Thursday, 12 June 2014

italy week: high-rise or equus caballus

After passing Liguria and on to Tuscany, we made our first stop in the town Pietrasanta (meaning Holy Stone) to admire and take note of the transition in architectural styles.  The piazza, high brick tower (campanili or more generally torre), cathedral and church were certainly unique but also a highly typical ensemble for the towns and villages of the region and distinctive different than the layout for settlements elsewhere in Italy.
This place on the Italian Riviera on the foothills of the Alps neighbours the marble quarries of Carrara, which is the main building material and artistic medium for the whole area.  The main square featured also a rather brutal-looking exhibition of sculpted skeletal horses—including one huge steel installation with human skulls in the mid-section, like some dread, decaying Trojan horse.
The high tower was an impressive landmark and its design was promulgated to towns throughout the region, like the proto-skyscrapers of San Gimignano (which we visited later) whose skyline is unique for the Tuscan countryside and is visible for great distances with fourteen tall structures, commissioned by competing wealthy families, despite an ordinance issued by Florentine authorities in Middle Ages that buildings ought to be no higher than twenty-six meters.  Abstract artist M.C. Escher made an early wood-cut of the fine towers.
The towers of this region not only the free standing belfries of the adjacent churches, many eventually installed with a clockworks but were also strategic look-out points, with vantage from sea to mountains.

Friday, 9 May 2014

meรฐ lรถgum skal land byggja

As Scotland is herself poised for a referendum on whether to secede from the United Kingdom, the archipelago stretching to the ends of the Earth of the Shetlands, Orkney and the Western Isles also wants the question of its independence to be brought to a vote. The constituency’s motto is an Icelandic phrase, “with the law shall this land be embiggened,” and reflects historic and cultural ties to Scandinavian countries, especially Norway—having not become a part of the UK until the fifteenth century (actually as a dowry for the union of the Norwegian and British royal houses). The petition to instigate the plebiscite has already been signed by around ten percent of the population and if the measure is passed, the residents could then choose to rejoin Norway.

Friday, 28 February 2014


Gentle readers, I could not even begin to reconstruct the daisy-chain of thoughts that made me think of the tale of Johnny Fedora and Alice Blue-Bonnet, a short animated musical from 1946 produced by Disney animators, but suddenly the lilting and wistful tune was in my head.

The vignette tells of two fancy hats that fall in love in a department store display case, who are sold separately to two different human owners who do not do much to foster their courtship and rather dash it. The fedora's owner eventually tosses Johnny out as old and tattered, but when all seems lost, a coach driver saves Johnny from the dust-bin and paring out two holes along the brim for ears and outfits his horse. The snazzy happy ending happens when a despondent Johnny realises that the nag trotting beside him is proudly wearing Alice. I don't know where exactly the memory came from but it brought a smile to my face the other day and was happy to find that others recall this too.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

poker-face or encephalisation quotient

Around a century ago in Berlin, local audiences, including scientists and emperors and the international public was coming to terms with what the latest object of fascination, much more than a side-show curiosity meant in terms of not only intelligence but for psychology. Around a decade prior, a school teacher, amateur phrenologist and some what of a charismatic, Wilhelm von Osten, bought a horse to hitch to a carriage he had had his eyes on. The stall available to him in the working-class neighbourhood of Berlin where he lived was too narrow to accommodate both beast and buggy and it turned out it the area was not the best to prance about, and so not discouraged, he undertook to teach his horse arithmetic, after repeated and at first accidental displays of precocity.
The world, still reveling from the recent publication of Charles Darwin's theories, had become engrossed with the idea of animal intelligence, and Mr. von Osten was more and more convinced that he had discovered the genuine article. With outstanding accuracy, the horse, Clever Hans (der Kluge Hans, after the Grimm Brothers' fairy tale), amazed audiences by clopping out answers to unscripted mathematical problems. The duo were a sensation and once learning that the Prussian emperor would have private audience, a scientific commission was called in order to avoid any royal embarrassment. The group, which included a top professor of psychology, a circus director, veterinarians and biologists, could find no explanation to the mysterious prodigy but also were convinced no trickery was involved. Besides, although he gained much fame, Mr. von Osten never charged admission or any other fees for his demonstrations.
The show continued, although, sadly Mr. von Osten died, under a new proctor, a business man who had studied von Osten's stage-presence and was enjoying some success in soliciting correct answers from Clever Hans. Hans' new owner even gathered a menagerie in a sort of equine classroom so Hans could impart his knowledge to others. The professor, however, who participated in the first commission was still mystified and launched a second investigation, this time with his students. Eventually termed the “Clever Hans Effect,” they slowly determined that the animals were quite clever though not in the ways the questioners had hoped, but rather became very good at reading body-language and non-verbal cues too subtle for audiences or skeptics to notice otherwise in order to get praise and rewards. It was a bit of a let down and Hans and his classmates were conscripted as war-horses and their fate is unknown. This effect, of course, affects all sorts of investigations and our ticks and tells give away a lot. It is funny to think also how well pets have their owners trained.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

eeyore or thanks for noticing me

In the parking lot of the supermarket, I saw this unusual trailer, which I thought I had mis- understood: Eselnothilfe or rather Donkey Rescue, though, to my mind, these sort of compound words can be manipulated to mean other things, like Emergency Donkey or Donkeys to the Rescue.  One can make donations to sponsor a service animal for villages in Africa or India, which I am sure is at least as appreciated as a WiFi router or some of the other charity forced on those communities in the past.  It was rather a service for retiring mules and the like that takes beasts of burden to farms where they are not expected to labour and can life out their days in peace.  It made me think of the dear, sweet animals we met in Ireland. 
The international organization advertised on the trailer canvas does not seem to be found under that website any longer, but searching I learned about similiar charities, which is a nice thought.  After we finished shopping, the caravan was ahead of us on the road and started on the same route as we would take home.  For a moment, I was excited that they might bring us an old donkey to care for.