18 February 2009

Shakespeare Recommendations

I've been doing a lot of reading, listening to and watching Shakespeare the last few months. I've finished the so-called Henriad (Richard II, Henry IV (pts. 1, 2), Henry V), King John and Richard III, and I'm preparing to tackle Henry VI (pts. 1, 2, 3). I've also caught (or recaught) Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Othello and As You Like It.

In terms of listening to the Bard, I can't recommend enough the Arkangel series of audio CDs which have been uniformly excellent so far. I'm in the midst of Henry IV right now and the actor reading Falstaff is brilliant.

In terms of visual delight, I'd recommend without reservation the Ambrose Video series of adaptations. David Gwillim and Jon Finch are marvelous as Henry V and Henry IV, respectively, and Anthony Quayle is wonderful as Falstaff. I also particularly enjoyed the actor who portrayed Richard III. The casts are always good, regardless.

The only drawback to all this good literature is that it's ruined me for my job as a copy editor - I just can't take a press release about Carls Jr's new crispy burrito or the Santa Monica Pier's centennial seriously or I'll rail about the utter lack of writing ability :-)

Book Review: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

Just wanted to strongly recommend John McWhorter's latest book, a slim volume for the general reader interested in language called Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue.

In five chapters, McWhorter looks at some of the more interesting aspects of English -

Chapter 1 - Explains why English has the "meaningless do" and uses the present participle (-ing) as a marker for the present tense (it's the Celts' fault).

Chapter 2 - Looks at the arbitrariness of grammar and how English's evolved.

Chapter 3 - Explains the reason why English is astonishingly lacking in case endings (compared to its Indo-European cousins) (blame the Vikings for this one).

Chapter 4 - Demolishes the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that grammar significantly shapes a speaker's view of reality.

Chapter 5 - Discusses the exciting hypothesis that proto-German's sound shift from "p", "t" and "k" to "f", "th" and "h" is the result of Semitic influence from the mid-first millennium BC (the Phoenicians can claim this one).

Overall, a very satisfying and quick (c. 200 pages) read.

Evolution: 1, Intelligent Design: 0

Having taken last week off from work, I was lounging around the apartment Tuesday night providing a comfortable cushion for the cats when I stumbled across a Nova episode recounting the Dover, PA, case where a school district tried to get Intelligent Design taught as a scientific theory. Based solely on the trial's transcripts, the episode utterly demolished ID's claim to scientific validity. The case was so obvious, even the conservative, Bush-era-appointee judge recognized ID's worthlessness as an explanatory theory.

The most telling comment came when one of the scientists interviewed said that, ultimately, Intelligent Design is a science killer. It stops inquiry dead in its tracks since it says that if you find an "irreducibly complex" organ the only possible explanation is a "designer." (And, as IDers can't claim it's God, they're willing to contemplate aliens from Xenu or annunaki from Nabiru, which makes the theory's explanatory power even weaker.)

But, of course, you can trace the elements that go to make up so-called irreducibly complex organs: Vision has independently evolved several times, for example, and even the bacterium's flagellum (one of ID's prime examples of irreducible complexity) has been parsed into its constituent elements. (Richard Dawkins in The Ancestor's Tale points out that if the flagellum is such a wonder of motive power and efficiency, why is it only present in bacteria. You would think an intelligent designer would want to put such a marvelous engine in all its creations.)

At any rate, if you can find it on the Internet, see it on a Nova rerun, or purchase it from PBS, I recommend it highly.