Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The hair of the Celts

Astérix and Obélix.
Today's trivia: the ancient Celts of the first century B.C. had a combination bleaching/spiking treatment for their hair: quicklime. We know this thanks to the testimony of the Sicilian historian Diodorus, whose Universal History describes them this way:
The Gauls are tall of body, with rippling muscles, and white of skin, and their hair is blond, and not only naturally so, but they also make it their practice by artificial means to increase the distinguishing color which nature has given it. For they are always washing their hair in lime-water, and they pull it back from the forehead to the top of the head and back to the nape of the neck, with the result that their appearance is like that of Satyrs and Pans, since the treatment of their hair makes it so heavy and coarse that it differs in no respect from the mane of horses.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The flight of the bumblebee

Later flowers for the bees. (From Wikimedia.)
I normally try to do something a bit more original here on this "trivia blog" than simply repost cool stuff from Wikipedia. That said, this was too cool not to share. In fact, it may be the coolest thing I've ever learned from reading Wikipedia:

Thursday, January 23, 2014

What's so secular about secular stagnation?

Larry Summers. (Wesley Mann, CNN)
Secular stagnation has been in the news a lot lately, ever since Larry Summers made a remark at the International Monetary Fund's Fourteenth Annual Research Conference in Honor of Stanley Fischer dropping the two words:
I wonder if a set of older and much more radical ideas—ideas that, I have to say, were pretty firmly rejected in 14.462, Stan—a set of older ideas that went under the phrase secular stagnation, are not profoundly important in understanding Japan’s experience in the 1990s, and may not be without relevance to America’s experience today.
(To clarify, "Stan" is the eponymous MIT economics professor Stanley Fischer; the construction of the conference's title leaves unclear whether the IMF holds a conference in his honor every year, or only this year. 14.462 was the advanced macroeconomics class he taught, whose alumni include Summers, Olivier Blanchard, and Kenneth Rogoff.)

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Juxtapositions: Mallarmé and Ferry

Cat Bay on Lake Superior near Eagle Harbor, Michigan.

Summer Sadness (1864)*
Stéphane Mallarmé (translation mine)

The sun on the sand, ah sleeping wrestless,
In the gold of your hair warms a wash so listless,
And while on your hostile cheek incense sears,
It mixes a love potion in with your tears.

About this white flare the changeless quietness
Has made you say, aggrieved—oh my cowardly kiss—
"We shall never be a single mummy here
Beneath the glad palms and desert frontier!"

But your tresses are a lukewarm river,
Where our soul obsession drowns without a shiver
And finds that Nothingness that you know not.

I shall taste the teary mascara near your eyes,
To see if it knows how to give the heart that you make beat
The senselessness of the stones and of the sky.

Lake Water (2012)
David Ferry

It is a summer afternoon in October.
I am sitting on a wooden bench, looking out
At the lake through a tall screen of evergreens,
Or rather, looking out across the plane of the lake,
Seeing the light shaking upon the water
As if it were a shimmering of heat.
Yesterday, when I sat here, it was the same,
The same displaced out-of-season effect.
Seen twice it seemed a truth was being told.
Some of the trees I can see across the lake
Have begun to change, but it is as if the air
Had entirely given itself over to summer,
With the intention of denying its own proper nature.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

U.S. punctuation airlift delivers billions of commas to UK

Commas arrive on British shores on Thursday afternoon. (Department of Defense)
SUFFOLK, ENGLAND – Despite record grammatical deficits in the United States, today the American military airlifted billions of relief commas to the shores of the United Kingdom, after becoming aware that decades of British schoolchildren have grown up with insufficient commas, at both home and at school. "Certainly, we were shocked when we realized that the British had been trying to write with roughly 50% of the American levels of commas—since at least the days of Graham Greene, if not earlier," said John Newell, Jr., White House proofreader, during an interview by telephone from Lakenheath Air Base in Suffolk, England. "While investigations into the cause of the comma shortage are ongoing, it appears that the problem has persisted since the days when the Nazis bombarded the Isles with subordinate clauses. Unfortunately, the British punctuation infrastructure never fully recovered."

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

That time when George Eliot almost didn't write "Middlemarch"

Robert Mapplethorpe: Ken Moody, Robert Sherman. (1984)
Mapplethorpe Foundation.
Virginia Woolf—in an offhand remark that we are still quoting ad nauseam ninety years later—once wrote that George Eliot's Middlemarch "is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people." This line is often hurled around without much consideration as to what it means. How many of us can say what a novel written for grown-ups is or should be like? What were the other few English novels for grown-ups? As with most aphorisms, Woolf's line is snappy, but her intentions obscure.

What I've always thought she meant—and I offer this hypothesis without much evidence adduced here—is that Middlemarch deals realistically with responsibility for both actions and their consequences, and takes seriously the ethical importance of the decisions made by ordinary people. A few Victorian novels do this, but not the vast majority of popular fiction from the nineteenth century. Most of them build worlds in which the final verdict of the novel's moral universe is never really in doubt: in some way, the just shall be rewarded and the wicked punished. This, according to Woolf, is a childish expectation—and indulging that expectation makes a novel childish. In the universe of Middlemarch, questions of what job you take or whom you marry matter because it is possible to make the wrong decision. Middlemarch is not only about trying to make the right decisions; it is about how you come to terms with having made the wrong ones.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

New books in January

Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings
Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life
Harvard University Press
704 pp.

Blurb: “Here, for the first time, is a thorough, reliable, non-tendentious, and fully developed account of Benjamin’s life and the sources of his work. This is by far the best biography of Benjamin that has yet appeared” (Peter Fenves, Northwestern University).

Chang-Rae Lee
On Such a Full Sea
336 pp.

From Riverhead: "In a future, long-declining America, society is strictly stratified by class. Long-abandoned urban neighborhoods have been repurposed as highwalled, self-contained labor colonies. And the members of the labor class—descendants of those brought over en masse many years earlier from environmentally ruined provincial China—find purpose and identity in their work to provide pristine produce and fish to the small, elite, satellite charter villages that ring the labor settlement."

Brutus at Julius Caesar 4.3: 
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves
Or lose our ventures.
Rachel Louise Snyder
What We've Lost Is Nothing: A Novel
21 January 2014 
Scribner, $25
320 pp.

From the novel: 
A garden-variety home invasion wouldn’t have boosted Mary’s social capital, but one element of the story had spread through the halls before the first bell even rang. During the burglary Mary Elizabeth had been home.
She fielded a flurry of questions between classes.
Mary, were you scared?
Not really.
Did you see them?
Did you hear them break the door down?
Where were you when they came in?
Dining room. Under the table.
Wasn’t it, like, during school? Didn’t you cut class?
Wink, smirk.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

I learned to close-read at Hogwarts

We all need a book from the Restricted Section now and then.
Reading when you are young is different from later reading. Any one book can have a much greater impact on you, simply because you have read fewer books. And at that age, you tend to read far more obsessively: favorite books call you back repeatedly, just as much as favorite movies. (How many times did I watch the Star Wars trilogy before the age of 10? How many times did my sister watch The Parent Trap?) Heaven only knows why we are so easily transfixed by the same endlessly looping stories as children, at precisely the age when common wisdom would claim that we are most easily bored. But we return again and again to the same books as children in a way that we rarely do later in life.

For me, as for many people my age—because three years older or three years younger is too much—the Harry Potter books were the primary object of feverishly recurrent reading and rereading. I read the first three books at least twenty times each, and volumes four and five at least ten. How did I have so much time? I don't know; but neither am I sure how I could log triple-digit hours of game play on a single Pokémon cartridge. I do know that for entire school years I would sit down for breakfast before going to school, take a Harry Potter book from the shelf, and start reading wherever it fell open at random—like a latter-day sortes vergilianae. There was a quasi-religious aspect to this practice, which was ordered a bit like matins: pray for breakfast (a more pious time in my life); eat breakfast while reading about Nearly Headless Nick's death-day party; clean off plate with book still in hand; here endeth the reading. Depart in peace.