[Some of this stuff is only obliquely related to books, and much of it is based, not on books, but their reviews in the New York Times Book Review magazine. Nevertheless, the essays seem to me to belong together. There's a big gap from 1995 to 2010; I somehow got out of the habit of writing about stuff I read.]
COMPUTER PROFESSIONAL'S DICTIONARY,
Computer instruction manuals like to use parse
without any explanation of its meaning. I could tell it had nothing to
do with diagramming sentences to identify nouns, verbs, and adjectives,
like we used to do back in grade school, but since no meaning was
evident, I assumed it was a mystical term with no more basic
definition. But there it is in the Computer Dictionary: contrary to my
old grammar teacher, to parse is to:
So when you next hear a line of computer technobabble, you can impress everyone by saying, "Excuse me, I didn't quite parse what you said."
My Mother amused herself and us by thinking up visually
ludicrous malaprops of fancy words. When she and her siblings were
young, they would ease the pain of hoeing weeds by seeing who could
invent the dumbest parody of various pop songs of that time, and she
carried it over into adult speech. Part of the fun is that no one knows
for sure if either you or they have misheard the word, or if you're
just making a silly joke. Alas, I've forgotten all of them except:
have had a field-day with computer-talk:
GETTING THE HAYSEEDS OUT OF MY HAIR:
NAMING OF COWS:
Our land was three forties in a row (3/4 mile by 1/4 mile), with a woods and creek (pronounced "crick") at the opposite end from the farmyard. A narrow fenced lane led from the barnyard to the woods. In the spring, when the grass was new, we'd have to go get them in the evening. But in the fall, when the hay we gave them was a lot easier to find than the meadow grass, all we'd have to do is yell "Come Boss", and the transponders in their ears would immediately respond: they knew their name, and they came running down the lane. I've read that Boss is from the latin Bos, but that seems too citified. I always assumed it merely acknowledged who was in charge.
April 15, 1992
Even if the Linnean system isn't the source, and Boss is of British origin, it could still be from the Latin. After all, Hadrian's Wall is still there, so why not a good old Roman word?RETURN TO INDEX
RECREATING RENOIR'S RESTAURANT:
I go, "Wow! Let's grab the Concorde and Do Lunch." Then I read a little about it. It had indeed been a family restaurant until it closed in 1979; it was reopened in 1990 by a corporation who carefully remodeled the balcony per the Renoir painting. By this time, I'm like, "Oh, No!" I look back at the photo: four French businessmen in expensive suits and dour expressions, having a power lunch. The article says that lunchtime at the Maison Fournaise isn't quite as popular as it was when it first reopened, because of the noise from apartment building construction on the other side of the Seine.
Also, where are the strawhatted men in their undershirts? They are not suitably dressed for the Maison Fournaise. And where's the redheaded lady going Kissy-Kissy with the lapdog? And the other redhead, the drunken one who won't even remember the conversation later in the afternoon?
The new owners of the Maison Fournaise did not intend it, because it's bad for business, but the contrast between Renoir's painting and their reconstruction brought to my mind another work of art: the ending to Robert Browning's A Toccata of Galuppi's:
...What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to
INNUMERACY, by John Allen
Nonetheless, I guess he has a point, at least as far as newspaper reporters are concerned. In an article a month or so ago about Odegaard's Books in Edina, Minnesota, going out of business, the Minneapolis Strib stated that all books would initially be on sale at 25% of list price. Later, all remaining books would be sold at 50% of list price.
Of course, maybe it wasn't the newspaper reporter's fault.
Maybe Odegaard just has a bad head for numbers, and that's why he is
going out of business.
ANDREA DWORKIN ATTACKS ULYSSES
In reflecting on the causes of abuse of the weak by the
strong, I looked out the window, and saw a female Grackle in the yard.
A male came strutting up, hunching his wings like the epaulets on a
South American dictator. She sneered at him, "Ah, giddadda here, ya
creep," and he sort of folded up and flew away. I thought of Whitman:
So now I have a new game, involving making up similar
statements. So far, I have:
And, finally, the basis for our Mid-East policy:
ALBERTUS MAGNUS, INVENTOR
For the first 30 years of his life, Albertus appeared remarkably dull and stupid, and it was feared by everyone that no good could come of him. He entered a Dominican monastery at an early age; but made so little progress in his studies that he was more than once upon the point of abandoning them in despair, but he was endowed with extraordinary perseverance. As he advanced to middle age, his mind expanded, and he learned whatever he applied himself to with extreme facility. So remarkable a change was not in that age to be accounted for but by a miracle. It was asserted that the Holy Virgin, touched with his great desire to become learned and famous, took pity upon his incapacity, and appeared to him in the cloister where he sat almost despairing, and asked him whether he wished to excel in philosophy or divinity. He chose philosophy, to the chagrin of the Virgin, who reproached him in mild and sorrowful accents that he had not made a better choice. She, however, granted his request, that he should become the most excellent philosopher of the age; but set this drawback to his pleasure, that he should relapse, when at the height of his fame, into his former incapacity and stupidity. ... In the year 1244, the celebrated Thomas Aquinas placed himself under his tuition. While they paid all due attention to other branches of science, they never neglected the pursuit of the philosopher's stone and the Elixir Vitae. Although they discovered neither, it was believed that Albert had seized some portion of the secret of life, and found means to animate a brazen statue, upon the formation of which, under proper conjunctions of the planets, he had been occupied many years of his life. He and Aquinas completed it together, endowed it with the faculty of speech, and made it perform the functions of a domestic servant. In this capacity it was exceedingly useful; but, through some defect in the machinery, it chattered much more than was agreeable to either philosopher. Various remedies were tried to cure it of its garrulity, but in vain; and one day, Thomas Aquinas was so enraged at the noise it made when he was in the midst of a mathematical problem, that he seized a ponderous hammer and smashed it to pieces. He was sorry afterwards for what he had done, and was reproved by his master for giving way to his anger, so unbecoming in a philosopher. They made no attempt to reanimate the statue.
Interesting that the world's first robot was also the
occasion for the first case of roboticide. No wonder Isaac Asimov came
up with his First Law of Robotics:
I noticed the author felt constrained to list the academic title first, with the clever one second. If it gets re-published for the general public, the title parts will be reversed. Is this method of titling a trend? If so, you can look for the following titles:
In Economics: Supply/Demand Relationships of Income To Consumption: If to Have is to Be, Then to Earn is to Yearn.
In Industrial Engineering: Carpal Tunnel Syndrome in Manufacturing: to Make is to Ache.
In Political Science: American Presidential Bullying in Central America: When Bush Comes to Shove.
In Psychological Theology: Multiple Personalities of Hindu Gods: Vishnu Were Here.
In Dietetics: American Eating Preferences for Young Chickens: Bite the Pullet.
In Library Science (with an influence from Variety): Shortage
Alone on the jagged rock at the south end of McClure's Beach. The sky low. The sea grows more and more private, as afternoon goes on; the sky comes down closer; the unobserved water rushes out to the horizon -- horses galloping in a mountain valley at night. The waves smash up the rock; I find flags of seaweed high on the worn top, forty feet up, thrown up overnight; separated water still pooled there, like the black ducks that fly desolate, forlorn and joyful over the seething swells, who never "feel pity for themselves," and "do not lie awake weeping for their sins." In their blood cells the vultures coast with furry necks extended, watching over the desert for signs of life to end. It is not our life we need to weep for. Inside us there is some secret. We are following a narrow ledge around a mountain, we are sailing on skeletal eerie craft over the buoyant ocean.
Now, Robert: How do you know what unobserved water does if it's unobserved? How is it that water at the horizon, which always looks completely still no matter how roiled the sea, is like horses galloping in a mountain valley at night? How do water pools resemble black ducks, and how do you know if they're forlorn and/or joyful? It may be true that the seething swells really do fit Whitman's description about animal behavior, but if (as I think) you're really talking about those black ducks, you should construct the sentence so it's clear whether it's ducks or swells that you're talking about. And furthermore, black ducks flying desolate over the seething swells are probably not ducks, but cormorants. Ducks usually fly higher than that. Are the vultures really coasting in their blood cells, or are they soaring in the air? And for Christsake, no bird has fur, and no vulture in the world has a furry neck: they have naked necks.
I was at a party several years ago, at the time Carl Sagan was doing Cosmos on TV, and, it being an Upper Middle Class party, the discussion turned to Sagan. I had only been able to watch part of the first show before I vented my spleen on poor Carl, blacked him out, and went off to listen to music instead. I was the extreme minority opinion at the party when I tried to explain that some of what he stated as fact was based on only the most tenuous of theories, with no factual backing. A nice lady at the party said, "Well, maybe what he's saying isn't strictly true, but I really like him, because what he says is so understandable."
And the response of a Bly Fancier would be that it might be
nonsense, but it's terrific because it's so poetic.
LITERARY NEWSLETTER ADS
One is an evident attempt to lure
in the people who know that something was happening in theater in the
late 1950's, but aren't sure quite what:
And Firebrand Books is tempting us with two new entries,
sure to win some major prix or other. Here are their blurbs:
Here's Firebrand's other Blockbuster:
I wish I'd been able to invent that last blurb. The concept
great potential for being carried to excess: How about the poem that
Robert Service would have written if he'd been a feminist gardener with
a taste for blank verse? Or the memoir that Jack London would have
written if he'd been in the Alcoholics Anonymous Confessional Mode. Oh,
wait, he really did write that one. Oh well, at least it didn't do him
JULIET CORSON'S BRIEF BIOGRAPHY
Miss Juliet Corson, the first teacher of cookery and
dietetics in America, was born at Mt. Pleasant, Roxbury, Boston, Feb.
14, 1842. At the age of 6 years, her home was in New York City, and for
most of the next 15 years she was a member of the household of her
maternal uncle, Dr. Alfred Upham, under whose guardianship she followed
the course of classical reading usually preparatory for college life.
Miss Corson's mental training proved invaluable to her when the animus
of a step-dame barred her father's door to her and she began the battle
THE ORIGIN OF ACTUARIAL TABLES
The author is John Graunt of London, a Haberdasher Of Small Wares by trade, and successful enough to devote some extra time to studying and tabulating the death and birth records of London. In 1662, he published a small book titled Natural and Political Observations Mentioned in a Following Index, and Made Upon the Bills of Mortality. He sent a copy to Charles II, who was so impressed that he ordered Graunt admitted into the Royal Society (you can imagine the reaction of the other members when they found they had to make room for a mere shopkeeper, and he's now completely unknown). Still, it gave the book sufficient publicity, that, 30 years later, Edmund Halley (of comet fame) used Graunt's tables combined with probability theory to publish the first actuarial tables, thus founding the Life Insurance business.
From Graunt's preface (perhaps copied from some other elaborate exposition / false modesty model?):
How far I have succeeded in the Premisses, I now offer to the World's censure. Who, I hope, will not expect from me, not professing Letters, things demonstrated with the same certainty, wherewith Learned men determine in their Scholes; but will take it well, that I should offer at a new thing, and could forbear presuming to meddle where any of the Learned Pens have ever touched before, and that I have taken the pains, and been at the charge, of setting out those Tables, whereby all men may both correct my Positions, and raise others of their own: For herein I have, like a silly Scholeboy, coming to say my Lesson to the World (that Peevish, and Tetchie Master) brought a bundle of Rods wherewith to be whipt, for every mistake I have committed.
The sample table given, for the year 1632, shows that Infancy was the major cause of death (2268), followed by consumption (1797) and fever (1108). Only 46 were killed by accidents, and only 7 were "Murthered." The French Pox (Syphilis) killed a mere 12, although Graunt felt it was under-reported by the Bills of Mortality. Later, Graunt addresses the question as to why anyone would want to know this stuff:
To this I might answer in general by saying, that those, who cannot apprehend the reason of these Enquiries, are unfit to trouble themselves to ask them. I might answer by asking: Why have so many spent their times, and estates about the Art of making Gold? which, if it were much known, would onely exalt Silver into the place, which Gold now possesseth; and if it were known but to some one Person, the same single Adeptus could not, nay durst not enjoy it, but must be either a Prisoner to some Prince, and Slave to some Voluptuary, or else skulk obscurely up and down for his privacie, and concealment.
But, of course, he can't resist giving some reasons why someone should collect what would later be called vital statistics:
... for, if men knew the People as aforesaid, they might know the consumption they would make, so as Trade might not be hoped for where it is impossible. As for instance, I have heard much complaint, that Trade is not set up in some of the South-western, and North-western Parts of Ireland, there being so many excellent Harbours for that purpose, whereas in several of those Places I have also heard, that there are few other Inhabitants, but such as live ex sponte creatis, and are unfit Subjects of Trade, as neither employing others, nor working themselves.
Moreover, if all these things were clearly and truly known (which I have but guessed at) it would appear, how small a part of the People work upon necessary Labours, and Callings, viz. how many Women, and Children do just nothing, onely learning to spend what others get? how many are meer Voluptuaries, and as it were meer Gamesters by Trade? how many live by puzling poor people with unintelligible Notions in Divinity, and Philosophie? how many by perswading credulous, delicate, and Litigious Persons, that their Bodies, or Estates are out of Tune, and in danger? how many by fighting as Souldiers? how many by Ministeries of Vice, and Sin? how many by Trades of meer Pleasure, or Ornaments? and how many in a way of lazie attendance, &c. upon others? And on the other side, how few are employed in raising, and working necessary food, and covering? and of the speculative men, how few do truly studie Nature, and Things? The more ingenious not advancing much further then to write, and speak wittily about these matters.
DOCTRESS NEUTOPIA ON CYBERSPACE
She looks forward to the end of patriarchy,
because there will be no editors nor centralized control, since
printing isn't part of cyberspace. In that case,
But all is still not well in Internet Neutopia. She has
been receiving insulting comments, "flaming" of her posts on the
Internet. This is evidently:
Even worse, the archivist of one of the discussion lists
has been deleting her posts from the archives. It wouldn't be so bad,
but this isn't the first time it's happened. She writes:
I'm interested in that description of her earlier existence, because her poetic love verse was not totally lost. I remember that, in an earlier existence, I picked up a scorched piece of paper that was tumbling along, carried by the heedless wind. It was a little hard to read, but I still remember it clearly:
When Judith beheaded Holoferness,
Well, I gotta run. There's this sickening smell of burning
flesh coming out of my computer.
THE PUZZLE OF FEMALE HETEROSEXUALITY
Now a literary question: is there a school of homosexual
male academics who sit around and puzzle the reasons for the odd habit
of male heterosexuality? Maybe by going to a workingman's bar and
interviewing the habitues? When you think about it, it doesn't make
much sense, putting up with those phlegm-nosed kids running screaming
around the house so you can hardly find out the football score on TV,
and her always complaining about the Quality Of The Relationship and
threatening to run off with Thelma or Louise, and all she does is fix
some meals, clean the house and contribute over half of the family
income. Or do gay men spend all their time working on their own
Relationships, and so have no energy left over for research?
THE SHOCK OF THE NEW, by Robert
Every year in the 1980's, approximately 35,000 graduate painters, sculptors, potters, and other art related professionals issued from art schools in America, each clutching a degree. This meant that every two years the American educational system produced as many aspirant creators as there had been people in Florence in the last quarter of the 15th century. The result was a Fourierist bad dream. Secure in the belief that no one should be discouraged, the American art-training system had in effect created a proletariat of artists ..., a pool of unemployable talent from which trends could be siphoned (and, if need be, abandoned) more or less at will. But the woozy sense of aesthetic democracy it promoted also weakened the ideal of mastery just at the moment it came under attack from every deconstructionist in academe. ... A cloud of uneasy knowingness has settled on American painting and sculpture. Its mark is a helpless skepticism about the very idea of deep engagement between art and life: a fear that to seek authentic feeling is to display näiveté, to abandon one's jealously hoarded 'criticality' as an artist.
My Fourierist bad dreams have always been based on Joseph
Fourier rather than Charles Fourier, caused by trying to understand the
Fourier Series and Fourier Transform in mathematics. I never got over
it. Surely the art schools weren't promising employment, were they? How
about self-fulfillment? Meanwhile, art fads arrive and disappear with
monotonous regularity, and one would have to be authentically
believe it's based on anything but dealers searching for collectors who
are searching for the next big thing to invest in.
THE GODDESSES AND GODS OF OLD
MYTHS AND CULT
IMAGES, by Marija Gimbutas
Of course, there is the Blessed Virgin Mary, where, as part of the Rosary, we pray:
Holy Mary, Mother of God, blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the Fruit Of Thy Loom, Jesus.
There's no accounting for taste, I guess. One person's
lingerie is another person's underwear.
SEX AND TELOMERES
The article didn't say anything about this, but there's
some obvious advice here, other than to eat lots of fish oil: ladies,
forget about checking out a guy's foot size. Get a DNA swab and check
his telomere length instead.