Thursday, January 21, 2016

Wine in snowstorms

People have been stocking up on the Malbec before a big snowstorm for 2,600 years. See Alcaeus, cited in Athenaeus:

338 Athenaeus, Scholars at Dinner Athen. x 430a–b (ii 435 Kaibel)

For this poet (Alcaeus) is found drinking in all seasons and in all circumstances: in winter in the following lines:

ὔει μὲν ὀ Ζεῦς, ἐκ δ’ ὀράνω μέγας
χείμων, πεπάγαισιν δ’ ὐδάτων ῤόαι
<              ἔνθεν                      >
<                                                          >

κάββαλλε τὸν χείμων’, ἐπὶ μὲν τίθεις
πῦρ, ἐν δὲ κέρναις οἶνον ἀφειδέως
μέλιχρον, αὐτὰρ ἀμφὶ κόρσᾳ

μόλθακον ἀμφι <βάλων> γνόφαλλον.

Zeus rains down, and from heaven a great 
storm, and the streams of water have been stopped 
<              thence                      >
<                                                          >

Overthrow the storm, setting a fire 
up, and mix the sweet wine 
unsparingly, moreover set a soft ribbon 
around your temples 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

A game of fake first lines

Image from Oxford Games (here).
Will play this with anyone who wants to go halves on a copy: 
"Ex Libris is a subtle, yet highly entertaining game of bluff that will challenge your literary acumen and test your writing skills as you attempt to compose fake, but plausible, first or last lines for genuine English novels. One hundred authors representing widely different writing styles are featured in Ex Libris – from Charles Dickens to Harold Robbins, from Jane Austen to Barbara Cartland. ...
"Ex Libris comprises a hundred cards, each of which gives you the title, author and plot summary of an English language novel or short story. At the start of a round one player, taking a turn as the reader, picks a card and reads it out loud. The other players then have each to write a plausible opening or closing sentence to the work in an attempt to bluff fellow players into believing his or her ‘script’ to be the genuine one. These are all handed in to the reader, who has meanwhile written down the genuine sentence (given on the back of the card). The genuine and fake are shuffled together, and then each sentence is read out. Each player votes for the sentence he/she believes is the real one. Players win a point for each vote cast for his or her entry (while further points are won if you manage to identify the genuine sentence). The reader receives a point if no one manages to identify the authentic sentence."

Friday, January 15, 2016

Cool stuff: accents, cuneiform gingerbread, NYPL release, and intangible heritage

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs:
Print Collection, The New York Public Library. "Sancho's feast."
The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1700.
Last month, UNESCO's Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage met to add to its list of intangible cultural heritage in need of urgent safeguarding—a kind of "endangered species list" for the world's cultural practices—as well as its representative list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity. You can browse the items on this year's list, as well as all previous years, here. I am always thrilled to encounter things I never even remotely knew about—and indeed, entire cultures about which I know nothing—through the Lists. UNESCO does a huge service to all of us just by drawing attention to these cultures and practices every year, and their website—which features excellent videos on each of the new items that are well worth watching. I knew nothing about the Koogere stories of the Basongora, Banyabindi and Batooro peoples, or Vallenato music in Colombia, or Mongolian camel-coaxing rituals. But learning just a little about them is a cause for wonder at the ingenuity, beauty, and variety of human culture, and a reminder for all of us who call ourselves humanists of why we do what we do.

Last week, the New York Public Library released high-resolution scans of 180,000 public-domain images, as the New York Times reports. The oldest items are beautiful 11th-century manuscripts. It's definitely worth it to visit the NYPL's website and play around with their tools and projects, especially the quirky, fun visualization tool that provides a fun way to browse, explore, and imagine the sheer scale of what 180,000 images looks like.

Those who like the accent tests featured on the New York Times and BuzzFeed in recent years will have a blast with George Mason University's Speech Accent Archive, which maps samples of English speech from around the world, along with recordings and International Phonetic Alphabet transcriptions—a delight for all amateur actors and language lovers. It makes me curious what a French or Spanish or Chinese version might look like, too. What does an Italian accent sound like in Georgian? What does it sound like when an Urdu speaker learns Korean? For now, we will content ourselves with what English sounds like via Amharic, Khalkha Mongol, Wu, and Milwaukee. For now.

Lastly, the grad student behind the brilliant blog Mostly Dead Languages has a wonderful project to show off: how to make cuneiform gingerbread cookies. If you ever wondered what an edible Enuma Elish might look like, here is your chance. A bonus: the blog also features incredibly graceful translations of texts from ancient Mesopotamian languages, ranging from letters to epics to jokes, many of which I doubt have been presented in so readable a form before now. 

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The way we speak now: What theory wrought

I never thought I'd be one of those people who inveighs against the jargon of social theory—and it makes me almost embarrassed to realize that I have become one. The company is awkward, reeking of cultural and sometimes political conservatism. And it wasn't supposed to happen to me. In college, I defended the most challengingly polysyllabic tendencies of academic writing doggedly. I devoured all the scariest social and literary theorists I could find and came back for more. Much of my favorite literature is from the acme of the vaulting modernist sentence-paragraph: Proust, Woolf, Toomer, Faulkner. I'm still a staunch defender of the right to "write difficult."

Nor does an allergy to theory-speak fit me ideologically. To the contrary, I think that the knottiest critical, social, and literary theories of the mid- and late-twentieth centuries are worth taking seriously—it still bugs me when people scoff at post-structuralism out of hand—and I think there's a lot to learn from what some still call, with a twinge of xenophobia, "Continental thought." The social activists who employ the language of academic theory extensively in their work today are generally working toward ends with which I agree. Indeed, their work vindicates one of my most insistent hopes and beliefs: that work done in the academy, the world of ideas, and especially the humanities ultimately brings about real effects—that, to quote Isaiah Berlin paraphrasing Heine, "philosophical concepts nurtured in the stillness of a professor's study could destroy a civilization"—or save one.