Monthly Archives: August 2007

Five Year Bloggiversary.

Holy cow. I started this blog on August 30th, 2002. (It was on Blogger, then; I’d been reading blogs for almost a year and thought it was time to take the plunge.)

Has it been that long? Where did the time go?


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Dragons in the Tain Bo Cualnge

Earlier this week, I mentioned the favorable connotations of dragons in Irish poetry. So let’s go to the epic! Tain Bo Cualnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) was written about pre-Christian events, possibly collecting pre-Christian poetry, but was certainly put into its present form by Christians and preserved, memorized and copied from manuscript to manuscript by them.

It helped, of course, that Ireland didn’t have any martyrs; and that many people of druidic, poetic, and bardic families converted to Christianity and felt a call to become monks and priests. Some monks left annoyed comments in the margins about how the abbot was nuts to make them copy out all this boring old heathen stuff; but for the most part, the Irish saw their ancestors as God-touched in many ways. King Cormac, Ireland’s answer to Abraham and Akhenaton, was the poster misunderstood hero for this view. You even get bits like the tale of St. Patrick and Oisin. (Okay, so that was a late medieval fanfic add-on from much later. It still proves my point.)

So back to the Tain Bo Cualnge. Here’s the first description we get of Ulster’s great hero, Cu Chulainn:

I see a fair man who will perform weapon-feats, with many a wound in his flesh. A hero’s light is on his brow. His forehead is the meeting-place of many virtues. In each of his eyes are the seven jewel-bright pupils of a hero. His spearpoints are unsheathed. He wears a red mantle with clasps. His face is beautiful. He amazes women-folk.This lad of handsome countenance looks in the battle like a dragon.

Here’s another great hero, Fergus mac Roich. Queen Medb of Connacht flatters him by referring to him, to his face, as:

the bold Fergus, Fergus mac Rossa Róich with lowing cattle and great armies surrounded by tribes with great possessions, Fergus with the beauty of a king, the fierceness of a dragon, the venomous breath of a viper, the powerful blow of a lion.

Medb’s husband Ailill is watching the Ulster troops come up with Fergus:

‘Who are those, Fergus?’ asked Ailill.

‘Those are two warriors, two bright flames, two points of perfection in battle, two heroes, two combative chiefs, two dragons, two fiery ones, two champions, two fighters, two scions, two bold ones, the two beloved by the Ulstermen around their king. They are Fiachna and Fíacha, two sons of Conchobar mac Nesa, the two loved ones of the north of Ireland.’

None of this, btw, means that the image of the evil dragon is unimportant. In fact, the reason one can artistically compare some human to a dragon is probably that one is making a subtle compliment underneath — “Since you’re as fierce and tough as a dragon, I bet you could slay or tame a dragon if one showed up.”

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Jesuits… In… VR!

The Jesuits are an order with a great history, but which is currently rather… challenged… by some of its members with… unique… viewpoints on Christianity. (Bless their lil’ hearts.)

So I like to be able to report good stuff. Via the good folk at Der Spiegel magazine in Germany (who provide some brief summary), the Polish Jesuit magazine Tygodnik Powszechny reports on its new mission in Second Life! (I can’t read Polish, but check out the cool picture!) This issue features several other fairly long articles about this cool new thing they’re up to.

Interview with the Polish Catholic Church’s Internet chief. (He probably wouldn’t want to be called “czar”.) Includes computer picture of some guy in white, with a huge cross and picture of Christ behind him — possibly a scene from a virtual church.

Article about Second Life and theology. Includes picture of some sort of virtual chapel, with pictures of Our Lady.

Article about the new “Second Tygodnik” office. Includes a picture of some wise guy with an angel avatar.

Yes, obviously there are a hundred ways that this could be a thousand times lame or misleading to people. But it is proactive, and it is going to people where they are, and it does seem quite congruent with the traditional Jesuit use of art, pop culture, and technology to evangelize and educate. So yay!

I’m leaving a message about this over at Karen Hall’s Some Have Hats, in a blatant attempt to cheer her up (and the hope she knows somebody who knows Polish, as Babelfish doesn’t).

Btw, all this is apparently part of an initiative signaled by an article the other week in the Italian Jesuit magazine Civilta Cattolica, urging evangelization of the virtual worlds as a real “mission territory”. (Here’s a good roundup.) So there may be more of this sort of thing going on.

UPDATE: The “guy in white” picture is apparently from a less well-thought-out lay initiative back in 2004 by some American Second Life denizen calling himself “Father Zapata”. You can read the well-intentioned details here and see pictures. The guy does actually seem to have avoided sacrilege, and didn’t conceal the fact that he was not a real priest celebrating a real Mass. Also, he does seem to have gotten people interested. (But it still makes my head all hurty….) No doubt this is what happens when you don’t let little boys play Mass out in the backyard.

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Elizabethan/Jacobean Discovery!

Probably everybody else knows this but me, but it’s a discovery for me. 🙂

As you may know, I’m reading The Worm Ouroboros over on my audiobook podcast, Maria Lectrix. Eddison’s novel includes a good many songs and poems, most of which are well-known Elizabethan or Jacobean poems. Since they’re sung in the text, I’ve been finding tunes for them that fit the same meter and are from the same general period.

This week I’m reading Chapter 9, which includes Herrick’s poem “The hag is astride, this night for to ride, the Devil and she together”. So I started looking around and found a MIDI of one of the dance tunes Playford used: “Devil’s Nag”. But it was not just a match — it was a perfect match! I’m pretty sure that said tune was written for Herrick’s lyrics, or vice versa! And “Devil’s Hag” and “Devil’s Nag” are pretty darned close….

So now I know a new old Halloween song! 🙂

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Examples of Good Museum Design and Pacing

The old arrangement of the Air Force Museum took almost exactly two hours to see everything. People slowed down and sped up, but almost everybody took exactly two hours. The museum alternated panels of material with display cases, and also with planes and other vehicles. In the middle of one long wall telling about WWII, there was the chilling ghost story of the “Lady Be Good”. In the middle of other Serious History Areas were panels on military cartoons, the famous filksong “Itazuke Tower”, and cool things that POWs made out of tin cans. There were objects that would arrest people’s attention, like a Fat Boy bomb casing or a space capsule, and places where kids could climb up stairs and look into or walk through planes. There was an exhibit on Project Blue Book, including a buckwheat pancake; there was a large aviation art exhibit. There was a chapel for meditation (and so the guys who’d lost friends could duck in and compose themselves). There was a “multimedia” area with people reading “High Flight” and singing “Up We Go into the Wild Blue Yonder”. In short, there was something for everyone, and that’s not even counting the outside exhibits.

The museum now takes three or four hours, and isn’t quite so compact and well-ordered. Presumably it will get a better flow as the years go by and the place is improved. Still, the newer parts of the museum retain the dedication to historical info and places to rest one’s mind. (The new exhibit on the origins of Murphy’s Law is quite nice.)

The old Natural History Museum around here was not exactly built expensively and wasn’t very large; it probably didn’t take 45 minutes to see everything, and you could run all around it in three minutes or less. (Which kids did do, when waiting around for a summer enrichment class to start.) But it was very conducive to return visits. Any kid would be happy to stare multiple times at the bee tree (with its outdoor exit and big windows on the hive), the fluorescent rocks (some kids would stand there for an hour playing with the black light controls if they’d been allowed), the mummy and the set of prehistoric bones, (with the solemn museum notice reminding us to have respect for the dead people), the fossils, and the giant spinning Moon model. But wait, there was more! The museum also kept a chicken egg incubator just like on a farm, and a set of birds, snakes, and small mammals in cages. And a planetarium. All these things rewarded repeat visits, and again, that’s not even counting the trails and facilities outside and occasional views of rabbits on the naturally provided “bunny trail”. Needless to say, many kids were eager to volunteer at the place when they got old enough.

Today, this museum has been redone specifically as a “children’s museum”, but it’s not a very good one. (We’re too close to Indianapolis and Columbus’ COSI for me to be impressed, perhaps.) The place is larger and more confusing. But they still have the mummy, and kids still come and stare at it. However, the close connection with the outdoors seems to have disappeared.

Yes, my children, the seventies were good for something. Museum design!

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On Designing Exhibits

I need to clarify something from the post below.
Proper museum exhibits don’t need booming multimedia or a zillion TV screens. Why? Because that’s confusing. (Also a waste of money.) Similarly, you don’t stuff every possible thing you can onto the wall or the display case, because that’s confusing. There were brief moments in time when people understood this. Unfortunately, most museums have been reorganized between then and now to be more confusing.

The theory of exhibit design is that you employ a good sense of arrangement and proportion, as well as trying to include something to interest every sort of person and a large number of things to interest everyone. You also think about varying eye levels, and varying angles of vision and sharpnesses of sight. Then you think about multimedia — can I use a video or audio clip to bring this alive? Every artifact and image and multimedia clip must be there for a reason. All the explanatory text should be just long enough, but not too long, and easily visible. Do your exhibits need to be explained in more than one language? Are there any hands-on things which can be provided to help people learn, and how can you make them cheap, reliable, and durable?

Finally, you think about pacing. A vast expanse of walls and halls is boring. You have to break it up a little  with other kinds of exhibits. You need to provide seats and restrooms at regular intervals. You need to think about exhibit security, visitor safety, access, and how to run through tours. Likewise, you should include humor and human things and things that children will enjoy. Finally, the museum as a whole should be such that you want to come back again and again to the same things — and yes, there should be small temporary exhibits constantly coming in and going out. (That’ll help you use some of those odd items back in the back rooms.)

This is not rocket science, but neither is it easy and simple. Good museum design is difficult to notice, because you are so engaged with the information in the exhibits that the exhibits themselves go unnoticed.

In the far past, most museums thought about getting their collections up on the wall. Today, most museums spend a lot of time thinking of themselves as amusement parks with the goal of making money, and they “de-accession” more than they probably should. These are both faulty attitudes, although there’s some truth to both.

A museum should try to make it as easy as possible to absorb new data, to learn, and to think. Everything else is secondary. If entertainment helps learning, then sure they should use it. But many museums are not at all good at being entertaining or making their “fun” stuff educational; they should stick to what they know and jettison the useless bells and whistles.

* Disclosure: I am not a museum exhibit designer, and graphics are not one of my skills. I once helped do some minor exhibit chores in the past at one of my summer jobs, and at my college work/study job. But mostly, I have just gone to a blue gazillion free museums on family trips, and been forced to hang around museums for hours waiting to be picked up from summer enrichment programs. After a while, even little kids start to have opinions about museum design.

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We Do Things Differently Here

My parents recently stopped by the Dayton Peace Museum. They went to go see the temporary exhibit on  Sr. Dorothy Stang and were interested in what was there, but not favorably impressed by the exhibit itself. (The museum folks didn’t assemble the small collection of related stuff into an actual “big series of panels of things to look at, with matting and spacing and a narrative and stuff”. Designing and assembling museum exhibits — making them look good and drawing out what’s interesting about them, as well as giving them context and making it educational — is more of a craft than most people realize.)

Anyway, the museum (which is apparently much more in the “earnest and honest” mode than “more peaceful than thou, you barbarians!”) takes the interesting tack of having a room dedicated to Nice Peaceful Things the US Air Force Does.

I’m sure this is not a tack well-known to our friends in Berkeley. I’m sure they can’t even conceive such a thing, even though it has the merits of a) being true, b) giving military personnel a reason to visit the museum, and c) not cutting off all chances of dialogue with half the people in town by insulting folk of goodwill.

Our pacifists can turn the other cheek faster ‘n your pacifists…..

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