Saturday 21 May 2016

gieterse punter

In the middle reaches of the Netherlands, in the province of Overijssel, there is landscape formed by peat reclamation and in the centre of this transformative operation, one can find the so-called Venice of the North (Hollands Venetiรซ, though I would have thought that nickname would be reserved for Amsterdam) in the old part of the village of Giethoorn, directed to our attention courtesy of the Presurfer. The network of canals, legacy of the intensive mining, make the predominant mode of transportation whisper-boats (punters with muted motors) or ice-skating in the winter time. The place certainly looks idyllic and relaxing and surely worth a stop next time we are in the area.

Monday 2 May 2016

ponceau 4r

As possibly one of the biggest hoaxes to come out of France since arguably the Priory of Sion (and notable for being a contemporary phenomenon with the bloodline conspiracy), the missive known as the Villejuif leaflet (anonymous but sourced to the oncological institute in the Paris suburbs) spread from 1976 onward with impressive virality contained a list of twenty or so—several different versions were in circulation for over a decade—of food additives, preservatives, and colouring agents alleged to be carcinogenic.
The original author of the pamphlet that was shared more than seven million times via chain-letters (chaรฎne de lettres, and more by word of mouth) across Europe was never identified and seemed to be spring-boarding his or her concerns off of the newly introduced codes called E Numbers that standardised food chemical labelling for the continent—as if the coding scheme was a veiled way to peddle poison like the notion that barcodes were the mark of the Devil, the classification system reserving E100-199 for dyes, E300-399 antioxidants, E900-E999 for sweeteners and so on. Obviously, processed food ought to be avoided when possible, and naturally the definition of fit for consumption is a fluid one, though I think that these specific panics are sometimes red-herrings, like so many red M&Ms, and regulatory bodies within the EU have rejected some of the substances deemed safe in the US—even if that use in America is strictly limited to colouring the skin of oranges to make them look riper or as cosmetics for other things that generally aren’t in the human food-chain, but that list also included a lot of naturally occurring compounds that are synthesised in industrial kitchens, like sodium sulphite, potassium nitrate, and citric acid. It was that last item that especially caused a panic, which is a pervasive food-additive, and propagated as the most toxic.  Perhaps the list (which we still encounter today as super foods and super villain foods, confronting us especially in the whitespaces of the internet) began innocently enough when a concerned but confused citoyen heard that citric acid was an essential catalyst for the Krebs cycle, mistaking the German word for cancer for the act of metabolising.  Incidentally, E124 or Ponceau 4R is a chemical pigment meaning poppy-red and one of the few not approved by the US Food and Drug Administration

Wednesday 27 April 2016

merkmal, mermail

The dried and liberally taxidermied carcass of a manta ray or a small shark, though pareidolia played a bigger role for these grotesque souvenirs than it did with the Fiji mermaid, carries the interesting name of Jenny Haniver.
Supposedly British marines first became acquainted with these nasty chimera when calling in Antwerp in the sixteenth century, where sailors had been crafting the keep-sakes for tourists for generations. The name stuck as a cockney-version of the French term jeune d’Anvers (the youth of Antwerp). People knew, for the most part, that this business was humbug but enjoyed letting their imaginations run wild, liking the idea of having a vanquished monster for their mantle. The antique mermaids (Meerjungfrauen) of Fiji probably themselves were the product of Japanese folklore and the legendary creature, the ningyo—which does share some correspondence with Western traditions, albeit that the ningyo was considered a delicacy that would impart great longevity to those who ate it.

Monday 25 April 2016

daisy-chain or paper mario

Thanks to the always interesting JF Ptak Science Book Store, we learn a bit about the contributions of American engineer Vannevar Bush, one of the early administrators of the Manhattan Project and organising force behind the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the fore-runner to NASA.
Despite those consummate and heroic (America was all but ignorant of the potential for rocket-warfare beforehand) achievements as a manager, Bush is probably due a greater debt for his work in the 1930s that previsioned the internet and the concept of memex (indexed memory) that was sort of a mechanical version of hypertext protocols—later set forth in a 1945 article for The Atlantic Monthly called “As We May Think,” describing how computational-assistance could enable individuals to amass and share an archival database of research material by following chains of associative-traits . Throughout his professional career, Bush seemed to eschew the idea of digital computing, preferring analogue models (but perhaps as something illustrative only, not schooled in a world of circuits and relays) but was also prescient in his worry about information overload and the glutting of real progress as input exceeds optimal processing capacity.

Monday 11 April 2016

rebound or like water for octane

There was a 2001 episode of The Lone Gunmen, a spin-off series from the X-Files, titled as above (after its parent’s flair for headings, though probably even the most dedicated fans could only conjure up “Post-Modern Prometheus”) above the government’s suppression, at the behest of the petroleum industry, an automobile that could run on water. The inventor and the Gunmen, however, ended up destroying the prototype over the realisation that having cars with unlimited mileage on a free and limitless resource would see the entire planet paved over.
This reasoning is a perfect illustration of what’s called the Jevons effect (or Jevons’ paradox)—named after the English economist William Stanley Jevons—positing that while technology might increase the efficiency of using a resource (the steam-engine and coal in the original case), progress in the long run does not lower consumption as growth, facilitated, increases demand. Scholars are still not sure whether these conditions hold or are unsustainable—a sort of moral panic for ecologists, whether the Gunmen were short-sighted in their assessment or whether, prescient, the move towards tele-presence would have been stifled without scarcity—but the warning is certainly a fair one, to be ignored at one’s own peril. No condemnation of progress or pursuit of greater production, similar unintended consequence might be said to arise out of diet (guilt-free) foods or bracketing a motorway with more lanes that only leads to more congestion.  What do you think?  Did Jevons take the right tack or was taken the underprivileged view that progress would always be steam-powered?

Friday 8 April 2016

figleaf and fishcake

Kottke helps us make acquaintance with an expert remixer that that introduces snippets of film dialogue onto works of fine art. Popquotery allows us to better appreciate both.
This particular quotation is from the 1988 comedy heist A Fish Called Wanda, superimposed on a 1907 portrait called A Rose by Thomas Pollock Anshutz. Incidentally, Anshutz was a nudist and exhibitionist and helped (sat for) Eadweard Muybridge pioneer his animation and motion picture techniques, but ensured his success at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts by dismissing his competition for conduct unbecoming of a teacher in allowing a male model to appear before a sketch class of females sans loincloth.

…but satisfaction brought her back

Originator of the gothic genre with his novel The Castel of Otranto, Horace Walpole, was also an avid cat-fancier. His favourite companion was a tabby named Selima who was sadly discovered one day in 1747 to have drowned in a goldfish bowl, presumably while trying to extract her prey. To console his loss, the earl commissioned a poet friend to eulogise the cat’s death with an ode, which is really quite amazing and includes a warning clause for the morbidly curious:
From hence, ye beauties, undeceived,
Know, one false step is ne’er retrieved,
And be with caution bold.
Not all that tempts your wandering eyes
And heedless hearts, is lawful prize—
Nor all that glisters, gold.

That tribute, however, was the last for beloved Selima. Painters captured her imagined final moments, mesmerised by the tantalising fish, including artist William Blake, who illustrated a publication of the ode. Private loss had quickly become public and wakes for felines became quite common afterwards.

Thursday 7 April 2016

bardolatry or oh no-etry

Coinciding with US National Poetry Month, there’s a clever sonnet-generating algorithm that creates convincing, natural sounding Shakespearian stanzas that adhere to the rules of grammar and scansion, informs Boing Boing. Here is an example, Sonnet № 3959816917:

When I perhaps compounded am with clay
I tell the day, to please him, thou art bright
And in mine own love’s strength seem to decay
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night
I grant I never saw a goddess go
In so profound abysm I throw all care
Receiving naught by elements so slow
And buds of marjoram had stol’n thy hair
If my dear love were but the child of state
O, know, sweet love, I always write of you
Such civil war is in my love and hate
Robbing no old to dress his beauty new
Her audit, though delay’d, answer’d must be
If ten of thine ten times refigur’d thee

There is some repetition with certain conceits and stock-phrases reappearing but that’s able to dull the machine whirring in the background and allow the rhythm, rhyme and even meaning come through. I wonder if true scholars could pick out what’s computer-generated sentiment from Shakespeare’s own collection of 154.

Saturday 2 April 2016

doctor zaius, doctor zaius

A Kazakhstani scientist with the alliterative name of Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov was a pioneer in the early 1900s in the field of artificial insemination.
Praised and later eulogised by sociologist Ivan Pavlov, Ivanov’s chief accomp- lishments were in the field of animal husbandry and of interest to horse-breeders, but reportedly his research also dabbled in controversy, hoping to create ape-human hybrids, called humanzees—for no particular reason. Early trials failed and the premature death of simian donors and the aftermath of the Soviet revolution put a stop to his further experiments. Contemporaries even composed an opรฉra-bouffe called Orango to lampoon and chastise Ivanov’s ambitions, but it was not staged until 2011 to somewhat less knowledgable audiences. Let’s be sure to thank the Frinkiac for the ease in finding this appropriate illustration.

Sunday 13 March 2016

the overlook

While iconic producer and director Stanley Kubrick’s staging and ensemble could never be labelled derivative, having inspired countless other homages, and nothing less could be ascribed to The Shining, there is nonetheless than some point for point correspondence that Kubrick himself attributes to a much earlier inspiration.
The Swedish film called Kรถrkarlen, the Wagoner, was presented to British and American audiences a year after its debut under the title of Thy Soul shall bear Witness or The Phantom Carriage in 1922. Both films have to address the torture of alcoholism and the resulting missteps in family life, although the silent version had more ledgend to draw upon than the local lore of hotel staff with a sort of Flying Dutchman curse of the street urchins and dissolute of the town of Landskrona that holds the last person to die in the previous year is charged with acting as the Grim Reaper and collects the souls of those to die in the next. A departed drinking buddy who led the protagionist astray in life tries to make amends in death by arranging encounters with people who can help him get his life back in order. One can view the film in its entireity at this link, and appreciate its pioneering use of special effects and complex storytelling which makes use of flashbacks within flashbacks.

Thursday 10 March 2016

in the year 2525 or ecumenical patriarch of splayhair

Thanks to the Happy Mutants’ ansible—though a somewhat defective model, sort of like a TARDIS without a functioning chameleon drive—the wondrous Boing Boing is occasionally able to furnish us with dispatches from the far distant future (in Wikipedia article format, which is comforting for the coming generations) and has we’ve rendered over the millennia Cรฆsar to Kaiser and Tzar, Tzump may be a future high office. Hopefully this future is not pre-destined.

Thursday 3 March 2016

hermit kingdom or thirty-eighth parallel

With North Korea in the headlines again over ballistic missile testing and general aggressive behaviour towards its neighbours and the mounting calls for sanctions in response, I had been engaging in a little bit of research into the matter and came across a really astounding relic of bureaucracy in a presidential commission in South Korea charged with the administration of the five provinces of the North.
Although this powerless (as those lands are governed already by North Korea) shadow-government, called the Committee for the Five Northern Korean Provinces (์ด๋ถ5๋„์œ„์›ํšŒ) and established in 1949, seems today like a sinecure posting, I suppose following the aftermath of the Korean War, hopes for reunification and reconciliation seemed within reach and uniting the Koreas remains a goal for both sides—although the prospects for that seem to be receding. The constitutions of both states define their countries as the whole, undivided Korean peninsula. I wonder what these conscientious bureaucrats do all day, with no access to the provinces in their respective areas of responsibility, and having no jurisdiction in the arena of foreign relations, as that role is handled exclusively by the Ministry of Unification. The situation and perhaps the hope too is in some ways similar to the state of affairs for the divided Germanys but there was never such a government-in-exile, as it were, operating jenseits the border.

Saturday 27 February 2016

yoiking and taxonomy

Recently, as the large settlement of Tromsรธ was anticipating the return of the sun after six weeks of perpetual night (surely an event to celebrate but it was not as if the locals were emerging from dread and depression after this long, dark, sacred night, though I can’t say I was not very relieved to see the days waxing longer) and heralded the first patch of daylight with song.
The city and region that’s traditionally Sร mi (the older and rather pejorative term for the people was Laplander) is a big music scene—including the for a sort of ancient tone-poem called a yoik or joik. These chants, though wordless, are very evocative and full of meaning, and it’s said that the Sร mi peoples were taught yoiking by the elves and fairies and at birth, a yoik is composed for an individual, this personal signature being as important as one’s name—admitting later improvisations, of course. Places, animals, plants and the elements have their own special tunes as well. As with many aboriginal customs, joiking was regarded with suspicion and condemned as spell-casting and suppressed (along with their language) for generations but both have seen a strong resurgence in recent years—migrant children hosted in these northern communities are excited to receive yoiks of their very own. A lot more than just a salutation of the sun, one can listen to a selection of yoiks here or by searching the internet for more of these hauntingly beautiful folk chants, perhaps even composing your own signature sound.

Thursday 25 February 2016


The marvellous property-scout Nag on the Lake invites us to a rather breath-taking viewing of a unique bell-tower penthouse on Centre Street of Manhattan—where for price, the happy new tenants could enjoy panoramic views from the cupola of New York City. The Beaux Arts style building was built to purpose as the New York City Police Headquarters and served this role from 1909 to the early 1970s when the department outgrew its operations centre. In the late 1980s, the structure at the heart of the metropolis was converted into posh condominiums. This would be a pretty swank hideout for a brooding and mysterious superhero.

Tuesday 16 February 2016

majuscule and minusclue

A bicameral system of writing has two cases for its letters, usually distinct in form and not only size—like Latin-, Greek- and Armenian- derived alphabets, whereas Arabic, Hebrew and Persian make no differentiation.  I wonder if that makes reading a particular challenge, like the cursive-hand that is reportedly incomprehensible to young people.

Aside from รฆsthetic prerogatives of font and layout, mixed cases probably were cultivated for the sake of speed when copying out a running script—as opposed to headings or chapters that dominated most inscriptions, and the conventions were propagated with the printed word. Individual rules of orthography are as varied as language, where sometimes all nouns are germane or sometimes demonyms, the months and days of the week go with no special consideration and certain symbols and ligatures often only take one form, like the Eszett (รŸ) that’s never at the front of a word or the Latin alpha that can be single- or double-storey. If rules of capitalisation prove too complex, especially given an international venue, something called a “kebab-case” is employed where dashes replace spacing and no words are writ-large. Using underscore in a similar way is called snake-case. Not to dispense with proper punctuation altogether, words whose meaning changes with capitalisation like Mass (liturgy) or mass (physical property) and Hamlet (Danish prince) or hamlet (small village)—plus many others, especially having to do with place—is called a capitonym.

Monday 15 February 2016

pomade ou les moustaches de l’oiseau

First spotted by erstwhile bird-watcher Mademoiselle Titam (l’article est disponible uniquement en franรงais), I was delighted to discover these dapper little moustachioed seabirds called Inca terns (Larosterna inca), native to Chile and Peru, cleaving to the Humboldt current that drives the South Pacific like the dynamo Gulf Stream that warms Europe. What I found really striking—given our human biases, was that for what we’d consider a very masculine trait, there’s very little dimorphism between the males and the females in terms of plumage, and all the terns sport the same look, unlike for those with antlers, manes or the birds-of-paradise. I suppose other sea-going fowl, gulls and penguins, do look quite uniform across the genders.

Sunday 14 February 2016

mason-dixon or white-sale

I always considered the US federal holiday, known as Presidents’ Day, to be a pretty anodyne concession to something akin to the monarch’s birthday (usually shifted to the summer months, irrespective of the actual date of birth of the reigning royal to increase the chances of nicer weather) but it’s actually quite politically and grammatically contentious, rather than the monolithic excuse for discounts for towels and bedding that bespeak patriotism.
Originally celebrated as George Washington’s birthday only, Abraham Lincoln—also born in February—was added later, though many jurisdictions did not get as far as adopting the correct orthography in moving from president’s to presidents’ and many States, especially those that suffered under the War of Northern Aggression still honour Thomas Jefferson (born in April) instead of Lincoln or choose it as a day to honour the office and no specific office-holder. Uniquely, Arkansas chooses to toast Washington and a civil rights activist, Daisy Lee Gatson Bates (born and passed away in the month of November) on this day for her pivotal actions during the Little Rock schools integration crisis on the late 1950s. Yet other states do their own thing entirely to supplement that national mandate. Ironically, with the passage of the act that moved all federal holidays to Mondays in the early 1970s, proclamation Presidents’ Day to be held on the third Monday of February, the observance can never fall on Washington’s actually birth date of 22 February.

Saturday 13 February 2016

eros and agape

Valentine’s Day in its received format has a pretty interesting history of conflation, segregation and outright confusion. As the Roman Empire was filling its calendar with holidays, the day preceding the Ides of February became sacred to Juno (Hera), the long-suffering spouse of Jupiter (Zeus), who was among many other attributes and kennings, the patroness of marriage and newly-weds. Accordingly, this date began a favoured time for nuptials and young boys and girls, whom were normally strictly separated throughout the rest of the year, in anticipation for the coming feast distributed ballots, lots with their names on them and later—during the following feast of Lupercalia, pairs were drawn and the two youths would be “married” for the duration of the festivities before being parted again, to be later married off under more customary, strategic conditions arranged by their parents.
I do not know if any of these sweethearts pined afterwards but graver unimpassioned measures were to be introduced during the first decades of the three hundreds when, according to legend, there was a backlash against the recalcitrant Christian community, under the reign of Aurelian (and later repeated by Diocletian) who was distrusting of their anti-social behaviours in not observing the rites of the Empire and aside from tossing them to the lions forbade marriage (but this may have also been a more general-order, irrespective of affiliation) since matrimony was not conducive to going off to war. A hero was produced, as is often the case (and another during the Diocletian persecution with the same cognomen and guilty of the same crimes against the state), in the person of Valentino, who performed in cognito wedding services in accordance with Church customs. This underground community was infiltrated and an unrepentant Valentine (and his later incarnation) were thrown in prison. One of the Valentines had an audience with the Emperor (Claudius Gothicus, according to some) who was sympathetic to his cause at first, but the Valentine got a little too preachy and the Emperor had him executed anyway. Both martyrdoms took place at the head of Lupercalia and as a symbol for fidelity and family—though I suppose there could only be one Valentine with that sort of patronage. Though Valentine greetings were sent first in the late Middle Ages, it was not until Victorian times that the spirit of the holiday recaptured that original sense of the lottery and flirtation—and continued admiration. Happy Valentines’ Day everybody!

Tuesday 9 February 2016

cabbages and kings

From Wikipedia’s On this Day… sidebar, I learnt that not only is this the anniversary of anniversary of the congressional selection (contingent presidential election) of John Quincy Adams in 1825, when a three-way split among the united Democratic-Republican party, the Whigs and the National Republicans resulted in no candidate a majority in the Electoral College, it also marks the date when young Alessandro Ludovisi, styled Gregory XV, was elevated to pope in 1621, not through the familiar conclave but rather by acclamation—a voice vote. Although sometimes agreement is still measured by yeas and nays, Pope Gregory was the last pontifex vetted in this way. I wonder how public versus a secret ballot sits with one’s constituency. President Adams was not America’s only president to bypass the conduits of the democratic-process (such as it is—creating the modern day two party system out of Republican-backers who supported the defeated Andrew Jackson and the sore-winner Democrats) and the majority of politics (sacred and profane) take place in smoke-filled rooms.
The origin of that term is sourced to a meeting in Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel (Room 404, as when someone attempts to make some spurious connections) when the Republican National Convention failed to produce viable candidate to block Woodrow Wilson’s heir-apparent and Warren G Harding was tossed in the ring, also under special-appointment. Weary from WWI and more resolved to take a stance of not being World Police, Harding’s regime was popular at the time though his cronyism and involvement in the Teapot Dome Scandal (over bribes from the oil industry which was the most notorious until Watergate) rather tarnished history’s opinion of him. With only a reign of two years, Pope Gregory was not able to accomplish a lot—other than making the penalties for witchcraft a little less severe and reserving capital-punishment for those proven to be in league with the Devil and instigating reforms in the way papal elections proceed, giving us the ceremony and closed-door meetings that we recognize today.

Saturday 6 February 2016

hi-def or the force awakens

Fellow true-believer Bob Canada, whilst watching some of the classic episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000, in anticipation I’m sure of the relaunch of the series, in thrilling high-definition re-mastered quality, noticed that the panelling of the interior of the Satellite of Love is composed of Star Wars spacecraft (at least two Millennium Falcons) and a Darth Vader helmet action figure carrying-case. I wonder what other easter-eggs are out there to be discovered. The process of adding superfluous (but we’re now accustomed to and wouldn’t buy a sleek and featureless design) textures to surfaces to make them more visually interesting is called greebling, whether executed with set decoration or computer-generated graphics.