The Moon is a Harsh Mistress: What happens to Mike?

A speculation on a key plot element. Warning: spoiler!

Brad DeLong tweets a pointer to Jo Walton’s very smart review of Heinlein’s revolution-on-the-Moon tale, which features a one-armed computer technician and a self-aware computer. The review has lots of spoilers, so I’d propose reading the book first.

More or less everyone, across the spectrum from Heinlein-worshippers to Heinlein-haters, agrees that TMIAHM is one of his two or three best products. (My other nominees, aside from Stranger in a Strange Land – which makes much more sense in the uncut version released a few years ago than it did in the original – would include Glory Road and Citizen of the Galaxy. Hard-core fans tend to elevate Starship Troopers, which I loathe.)

The balance of this note is a howling spoiler, so I’m putting it below the fold. Continue reading “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress: What happens to Mike?”

Bring more books

A sculpture in Avila of the boy Jesus disputing with learned Jews in the Temple.

A relief sculpture from 1531 in the cathedral in Ávila, home of the redoubtable Saint Teresa. The theme is the twelve-year-old Jesus disputing with learned Jews in the Temple (Luke 2:46).


It’s good if not great work. (Sorry for the mediocre photo). The Jesus is unconvincing, but then the challenge of representing a rebellious know-all adolescent Jewish Son of God would defeat greater artists. What Lucas Giraldo and Juan Rodríguez got right, unusually, is the energy of the disputation, with the learned frantically looking up texts and a boy attendant bringing fresh ammunition. This isn’t a sedate lecture but a proper academic cat-fight. Easy trivia question – answer below the jump: what is the anachronism? Continue reading “Bring more books”

“Ten commandments”? Ain’t no such thing in the Bible.

The Hebrew says “devarim” (“words”) – not “mitzvot” (“commandments”).

I’m no longer the note-taker for the Hirshleifer-Rosett  Faculty Tanakh Study Group, so I haven’t been reporting on its activities in this space, but it continues to flourish; we’re now reading Exodus, and today we hit Chapter 20, the Ten Commandments.

Or, as it turns out, not.

It’s news to me, as no doubt to most of you, but that phrase does not occur in the Biblical text. In Exodus 32:28, when the original pair of tablets is replaced, the new tablets are referred to as containing “the words (דִּבְרֵי, divarai) of the covenant, the ten words (עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדְּבָרִים , asheret ha-devarim).” (For reasons utterly obscure to me, the later tradition uses debrot, the feminine plural, rather than the masculine plural devarim.)

There’s no ambiguity here. “Commandment”  (מִצְוָה, mitzvah) is a key-term in the text, and in Jewish tradition. Its root is the word for “command,” or perhaps it would be better rendered as “instruction” or “guidance.”  A mitzvah is that which one is commanded or instructed or guided to do; the Talmudic rabbis counted 613 of them in the Torah.

Devar, by contrast, means “word” or “statement” or “speech”: thus the Greek “Decalogue.”  In particular, what the Jewish tradition has always counted as the first of the asheret devarim - “I am HaShem your God, who has brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” – is not a command, but a statement of fact. It serves as the first of ten clauses making explicit the covenant to which the Children of Israel had already assented (Ex. 19:8).

I’m not sure when or how the mistranslation happened. But once again we see the great wisdom of the founders of Harvard College (as a Congregationalist seminary) in requiring entering students to know Hebrew.

Update Commenter Raghav Krishnapriyan corrects my Hebrew. (Only in America!):

(1) עֲשֶׂרֶת should be transliterated /aseret/. The dot on the upper-left of the shin turns it into a sin. 
(2) Dibrot (not debrot – under most circumstances, you can’t have two consecutive shvas at the beginning of a word) isn’t a feminine plural: it’s the plural of a different word, diber (דיבר), meaning “utterance.” While dibrot looks like it should be feminine, it’s actually part of a class of masculine nouns that have feminine-sounding plurals. You can find a list of other such words here.
(3) דִּבְרֵי should be transliterated /divrei/ or something similar, since that’s a shva under the vet. It’s simply devarim in the construct state (smikhut).



Authorship and authenticity

Mamoru Samuragochi, until yesterday, was a deaf composer widely admired in Japan.  It now appears he is not deaf, and most of his works were ghostwritten for two decades by Takashi Niigaki, a music teacher with no public presence at least until now.  The story, including the world’s reaction to it, highlights interesting issues in aesthetic theory and the psychology of art.  In particular, it is another nail in the coffin of the idea that the experience of art can be examined by attending to a score, a performance, a painting, or any other work  by itself.

OK, the Samuragochis are actually Niigakis and not a note of them has changed: now what? Western critical tradition is much concerned to link works of art with the identity of the artist, so a largish industry exists to find and authenticate the authorship of paintings, music and other work.  If we find out that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays we ascribe to Shakespeare, the plays won’t be any different, but people (not just English profs) really want to know the truth. This is a little odd, because we know so little about the historical Shakespeare that his biography can’t really affect our experience of the work much, but there are real insights to be gained about lots of art by knowing more about the artist and his milieu.  Fritz Kreisler, whose talent  as a violinist and a minor composer are not in any doubt, attributed a bunch of his small pieces to early composers like Tartini and Vivaldi, and later took credit for them unapologetically, saying they were just as good as people thought they were when mislabeled. How different did they sound after listeners knew who really wrote them?  What was their “real” artistic merit before and after?

Continue reading “Authorship and authenticity”