Thinking About the MacGuffin

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“In our time — which is a rather stupid time — hunting is not considered a serious matter.” *

This is the picture that planted the seed:

The figurine is described at Super Punch as a Falconer Predator. My first reaction was excitement – what would a Predator fly? How big (Haast’s Eagle size maybe)? I pretty quickly segued into thinking about Predators as hunters – especially with an eye towards fair chase – after all, the movies have been telling us since version 1 that Predators are hunting.

Before I embarrass myself further, a couple points. First, and most important, I realize the Predator is essentially a MacGuffin – horror/thriller subsp.: the nameless, implacable threat element. The alien is there to serve the story; it’s not reasonable to expect a consistent Predator backstory or even consistent behavior from movie to movie. Second, I doubt any of the writers thought very deeply about hunting. My guess is that the original pitch was more like, “It’s The Most Dangerous Game! With an alien! And Arnold and Jesse ‘The Body”! And a mini-gun!” Thus the die was cast – man-hunting became the central narrative element. In spite of these caveats, I just couldn’t leave it be – the more I thought about it, the more interested I became in figuring out what the action really revealed.

So – by way of inquiry, I netflixed Predator, Predator 2, Alien Vs. Predator, went to see Predators in the theater and re-read my copy of Ortega y Gasset’s Meditations on Hunting. Aliens Vs. Predator – Requiem has yet to be viewed – the Design Student tells me it’s the worst of the lot – I may choose to remain blissfully ignorant. Things I noticed:

  • Predators are gamehogs. They are supposed to be trophy hunting, but their definition of trophy is pretty inclusive. The first Predator kills two squads (minus one) worth of special forces types, the second kills oodles of drug dealers, a couple cops and most of Gary Busey’s X-Files contingent. AvP throws the whole ‘being armed makes you a target’ thing over the side – being in the wrong place at the wrong time (I’m thinking the whalers in 1904, especially) make you trophy quality.
  • Not that there’s any shortage of human game, but the Predator’s approach reminds me a bit of the popular image of late-period buffalo hunters. At least the buffalo hunters took tongues and/or humps for the market – one wonders how big the Predator’s skull room needs to be.
  • Preserve hunting is A-OK with the Predators. The pyramid in AvP is closer to a lasertag playground than anything else I can think of. The preserve in Predators is a lot larger, but the way the humans are stocked is guaranteed to disorient them.

The overwhelming feeling that I had watching the movies was that what I was seeing wasn’t hunting. Way too much general slaughter, WAY too much hand to hand combat and a weird confusion of military fighting, honor fighting/dueling and the chase.

I thought about it for a while before I dropped back to my copy of Meditations on Hunting, knowing that Ortega y Gasset thinks hard about what hunting is and isn’t. On page 47 of my edition I found a paragraph that clarified things immensely:

If the hunted is also, on the same occasion, a hunter, this is not hunting: it is combat, a fight in which both parties have the same intention and similar behavior. Fighting is a reciprocal action. The gladiator in the arena did not hunt the panther that had been let out of the cage; he fought with it, because neither found himself in a natural situation. In the course of hunting a fight may occur, as in the case of the wild boar which, when cornered, turns and attacks the hunter; but this fight has only incidental significance within the hunt, and whatever grave consequences may result, it is only an anecdote embroidered on the main tapestry of hunting. If the hunted animal were normally to fight with man, so that the relationship between the two consisted in this fight, we would have a completely different phenomenon. For this reason, bullfighting is not hunting. Neither does the man hunt the bull, nor does the bull, upon attacking, do so with hunting intentions.” *

Bingo! Predators are gladiators/bullfighters. Human skulls are like bull’s ears. Which leads to an obvious question. Every ‘exhibition’  fight I can think of is done for an audience. Are the Predators instrumented and cam-ed for an audience back home? There’s a backstory that could provide some consistency – Hollywood big-wigs, I’ll be waiting for your call.

[other notes]

Slight spoiler – there was no falconer in Predators. I don’t know if it got cut, or if I’m supposed to accept an autonomous reconnaissance drone that happens to mount to a Predator’s shoulder weapon rack as falconry – it ain’t.

One of the key plot points in AvP is nutty. I’m supposed to accept that the Predators leave all their weapons stashed in lasertag pyramid between ‘hunts’? What, they have draconian gun laws back home? (And we’ll ignore all the evidence to the contrary from the first two flicks.)

In the future, Lance Henricksen will be ubiquitous.

Here’s an easy game to play

“Here’s an easy thing to say…” * (from one of my hands-down favorite books)

So – there’s Twitter – 140 character messages that bounce around the twitterverse. Within Twitter, there’s the notion of re-tweeting – echoing something someone else tweeted because it’s useful, amusing, etc. Originally, retweets  were a user convention – you’d copy everything, prepend ‘RT’, add pithy comments of your own if you wanted, and send the message. It was so popular that a while ago Twitter formalized retweeting (a bit – you can still force the old style). The twitterverse also has bots – bits of software (running on hardware here, there and everywhere) that watch the global tweetstream for particular strings and retweet any message containing the target phrase. For example, Monsieur Poutine (@Poutine_Bot) will retweet any message he sees that contains a reference to the Quebecois delicacy.

An hour or so ago David Malki emitted “Poutine in Guam is great #experiment” * followed by “ RT @guamtweetbot: RT @Poutine_Bot: RT @malki Poutine in Guam is great #experiment” *. By using two keywords, he got two bots to retweet each other. That’s my kind of fun (sad, isn’t it) and I jumped in. It didn’t take me very long to catch on to something that would have been obvious if I’d thought about for a nanosecond – there’s good potential for the bots to start playing ping-pong with each other.

It appears that whoever coded the BurroughsBot considered the echo problem – he doesn’t resend like Monsieur Poutine will. I do draw the line at spending my evening looking for a romantic match for cheese-curd and gravy covered software, so I jumped in and retweeted to fill up this screen shot:

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Through three cheese trees three free fleas flew.
While these fleas flew, freezy breeze blew.
Freezy breeze made these three trees freeze.
Freezy trees made these trees’ cheese freeze.
That’s what made these three free fleas sneeze. *

Several Species Of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together In A Cave And Grooving With A Pict

New Written Language of Ancient Scotland Discovered : Discovery News

The ancestors of modern Scottish people left behind mysterious, carved stones that new research has just determined contain the written language of the Picts, an Iron Age society that existed in Scotland from 300 to 843.

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Interesting – though it sounds as if not everyone is convinced – go figure.

Us and them

Naming things, categorizing them and distinguishing them from each other is an essential human activity. It’s not an exclusively human thing, but I’m betting we’re the only ones that can categorize the same object in abstract, multiple ways and then discuss it. Categories/distinctions are a double-edged sword; they can illuminate and they can obscure. One of my least favorite distinctions is between ‘the human world’ and ‘the natural world’ – as if people can stand outside the  systems that run the planet. We are just another variety of critter – an unusual and very successful one – but critters nonetheless.

domesticated_2

Watering Hole

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Amy Stein’s Domesticated series looks at our efforts to enforce the human/natural split. I chose Watering Hole for this post because there are so many mutually reinforcing messages. There’s the vulnerable girl on the diving board. There’s the chain link fence that the girl’s folks put up to keep things out. And there’s the bear. In the Domesticated dioramas, Ms. Stein uses mounts from a taxidermist in Matamoras, Pennsylvania – the town where all the Domesticated scenes are set. Hunter’s (as opposed to museum) taxidermy mounts are often an attempt to freeze a moment and are also opportunity to manipulate that moment. The percentages are that the black bear was not standing when the hunter shot it but a standing mount is impressive and the taxidermist can make the bear appear to be curious, quiet or fierce. We can’t see the bear’s expression; we’re left to assign to the bear whatever expression we need, just as the taxidermist was free to to fit the bear to the hunter’s wishes. When we look across the categorical fence we’ve created at the ‘natural world’ on the other side we see what we want to see.

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The talk that Ms. Stein and Stephen DeStefano gave at the Harvard Museum of Natural History was excellent (video above). Dr. DeStefano works with suburban and urban ecosystems: “You might be living in the biggest city in the world and you’re part of an ecosystem. You’re not separate from that, no matter how big the city.” At 23:30 or so Dr. DeStefano puts up a population slide that looks something like:

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“A biologist that looks at this growth curve says, well that population is imminently going to crash.” It’s all connected and the rules apply to everything. The sooner we knock down that chain link fence and see ourselves as a part of the landscape, a part of the ecosystem, the better.

Busy, busy

I’ve been doing a lot of vivarium work – I plan on posting construction details within a month.

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And quite a bit of dog training – Dinah’s retrieve work is coming along.

Additionally some (heterogeneous) reading:

Categorize this, NSA!

In the on deck circle – refreshing my soldering skills (is it true that US English is the only variant not to pronounce the ‘l’?). Component to printed circuit board soldering, that is.

Wordly Wise

merkin – a pubic wig (usually for women).

The Oxford Companion To The Body traces the merkin back to 1450, a time when the bidet was a distant prospect and personal hygiene fell well short of the mark. Pubic lice were common – so some women, fed up with the constant itching, just shaved the lot off and then covered their modesty with a merkin.

Prostitutes, too, were frequent wearers. In the days before penicillin, it didn’t take long to become infected with sexually transmitted diseases. They knew it was no work, no pay, and didn’t want to scare the customers off with their syphilitic pustules and gonorrhoeal warts. So the merkin was used as a prosthesis to cover up a litany of horrors.

The Oxford Companion recounts an amusing tale of one gentleman who procured the disease-riddled merkin of a prostitute, dried it, gave it a good comb and then presented it to a cardinal, telling him he had brought him St Peter’s beard. *

Today’s Wordly Wise is inspired by a bit of Twitter fun.  Yesterday @boasas re-tweeted a message from @Beard_of_Cloud – folks who follow @boasas figured out instantly what was going on. @boasas is Steven Cloud, author of Boy on a Stick and Slither; @Beard_of_Cloud is his beard’s Twitter stream (or micro-blog , if you prefer).  I loved the idea – thus @Beard_of_Doc_H was created.  While basking in Cloud’s reflected glory, I was saddened to think of the 51% of the population who are shut out of the fun. “Not so fast”, thinks I, “there are some possibilities…”

One definition of beard works logically, but not practically. @Beard_of_Tina_Vitale is another person – Danny Rose. On we go to another sense of beard – from there it’s an instant connect to a favorite old word.

Two famous merkins:

Del’s Merkin – a Permit and Bonefish fly, meant to imitate a crab, tied with Aunt Lydia’s Rug Yarn.

permitcrab

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Merkin Muffley, last President of the US

merkinmuffley

“My fellow merkins…”

What's in a Latin binomial?

I don’t read Tropical Fish Hobbyist regularly, but every so often (maybe once a year) it will catch my eye on the newsstand with interesting teasers and I grab a copy. October ’08 was such an issue – the cover had a picture of half of one of my favorite marine duos – shrimp gobies and the shrimp that cohabit with them. That was enough to get me to leaf through – I saw an article on Betta macrostoma – sold!

Neither the shrimp/goby duo nor the betta are the subject of this post, though. One of the columnists, Wayne Leibel, hit one out of the park with his article on the etymology of the Latin name for one of the eartheater cichlids. A bit of background info for those who aren’t familiar with them: cichlids are cosmopolitan small to medium sized (mostly) freshwater perch-like fish that display an incredible range of morphological and behavioral adaptations. Interesting critters! The name he explicated – Satanoperca jurupari. Luckily, there’s a version of the article online, so I can quote extensively and link back.

Both the genus and the species name refer to the supernatural. Satanoperca = Satan’s perch; jurupari/yurupari is the Tupi name for a forest demon. What’s the link between the forest demon and a creature of the river?

I have always (at least since I first read that the name “Jurupari” had demonic associations) been obsessed with clearing up that etymological association and have always felt gypped by Heckel (and Natterer for that matter) for not having shared the entire story with us. Why was this fish called “juruparipindi?” Despite consultation with a variety of South American ethnographies and compulsive index checking of any and every book having to do with Amazonian exploration, I have never found a satisfactory answer, although Mr. Robinson’s contribution came the closest.

Well, I think I have finally stumbled across the full association. While browsing in a college bookstore the other week, I noticed — in the Anthropology/Sociology section — two books entitled, respectively, Mythology of North America and Mythology of Mexico and Central America by John Bierhorst. Upon further inspection, the fly leaves provided the information that this same author had written a companion — and earlier — volume entitled (you guessed it!) Mythology of South America (1988, Quill/William Morrow Co., New York, 270 pp.). Well, I thought just maybe he’d have the answer, so gambling $10, I special ordered it.
When it came, I paged quickly to the index and looked up Jurupari — nothing! Frantically, I paged to the alternate spelling and found seven pages devoted to “Yurupari,” mythological character! What Bierhorst had done in these books was to collect myths that pop up time and time again throughout the native tribes, noting their similarities and differences. These myths had been collected and reported on historically by a legion of earlier ethnographers: Bierhorst simply read all of the published material, put it together and wrote representative narratives of the major myths surrounding creation, etc. There on pages 45 and 46, in the chapter devoted to the mythology of greater Brazil, I read with rapt attention:

“As set forth in an intricate Baniwa version, the first three people on earth were created by the supreme being Nothing But Bones, who made them by pronouncing a simple word. The three were Exhaler and Inhaler, both males, and a female, Amaru, who became the mother of Yurupari. Amaru conceived her child by lightly touching a branch to her face.

“When Amaru’s little boy was born he had no mouth and could neither speak nor eat. But Exhaler nourished him by blowing on him with tobacco smoke. He grew so fast that in a single day he attained the age of six years. Still unable to speak, he was asked by Nothing But Bones if he was man, animal or fish. With his head the child signaled “no” each time and would not give assent until asked, “Are you Yurupari?” His body, it is said, was covered with hair like a monkey’s . Only his legs, arms, and head were human. When at last his mouth was formed, he let loose a roar that could be heard all over the world.”

Now we come to the interesting stuff.

“One day he followed some little boys who were going into the forest to gather wild fruit. The children had been forbidden to eat this fruit, and when they broke the prohibition, Yurupari called down thunder and opened his mouth so wide that the children thought it was a cave. Running inside to protect themselves from the storm, they were eaten alive. Later, when he returned to the village, Yurupari vomited the three children, filling four baskets.” *

Ok, we have a forest entity that eats kids and pukes them back intact. Folks who know cichlids can guess where this is going – the eartheaters are mouthbrooders.

Reflect that the practice of mouthbrooding, which characterizes all of the “juruparoid” Satanoperca that have been spawned in the aquarium hobby to date, was probably known to the natives. Indeed, it was the eminent Swiss/American scientist Louis Agassiz who first reported scientifically on this curious phenomenon in his book A Journey to Brazil, co-authored with his wife and published in 1868. On page 220 of that book he describes mouthbrooding in a “Geophagus” species from Tefe.

He writes: “This same fish has a most extraordinary mode of reproduction. The eggs pass, I know not how, into the mouth, the bottom of which is lined by them, between the inner appendages of the branchial arches, and especially into a pouch, formed by the upper pharyngeals which they completely fill. There they are hatched, and the little ones, freed from the egg case, are developed until they are in a condition to provide for their own existence.” Agassiz goes on to speculate about the anatomical innovation, the lobed gill arch, which he believes permits mouthbrooding.”

The book goes on to state: “Mr. Agassiz has already secured quite a number of the singular type of acara which carries its young in its mouth and he has gathered a good deal of information about its habits. The fishermen here say that this mode of caring for the young prevails more or less in all the family of acara. They are not all born there, however, some lay their eggs in the sand, and, hovering over their nest, take up the little ones in their mouths when they are hatched. The fishermen also add, that these fish do not always keep their young in the mouth, but leave them sometimes in the nest, taking them up only on the approach of danger.” Italics are mine again.

Clearly the native fishermen knew about the curious reproductive behaviors of geophagine cichlids well before science did! Just like the mythological Yurupari, parental Satonoperca “open [their] mouth so wide that the children [think] it is a cave” and the fry swarm and dive deep into their throats for protection only to be spat out later, when the danger is past. *

Interesting fish + interesting language = happy natural historian.

Superior Scribblers

Wow. I get back from a multiday bird hunting trip to find that Steve has tagged me as a superior scribbler. To say that I’m emproudened would be an understatement. I’ve been reading Steve since the mid-80′s, when A Rage for Falcons first came out and the other bloggers he tags are damn high quality reads – I feel like the odd guy out. Hasn’t stopped me from doing a little (internal) swaggering around, though – I plan on continuing to enjoy the recognition.

My five picks for Superior Scribblers:

  • Lord Whimsy’s LiveJournal. Sartorial splendor, yes, but also plants, carnivorous and otherwise, wunderkammeren, the Pine Barrens and the Philly scene. He introduced me to Adam Wallacavage’s cephalopod chandeliers and has recently been seen dancing with danger girls. Beware – that well-dressed man on the pennyfarthing is much more than he seems!
  • Xtinpore. I found Xtin via Pluvialis/Fretmarks (they are friends IRL) and what a find it was. She writes like a thrush sings. Xtinpore has been on a bit of a hiatus recently – I’m fervently hoping that regular posting will resume. If you haven’t been there, go and read the older posts; if you have, add Xtin to your RSS feed so that you’ll know immediately when new posts go up.
  • The Glyphblog. One of the nice things about the medium (web stuff/blogging) is that it can be a substrate for various forms of expression – words, drawings, photographs, sequential art, moving images, you name it. You’ll find just about all of the above (and some things that defy categories) over at Lex10′s place. The Greatest Nancy Panel Ever Drawn and trading card mashups? C’mon, what more could an old psychedelician want?
  • Indexed. Visual haiku. Teh awesum. Jessica deserves a chapter in Edward Tufte’s next book.
  • Signor Marcello Poletti’s Flickrstream. Ok, so not much scribbling – mostly pictures – but I don’t care! One of my reading metrics, especially when it’s non-fiction, is how many other books does the tome in question cause me to read? How many tangential paths do I set off on? By this measure Poletti’s stream is superior – keep an eye on it.

Quote of the day

I suppose this blogging is often merely a therapeutic measure, as though one were laying one’s self on Freud’s couch while the great man was out of the room, in his stead standing a curious, humming device much like an evil oboe, which took in one’s spoken words and distributed them across an incredible, instantaneous, world-wide network of tin ear-horns. *

Read the linked posts from the bottom up and enjoy.