Sunday, 30 November 2014

dramaturgy or meme-base

An aspiring thespian and student of Aristotle named Theophrastus devised a list of archetypal and stock-characters. While it may not be predictive of every aspect of human nature—as their ought to be as well a generic Misogynist, the Fan-Boy and the Xenophobe—and alternately, many positive qualities that probably are not very exciting are absent, it seems to be pretty complete, same-otherwise, and you could certainly apply the same template to a lot of modern means of expression, though the Greek makes the caricatures sound especially harsh:

The Insincere One (Eironeia, irony) The Flatterer (Kolakeia, the shit-sayer) The Garrulous One (Adoleschia, the Sophomoric One)

The Boor (Agroikia, the Skeptic) The Complacent One (Areskeia, the Inactive One) The One without Moral Feeling (Aponoia, the Psychopath)
The Talkative One (Lalia, Chatty-Cathy) The Fabricator (Logopoiia, the Wordsmith) The Shamelessly Greedy One (Anaischuntia, shunning society)

The Pennypincher (Mikrologia, Scrooge)
The Offensive One (Bdeluria, who sides towards delusion)
The Hapless One (Akairia, the Unlucky One)

The Officious Man (Periergia, just like a Boss)
The Absent-Minded One (Anaisthesia, the Selective One)
The Unsociable One (Authadeia, the Loner)

The Superstitious One (Deisidaimonia, the staunch conventionalist)
The Faultfinder (Mempsimoiria, the vulnernable one with something to prove)
The Suspicious One (Apistia, the conspiracy theorist)
The Repulsive One (Duschereia, poor hygiene)
The Unpleasant One (Aedia, the jaded, the scapegoat)
The One with Petty Ambition (Mikrophilotimia, the vain)
The Stingy One (Aneleutheria, the ungrateful child)
The Show-Off (Alazoneia, the dare-devil)
The Arrogant One (Huperephania, the by-stander)

The Coward (Deilia, the nostalgic soul)
The Oligarchical One (Oligarchia, the Untouchable)
The Late Learner (Opsimathia)
The Slanderer (Kakologia)
The Lover of Bad Company (Philoponeria)
The Basely Covetous Man (Aischrokerdeia)

orchard kebob

H got to take a cooking class one evening not too long ago and his team’s contribution to the meal was an exquisite mango and kidney bean variation on the classic Döner (shawarma) sandwich. He repeated the creation a few nights later and it was really easy to prepare and had a deliciously unique fusion of tastes. For four big sandwiches, one needs the following:

  • One can of kidney beans (200 grams)
  • One flat-bread—Döner or Gyro bread would be best but any similar loaf (like pita, tandoori) would do 
  • A small onion, one or two cloves of garlic
  • A large mango
  • One large chunk of fresh mozzarella, 200 grams of soft ricotta cheese 
  • Some rocket (Rucola) for garnish, about 100 grams

Pulse the kidney beans, garlic and onion together with a food-processor, season with a pinch of salt, pepper and chili power, and combine with ricotta to form a purple paste. Slice the bread and apply the spread liberally to both to the top and bottom of the bun. Chop up the mango and mozzarella and arrange it on the bread with some rocket and toast the sandwiches, either with a sandwich-press or alternatively in the oven, under the weight of a casserole dish, until the bread has browned and the two halves stick together. A tsatsiki or yogurt sauce would compliment these nicely.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

tinker and tanker

Remember Richard Scarry’s picture book Busy, Busy Town that illustrated what people do all day? Tom-the-Dancing-Bug cartoonist Ruben Bolling brings the Butcher and Baker into more contemporary times. What do you think? The commentary strikes me as far from cynical.  What occupation would you include, with most traditional trades being out-sourced or endangered by machines?  

six-penny or landed-gentry

Absent Roman influence and insular trading practices, the British Isles were relative late-comers to fiat currency, which perpetuated the tradition role of kingship that had existed among the Germanic tribes even as kingdoms grew beyond the tribal clan. Essentially without coinage—though some charters did exist for so called moneyiers to produce crude blanks of specie for trading purposes, the old ways of the continental Saxons held with the king collecting tribute from peasants, whom were otherwise free, in the form of conscription and an annual food tax, figured on the size and arability of their parcel of land. Of course being a French term, the farmers in Britain did not pay taxes, though the concept is pretty universal, but rather a mol or male—which incidentally is the source of the idea of blackmail, given that there were bullying vigilantes who tried to supplement the king’s army and forced individuals to pay up for extra protection—blaichmol, protection rent, rather than the alledged latter day practise of posting letters of extortion in darkly coloured envelopes so the receiver did not know where the stamp was canceled. Matters, however, began to change for England with the Norman Invasion, who reintroduced economic policy and a currency over barter system that they had inherited from the Romans. The Normans, through the Franks, also employed some housekeeping methods that the Romans had failed to comprehend, which led to hyper-inflation and the eventual collapse of the Empire. Though Emperor Diocletian had made a good-faith effort to round up all the destructive and worthless currency he could managed, these gestures fell short.
The Franks and later the English, however, were more savvy about the face-value of coins, and began to issue legal-tender with an expiration date that better ensured that there would be no runaway inflation. Say shepherd Dagofirþ had earned sixty shillings—twelve pence (the penny being named for former uniting force Penda, with no relation to the Welsh dynasty of Pendragons from Arthurian lore) to a shilling and twenty shilling to a Pound (£ being a symbol for libre pondo from the Latins) having derived from the French style of twelve denier to the solidus (being the wage a soldier) and twenty of these to a livre—and in order to keep what he earned current, he must redeem his coins after three years at the counting-house of his liege, King Æþelƹorn. Dagofirþ, however, might be surprised to find he is only getting back, say, three-and-fifty shillings in the new, up-to-date coinage, minus some administrative costs of mining and minting the silver in Æþelƹorn’s good name, plus as a mechanism for market-corrections if, say, there had been a poor grain harvest or royal ransoms to pay. It was clever and responsible on the part of the government to cast such bounds over money, but after its introduction, matters escalated rather quickly. Pretty soon, Dagofirþ could not manage to keep up with his obligations to his family with his devalued coin, and so so luckier personage, a apiarist who had connections perhaps with that blackmailing crowd, named BeǷofief, graciously steps in and offers to help Dagofirþ in his plight. BeƐofief will be responsible for the shortcomings (and profit) in exchange for holding title to the land Dagofirþ was working for Æþelƹorn directly. Many of BeǷofief’s peers got keen to this scheme as well, and soon the an aristocratic class of landed-gentry was formed, that alienated the worker from his king and keep and came to be called the feudal system. A hierarchy of counts, dukes, earls, barons was soon established that all compounded this estranging effect and put more distance between the monarch and subject.  Rich with actual money that resembled coinage encountered elsewhere, England soon entered in the world stage as a trading partner, with suppliers pleased to receive legitimate-looking money in exchange instead of pledges, rough-hewn coins, or bushels of perishable turnips. This success, however, was also soon to attract the notice of their former neighbours, the Vikings occupying lands adjacent in Scandinavia, from whence the Anglo-Saxons vacated, and soon summoned raiding parties from across the seas, thinking these wealthy lands might be easy targets.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

lycanthrope or heutoscopic

I had always thought that the majority of the corporeal menagerie of beastly creatures could be chalked-up to dull glances and keen imaginations, like witnessing the novelty of horseback riding and constructing the centaur—to be later embellished with a mythological pedigree and literary tradition.

I am learning, however, that chimera—and not just to philosophically quizzical kind from Greek lore (like our old friend, poor sad Cyclopes, whom was just a normal oafish giant until he traded one eye for the ability to see into the future—however, that gift of foresight was limited to being able to see his time of death), often carry a pretty heady cerebral burden as well, which may not have followed too long after or may well be the manifestations our mental-constructs were looking to project.  I had believed that werewolves and were-bears (Beowulf means bee-hunter or rather honey-bear) were frightened hearsay from survivors who had encountered fierce warriors who dressed in animal skins and head-dresses, and while that may be the original inspiration from an outside perspective, there was also something highly ritualistic and complex going on for those who donned and doffed the pelts themselves. Like the game-face of the brutal Achaean fighter Ajax, the ancient Vikings also had a tradition of working themselves into a frenzied rage before going into battle, making themselves berserk.
These possessed Berserkers were named after the bear-shirts that the wore and fought with super-human strength. From the psychological perspective of the Germanic peoples, however, the warrior was not transformed into an animal—at least not in a straightforward manner. These people put stock in the belief of out-of-body experiences and though the human soul, which was taken to be a shadow of its corporeal self—a Doppelgänger, would vacate the body to allow an animal spirit to inhabit it and the displaced human soul popped up somewhere else, usually as one of the relief crew sleeping through the first phase of the skirmish while its Berserker-self was engaged in the fight. Heutoscopy is the clinical term for seeing one’s divided self. It was a very bad omen to encounter one’s own evil twin, and usually the strength was sapped from both.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

mad dogs and englishmen

Writing for The Daily Beast, Tom Sykes mourns the loss of the nutty aristocrat, a class gradually being replaced by a dull and drab and socially-conscience set who if not our betters then also not reproving, cautionary cases nor charming eccentrics neither. The article includes many anecdotes and one can delve further into these mostly harmless and often truly obliging and passionate oddities. I enjoyed finding out more about the interview subject of the column, William Sitwell, who definitely has a priceless streak of unconventionality galloping in the family—but has sadly accepted the fate of self-exile as a celebrity judge in television land. As Oscar Wilde once quipped, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”

interbellum or altı ok

In a new, provocative work, author Stefan Ihrig examines the role the perception that Nazi leadership in post WWI Germany had of Turkey as successor to the Ottoman Empire contributed to the prosecution of WWII.
To some of the defeated and downtrodden Germans, Turkey’s refusal to be passively divided up by the Allies, preoccupation with matters of heritage, and large-scale social reforms must have seemed to burgeoning party like hyper-nationalist “pornography.” Guided by the philosophy of the Six Arrows (Altı Ok) the Young Turks under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created the modern and progressive country and were unrelenting in their efforts. Through the press and propaganda, these heroics and hero-worship that grew around that cult-of-personality created a role-model and for the attempted coup, the Beer Hall Putsch, organisers resolved to adopt so-called “Turkish Methods.” Only after this failure did Nazi leaders ally themselves more towards Benito Mussolini’s form of fascism but still held this figment of Turkey in high regard. This admiration certainly became something unwelcomed and misplaced and a book such as this one ought to spark dialogue and cultivate a more informed readership—through their own research.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

iberia-hispania or elegant variation

Although we can identify a classic period of the language and Rome had institutions to preserve and promote a standard, there was probably never a universal Latin spoken across the Empire.
Romance languages descended from Latin but as conquests of Gaul, Iberia and the Balkans came centuries apart, the spoken language that supplanted their native tongues had changed as well. Early on during the Punic Wars as the Empire was expanding across the Mediterranean, Rome secured the lands of Spain from Carthage, and through the discontinuity of the French speakers, Spain remains one of the vulgar languages most true to that original language. Euskara, the language of the Basque people, seems to have developed prior to the arrival of Indo-Europeans and has endured to modern times. The subjugation of the Gallic tribes came later, after Rome had absorbed Greece and Macedonia and incorporated many Greek words, reflected in modern French. Of course, other powers came to dominate these provinces as Rome’s influence waned and these Germanic speakers helped shape the vernacular dialects to a greater or lesser extent. Owing to the Franks, French has inherited a smattering of Germanic loan-words. 
The Visigoths, however, who came to rule the Iberian peninsula, due to extended contact with the Roman civilization, were bilingual in Latin and Gothic, and Latin and its derivative local languages remained in common-parlance for day-to-day activities and native Gothic remained mostly in the background. Exceptions were found in the Church, Gothic having been the first Germanic language to be written down in order to produce that Gothic Bible commissioned by the Arian bishop Ulfilas, until the Roman Catholic Church consolidated authority, and interestingly in family names to this day. Many of the most common surnames of Spain, Portugal and Latin America reflect remnants of Visigoth rule: Hernández from Ferdinand (protector of the peace and probably a title rather than a name originally), Gutiérrez from Walter—wielder of hosts, Rodríguez, son of Roderik, the name of one of the last kings of the Goths before the Muslim incursions into the area and meaning rich in glory.

jupiter vi

Via the Presurfer comes a study about the unique niche that type of deep-ocean shrimp have occupied, whose symbiosis with extremophile bacteria may point us towards extraterrestrial corollaries, which may be discovered in environments like on the Moon of Europa.
One can also find out more about the research and the mysterious satellite thanks to this splendid video presentation curated by BoingBoing. The existence and lifestyle of these shrimp that float in the narrow, tolerable range between the frigid depths and the boiling, churning thermal vents makes me think of the strange and secretive race of Outsiders as imagined in Larry Niven’s Known Space franchise. The ancient creatures evolved on a frozen world, as evinced by the fact that they later lease one of the moons of Neptune from the Humans as a local base of operation, and eked out a bit of a vital spark from the difference in temperature between unfiltered solar radiation and the subzero surface of their planet. Examples found in terrestrial biology so far only show a population established in the more Goldie Locks places of the world specialised and moving into an exclusive environment—which is amazing enough in itself—but signs that life sprung up organically in such places remain elusive.

Monday, 24 November 2014

lit crit or synecdotes and dozy doats

The writing staff at the wonderfully studious Mental Floss must recall the salad days of the Academic Decathlon going by one of their latest lists of rhetorical devices.

One can really fill one’s oratorical quiver with these terms, illustrated by modern, accessible examples. A couple of my favourites that I don’t recall encountering before—at least not presented in a penetrable way, are antimeria, a figure of speech describing a change in a word’s usage, most commonly turning a noun into a verb (Shakespeare’s line from King Lear—“The thunder would not peace at my bidding”) as into to message someone or to gift something—fortuneately, one can yet befriend another—but also in the growing trend of using a slash (/ a virgule) as a grammatical conjunction rather than just a juxtaposition between two related things and the construction called an anacoluthon for something that is non sequitir and disjointed or galloping forward, often what rambles on after the em-dash.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

poetic license or stock-epithet

Poetry? Oh noetry! Not to worry—it’s rather just a troupe of merry minstrels coming to give us a lesson on the mnemonics of the oral tradition, which played a vital role in transmitting noble exploits, both real and conflated, and helped shaped the language in important ways before writing caught on in Anglo-Saxon England. The Greeks, Romans and other ancient people of course had comparable poets and troubadours, who also enjoyed a good degree of esteem and respect, and although their compositions differed according to their own grammars and lexicons, similar aides to recalling epic works were embedded into the lines. Even today, we do this unconsciously to help remember staples of learning by hitching one part to another rhyming part: think of the alphabet song and where the pauses are and what letters are grouped together (incidentally, pupils used to recite the finale “x, y, zed, &,” including the symbol for “and” at the end because they were expected to know how to write this as well but as it was not the word a-n-d but rather the symbol for and called And, they made this clear as mud by calling it And-per-se-And or ampersand).
Those ancient languages and English too until it dropped most of its inflected endings had no concept of rhyming since one could not go around changing the endings of words and preserve the meaning of the sentence, so they mostly relied on alliteration to cue them as to what came next. Each stanza in a poem or song in Old English was split in two and the first half was bound to foreshadow the first stressed sound of the second half. To illustrate this idea of alliterative meter in a contemporary example, here’s a passage from American Poet Laurate Richard Wilbur’s Junk:

An axe angles      from my neighbour’s ashcan
It is Hell’s handiwork,      the wood not hickory
The flow of the grain      not faithfully followed.
The shivered shaft rises      from a shellheap
Of plastic playthings      and paperplates

One could imagine our gleemen chanting this opening as easily as one could imagine them performing Beowulf. Although we cannot rule out that ancient and medieval people did not have memories far more expect than ours, having to do without the crutch of a written language, but one can probably safely assume that there was quite a bit of improvisation going on.

Though the poem was painstaking composed and each hung together, if a minstrel forgot a line or a particular passage, a really good showman could recover and reinsert the stumbled line without violating the meter or structure of the story. As Old English did not have a huge vocabulary to draw from (though maybe traveling helped also to keep redundant words in circulation as they traveled from court to court singing the praises of their own lord and sometimes it was handy to have a few different sound options at one’s disposal even if they meant the same thing and it did just sound like a lyric-conceit) and adjectives and attributions were limited, the minstrels often invented so called stock-phrases as colourful metaphors and euphemisms.
When needed, a resourceful performer could add a “fleet-footed,” “rosy-fingered,” “broad-pastures,” etc to substitute for a stray sound. These were not just cliches as the French invaders disdained them as but led to new compound words and concepts that were in common-parlance. The tradition slowly withered away with the advent of writing and nobles (the titles lord and lady were once kenning-words that came about through this method, originally a compound for loaf- guardian and kneader slurred into single syllables, among many other inventions) no longer needed to retain entertainers to spread their good deeds and heroics and transformed into itinerant groups of actors, story-tellers and artists yet but no longer journalists.

Friday, 21 November 2014

lexis-nexus or a language is a dialect with an army and a flag

The wonderfully peripatetic web magazine Vox has a stellar installment with a series of approaches to plotting the languages of the world. The maps are introduced with a quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein, which limits our experiences to those which we can find the words for. Though mostly Anglophone, the maps could be an important point of departure for understanding a bit more and pushing the envelope a little. Be sure to check out the site’s other articles and features.

encryption key or legacy software

Kottke points our attention to a fantastically thoughtful article (with a stirring multimedia accom- paniment) in the New York Times Magazine on the secret lives of the maligned password, and how those choice secret words, encoded within certain, strict parameters are not just a means to access one’s private accounts but also ways to make quiet little statements, mantras, devotions, goals and even confessions and unlock one’s heart. The author of this story encountered many sweet and tortured surprises, histories and heritages that all were opened up with the key of the asking what individual’s passwords meant to them—and the resistance that the reporter experienced when soliciting watchwords from strangers was not over security or privacy concerns (though many use the same string of characters across multiple platforms) but rather having to pull these hidden keepsakes and tributes out of the dungeon and into the real world, however anonymously. I wonder what part of ourselves we might be losing without whispering with our keyboards daily as the convention password is be replaced by other bolts and locks.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

fricative or win, lose or drawl

Surely those early scribes and grammarians had a tough slog in figuring out how to adapt the Latin alphabet to English as she is spoken. After all, there were quite a number of foreign sounds to try to capture with the familiar letters at their disposal, and the committee of monks had to make some arbitrary decisions in spelling in order to apply the alphabet phonetically. Quite a few terminal j-sounds were found in Old English—like edge, bridge and judge, and the development of this sound was something separate from the shift in the romance languages that took place at the beginnings of words, like Iohan and Iupiter, so the monks did not want to represent the sound with an i (the letter j not invented unitl much later) but instead choose ʤ—being derived from the hard g-sound. 

Though the Romans had had their encounters with the Goths and other Germanic tribes, new utterances had come into being, like th-, sh- and ch-, and vowel sounds were slipping away from anything that the monks had heard before. Not that English is a direct descendant of modern German, but one wonders why we go from Brücke to bridge, Eck to edge, Schiff to ship or Freund to friend. These kinds of transformations happen among all languages and dialects, but all these shifts occur in the name of economy. I have noticed that I am sometimes quite lazy in my pronunciation of German and if I am doing it half right, my face aches a little. These changes are the mouth's attempt to align phonemes and reduce movement from the front to the back of the mouth. Not that continental Germanic languages are all harsh and breathy like Klingon, there was a tendency to cut back on the back and forth and eliminate throaty consonants paired with soft vowels. Though a lot of original forms are preserved for old time's sake—like win from won, buy from bought, feet from foot where the old, more awkward style is preserved in the less common past or plural forms—English does seem to have a particular penchant for slurring words. Although probably more due to the lack of an authoritative body to govern spelling and pronunciation among the Germanic-speakers unlike the institutions of the Roman Empire, some linguist believe this indolence and inertia is owing to the circumstances wherein the invaders took the island. Abandoned by Rome, the Anglo-Saxons found themselves in a place where there was not much to do other than plunder and drink, cultivating sloppy enunciation.

gregorian mission or lex luther

Having enjoyed a tenuous overlordship on the island to begin with and with the Romano-Britons driven across the Channel by the Anglo-Saxon invaders, there was essentially no writing in England until after the year six-hundred. The Germans chieftains did not speak Latin, having had little exposure to it previously, which already had a true alphabet. The Germanic tribes had runes, which were primarily used for inscriptions and charms and not an effective way of imparting lore or commerce—although surviving evidence of personal amulets suggest that the illiterate peoples were already enchanted by the written word: one of the more prevalent words found on these charms was garlic (spear-leek, ᚷᛚ), attesting to the Germanic custom (as was the fashion at the time) of wearing a garlic clove around one’s neck to ward off evil eventually being replaced by the non-perishable glyph for the same Kryptonite, imbued with the same mystical powers.  Irish monks to the north and west were scholars of Greek and Roman—inventing lower case Greek, among other things to make texts easier to copy, and the Goths on continental Europe had published a version of the Bible in their native language—but neither of these achievements was transmitted to England.

Instead, literacy only got traction thanks to Church administrators. A young monk from a Roman patrician family named Gregory was credentialed as apocrisiarius (papal ambassador to Constantinople) and plead with the emperor of the East to send in the legions to protect the Eternal City from barbarian raids. Though unsuccessful with this mission, Gregory did become extremely popular in aristocratic circles of the capital, especially with the wives of prominent officials and academics. This influence made his elevation, though unbidden, to Pope (discourses and chants but not the calendar Gregory) himself seem natural. While the anecdote of Gregory smitten by the sight of youths from England being sold at a slave market in Rome (Non Angli, sed angeli—But they are not Angles, rather they are angels) is said to have been what inspired the Pope to send Augustine and an army of missionaries to England, beginning with the Kingdom of Kent, to convert the pagan population, it probably also had to do with Church politics and cohesion, as those monastic communities in Ireland were not under the authority of the Holy See and had some pretty radical and potentially dangerous ideas—doctrinally and regarding decentralised governance. Augustine was welcomed by the king and queen of Kent, who were already members of the flock, but fearing what might happen after the current regime was replaced and wanting the Church of Rome to be fully cemented in England, the future archbishop of Canterbury directed throngs of monks to compose the most enduring and compelling reasons that he could summon up, aside from the Church itself: legislation and punishment. Perhaps Augustine thought that such threats were the only thing that these pagan brutes would understand, and he knew that none of them would care a jot about a bunch of rules in Latin. Therefore, scribes adapted the Latin alphabet to Old English and wrote out eighty-five laws, mainly dealing with consequences for damaging Church property or the clergy, in the native language of the population--making it not only the first document written in English but also one of the first vernacular codices in Europe since the beginning of the Republic.

blueprint or imprimatur

Kottke turns our attention to this brilliant cut-away view of the Washington DC’s Evening Star newspaper building that illustrates how different components—raw materials and the ideas of reporters and editors—come together to produce a daily edition. One can find a huge version at the link. There is a really neat anatomical/mechanical quality captured here. State-of-the-art, even if not solid-state, still has lots of moving parts but I don’t think modern infographics show this level of detail in the factory—though it can be yet found.


Just a month after Norway debuted its selection for its redesigned paper currency, the Nordic nation unveiled a sleek, minimal look for its passport and identity cards. Though unconventional and laser-etched with security features that are really beautiful (take a look inside at The Local) rather than just dependably brutal, the format meets International Civil Aviation Organisation standards and the first documents with the new design are set to be issued in a couple of years.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

think different or the great and final samādhi

Writing for the ever excellent Boing Boing, Jason Louv presents a very fine accounting of the parting gift that Steve Jobs shared with those friends, family members and associates, copies of the Autobiography of a Yogi, with a biography of the guru challenged to come to America to impart Hindu meditation to the West. The yogi’s story and success in introducing some of these practices in the 1920s and 30s have a significant legacy and have impacted many. As the author lucidly demonstrates, however, the notions of yoga and relaxation as imported—without a guru to oversee the export—become rather muddled, since the mental exercises are only aides, discipline-builders and not ends in themselves: meditation is not about self-help but rather liberation from self. The idea of abandoning one’s identity to be subsumed by the Cosmos does rather chafe at the ideals held by many Americans about self-reliance and selfhood and does seem infinitely elusive, but objectivity, tranquility and the courage to look inward is something that we can all strive for.

immrama or beyond the beyond

Though the Turkish president is facing some unfair ridicule for claiming that the relationship between the Islamic world and Latin America is a far more ancient one, Ireland stakes an even older title with the legendary voyages of Saint Brendan of Tralee.
Though the saint never stated that America was the Earthly Paradise (another candidate is La Palma in the Canaries), the Isles of the Blessed he was charged with finding by an angel for having been skeptical about an account of miracles and strange beings, Brendan does have a dedicated society of believer advocating his discovery preceded even that of Leif Erickson and the Vikings. Having embarked on this immram (the Irish word for a seafaring odyssey), the abbot assembled a cast of fellow monks (plus a few naysayers for good measure) may not have reached the Americas—though that is a matter of debate and faith—but came across many other curious places along the way. It is told that the adventures camped one evening on the back of a slumbering sea-monster, the aspidochelone, having mistook it for an island, make landfall on the island of the Birds of Paradise that sing like a choir of angels, encounter other monastic communities—including a hermit who has lived in the elements for sixty years draped only in his own hair and taken care of by an otter, a fiery land of blacksmiths that cast molten slag at the visitors (possibly a reference to volcanic Iceland) and crystal pillars in the sea (maybe icebergs) and the lonely skerry where Judas gets his respite from Hell on Sundays and holidays.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

hair of the dog or copra cabaña

Do you remember the panic and hysteria over monosodium glutamate (MSG) in Chinese foods or the revelation that a bag of movie-theatre popcorn had the fat content of eighteen fast-food burgers?  A related shock-campaign transformed the world’s culinary landscape in the early to mid-1980s when the old staples of the industry, tallow—lard and tropical oils, coconut and palm, were demonised as the fount of all ills and understudies quickly championed good health and general dietary decency.

The forces behind this paradigm was not, however, a temperance union seeking to unseat processed foods nor agents really interested in public health, but rather flagship agriculture lobbies. Soy, maize and rapeseed crops had of course been cultivated for millennia but not for their oils, as the unsaturated fats were too unstable at high temperatures and quickly went rancid. Once the process of hydrogenation was perfected, bombarding these bumper-crops of the West in order to mimic superficially some of the qualities of the now derided saturated fats, these new, refined oils infiltrated everything we eat. In order to initiate and sustain this rather significant change, a selective explanation and quasi-myth of saturated fats—with an overwhelming array of nuances with un-, mono- and polysaturated, triglycerides and trans-fatty acids, was carefully crafted. With the taste for colonialism turning sour, a whole business started over spices, around this time, conditions were ideal for the promotion of a yet unexploited by-product of farming. The public is mostly appeased by this simplistic coup and throughout alternatives have been available for the sake of those malingerers—considering, however, that nearly all foodstuffs are swimming in corn-syrup and other beefed-up oils, it is a little like the token egg that cake-mixes call for, unnecessarily but it makes people feel more like they are baking. What do you think? Some argue that the normalisation process on these new oil sources create industrial solvents that are not digested in healthful ways.

meh moi

It’s funny how the twists of language and etymology are pulverised by convention and custom until those curious lumps are all but flattened out. English does have a lot of beautiful, virtually redundant words from Greek and Latin traditions that signify practically the same thing. There are, however, many pairs too of more recent lendings and borrowings that withdrew from English as a Germanic word, discovered by the French speaking a Celtic-Romance language as a useful term and returned to modern English under a different guise. Beforehand, it had never occurred to me to wonder why there are more than a few w-g couplings in English that essentially mean the same thing, much less that they were actually different ways of pronouncing one word that eventually took on separate connotations. There is ward and guard, warranty and guarantee, warn and garish, and even wench and garçon (both from an original word meaning outcast).
In these examples, the former from Germanic roots and the latter French, the g-sounding equivalents were reintroduced to spoken English during the Norman Conquest and gradually took on certain nuances in meaning. The French, possibly as the Gaulish that the aboriginal population did not use that particular sound, had a lot of trouble making a w-sound and so prefixed it with a g-sound to make it more pronounceable and less harsh on the ears. It might not seem like much that a given set of glyphs can be used to represent sounds in an agreed-upon manner but one that outsiders would surely recognise as anything other than phonetic and intuitive, but that abiding is pretty remarkable. On the other end of the spectrum, there are a whole host of not invented languages, but rather invented but Greco-Latin based alphabets, like runes (used for inscriptions only as the Germanic peoples were functionally illiterate), Gothic, Glagolithic, Cyrillic, and many others. From an aesthetic standpoint, of course I think that this diversity is a beautiful thing—but from a practical point of view, when writing was dismantled by trade and kept the same to facilitate that same commerce, it seems a little… meh… maybe just adding to the babble and otherness. I never reasoned, however, an alphabet would be designed to give speakers the means to express sounds not present in the derived, given form.
The Greeks and the Romans used the Phoenician alphabet just off the shelf, however, and just changed what sounds the letters represented to suit their way of speaking. Originally, the writing system that the Phonetians used was something called an abjad—that is an alphabet without vowel sounds represented, only consonants and the reader would know the appropriate ligatures by context—and the first letter Alef, which became Alpha and the Letter A did not make that sound (or any sound, as a glottal stop) at all.

Monday, 17 November 2014

siege perilous oder kokosnußritter

Though there is no definite, contemporary written account of the Anglo-Saxon invasion of the island, given how many fled and the apparent lack of the merging of cultures and languages, we can probably safely assume that the event was not a comfortable one for the native populace. Modern-day genetic studies seem to indicate that there was no genocide by the settlers, as older affinities from earlier migrations still remain strong among guest and host, but given the few, latter-day accounts and attested exonyms that the newcomers gave to the natives, the broader term of the Germanic speakers was Walhaz and referred to the aboriginal cultures and Celtic speakers—and is preserved in several toponyms, Wales and Cornwall, locally, and Wallachia and Wallonia on the continent, to name a few, it looks like the native English were mostly relegated to the margins of society. The Germanic English language accommodated few Celtic influences, just a few place-names—although that lack of vocabulary might be spoken for in the unique grammar of English.
Many of the inflections were dropped to help keep communication simple among the co-mingling Germanic tribes, but English does a couple more curious things that it only has in common with the Celtic languages that were subsumed: no other Germanic or Latinate language inserts do into syntax like English does and no other language treats its present-tense as English does. In German (and many other related languages), it suffices to say, “Wir sehen fern,” however in English—unless one was referring to one’s vocation, one would always say, we are watching television. Adding did and do and this long-hand construction for doing something are typical to England alone. Further evidence of strife and unhappy co-existence comes in the form of folklore: the legendary tales of one Arthur Pendragon, fifth century king of the Britons, was able to unite the people against a common-foe and turned back the Anglo-Saxon incursions in series of decisive battles, now lost to the ages. For a span of five centuries, the Britons who remained in the far north, along the coast and those who had retreated to Brittany (Bretagne) kindled the idea that the prodigal leader would one day return to banish these interlopers definitively, the once and future king. The chance for the original displaced inhabitants to reclaim their land came with the Norman Invasion, but the embellished traditions had taken on a life of their own—growing to include a whole host of characters, intrigues, exploits and the eventual transition from fighting Germans to a more spiritual quest in finding the Holy Grail. The Siege Perilous refers to the seat reserved by Merlin at the Round Table—specifically made that way so there was no head of the table and all gather were equally—for the knight who recovered the Grail, and deadly for any other occupant. Founding myths are more than propaganda and patriotism, of course, and it would be a grave disservice to the storytellers the body of literature that has been expounded to supplement the Matter of Britain to treat them as mere jingoism and allegory. The chance for civilisations to express themselves as a nation (from the same root as nativity, birth) and to coalesce socially with heroic role models to aspire to is as important as the collective amnesia of the violence that accompanies the taking or retaking and the clannish pride, local patriotism and heritage, which if fully remembered, would spoil the illusion. Besides, castle and court do more for the imagination than the progressive brutalities of mankind.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

precise dwarf bravery

A happy Redditor by the handle of k-popstar has been scouring textile discounters in Japan and shares a lot of fun, apparent randomness. I think some of these t-shirts have a sense of unassuming profundity and there are a few I wouldn't mind sporting.


Always on the weekends, I have the more vivid, detailed dream sequences. I do not know if there's particularly brilliant or inspired in them as they always slip away too quickly no matter what kind of discipline I try—or fail to implement—and it seems I usually recall the plotlines in a general sense only during the next time I am dreaming.

It's not a continuation of one story but I get the hazy sense of there being something epic and on-going that I cannot piece together. Whatever therapeutic properties dreams have I think never come through directly, and surely no one's psyche is wired in the same ways, but it is an interesting suggestion that every character in the dream is the dreamer, sort of like in Being John Malcovich, when the actor learned in the real world about the production-planning for such a film rather shocked the director by asking to be a part of it, instead of suing for libel and in the scene when Malcovich crawled through the portal into his own mind and was awake to see what never should be seen.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

a stitch in time save nine

Mental Floss has an interesting collection of obscure units of time. For instance, did you realise that a moment, begging a moment's pardon bought one precisely ninety seconds (a minute-and-a-half's) leave? Be sure to check out the other nine non-conventional measures.

Incidentally, the next generation of atomic clocks being deployed really place the convention of timekeeping outside of human bounds and make the question of what is time wholly academic. These strontium-based clocks will not lose a fraction of a second over the course of several billion years but are so sensitive to the way gravity affects not the clockworks but distorts time itself, no two clocks could ever be exactly synchronised. This level of accuracy seems to have no direct, significant bearing on a human scale, yet the clocks and associated technologies would be able to register these corrections and aberrations. What do you think? Does close enough get out of our hands? By the way, the saying a stitch in time is a warning for would be proscrastinators—idiomatically directed at those weary of mending those little rips and snags in clothing, which if addressed early could prevent more darning to do later.


Via the Presurfer comes a thought provoking little piece with an abundance of other lessons and primers to explore from National Public Radio on sight and colour in Nature's kingdoms.

Of course, prior to the advent of vision as anything more acute than able to distinguish light from shadow, there was not any emphasis on what colour something was. Once, however, this feature evolved, it became terribly important and hues and shades developed at a galloping rate, in stride with mobility and strength of sight. The article goes on to tell how animals and plants synthesize pigments and what displays might convey to those who share their habitats. The fact that no higher animals can create true blue pigmentation, think blue eyes and feathers, and use tricks of refraction to give a blue appearance made me think about the Noble laureates who created a spectrally blue, and previously ellusive LED (light emitting diode) to combine with red and green to produce efficient white illumination.

bread, butter and green cheese

Aside from the better-known Anglo-Saxons that were displacing the Celtic-speaking and Romano-Briton populations of parts of the Isle of Britain, honourable-mentions ought to go to the cadet tribes of the Jutes and Frisians who joined them. Frisian is still spoken on the fringes of Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany along the North Sea and along with Scots is the closest living relation that modern English has among languages. “Bread, butter and green cheese is good English and good Fries,” is often cited as an example of the relation between the two languages but it is not a statement of mutual intelligibility. Rather, it demonstrates that each language departed from continental German and Scandinavian languages is some of the same ways. Bûter, brea, en griene tsiis, wa’t dat net sizze kin is gjin oprjochte Fries.

hyperbolic or cupid and comet

Although there seems to be some of potential engineering cliffhanger playing out with the Rossetta mission's lander having touched-down in the shadow of a crater, putting energy supply at a higher premium, scientists are nonetheless thrilled to perhaps have the chance to discover whether life on Earth might not be a thing whose basic chemicals were disseminated from somewhere far beyond—and for any other surprise for that matter.
While surely none of the astrophysicists at the European Space Agency feels anything less than great privilege to be keeping their eyes peeled, pouring over the imagery the excellent BLDGBlog did pick up on an interesting aside of not leaving the scanning up to a machine, as there's no precedence for this sort of topography and geometry, lumpy, weird gravity with the potential to create some curious features. Admitting that some new and novel encounters are beyond the biases programmed into the algorithms of computers, blindspots, evasion tactics that yield machines focusing on input that not the sought after output makes for an engrossing dialogue about those limitations of performance. The proofers, however prone to missing something or pareidolia, I am sure are excited to be doing it the old-fashioned way.

Friday, 14 November 2014

vocabulary spurt or the pump don’t work ‘cause vandals broke the handle

I have been thoroughly enjoying a brilliant new series of podcasts on the development of English as the global lingua franca that examines its roots from proto Indo-European origins, migrations, cultural exchange and dissemination. There’s a lot of engrossing history presented through curious etymologies, and although I have heard of some of these noble linguistic lineages before there’s no exhausting the emerging connections. The thrust of the series is of course the particular dialect of the Anglo-Saxons that has survived, with much outside influences, borrowings and impositions, to the modern day—but there are also many worthy tangents explored.

The rise of the Germanic languages is an especially interesting parallel statement on world history, and understanding how they were identified by outsiders, how they identified themselves—whether or not there was a consensus on cohesion—and how language is a cultural binding agent. As you might recall from previous adventures, one of the multiple factors that caused the collapse of the West Roman Empire was the failure of Rome to integrate and create a diaspora of the Gothic tribes that crossed the Danube into the Empire’s territory, seeking refuge from the marauding Huns. Just like the Indo-European ancestors themselves, the Huns were crossing the same plains of the Eurasian steppe to find land to support their growing population—effectively blocked in the East by the Great Wall of China. The Empire fractured into what were essentially independent Germanic kingdoms within Roman lands, with their own customs, laws and languages, with more outsiders realising that the once-powerful Empire was not in a position to stop them. The Goths and the Vandals (Wandalen) were both peoples of coastal Scandinavia who came to settle Silesia and North Africa, sacking Rome along the way. It is for this act of vandalism that the tribe is remembered but their name is the proto-Germanic source of word meaning wanderer (the same word in German and English). The association of the former tribe with a darkly brooding subculture came with the Renaissance and rediscovery of classical Greek and Roman art and philosophy that had been mostly lost to the West. One trigger that brought about the epoch was the Ottoman Empire finally breaching the Walls of Theodosius that had protected Constantinople for a thousand years and scholarship was scattered to the winds, eventually returning to Europe. Neoclassic architecture, modeled off the Romans and Greeks, came into vogue and the predominate ornate style of the Middle Ages—called the Dark Ages due to the collapse (really a coopting at this point and probably involved little wanton destruction) of Rome by these barbarous hordes—was dismissed as something gothic and old-fashioned.
The Angles (which means crook, like an angle or a hook used in fishing and preserved in the German word Angeln for that act, and is in reference to the shape of the Danish pennisula of Jutland, their homeland, and gives us the name East Anglia and England), later merging with the Saxons (meaning Swordmen and source of the designations Essex, Wessex and Sussex for the kingdoms of the East, West and South Saxons), moved into England from the German coast region of the North Sea once Rome had retreated from the island. The fleeing romanized Britons lent their name to the province of Brittany just across the English Channel, Mor Breizh or La Manche. The tribes that gives Germany the place-names of Bavaria and Franconia—and originally Bohemia and France from whence they came, were Celtic people. With the later Norman Invasion of England (the Normans being Norse transplants themselves), the French language had a major impact on English vocabulary, with the name of the Frankish tribe itself having a rather stimulating history and legacy: some linguists postulate that this Gallic group was called “free” because of early treaties with the Romans that formed a confederation that made certain allowances for home-rule and in exchange for defending the Empire’s frontier, were free to cross into Roman territory, and by way of French influences, English has the word frank (freimütig), for being open or just blunt, franchise (generally, a right or privilege or the right to sell under a parent label), disenfranchised (having those rights sidelined), and what’s called franking (Frankatur) privileges, the right to print postage stamps. The Chatti tribe gave the federal state of Hessen its name, following the sound shifts of Grimm’s Law. The Alemanni settled along the Main and Rhine and their territory stretched from Alsace to Switzerland; the tribe was eventually overtaken and assumed a Frankish identity but the name, “all men”—probably a catch-all name for the various clans in this broad area, is retained in the toponym of Germany in many of the Romance languages. Even if one calls Deutschland Germany, one might still know how to allemande right and left (the Germans supposedly did this particular move) at the ball or square dance.
A league of tribes that ganged up against the Romans when they were already going down was called the Marcomanni, and it is from the alliance of these “border men” that we have the word for march (Mark) in the sense of a frontier and the title of Marquis (Margrave).   Other Germanic tribes, that went east and south respectively, give us the name for the Burgundy region of France and the Lombardy region of Italy. One common Lombard first name was Irmen which became Amerigo once Italian speech returned and it was one certain cartographer by the name of Vespucci who demonstrated to the world that Christopher Columbus had indeed arrived in the Caribbean and not the East Indies as the explorer insisted and for whom two continents are named.   Academics have the works of Ancient Roman historian Gaius Cornelius Tacitus—where the adjectives tacit and taciturn for his compact and direct writing style—for much of this source information, and aside from Julius Caesar’s personal accounts, there is very little other documentation. Consequently, every sentence has been poured over and dissected over the last six hundred years, after the sole surviving copy was discovered in the Abbey of Bad Hersfeld, of this short ethnograph. And whereas, certain comments reflective one person’s opinion or generalisation might be dismissed or taken with a grain of salt within a larger work (though this happens with the Bible and company too), selective-readers highlighted passages that unfortunately praised the Germanic race as being the purest and the noblest one amongst these savages and turned these words in dangerous directions.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

curds and whey or conestoga wagon

The tribes of prehistory who carried the prototypical Indo-European language to Europe are relegated to mystery and myth but to a diminishing degree: while no one bears reliable testimony, triangulating archeological evidence with what these early peoples had words for and what they did not is quite revealing. Comparative linguists, continuing the research of Jacob Grimm and others, know where and when these wandering tribes made their appearance. They had names for the weather (and not fifty words for snow and ice and the hardships it caused), cattle, rabbits, centaurs, griffins, certain trees, the fields and other qualities of the temperate climate of the European steppe, the great plains that ran from Asia Minor through the flatlands of the Mediterranean. The migratory path flowed from east to west, as there were significant obstacles to expansion to the north and south. Most significantly, aside from common terms reconstructed for wheel and drive, they had words for wool, bees, honey and horses—as the migration and spread of those animals and animal products were restricted by certain geographical hurdles as well. We find our wanderers in the Balkans as nomadic herders, trying to secure a niche between the hunter-gatherers that claimed the great forested-regions to the north and the farming cultures further south.
The question about settlement becomes somewhat of a delicate one as we are really unsure of the deportment and reception of these forefathers to the Greek, Latin, Celtic and Germanic peoples. Due to a paucity of game to pursue on the plains, the Indo-Europeans traveled with their livestock and developed a tolerance for dairy products. This mutation is recorded later as well in North Africa with the domestication of camels, which makes me wonder if they was not also some genetic influence from the cows, camels or the pox to encourage milking over slaughter. Consequently, this acquired taste saw the use of horses for more than food (which they were quite accommodating about fending for themselves during the winter months since their hooves could dig out grass under the cover of snow). There were still hardships and the struggle was unending but a better, steadier diet and utility animals—to carry burdens, help with herding and for mobility in skirmishes, the Indo-European population grew. There is no ethnic superiority for these Aryans to be construed, of course, but there were nonetheless groups of indigenous people already in the lands that the Indo-Europeans came to dominate. The total human population of the European steppe was quite sparse to begin with and a small advantage in numbers went very far over successive generations in allowing the language of these wanderers to overshadow aboriginal languages and assimilate minority cultures. The peoples encountered surely had an influence on these newcomers but whatever local colour that was has mostly faded over four thousand years.
Those artefacts that present the most reliable testimony, however, are the systems of writing, which demonstrate spread and reach in a systematic way. Writing is such a fundamentally clever, sufficient and viral idea to only need be invented once in history (like the wheel), and some believe it was gifted to humanity by the venerable Semitic and Egyptian civilisations. Writing and by extension the alphabet came to the previously illiterate Indo-Europeans indirectly, however. Crowding themselves out in the Balkans, the tribes disbanded and some moved towards the Greek peninsula where they encountered the ancient Minoan culture. This first contact would have occurred around the time that the events told of in the Odyssey and Iliad would have taken place. To me, it was a real revelation that spoken language has such fluidity, though one can sometimes detect the distant echoes of viscosity in arcane words, stock-phrases and spellings, and to be told that all the Romance languages emerged from regional dialects after the collapse of the Roman Empire is amazing enough—not to mention that even those foreign languages dismissed as barbarous came from the same pedigree. To speak in terms of centuries just does not seem long enough for the spoken word to transform as it has. Written language, on the other hand, has remained a relatively static thing, which is perhaps even more amazing—even knowing a bit about the form of writing that those early Greeks adopted and promulgated. The script and hieroglyphs of the Middle Eastern peoples evolved from the glyphs and cuneiform writing of the Sumerians and disseminated to every culture in the Old World, arguably, in a discoverable chain of transformations and the departures and branches in every form of writing from runes to Cyrillic to Arabic to Devanagari. The new neighbours, the Minoans, of these newly-arrived Greeks had a form of writing with the uninspiring name of Linear-A—in part because it remains undeciphered and was the short-hand, serviceable-form of the more stylised symbols of the natives. Linear-A was the Morse-code way of rendering those symbols that were reversed for the ages, the writing of bookkeepers and commerce that was quicker to spell out in a series of dots and dashes gouged into clay tables than the complex and refined cartouches and dedications that appeared on monuments. Though the way of writing we have inherited is equally suited to similar rapid gashes—hence the dual systems of hieroglyphics (sacred) and cuneiform (profane), depending on one's penmanship and preference, these early Greeks did not commit their Parnassus of literature to paper with this script.
The exact reasons for this reluctance is unknown but the Romans, centuries later, also had tutors in the Etruscan tribe, whom they subsequently strove to erase and replace with founding mythology. Like many contemporary scripts, Linear-A, and what the Greeks were toying with—called Linear-B but which can be seen as early form of the Greek tongue, was something highly articulated and functional, if not a bit unwieldy. This manner of capturing speech was not a true alphabet but rather what is called a syllabary, with separate characters representing all the possible permutations of the language. With hundreds of characters to be learnt, its mastery was beyond the common man and so a workforce of scribes had to be employed. The arrival of Phoenician traders delivered to the early Greeks the accessible medium that they were waiting for. In order to facilitate international commerce, the syllabary model was dropped in favour of a true alphabet that represented each possible utterance with letters that could be combined, phonetically, to form any of those multitude permutations. Once the Greeks had a way of writing that was practical and accessible, almost immediately, based on what’s been found extant since trading with the Phoenicians began, they transcribed those stories that had supposedly been handed down in oral traditions for as long as anyone could remember: the above-mentioned Iliad and Odyssey and a collection of fables. Although it is clearer that the Romans disowned mentorship by the Etruscans and it looks like the Greeks just eventually surpassed the Minoans in brute numbers, we don’t know for certain. As good of a story it is, Rome inserted the legend of the Æneas and Romulus and Remus so they did not have to attribute their success to a predecessor. Who knows if these sagas of Greece did not also have a touch of propaganda? After all, they’re not billed as timeless tales now inscribed in clay but rather with at the traditional authorship as the works of Homer and Æsop. I wonder if the epic poems were not some sort of founding mythology that we cannot access any more that relegated the Minoans away.