, and probably solve an equation or two given enough time and paper to scribble on. I’m aware of the general function of tectonic plates. I can set up a monthly budget in a spreadsheet, and I could make a very basic database in Microsoft Access 2000, if I should ever see a copy of that again. I know how to light a butane burner, and I know the rules of dodgeball, but I do not speak French.

The thing is, I like language. I think linguistics is super interesting. I feel like I should have had something to show for it all at the end of those three years in secondary school, but nope! I can muddle through the title of this post, but that’s about it. I keep thinking that one day – one day! – I will find the time to go through those language courses they have in the library, or find some awesome online course, and really dig up all the knowledge that never really took back in school and learn the damn thing. It doesn’t happen of course – even when I do have free time, this goes way down the list of priorities.

Enter the thing I actually wanted to talk about in this post: Duolingo. Duolingo is one of these newfangled Internet crowdsourcing services, which aims to teach you a language while simultaneously using you to translate various web pages. You gradually get given more complex words and sentences, and the idea is that as you grow in proficiency, you can help translate more tricky stuff.

I read about this thing when they announced who knows how long ago, and though it sounded like a neat idea. I signed up for their mailing list, and promptly forgot the whole thing until a beta invitation landed in my inbox a few days ago. Over the weekend, I’ve been playing around a bit with their French module, and want to jot down some thoughts.

One the plus, I absolutely see how this might be useful – taking the language in small daily doses, and building up a slow rise in competence. I have, in fact, dug up some of those things I learned in school, enough to make heads and tails of the sentences and basic verbs, and have managed to advance to level four. I don’t know if that’s four out of ten (unlikely) or four out of ten million (also somewhat unlikely), but I am at level four.

And that’s the part of Duolingo I’m sort of sceptical about: the points advancement system. See, every lesson you complete or sentence you translate wins you points. When you have enough points, you advance a level.  There’s even a big medal hanging around the neck of my default profile picture whenever I log in, proudly proclaiming my prowess as a level four Frenchie.

I don’t feel like a level four Frenchie. I still don’t speak French. I can make it thought some of the sentences that keep getting repeated in these lessons (L’homme boit du bière et la femme boit l’eau, because stereotypes fuel early learning or something, I guess), but that doesn’t mean I’ve actually learned much. There’s no real explanation for verb conjugation so far, for instance – and if there’s one thing I remember from French class in school, it’s the endless word document of verb conjugations I had amassed by the end – so I feel like I’m perpetually one step behind what I’m being asked to translate. Like an important step has been skipped. Why should I get points for that?

More insidious still, I think the points and levels could easily foster a false sense of accomplishment. It promotes a train of though where you graduate from one thing and move on to another – “I have mastered this word, now I need not look at it or think of it again!” I won the trophy, now I need not expend further effort on the task. Language doesn’t work like that, it’s not a continually growing pool of points you amass, it’s a thing you practice regularly to maintain, or let atrophy into nothing. Like a muscle. This is Fitocracy all over again.

I’ll probably keep going with these lessons a while longer. It’d be mad to give up after three days, and the core idea is still a neat one. Maybe it’ll even help, after a month or two. Maybe I’ll even have to eat my words about the points system.

But I’ll only do that if I can do it in French.

24 May, 2012

Typing between Coughs

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Obdormio @ 00:00

You might have noticed that there was no post up on Monday, and if you didn’t notice it, well, I guess you know now. Public shame is a fact. The shame! Oh, the shame!

But I have excuses! It wasn’t just because I am a lazy ne’er-do-well and unreliable couch barnacle! Since about last Monday, I have been suffering from acute pharyngitis – fever and pain and the whole shebang. From Thursday till Tuesday, I basically stayed in bed, alternately sleeping and coughing and occasionally watching a bit of TV. I could not even begin to think about sitting down to write a post to satisfy my self-imposed schedule. Not even a crappy filler one. I cannot remember the last time I was so reduced by illness.

I can remember the last time I came close, it happens to be last May. I had just handed in my Master’s thesis, and almost immediately got struck down by a variety of ailments, including what would later be diagnosed as gout. I figured at the time that my body had basically been as stressed out as my mind in the final stretch of writing the thesis, and once it was all done my immune system basically went on holiday for a while. I’ve spoken with others who have had similar experiences, of suddenly falling ill once the exam season is ended. I sort of wish that was the case now, but if so it seems my immune system is working of a bad calendar – my first exam started yesterday, and I won’t be done until mid-June. I sincerely hope getting ill in the spring won’t become a tradition.

The knock-down last May was in some ways worse, and in some ways better. Like I said, it came close to the same level of reduction, but not quite there. My mobility was severely limited by the gout attack, and I was similarly confined to bed, but my mind remained pretty clear – I could have written something, lying there. So no fever, and a clear mind, but on the other hand, the pain was worse. At its hight, it reduced me to weeping, which I think pain hasn’t otherwise managed since I was a child.

Anyway, the upshot of it all is an amendment of my mental schedule rule to give me the opportunity to call in sick. Now you must excuse me; I have an array of pills to take.

30 April, 2012

Elegy for Øre

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Obdormio @ 00:00

As of tomorrow, the 50 øre coin is no longer legal tender in Norway.

50 øre coin

Not to scale.

The Norwegian krone is divided into 100 øre, but the 50 øre coin is the last physical representation of this. It’ll still be possible, as far as I know, to pay a bill at the bank with a sum including øre, but when using cash, the concept is effectively gone.

And I can see why, much as I am a nostalgic fart trapped in my own rosy vision of the past. I never use the damn things myself. Tiny little coins taking up place in my wallet, to be ditched at the first possible opportunity, which is rarely when making a purchase. Most of them probably ended up in various charity collections, cheap-ass as that is. A coin that doesn’t circulate is a waste, and getting rid of it makes sense. Even so, it feels a bit like we’re losing something, with the øre disappearing.

I am just old enough to remember the 10 øre coin, which was discontinued when I was six. My grandmother had an old tin piggy bank which consisted of two halves joined at the middle; to open it you pulled the whole thing apart. That thing was filled to the rim with 10 øre coins, stored up over time as that coin, too, ceased to have a use in circulation. As a child, i would empty them all into a big pile and then reassemble the pig and put them all back in one by one.

In hindsight, perhaps my parents should have had me tested.

Anyway, the point is, I have a lot of nostalgia tied up in the øre, and now it’s disappearing. There’s something about the phrase “kroner og øre” that fills me with the same kind of pleasure as the term “pound sterling”. Not just “pounds”, mind you, it needs the “sterling”. It is nostalgia, but somehow not just nostalgia. I don’t know how to explain it. It hits just the right spots in my brain.

Yeah, I probably won’t miss the coin. It’s a stupid coin, you cannot buy anything with it. But I’ll miss the concept of the øre as a tangible thing.

22 March, 2012

A Sigh at Close of Day

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Obdormio @ 00:00

Oh why, oh why, do error’s missives fly
To plague my screen, all brooding, bleak and dour?
Why must I simply watch the signal die?
I’ve fiddled with the settings for an hour!
Perhaps the mystic box of light’s to blame,
Whence fly the aether’s waves throughout my home?
Or even further, from where first  they came,
The error lies, obscured in hostile gloam?
I’ve run the tests, done all that you propose;
At every turn, a new hope dies, all broken.
Though I’ve been patient, now despair o’erflows;
My sorrow can no longer go unspoken:
I’ve put up with your every little quirk.
Why won’t the friggin’ Internet just work?!

23 February, 2012

Kyrie Eleison

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Obdormio @ 00:00

Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.

We’ve entered Lent. Yesterday, members of churches more civilised than my own smeared ash on their foreheads, as a reminder of humility and a sign of penitence. We’re 45 days away from Easter, though the shops here started selling Easter candy last week. That little quote up there obviously doesn’t sum up Christian teachings on what a human is, but it is the focus of this particular season of the year – admitting fault, finding flaws, and making reparations.

Fasting during Lent isn’t widely practised these days, and I honestly don’t think that matters all that much. Fasting just for the sake of fasting won’t get you very far, I think. We’ve replaced abstaining from meat with giving up a luxury, in these parts of the world, and even that is probably not too widespread. While that, too, won’t really get you very far, I think there is a value in going without something you don’t really need, and making yourself realise how needless it really is. One of my former professors, a Hindu, told me she used to give up something new for Lent every year, to gradually pare down her dependence on non-essential distractions. I usually give up sweets, and maybe once of these years it’ll actually stick once Easter arrives.

Giving up luxuries isn’t really the point of Lent, though. It is about penitence. Penitence isn’t really something we Christians like to talk about any more –  it carries connotations of fire and brimstone and angry clergy threatening Hell and damnation; it just sounds dour and grey and oppressive, but it really shouldn’t. Penitence isn’t a bad thing, and it shouldn’t cause depression and existential dread.

Christians are sometimes perceived to be smug and superior bastards, insufferably arrogant twats looking down on the rest of the world. Sometimes that perception might be accurate. But that’s not they way it really is.  The best a Christian can hope to be is a penitent sinner, to steal a phrase from a vicar friend of mine (Don’t worry, I’ll be penitent for it later). Humans aren’t perfect, we make mistakes every day, and we don’t stop making them just because we’re religious. What Christ offered was forgiveness for errors, not inerrancy.

There is a prayer, and it is the easiest prayer to pray in the world. So many, many times I find myself using it. It has nothing to do with penitence. It comes from a parable, and can be found in Luke, chapter 18, verses 11-12. A Pharisee and a tax collector have come to the temple, and the Pharisee prays it aloud. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” It’s a prayer of judgement, of seeing the mistakes in others and ignoring them in ourselves, and becoming insufferably arrogant twats.

Penitence is about admitting the mistakes we’ve made, sins in the parlance, and then accepting forgiveness. Lent is the season leading up to Easter, when the central event of our religion is commemorated. Before the grand miracle of forgiveness, we have a period of penitence, where we get to use that other prayer, the hard one, the tax collector’s prayer, which gives so much comfort.

Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

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