Sunday, February 25, 2007

how we got our names

Henry Farrell has an unusually interesting post on Crooked Timber: Trees, flowers, mountains, stones. Most of the enjoyment comes in the comments, so do take time to look them over.

It's about compulsory naming. Not too very long ago, people's last names weren't fixed, they came from parents, or occupations, or places of residence. They were forced to take fixed names for legal reasons (e.g., deeds and other land-right documents of various kinds), for purposes of taxation, as part of totalitarian control tactics, and simple bureaucratic desire for uniformity (a Napoleonic specialization). Sometimes they got to choose their own, sometimes they had names assigned to them (especially if Jewish), and sometimes they could bribe name-givers to obtain names they wanted.

Here's one account of the last-named practice:
Mencken has a story in The American Language about a German Jew who was made to take the last name “Schweisshund” (i.e. Swiss Hound). Asked by a friend why he didn’t pay the authorities to get a better name, he replied “Half my fortune went to buy the ‘w’ alone!”.

From a database of Jewish family names:
Family names used by Jews form a number of categories: for instance, there are names that Jewish families chose of their own will and names that were forced on them by the local authorities or gentile society. [Examples given ....] In all Diaspora communities, Jews had a preference for surnames of biblical or Hebrew origin. [More examples.] Sometimes family names were created by using acronyms or anagrams of Hebrew words. ... Names of many religious and traditional occupations within the Jewish community - like chazzan, rabbi, gabbai etc. - also become family names. ... Another important group of family names is made up of terms that originally designated an occupation. ... Names that designated the geographical origins of the family form a separate class. ... Finally, there are names that originally were nicknames, sometimes with a pejorative meaning: Klein (in German) or Zairi (in Arabic), for a short person, Roth (in German) for a red hair person, Tawil (in Arabic) for someone tall etc. In general, the names in this category either were imposed upon Jews by the local authorities or are based on the nickname of one of the family's ancestors.
It's not just last names. Comments point out that given names (first and middle) are also subject to regulation. One commenter says "As far as I know, in France it is still the law that first names must be either Greco-Roman (which has a Revolutionary/republican flavor to it) or a saint’s name. No Tuesdays or Cyndis." And, speaking of saints:
Spanish colonialists introduced compulsory surnames into the Philippines in 1849, issuing a “Catalogo Alfabetico de Apellidos” from which all were supposed to select family names. Prior to that date most Filipinos had two names, but neither was necessarily a “family name” and both were likely to be the names of catholic saints, combined in seemingly random order, so that “Juan Francisco” in one document might show up as “Francisco San Juan” in another. More than half the women were “Maria XXXX” (Maria Juana, Maria Francisca, Maria Theresa, Maria Candelaria,&c).

In some provinces, this assignment was apparently random. In others, it looks as if pages had been torn from the “Catalogo” and sent to each town in turn, so that you have 80-90% of the inhabitants of one town with surnames beginning with the letter “A”; in the next town down the coast it’s “B,” and so forth. (Thus the town of Oas, Albay, is so heavy with names beginning with “R” that they jokingly claim both Rizal and Roosevelt as native sons!) For a few years, if the historian is lucky, surviving records will show both someone’s new surname and the name by which s/he was previously known.

In Thailand, on the Western model, surnames were adopted by government decree early in the 20th century. The Thai went along because they had to, but did not fully internalize it, and most are still referred to except on official documents by the first (=real) name, not their surname. Thus Dr. Neon Snidvongs would be called “Dr. Neon,” not Dr. Snidvongs.

Most Indonesians still use only a single name. This confused the editors of Time in the immediate postwar period when they started hearing about a brash nationalist called “Sukarno” (or “Soekarno” in the Dutch spelling). Nothing daunted – Time never was in those days – they simply assigned him one, so the fictive name “Achmed Soekarno” is found in some reports of that period – and occasionally even later!
Posted by dr ngo · February 23rd, 2007 at 6:54 am
My own father had a couple of name stories. After delivering him the doctor asked my grandmother what she would name her son. She said "after his uncle Fritz" meaning that he would be named Friderick, but "Fritz" appeared on the the birth certificate and stuck for the rest of his life. For many (many) years he believed he had a middle name, Carl, and didn't realize that he legally had a middle initial, C, but no middle name at all.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

abolition of the slave trade

One of my favorite posts on this site is about Thomas Coulican Phoenix, a young boy freed from captivity and raised by Sophia Carteret, Lady Shelburne, whose diary I've reproduced in part. It came to mind watching a movie late in the afternoon yesterday: Amazing Grace, story of William Wilberforce's struggle for abolition of the slave trade. Ioan Gruffudd (Pronounced YO-an GRIFF-ith) is well-cast as the man himself. His Hornblower was a fine characterization and this is even better. Like Hornblower, Wilberforce is idealistic, honorable, bound to duty, steadfast: all adjectives for Labrador Retriever heros, very difficult to bring to life persuasively. With the help of top-quality script, cast, and cinematic production, he carries it off brilliantly: a man who struggles to harness his gifts and make them serve his ideals, one who is frequently ill, who has self-doubts, whose confidence would fail him but for the support of wife and friends. Not at all a one-dimensional Prince Charming.

Nor a one-dimensional movie. It shows Parliament at the end of the reign of George III, with its complex interplay of political factions, its corruption, and its "interests:" commercial and imperial. It shows the social dimension of public policy in men's clubs, caucus rooms, and parlors. It shows family connection, a bit of the emergence of extra-Parliamentary pressure groups, and some elements in the evolution of public opinion as political force. And, mainly, it shows the convergence of ideals and friendship through Wilberforce's intimate association with William Pitt the Younger; the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson; former slave trader John Newton; and love of his life Barbara Spooner.

The history is good despite some useful story-telling fictionalization, and the timing is apt since this year marks the 200th anniversary of the outlawing of the trade throughout the British Empire. [Update: Among the many blog posts on the anniversary is one on History Librarian which quotes from Wilberforce's speech on the day Parliament passed his bill and gives some useful links.]

I particularly liked the film's development of Wilberforce's friendship with Pitt, from the first, when they were young, full of banter and playful competition, and enduring to Pitt's death at 46, after achieving what no English politician had done before. Ambitious in the extreme but committed to public service, Pitt maneuvered Wilberforce into a political career when a religious one appeared to be his destiny and stuck by him though the long period during which his single-issue politics were extremely out of favor.

In describing a European tour Pitt and Wilberforce took together following their graduation from Cambridge, the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, who knew him personally, called Wilberforce "a young man ... who had already distinguished himself in Parliament by an engaging and natural eloquence, set off by the sweetest and most exquisitely modulated of human voices, and whose affectionate heart, caressing manners, and brilliant wit made him the most delightful of companions." -- The Works of Lord Macaulay, Complete, Vol VII, p. 110.

Though this quote explains some of his appeal as an orator, you get a better idea of his fervor and eloquence from a speech in Parliament he made in 1789 in which he details the horrors of the capture, trans-oceanic shipping, and final destruction of surviving slaves in the sugar plantations, describes the terrible impact of the slave trade on African society, and tells how the traffic and its profits degrade the Englishmen who engage in it. He says "all the customs of Africa are rendered savage and unjust through the influence of this trade ... setting millions of our fellow creatures a-hunting each other for slaves, creating fairs and markets for human flesh through one whole continent of the world, and, under the name of policy, concealing from ourselves all the baseness and iniquity of such a traffic." He calls the transit of slaves to the West Indies "more misery than the human imagination can concieve" and gives statistics and vivid description to prove it. And he tells how many die: "a mortality of about fifty per cent, and this among negroes who are not bought unless quite healthy at first, and unless (as the phrase is with cattle) they are sound in wind and limb." He concludes, "Let us put an end at once to this inhuman traffic — let us stop this effusion of human blood. ... When we think of eternity, and of the future consequences of all human conduct, what is there in this life that should make any man contradict the dictates of his conscience, the principles of justice, the laws of religion, and of God? Sir, the nature and all the circumstances of this trade are now laid open to us; we can no longer plead ignorance, we can not evade it; it is now an object placed before us, we can not pass it; we may spurn it, we may kick it out of our way, but we can not turn aside so as to avoid seeing it; for it is brought now so directly before our eyes that this House must decide, and must justify to all the world, and to their own consciences, the rectitude of the grounds and principles of their decision." -- On the Horrors of the Slave Trade.

The movie's website is good. The image gallery is fine, though all close-ups; it doesn't give any of the long establishing shots from the many English locations used in filming.

This publicity still is a partial exception:

William Wilberforce

Ioan Gruffudd seen with Benedict Cumberbatch, as Pitt, and Youssou N'Dour, as Oloudaqh Equiano {source}

Here's the trailer:

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Wren's New Worlds

I'm afraid this is a little arcane.

Christopher Wren, famous architect, had many scholarly accomplishments to his credit.

In 1657, at age 25, he was elected professor of astronomy at Gresham College, an educational institution of great antiquity in the City of London which has no students but provides free public lectures by recognized scholars.

His first duty was delivery of the Oratio Inauguralis, or inaugural oration. His was a good one. He started out with a disclaimer, warning listeners not to expect much in the way of eloquence, but rather “words which resound among rough places and rocks” and then gave heroic praise to his field in a memorable lecture. You can read the whole thing, in Latin and English translation, here.

Toward the end, he brought to the imaginations of his audience the ancient Roman dramatist, Seneca who prophesied discovery of lands beyond the Ultima Thule -- New Worlds, such as the American continents. He asked how Seneca might have continued the prediction, foreseeing:
a Time would come, when Men should be able to stretch out their Eyes, as Snails do, and extend them to fifty feet in length; by which means, they should be able to discover Two Thousand Times as many Stars as we can; and find this Galaxy to be Myriads of them; and every nebulous Star appearing as if it were the Firmament of some other World, at an incomprehensible Distance, buried in the vast Abyss of intermundious vacuum.
I saw this in a book I'm reading, and I marveled at the extravagance of it. And then marveled at the audacity, since this is not what Wren actually said.

I might be writing, then, a post about textual liberties -- poetic, hyperbolic, filial, outrageous -- or it could be one about rhetorical excesses, but I'm not. In the brief time I have, I'll leave it as one of discovery: my finding, via internet search, that Wren's Latin was less flowery, but not much less inventive, nor less interesting. Here's the whole paragraph:
Imagine, gentlemen, that you yourselves are hearing Seneca prophesying about the discovery of America in those well-known verses, and then you will comprehend how valuable it is to have been born in this century, if you reflect that this forecast has extended to our times, and to have been sung for the benefit of his detractors: “Ages will come in future years, in which the ocean will loosen nature’s bonds, the great earth will be flung open, and Tiphys will reveal new worlds, nor will Thule be the world’s end.” If he had been describing the starry population of the galaxy, some cloud of stars, this would rather be a firmament, not, perhaps, ours, but that of some very remote universe separated by vast interstellar distances; if he were to continue by calling Saturn a Proteus, more so than the moon, as it variously stretches its bodies into arms, now curves them into rings, now conceals them wholly, sometimes carrying its moon along with it; if by calling Jupiter a kind of earth whose night is banished by its four moons, daily creating eclipses; if he were to say that Mars shows a certain concave blotch, like a wound in a breast; if he said that Venus and Mercury imitated the moon when full, half, and new; if he were to say the sun, albeit the most pellucid source of light, is nonetheless varied by spots moving across it at fixed periods; if, finally, this same Seneca were to go on by saying that it the ability to inspect the moon closely has been conceded to posterity, so we may scrutinize it with our eyes, measure, and even draw in selenographic maps its bays, deserts, islands, ringed mountains, disk-shaped valleys, seas and skiffs, then I would readily believe that the philosophers of that age would have wanted to exchange the remainder of their lives with us, in order to spend the briefest time in our days enjoying these most delightful spectacles of the the telescope. But, excellent sirs, allow me for a brief space to be drawn gradually outside of myself; allow me (as it is said of Iamblicus) to be snatched and borne aloft into the aether by the powers of thought itself. For indeed this contemplation of the universe, stricken by which the mind discards the body’s sluggish burden and, mindful of its origin, acquires immortality as if by birthright.
Wren then says: "But where am I being carried in my amazement?" and begins his wrap-up by characterizing the astronomer's work and praising the founders of the College.

Here's Seneca's actual prophesy:
...veniet annis
Secula seris, quibus Oceanus
Vincula rerum laxet, et ingens
Pateat tellus, Tiphysque novos
Detegat orbes, nec sit terris
Ultima Thule.
(There will come a time in the later years when Ocean shall loosen the bonds by we have been confined. when an immense land shall be revealed and Tiphys shall disclose new worlds, and Thule wll no longer be the most remote of countries..)

Seneca, Medea
And here's where I expect Wren got the idea -- from Francis Bacon. (1561–1626). Essays, Civil and Moral; Of Prophecies:
I MEAN not to speak of divine prophecies; nor of heathen oracles; nor of natural predictions; but only of prophecies that have been of certain memory, and from hidden causes. ... A prophecy, as it seems, of the Roman empire. Seneca the tragedian hath these verses:
—— Venuent annis
Sæcula seris, quibus Oceanus
Vincula rerum laxet, et ingens
Pateat Tellus, Tiphysque novos
Detegat orbes; nec sit terris
Ultima Thule
—— a prophecy of the discovery of America.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Emerson's Bacon and some talk of figs

Yesterday afternoon I plucked from my shelves Arthur Quinn's Figures of speech : 60 ways to turn a phrase. Last time I opened it I was put off by the arcane terminology: enallage, asyndeton, paradiastole, hendiadys, and the like. This time I took at face value Quinn's determination to avoid prissiness and the dangers of classification for its own sake, and came to enjoy, as he recommends, the many examples he gives of well-turned language. He says, and I'm coming to agree, that watching a writer "play with, turn away from, twist, figure ordinary usage" can be wonderful. In showing zeugma, making a verb serve in a number of clauses, one after another, he quotes Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Exodus, Herododus, Sallust, Pope, and others, including, one after the other, Francis Bacon and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

These last two belong together. They were both passionate about clear expression and both turned phrases powerfully. Emerson's respect for Bacon's prose shows in his own.

The Bacon quote:
Histories make men wise; poets witty; the mathematics subtile; natural philosophy deep; moral grave; logic and rhetoric able to contend.
One leaf she lays down, a floor of granite; then a thousand ages, and a bed of slate; a thousand ages, and a measure of coal; a thousand ages, and a layer of marl and mud: vegetable forms appear; her first misshapen animals, zoophyte, trilobium.
Bacon's comes from his essay Of Studies, in his Essays, Civil and Moral, first published posthumously in 1663. The Emerson quote comes from his essay Fate, in The Conduct of Life (1860, rev. 1876).

Both essays are worth your time. Yes they are.

Here's what the 17-year-old Waldo wrote to himself (on a sheet that he later bound up into the first of his many journals):
Aug. 8, 1820

I have been reading the Novum Organum. Lord Bacon is indeed a wonderful writer; he condenses an unrivaled degree of matter in one paragraph. He never suffers himself "to swerve from the direct forthwright," or to babble or speak unguardedly on his proper topic, and withal writes with more melody and rich cadence than any writer (I had almost said, of England) on a similar subject. Although I have quoted in my "Universe" of composition (by which presumptuous term I beg leave to remind myself that nothing was meant but to express wideness and variety of range), yet I will add here a fine little sentence from the thirtieth section of the second volume of Novum Organum. Speaking of bodies composed of two different species of things, he says, "but these instances may be rekoned of the singular or heteroclite kind, as being rare and extraordinary in the universe; yet for their dignity they ought to be separately placed and treated. For they excellently indicate the composition and structure of things; and suggest the cause of the number of the ordinary species of the universe; and lead the understanding from that which is, to that which may be." There is nothing in this sentence which should cause it to be quoted more than another. It does not stand out from the rest; but it struck me accidentally as a very different sentence from those similarly constructed in ordinary writers. For instance, in the last three clauses (beginning "For they excellently") it is common to see an author construct a fine sentence in this way, with idle repetitions of the same idea, embellished a little for the sake of shrouding the deception. In this, they all convey ideas determinate, but widely differnt and all beautiful and intelligent. -- But, says Sterne, "the cant of criticism is the most provoking."
Source: Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson By Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edward Waldo Emerson, Waldo Emerson Forbes, Published 1909, Houghton Mifflin. I typed this so there are sure to be errors in it.

Note: "swerve from the direct forthwright" is an illusion to Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida (act3).

Sunday, February 18, 2007

keeping in touch

This weekend, the leading article in Arts and Letters Daily is about gossip:
Men just don’t get the idea of gossip. You’re supposed to go “No! Really?!” Or, “Oh my God!” Women get it. Men don’t have a clue...
It links to a web page from the Social Issues Research Centre: Evolution, Alienation and Gossip; The role of mobile telecommunications in the 21st century,
By Kate Fox.

Intrigued, I skimmed the article and did some following up.

The gist of the piece is in the top two paragraphs:
Mobile gossip is good for us

Gossip is the human equivalent of 'social grooming' among primates, which has been shown to stimulate production of endorphins, relieving stress and boosting the immune system. Two-thirds of all human conversation is gossip, because this 'vocal grooming' is essential to our social, psychological and physical well-being. Mobiles facilitate gossip. Mobiles have increased and enhanced this vital therapeutic activity, by allowing us to gossip 'anytime, anyplace, anywhere' and to text as well as talk. Mobile gossip is an effective and important new stress-buster.

Mobile phones are the new garden fence

The space-age technology of mobile phones has allowed us to return to the more natural and humane communication patterns of pre-industrial society, when we lived in small, stable communities, and enjoyed frequent 'grooming talk' with a tightly integrated social network. In the fast-paced modern world, we had become severely restricted in both the quantity and quality of communication with our social network. Mobile gossip restores our sense of connection and community, and provides an antidote to the pressures and alienation of modern life. Mobiles are a 'social lifeline' in a fragmented and isolating world.
This is timely and absorbing. The article ties anthropology, social research, history, etymology, and philosophic speculation into a hot-topic discussion of cellphone conversation and texting. It's broken down into categories that are sub-heads such as Sociable mobility, An antidote to alienation, A symbolic bodyguard, The joys of text, and Gossip as entertainment.

The section on Feedback is typical and is, obviously, what caught the eye of the ALD editors:
It is very difficult to be a 'good gossip', however lively your tone and however detailed your stories, if you do not have a good audience. For women, we found that this means listeners who give plenty of appropriate feedback. This feedback must be at least as animated and enthusiastic as the delivery of the gossip, if not more so. The speaker has gone to the trouble of making the information sound surprising and scandalous, so the least one can do is to reciprocate by sounding suitably shocked.

"Men don't get this, they don't understand that you're supposed to go 'NO! Really?!'"

"Yeah, with women it's always 'Oh My GOD!'"

"That's right. For women, gossip is a two-way thing."
What we seem to have here is a discussion of research findings like the ones put out by the Pew Internet & American Life Project which is itself a gossipy production. It's an instance of a literary device that's dear to Christopher Ricks: making words do what they say. The author, Kate Fox, writes enthusiastically, doling out fascinating tidbits and even indulging in outright humor, as in: 'The notion of needing to have "enough information for a conversation" also seemed to be peculiarly male: the women in our groups could conduct long conversations on the basis of very little factual information, or indeed none at all.'

All of this making for interesting reading, particularly, for me, not the cutesy stuff but the background information provided via the literature review.

But there's something else to be said about the piece:
    1. It's about cellphone users in Britain and contains findings specific to Brits. So, for example, the author writes how gossip is particularly exciting and risky for "the naturally reserved and inhibited English" since for them "privacy is an especially serious matter." She goes on, "Our homes are our castles, we are taught to mind our own business, keep ourselves to ourselves, not make a scene or draw attention to ourselves and never wash our dirty linen in public."

    2. The research was conducted for a cellphone company, BT Cellnet, which makes its positive spin on the subject somewhat suspect, the take-home being, as the lead paragraphs say, gossip is good for us and cellphones are great for gossipers.

    3. The article was written more than five years ago, eons of time in this electronic age.

    4. The organization on whose site it appears is, as it says, "a non-profit organisation founded to conduct research on social and lifestyle issues," but that's not the whole truth. For though it says it's "independent," it is tied to a public relations firm which boasts of its ability to plant PR articles that deceive the public into believing they are genuine. (SourceWatch has an article explaining this.)
Which makes me think about spin, and framing, and using one-sided rhetorical techniques to persuade. We're so accustomed to press-release journalism that we don't think twice about it. Like gossip itself, there's narrative power in facts (or maybe that should be "facts") presented from a single point of view. And it's tedious to see things always in their rounded fullness (or more-rounded, more-closely full).

But it makes for prejudice, reinforcement of unfounded opinion, acutal or metaphorical xenophobia.

For this reason, though I enjoyed reading about gossip, my first thought was how often its tendency is destructive. I see this particularly in the work environment. I love gossip but try hard to discipline myself against it because of its power to use facts, quasi-facts, and illusions to build up social cohesion in one clique by running down another.

This is harmful in the workplace, not a good thing among families and friends, but can be truly horrible among societies, ethnic groups, and nation states: think of religious prejudice and the gossip that supports it (as in the alienation of Jews leading up the the Holocaust), or of racial prejudice, likewise. Class prejudice isn't so obviously a problem, but is subtly destructive all the same. I had a history teacher once who told of class prejudice in the Oxford colleges of his time: members of upper-classes being snidely dismissive to lower-class students: "pass the vegetable, oh I mean the greens, please."

I'm speaking about face-to-face gossip. I don't know whether cellphone gossip has a similar tendency to run-down others. The article makes it seem unlikely, but I don't fully trust what it says.

Not surprsing, is it, then, that I'm ambivalent, uncertain, of two minds about what I read. The article is informative, entertaining, a good read; but I doubt that it gives me unbiased information (or, more precisely, I doubt whether it's free of conscious bias and whether the author has made a good-faith effort to free herself of unconscious bias). And I'm worried about the phenomenon that's its subject. All of which makes for what I suppose to be an unexciting blog post. ("Why did he bother?")

Friday, February 16, 2007

introducing the book

If you haven't seen Introducing the Book yet, do open it up.

It's a Norwegian TV sketch (with English subtitles) about a
medieval monastery converting from scrolls to books. The monk
Ansgar has just called the helpdesk.

The transition from scroll to book (codex) took place pretty early in medieval times. It began in the first century AD and was pretty much completed in the fourth. There's a good article on the subject in the Encyclopedia Romana here Wikipedia's article on the codex is here.

It's interesting, is it not, that the video is nice and linear, like a scroll. You can't easily be enter in the middle of it, or peruse it backwards, or jump around from place to place in it. Nor are their any navigational aids -- title page, contents page, index, or even a scheme of organization such as page numbering.

Credit: [Web4lib] Introducing the book

{Another cross-posting from my intranet blog at work.}

Sunday, February 11, 2007


Our movie group watched Capote last night and, in drowsy half-wakefulness early this morning, I found myself thinking about the filmed portrayal of the man as wholly self-absorbed, delighting when he could hold court at Upper West Side parties, pouting at Harper Lee's success when stays of execution conspire, as he says, to keep him from finishing his book.
{click to enlarge}

Still only half-awake, I began to think about some writers for whom the phrase "it's all about me" doesn't fit. Samuel Beckett for example, whose work Gobbergo brought into my life some years ago. Beckett didn't want to be recognized, he wanted to be read. He wanted an audience for his writings not for himself. He didn't grandstand or jockey for position. As Harold Pinter said, "He hasn’t got his hand over his heart. He leaves no stone unturned and no maggot lonely. He brings forth a body of beauty."
{click to enlarge}

Beckett thoughts led to thoughts of Beckett's devoted and eccentric critic, Christopher Ricks also both allusive and elusive, in art and life. Language lover, Ricks gives Beckett full voice and keeps both selves out of the way. This, from a book review on an edition of the Poems, is typical:
Take one of the loveliest of the French poems, of such an entire simplicity as to ask not all that much of the English-speaking world:
imagine si ceci
un jour ceci
un beau jour
si un jour
un beau jour ceci
In 1990 in the magazine Babel , Kevin Perryman did his best, and it is a great deal better than I could do.
just think if all this
one day all this
one fine day
just think
if one day
one fine day all this
just think
The hinge is the turn "ceci / cessait", and Perryman's "all this / stopped" is abrupt and jagged where the original is shady stealth. The American poet and translator Marcia Karp has realised just this metamorphosis of the crux:
imagine yes this this
one day this this
one fine day
yes one day
one fine day this this
The solution is this dissolving. One fine translation. This book would be the better if, imagine, it had said yes to its original intention [of including English translations by other hands].
About this, notice the wit of Ricks in service to greater understanding, a tactic shared with Beckett: A side-long turn of phrase - solution dissolving - to catch the reader's imagination: cessait >>> stopped >>> dissolves >> (metamorphosis >> translation) >> solution - brings a smile to this most serious of serious thoughts.

Ricks, who celebrates Milton, Sterne, Keats, Tennyson, Houseman, Eliot, and Dylan (as in Bob, not Thomas), is no po-mo obscurantist. He loves the English language in all its fullness - the meaning, but also the sound, the rhythm, the connectedness of it. It can be difficult to follow his exploration of extended linkages and often you wonder what he's up to, as when he gave serious consideration to parentheses and footnotes in poetry.
{click to enlarge}

Thinking of Ricks led to thoughts of a passing reference he once made to the antithetical meaning of primal words. In 1910, Freud theorized about this concept in discussing dreams (Über Den Gegensinn Der Urworte). He got it from the German linguist, Carl Abel (prachwissenschaftliche Abhandungen, 1885). Both considered words that were their own opposites in German and Abel added Latin and Egyptian. Abel rooted his idea on the dual meaning of the Latin word sacer which signifies both sacred and taboo. A bit of searching easily shows that there are many in English as well. Though hardly "primal," the word dust is a good example, since it means both to remove and to add fine particles. Writing in Slate, Jesse Sheidlower has an interesting piece on the word literally which stimulates the accompanying cartoon. The whole business is interesting, but not profound, and Abel's theory hasn't led to any significant linguistic research.
{click to enlarge}

Not profound, but interesting. Your search for antithetical meaning of primal words will take you to Ben Watson's essay on The Antithetical Meaning of Primal Guitars which challenges the reader much as do Beckett and Ricks. In this review of Sonic Youth and Descension's noise-rock guitarist, Stefan Jaworzyn, Watson says: "Generalisations about the Avantgarde need to be contradictory to be true." He shows true-blood Ricksian density of prose to the point of parody and beyond, exhibiting what Ricks writes about Beckett's early poems: "Clotted, coagulated, corrugated, rhythmically unhearable, they are erudite beyond belief and beyond impingement." So, Watson concludes:
Descension went nude down the star-system staircase and delivered an immanent critique of rebel-rock 'extremism': antithetical dissension in the Temple of Grunge (even their name proved polysemantic). Free Improvisation woke up to its own outrage, its sedimented content exploding into shrapnel; pop's spectacle of indulgence was interrupted by a social exhibition of the self's own wants. The sonic potential was handed to the attendees to do with what they can - and what they will.
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Lindsay Waters tell us why we should read slowly, but -- unlike Beckett, Ricks, and Watson -- his prose doesn't encourage us to linger. So what's good writing? Do we want quickly to absorb what the author has to say with a minimum of doubt about what that person is getting at? That's good communication isn't it?

Most of the time that's my goal. And mostly that's all that the writing deserves.

But not always.

As Suzuki Roshi would say, Not Always So.

He, who spoke and wrote with great clarity, said: "Walk like an elephant. Do true zen practice, one step after another."

This is a story he told about taking time.
Someone was sitting in front of a sunflower, watching the sunflower, a cup of sun, and so I tried it too. It was wonderful; I felt the whole universe in the sunflower. That was my experience. Sunflower meditation. A wonderful confidence appeared. You can see the whole universe in a flower. If you say, 'Oh this is a sunflower which doesn't really exist' [laughing], that is not our zazen practice."

Addendum: My encounter with antitheticism brought me a small gift. I know have something to use when trying out a new search system. When I hear of yet another Google-breaker (like searchmesh -- which I like), I use "antithetical meaning primal words" to try it out. This is something I've mentioned before.

Saturday, February 10, 2007


Yesterday, Friday, was the first of the week warm enough and sufficiently free of ice and snow for cycle commuting. Though still sub-20 deg. f. in the morning and just freezing on the way home, and though the uphill ride home was made worse by head winds, the experience was oddly pleasant. It brought pleasure, in fact, despite the pain of lower back and hip joints that's inflicted me over the past year or so. I'm sure this is not a symptom of latent masochism. I gloried in the outdoorsy freshness of ride, the release from confinements (within buildings, within automobiles...), the few-and-far-between endorphin highs. I also expect my bike muscles were happy to be put back to use.

The physical discomforts are troubling. I welcome the stop lights that give me a moment to stretch backward, pushing out my abdomen. I breathe into my belly and distend the abdomen muscles to keep the back muscles from complaining too much when I climb hills. I alternate seated and standing climbs to help release pressure on back and hips. It's tedious, remembering to do these things, and -- in this weather -- remembering alike to wiggle fingers and toes before they start to complain of the cold. It's not a pleasure to do sit ups, abdominal crunches, weight training, and a variety of stretches in a (mostly vain) attempt to put the muscles of my torso in good condition. My pitiful complaint: I never used to have to do all these things.

These images don't show me or my commute. I try not to ride when it's actually snowing, I'm more visible in the dark than the guy in the second photo. My bike looks nothing like the snowed in one. And my clothing isn't as bulky as shown in the last image.





Friday, February 09, 2007

research behind the news

This is another cross-post from my work blog. Today's Bloglines feeds have some unusually interesting stuff in them. My blog entry:
I got this from Paul R. Pival's blog, The Distant Librarian. What a great idea! I'm constantly searching the internet for papers that are sources of or that are mentioned in news articles.
Research behind the news

The Auraria Library (CU Denver) Research Behind the News weblog was mentioned the other day on Web4Lib; what a great idea!  I usually read the paper during breakfast and at least once a week read the AP sanitized version of some breaking research and wonder about the full paper.  In fact that's where I originally learned about the Google Scholar vs Library Database research mentioned a couple of weeks ago.

So what the folks at CU Denver are doing is posting a snippet from the news wires, and then "Read the article behind this story in...." with a link to their proxied access to the original research.  Great way to tie in the library's content to the Real World. This also reminds me of the feature I've heard about in one of the medical databases that posts links to whatever was discussed on "ER" the previous evening...

just look up

sandcastlematt put this photo on flickr. His title: the library of congress: look something up, or just look up

{click image to view full size}

He says: "From the monuments and memorials to its great civic and government buildings, DC is full of amazing architecture, but in my opinion the city has two absolute gems - places where I can get lost standing still. One is the Library of Congress - this is just the foyer! Next time I'm in town I'll try to get a shot of the main reading room - and my other favorite structure, the National Cathedral."

I found this by scanning one of the pipes on the Yahoo pipes beta. O'Reilly describes the service. The pipe on which I found the image is New York Times thru Flickr by Daniel Raffel.

Take a look at this new Yahoo service. It demonstrates the point Wesch makes in The Machine is Us/ing Us, about which I just blogged. Some examples of “pipes” that users have made in the past couple of days:
    • New York Times thru Flickr
    • Aggregated News Alerts
    • Apartment Near Something
    • Picture Near Place
    • European Performance Car News
    • hedge fund news
    • Find Coffee Near You
    • ny times top10 korean translation
    • Le Monde translated into English (via Babelfish)
    • Reading Material (A combination of New Yorker, New York Times Magazine and Vanity Fair feeds. The emphasis is on longer news and politics stories.)
[I'm cross-posting this from my intranet blog at work.]

Thursday, February 08, 2007

nice YouTube from Chris Anderson

I got this from Chris Anderson's blog. It's a bit long - 4 minutes - but absorbing, and if you only want the gist you can close it when you've had enough.

He doesn't credit a source. I assume he made it himself.
[Update: The source is Michael Wesch, Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology, Kansas State University.]
Here's the cover of Anderson's book, available at Amazon and many other places.

why knowledge matters

Ben Bernanke is in the news for the speech he gave in Omaha yesterday. I suggest you read the speech itself rather than accounts of it. It's on the Fed's home page.

Bernanke addresses income inequality in the US; he does so concisely, dispassionately, giving due weight to ethical as well as strictly economic concerns, and acknowledging what's not known and unpredictable along with what is.

He reviews the benefits of economic growth, explains how it's dependent on increases in productivity and how, in turn, that can't be achieved without "dislocation," meaning changes in the jobs that are available in the workplace. Dislocation means people lose jobs and often find that the new jobs they're able to get pay less than the old ones did. He says the country needs to help people who find themselves in this situation, but, more importantly, he says the country needs to help people shift employment before their jobs disappear and it needs to provide the right education -- continuing education, not just childhood education -- so that people have the right knowledge and skill for the jobs that are and are becoming available. The long-term trend in the US favors workers who are well-educated and highly-skilled.

Here are his concluding paragraphs:
A better approach for policy is to allow growth-enhancing forces to work but to try to cushion the effects of any resulting dislocations. For example, policies to facilitate retraining and job search by displaced workers, if well designed, could assist the adjustment process. Policies that reduce the costs to workers of changing jobs--for example, by improving the portability of health and pension benefits between employers--would also help to maintain economic flexibility and reduce the costs that individuals and families bear as a result of economic change. Of course, devising policies that accomplish these goals in the most effective way is not straightforward, nor can such policies deal with all of the negative effects of trade and technology on affected individuals. Displaced older workers present a particularly difficult problem, as these workers have greater difficulty than others in finding new jobs and experience a greater decline in earnings than other workers if they are re-employed (Munnell and others, 2006). Considerable debate and analysis of policy alternatives lie ahead, but these discussions will be well worth the effort.

As the larger return to education and skill is likely the single greatest source of the long-term increase in inequality, policies that boost our national investment in education and training can help reduce inequality while expanding economic opportunity. A substantial body of research demonstrates that investments in education and training pay high rates of return both to individuals and to the society at large (Acemoglu and Angrist, 2001; Becker, 1964; Card, 1999; Topel, 2004). That research also suggests that workers with more education are better positioned to adapt to changing demands in the workplace.

In assessing the potential of education and training to moderate inequality, one should keep in mind that the economically relevant concept of education is much broader than the traditional course of schooling from kindergarten through high school and into college. Indeed, substantial economic benefits may result from any form of training that helps individuals acquire economically and socially useful skills, including not only K-12 education, college, and graduate work but also on-the-job training, coursework at community colleges and vocational schools, extension courses, online education, and training in financial literacy. The market incentives for individuals to invest in their own skills are strong, and the expanding array of educational offerings available today allows such investment to be as occupationally focused as desired and to take place at any point in an individual's life.

Although education and the acquisition of skills is a lifelong process, starting early in life is crucial. Recent research--some sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis in collaboration with the University of Minnesota--has documented the high returns that early childhood programs can pay in terms of subsequent educational attainment and in lower rates of social problems, such as teenage pregnancy and welfare dependency.11 The most successful early childhood programs appear to be those that cultivate both cognitive and noncognitive skills and that engage families in stimulating learning at home (Heckman, Stixrud, and Urzua, 2006).

To return to the themes I raised at the beginning, the challenge for policy is not to eliminate inequality per se but rather to spread economic opportunity as widely as possible. Policies that focus on education, job training, and skills and that facilitate job search and job mobility seem to me to be a promising means for moving toward that goal. By increasing opportunity and capability, we help individuals and families while strengthening the nation's economy as well.
Pretty straight-forward stuff; dry, but important to think about.

I notice that Bernanke doesn't dwell on the indirect economic benefits of a liberal education through college and grad school -- something in which I place my faith. One reason, in the social policy sphere, is the importance of this education to the maintenance (maybe rebuilding would be the better term) of a literate and informed electorate, capable of making governments that are themselves capable of doing as he suggests.

I recently read an article on demographic changes in the US that are likely to increase, rather than decrease, the number of well-educated voters in coming generations. I can't find it now, but the argument, as you'd expect, is somewhat elitist: immigration of illiterates and tendency of people with low educational attainments to have lots of children. I also read and have been able to find again, an article by Peter Berkowitz on Liberal Education, Then and Now which discusses John Stuart Mill's view of the subject with reference (along the way) to both Mill's Inaugural Delivered to the University of St. Andrews on February 1st 1867 and John Henry Newman's The Idea of a University. Mill said we need to keep our minds open. Berkowitz says he valued "drawing truth from rival systems of opinions." In Mill's own words, the "danger is not so much of embracing falsehood for truth, as of mistaking part of the truth for the whole."

(It's irrelvant to what I'm saying here, but worth pointing out that Berkowitz is arguing for a core curruiculum of required classes to replace what he sees as a hodge podge of electives in current higher education.)

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Audrey Meadows and bicycle commuting

I've been trying to become less obsessed with my bike commute. Until recently, my rule had been to ride unless conditions were truly abominable. I've evidence that "obsessed" is the right word here. So, for example, a police officer who checks my badge on arriving to work (and who jokes about how many miles I get to the cheeseburger) told me last week that I was super dedicated to biking and, on days when it's cold and otherwise unpleasant, people I pass in the hallways like to ask whether I've ridden the bike to work. Since for a while now I've been trying to stem loss of bone mass, my new goal is to do more aerobic exercise of a weight-bearing nature -- basically treadmilling it.

Teadmill use requires some form of distraction. DVDs and VCR tapes work a little better than television programs. Recently I saw 2006 Tour de France highlights, recently lent me by a friend at work, and, yesterday, I started That Touch of Mink, a movie comedy from the early '60's that I recorded off-air but didn't get around to viewing years ago. This movie is funny like the old wise-cracking comedies of the late 30's and its 50's innocence has an antique appeal.

The wise cracks make for lots of quotability. Here's my favorite from the portion of the film I saw last night. Audrey Meadows, Dois Day's sidekick, is making quips about the plight of women, like Doris, who are man-magnets and thus subjected to constant temptation to do what they know they shouldn't do. As one commenter says, the movie seems to be inviting us to see the sidekick as secretly in love with Doris herself. So, at one point, speaking of MEN, she says: "For two thousand years we've had their children, washed their clothes, cooked their meals and cleaned their houses and what have they given us in return? The right to smoke in public. And you don't even smoke!" It's funny, it obliquely says quite a bit about the period which was coming to a close when the movie was made, and its serious undertone has a kind of millenial timelessness.

I couldn't find any stills from the film that show Meadows face-on, so here's another publicity still that shows her with older sister Jayne:

Friday, February 02, 2007

a small diversion during a day of work

This morning my favorite radio station played "Le
Boeuf sur le Toit
" by Darius Milhaud and I spent a few moments finding out what it was, this ox of the roof. Found quickly, there was a bar-restaurant of that name in the Paris of the 1920's. The web provides far more useful information about the music than about the place. But a page called The Boeuf chronicles is good enough to make up the deficiency, including, as it does, a page on the place along with others concerned, as the author says, with "how the ox got on the roof." The page includes some excellent images.

Le Boeuf sur le Toit is not just a piece of music and a restaurant but also a surrealist ballet by Jean Cocteau with scenery and stage design by Raoul Dufy.

I don't remember how, but this minor voyage of discovery led me to this photo of Lotte Lenya.

my source for this photo:

The original photo was apparently taken by Lotte Jacobi about 1930. It has been copied quite a bit without attribution. My source for this info: