Wednesday, June 29, 2011

"Croupon, catastrophe, stern-works, toby, truck-end"

David Crystal considers whether it is anachronistic to see a pun on Bottom in Midsummer Night's Dream -- the answer (to my mind, a little surprisingly) is that it is. Crystal lists the attested synonyms for "buttocks" in various historical periods:
1000s: arse
1200s: cule, latter end, fundament, buttock
1300s: tut, tail, toute, nage, tail-end, brawn, bum
1400s: newscher, croupon, rumple, lend, butt, luddock, rearward, croup
1500s: backside, dock, rump, hurdies, bun, sitting-place, prat, nates, crupper, posteriorums,
1600s: cheek, catastrophe, podex, posterior, seat, poop, stern, breek, flitch, bumfiddle, quarter, foundation, toby
1700s: rear, moon, derriere, fud, rass, bottom
1800s: stern-post, hinderland, hinderling, ultimatum, behind, rear end, hinder, botty, stern-works, jacksy,
1900s: sit, truck-end, tochus, BTM, sit-upon, bot, sit-me-down, fanny, beam, ass, can, keister, batty, bim, quoit, rusty-dusty, twat, zatch, booty, bun, tush
 Re "botty" / "batty" see also Geoff Pullum's old post on the term "batty man" and homophobia in the Caribbean. Re "twat" and "fanny" -- I wonder what the criteria are for euphemisms to become ambiguous in this way -- I had honestly never thought of the former as potentially ambiguous, but here is the OED:

1964    M. Kelly March to Gallows xii. 132,   I could tell her what to do with her twat if she's frightened to sit on it.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Fronnies revisited; a slier gnu

Someone said the other day that "fronny" would be a helpfully disambiguating portmanteau of "front" and "fanny." I was reminded of Auden's lost play The Fronny, went looking for a page about it, and came upon this book re Auden and Isherwood in Berlin:
What seems to be an account of Isherwood's first full day in Berlin is headed "Saturday getting tight," and later come "Intervening period of Margaret and sex expectation," "Meeting Gerhart and John's expected suicide," "The Dutchman and the Tour." [...] Auden told his brother that he was "writing another play." [...] This play was The Fronny -- again named after Francis Turville-Petre, who may well have been a topic of conversation between Auden and Isherwood during that June visit.

"Gerhart" also comes up in Auden's lines about "absence of fear in Gerhart Meyer / From the sea, the truly strong man." (IIRC they were lovers at some point.) Fronny -- i.e., FTP -- was an interesting character by all accounts, and excellently named. Here is some more about an early draft of the Fronny, called The Enemies of a Bishop aka Where is Fronny?:
One of the characters is a pederast, another is based on a character in the film Der Student von Prag, and the Bishop himself is based on Homer Lane. Auden introduced one of his favorite lead mines, and Isherwood contributed characters who owed much to the fantasy world he and [Edward] Upward had created together.
The Isherwood-Upward fantasy world was Mortmere, which (according to Lions and Shadows) was once provisionally named Stoat Grange. (One supposes The Wind in the Willows was a large influence on Isherwood, though I don't think he mentions having read it.)


Unrelated: the string "Aer Lingus" has an inordinate number of anagrams: e.g., "e.g., urinals," "seal ruing," "earl suing," "glue rains," "sugar line," "realign us," "alien rugs," "silage urn," "sea ruling," "ursine gal," and "a slier gnu."

Thursday, June 23, 2011


1. An amazing headline from the new NYRB (screenshot because I do not trust them not to change it):

2. Also in this issue is a story by Deborah Eisenberg (someone I've always meant to read...) that I enjoyed the first 70% or so of. This bit of writing struck me as esp. interesting:

The girl went over to a rack on the other side of the room, and started moving the hangers as Vivian herself was continuing to do. She was wearing the shabbiest possible coat, an old, bedraggled fur thing of the sort that was to be found in junk shops at the time for a few pounds. The fur was hanging off, disgustingly, in chunks, as if she had been flayed.

The clicking of the hangers along the racks continued on both sides of the room, slowly and rhythmically, as if two clocks were each pedantically asserting different hypotheses.

Part of what is interesting is that the two consecutive paragraphs, each ending with the same kind of simile, go well together.

3. Reading Gosse's Father and Son, which was OK and had some interesting details but is not on the whole esp. recommended, I came upon the word "febrifugal" -- of obvious meaning, of course, but nevertheless a little striking. But on closer inspection it appears to have been a pedantic counter for a generic Victorian idea, e.g. here's Ruskin as per the OED:
Geometry seems to have acted as a febrifuge.
Ugh, yes, cold mathematics vs. teh passionz! [I thoroughly detest Ruskin, going by what little I have read of his. (Which is naturally not much.) Other than H.G. Wells and to some extent Shelley there is no other canonical author to whom I am quite as hostile.]

4. Speaking of Wells, I enjoyed Colin Burrow's piece about him in the LRB (via Zach Sachs, possibly gated).

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

"Damaging attention"

The downside of rough sex:

The males of many species demonstrate behaviours that are harmful to females. Some, for example, can physically damage females during courting or mating. Daniel Rankin at the University of Zurich in Switzerland and his team now demonstrate that such sexual conflict can lead to a 'tragedy of the commons'.
Their models suggest that the evolution of male harassment of females during mate competition can lead to a downward spiral of fewer surviving females; these females are themselves less likely to survive because they receive even more damaging attention from males. Conversely, if female resistance to damaging behaviour evolves, making harassment too costly for males, this can prevent a species from dying out.
Am. Nat. 177, 780791 (2011

(In this week's issue of Nature.)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

"That gigantic flattened human hive"

Adam Thirlwell's piece in the NYRB about the Soviet writer Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky is an enjoyable read. (K's wordplay rubs off on the reviewer: Thirlwell starts off by talking about Moscow's obsession with renovation in the mid-1920s, then rapidly segues into Communist repression, calling the city "a hive of constriction"!) Some of the quoted passages from K's work are very nice, esp. considering that they are translated:
  • stone angels with their penguin-like wings grazing the earth
  • For a minute the story stopped. Wasteland and kitchen gardens stretched all about us. Along a distant embankment, shavings of white locomotive smoke curled up into the air in elongated rings. 
And of course there is much to be said for anyone who writes a story titled "The Branch Line."

The large pile of crap at the beginning of the universe

This BBC story goes well with the previous post, I think.

A team of experts has been sifting through hundreds of sacks of human excrement. ... In a tunnel 86m long, they unearthed what is believed to be the largest deposit of human excrement ever found in the Roman world. Seven hundred and fifty sacks of it to be exact, containing a wealth of information. ...

This unprecedented insight into the diet and health of ancient Romans showed that they ate a lot of vegetables.

One sample also contained a high white blood cell count, indicating, say researchers, the presence of a bacterial infection.

The sewer also offered up items of pottery, a lamp, 60 coins, necklace beads and even a gold ring with a decorative gemstone.
(It is to be presumed that the items of pottery, etc., got there by different ways than the poop; this is not, however, specified in the article.)

Monday, June 20, 2011

The large plastic duck at the end of the universe

Earlier today I was looking for a list of plays with abnormally large casts, which led me to this website, and thence to a story about Florentijn Hofman's giant plastic ducks (25 m high) on the Loire. I'd never heard of these but smaller variants have apparently been launched in Osaka, Auckland, and other cities. (Portland with its drawbridges would seem especially appropriate...)

Sunday, June 19, 2011

"Le souffleur de verre"

I'm amused by Luke Jerram's project of making glass sculptures of viruses, and perhaps by the artifacts themselves, but chiefly -- as someone who speaks no French -- by the French term "souffleur de verre" for "glassblower."

The Mechanics of Alcoholism ca. 1880

Orwell has an admirable plot summary of George Gissing's novel The Odd Women:
An elderly spinster crowns a useless life by taking to drink; a pretty young girl marries a man old enough to be her father; a struggling schoolmaster puts off marrying his sweetheart until both of them are middle-aged and withered; a good-natured man is nagged to death by his wife; an exceptionally intelligent, spirited man misses his chance to make an adventurous marriage and relapses into futility; in each case the ultimate reason for the disaster lies in obeying the accepted social code, or in not having enough money to circumvent it.

I thought the novel was good in the best traditional way -- skilfully constructed so as to be both reasonably panoramic and reasonably unified, and populated with many entirely plausible characters. (The prologue-like first chapter is by far the worst thing about it: it has a misleading air of the programmatic and tract-like.) It is also, as Orwell says, very much a product of its time, and contains much interesting historical information. I was fascinated by this bit about the mechanics of taking-to-drink:

Having locked her door, Virginia made certain preparations which had nothing to do with natural repose. From the cupboard she brought out a little spirit-kettle, and put water to boil. Then from a more private repository were produced a bottle of gin and a sugar-basin, which, together with a tumbler and spoon, found a place on a little table drawn up within reach of the chair where she was going to sit. On the same table lay a novel procured this afternoon from the library. Whilst the water was boiling, Virginia made a slight change of dress, conducive to bodily ease. Finally, having mixed a glass of gin and water—one-third only of the diluent—she sat down with one of her frequent sighs and began to enjoy the evening.

Her bottle was all but empty; she would finish it to-night, and in the morning, as her custom was, take it back to the grocer's in her little hand-bag. How convenient that this kind of thing could be purchased at the grocer's! In the beginning she had chiefly made use of railway refreshment rooms. Only on rare occasions did she enter a public-house, and always with the bitterest sense of degradation. To sit comfortably at home, the bottle beside her, and a novel on her lap, was an avoidance of the worst shame attaching to this vice; she went to bed, and in the morning—ah, the morning brought its punishment, but she incurred no risk of being detected.

Brandy had first of all been her drink, as is generally the case with women of the educated class. There are so many plausible excuses for taking a drop of brandy. But it cost too much. Whisky she had tried, and did not like. Finally she had recourse to gin, which was palatable and very cheap. The name, debased by such foul associations, still confused her when she uttered it; as a rule, she wrote it down in a list of groceries which she handed over the counter. 

Here is a description of the relevant character before she takes to drink:

Virginia (about thirty-three) had also an unhealthy look, but the poverty, or vitiation, of her blood manifested itself in less unsightly forms. One saw that she had been comely, and from certain points of view her countenance still had a grace, a sweetness, all the more noticeable because of its threatened extinction. For she was rapidly ageing; her lax lips grew laxer, with emphasis of a characteristic one would rather not have perceived there; her eyes sank into deeper hollows; wrinkles extended their network; the flesh of her neck wore away. Her tall meagre body did not seem strong enough to hold itself upright. 

And after:

A disagreeable redness tinged her eyelids and the lower part of her nose; her mouth was growing coarse and lax, the under-lip hanging a little; she smiled with a shrinking, apologetic shyness only seen in people who have done something to be ashamed of—smiled even when she was endeavouring to look sorrowful; and her glance was furtive.
There are many such descriptions of faces and heads, almost always interesting. One of the best, I think, is the picture of the heroine, as seen by the "exceptionally intelligent, spirited man" who avoids her in the end out of a sort of moral laziness:
...her calm consciousness that she had not a beautiful face. No, it was not beautiful; yet even at the first meeting it did not repel him. Studying her features, he saw how fine was their expression. The prominent forehead, with its little unevenness that meant brains; the straight eyebrows, strongly marked, with deep vertical furrows generally drawn between them; the chestnut-brown eyes, with long lashes; the high-bridged nose, thin and delicate; the intellectual lips, a protrusion of the lower one, though very slight, marking itself when he caught her profile; the big, strong chin; the shapely neck—why, after all, it was a kind of beauty. The head might have been sculptured with fine effect. And she had a well-built frame. He observed her strong wrists, with exquisite vein-tracings on the pure white. Probably her constitution was very sound; she had good teeth, and a healthy brownish complexion.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Edith Wharton's Muscular Prose

Back from Atlanta, this time without a cold. DAMOP was dreary, despite being in some ways nicer than March meeting -- fancy hotel vs. convention center, fewer parallel sessions, infinitely more free stuff -- and I'm getting more and more reluctant to go to these things. I used to think they were useful: abstracts are due a long time before the meeting, so (I used to think) committing to talk about something you haven't yet done gives you a strong incentive to do it by a certain date. Unfortunately one gets quite good at damage control over time, so that the objective incentive to finish up by a certain date loses its force; eventually conferences and talk prep take up time that would have been better spent writing papers.

Glad to report that the Kindle has put an end to my habit of traveling with the wrong books. Two things of interest that I read (dept of free e-books): The Age of Innocence and Gissing's Odd Women. (Still have a small amount of the latter to finish, I meant to finish it on the train from Chicago last night but the train was sold out so I had to take the bus, which was too dark to read in.) I had avoided Wharton she always sounded like a Henry James clone, and was surprised, or more accurately disconcerted, by the actual book. What is most disconcerting is the disconnect between the ostensible plot (which is about subtleties, silences, etc. in the canonical Jamesian way) and the style, which is vigorous, heavy-handed, "broad" and ungainly. Sometimes it is a little like reading The Golden Bowl as rewritten by Dr. Johnson: the writing is strongest at the level of the phrase, but the arrangement is often monotonous ("Civic Virtue" is more like Wilde, but Wharton doesn't do paradox):
Perhaps that faculty of unawareness was what gave her eyes their transparency, and her face the look of representing a type rather than a person; as if she might have been chosen to pose for a Civic Virtue or a Greek goddess. The blood that ran so close to her fair skin might have been a preserving fluid rather than a ravaging element; yet her look of indestructible youthfulness made her seem neither hard nor dull, but only primitive and pure.
The "thought" is good but it is expressed too monotonously, too many of the descriptors come in pairs -- a fault that is perceptible throughout the book. Then there is her fondness for lurid irrelevances, of which perhaps the best example is the running gag about Mrs. Manson Mingott's obesity:
The immense accretion of flesh which had descended on her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon. She had accepted this submergence as philosophically as all her other trials, and now, in extreme old age, was rewarded by presenting to her mirror an almost unwrinkled expanse of firm pink and white flesh, in the centre of which the traces of a small face survived as if awaiting excavation.
(I like this sort of thing as a rule. But note the redundancy, the heavy-handedness of the first sentence.)

Wharton's description of Boston in summer is reminiscent of Eliot's in "Preludes," written around the same time (though Wharton's novel is set some years prev.):
The streets near the station were full of the smell of beer and coffee and decaying fruit and a shirt-sleeved populace moved through them with the intimate abandon of boarders going down the passage to the bathroom. ... every few moments the doors opened to let out hot men with straw hats tilted far back, who glanced at him as they went by. He marvelled that the door should open so often, and that all the people it let out should look so like each other, and so like all the other hot men who, at that hour, through the length and breadth of the land, were passing continuously in and out of the swinging doors of hotels.
I am intrigued by her weirdly heterogeneous sensibility; I'll have to read more of her books.

Monday, June 13, 2011


1. Calista's post on Marvell brings up, at one remove, some more "ambergrease" -- the poem is "A character of Holland," the first two lines are famous, the rest I had forgotten:
Holland, that scarce deserves the name of Land,
As but th'Off-scouring of the Brittish Sand;
And so much Earth as was contributed
By English Pilots when they heav'd the Lead;
Or what by th' Oceans slow alluvion fell,
Of shipwrackt Cockle and the Muscle-shell;
This indigested vomit of the Sea
Fell to the Dutch by just Propriety.
Glad then, as Miners that have found the Oar,
They with mad labour fish'd the Land to Shoar;
And div'd as desperately for each piece
Of Earth, as if't had been of Ambergreece;
Collecting anxiously small Loads of Clay,
Less then what building Swallows bear away;
Transfursing into them their Dunghil Soul.
2. Via Twitter, the most magnificent of drop-down lists, viz. the "salutation" list in the Royal Opera House registration form:
(The only title that competes in length with "the dowager Marchioness of" is "HE the French Ambassador M.")


Strange how natural it is to lower one's expectations, to the point that even a late and disappointing end to a project counts as an "accomplishment," at least the mind insists on treating it as such; even successful damage control occasions a degree of self-congratulation. Perhaps basking is just an excuse for laziness. Anyway, a paper that I should have completed two months ago will finally be sent out today (at 3:01 pm, re  which see here); and I've put together a talk for DAMOP, though not the accompanying paper. I'll be in Atlanta tomorrow through Friday and don't expect to blog much. (Email access might also be limited, not sure about this.) A few miscellaneous notes for the time being:

1. I recently discovered the enormous utility of the term "account" in technical physics writing. Unlike most of its synonyms ("description," "explanation," "theory," "claim") it is not standard physics jargon, so has no connotations whatsoever and can be used to refer to other people's work without implying anything at all about it. It is even better than treatment, the only real competitor, which implies that the cited work did something more than (e.g.) hand-waving/speculation. "Account" is especially good when you're citing papers you haven't read beyond the abstract and conclusions. (Physics has accelerated the "deterioration process" of my writing; at this rate I'll soon become entirely unable to start a sentence without "hence" and/or "furthermore.")

2. Speaking of physics jargon I am a big fan of this abstract ("away from the decoupling limit the Hamiltonian constraint is maintained at least up to and including quartic order in nonlinearities, hence excluding the possibility of the Boulware-Deser ghost up to this order").

3. Calista has been doing Spenser, which is great because it means I don't have to. The best find so far is the etymology of the word "blatant," which was apparently a Spenserian coinage. There is a "blatant beast" in the Faerie Queene, a many-tongued monster, which later came to mean babbling (re a person), then clamorous (re a person), and then finally clamorous (re a fact). OED sensibly dismisses the suggestion that "blatant" comes from the Scots for "bleating" (this is Spenser after all) and notes that as it was originally often written "blattant" the a would have been short at first. I assume that there is some connection here with the "couchant lions" etc. in heraldry...

4. Finally a note re Chomskygate and associated matters. (This should be a long post on its own but I don't feel like writing it.) What Chomsky supposedly said:
derided researchers in machine learning who use purely statistical methods to produce behavior that mimics something in the world, but who don't try to understand the meaning of that behavior. Chomsky compared such researchers to scientists who might study the dance made by a bee returning to the hive, and who could produce a statistically based simulation of such a dance without attempting to understand why the bee behaved that way. "That's a notion of [scientific] success that's very novel. I don't know of anything like it in the history of science," said Chomsky. 

See also Language Log. I think there are three issues here that are at least partly separable. (1) Computers and their role in "understanding," e.g., does having a computer-generated "proof" of a theorem in mathematics imply that the theorem is "understood"? (See, e.g., Doron Zeilberger. I don't know these proofs well enough to have an opinion.) (2) Phenomenology and "microfoundations" -- is it OK to base a model on phenomenological observations or should all true explanations be reductions to first principles? Chomsky seems to hold the latter view; I disagree, at least partly on the grounds that there are typically a lot of "first-principles" models that agree on large-scale properties, so that it is misleading at best to say that a first principles model explains patterns seen in large-scale data. It is worth noting, though, that if you hold Chomsky's view on reduction, then it is true that most work in the field is irrelevant: if one wanted to understand underlying principles one would want to construct experiments (or at least clever natural experiments) that isolated certain aspects of linguistic behavior, not try to model the entire thing. (3) "What is science?" This is one of those bad questions like "what is poetry?" A discipline is either a defensible expenditure of intellect and resources or not, just as a piece of writing is either rewarding to read or not. The trouble with a question like "is this science/poetry?" is that it inevitably conflates the Q. of worthwhileness with the unrelated Q. of whether X resembles the members of some predefined set.

5. Andrew O'Hagan, Seamus Heaney, and Karl Miller tour Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. (Why didn't they do Cornwall?) I was amused to learn from the article that Lesmahagow is an actual place in Scotland (cf.) and also by Hugh MacDiarmid's sheep-inspired terms for Scottish weather:
Hugh MacDiarmid had a feeling for the freezing lives of sheep, and he resurrected, or to some extent invented, the words that would capture the rude nature of the Scottish snowstorm, calling it the ‘yowdendrift’, when snow is blown across the fields at speed, or the ‘yow-trummle’, the ewe-tremble, when the shorn animals are seen to shiver and quake as they catch their death.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

"If a man lacks the gift of song, then he may laugh as a substitute"

W.H. Auden, in The Enchafed Flood (writing, here, about Stubb):
A man may laugh for pleasure or joy. Pleasure or joy are not comic, and the appropriate response is song, i.e., the expression of gratitude and praise. If a man lacks the gift of song, then he may laugh as a substitute. The substitute is acceptable because there is no suffering involved, except the comic contradiction of being unable to sing in a situation demanding song and in which laughter is actually ridiculous.

For what is the comic? The comic is a contradiction that does not involve suffering, either directly in the subject or indirectly by sympathetic identification with those involved in the contradiction. [...] A man who makes a religion out of the comic is unable to face suffering. He is bound to deny it or to look the other way.

The first paragraph makes a nice pendant to "Notes on the Comic" (cf. "Among those I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can: all of them make me laugh.") and one is also reminded of Auden's aphorism about opera:
"No opera plot can be sensible, for people do not sing when they are feeling sensible."
Vpdate Re laughter cf. Spenser's faun, who "saw that pleased much his eye, / And made his hart to tickle in his brest" (i.e., Diana bathing). Like much else in this genre, via Calista.

Friday, June 10, 2011

"They must be read in order as they lie"

1. Lydia Davis reviews Ashbery's new version of Rimbaud (NYT). I admire Davis's stories and can see how her sensibility informs her theory of translation, but the theory itself is pointlessly austere, and I cannot see that the lines she particularly admires in Ashbery's translation are unusually good. (She doesn't say that in one of the lines she quotes, "Let someone finally rent me this tomb, whited with quicklime," the prosody -- dactylic hexameter -- and the punning antithesis on quick/tomb probably had as much to do with the choice as the KJV.)

2. While on the topic of translation, a passage from Dryden's preface to his translation of the Aeneid. (I went through an obscurely motivated obsession with Dryden a few years ago; could not bring myself to read very many of the plays but read all the poems and prefaces. There is a lot of appealingly specific nuts-and-bolts talk, as well as chutzpah, in his critical writing.)
What [Virgil] says of the Sibyl's prophecies may be as properly applied to every word of his--they must be read in order as they lie; the least breath discomposes them, and somewhat of their divinity is lost. [...] 
I have shunned the caesura as much as possibly I could; for wherever that is used, it gives a roughness to the verse, of which we can have little need in a language which is overstocked with consonants. Such is not the Latin where the vowels and consonants are mixed in proportion to each other; yet Virgil judged the vowels to have somewhat of an over-balance, and therefore tempers their sweetness with caesuras. ... On the other side, for the reason already named, it is all we can do to give sufficient sweetness to our language; we must not only choose our words for elegance, but for sound--to perform which a mastery in the language is required; the poet must have a magazine of words, and have the art to manage his few vowels to the best advantage, that they may go the farther. [...]

You may please also to observe that there is not, to the best of my remembrance, one vowel gaping on another for want of a caesura in this whole poem. But where a vowel ends a word the next begins either with a consonant or what is its equivalent; for our w and h aspirate, and our diphthongs, are plainly such. The greatest latitude I take is in the letter y when it concludes a word and the first syllable of the next begins with a vowel. Neither need I have called this a latitude, which is only an explanation of this general rule--that no vowel can be cut off before another when we cannot sink the pronunciation of it, as he, she, me, I, &c. [...]

I am sure there are few who make verses have observed the sweetness of these two lines in "Cooper's Hill" -
"Though deep, yet clear; though gentle, yet not dull;
Strong without rage; without o'erflowing, full" -

and there are yet fewer who can find the reason of that sweetness. I have given it to some of my friends in conversation, and they have allowed the criticism to be just. But since the evil of false quantities is difficult to be cured in any modern language; since the French and the Italians, as well as we, are yet ignorant what feet are to be used in heroic poetry; since I have not strictly observed those rules myself which I can teach others; since I pretend to no dictatorship among my fellow-poets; since, if I should instruct some of them to make well-running verses, they want genius to give them strength as well as sweetness; and, above all, since your lordship has advised me not to publish that little which I know, I look on your counsel as your command, which I shall observe inviolably till you shall please to revoke it and leave me at liberty to make my thoughts public. [...] Spenser has also given me the boldness to make use sometimes of his Alexandrine line, which we call, though improperly, the Pindaric, because Mr. Cowley has often employed it in his odes. It adds a certain majesty to the verse when it is used with judgment, and stops the sense from overflowing into another line. [...]

The want of genius, of which I have accused the French, is laid to their charge by one of their own great authors, though I have forgotten his name, and where I read it.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

"Imperfect bellowings"

A passage that recently came to my mind, for no reason, from Dryden's play The Conquest of Granada:
Not heads of poppies (when they reap the grain)
Fall with more ease before the lab'ring swain
Than fell his head:
It fell so quick, it did even death prevent,
And made imperfect bellowings as it went.
Then all the trumpets victory did sound;
And yet their clangors in our shouts were drown'd.

This is from a description of a bullfight (I think; I have no recollection of why the bullfight was in the play, which I read some years ago). The Conquest of Granada is entirely wonderful to my mind, despite/because of its extreme absurdity as satirized in The Rehearsal, and not invisible here; the plot makes very little sense but the whole thing has a swing to it. (Btw "imperfect bellowings" is very repurposeable I think.)

Truffles and ambergris

From this Wikipedia article on truffle extraction (I was charmed by the table of differences between truffle hogs and truffle dogs), I was led on to an article on truffle vodka and thence to this piece by Nicholas Coldicott in the Japan Times on great/horrific infusions of various kinds:
There are, as I write, bottles of homemade pepper vodka, perilla vodka and wasabi vodka on my coffee table. There's a hops vodka and a banana vodka on top of my fridge. There's a butter vodka in the fridge, a black truffle vodka on the sideboard and an ambergrease vodka on top of my wine cellar, but we'll come to that later. My infusion mentor has been Hiroshi Tsuchiya of vodka bar Bloody Doll in Ginza. [...] Once you accept soy sauce as a viable drink flavor, the possibilities are vast. I drafted a list of infusion ideas with a vodkaphile friend. It began fairly sensibly with a list of Japanese citrus fruits, but as the e-mails bounced to and fro, they became more imaginative. Leather, I suggested. Wild boar, said Tom, or how about caramel popcorn? What if I took all the ingredients pictured on the side of a Bombay Sapphire bottle and infused them in vodka? How about sarsaparilla, Marmite, agave, tofu, Champagne, cacao or smoke?
(My friend Jeremy and I tried to make hop-infused vodka last year; there were multiple attempts none of which was a success. It tasted either exactly like vodka or impossibly bitter -- and I am quite fond of bitter beers. It is possible that one needs a high-end vodka to pick up the hops before they become overpowering. An odd consequence of the entire experiment was that it spoiled a few beers, like Bell's Two-hearted Ale, that I used to like a lot.)

Coldicott goes on to write about the final frontier, viz. ambergris infusions (adding ambergris-infused vodka to expensive Japanese whiskey "boosted the oriental character of the drink"). It is interesting to compare his take on ambergris:
Though it sounds like something a mechanic wipes from his hands after a long day, ambergrease is far more revolting: it's the vomited bile of a sperm whale. When the big mammal eats something that disagrees with him, his gut excretes the bile. When he's sick or scared, he purges. By all accounts, ambergrease leaves its host as a foul-smelling gloop but dries into a rock with an aroma not unlike musk. In the past, it was prescribed as an invigorative cordial or a fertility aid. These days, only posh perfumers and incense makers use the substance.
with Melville's (in what, as far as I can tell, is the only fart joke in Moby Dick):
Stubb was beginning to look disappointed, especially as the horrible nosegay increased, when suddenly from out the very heart of this plague, there stole a faint stream of perfume, which flowed through the tide of bad smells without being absorbed by it [...] he thrust both hands in, and drew out handfuls of something that looked like ripe Windsor soap, or rich mottled old cheese; very unctuous and savory withal. You might easily dent it with your thumb; it is of a hue between yellow and ash color. And this, good friends, is ambergris, worth a gold guinea an ounce to any druggist. Some six handfulls were obtained [...] Who would think, then, that such fine ladies and gentlemen should regale themselves with an essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale! Yet so it is. By some, ambergris is supposed to be the cause, and by others the effect, of the dyspepsia in the whale. How to cure such a dyspepsia it were hard to say, unless by administering three or four boat loads of Brandreth's pills, and then running out of harm's way, as laborers do in blasting rocks. 
According to the OED, a character in one of Charles Sedley's (Restoration) plays vows to breakfast on "new laid eggs, ambergrease and gravy."

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Grayling Farce: a Link-Dump

[Disclaimer: I am sympathetic in the abstract to the following argument -- the bureaucrats and politicians who run higher education in the UK are incorrigible vandals who are out to destroy the humanities (and maybe the pure sciences); the situation is less dire in the US because well-endowed private universities exist; therefore there is an argument to be made that the private university is a refuge for researchers in the humanities. (I do not know how accurate this is. Differences in tenure might also be relevant.) If a university cannot run itself on an endowment or government grants, it has to raise money somehow, and one way to do this is through students' fees. It is very bad, perhaps reprehensible, that low-income students would not have access, but we live in hard times and it's better that some people have access than that no one does.
I would not consider this a knock-down argument but it isn't without force.]

A.C. Grayling's increasingly absurd new scheme (appropriately, the URL is seems at first sight to be related, but in fact it is not. As Mary Beard says, there is no real research component. The "distinguished professors" are all public intellectuals (mostly over-committed), e.g., the Guardian lists
Richard Dawkins teaching evolutionary biology and science literacy, Niall Ferguson teaching economics and economic history and Steven Pinker teaching philosophy and psychology [...] Ronald Dworkin QC, a leading constitutional lawyer teaching at University College London and New York University; and Steve Jones, a leading geneticist. Lawrence Krauss, professor of Earth and space exploration and physics at Arizona state university.
(It is interesting how many of these are nominally scientists, given that it's the "New College for the Humanities"...) Today the Guardian reports that the nchum website has posted syllabuses "copied from the University of London's own web pages." The point becomes clearer once you understand (via Jack of Kent's excellent roundup) that

it is not even a College in any meaningful sense.

Its students will be enrolled on University of London degrees which, it seems, they will have to apply for directly.

However, instead of the £1,000 to £2,000 a year they would expect to be charged for a University of London degree, the “gifted” student will be expected to pay £18,000.

At least Boris Johnson gets the point:
London's mayor, Boris Johnson, backed Grayling's idea, saying "it fully deserves to succeed and to be imitated".
It prompted him, Johnson added, to recall his own idea of founding "Reject's College, Oxbridge", which would be "aimed squarely at the wrathful parents – many of them Oxbridge graduates – who simply could not understand how their own offspring could rack up three A-stars and grade 8 bassoon, and yet find themselves turned down".
In general this seems about as silly and somewhat less harmless than Alain de Botton's roughly contemporary venture, the School of Life.

"Drinking, Namby-pamby, Aeolus, Droll..."

The names of the Seven Dwarfs translated out of English by Disney and back into English by Google:

It is surprising how many of these are correct; for instance, one hardly expects a machine to translate anything as "dopey." The algorithm is probably trained re the dwarfs. Some of the odd ones are false friends (Tudor, Trotter, etc.) -- see e.g. here for the foreign-lang. versions. Then there are the expected, vaguely charming, mistakes (listed above, also "God Bless You").

(Admin note. In addition to the Brazilian blog dump that ended up losing me a few subscribers, Blogger has lately been very unreliable with embedded images.)

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The allegedly fictitious

Stan Carey links to this article on twitter, re the (in-fact-quite-real) town of Clifden:

with the note that "much of Ireland has become imaginary." It reminded me of the equally embarrassing mistake by Greenberg and Fox in their NYRB review (last week or so) of Howard Norman's new book, which included the very strange assertion that "Economy" was a made-up town name. This was esp. surprising to me because the Economies are mentioned in one of Elizabeth Bishop's most famous poems:

One stop at Bass River.
Then the Economies
Lower, Middle, Upper;
Five Islands, Five Houses,
where a woman shakes a tablecloth
out after supper.

(Along similar lines I seem to remember the NYRB review of Clockers claiming that Yoo-hoo was a made-up drink...) It is curious that reviewers are so willing to assume that novels are set in fictional towns: I do not read enough "regional" novels to have a good sense of how reliable this assumption normally is. But in this age of Google it is still egregiously lazy not to check.

(The Bishop poem reminds me that I have been meaning to write about trimeter, and Auden, and many other things, but have been in low spirits -- positively glunch -- this week; partly under the weather, partly just dreading giant conference in Atlanta the week after next, partly just not enthused about all the writing I have to do -- there is a large backlog of results that should have been published some time ago, I really need to sit down without an internet connection and bang out a few papers.)

Friday, June 3, 2011

Parallel passages

(Admin note: last night the archives of some Brazilian politics blog posted to this blog's rss feed. Hopefully this is a one-off glitch; this post is meant in part to see if it is; if this persists I shall either have to learn Portuguese or move the blog to Wordpress. Sorry about the inadvertent spamming.)


a. John McPhee on New Orleans ("Atchafalaya"):

Every drop of rain that falls on New Orleans evaporates or is pumped out. Its removal lowers the water table and accelerates the city’s subsidence. ... A child jumping up and down on such a lawn can cause the earth to move under another child, on the far side of the lawn.

Many houses are built on slabs that firmly rest on pilings. As the turf around a house gradually subsides, the slab seems to rise. Where the driveway was once flush with the floor of the carport, a bump appears. The front walk sags like a hammock. The sidewalk sags. The bump up to the carport, growing, becomes high enough to knock the front wheels out of alignment. Sakrete appears, like putty beside a windowpane, to ease the bump. The property sinks another foot. The house stays where it is, on its slab and pilings. A ramp is built to get the car into the carport. The ramp rises three feet. But the yard, before long, has subsided four. The carport becomes a porch, with hanging plants and steep wooden steps. A carport that is not firmly anchored may dangle from the side of a house like a third of a drop-leaf table. Under the house, daylight appears. You can see under the slab and out the other side. More landfill or more concrete is packed around the edges to hide the ugly scene. A gas main, broken by the settling earth, leaks below the slab. The sealed cavity fills with gas. The house blows sky high.

b. Steven Shapin on corpses:
The corpse begins its dissolution into evil-smelling liquids and gases soon after death, and depending on temperature, moisture and other conditions, the stench becomes inescapable within two or three days. (The ‘worms’ – as the schoolyard song has it – really do begin to ‘crawl in and out’, bacteria, bugs and their larvae aiding in decomposition.) The release of gases – including hydrogen sulphide, methane and ammonia – makes the corpse bloat, and the pressure build-up can cause liquid to ooze out of the body’s orifices. Before we’re dust, we’re a cheesy mud. Sometimes the mud blows up: ‘Gas pressure is capable of bursting the thoracic or abdominal cavities,’ Cantor writes. ‘Before embalming was common, sealed coffins sometimes exploded’ because of it. There is a story that the corpse of Elizabeth I – retained for more than a month before burial – blew up, shattering the wooden coffin and lead sarcophagus in which it was being kept.


a. R.D. Laing, "Conversations with Children"

b. Jen Campbell, conversations with customers:
Customer: Do you have brown eyes? *peers over at me*
Me: Yes, I do.
Customer: My mother told me never to trust anyone with brown eyes.
Me: You have brown eyes.
Customer: .......... 

Person: Hi, I'm looking for a Mr. Patrick.
Me: No one of that name works here, sorry.
Person: But does he live here?
Me:... no one lives here; we're a bookshop.
Person: Are you sure?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Fractal Geometry of Wrinkles

The folds of a curtain tend to grow larger and smoother as you move away from the fixed end; this behavior is generally true of suspended sheets -- they tend to form wrinkles near the fixed ends that turn into larger smoother billows as you move away from the edge. (The picture above, L, is a sheet of two-layer graphene suspended over a trench.) A natural question that this sort of recurring structure brings up is whether, if you took a picture of the region near the surface (i.e., the region with small wrinkles) and blew it up, you'd get something that looked exactly like the region with larger wrinkles -- whether the joints at which wrinkles join and split look the same at all scales, in other words. A nice new paper in PRL ["Wrinkling Hierarchy in Constrained Thin Sheets from Suspended Graphene to Curtains,"  PRL 106, 224301 (2011)] shows that this is indeed the case, and that -- under some weak assumptions -- the average wavelength (crest-crest distance) of the folds scales as the distance from the fixed end as x^(2/3) for light sheets and as x^(1/2) for heavy sheets. ("Light" and "heavy" are defined somewhere in the article...) Here are some of the results:

So wrinkling is one of those "universal" phenomena that people in statistical physics are obsessed with (see prev.) -- as evidence for the anti-reductionist view that you can't really explain macroscopic effects in terms of what things are made of, because (e.g.) every large sheet-like object behaves in much the same way and so the microscopic details don't add anything significant to the story.

Two notes:

(1) The new PRL is closely related to a paper that was featured in Phys. Rev. Focus a couple of months ago on the crumpling of paper. The first author on the crumpling paper was the aptly named Robert Schroll.

(2) The new PRL introduces the semi-charming term "wrinklon" for the site at which a wrinkle forks. (Any clump-like or singular feature is a [blank]-on as per standard naming practice, which I think began with "soliton.") One of the experiments they did to study wrinklons was, I thought, very elegant: they took a plastic sheet, clamped one end of it to a surface with serrations at wavelength lambda, and the other to a surface with serrations at twice the wavelength. (So the folds at one end should be twice as tight as at the other; see figure below.)

This trick allowed them to isolate and study single layers of "wrinklons."

Snakes and doormats

There is something weirdly soothing about Guido Macofico's "Serpents" galleries (via National Geographic via Ben Loory.) I wonder if coiled-animal-as-rug-as-plot-device has been done; possibly too obvious. While on this topic, I am envious of my neighbor's "Mind the Gap" doormat.

Immortal headlines

Anhui province seems to specialize in a certain kind of tragedy. First there was the story of the grieving weasel, and now this:
Boy regrets selling his kidney to buy iPad

via egabbert. The headline is of course a classic, right up there with "Sword-Wielding Porn Actor Dies After Falling Off Cliff In Stand-Off"