Sunday, July 31, 2011

"Grimaced," "scowled," "grunted," "wiggled" and "gritted"

1. Ben Zimmer writes about the computational analysis of literary style -- an older topic than is usually admitted, I remember first coming upon it in introductions to collaborative Jacobean plays [Fletcher's verse is distinguishable from everyone else's because 70% of the lines have feminine endings; Middleton and Dekker use different stock exclamations in The Roaring Girle though I've forgotten what these were; etc.] -- and writes re the jargon of the novel:
Hargraves found peculiar patterns in simple words like the verb “brush.” Everybody talks about brushing their teeth, but other possible companions, like “hair,” “strand,” “lock” and “lip,” appear up to 150 times more frequently in fiction than in any other genre. “Brush” appears near “lips” when two characters’ lips brush against each other or one’s lips brush against another’s cheek — as happens so often in novels. For the hair-related collocations, Hargraves concludes that “fictional characters cannot stop playing with their hair.”
2. He incidentally corrects a misperception re "bolt upright" that I must confess to having been under. (Viz. whether people can "bolt upright" or only "verb bolt upright."

3. Zimmer's list of uncomfortable verbs reminded me of this letter about Darwin's flatulence in the LRB:
Steven Shapin writes that Darwin’s uncontrollable retching and farting seriously limited his public life (LRB, 30 June). Some years ago, to my delight, I worked out that the great man’s full name, Charles Robert Darwin, is an anagram of ‘rectal winds abhorrer’.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Teju Cole's "Small Fates"

  • E. Mozie, 28, won’t finish his political science degree at the University of Jos. He stole two phones and is to be hanged.
  • Segun, 16, who toppled into the flood waters of Egbe Idimu while answering the call of nature, was pulled out by divers, alive.
  • If sneaking into a house to have sex with a neighbor's sleeping wife is wrong, Edunjobi, of Oshodi, doesn't want to be right.
  • Hamidu, 19, sent to eliminate Baba Ali, 65, in Ibeju Lekki, killed a chicken while waiting. The old man arrived and was likewise cut open. 
  • Love is so restless. When T. Dafe’s girlfriend dumped him in Surulere, he went at her with a pen knife until she was no more.
  • The 40 long-dead Edo State pensioners who had kept drawing their pensions will now be left without a source of income.
  • Professor A.B. Mamman, after a tiring journey from Abuja to Zaria, lay down on a hotel bed and never woke up.
  • One, two, three, four, five. Women sleeping on a restaurant floor in Ikeja. No, dead.
  • On Forcados street, Kaduna, where money buys intimacy, someone took strenuous exception, and detonated a bomb.
  • In Lagos, Mr Sikiru, 33, and Mrs Awosanya, 38, inspected schools and pocketed bribes, as though they were actual government employees.
  • Mr Malik collapsed while on duty at Murtala Muhammad International Airport, which, unluckily, has no doctor, ambulance, or medicine.
  • At the gates of the College of Education in Ekiadolor was placed, by his enemies, the freshly-severed head of an unnamed student.
  • What God has joined together, Olubukola, in Agege, wants to put asunder, merely because her husband knocked three of her teeth out.
  • Mr Henshaw Asuquo, a clergyman, traveled from Eket to his village and, upon arrival, went into his room and hanged himself.
  • In Abuja, Mrs Ali, wife of someone who used to be something, put up illegal structures, and started a brawl when they were demolished.
  • Micah, 30, of Igbolodun, breast fondler, was for that reason jailed.
  • The Minister of Aviation, Princess Ogiemwinyi, arrived in Kano in long-sleeved shirt and jeans, scandalizing moderate Muslims.
  • Like Moses, Romulus, and Remus, a baby, newly-born, was found under a parked SUV outside a mosque in Orile-Agege.
  • In Ekemgbo three Cameroonian quacks were caught peddling Chinese herbs.
  • Mr Okiemute, of the Delta State House of Assembly, entered the chamber dressed as a boy scout. Nevertheless he is sane.
  • “Madam, the car has been stolen,” Amaziah, a driver in Lagos said, correctly, as he had stolen it himself with a duplicated key.
  • Miffed during a cleanup exercise, a truculent roadside trader in Port Harcourt showed sanitation officials his gun. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A noose of light, a goose of love

I was disappointed on the whole by this year's Bulwer-Lytton winners. One that made me cackle:

As the dark and mysterious stranger approached, Angela bit her lip anxiously, hoping with every nerve, cell, and fiber of her being that this would be the one man who would understand—who would take her away from all this—and who would not just squeeze her boob and make a loud honking noise, as all the others had.
Ali Kawashima
Greensboro, NC

This one gets a pass because it's filed under "Purple Prose" (ironically it only belongs under Vile Puns to the extent that it is filed under P.P.):
As his small boat scudded before a brisk breeze under a sapphire sky dappled with cerulean clouds with indigo bases, through cobalt seas that deepened to navy nearer the boat and faded to azure at the horizon, Ian was at a loss as to why he felt blue. 
Mike Pedersen
North Berwick, ME
And I assume the echo of Fitzgerald here was unintentional, but it still amused me:
The laser-blue eyes of the lone horseman tracked the slowly lengthening lariat of a Laredo dawn as it snaked its way through Dead Man’s Pass into the valley below and snared the still sleeping town’s tiny church steeple in a noose of light with the oh-so-familiar glow of a Dodge City virgin’s last maiden blush.
Graham Thomas
St. Albans, Hertfordshire, U.K.

Mathematics in (not quite) 500 words

I'm grateful to Elisa Gabbert for the prompt for this post, esp. as the blog has been a little dead lately. (Either the internet has been letting me down or I haven't been in a mood to appreciate it.) The prompt is to describe what one studied in college in 500 words. I thought of writing an overview of physics but this was a dreary prospect -- "I, too, dislike it"; I've become anti-Science though there are of course lots of interesting specific questions in the sciences -- so I decided to write about my other college major, math, instead.

Math, even “applied math,” is stylistically different from other “mathematical” disciplines like physics: esp. in its emphasis on defining terms precisely and making all definitions and results as general as possible, so, e.g., results about circles should be extended to d-dimensional hyperspheres, and further to pi or -2 dimensions if possible… (The point is to interpret everything whenever interpretation is possible.) I have always liked this formalist/structuralist tendency, and often regret not having pursued mathematics as a career.


Analysis. Formerly calculus, this has to do with distances and volumes in a general sense—so, e.g., it is concerned with giving a meaning to questions like “what fraction of real numbers are rational” (zero), “how likely is an arbitrary curve to be smooth,” “how close is the nearest smooth approximation to this jagged mess,” etc. I would lump “differential equations” under this rubric, at least conceptually.

Abstract algebra. Given a set of objects, you can define operations on them: e.g., for a set consisting of an apple and an orange, you could say apple “+” orange = apple, orange “+” apple = orange, etc. Abstract algebra is the theory of such relations between objects or operations: e.g., what is a reflection “times” a rotation? Etc. As the success of Galois theory attests, taking a very general view sometimes helps solve specific problems.

Geometry and topology. These are about shapes. Roughly speaking, modern geometry is chiefly about an object’s “curvature” and topology is about the number of holes in it. (These are related.) Topology in particular is a taxonomic field; the interest is in classifying all objects into groups by identifying the simplest shape you can deform them into without tearing or gluing. (E.g)

Number theory. Self-explanatory; NB “number” here almost always means natural number or integer. An example of a number-theoretic result is the Tao-Green theorem that there are arbitrarily long arithmetical progressions of prime numbers. Analysis (which, a priori, has nothing to do with natural numbers) is a surprisingly powerful tool.

Combinatorics. Questions, often practical, involving permutations etc. An important subfield is graph theory, which is the study of p points with q lines drawn between them, either at random or according to some rule. Naturally, given the propensities of mathematicians, permutations of infinitely many things are also studied.

Set theory and logic. A “set” is naively a bunch of stuff. However, for reasons related to Russell’s paradox, one needs to be quite careful about defining operations on sets, and esp. interpreting the notion of “sets of sets”; this is where formal set theory started. An idea that comes up a lot is that of cardinalities, or different sizes of infinity, and whether we are missing intermediate sizes of infinity. Logic is about the structure of proofs (and by extension of computer programs), etc. Important results include the incompleteness theorem and also (a particular favorite of mine) the Lowenheim-Skolem theorem, which says (roughly) that every system of logic has one of two problems: either (a) you cannot specify the cardinality of a set through statements about it that are “utterable” within the system, or (b) there is no strict correspondence between semantic truth and syntactic provability in the system.
Applied math. A grab-bag of stuff from other fields that can be reduced to math. Examples keep changing, but e.g., I know pattern recognition was a research problem in this area not so long ago. 

(There are various permutations of these terms that are current fields of research: combinatorial set theory, algebraic geometry, analytic number theory, topological graph theory, algebraic topology, etc. Structures that are introduced for some specific purpose often have other interesting features, e.g., the sets of solutions to certain equations might have interesting geometric properties.)

Friday, July 22, 2011

Antonyms for "breakfast table"

Elif Batuman recently posted about asshole/arsehole -- following up on the excellent Hegelian synthesis of "douchebag" and "asshole" into "sleazebag" -- and brought up this excellent OED quotation:
1948    Landfall 2 178   It's absolute comfort from arse-hole to breakfast-table.
It's pretty, but what does it mean? As you might expect, Jonathon Green has the answer -- though unfortunately under F rather than under A:
from arsehole to breakfast table (NZ, 1940s+) completely, entirely.

There is a synonymous & roughly contemporaneous American construction, from asshole to appetite, as well as the older from arsehole to breakfast time, which means "all the way, all the time." (One thinks of the arsehole and the breakfast table as analogous to Scylla and Charybdis, or perhaps the two stone lions of the NYPL.) What is slightly confusing, perhaps, is that very similar phrases are also listed under A but w/ a subtle shift in meaning:
arseholes to breakfast time. very unsatisfactory, totally confused, very chaotic.

Opposite column has a huge list of hardware-store-evoking synonyms for penis that I was compelled to type out in sheer admiration:
arse-opener. the penis (cf. arse-wedge, ass-breaker, auger, beard-splitter, beaver cleaver, bitch hammer, bore, bush-beater, bushwhacker, cherry-splitter, cleat, cock-hammer, cock-opener, crack-hunter, cranny-hunter, crowbar, cunt-buster, eye-opener, guthammer, gut-wrench, hair-divider, kidney-buster, kidney-prodder, kidney-scraper, kidney-wiper, liver-disturber, lung-disturber, marrowbone and cleaver, meat-cleaver, rump-splitter, shit-stabber, split mutton, tickler, tonsil-tickler, wedge, womb-beater).
Well! (NB an arsehole-perisher is not one of these, but is instead a jacket that's too short.)

PS some connective linkage: an old post on asshole/arsehole, Larry Summers spec. on asshole, David Crystal on the history of synonyms for posterior.

PPS For "liver-disturber" cf. Portnoy (etymologically unrelated, as "liver-disturber" dates from late C19.)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

"Windbag apostate"

I have posted intermittently about Coleridge, Humphry Davy, and their shared enthusiasm for nitrous oxide (here and here). But I had not realized that Coleridge and Robert Southey were "involved with early experiments with nitrous oxide (laughing gas). Experiments were performed by Cornish scientist Humphry Davy." Here are some more details, from an oddly written biographical piece about Davy:
One of his first discoveries at the Pneumatic Institution on the 9th of April 1799 was that pure nitrous oxide (laughing gas) is perfectly respirable, and he narrates that on the next day he became absolutely intoxicated through breathing sixteen quarts of it for near seven minutes. This discovery brought both him and the Pneumatic Institution into prominence. The gas itself was inhaled by Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge among other distinguished people, and promised to become fashionable, while further research yielded Davy material for his Researches, Chemical and Philosophical, chiefly concerning Nitrous Oxide, published in 1800, which secured his reputation as a chemist.

Soon afterwards, Count Rumford [ed. !!], requiring a lecturer on chemistry for the recently established Royal Institution in London, opened negotiations with him, and on the 16th of February 1801 he was engaged as assistant lecturer in chemistry and director of the laboratory.
And I hadn't known about Davy's theory of light:
the well-known experiment in which he sought to establish the immateriality of heat by showing its generation through the friction of two pieces of ice in an exhausted vessel, and further attempt to prove that light is "matter of a peculiar kind", and that oxygen gas, being a compound of this matter with a simple substance, would more properly be termed phosoxygen. Founded on faulty experiments and reasoning, the views he expressed were either ignored or ridiculed; and it was long before he bitterly regretted the temerity with which he had published his hasty generalizations.
Anyway all of this gives a new significance to Coleridge qua "windbag apostate." Not to mention Southey as "quaint and mouthy." (I seem to remember there being a cartoon of Coleridge as a windbag, but Google isn't being helpful on this front. Also: would Byron have meant the pun on quaint? One assumes it was just a little anachronistic...) I should remark that the reason I went looking for Coleridgeana was this Language Log post about Coleridge's denunciation of "talented," two years after Southey is quoted in the OED using the word...

Of hillbillies and hobbits

I see John Holbo was here, but that isn't going to stop me from quoting Guy Davenport on J.R.R. Tolkien and the Appalachian lineage of the hobbits:
The closest I have ever gotten to the secret and inner Tolkien was in a casual conversation on a snowy day in Shelbyville, Kentucky. [...] I was talking to a man who had been at Oxford as a classmate of Ronald Tolkien’s. He was a history teacher, Allen Barnett. He had never read The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, he was astonished and pleased to know that his friend of so many years ago had made a name for himself as a writer.
“Imagine that! You know, he used to have the most extraordinary interest in the people here in Kentucky. He could never get enough of my tales of Kentucky folk. He used to make me repeat family names like Barefoot and Boffin and Baggins and good country names like that.”
And out the window I could see tobacco barns. The charming anachronism of the hobbits’ pipes suddenly made sense in a new way. [...] Practically all the names of Tolkien's hobbits are listed in my Lexington phone book, and those that aren't can be found over in Shelbyville. Like as not, they grow and cure pipe-weed for a living. Talk with them, and their turns of phrase are pure hobbit: "I hear tell," "right agin," "so Mr. Frodo is his first and second cousin, once removed either way," "this very month as is." These are English locutions, of course, but ones that are heard oftener now in Kentucky than in England.
A few random notes:

1. Davenport "never had a driver's license, was especially passionate about the destruction of American cities by the automobile." (Thus, after my own heart, to some extent. But he also believed in "a Fourierist utopia, where small groups of men, women, and children have eliminated the separation between mind and body" -- decidedly not something I approve of.)

2. Vaguely related geographical tidbit: "Kentucky has 120 counties; depending on definitions, this is either third or fourth among U.S. states. [...] The original motivation for having so many counties was to ensure that residents in the days of poor roads and horseback travel could make a round trip from their home to the county seat and back in a single day, as well as being able to travel from one county seat to the next in the same fashion."

3. There might be scope for an updated Hobbit in which Smaug (clearly also a tobacco reference) runs a meth lab.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Parallel passages redux

(It was clever of the LRB to juxtapose Alan Bennett's piece on libraries -- "Baffled at a bookcase" -- with Eliot Weinberger's vaguely Borgesian list of books, "The Cloud Bookcase.")

I. From Eliot Weinberger, "The Cloud Bookcase":
The Identity of Both
by Lo Yin (833-910)
Often confused with The Identity of Both by Wu Yün (d. 778).
II. Guy Davenport on Wittgenstein:
It is questionable if when he died he had ever come to any understanding of the number 2. Two what? Two things would have to be identical, which is absurd if identity has any meaning. 
(The parallels between W. and D. go fairly deep. Perhaps this is a quirk of my reading history but I know Weinberger best from 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, and Davenport from 7 Greeks. That seven and nineteen are both prime is not a separate coincidence, as numbers in this context always are.)

Names within names

1. Via Sarah Duff, the Guardian's "name a species" contest winners. They are all very good; to my mind the "zipperback" (below) is really the best name of the lot, though it is difficult to argue with the "Neptune's heart sea-squirt."

Some of the Latin names are a tall order to match, let alone improve on; e.g. the wonderful Nymphon gracile for a particularly gangly sea-spider. (Adj. via the winning entry.)

2. Nancy Friedman has a rather astonishing post about "being followed by Hiscox":
So why was I giggling?

Hiscox Corporate - link to homepage

Well, wouldn’t you?
I’ll try to keep a straight face just long enough to explain that Hiscox is the surname of the company’s founder, Ralph Hiscox, and of its current president, the splendidly named Robert Ralph Scrymgeour Hiscox. It’s a very old surname, if this genealogy site is to be trusted (and it pays to be skeptical about most online genealogy sites)—as in Norman Conquest old. It’s derived, I learned, from Hitch, “a pet form of the name Richard,” and cock, “a medieval form of endearment” (hmm).
To sum up: a variation on Dick Cocks.
Oh, and “Scrymgeour”? It’s pronounced skrɪm-dʒər, according to this site. Wikipedia says the name is “believed to derive from the Old English word ‘skrymsher’ which means ‘swordsman’.”
Swordsman Hiscox. Ladies and gentlemen, I could not make this stuff up.
And it only gets better, at least if your brain works the way mine does. [...]
(NF's blog is called "Fritinancy," which -- as the variant "fritiniency" -- might have made my list of favorite words had I thought of it.)

Addendum For Hitch = Richard, see also Hodge = Roger.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

"Theories of politics"

Henry Farrell has two posts (here and here) attacking Matthew Yglesias and "neoliberals" for not appreciating
the need for a theory of politics – that is, a theory of how policy proposals can be guided through the political process, and implemented without being completely undermined. And this is all the more important, because (on most plausible theories of politics) there are interaction effects between policy choices at time a and politics at time a+1. The policy choices you make now may have broad political consequences in the future. 
The comments to both posts degenerated pretty rapidly into name-calling and anti-"neoliberal" sloganeering. (Crooked Timber is famed for good comments threads, but I have never seen any.) However, Farrell's original point has some force: e.g., when one is thinking about optimizing policy in the American system, the correct procedure is to optimize subject to the constraint that the policy be sustainable, i.e., tailored to benefit enough powerful interest groups that it won't promptly be repealed, and not harmful to interest groups whose ends are broadly aligned with one's own. (I wrote some posts on this in 2010: e.g., on poverty, good faith, and means-testing.) The constrained optimum is usually less efficient than more vulnerable alternatives (the classic example here is means-testing, which should always be resisted); a shortcoming of much "technocratic" thought is that it fails to appreciate that these "improvements" are in fact harmful mirages. There are some cases in which the dynamic is transparent to everyone involved: so e.g. when a right-wing economist opposes cap-and-trade on the grounds that a carbon tax is better, the "advocacy" is clearly dishonest. However, there are also cases of cluelessness rather than mendacity; see e.g. Mark Kleiman:
Remember this the next time a conservative explains how we ought to voucherize public education. The minute that happens, the conservatives will come back and decide that we need to means-test the vouchers. That done, they’ll attack the remaining program as “welfare.”
This example had a powerful impact on me when I read it. Going back, I see that Kleiman intended it as another case of conservatives moving goalposts; but it struck me at the time as something more interesting. One could honestly persuade oneself on technocratic grounds that education funded by means-tested vouchers would be superior to public education at equal levels of support; any liberal with a good theory of politics, however, would oppose the idea.

(An obvious problem is that a lot of people are dilettantish or incipient technocrats, and this fact should be part of one's theory of politics. In particular, it is difficult to bring up sustainability issues in a persuasive way in political debates without sounding patronizing. However, the questions of what positions one should hold and how one should advocate them are separate.)

Beyond the notion that one's advocacy should be informed by some notion of what policies are likely to stick, one might argue (as in CT comments) that neoliberal arguments are framed in the wrong "voice" -- i.e., they are policy advice in a disembodied sense, but not an agenda for anyone in particular. I think this is on the whole not very strong: people are interested in whatever they are interested in. MY has a blog that in principle gives him a platform for political advocacy, but presumably many of his readers -- e.g., ego -- read the blog for posts that are thinking-aloud rather than advocacy, and unless you think everyone ought to stop thinking aloud and start waving banners, it is stupid to object to this. Still, it is reasonable to complain that many technocratic left-wing policy debates are a purely academic game until one gets the political structure right.

Interestingly, however, the CT posts and esp. the comments are not really interested in fleshing out this critique (even to the extent that I have tried to), but are obsessed with one specific instance of neoliberal betrayal, viz. trade unions. And so it swiftly becomes clear that trade unions are by and large a proxy for communitarianism, and that (surprisingly enough) socialists dislike neoliberalism because it is a kind of liberalism. And while I can only speak for myself, I think it is wildly beside the point to accuse modern left-wing liberalism of "lacking a theory of politics" on the grounds that it is hostile to communitarian thought or "good" populism, of the George Scialabba variety. I oppose communitarian ends: a close-knit society, even if it were more egalitarian than an open one, would almost certainly be a more effective force for exclusion; it would be more racist and insular, more hidebound and suffocating and judgmental, than an open one. To the extent that one is a liberal, and values openness and freedom for their own sakes, one is unlikely to endorse (e.g.) Scialabba's shockingly cavalier view of the Jim Crow south.

If I were called in to construct a theory of liberal politics, I should treat it as the following task: beginning with the marginal figures of society, the extremely poor and those outside the cultural mainstream, to put together a functioning coalition that (a) had nontrivial political clout, (b) was bound together by mutual interest to some appreciable degree. (I don't have an answer but e.g. something that is obvious re: (a) is that an alliance of the poor and the lower-middle class generally won't work.) I would also ask what kind of institutional "division of labor" between the state and other institutions might be least bad for marginal populations. If one's answers to these questions are less emphatic than those of the Thomas-Frank-ish populist wing -- just get everybody really really angry and we'll burn teh corporationz!!! -- this is perhaps because it is harder to create institutional structures that safeguard the interests of minority groups than it is to do so for the cultural and economic mainstream, especially in a discourse that so insistently valorizes the "middle class."

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Amethyst / amatist, O'Keeffe's kitchen

1. In comments a few posts ago, Calista mentioned the OED etymology of amethyst:
Old French ametiste, amatiste, < Latin amethyst-us, < Greek ἀμέθυστ -ος, prop. adj. ‘not drunken’ ( < priv. + *μέθυστος, verbal adjective < μεθύσκ-ειν to intoxicate, < μέθυ wine: see mead n.1), applied subst. to this stone (as also to a herb), from a notion that it was a preventive of intoxication.
It isn't clear to me how stones prevent intoxication, but never mind that. The French "amatist" form is dying to be misunderstood as "love-stone," which is more or less the exact opposite of the original etymology; the Philip Sidney quotation in the OED is a great example:

The bloudy shaftes of Cupids warre,
With amatists they headed are.
(I do not know how conscious the etymological joke is here, of course.)

2. Via Sarah Duff, Georgia O'Keeffe's eating habits:
[author of book on said habits] plays Mr Collins to O'Keeffe's Lady Catherine de Bourgh. While you and I might think O'Keeffe's "soup mix", a blend of powdered milk, soy flour, kelp and brewer's yeast, sounds vile, Wood will concede only that it has a "strong taste". Garlic sandwiches? Delicious. Yarrow tea? Spicy and soothing. A soup made from native weeds? Full of vitamins. (If this soup, when served, did not taste right, Miss O'Keeffe would announce that it had not been "made with love").

See Wikipedia for more on "amethyst." The context of the Sidney quotation is also worth quoting; it appears in a very "conventionally" beautiful bit of descriptive verse, the "amatists" are purple because they are fingernails:

Ah woe is me, my woes renewe; 
Now course doth leade me to her hand. 
Of my first love the fatall band. 
Where whitenes dooth for ever sitte : 
Nature her selfe enameld it. 
For there with strange compaSi dooth lie 
Warme snow, moyst pearle, softe ivorie. 
There fall those Saphir-coloured brookes
Which conduit-like with curious crookes 
Sweete Ilands make in that sweete land.
As for the fingers of the hand
The bloudy shaftes of Cupids warre
With amatists they headed are. 

"Keep the dog far hence, that's friend to men"

Man-eating is in the news! For instance, your dogs would eat your dead, or even not-quite-dead, body:
Some dogs don't even wait until their masters die to dig in. There are many reports of dogs eating the wounded toes of family members. The victims are often afflicted with diabetes, which causes numbness in the feet, and they can't feel the dog gnawing at them.

And hunger, as it turns out, extends to cats, who have been known "[to eat] the foot of an elderly man found dead with his mother." Both links via Alan, who remarked, "god, i love these stories about pets eating dead owners."

Possibly of comparable grossness is this story (via the Rumpus) about gelatin made from human collagen. A little disappointingly, no cadavers are harmed in this process... It turns out that the appeal of human collagen has to do with avoiding liability of the mad-cow disease variety, and also with the curious fact that human collagen generated by yeast has strands of uniform length, unlike regular gelatin, "made from bits of many, many animals blended together." (This is probably more interesting to me than to anyone else, as I am not only obsessed with all things translucent and gelatinous, and all things slightly macabre, but actually have a passing academic interest in the physics of gel formation.)

Only a verbal connection to the rest of this post, but I enjoyed Stephen Burt's post about Bob Mould, formerly of Hüsker Dü, and esp. Mould's comment about the parallels between "bear culture" and punk rock culture.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Elba grease

Conrad Black (!!) writes about Murdoch for the FT [site reg. required] as "a great bad man" like Napoleon:
Although his personality is generally quite agreeable, Mr Murdoch has no loyalty to anyone or anything except his company. He has difficulty keeping friendships; rarely keeps his word for long; is an exploiter of the discomfort of others; and has betrayed every political leader who ever helped him in any country, except Ronald Reagan and perhaps Tony Blair. All his instincts are downmarket; he is not only a tabloid sensationalist; he is a malicious myth-maker, an assassin of the dignity of others and of respected institutions, all in the guise of anti-elitism. He masquerades as a pillar of contemporary, enlightened populism in Britain and sensible conservatism in the US, though he has been assiduously kissing the undercarriage of the rulers of Beijing for years. His notions of public entertainment and civic values are enshrined in the cartoon television series The Simpsons: all public officials are crooks and the public is an ignorant lumpenproletariat. There is nothing illegal in this, and it has amusing aspects, but it is unbecoming someone who has been the subject of such widespread deference and official preferments. 
See also: John Lanchester on Conrad Black; John Lanchester on Murdoch. (Both from the LRB archives.)
The link is via Marbury.

To my mind the most intensely fascinating thing about the NOTW scandal is the disproportion between ends and means. To bribe the police and wiretap people, and all that with the ultimate objective of reporting that some celebrity was seen somewhere! I like Gaby Hinsliff's account of why things ended up this way (I like her blog but wish she'd paragraph correctly) but regardless of that, it is a ripe situation for a certain kind of comedy. One is reminded, for instance, of Eliot's description of Sir Giles Overreach: "a great force directed upon small objects; a great force, a small mind."

Update: wordplay in "assiduous" -- intentional? Presumably not, as it only works on this side of the Atlantic.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

"A phantom or, as Blake would say, a specter" (etc.)

I. Was linked on twitter to the Paris Review's old Geoffrey Hill interview; it is perhaps "tl;dr" on balance but there were a few things I liked. One of them, of course, was the bit of fastidiousness quoted above (cf. "Phantasmagoria"). A second was his remark on the painting "St Thomas Confounding Averroes":

Of which Hill said:

I was delighted by the difference between the little painting as the synopsis described it and what seemed to be the actual situation depicted. If I remember rightly, the synopsis said that St. Thomas is refuting Averroës, and that Averroës is writhing in pain and distress on the floor. Well, to me, he looked very peacefully asleep.

And, finally, a revealing statement about his own practice:

The instrument of expression and the instrument of self-knowledge and self-correction is the same. There is a kind of poetry—I think that the seventeenth-century English metaphysicals are the greatest example of this, Donne, Herbert, Vaughan—in which the language seems able to hover above itself in a kind of brooding, contemplative, self-rectifying way. It’s probably true of the very greatest writers. ... I cannot conceive poetry of any enduring significance being brought into being without some sense of this double quality that language has when it is taken into the sensuous intelligence, and brought into formal life.

I.5. The interview was conducted by Carl Phillips, whose biography begins with the dramatic observation that "In 1959, Carl Phillips was born." 

II. There has been a great deal of word-related linkage lately. Three things that are esp. worth reading:
a. Stan Carey "guddles about" (not sure my prep. is warranted) in the British Library's Evolving English exhibit. He notes in passing that he "described how James Joyce heard a Yorkshire word for earwig twitchbell – and liked it so much he immediately decided to use it in Finnegans Wake."
b. Friend-once-removed Lissa Minkel provides linkage re the "barbaric yet deeply civilized" nature of the English language. (Stephen Fry, I must confess, I do not find as congenial as I should on paper.)
c. Anatoly Liberman discusses the origins of golf -- the word more than the sport -- and remarks parenthetically that "oaf itself is derived from Olaf, a doublet of alf “elf”." Which is brilliant; Olaf is really an extremely unfortunate name.

III. Related: "the 100 most beautiful words in English." The ones that I like on their list are "vestigial" and "beleaguer." ("Evanescent" would have made it except that it's spoiled for me by being an everyday physics word. But does anyone really like words like "bucolic" and "fugacious"?) I got to the website via Cynthia Haven's blog, where I left a very stream-of-consciousness list:
myrtle [in my fancy a portmanteau of myrrh, squirt, and turtle], scavenger, flounder, interred, fever, recalcitrant, splay, stray, splatter, vespers, pageant, expunge, effulgent, excrescence, gun, cleave, hew.
A class of words I should have included because I have a collective weakness for them: deliquesce, effloresce, acquiesce and the other -esces as verbs. (Some of them as -escences too. Perhaps "excresce" would be a bit much.) I'm also fond of "gibbous" and "accrete," and of "implicative."

I take it that an implicit rule with these lists is that names don't really count; otherwise everyone's lists would consist almost entirely of ornithological and geological terms.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Tomonaga and the bottle

From Freeman Dyson's new NYRB piece on Feynman:
Feynman had looked forward to meeting Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, the Japanese physicist who shared the Nobel Prize with him. Tomonaga had independently made some of the same discoveries as Feynman, five years earlier, in the total isolation of wartime Japan. [...] Feynman and Tomonaga shared three outstanding qualities: emotional toughness, intellectual integrity, and a robust sense of humor.

To Feynman’s dismay, Tomonaga failed to appear in Stockholm. The Ottaviani-Myrick book has Tomonaga explaining what happened:
Although I sent a letter saying that I would be “pleased to attend,” I loathed the thought of going, thinking that the cold would be severe, as the ceremony was to be held in December, and that the inevitable formalities would be tiresome. After I was named a Nobel Prize awardee, many people came to visit, bringing liquor. I had barrels of it. One day, my father’s younger brother, who loved whiskey, happened to stop by and we both began drinking gleefully. We drank a little too much, and then, seizing the opportunity that my wife had gone out shopping, I entered the bathroom to take a bath. There I slipped and fell down, breaking six of my ribs… It was a piece of good luck in that unhappy incident.
After Tomonaga recovered from his injuries, he was invited to England to receive another high honor requiring a formal meeting with royalty. This time he did not slip in the bathtub. He duly appeared at Buckingham Palace to shake hands with the English Queen. The Queen did not know that he had failed to travel to Stockholm. She innocently asked him whether he had enjoyed his meeting with the King of Sweden. Tomonaga was totally flummoxed. He could not bring himself to confess to the Queen that he had got drunk and broken his ribs. He said that he had enjoyed his conversation with the King very much. He remarked afterward that for the rest of his life he would be carrying a double burden of guilt, first for getting drunk, and second for telling a lie to the Queen of England.

Dyson is on paper the obvious choice for a piece about Feynman; as usual there's a lot of recycling, but with an interesting twist. In an old NYRB review of a previous Feynman book, Dyson had categorized Feynman with Einstein and Hawking as physicists who have become "Wise Men" to the public. In the new iteration of this remark, Feynman has provisionally been dropped from the list, the Wise Men are "superstars," but the point is spelled out nicely:
Lesser lights such as Carl Sagan and Neil Tyson and Richard Dawkins have a big public following, but they are not in the same class as Einstein and Hawking. Sagan, Tyson, and Dawkins have fans who understand their message and are excited by their science. Einstein and Hawking have fans who understand almost nothing about science and are excited by their personalities.
(A point worth making is that Einstein and Hawking would arguably have been substantially less revered if they stood for something in the public mind that the public cared about -- evolution, say, or whether the universe had a beginning. Being a polemical figure reduces one's stature. The closest thing to Hawking in recent news was Grisha Perelman, but as a mathematician he is somehow too peripheral. To become the relevant kind of cultural figure one needs to be cartoonish and nonthreatening. Though arguably physics has never been threatening.)


A bit of news today that will please many physicists: the journal Physical Review Letters (the Berkeley of the physics publishing hierarchy; the most prestigious journal that also publishes a lot of articles) has switched from a 4-page limit to a word count limit. Objectively this is reasonable and frankly somewhat belated; I believe (or at least hope) that the journals also intend to make articles available as single-column HTML files, it is extremely annoying to read two-column text on a laptop. I have mixed feelings about the new limits: I had just begun to get the hang of maximizing the number of words you could cram into 4pp. by rewriting each paragraph so as to have it end at the end of a line.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

All roads lead to the temperance literature

Elephantine readers! I had an irritating free-food experience today. On my way to work this morning I nearly walked into a sign somewhere saying there would be free food at noon. Naturally I went back at noon for the free food, to find nothing but sesame sticks, lukewarm lemonade, and cupcakes next to a sign saying "LET THEM EAT CAKE" -- funny at some level but very disruptive. The advertising was horribly misleading, I think: free food at noon is a technical term that means lunch, not snacks and definitely not cake. 

When I IM'ed CWA to vent about this she responded with a "no free lunch" joke, which led to my poking around in Google n-grams for "free lunch" and coming upon the free lunch chapter in Substitutes for the Saloon (which, as you no doubt remember, I had previously blogged about):
The free lunch is free only in the sense that when a
man has bought a drink, he is not charged for eating. [...] 
The quality of these lunches varies a good deal. Where 
the competition is not great, or where the license is 
high, the free lunch is not so attractive. In Boston, 
New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia the ordinary 
saloons certainly do not serve a very abundant or a 
very appetizing free lunch. Usually this lunch is cold. 
Where a hot lunch is found, it will almost always con- 
sist of soup with bread. The cold lunch is generally 
made up of the following articles : Bread, crackers, 
and wafers ; cheese, bologna sausage, wienerwurst, cold 
eggs, sliced tomatoes, cold meats, salads, pickles and 
other relishes. The demand is commonly for something 
sour or salt. The consumption of pickles, salt meats, 
sauerkraut, and potato salad runs far ahead of anything 
else. The drinking man's stomach seems to crave the 
acid. A workingman does not need to eat very heart- 
ily of the free lunch in order to appease his hunger. 
A slice or two of bread, a few pickles, and a small 
piece of meat with the beer is all that many of them 
eat at noontime. The meagre lunch which many of 
the saloons in our Eastern cities afford is perfectly 
adequate to the needs of a great majority of drinkers.
(It goes on to talk about various things, including racial attitudes toward free lunches in the early years of Jim Crow.)

2.. There was a Language Log post this morning about chemists' (and materials scientists') use of "imbibe" in a "causative" sense -- e.g., "Mixtures of lutidine and water imbibed in porous Vycor" or "[some people] made their composite by imbibing nanoporous gold (pictured) with an electrolyte" -- which turns out to have been the way Chaucer used the word. As Liberman notes,
it seems that the historical progression was exactly the reverse of what I expected: first the causative subject-causes-object-to-take-in-liquid, then the metaphorical sense of drinking in ideas, and last the simple subject-takes-in-liquid. Go figure.
This talk of "imbibing" led me to search for the relevant medieval Latin song, which naturally took me to Alcohol in History (written by a theologian, also most probably part of Calista's original list), which has the following folk etymology for honeymoon:
Mead was also a favorite drink among the ancient Germans, and according to Henderson, it was customary to drink it for thirty days after a marriage. Hence, probably the familiar expression, the Honey-moon.

Regrettably, very folk. OED seems to have no etymological note at all, but the Online Etymology Dictionary has this to say:
1540s, hony moone, but probably much older, "indefinite period of tenderness and pleasure experienced by a newly wed couple," from honey in reference to the new marriage's sweetness, and moon in reference to how long it would probably last, or from the changing aspect of the moon: no sooner full than it begins to wane. French has cognate lune de miel, but German version is flitterwochen (pl.), from flitter "tinsel" + wochen "week." In figurative use from 1570s. Specific sense of "post-wedding holiday" attested from c.1800; as a verb in this sense from 1821.

So the German for honeymoon isn't even cognate... again, this is perhaps an unexpected usage history, as the specific use is centuries later than the figurative one.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Dept of "other observations"

1. As an appendix to the previous post, Harold Bloom reportedly could read "Lycidas" backwards from memory; this is how it would end:
For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,
Compels me to disturb your season due:
Bitter constraint, and sad occasion dear,
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.
And with forc'd fingers rude,
I com to pluck your Berries harsh and crude,
Ye Myrtles brown, with Ivy never-sear,
Yet once more, O ye Laurels, and once more.

Which makes sense, sounds properly wistful, and is about as good as the way the poem actually ends! (I cheated by starting where I did, of course; two lines further and you have "Who would not weep for Lycidas? He knew / Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer," which is intelligible but irrelevant.)

2. I was surprised to discover that "No ideas but in thongs" (cf.) hasn't yet been done according to google.

Wardrop, snowdrop, raindrop

John Holbo's post about Walter Ong made me think of "Lycidas":
But O the heavy change, now thou art gon,
Now thou art gon, and never must return!
Thee Shepherd, thee the Woods, and desert Caves,
With wilde Thyme and the gadding Vine o'regrown, [ 40 ]
And all their echoes mourn.
The Willows, and the Hazle Copses green,
Shall now no more be seen,
Fanning their joyous Leaves to thy soft layes.
As killing as the Canker to the Rose, [ 45 ]
Or Taint-worm to the weanling Herds that graze,
Or Frost to Flowers, that their gay wardrop wear,
When first the White thorn blows;
Such, Lycidas, thy loss to Shepherds ear. 
I find these lines, and others in the poem, thoroughly magical, and the conventional explanation has to do with sound, but I have never heard the lines read aloud in a way that brings out their beauty. (I don't know if "Lycidas" has been set to music with any success, not too well-informed re lieder...) Perhaps this is just because we have lost the habit of reading out loud; one allows oneself much more of a lilt in the privacy of one's head; nevertheless, it is curious that Milton and Tennyson, the greatest pure musicians in English verse, were both unusually bookish. Verbal beauty is always influenced by meaning, one might even say that verbal beauty is always the iridescence of an impression that is perceived as hybrid. So when Ong says:
A literate person, asked to think of the word ‘nevertheless’, will normally (and I strongly suspect always) have some image, at least vague, of the spelled-out word and be quite unable ever to think of the word ‘nevertheless’ for, let us say, 60 seconds without adverting to any lettering but only to the sound.

This seems like a profoundly irrelevant thought experiment; it is difficult to think of the word "Nevertheless" -- or "What are Years" -- without plunging into one's hoard of associations and coming up with the Marianne Moore poem for instance -- and if one achieved the difficult meditative feat of imagining the word in isolation for a minute this feat would be so far from one's normal mental processes as to divulge no useful information.

But in the end I am less interested in what Ong has to say than in the word "wardrop," a variant spelling of "wardrobe" that was probably substituted for the 1638 edition's "wardrobe" to shorten the last syllable, to drag in (not too fancifully) in an association with "snowdrop," and (a little more fancifully) to prompt the metanalysis of the word as "war-drop" rather than "ward-robe." It is such a dramatic improvement of the line, and given the screwiness of spelling at the time I wonder if Milton first came upon the possibility of "wardrop" after he'd written the poem...

And I'm free-associating at this point, but "war-drop" made me think of other "-drops" in the arsenal of implausible weaponry, e.g., Ted Hughes's "Snowdrop":
Now is the globe shrunk tight
Round the mouse’s dulled wintering heart.
Weasel and crow, as if moulded in brass,
Move through an outer darkness
Not in their right minds,
With the other deaths. She, too, pursues her ends,
Brutal as the stars of this month,
Her pale head heavy as metal.
(one of those poems there isn't a whole lot to say about) and of Hardy's raindrop in "During Wind and Rain" -- one of the few Hardy poems I like, perhaps because it has none of his vile compound verbs; you should follow the link and read the rest of it; the last line, though memorable, is in my view an overdone special effect, but the stanza form is very effective, and I think the first stanza might be my very favorite thing in Hardy:
They sing their dearest songs—
He, she, all of them—yea,
Treble and tenor and bass.
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face...
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!
They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them—aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs...
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the raindrop plows.

"Its exceedingly appropriate etymology"

An OED etymological note (for "gun") of no slight magnificence:
With regard to the ultimate etymology, a suggestion has been made by Prof. Skeat that Middle English gunne may represent a hypocoristic form of a Scandinavian female name compounded with Gunn-. This conjecture receives a strong confirmation from the fact (communicated to us by Mr. W. H. Stevenson) that an account of munitions at Windsor Castle in 1330-1 (Exchequer Accts. Q.R. Bundle 18, no. 34, Pub. Rec. Office) mentions ‘una magna balista de cornu quae vocatur Domina Gunilda’. There are other instances of the practice of bestowing female personal names on engines of war; but there was no distinguished lady named Gunilda (= Old Norse Gunnhild-r; spelt Gunnild in Havelok) in the 14th cent., and it seems highly probable that this use of the name may have come down from Scandinavian times, when its exceedingly appropriate etymology would be understood (both gunn-r and hild-r mean ‘war’). If Gunnhildr, as is likely, was a name frequently given to ballistæ and the like, it would naturally, on the introduction of gunpowder, be given also to cannon. Indeed, there is some appearance of evidence that an explosive engine was actually called by this name many years before the earliest recorded instance of the use of gunpowder in warfare. The ‘song against the retinues of the great people’ in Pol. Songs (Camden) 237, which must have been written in the reign of Edward II, contains the following passage 
The gedelynges were gedered
Of gonnylde gnoste;
Palefreiours ant pages,
Ant boyes with boste,
Alle weren y-haht
Of an horse þoste’. 
The correct translation of this passage, which has hitherto been unexplained, seems to be as follows < ‘The lackeys were gathered out of Gunnild's spark [Old English gnást: see gnast n.]; the grooms and pages, the varlets with their boasting, all were hatched of a horse's dung’. According to analogy, the regular ‘pet-name’ in Old Norse for Gunnhild-r would be *Gunna, which would give Gunne in Middle English; Rietz Sv. dial.-lex., mentions Gunne as a female Christian name still surviving in Swedish country districts. (In Iceland Gunna is now common, but it is taken to stand for Guðrún.) 
The other suggestions that have been made as to the origin of the word are obviously unsatisfactory. The assumed Old French *mangonne, of which gonne has been supposed to be a shortening, is wrongly inferred < mangonneaumangonel n., and is not philologically possible, unless as a back-formation. The French gonne, large cask, does not occur before the 16th cent., and is regarded by Littré as adopted from the English gun. The conjecture that Middle English gunne is of echoic origin perhaps involves no impossibility, but it has no positive support, and little intrinsic probability.
NB "thoste" is defined as "dung, excrement, a turd"; can't find "gedelynges" though (obv. no connection w/ Gatling!).

Update As Alan tweeted in response to this post, "Wat Skeat shoots again!"

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

"All middle, like a tortoise"

Ivan Bunin recollects a conversation with Chekhov [from the forthcoming Memories of Chekhov, excerpted in the NYRB]:

“Do you write? Do you write a lot?” he asked me one day.

I told him, “Actually, I don’t write all that much.”

“That’s a pity,” he told me in a rather gloomy, sad voice which was not typical of him. “You should not have idle hands, you should always be working. All your life.”

And then, without any discernible connection, he added, “It seems to me that when you write a short story, you have to cut off both the beginning and the end. We writers do most of our lying in those spaces. You must write shorter, to make it as short as possible.” 

According to Peter Young's book Tortoise, this truncating habit of Chekhov's is where Galsworthy's line about C's stories comes from: that his stories are "all middle, like a tortoise." I'm not sure I follow the connection between Chekhov's two remarks either -- except that the more you write the more you can afford to throw away -- but this struck me as an unexpected parallel between the "Protestant work ethic" and that of someone like Flaubert. Truth-to-life is a less dandyish criterion than truth-to-language but the idea is the same at some level. (I don't read Russian but I have heard that Chekhov's prose is "workmanlike.") I guess the gloom is poignant in its way: if one is a perfectionist about one's work and is condemned, as Chekhov was, to a youth of hackwork:
Chekhov had to pay for his own education, which he managed by—among other jobs—private tutoring, catching and selling goldfinches, and selling short sketches to the newspapers. ...[ca. 1880] he wrote daily short, humorous sketches and vignettes of contemporary Russian life.

Cf. also Pope: "the last and greatest art, the art to blot." (I twice typed in "blot" as "blog" ...) And: "To write well, lastingly well, immortally well, must not one leave father and mother and cleave unto the Muse? It is such a task as scarce leaves a man time to be a good neighbor, an useful friend, nay to plant a tree, much less to save his soul."

NB: 1. the Tortoise book seems appealing but unreasonably pricey. 2. Had you heard of Ivan Bunin? Apparently he won the Nobel Prize.

Monday, July 4, 2011

"Rhombs, and wedges, and half-moons, and wings"

The line is from Paradise Regained; I found it because I was looking for pentameter lists of nouns. The first search result for "rhombs and wedges," however, is the Tilings Encyclopedia, a repository of Penrose tilings and other aperiodic (mostly substitution) tilings of the plane, such as the (new-to-me) pinwheel patterns of Radin and Conway and others, and their relatives, like this kite-domino tiling:

(The pinwheel tilings have the property that every tile appears at least once in every possible orientation.)

[PS a topic I've been paying some attention to lately is the existence of quasicrystalline, i.e., Penrose-tiling-ish, solutions to certain packing problems, which are interesting as statistical physics. For prev. coverage of this see here and here.]

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Missed connections

Via Stan Carey, the UChicago press has put the History of Cartography online; I can't view some of the pdfs but this is probably because I'm using an old version of Acrobat. I was esp. fascinated by the chapters on surveying and mapping in the Roman Empire, with all the gromas and dioptras and portable sundials... Something that caught my eye was this bit about digging tunnels and aqueducts:
If [tunnels] were dug from both sides simultaneously, the result might be a near miss, as happened with the Siloam tunnel or that mentioned by Nonius Datus. To avoid this, the Greek mathematician Heron (Hero) of Alexandria, who was evidently writing at some time around A.D.62, shows by a plan the method he advocates.
Heron's construction looks like this:

The cartography book gives a rather opaque account of Heron's idea but it's actually quite simple (as Tom Apostol explains). Suppose you want to dig a tunnel from B to D through the amorphous blob that is the mountain. You have to know the angle at which you should be going in. Observe, first, that once you know the lengths of the two legs BM and DM of any right angled triangle (BMD) whose hypotenuse is BD you're in business, because you can construct triangles BNO and DQP that are similar to BMD but lie outside the mountain, so you can construct the lines OB and PD which are the lines along which you should dig. So how do you work out the dimensions of BMD? Heron's idea is to traverse the hillside making only strictly perpendicular turns and keeping track of how far you go. You can work out MD by adding up all the vertical legs, and BM by subtracting all the right-moving from the left-moving legs. Knowing MD/BM, as well as the direction of the lines BM and LD, allows you to construct similar triangles around the edges. [NB the lines are tangents to the hillside in this picture but this is entirely unnecessary.]

According to Tom Apostol, Heron suggested that this was how the tunnel of Samos was built, and for a long time historians accepted this story. The problem with the method is, however, glaringly obvious, once you realize that you've also got to worry about changes in height. (If only because the notion of a right angle only exists in flat space.) The area around a tunnel is typically hilly, which means that the right-angle-making traverse would look something like this:

It should be immediately obvious to any scientist that this won't work at all, barring some incredibly precise way of measuring right angles, because all the little deviations from 90 degrees will add up. Heron's proposed angle-measuring device, the dioptra, was nowhere near adequate:
In practice, each application of such a tool (the dioptra included) necessarily introduces an error of at least 0.1 degree in the process of physically marking the terrain. The schematic diagram on page 33 shows a level path with 28 right angles that lines up perfectly on paper, but in practice would produce a total angular error of at least two degrees. This would put the two crews at least 30 meters apart at the proposed junction. Even worse, several of these right angles would have to be supported by pillars 10 meters high to maintain constant elevation, which is unrealistic. A level path with pillars no more than one meter high would require hundreds of right angles, and would result in huge errors in alignment.
(One wonders, btw, why the Greeks considered it so important to dig a tunnel from both sides.) Heron was a profoundly interesting character, whose other achievements include an extremely useful formula for the area of a triangle, and (most strikingly) the first recorded vending machine:
The first vending machine was also one of his constructions, when a coin was introduced via a slot on the top of the machine, a set amount of holy water was dispensed. This was included in his list of inventions in his book, "Mechanics and Optics". When the coin was deposited, it fell upon a pan attached to a lever. The lever opened up a valve which let some water flow out. The pan continued to tilt with the weight of the coin until it fell off, at which point a counter-weight would snap the lever back up and turn off the valve.
And various theatrical contrivances
including an entirely mechanical play almost ten minutes in length, powered by a binary-like system of ropes, knots, and simple machines operated by a rotating cylindrical cogwheel. The sound of thunder was produced by the mechanically-timed dropping of metal balls onto a hidden drum.
(As a pioneer of cybernetics, Heron should have known that his tunnel-digging scheme was not self-correcting.)

PS I believe the standard form of the name nowadays is Hero, but my reasons for preferring the "Heron" variant  are too obvious to be worth mentioning.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Of earls and ales

The Orkney Brewery does a beer called the Skull Splitter, named after sometime Earl of Orkney Thorfinn Hausakljufr (the last name is literally "head-cleaver" I think). But in some ways a more obvious Orcadian earl to name a beer after is Sigurd the Stout. (There are recursive possibilities here: "Sigurd the Stout" the stout, etc.)

Looking up S. the S., I came upon an article about Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, who "was born with the image of the ouroboros, a snake or dragon biting its own tail, encircling the pupil of his left eye." As far as I can tell, however, the snake served no literary purpose.

Friday, July 1, 2011

"Expunge it, or yourself"

A.E. Stallings translates Plutarch's anecdotes about Spartan women in the new issue of Poetry:
When her husband Leonidas set out for Thermopylae, she exhorted him to show himself worthy of Sparta. When she asked him what she should do in turn, he said, “Marry a brave man and bear strapping children.”

Another [anon. Spartan woman], hearing her son was safe and sound having deserted the fighting, wrote to him: “A bad rumor besmirches you. Expunge it, or yourself.”

Another, when her sons had slipped away from battle and returned to her, said, “Where do you think you’re fleeing to, you sorry runaways? Trying to slink back here where you came from?” and yanked up her robe and showed them.

Another, seeing her son approaching from battle, asked, “How fares Sparta?” He replied, “All are dead!” Picking up a roof tile, she brained him, saying, “And I suppose they sent you to give us the bad news?”
When a Spartan girl was asked if she had been free with a man, she said, “No, but he was with me.”

A Spartan so badly wounded he had to struggle on all fours was embarrassed to look so ridiculous. His mother told him, “Isn’t it better to exult in your courage than blush at the laughter of fools?”
Like everything Sparta-related the anecdotes are somewhat monotonous. Stallings remarks in her translator's note:
Spartans spoke a Doric dialect (a descendant of which is still spoken in the region), and English translators have sometimes rendered the Spartan into Scots to indicate the differences, linguistic and cultural, from the home counties of Athens. 

I do not know who these translators were but the lead seems worth following up. Speaking of Scots, Calista recently posted a delightful anecdote about quhen vs. when:
I wil tel quhat befel myself quhen I was in the south with a special gud frende of myne. Ther rease, upon sum accident, quhither quho, quhen, quhat, etc. sould be symbolized with a q or w, a hoat disputation betuene him and me. After manic conflictes (for we ofte encountered), we met be chance, in the citie of Baeth, with a Doctour of divinitie of both our acquentance. He invited us to denner. [...] Then (said Ij a labial letter can not symboliz a guttural syllab. But w is a labial letter, quho a guttural sound. And therfoer w can not symboliz quho, nor noe syllab of that nature. Here the doctour staying them again (for al barked at ones), the proposition, said he, I understand; the assumption is Scottish, and the conclusion false. Quherat al laughed, as if I had been dryven from al replye, and I fretted to see a frivolouse jest go for a solid ansuer.
The pronunciation history is not entirely clear to me: I think the Scots pronunciation was always distinct from "w" -- Dunbar doesn't alliterate "quh-" with "w-" sounds in his longest alliterative poem -- however, it's not clear whether it was "hw" or "kw" or "xw" (i.e., the loch sound, this would explain "guttural" above). The OED lists some variant spellings without h, which might tell against the first possibility though it's not clear that it does. "What" is a Grimm's law cognate of "quod"; it is possible that the Scottish court adopted the "qu-" spelling in the Middle Ages out of a generally stronger literary/Latinate bent than the English court.

Interestingly, names like Urquhart and Farquhar all ended up with quh being treated as k, but (e.g.) Thomas Urquhart the translator of Rabelais sometimes had his name written as "Urwhart."