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Tuesday, July 2, 2013

History of English in 100 Words; The Prague Cemetery; Tender is the Night; Blink; The Swerve; and Moby-Duck

David Crystal.  History of English in 100 Words.  ©2011 The first English word to be written down was “roe.”  It was carved in runic characters on a deer antler.  Crystal takes the reader on a trip through our history and along the way shows us the richness and complexity of our language.  In 1963 when I was a management intern in the office of the Secretary of Labor Willard Wirtz, his executive assistant, John Donovan, called me into his office and told me to go to the library and get a book called Rozum’s Universal Robots.  He said the secretary thought it could be mined for speech material, and I was to do the mining.  It was a nice assignment, and I guess I learned at the time that the book was based on a Czech play first produced in 1921.  What I didn’t learn was that the word “robot” was coined to name the automatons in that play and from there entered our language and became the basis for hundreds of additional words or variations.  We have all Hoovered our living room rugs, so we are familiar with the tendency to make the brand names of new inventions into the common name for all similar products.  “Xerox me a copy of this.”  The one that I like best is “escalator.”  The name was coined from the Italian word “scalia” for the Otis Elevator company to describe its new product, moving stairs.  It was called the Otis Escalator and the name was meant to be associated with the Otis Elevator.  From that we have the escalation of hostilities in the Middle East and the escalator clause in your contract.  There’s much more in the internet age.  Crystal brings us right up to date and makes it clear that Moore’s Law applies not only to transistors but also to the coinage of words.  June 2013

Umberto Eco.  The Prague Cemetery.  ©2010  Only in the endnotes is the reader told that all of the characters in this novel are based on real people except Simonini, the narrator, who pulls it all together in telling his life story from about 1840 in the Piedmont to 1897 in Paris and then a few years more.  Even Simonini is something of a collage of real people.  Simonini starts his career working for a notary who forges wills and other documents.  He is looking for revenge because he is convinced that the notary stole his inheritance from his father, who left only debts when he died.  Simonini soon learns the trade and forges a document that gets his boss put in prison so that he can take over the business.  From there he moves on to the secret service in the Piedmont and adventures involving Garibaldi.  Later he works for the French secret service, where he forges the letter that gets Dreyfus sent to Devil’s Island.  His basic income is from forgeries and reselling consecrated hosts to devil worshippers, but his real life’s work is rewriting a letter his grandfather wrote describing a meeting of Rabbi’s in a cemetery Prague in which they discussed plans to take over the world.  He is able to sell it several times to various secret services and also to get it published in book form.  Finally he sells it to the Okhrana as a draft for The Protocols of Zion.  His last act is an attempt to blow up one of the first construction sites for the Paris Metro.  Eco gives us a tour through the depths of anti-Semitism in 19th C Europe and introduces to all the players, including the Jesuits, and gives us a full account of a black mass.  June 2013

F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Tender is the Night.  ©1934  CD version ©2010   Rosemary Hoyt, a budding silent screen actress meets Dick and Nicole Diver on a beach near their Riviera hotel.  Rosemary thinks Dick and Nicole are the most wonderful people she has ever met, and they like her.  She accompanies them to Paris.  There is almost something between Dick and Rosemary, but before that can develop, a body is found in Rosemary’s room.  Dick drags the body out into the hall so that no scandal can touch Rosemary and her career.  They part company.  Then we get the back story for Dick and Nicole.  He was a psychiatrist at the institute where Nicole was being treated for some kind of mental illness.  Her family was very rich and thought that the best thing for Nicole would be to marry a doctor who could always take care of her.  She is absolutely gorgeous, and Dick falls in love and marries her.  It’s never clear to what extent her money contributed to her attractiveness for Dick.  Nicole puts up the money for a psychiatric institute.  It works for a while, but Dick starts to drink a bit too much, and his partner asks him to leave and take Nicole’s money with him.  They drift around Europe, and they drift apart.  Back on the Riviera, they run into Rosemary and Nicole suspects an affair between her and Dick.  She’s feeling fully cured and decides to have an affair of her own with their old friend Tommy.  Then she asks Dick for a divorce.  He agrees and returns to the US and practices medicine in several towns in NY state and sort of fades away.  It’s a sad story of too much money and misdirected ambition.  I didn’t like it much, perhaps because the characters all seemed to be losers despite their advantages of physical beauty, wealth and education.  I was struck again by the beauty of Fitzgerald’s prose and by the structure, which sometimes made this feel more like a script for the stage or screen than a novel.  Sometimes at the end of a chapter, it seems like the characters exit, the lights go out and the curtain comes down.  June 2013

Malcolm Gladwell.  Blink. ©2005  You might say this is a book about thinking without thinking.  We all make so called “snap judgments,” but what is the intellectual basis for these?  Gladwell suggests that they come from our subconscious mind and draw on the sum of our experience.    He introduces his subject with an anecdote about the Getty Museum’s purchase of a 6th C BCE kouros from a Swiss dealer for $10 million.  The Getty ran every test imaginable to insure the statue was authentic, and all physical tests showed that it was.  They called in art historians experienced with evaluation of ancient Greek culture; each in turn rejected the statue, but none of them could say exactly why, at least not at first.  The kouros was a fake, and it was proven to be so when they rechecked the documentation – a post mark from a time when that post office was not in operation, a piece of paper that wasn’t right for the date of the document written on it and so on.  On reflection, the art historians were able to explain their negative reactions.  The statue didn’t fit into the sum total of their experience with this type of statue.  In another anecdote, he relates how the Republican Convention in 1920 was deadlocked among three candidates.  There were four others in the race as well but not in serious contention.  A compromise candidate was needed.  One of the four was Warren G. Harding.  There didn’t seem to be anything objectionable about him and he had an arresting presence – he looked like a president.  The Convention chose him and he proved to be the worst president we’ve ever had.  Gladwell calls it “the Warren Harding error.”  We tend to make judgments on the basis of appearance and experience.  Sometime we’re right, like the art historians, and sometimes we’re wrong, like the politicos in Chicago in 1920.  We associate leadership with tallness and as a result CEOs are taller and even for non-CEOs each inch of height above average is worth $789 per year.  Another phenomenon is our reaction to facial expressions.  Paul Eckmann and Sylvan Tompkins spent seven years “unpacking” the human face, i.e., learning what all the muscles are and then learning the meaning of the various combinations of these muscles when they contracted or relaxed.  They documented the meaning of the various combinations and also discovered that there are very few differences in the meanings of facial expressions among races and cultures.   We all read faces and respond to what we see on the basis of what we have stored in our subconscious.  Gladwell describes the results of many tests and experiments to study the effects of the unconscious behavior.  It makes an interesting read and from it I found an explanation for behavior in myself and others with regard to race, gender and other issues on which we have modified our behavior over the course of our lifetimes as society as a whole has become more tolerant.  A place to get a feel for this is at  On this site there are a number of IAT tests in which you can check out your own responses.  I took the young person-old  person test and didn’t find it especially convincing, but your experience may be different.  The best thing to do would be to read Gladwell’s book.  June 2013

Stephen Greenblatt.  The Swerve.   ©2011  This is the story of Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459) who served as a scribe for seven popes including the notorious Baldasare Cossa, who took the name John XXXIII until he was deposed.  Poggio was an excellent scribe and ended his career as chief scribe in the Vatican, but his passion was for finding ancient Latin texts and for the language in its purest form.  In the winter of 1417 Poggio made a great discovery. In an abbey in Germany he came across a manuscript of a long-lost classical poem, Lucretius's De Rerum Natura ("On the Nature of the Universe"). Greenblatt sees it as the origin of the renaissance and, in effect, of modernity.
Because I listened to this book on CDs, I needed to check some spellings and I came across the review in the url above. It is so well done that I urge you either to read this Guardian Review or the book.  One thing that interested me that is not in the review is Greenblatt’s description of the library of Alexandria.  Here are some of the things developed in that library: Archimedes defined pi and laid the foundation for calculus, Euclid developed his geometry, Eratosthenes proved the world is round and calculated its circumference with an error of only 1%, other scholars determined that one could sail west to get to the Indies, developed hydraulics and pneumatics, and heliocentric theory, and determined that the year is 365 and 1/4 days long and proposed the idea of leap year.  June 2013

Donovan Hohn.  Moby-Duck.  ©2011  Hohn was an English teacher at a private school on 16th Street in Manhattan.  One of his students submitted a short essay that discussed an accident during a storm in the North Pacific in January 1992.  A container fell overboard during an extreme roll, broke open and released boxes containing 28,000 float toys.  As the flotsam moved east with the currents, the toys escaped their packaging and began to be found along the coast of Alaska.  Hohn was curious and researched the stories.  He became so interested that eventually he quit his job so that he could continue his study and find out what happened to the toys.  The toys came in packages of four, a yellow duck, a beaver, a turtle and a frog.  Many examples of each had been found by beach combers, but all anyone really talked about or wrote about was the ducks, the iconic American bath toy.  The toys came from a factory in Guangzhou, which he was able to visit, and there the owner showed him the original dye from which the duck had been cast in plastic.  From his writing Hohn seems to be a very engaging person, and the proof of that is in how he was able to talk his way onto every imaginable kind of scientific expedition or cleanup operation that had any relevance to the possible movements of the ducks. He joined cleanup operations along the Alaskan coast, rode a containership transiting the North Pacific, crewed on scientific expeditions to the Great Pacific Garbage Dump and along the coast of Labrador, hitched a ride on a Canadian ice breaker sailing east to west through the Northwest Passage and, of course, visited the factory in Guangzhou.   Along the way he tells about beach combers and oceanographers, the way oceans work and how the oceans and their inhabitants are affected by the plastics we dump into them.  Some things mentioned anecdotally:  The first documented floating object was Osiris in his coffin, which Isis recovered in the waters off what is now Lebanon; ocean circulation was completely different before the closing of the Isthmus of Panama; in Alaska it’s O.K. to be a conservationist, but not an environmentalist.  All through the book he refers to Melville’s Moby Dick.  It’s an enjoyable read, but if you can only read a few pages, read the epilogue where he talks about the role of Ishmael.  Halfway through the novel, Ishmael recedes from being a character and becomes more of a pure narrator, and the theme of paternity appears.  It just was then when Melville was halfway through with his writing that his first child was born.  June 2013

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