Friday, November 30, 2007

His rocking horse is making excellent progress

Maev Kennedy profiles Philip Pullman at the Guardian.

Bonus link (thanks to J. and L. for--independently!--sending): find out the nature of your daemon at the official movie website (hmmm, I disapprove of getting sucked in on what are essentially promotional materials, but it's appealingly well done--click through to the "Daemons" quiz...).

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The moving toyshop

At the Poetry Foundation website, Alice Boone interviews Sophie Gee about her novel The Scandal of the Season.


No time to read the rest of the story now, since the whole point of getting up evilly early is to grade papers and prepare lecture, but as I ate my evilly-early-morning oatmeal for breakfast my eye did run over the opening paragraphs of Michael Specter's story in this week's New Yorker, and I must say that I cannot imagine a more alluring start to a story, it seems perfectly tailored to my interests:
Thierry Heidmann’s office, adjacent to the laboratory he runs at the Institut Gustave Roussy, on the southern edge of Paris, could pass for a museum of genetic catastrophe. Files devoted to the world’s most horrifying infectious diseases fill the cabinets and line the shelves. There are thick folders for smallpox, Ebola virus, and various forms of influenza. SARS is accounted for, as are more obscure pathogens, such as feline leukemia virus, Mason-Pfizer monkey virus, and simian foamy virus, which is endemic in African apes. H.I.V., the best-known and most insidious of the viruses at work today, has its own shelf of files. The lab’s beakers, vials, and refrigerators, secured behind locked doors with double-paned windows, all teem with viruses. Heidmann, a meaty, middle-aged man with wild eyebrows and a beard heavily flecked with gray, has devoted his career to learning what viruses might tell us about AIDS and various forms of cancer. “This knowledge will help us treat terrible diseases,” he told me, nodding briefly toward his lab. “Viruses can provide answers to questions we have never even asked.”

Viruses reproduce rapidly and often with violent results, yet they are so rudimentary that many scientists don’t even consider them to be alive. A virus is nothing more than a few strands of genetic material wrapped in a package of protein—a parasite, unable to function on its own. In order to survive, it must find a cell to infect. Only then can any virus make use of its single talent, which is to take control of a host’s cellular machinery and use it to churn out thousands of copies of itself. These viruses then move from one cell to the next, transforming each new host into a factory that makes even more virus. In this way, one infected cell soon becomes billions.

Nothing—not even the Plague—has posed a more persistent threat to humanity than viral diseases: yellow fever, measles, and smallpox have been causing epidemics for thousands of years. At the end of the First World War, fifty million people died of the Spanish flu; smallpox may have killed half a billion during the twentieth century alone. Those viruses were highly infectious, yet their impact was limited by their ferocity: a virus may destroy an entire culture, but if we die it dies, too. As a result, not even smallpox possessed the evolutionary power to influence humans as a species—to alter our genetic structure. That would require an organism to insinuate itself into the critical cells we need in order to reproduce: our germ cells. Only retroviruses, which reverse the usual flow of genetic code from DNA to RNA, are capable of that. A retrovirus stores its genetic information in a single-stranded molecule of RNA, instead of the more common double-stranded DNA. When it infects a cell, the virus deploys a special enzyme, called reverse transcriptase, that enables it to copy itself and then paste its own genes into the new cell’s DNA. It then becomes part of that cell forever; when the cell divides, the virus goes with it. Scientists have long suspected that if a retrovirus happens to infect a human sperm cell or egg, which is rare, and if that embryo survives—which is rarer still—the retrovirus could take its place in the blueprint of our species, passed from mother to child, and from one generation to the next, much like a gene for eye color or asthma.
Mmmmm.... viruses....

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A rapturous human being

John Haffenden's Empson talk was quite wonderful, by the way. There were all sorts of good things (Christopher Ricks was good too, on the topic of a manuscript poem Empson's family did not wish to release in the collected poems but that has now appeared in the suitable place in the second volume of the biography--it concerns the Empsons' peculiar menage-a-trois way of life--that link's not to the poem by the way, I do not think it's online, but to a nice essay by Frank Kermode on Haffenden's edition of the poems) but the parts that I found most interesting concerned Empson's habit of misquoting.

Empson likened himself to Hazlitt as a (mis)quoter, and there's a clear sense of him seeing himself in the gentlemanly tradition of eighteenth-century readers rather than primarily the modern tradition of scholarship.

(A great quotation from the letters: "The solemnity of modern scholarship is excessive and hampering"!)

Something like 80% of the 1200 or so quotations in one of the books are misquoted: in a letter to the Italian translator, who was objecting to what he found once he started to look into this business of the quotations (I think the particular reference concerned his compression of a spoof poem written by Coleridge, of which he'd left out a line or more of verse), Empson wrote, "It would be bad taste to do research for one's joke and quote accurately."

A good line of Haffenden's, to describe what happens once Empson goes off on one of these quotations and starts to offer rhapsodic and imaginative musings of his own: Empson writes like a rapturous human being...

Double input

A. S. Byatt at the TLS on matters related to art and neuroscience:
I have come to see the delight in making connections – of which metaphor-making is one of the most intense – as perhaps the fundamental reason for art and its pleasures. Philip Davis, at Liverpool University, has been working with scientists on responses to Shakespeare’s syntax, and has found that the connecting links between neurones stay “live” – lit up for longer – after responding to Shakespeare’s words, especially his novel formations of verbs from nouns, than they do in the case of “ordinary” sentences. In Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s Aux Origines des sciences cognitives (1994; translated as The Mechanization of the Mind, 2000), an extraordinary account of the 1950s meetings of the cybernetics group which discussed minds and machines and what it was to be human, a neural network designer suggests that we delight in puns because the neurone connections become very excited by the double input associated with all the stored information for two arbitrarily connected things or ideas.

Announcements for the Columbia-bound

This evening at the Heyman Center at 6:15, Christopher Ricks and John Haffenden will discuss William Empson; and on Friday and Saturday, also at the Humanities Center, a conference on hypocrisy and sincerity (my Columbia colleague Andrew Gelman provides further details, insofar as they are available--I'm speaking on the Saturday morning panel, which starts at 10).

A sense of proportion

At About Last Night, Carrie Frye quotes a hilarious and lengthy extract from Henry James's review of Louisa May Alcott's first novel. Here's the last bit:
Mr. Warwick is plainly a great favorite with the author. She has for him that affection which writers entertain, not for those figures whom they have well known, but for such as they have much pondered. Miss Alcott has probably mused upon Warwick so long and so lovingly that she has lost all sense of his proportions. There is a most discouraging good-will in the manner in which lady novelists elaborate their impossible heroes. There are, thank Heaven, no such men at large in society. We speak thus devoutly, not because Warwick is a vicious person,--on the contrary, he exhibits the sternest integrity; but because, apparently as a natural result of being thoroughly conscientious, he is essentially disagreeable. Women appear to delight in the conception of men who shall be insupportable to men.

A book I will pretty much certainly not read

but whose reviews exert a minor fascination over me: Conrad Black's Nixon biography, reviewed here by Christopher Willcox at the New York Sun. There have been some interesting pieces in the British press, but I have not been collecting the references...

Sunday, November 25, 2007

A sensible communal decision to stay in bed as long as possible

At the Times, Graham Robb explains why there has never been a better time to stay in bed.

Free Parking

Saki Knafo profiles Ed Park at the NYT, in his capacity as reclusive editor of The New-York Ghost!

(Hmmm, it is funny, I am the enemy of whimsy so this "Wizard of Whimsy" title seems to me inapt--Ed is one of my favorite people in the world, and is at the top of my list of people to consult about matters of literary sensibility...)

Some other good Parkian links: linger at main blog The Dizzies; pre-order Ed's forthcoming novel from Amazon; subscribe to The New-York Ghost; check out the altogether demented Parkus Grammaticus archive; visit the Myspace page for Dizzies house band the Psychic Envelopes.

Welcome to this situation

Every now and then you get an invitation you can't refuse: something that promises some kind of glimpse into a world that looks like a place that's well worth being in, even if it's just for a little while!

(In another sense, life is full of invitations like this, at least if we're lucky. A novel is an invitation to enter an alternate universe, and the start of a conversation is an invitation to explore and enrich the relationship with the person one's talking to. We can miss invitations easily if we're not paying attention or if we receive them at the wrong time. Doug Stern's style of teaching swimming represented an invitation I wholeheartedly accepted--an invitation to the world of triathlon but also to the joyful world of trying to be one's best self--and Doug's invitation, though he died in June of cancer, continues to lead to all sorts of other interesting things. Recently I accepted another exciting invitation--to visit a friend in the Cayman Islands in January. I am going to swim in the sea!)

The invitation I allude to in the opening paragraph, though, involved me wrestling with the prudential knowledge that the last thing I need in November and December is a huge extra time commitment (nervous breakdown from exhaustion and overwork!) and my subjective opinion that some opportunities only come once in a lifetime. So I said yes, and I've spent quite a bit of time this past week going to rehearsals (not since college have I had rehearsals!) for a piece--it's performance-related, though I believe the term "performance art" is eschewed by the piece's maker--that will go up at the Marian Goodman Gallery next week.

The artist is Tino Sehgal (Anne Midgette has a piece about him in the Times arts section this weekend, and here's his Wikipedia bio with a link or two), and the piece is simply called This situation. Though it has elements in common with a dance or with the other kinds of art that might be shown in galleries (Tino describes his work as being at the intersection of dance and economics, an unusual pairing!), "This situation" is probably best thought of as a kind of game...

It will not be in the spirit of the project for me to lay everything bare. I think it will be more enjoyable to watch if the enigma remains strongly present. (I do think it is going to be a rather magical and suggestive experience for visitors; meanings of unexpected kinds may unfold but I suspect it is less a cerebral than a physiological experience to give oneself over to a show like this.) But I will say a few things...

There are six players at any given time. We move through the gallery space in a sequence of six constellations--each player occupies a unique series of body positions and locations, many of the configurations of players and postures drawn from significant works of art in the Western tradition (though we do not know what they are, and only a handful are well-enough known that someone as ignorant of art history as I am might guess at them).

Our physical movements are governed by a set of constraints; we move almost as though underwater, in a smooth slow-motion fashion characterized primarily by the absence of any accents. The neutral direction to move is backwards--we only walk backwards--except when a player invokes the rewind function, an aural cue that leads us to move back to the previous constellation and an earlier point in the conversation.

We have a number of other moves in our repertoire, most importantly a welcome (which we invoke every time a new visitor enters the gallery) and a compliment. The conceptual framework for our interactions is eighteenth-century salon conversation, and we have been invited to participate because we are conversationalists in a certain vein--we have a shared body of quotations that we are allowed to "play" in certain contexts, and we also each have access to a set of quotations that only a few other players have.

The quotations are from all sorts of places (you might find an intellectual context for the project by reading this and this and this, plus dipping into this and this, with perhaps a touch of this fellow who I particularly like), but they are not identified with the author's name or the name of the work. We are not in a seminar, Tino likes to say!

(Even the players are not provided with the identifying details for the quotations, a condition that struck me as tormentingly perverse! I spent a few hours looking into things on the internet, an unidentified quotation is another kind of invitation...)

Having always been incredibly lazy about memorizing things (I liked doing it when I was a child, but I lost the taste for it around age twelve!), I now have the, er, interesting task of trying to learn as many as I can of the forty quotations with which I have been provided!

A couple of them are mercifully brief. (In 1647 somebody said: Never speak of oneself. In 1896 somebody said: We should unite stoicism, asceticism and ecstasy. Two of them have often come together, but the three never.)

Some of them are intractably long and social-scientific and I would be unlikely to utter them in any case. (Examples not provided.)

Here is one of my favorites, which I am going to make sure to learn today:

In 1929 somebody said: Every epoch not only dreams the one to follow, but in dreaming, precipitates its awakening. It bears its end within itself and unfolds it cunningly.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Luke Warm

Paul Collins links to a Guardian squib on funny book titles:
Amazon says the charmingly titled Do Ants Have Arseholes? is outselling the official New Scientist book How to Fossilise Your Hamster. Other left-field hits so far are Potty, Fartwell and Knob: From Luke Warm to Minty Badger - Extraordinary But True Names of British People, Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall's The Good Granny Cookbook and Private Eye's Dumb Britain.

Fried drawings

At the Guardian, James Fenton on a cuneiform spelling mistake.

It is too bad

that this novel does not sound very good, because I would like to read a book about a homicide detective raised by apes...

Friday, November 23, 2007


Rhoda Koenig spends an Austenian weekend in Lyme Regis.

Hubris clobbered by Nemesis

Brian Aldiss on the contemporary neglect of SF.

The swimming pool library

A lovely passage from the introduction to Charles Strawson's Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero, which I haven't yet finished but which may possibly be my new favorite book about swimming:
[T]he seeds of this book were sown in the four years I worked lecturing on 'classical culture' in an Arab university. I had applied for the post after noticing an advertisement worded in Latin in the personal column of The Times, while working as a swimming pool attendant in some old Victorian baths in Paddington, so dismal and dirty that no one ever came. In Arabia, as in the Paddington baths, the only form of amusement was reading, so in the long afternoons, while the whole town was sleeping, I devoured book after book among the shadows of the courtyard of our mud house in the Arab quarter, then again late into the night among the stars on our crenellated rooftop. As there was nothing else to do I made extensive notes on everything I read. The heat, the parched atmosphere and the non-existence of pools made me acutely sensitive to the slightest trace of water, any passing reference to swimming. Looking through these tattered notes now I see that on page 180 of Hemingway's The Sun also Rises some character 'swam with his eyes open and it was green and dark', that Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt was 'one of the best swimmers in the class', and when he took a bath 'the shadows of the air bubbles clinging to the hairs were reproduced as strange jungle mosses'. I remember still the mesmeric effect of Coleridge's lines describing a rock pool below a waterfall, where the water regrouped continuously in 'obstinate resurrection' to form the shape of a rose. In the strange, unnatural climate in which I existed all such details struck me as extraordinarily significant. Paragraphs would be devoted to the relevance of fountains in Nathaniel Hawthorne, the varying depths of the sea in Melville, the fish in Thoreau's Walden pond, the shark in American literature. Novels and poetry seemed to revolve around water and swimming, in a way that was quite out of proportion to the author's intentions. I can sympathise now, in confessing to the crazed irrelevancy of these notes, with a certain nineteenth-century chronicler of early swimming, who devoted his whole life to a history of the subject and in his journeys through England and France in search of books always felt 'ashamed in asking librarians, with much hesitation, if they had any books on swimming'.

The minnow file

I must read this fellow's books, they sound like just what I most enjoy! Robbie Hudson at the FT on Fred Buller's angling books:
Buller, 81 last month, is a genuine enthusiast and a natural communicator. Over the course of a three-hour interview, he explains, among many other things, that Henry I did not die from eating a surfeit of lampreys but that Henry V employed a man to source lampreys for the campaigning king and transport them to the battlefront; that almost all parish churches once featured a wall painting of St Christopher, because looking at one was deemed so lucky, and that he has recently completed a book about them.

He also shows me a poem Keats wrote about minnows; tells me how to catch pike with a long stone if I don’t have a hook; and rhapsodises over the beauty of a sturgeon, fresh from the water and glittering like jewellery. This is the kind of detail that mesmerised me when I first saw The Domesday Book of Mammoth Pike. How could one not be seduced by the three-year-old who snared a 40-pounder with a croquet mallet, the 35lb tiddler who attacked a calf and failed to disengage before being dragged from the water, and the Kenmure Pike, a much-debated Loch Ken leviathan, caught by Lord Kenmure’s gamekeeper using a live duck as a lure?

The Domesday Book of Giant Salmon is a bigger, altogether more handsome volume than its pikey predecessor. It is glossy and imperious, stuffed with beautiful pictures. Some salmon gleam silver, some are hook-mouthed monstrosities, some are tired, some are rotting, some cased, some are mere outlines on walls – there is even a painting of a particularly lugubrious 62¾-pounder caught near Usk, in Wales, in 1782.

But it is not pictures that make the book magic. As with The Domesday Book of Mammoth Pike, this is a compendium of stories. They come with such tantalising headings as “The Mysterious Tale of Count Denisoff’s 68¼lb Norwegian Salmon” and “Bishop Browne’s Mythical 70-pounder”. The care and research is inspiring but even more impressive is Buller’s modesty. The biggest piece of news in the book, in terms of fishing history, is a 72lb fish taken by a member of the Athole family in the early 1800s, which would be the largest salmon ever caught on a fly. To Buller, an expert if ever there was one, the fish rings true. But he hasn’t found definitive evidence and he concludes with the hope that by bringing this salmon to notice he will stir up enough publicity to help unearth further documentation.
I have no experience with angling, but I like the expert knowledge aspect of this sort of writing and of course everything to do with fish and water is fairly magical (think of those wonderful pages in The Sword in the Stone).

One of the funniest and most amazing things I remember happening when I was a child involved a fish. We used to go quite often to play in the Wissahickon--our mother would take us over there and we would gravitate to a few particularly appealing spots. And one day my brother M. (I am guessing he was seven or so?) caught a fish in the river with his bare hands! We took it home and cooked it in a frying pan (there was hardly more than a bite of flesh on it, but of course one must if possible eat the food one has caught), it was a most extraordinary day--there is a very funny photo somewhere of him holding up his catch, the allure of the "I caught it myself!" photo runs deep...

The poor little red ship

The picture that appears along with this story about the Explorer sinking in Antarctic waters has an extraordinarily science-fictional feel. I can't remember whether or not I cut it in the end, but somewhere in my new novel the main character looks at a picture and thinks about how photography is the medium most likely to give you a glimpse of an alternate universe...

Pharmaceutical grade swansdown

The Guardian publishes Anne Fadiman's essay on coffee in its entirety (it's included in her collection At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays, which I rhapsodized about here):
At my home in Los Angeles, the coffee-making process had taken about three seconds: you plunked a spoonful of Taster's Choice freeze-dried crystals in a cup, added hot water, and stirred. With Peter's cafetière à piston, you could easily squander a couple of hours on the business of assembling, heating, brewing, pouring, drinking, disassembling, and cleaning (not to mention talking), all the while telling yourself that you weren't really procrastinating, because as soon as you were fully caffeinated you would be able to study like a fiend. The cafetiere had seven parts: a cylindrical glass beaker; a four-footed metal frame; a chrome lid impaled through its center by a plunger rod topped with a spherical black knob; and three metal filtration discs that screwed onto the tip of the plunger in a sequence for whose mastery our high SAT scores had somehow failed to equip us. After all the pieces were in place, you dolloped some ground coffee into the beaker, poured in boiling water, and waited precisely four minutes. (In the title sequence of The Ipcress File, special agent Harry Palmer unaccountably fails to carry out this crucial step. As an eagle-eyed critic for The Guardian once observed, Palmer grinds his beans and pops them into his cafetiere, but fails to let the grounds steep before he depresses the plunger. How could any self-respecting spy face his daily docket of murder and mayhem fueled by such an anemic brew?) Only then did you apply the heel of your hand to the plunger knob and ram the grounds to the bottom of the beaker, though the potable portion always retained a subtle trace of Turkish sludge. What a satisfying operation! The plunger fit exactly into its glass tunnel, presenting a sensuous resistance when you urged it downward; if you pressed too fast, hot water and grounds would gush out the top. The whole process involved a good deal of screwing and unscrewing and trying not to make too much of a mess.

Truth to tell, it was a lot like sex (another mystery into which I was initiated that year, though not by Peter or Alex), and as soon as you'd done it once, you wanted to do it again and again and again. Disdaining the dining hall's white polystyrene cups, most of which had gone a little gray around the rim, each of us had procured our own china mug. Mine had a picture of a polka-dotted pig on it, an allusion to the frequency with which it was refilled. I stirred its contents with a silver demitasse spoon whose bowl was engraved with the name of my hometown. "Firenze" or "Cap d'Antibes" would have been preferable to "Los Angeles," but I did like the feel of the calligraphy against my tongue. Although the whole point of coffee-drinking was to be grown up - no Pepsi- Cola for bohemian intellectuals like us! - the amount of milk and sugar with which we undermined our sophisticated brew suggested that we needed to regress as much as we yearned to evolve. The end product resembled melted coffee ice cream.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Comfort in literature

The opening paragraphs of the novel I finally cast upon yesterday as most suitable for restorative/light rereading, after various failed attempts to lay hands on other favorite books and/or false starts with ones I have read too many times already (it's Elizabeth Goudge's The Little White Horse, which I read for the first time a couple years ago and liked very much although I find it not equal to Linnets and Valerians, the novel of hers I reread countless times as a child):
The carriage gave another lurch, and Maria Merryweather, Miss Heliotrope, and Wiggins once more fell into each other's arms, sighed, gasped, righted themselves, and fixed their attention upon those objects which were for each of them at this trying moment the source of courage and strength.

Maria gazed at her boots. Miss Heliotrope restored her spectacles to their proper position, picked up the worn brown volume of French essays from the floor, popped a peppermint into her mouth, and peered once more in the dim light at the wiggly black print on the yellowed page. Wiggins meanwhile pursued with his tongue the taste of the long-since-digested dinner that still lingered among his whiskers.

Humanity can be roughly divided into three sorts of people--those who find comfort in literature, those who find comfort in personal adornment, and those who find comfort in food; and Miss Heliotrope, Maria, and Wiggins were typical representatives of their own sort of people.


I am thankful for many things this year, only I am going to keep them to myself!

At the Times, Kim Severson has a bizarre and slightly depressing story about turkeys reprieved from their seasonal fate. The stay of execution, it turns out, does not do one much good if one is a commercially bred turkey:
For May and Flower, the two turkeys that received a presidential pardon Tuesday, the adoption rules are less strict and the circumstances more glamorous.

The custom of presenting turkeys to the White House is 60 years old, developed as a promotional tool by poultry producers including the National Turkey Federation during the Truman administration. But the formal pardoning program began with the first President Bush in 1989.

Until two years ago, the pardoned turkeys would be sent to Kidwell Farm, a reproduction of a 1930s working farm at Frying Pan Park in Herndon, Va. But in 2005 the Walt Disney Company, sensing an opportunity, offered to take the birds. This year, the two national turkeys — there is always a star and an understudy — spent a night in a Hotel Washington suite (in their kennels, of course), got their pardon and were flown first-class to Walt Disney World in Florida, where they will star as grand marshals in the park’s Thanksgiving Day parade. They will then reside in a live-animal exhibit.

Whether the turkeys come from a shelter or the White House, they don’t live very long. Most adopted turkeys are commercially bred broad-breasted whites, genetically disposed to grow to a marketable size in about four months. Even on a diet of only a couple of cups of turkey feed a day, they become obese. They usually develop leg problems, congestive heart failure and arthritis.

“One just couldn’t get up, so I had to have her euthanized,” Ms. Lane said. “Another one just dropped dead one evening.”

One of the birds pardoned by President Bush last year, Fryer, died this month at Disneyland in California. At the Virginia farm, one pardoned turkey died a day after it arrived, said Judy Pedersen, a public information officer who works for the Fairfax County Park Authority.

“I believe it was one of Clinton’s birds,” she said.

Only Biscuits, one half of the pardoned 2004 duo of Biscuits and Gravy, is still alive, and she’s not doing well enough to be shown to the public, Ms. Pedersen said.

The presidential birds don’t get a big send-off when they die, despite the fanfare accorded them in life.

“They are disposed of,” said Sherrie Rosenblatt, vice president of the National Turkey Federation.
Also, on a more dramatically macabre note: attack of the killer jellyfish. . . (Thanks to Wendy for the link.)

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The puritan and the hedonist

I am fascinated by how different these Ted Hughes reviews all are from each other, and how engaging: it is clearly one of these books that draws all sorts of things out of readers. Here are Craig Raine's opening paragraphs at the TLS this week:
In 1911, Egon Schiele painted a self-portrait of himself as Eros – in his left hand a terrific, salmon-pink erection, somewhat (I imagine) larger than life. Height 56cm, width 32cm, the gouache used to belong to Victor Lownes, the erstwhile Editor of Mayfair. I don’t think Schiele is painting what Ted Hughes, in a letter to his painter brother Gerald, disparagingly calls “transfers”: “any fool can become a mirror if he practise hard”. Schiele’s gouache is not mimesis. It is frank subjectivity. That is how erections feel – larger than life. That is why men like them. They enlarge us.

Let me begin with Ted Hughes’s erections – with a commendably indiscreet moment in this commendably discreet selection of his letters, tactfully chosen and scrupulously, unostentatiously annotated by Christopher Reid, formerly Hughes’s editor at Faber & Faber, as I had been before him.
And another mini-anthology of favorite moments:
Regularly, if not as frequently as you might expect, you encounter delightful touches: on Fortnum and Mason’s, “deep carpets, sturgeon’s tongues, bowing uniformed attendants, cassowary brains in melon syrup”. This is Frieda learning to speak: “issuing a stream of Japanese, with the beginnings of translation – app-uh, for apple, ooo-en, for open . . .”. The famous are brought before us: “Neruda – he read torrentially for about 25 minutes off a piece of paper about 3" by 4". Then he turned it over, & read on”. T. S. Eliot: “His smile is like that of a person recovering from some serious operation . . . . Eliot isn’t at all unguarded in his remarks. He has huge thick hands – unexpected”.

Bubble, ooze & drip

At the LRB, Tom Paulin considers the letters of Ted Hughes. It seems to me there are many reasons I would be interested to read this volume of selected letters, one of them being that Hughes clearly writes incredibly well about animals. One night in 1950, says a letter Paulin quotes, Hughes
heard a commotion in the hedge, and after a while, out trundled a hedgehog, merry as you like, and obviously out for a good time. I thought he might make a jolly companion for an evening so I brought him in. After a while I noticed he had disappeared and later heard a noise just like the sobbing of a little child, but very faint, and it continued for long enough. I traced it to a pile of boxes, and there was my comrade, with his nose pressed in a pool of tears, and his face all wet, and snivelling and snuffling his heart out. I could have kissed him for compassion. I don’t know why I’m so sympathetic towards hedgehogs.


From the Strange Maps blog, courtesy of Nico, spam maps from artist Michael Arcega.

An iron room

Dai Qing has a fascinating piece in the latest New York Review of Books about water and the Beijing Olympics:
While the farmers living on the outskirts of greater Beijing are given strictly controlled allocations of water, in central Beijing the people in charge are celebrating the construction of the ultimate "water follies" which will be ready in time for the Olympic year. These include the vast lake that will surround the titanium, egg-shaped National Grand Theater next to the Great Hall of the People, just off Tiananmen Square, as well as the largest fountain in the world at the Shunyi "Water Heaven"—one that can shoot 134 meters high. The Shunyi water park has been built on the dried-out remains of the Chaobai River—no irony intended. And then there are the hundred golf courses that have been laid out in greater Beijing. These infamous "water guzzlers" occupy over 20,000 acres of land and their imported turf has become a serious drain on the city's dwindling water resources.

Perhaps if this spectacle had been held three hundred years ago, or even a hundred years ago, the environment of Beijing might have been able to sustain it. After all, the city is surrounded by mountains on three sides, has five major water sources, and once had numerous lakes and marshes with underground springs constantly welling up and disgorging crystal-clear water. It was a rich and fertile place, and was home to five imperial capitals. But today Beijing is entirely different. Its reservoirs are 90 percent dry, and all of its rivers flow at historically low levels. The aquifer under Beijing has been drastically lowered by long-term overuse.

Is all of this just because of climate change? Certainly the city has been afflicted by drought for the past eight years, but the problems are more fundamental. Since 1949, the Beijing metropolitan area has experienced an eightfold population increase (growing from 2.2 million in 1948 to 18 million today). The city itself covers a geographic area that is fifty times larger, and uses thirty-five times as much water. Even the consumption of whiskey has increased one-hundred-fold in recent years. And what of the city's water, that precious commodity without which no one—young or old, rich or poor—can survive? On average, Beijing people have only three hundred cubic meters of water resources per capita, one eighth of the Chinese average—which is 2,200 cubic meters— and one thirtieth of the world average.

But during the Olympic Games, Beijing will enjoy an unprecedented supply of water. Special pipes will bring unpolluted water from the provinces to provide for the whole city, allowing people to enjoy potable water from their taps for the first time—but only for as long as the games last. Meanwhile, when the crowds watch and applaud the Olympic performances at the aquatic events, neither they nor the athletes will be aware that they are not really competing on the waters of Beijing's original Chaobai River. The "river" they will be using is an artificial creation made by damming the two ends of a long-dry riverbed and filling it with water pumped from deep underground.

Breaking eggs

At the New York Sun, Martha Mercer reviews Orlando Figes' The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia. Though the last thing I need is a new book, I think I am going to go and buy this today, it is exerting a fascination over me...

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Flesh and bones

Jenny Davidson to Nico Muhly, 5:39:59am:

i have an irrationally strong need (possibly fostered by extreme lack of sleep, i have tipped over to getting up early but without being able to fall asleep early!) for a funny animal story for the blog; got anything to hand?!?


Nico Muhly to Jenny Davidson, 5:45:24am:

I can offer you first and foremost: (especially, and perhaps

In terms of funny ANIMAL stories, I have been reading these insane holiday best of lists in the guardian:,,2211568,00.html (check out the NAMES of the stores!!!!)

the japanese have started whaling humpbacks again!

and in case you haven't seen it, this great thing about Bonobos ("flesh and bones") in the Times:


Monday, November 19, 2007

22 was a funnier number than 14

At the Telegraph, several extracts from Gary Dexter's book on the "story behind the story"--why is it Catch-22 as opposed to Catch-18, why is Bertie Wooster's servant called Jeeves, and why does the postman always ring twice? Here's a bit, though not the explanation:
'Had it been summer, he would have taken some literature out on to the cricket-field or the downs, and put in a little steady reading there, with the aid of a bag of cherries.' - P.G. Wodehouse, 'The Gold Bat' (1904).

My Man Jeeves (1919) was the first Wodehouse book with Jeeves in the title. There were 10 more: The Inimitable Jeeves (1923), Carry On, Jeeves (1925), Very Good, Jeeves (1930), Thank You, Jeeves (1934), Right Ho, Jeeves (1934), Ring for Jeeves (1953), Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit (1954), Jeeves in the Offing (1960), Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves (1963) and Much Obliged, Jeeves (1971).

Although My Man Jeeves was the first Jeeves title, Jeeves the gentleman's personal gentleman - possessor of the secret of how to make a perfect cup of tea and serve it precisely as his master is waking up - first made an appearance in the story Extricating Young Gussie in the Saturday Evening Post of 18 September, 1915. He had only two lines: 'Mrs Gregson to see you, sir', and, 'Very good, sir. Which suit will you wear?'

Wodehouse said in the introduction to the anthology The World of Jeeves (1967): 'It was only some time later, when I was going into the strange affair of The Artistic Career of Corky, that the man's qualities dawned upon me. I still blush to think of the off-hand way I treated him at our first encounter.'
Some literature, a little steady reading, a bag of cherries--heavenly...

The unstoppable Will-to-Funniness

David Schneider at the Sunday Times on Steve Martin's autobiography.

Saturday, November 17, 2007


Lucinda Lambton at the FT on the happy renaissance in lavatorial sanitation:
In 2002, an SOS went out from St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square, appealing for help with the problem of urinating men eroding the 18th century stone body of the church – and so the Butterfly Urinal was born. This sleek and shiny stainless steel structure – with curved “wings” that open at night to conceal the user – adds a shaft of sheer elegance to the street. It is one of the many exhilarating new lavatorial designs, both public and private, that are to be found throughout the country. Cambridge’s new public conveniences – beneath a long armadillo-like copper dome – are another, while in Stratford East, workers who maintain London’s underground trains can seek relief in stainless steel urinal “pods”. At Woburn Sands, on the border of Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire, the new public convenience has all the appearance of an Etruscan tomb of green marble, while in a glitzy club in central London you discover a dozen 7ft-high white fibre-glass eggs – blue-lit within for Gents and pink-lit for Ladies – each containing a WC.
Rather magical, eh?!? I am strongly tempted to get hold of a copy of her book Temples of Convenience and Chambers of Delight--or perhaps what will be more alluring is the volume titled Lucinda Lambton's Magnificent Menagerie: Or, Queer Pets and Their Goings-On....

The Gorillas' Wedding

Margaret Atwood at the Guardian on the legacy of Huxley's Brave New World:
I first read Brave New World in the early 1950s, when I was 14. It made a deep impression on me, though I didn't fully understand some of what I was reading. It's a tribute to Huxley's writing skills that although I didn't know what knickers were, or camisoles - nor did I know that zippers, when they first appeared, had been denounced from pulpits as lures of the devil because they made clothes so easy to take off - I none the less had a vivid picture of "zippicamiknicks", that female undergarment with a single zipper down the front that could be shucked so easily: "Zip! The rounded pinkness fell apart like a neatly divided apple. A wriggle of the arms, a lifting first of the right foot, then the left: the zippicamiknicks were lying lifeless and as though deflated on the floor."

I myself was living in the era of "elasticised panty girdles" that could not be got out of or indeed into without an epic struggle, so this was heady stuff indeed.

Friday, November 16, 2007

A small ungulate, possibly a duiker

A fairly extraordinary story at the Times about the NY-area prosecution of bushmeat sellers:
African expatriates like Edward Lama Wonkeryor, a lecturer at Temple University, have long turned to bushmeat as a home comfort: During his earliest trips from Liberia to this country, in the 1970s, his mother would wrap parcels of bushmeat — monkey, bush hog or lion, smoked so it would keep — and slip them into his suitcase. He would save them for events like weddings and christenings, or when he wanted to feel smarter.

“If I were going to take the Graduate Record Examination or the Law School Admissions Test, definitely I would” eat bushmeat beforehand, said Dr. Wonkeryor, who wrote a letter in Ms. Manneh’s defense. “I am really surprised that they are making a big issue out of this.”

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Thor drugs you with soup

Alice on the game of pseudo-moo.

(BTW Steely Dan came up in a funny conversation the other day at the swimming pool. I was pestering for a logical explanation of the set--I can remember it really easily if I understand the pattern, and not at all if I don't. Some sets proceed through what I always think of as IM logic, in which you're working with the order of the strokes as they are sequenced in Individual Medley: butterfly, back, breast, free. Any set that involves the alternation of fly-free, back-free, breast-free can be easily slotted into some version of IM logic... But this time the strokes came in another order, and not just a reversed order either, let's say back breast fly though I can't remember the exact pattern, and I could not help myself asking though I know it is pestery what the logic was, since it did not seem to be IM logic! First the coach said, "Isn't it still IM logic?" Then when I still seemed pestery he looked at me very solemnly and said, "It's pretzel logic!" The three of us in the lane gazed on him with bemusement. "Do you know what pretzel logic is?" he said. "I can imagine, but I do not know," I admitted. "It's an album by Steely Dan!" I figured out that it was time to stop asking questions and start swimming!)

A singing mouse, an enormous head, a walking skeleton

Michael Kimmelman at the Times on Ricky Jay's collection of circus broadsides.

(NB--this is the scholar in me--that should be "anti-Jacobite" rather than "anti-Jacobean.")

The Beijing Weather Modification Office

Truth is stranger than fiction.

Going avant-garde

At the Times, Janet Maslin reviews Steve Martin's autobiography Born Standing Up. Hmmm, I think I've got to get that one, despite the out-of-control unread-book situation round here (have I ever had a semester where I read so few books?!?): the bit in the New Yorker a few weeks ago was quite, quite wonderful...

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Le sens des sons

At the TLS, John E. Joseph has a rather wonderful piece about the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. It is illuminating on various questions concerning language, sound and meaning, but it also informs me that Saussure's great-grandfather may have been the model for Mary Shelley's Victor Frankenstein and that the linguist himself can be counted as a tenth cousin (twice removed) of Princess Diana...

Tolstoy's style

Orlando Figes has an excellent piece on translation (specifically, the new translation of War and Peace) in the latest NYRB (no subscription required). It's intellectually stimulating, and it also produced in me the requisite sense of yearning--for time to read War and Peace (which I read greedily for the first and only time the summer I turned eighteen, surprising myself by liking the war parts very much more than the peace ones, but have not looked at again since--but I'm reading it again as soon as I can!), for the lost window of opportunity in which I might have learned Russian properly rather than in a half-assed and cursory fashion (but I always would have been too lazy to read the whole of War and Peace in the original), and indeed for a copy of Figes' The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia, which sounds quite indispensably wonderful

The monkey invasion

I do see that it's a serious problem, but this story in the Times gets my vote for year's best headline: Monkeys in the Parks, Monkeys in the Palace...

Sole Street

Peter Ashley's top 10 railway poems. Enchanting!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


At the New York Observer, Adelle Waldman reviews Taylor Clark's Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce and Culture:
Economic analysis aside, Starbucked is also full of cocktail-party-worthy tidbits. Who knew, for example, that a Canadian man sued Starbucks because a “faulty toilet seat smashed his penis against the bowl”? Or that a gentleman’s club in Seoul, South Korea, capitalized on its name recognition by calling itself “Starbutts”?

Of what may be done in swimming

My dear friend Wendy had a particularly charming post this morning that touched on various fitness- and cat-related activities before plunging into the depths, as it were, of the romantic notion (inspired by this article) that one might actually in real life swim across the Hellespont.

She quoted the poem Byron wrote after completing this swim, reminding me of my old obsession with Byron's wonderful letters and sending me in turn to the library to retrieve the relevant volumes of Leslie Marchand's edition of the letters and journals.

Byron is an incredibly endearing letter-writer, not least because of his vanity--though of course it is not fair to hold someone accountable for having provided multiple correspondents with accounts of the same feat, this is just an unfortunate effect of reading the collected letters posthumously but in the age of e-mail we all understand quite well that one may provide different correspondents with accounts of the same exploit without actually being a monster of egotism! That said, the effect is rather amusing, especially because he is concerned to downplay the whole thing in a patently absurd attempt to seem modest and low-key about his own accomplishments...

Here is Byron to Francis Hodgson, on 5 May 1810:
We have undergone some inconveniences and incurred partial perils, but no events worthy of commemoration unless you will deem it one that two days ago I swam from Sestos to Abydos.--This with a few alarms from robbers, and some danger of shipwretck in a Turkish Galliot six months ago, a visit to a Pacha, a passion for a married woman at Malta, a challenge to an officer, an attachment to three Greek Girls at Athens, with a great deal of buffoonery and fine prospects, form all that has distinguished my progress since my departure from Spain.--Hobhouse rhymes and journalizes. I stare and do nothing, unless smoking can be deemed an active amusement.

Here he is writing to his mother, on 18 May 1810:
Dear Madam,--I arrived here in an English frigate from Smyrna a few days ago without any events worth mentioning except landing to view the plains of Troy, and afterwards when we were at anchor in the Dardanelles, swimming from Sestos to Abydos, in imitation of Monsieur Leander whose story you no doubt know too well for me to add any thing on the subject except that I crossed the Hellespont without so good a motive for the undertaking.--As I am just going to visit the Capitan Pacha you will excuse the brevity of my letter, when Mr. Adair takes leave I am to see the Sultan & the Mosques &c.

Again, to John Hanson on 23 May:
I believe I mentioned in my last that I had visited the plains of Troy, and swam from Sestos to Abydos in the Dardanelles, any of your classical men (Hargreaves or Charles) will explain the meaning of the last performance and the old story connected with it.

And again to his mother, on 24 May:
I believe I mentioned to you in my last that my only notable exploit lately, has been swimming from Sestos to Abydos on the 3d of this month, in humble imitation of Leander of amorous memory, (though I had no Hero to receive me on the other shore of the Hellespont).

(And so forth: believe it or not, he is still alluding, in a letter to Henry Drury on 17 June, to having "swam from Sestos to Abydos (as I trumpeted in my last)"--I like the way he keeps on writing even to the same correspondents about this swim! I will not continue, but there are a number of additional references...)

The really priceless letter, though, is written on 21 February 1821, to his publisher, in response to the diplomat William Turner's charge, in his published journal of his tour in the Levant, that "Lord Byron--when he expressed such confidence of it's practicability seems to have forgotten that Leander swam both ways with and against the tide, whereas he (Ld. B.) only performed the easiest part of the task by swimming with it from Europe to Asia." I have scanned the pages, because it's too long an extract to type up--do read it, though! (Aside from everything else he reveals that the swim was done "in the presence of hundreds of English Witnesses"! What a scene it must have been...)

(Bonus link: George Chesterton explains why Byron would not have used the front crawl.)

A golden labrador, a Van der Graaf generator and an anti-gravity machine

I'm a sucker for books like this--I must get them and see if they're any good...

Monday, November 12, 2007

The hive mind

Carl Zimmer at the Science Times on swarm intelligence.

Aposiopesis redux

I wish the New York Times would for once and for all abandon its coy policy of eliding words unsuitable for publication in a family newspaper. Several book titles in recent years have made the policy seem unsustainable (I am thinking in particular of Harry Frankfurt's On Bullshit and Nick Flynn's Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, both of which received multiple mentions in the paper). Integral to the Light Reading sensibility is the notion that coyness should be avoided at all costs--it is second only to whimsy on my list of undesirables...

Sunday, November 11, 2007

To chair is human

For some years now my friend Nico and I have been having a sporadic and mildly demented correspondence about feral children: he contributes a good new link...

The "Razlle-Dazlle"

At the Sunday Times, a painful series of extracts from the correspondence between Rudyard Kipling and his son John, who died on his first day in action during World War One.

Memento Mailer

At his blog (where the comments also contain some interesting discussion of the reviewer's responsibility to fact-check), Caleb Crain links to his 1999 review of Mary V. Dearborn's biography of Norman Mailer and Mailer's letter of correction.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Soft porn designed for grannies

At the Sunday Times, Melissa Katsoulis reflects on the fiction of Barbara Taylor Bradford. I'm especially linking because of the good phrase she comes up with (I've borrowed it for the header!) which really does express the peculiarity of this genre, my English grandmother was in fact very fond of exactly this kind of book which she read very sedately on the couch in the sitting room in the late afternoon after having had a useful day of laundry, cooking, cleaning etc.! (Novel-reading before lunchtime was considered excessively decadent by the women of this generation and social class....)

Servant to a wild man in himself

Charles McGrath's obituary for Norman Mailer at the Times. There's a rather good quotation from Gore Vidal in the opening stretch (it's Vidal rather than Mailer who I feel I have really been engaged with as a reader for all these many years, I like bits of Mailer but never fully immersed myself in his writing):
Gore Vidal, with whom he frequently wrangled, once wrote: “Mailer is forever shouting at us that he is about to tell us something we must know or has just told us something revelatory and we failed to hear him or that he will, God grant his poor abused brain and body just one more chance, get through to us so that we will know. Each time he speaks he must become more bold, more loud, put on brighter motley and shake more foolish bells. Yet of all my contemporaries I retain the greatest affection for Norman as a force and as an artist. He is a man whose faults, though many, add to rather than subtract from the sum of his natural achievements.”

Friday, November 09, 2007

A meal, a kip, a cup of tea

Giles Foden at the Guardian succumbs to Biggles' charms.

The moral science

Jennie Erdal profiles philosopher Simon Blackburn at the FT. It's a beautifully written piece, very interesting too--here are the opening paragraphs (I have been having a yen this week to read philosophy, it is a comical way of putting it but perhaps I will make a bit of time for some philosophy this weekend!):
On Simon Blackburn’s offbeat personal website, there are no buttons to click on, only paintings and portraits, including an animated one of the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume with a winsome wink and a smile. At the top of the page is a photograph of Prof Blackburn himself, also smiling – not like Hume, but in the manner of a convincing psychopath. The caption reads: “Here is a picture of me about to pounce on someone with a quick dialectical jab to the cortex.”

When not having to pose for the camera, Blackburn, master philosopher and skilled writer, smiles easily and naturally. His voice is smooth and creamy, with a touch of gravel, like sand in a sorbet. The dress style – blue blazer and open-necked shirt – is smart but not over-considered and his spectacles are firmly attached to a fabric lanyard. He comes across very differently from the rather twitchy philosophy professors of my student days, men who were often challenged by normal human intercourse. Blackburn’s authority is carried naturally – it seems to attach itself to him unbidden, cast casually over the shoulders like a well-worn scholar’s gown.
Here is Blackburn's website.

On the subject of philosophy, for the last few days I've had a phrase stuck in my head, some words of Hazlitt's quoted in an excellent dissertation I read this week (nice to see these projects come to fruition!): "[M]y ideas, from their sinewy texture, have been to me in the nature of realities."

My ideas, from their sinewy texture, have been to me in the nature of realities....


A quite d********* piece at the FT: Rahul Jacob lunches with Clarissa Dickson Wright.

(I am having a self-imposed ban for the month of November on a certain word beginning with the letter d, I have perhaps been overusing it recently, only fortunately I have been reading Tristram Shandy and there's a way around the prohibition.)

Volume 2, chapter 6:
---- "My sister, mayhap, quoth my uncle Toby, does not choose to let a man come so near her * * * *" Make this dash, -- 'tis an Aposiopesis. -- Take the dash away, and write Backside, ---- 'tis Bawdy. -- Scratch Backside out, and put Cover'd-way in, -- 'tis a Metaphor; -- and, I dare say, as fortification ran so much in my uncle Toby's head, that if he had been left to have added one word to the sentence, -- that word was it.


Nature: the Drosophila issue! (Thanks to the excellent Maxine for the link.)

A Rabbit Hare Coat

Cintra Wilson is an extremely funny writer, I love it that she's doing these Critical Shopper pieces for the tepid Style Section:
Some items suffer from excess creativity. One dress fuses a voile top onto a pinstripe skirt. This felt like a fashion handicap ramp, designed to assist girls incapable of managing actual separates ($260). A black sequined tank dress is apparently intended to break all the rules by being worn over a striped oxford button-down shirt, with ruffles. This combination works, I suppose, as long as the cocktail dress is being used as a barbecue apron.

The top floor is dedicated to the BCBG Runway line. This is prom dress heaven, dominated by Empire-waist goddess gowns, ideal for swooshing over with a xylophone glissando to reveal to game-show contestants what’s behind Door No. 3!

Some details, however, are puzzlingly crude. The bust of a chocolate chiffon dress seems to have been appliquéd with chipped flint tools from the mid-Paleolithic era; I christened it, “Je m’appelle Wilma” ($800). It would have gone well with an animal pelt that had a tag describing it — really — as a Rabbit Hare Coat ($498).

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The giving vein

Saw a very good production of Richard III this evening at the Classic Stage Company. Michael Cumpsty is excellent in the title part, and the production as a whole is very good too--suitably cartoonish (in the first half especially), and with quite lovely costume and set design. Highly watchable, I really enjoyed myself--only the seats in that theatre are extremely uncomfortable!

(Thinking along decorative lines, I should perhaps try and persuade some set designer of my acquaintance to come and help me make my apartment more atmospheric, sitting in an attractive lit and dressed theatre reminds me that I have an absurdly utilitarian approach to apartment-dwelling...)

I have a particular fondness for this play because it has such a long history for me--it has been something important to me at every stage in my life. When I was ten or eleven I was pretty much obsessed with the novels of Josephine Tey more generally but in particular with The Daughter of Time (in fact in retrospect it is possible that this is the first book I ever read that gave me an idea of what I wanted to do when I grew up--historical research!).

I had a poster of that portrait of Richard III on my bedroom wall, and I thought about Richard III and Thomas More and stuff pretty much all the time...

(A recent conversation reminded me of how diligently and yet enthusiastically in high school I read Malory's Morte d'Arthur and Robert Graves's White Goddess and Fraser's Golden Bough in what was clearly some kind of mildly demented research-related impulse--and in fact at the Richard III stage of life, more like sixth grade--oh, dear, this really is comical, what was I thinking?!?--I also had a set of teach-yourself-Italian tapes that I had written away for from an ad in the New York Times Book Review with my babysitting money and that I listened to as I went to sleep--I am fairly sure that I had read Brave New World and gotten some idea in my head [not that it is really recommended in that novel!] that it would sink in automatically while I slept--also I was memorizing the vocabulary words in a little Italian-English dictionary, only I never even got very far into the letter A, this is not an effective way to learn a language! Another book I remember being obsessed with in sixth grade and reading again and again was I, Claudius...)

But that is by the way--I have reread Richard III at pretty much every stage of life--I saw the Ian McKellen production in London at the National Theatre with my English grandfather c. 1990 (the movie version actually seemed to me significantly better than the stage one), and I have now seen three productions of it in New York with my adopted grandfather: this one was decent but muddled, but I see I ranked this one--and you know, I literally have no memory of this whatsoever, good thing the blog works as the external hard drive of the brain! hmmm, it is faintly coming back to me now...--as one of the worst things I've ever seen--in fact I am going to paste in the description, it is funny, I do not think I had yet found my blogging voice, that was less than one month in!
Last night I saw a play that I think now tops my list of "worst things ever seen," a production of Shakespeare's Richard III that reached new heights of senseless-verse-recitation-by-actors-
sounding-like-they-didn't-understand-a-word-of-it plus campy and distracting staging of the we're-dressed-like-punk-rockers-
is-stupid-but-want-the-cultural-cachet. I won't give further details because the performers should be ashamed enough of themselves as it is.
But back before that I remember Harold Bloom talking about Richard's soliloquies when I was in graduate school (I must have read that particular play at least five or six times in the space of a couple years), and in fact that character is one of the ones I had in mind when I was writing my first novel, because of the way that Shakespeare lets you inhabit the villain's role--the marriage between Jonathan Wild and the narrator of the eighteenth-century parts of Heredity was partly based on the marriage between Richard and Anne...

Ubiquitous computing

Andrew Leonard interviews William Gibson at Rolling Stone. (Link courtesy of Brent via Instapundit.)

Sent to me

by Nico with the apt heading "stupid but funny" (hmmm, from here to the end of the semester sleep deprivation leaches away common sense): an encounter between the world's tallest and smallest dogs.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Polishing his name-plate unobserved

At the TLS, Dinah Birch considers the life and writings of Conan Doyle.

Toms and hens

At the Times, Kim Severson has a delightful story about heritage turkeys:
Mr. Reese moved into a farmhouse on his turkey ranch 20 years ago, after a tour in the Army in the 1970s and a career as a nurse anesthetist, a job he still does part time to help pay for his turkeys.

The century-old house is a showplace for things turkey, including hundreds of old turkey publications, turkey platters and rare framed drawings of turkeys. Somewhere among the papers, he thinks, there might still be a little essay he wrote when he was 5, titled “Me and My Turkey.”

“I don’t know why, but my love of turkeys has always been there,” he said during a late summer walk through a flock of thousands.

Mr. Reese is trying to save both the vintage breeds and a culture of turkey-rearing once so popular that breeders numbered over a thousand and enthusiasts filled the old Madison Square Garden to watch turkeys the way people today flock to the Westminster dog show. The five breeds he raises descend directly from the birds raised by Mr. Kardosh and by other heavyweight breeders, many of them women.

His Bourbon Reds come from flocks raised by Sadie Caldwell in Kansas and Gladys Hanssinger from Missouri. Other turkeys come from a line bred by Martha Walker, who in the 1930s advertised her “short-legged, thick-meated” Walker Bronzes in Turkey World magazine.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Diverted Question, Russian Doll, Sugar Lumps

A quite irresistible bit in Malcolm Gladwell's new piece on criminal profiling:
A few years ago, Alison went back to the case of the teacher who was murdered on the roof of her building in the Bronx. He wanted to know why, if the F.B.I.’s approach to criminal profiling was based on such simplistic psychology, it continues to have such a sterling reputation. The answer, he suspected, lay in the way the profiles were written, and, sure enough, when he broke down the rooftop-killer analysis, sentence by sentence, he found that it was so full of unverifiable and contradictory and ambiguous language that it could support virtually any interpretation.

Astrologers and psychics have known these tricks for years. The magician Ian Rowland, in his classic “The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading,” itemizes them one by one, in what could easily serve as a manual for the beginner profiler. First is the Rainbow Ruse—the “statement which credits the client with both a personality trait and its opposite.” (“I would say that on the whole you can be rather a quiet, self effacing type, but when the circumstances are right, you can be quite the life and soul of the party if the mood strikes you.”) The Jacques Statement, named for the character in “As You Like It” who gives the Seven Ages of Man speech, tailors the prediction to the age of the subject. To someone in his late thirties or early forties, for example, the psychic says, “If you are honest about it, you often get to wondering what happened to all those dreams you had when you were younger.” There is the Barnum Statement, the assertion so general that anyone would agree, and the Fuzzy Fact, the seemingly factual statement couched in a way that “leaves plenty of scope to be developed into something more specific.” (“I can see a connection with Europe, possibly Britain, or it could be the warmer, Mediterranean part?”) And that’s only the start: there is the Greener Grass technique, the Diverted Question, the Russian Doll, Sugar Lumps, not to mention Forking and the Good Chance Guess—all of which, when put together in skillful combination, can convince even the most skeptical observer that he or she is in the presence of real insight.

“Moving on to career matters, you don’t work with children, do you?” Rowland will ask his subjects, in an example of what he dubs the “Vanishing Negative.”

No, I don’t.

“No, I thought not. That’s not really your role.”

Of course, if the subject answers differently, there’s another way to play the question: “Moving on to career matters, you don’t work with children, do you?”

I do, actually, part time.

“Yes, I thought so.”

A single sound whack

Ed Park at the Dizzies gives an excellent passage from Leland de la Durantaye's Cabinet Magazine piece on readymades:
When Pierre Pinoncelli walked into a white room in Nîmes in 1993, he knew he was not in the bathroom; he knew the urinal in front of him was marked as Duchamp’s Fountain, and he also knew it was not the Fountain refused by the Independents in 1917. Pinoncelli was not only a seed merchant; he was also an artist. He revered Duchamp and his reverence fueled his disappointment with Duchamp’s decision to replicate the original readymade. For him, in reissuing and reproducing Fountain—in merchandising and franchising it—Duchamp had betrayed it. Feeling that the punishment should fit the crime, Pinoncelli took matters into his own hands. He peed into the false idol, and before the guards could overpower him, he produced a small hammer from his pocket and gave the urinal a single sound whack.

Monday, November 05, 2007

The Ark of Studies

Anthony Grafton had an interesting piece in last week's New Yorker, of which this was certainly my favorite paragraph:
Fast, reliable methods of search and retrieval are sometimes identified as the hallmark of our information age; “Search is everything” has become a proverb. But scholars have had to deal with too much information for millennia, and in periods when information resources were multiplying especially fast they devised ingenious ways to control the floods. The Renaissance, during which the number of new texts threatened to become overwhelming, was the great age of systematic note-taking. Manuals such as Jeremias Drexel’s “Goldmine”—the frontispiece of which showed a scholar taking notes opposite miners digging for literal gold—taught students how to condense and arrange the contents of literature by headings. Scholars well grounded in this regime, like Isaac Casaubon, spun tough, efficient webs of notes around the texts of their books and in their notebooks—hundreds of Casaubon’s books survive—and used them to retrieve information about everything from the religion of Greek tragedy to Jewish burial practices. Jacques Cujas, a sixteenth-century legal scholar, astonished visitors to his study when he showed them the rotating barber’s chair and movable bookstand that enabled him to keep many open books in view at the same time. Thomas Harrison, a seventeenth-century English inventor, devised a cabinet that he called the Ark of Studies: readers could synopsize and excerpt books and then arrange their notes by subject on a series of labelled metal hooks, somewhat in the manner of a card index. The German philosopher Leibniz obtained one of Harrison’s cabinets and used it in his research.

Wrinkly tin

Adam Mornement's Corrugated Iron: Building on the Frontier is reviewed at the FT by Edwin Heathcote (oh, I must get this, it sounds quite excellent and just what I like):
Corrugated iron was developed to provide a rigid sheet material which could be used as both structure and cladding – a one-stop shop for industrial building. It was used in building London’s St Katherine Docks, as well as for the ships which berthed there. Isambard Kingdom Brunel was an early adopter, using it for the great spans of Paddington Station, but it was the US gold rush of 1849 and the subsequent Australian rush that filled the coffers of the still almost exclusively British manufacturers.

In those harsh, dry environments, rigid metal sheet proved ideal for temporary construction and was recycled ad infinitum as settlements grew. Corrugated sheet was used for buildings as diverse as the Brompton Boilers (the forerunner of London’s V&A) and a weird ballroom for Balmoral. It appeared in colonial churches and chapels around the world and at home. Mornement points out that these churches formed the spiritual home of the Labour party as those tin tabernacles housed audiences for Keir Hardie’s preaching.

Lying in wait for the Bobbitt worm

Miranda Green at the FT on the charms of marine life in the living-room:
t’s half past one in the morning and Jessica Cross, a top metals analyst in the City, is wired. But she’s not poring over the latest figures or sweating to get a report finalised.

Instead she is lying in wait for a Bobbitt worm, the nocturnal predator that has invaded the tropical marine ecosystem she spent the past two years creating in her central London apartment. The creature in her fish tank is only three feet long, but could grow up to 12ft, and Cross is worried that, although there are only a few crabs missing, the worm might start eating the rare fish.

“Sometimes in the middle of the night I do think, what have I done?” admits Cross, confessing she has become obsessed with the tank and its inhabitants. She gazes admiringly at the pulsing green and pink anemones. It is daylight when she shows me the collection: exotic clams shiver along frills like painted silk while striped and spotted fish swim by a red mantis shrimp, with the appearance of a tiny Chinese dragon, peering out from under the coral.

A lifelong interest in marine biology led Cross, originally from South Africa, to set up the tank, which now absorbs a sizeable chunk of her time and energy, day and night. She is one of what Nick Lloyd at the Aquatic Design Centre in Great Portland Street estimates to be several hundred individuals in the capital who have tried to painstakingly recreate “a little piece of the ocean in their living room”.

For these are no ordinary fish tanks. The water is mineralised to mimic the sea, and sand is added along with live rock containing the micro-organisms needed to generate an ecosystem. Temperature and lighting controls imitate conditions in the tropics and allow true enthusiasts to introduce not only colourful fish but corals, which are extremely difficult to look after.

The rising number of reef tank enthusiasts has been fuelled by improved technology and a growing awareness of environmental damage to the world’s coral reefs. Only in the past 10 years or so has it been possible for the home hobbyist to even try because coral will die unless the temperature is kept within a very narrow band – 26°-28°C – and the smaller the volume of water, the more difficult it is to keep the environment stable.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

On the town

Insane weekend of cultural stimulation! Some quite lovely things, too...

An altogether charming Korean comic martial arts-type theatrical extravaganza called Jump at the Union Square Theatre. (Hmmm, that reviewer is giving only the most backhanded compliments--I thought it was absolutely delightful!) A particularly pleasing combination of athletic feats, goofy humor and generally surreal atmosphere, including a large proportion of audience spots taken up, on the night I was there, by extraordinarily youthful Korean military cadets in uniform--the plot (a visitor courts the pretty daughter, then two robbers break into the house) is chiefly pretext for a series of increasingly outrageous gymnastic routines--I pretty much loved it, although I had to exercise my stony-faced-don't-let-performer-catch-your-eye skills to avoid getting roped in during various audience participation stunts.)

Then a seriously must-see production, I cannot remember when I last saw something better than this: The Brothers Size at the Public Theatre. Really altogether magical! Everything about it is great: the writing, the acting, the set and use of space, the integration of music and movement. A story about two brothers, narrated in a largely non-naturalistic idiom (including characters' uttering of stage directions--this is interesting to me, I've got an ongoing obsession with questions about first- and third-person narration and the respective underpinnings of novels and plays)--but the vividness of the language, the force of the acting and in particular the real emotional affect made this absolutely irresistibly good. Altogether most exactly what I enjoy and admire in a play--go and see it if you get a chance...

(The staging and set reminded me rather of my friend David Gammons' Titus Andronicus in Cambridge this past spring--Dave's production was literally in the round, with seating on all four sides, whereas this one was only three, but similarly situated in fairly raw space and using elemental materials--sand, stone, water--to conjure up a semi-magical physical setting that also contours the otherwise slightly unmanageable space of the theatre itself. The play's material and themes are in another sense very obviously reminiscent of some of those August Wilson plays I've been thinking about, twentieth-century American aftermath of African diaspora--only the idiom could NOT be more different, it is most interesting--a strikingly original and appealing mode, in any case...)

(Oh, this play really was wonderful ... a wonderfulness further accentuated by the contrast to a fill-in-time movie shortly beforehand, Dan in Real Life. The fact that Steve Carell's playing the lead gave me quite the wrong impression of what this would be like--it wasn't awful, fairly watchable on the whole--but the proportion of humor to sentiment is all wrong--sort of sub-Hannah and Her Sisters-type stuff--a generous viewer would give the film the benefit of the doubt and say it's slight but well-intentioned--a harder-hearted observer will be tempted to guess that the movie is the result of cynical and interested calculations of a remorseless but not very interesting kind...)

Also I saw very appealing live music and another performance of Nico's ballet, which struck me as even more lovely this time round--the orchestra was slightly less abysmally falling short of the expected standard, but also my eye was more appreciative of the visual nuance.

(I still think ballet has too much clapping and too many intermissions. And the third ballet this time round was utterly and comically awful, too--Agnes deMille's Fall River Legend, a rather long and not-Edward-Goreyish-enough- if-they're-going-to-have-her- whacking-an-axe-around ballet about Lizzie Borden killing her parents. We had contemplated leaving in the second intermission--I was sort of glad we hadn't if only to have witnessed this massive exercise in misguided sensibilities, it really was just what I do not like!)

Usefully this time round the ballet that preceded From Here On Out was Balanchine's Ballo Della Regina. I do not really enjoy the aspect of such things that involves listening to an undistinguished performance of a relatively hackneyed piece of classical music (Verdi in this case), it seems to me difficult to pull this off successfully, but the dancing seemed to me lovely (I am not equipped, really, to evaluate it, I am almost completely ignorant of ballet!) and it worked as a delicately instructive tool because of the ways Balanchine radically revises but also hews to a late-nineteenth-century Russian idiom--it made Benjamin Millepied's comparable adherence to but also departure from the very strong twentieth-century ballet tradition much more accessible to the casual viewer than when the piece was performed in the sequence I saw it in last weekend.

(Do they really just haphazardly allow them to come in random order?!? There was no discernible logic for ending with this Lizzie Borden one this afternoon, really it would have been a better and clearer and more coherent performance just with those first two...)

(Here was the Times review from earlier this week, which includes better description than I can give of the Millepied-Muhly collaboration. The only thing I really want to say about it, other than observing general loveliness, is that it happily reminded me of swimming--especially there is something particularly of the butterfly stroke in the arm motions Millepied gives to his dancers! This is an obtuse but heartfelt observation--really my main mode of access to ballet these days, other than through the music, is that yoga and swimming are the two things I do that make you think about muscles in interesting ways and attend to what can be done with them...)

Final ritual grumble: the weekend track work they're doing on the 1 line is going to tip me over into an utter nervous breakdown! I had three important things to be on time for on Saturday (well, to tell the truth, it is always important to be on time!), and I was late for all three, by progressively greater intervals. I had to wait more than forty minutes for a train the third time round! And before that I had already been obliged to take a ruinously expensive uptown cab to get to my swimming lesson on time when I realized (already cutting it rather close by that point) that the uptown entrance at 23rd St. was closed because there were no local trains running in that direction along that particular stretch....

Aside from the real inconvenience to those who have to wait at the other end, being late makes me more anxious than anything else I can think of, so for purely selfish reasons alone I am outraged!

(Addendum: I already know that swimming is basically the most extravagantly expensive enterprise I have undertaken in recent life, this is just another instance of the way it draws you in to unexpected layings-out of cash...)

(Silver lining of train delays: I had time to finish a really excellently enjoyable bit of light reading, Liz Williams' Snake Agent--perfect dystopian near-future supernatural police procedural, with demons--really of course a book like this is very enjoyable coming from the hands of anyone reasonably competent--but Williams is far more than competent, so the results are peculiarly enjoyable. Book recommendation courtesy of the proprietor of The Dizzies, whose encomium upon this series can be found here.)

A great weekend, but I must get back to work now!