31 January 2009

On the road again

Our daughter is once more taking her sound engineering talents on tour, this time with the Swedish band Meshuggah. Make that Swedish death metal band--her adolescent fixation on this type of music has finally borne fruit. She flies to Los Angeles today and then will spend the first three weeks of February visiting cities like Denver, Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, not an itinerary I'd want to be following in the deep midwinter.

Tomas Haake - Drums
Dick Lövgren - Bass
Jens Kidman - Vocals
Marten Hagstrom - Guitars
Fredrik Thordendal - Guitars

I knew meshuggah was Yiddish, but had no idea what it meant. This time, however, I didn't need to rely on an online dictionary or wikipedia to find the definition. I was telling my sister in Germany about Kate's tour, and she said the word is used regularly there and means crazy, nuts.

There's a brevity and gutsiness about Yiddish expressions that I've always enjoyed. Sometimes one has to be careful though. I quite happily larded my conversation with schmuck, until I found out that it literally means a penis. And there I was thinking that was a schlong. Kvetch, tush, klutz, schmooze, kibbitz, nebbish, nosh, zaftig, glitch, mensch, schlock, schlemiel, putz--is it just because I'm an urban east coast American that these words have long been part of my vocabulary? Or is it an atavistic throwback to those long-forgotten Jewish ancestors? My paternal family didn't always attend Episcopalian churches . . . .

I'm also going to include here an example of what my husband and I call "walterisms," sent to us regularly by a very clever friend who's an upmarket blacksmith in rural Pennsylvania. I've just checked and, yes, several can be found on the internet. Knowing his sense of humor, though, he may well have been the first to post them.

oyster (n.) a person who sprinkles his conversations with Yiddishisms

What the hell. Here are a couple more:

osteopornosis (n.) a degenerate disease

Pokemon (n.) a Rastafarian proctologist

And one I know for sure is original, because I was there when my husband made it up as a response to Pokemon:

thesaurus (n.) the leader of a dinosaur gang, as in "the man"

29 January 2009

Three ways of saying the same thing

Being at the moment the target for a well-intentioned but quite aggressive Jehovah's Witness, I thought I'd gather up a few relevant quotations I've come across over the years.

Don't confuse me with the facts--my mind is already made up.
(Source unknown)

People are fully entitled to their own opinions but they are not entitled to their own set of facts.
(Daniel Patrick Moynihan)

Opinionated but uninformed. (two nicely opposed adjectives lifted from a Renée Zellweger interview, modestly used to describe herself)

My personal missionary is actually not "uninformed"--she's just unwilling to look outside the JW canon. Within the canon, her knowledge is--in both senses of the word--exhausting. I'm certainly not interested in converting her to my own brand of secular humanism--she's happy with her convictions and is almost as old as my parents. My geologist husband, however, is far from thrilled about either the Watch Tower bible she sent me or the fact that she refers regularly to such absolutes as a "solid date" for Adam's creation. I find it amusing rather than alarming, but I do see his point in this age of encroaching intelligent design.

28 January 2009

Tuskegee to Auschwitz

I think there must be a clipping gene, passed down to me from my father. At 88, he's still sending regular care packages of articles from US newpapers and magazines on subjects he thinks might have been overlooked here in London. It was he who introduced me to my favorite political columnist, Trudy Rubin (see link under MY BLOG LIST), and he's right: I discover all sorts of things I didn't know in his clippings.

This week's packet contained an article from the Philadelphia Inquirer by Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, subtitled "Tuskegee Airmen witnessed Allies' moral failure." Dad had told me on the phone that he had recently read a piece that really depressed him. I immediately knew this was it.

On my last visit to the States, my parents and I had watched a DVD about the Tuskegee Airmen's accomplishments, so I was familiar with the background story of highly skilled black squadrons fighting the entrenched racism of the War Department as well as the enemy. This article, however, dealt with an issue not covered in the film: a raid over Auschwitz on the morning of 20 August 1944. I'll let Medoff take over here:

On the morning of Aug. 20, 1944, a group of 127 American B-17 bombers, known as Flying Fortresses, approached Auschwitz. They were escorted by 100 Mustang fighter planes. Most of the Mustangs were piloted by Tuskegee Airmen of the 332d Fighter Group.

The attacking force dropped more than 1,000 500-pound bombs on German oil factories less than five miles from the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Despite German antiaircraft fire and a squadron of German fighter planes, none of the Mustangs was hit, and only one of the U.S. planes was shot down. All of the units reported successfully hitting their targets.

On the ground below, Jewish slave laborers, including 15-year-old Elie Wiesel, cheered the bombing. In his bestselling memoir, Night, Wiesel described the prisoners' reactions:

"We were not afraid. And yet, if a bomb had fallen on the blocks [the prisoners' barracks], it alone would have claimed hundreds of victims on the spot. But we were no longer afraid of death; at any rate, not of that death. Every bomb that exploded filled us with joy and gave us new confidence in life. The raid lasted over an hour. If it could only have lasted ten times ten hours!"

But it did not. Even though there were additional U.S. bombing raids on German industrial sites in the Auschwitz region in the weeks and months to follow, the gas chambers and crematoria were never targeted.

The Roosevelt administration knew about the mass murder going on in Auschwitz, and it even possessed diagrams of the camp prepared by two escapees.

But when Jewish organizations asked the Roosevelt administration to order bombing of the camp and the railways leading to it, the requests were rejected. U.S. officials claimed such raids were "impracticable," because they would require "considerable diversion" of planes needed for the war effort.

But the Tuskegee veterans know that claim was false. They were right there in the skies above Auschwitz. No "diversion" was necessary to drop a few bombs on the mass-murder machinery or the railways leading into the camp. Sadly, though, such orders were never given.

The decision to refrain from bombing Auschwitz was part of a broader Roosevelt administration policy of refraining from taking action to rescue Jews from the Nazis or provide havens for them. The United States did not want to deal with the burden of caring for large numbers of refugees. And its ally, Great Britain, would not open the doors of Palestine to the Jews, for fear of inflaming Arab opinion.

The result was that the Allies failed to confront one of history's most urgent moral challenges.

Depressing indeed. In fairness, though, I'll also copy a letter to the editor printed the next day:

Bombing aims

Rafael Medoff ("Obama would do well to learn from WWII," yesterday) is badly off the mark. He contends the Allies refused to divert "a few bombs" from military targets to shut down the Nazi extermination camps because of sinister motives on the part of Roosevelt and Churchill.

Medoff obviously knows little about the Allies' strategic bombing program. This was not an era of "smart bombs." It would have taken not a few, but thousands of bombs to cause even a small disruption to the Nazis' vast system of death camps. Diverting those bombs away from military targets would have lengthened the war, allowed the camps to remain running longer, and actually increased the number of people killed in the death camps.

Scott Washburn

The reasons behind Allied bombing strategy may be debatable, but the reluctance of the US and UK to accept Jewish refugees at many points during the war is well documented. So many sad and shaming facts that never made it into the history books we were issued when I was at school. The place name Tuskegee itself, of course, conjures up the infamous Experiment, where for forty years black men suffering from syphilis were observed rather than treated.


26 January 2009

Music to his ears

My husband was delighted when Barack Obama mentioned science in his inaugural address and thrilled to come across this snippet from http://www.earthmagazine.org/earth/article/1b5-7d9-1-e

According to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, there are four words to describe the economic recovery package that Congress will consider this spring: “science, science, science and science.”
Pelosi told National Public Radio today that science has to be first and foremost in this bill: “[We need] the science, technology and engineering to build the infrastructure for the future, the science for the innovation to keep us competitive and number one in the world markets,” she said.

The article went on to discuss Nobel-prize-winning research at MIT that demonstrated the fact that technological and related innovations are the most significant determinant in economic growth.

Dawn of a new era in so many ways....

25 January 2009

A post-racial world??

Given that it's still less than a week since Obama's inauguration, these wise words from Jenny Lumet, scriptwriter of Jonathan Demme's acclaimed film Rachel Getting Married, seem worth recording. She's the daughter of Sidney Lumet and the granddaughter of Lena Horne.

Note to self: don't forget that the dishwasher scene in the movie was inspired by a real-life altercation between Sidney Lumet and Bob Fosse.

Though she's proud of the fact that her screenplay never raises race [groom is black, bride white], Lumet doesn't think we are, in a phrase much bandied about recently, "post-racial." "I don't believe that race doesn't matter," she says. "I believe that it matters enormously. But I wish people would say, 'It matters enormously. Now let's get dessert.'"

Interview by Gaby Wood.


24 January 2009

Advice to fiction writers

As usual, these are from the Guardian. For better or worse, I spend more time reading newspapers than I do reading novels.

Philip Pullman: According to David Mamet, "Where should I put the camera?" is one of the fundamental questions a film director has to ask. I'd say it was the fundamental question of all storytelling. It's not only what angle you choose to see an event from, but how close you go to it, and how long you spend with it, and when you look away.

Pullman also wrote: I once heard Christopher Hampton make a very interesting point about the novel, the theatre and cinema. He said that the novel and the film have much more in common than either of them does with the stage play, and the main reason for this is the close-up. The narrator of a novel, and the director of a film, can look where they like, and as close as they like, and we have to look with them; but each member of the audience in a theatre is at a fixed distance from the action. There are no close-ups on the stage.

Eudora Welty's ambition was to create dialogue that can, in her words, reveal what the character said but also what he thought he said, what he hid, what others were going to think he meant, and what they misunderstood.

July 2009: adding a few more points from a Guardian essay by Richard Ford:

In nearly 40 years of writing stories of varying lengths and shapes and, in the process, making up quite a large number of characters, I've always tried to abide by EM Forster's famous dictum from Aspects of the Novel that says fictional characters should possess "the incalculability of life". To me, this means that characters in novels (the ones we read and the ones we write) should be as variegated and vivid of detail and as hard to predict and make generalisations about as the people we actually meet every day. This incalculability would seem to have the effect of drawing us curiously nearer to characters in order to get a better, more discerning look at them, inasmuch as characters are usually the principal formal features by which fiction gets its many points across. These vivid, surprising details - themselves well-rendered in language - will, indeed, be their own source of illuminating pleasure. And the whole complex process will eventuate in our ability to be more interested in the characters, as well as in those real people we meet outside the book's covers. In my view, this is why almost all novels - even the darkest ones - are fundamentally optimistic in nature: because they confirm that complex human life is a fit subject for our interest, and they presume a future where they'll be read, their virtues savoured, their lessons put into practice. (I should add, as a counterweight to Forster, that I have also taken to heart Robert Frost's advice meant specically for writers: that what we do when we write represents the last of our childhood, and we may for that reason practise it somewhat irresponsibly.)

. . .Thoreau may have been right when he said that a writer is a man who, having nothing to do, finds something to do. Surely one of the sublime allures of literature is that part of literature's breathtaking miracle is its sheer unlikeliness in the hands of its makers, the chance that, given all, it just might never have happened.


23 January 2009

Bit of US Civil War trivia

Moving from Washington's to Lincoln's time.

Question: What was the most popular novel for both Union and Confederate troops?

Answer: Victor Hugo's Les Misérables (in translation, of course)

Fact obtained from the Guardian's January 2009 list of "1000 Novels Everyone Must Read."

22 January 2009

Little-known fact about American Revolution

Obama invoked the spirit of George Washington on Tuesday, so it seems appropriate to include a FF/UBI about the Revolutionary War. This is from a Guardian review of the paperback edition of Mark Urban's Fusiliers: How the British Army Lost America But Learned to Fight.

Most striking, though is how very small-scale it all was, despite bringing about one of the great seismic shifts of global history. In fact, more men deserted due to romances with American women than were actually killed in action.

21 January 2009

Barack Obama's inauguration speech

As the really tough work begins today, no other entry on this blog is possible. I'll be reading this speech again and again through what I hope will be eight years of guidance by a thoughtful, intelligent, decent man. I'm not expecting Obama to be some sort of messiah, but he is our best hope for the future. And I write this as a former Hillary Clinton supporter.

There is dispute in the papers today over whether this speech is powerful or merely longwinded. It has, say some commentators, no phrases to resonate in the public imagination; it has no central theme; it sounds too many notes we heard on the campaign trail; it is sober not soaring.

To my mind Obama's words are what America and the wider world needed to hear. Artful crafting of a single theme would not work in this age of multiple crises. And for resonant phrases, look no farther than "we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."

The New York stock market dropped more yesterday than on any inauguration day in history. It's not going to be easy, but GO, OBAMA!!!

A postscript, Wednesday afternoon: I was just chatting with a Canadian friend, Carol Foreman, a former CBC broadcast journalist, who pointed out a serious omission in the inauguration ceremony. Where was mention of--or indeed presence of--indigenous Americans, other than the brief reference by Joseph Lowery in the benediction?

Full text of Obama's inauguration speech

January 21, 2009 - 6:04PM

My fellow citizens:

I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors. I thank President Bush for his service to our nation, as well as the generosity and co-operation he has shown throughout this transition.

Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we the people have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents.

So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.

That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land - a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America - they will be met.

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.

We remain a young nation, but in the words of scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted - for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things - some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and travelled across oceans in search of a new life.

For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and ploughed the hard earth.

For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.

Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.

This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions - that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act - not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions - who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them - that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works - whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account - to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day - because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control - and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favours only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart - not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

As for our common defence, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort - even greater co-operation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologise for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defence, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West - know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us today, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages. We honour them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment - a moment that will define a generation - it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.

For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends - hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

This is the source of our confidence - the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.

This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed - why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have travelled. In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

"Let it be told to the future world ... that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive ... that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet (it)."

America. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.


This story was found at: http://www.theage.com.au/world/full-text-of-obamas-inauguration-speech-20090121-7lth.html

19 January 2009

A remark made by Dean Rusk, Secretary of State under Kennedy and Johnson, seems apposite during our present world crises. The US is "the fat boy in the canoe; when it moves, all must adjust." This also appears as "...when we roll, everyone rolls with us." Rusk also used the metaphor for the Ford Foundation, calling it "the fat boy in the philanthropic canoe."

A statement with the same meaning common here in the UK is "When the US sneezes, the UK [or the world] catches a cold." Needless to say, this has been overused in the last several months.

Let's hope Obama and his team will be able to remove the sting from the joke about the nine most frightening words in the English language, attributed to Reagan, Denis Healey and others: "We're from the government and we're here to help."

Tomorrow's inauguration can't come soon enough!!

18 January 2009

Nigella's Christmas Special

I actually enjoy watching Nigella Lawson wax lyrical over food, but this description my husband found in Private Eye is so amusing it deserves preservation.

Carrying on as usual like someone given the words "porn star" in a game of charades, the hostess pouted and simpered beside the Seine about how she "loved the sophistication" of the French, but preferred her Christmas food to be "simpler"....

After this two-minute monologue-travelogue, she was back in the pretend London house with the pretend friends that she uses for her cookery shows. Most of it was the stuff she does at any time of year, including the flow of sub-erotic imagery: "Road to temptation ... amber swell of syrup ... like to dive right in ... something about that waxy chewy feel."

Source of photo:


16 January 2009

Good advice from the 18th century

After my visit to the retina specialist today for another jab of Avastin in my CRVO eye, I was reminded of the wisdom of the quotation below from a letter by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762). I happened to catch a glimpse of myself in a window as I left and realized one way in which losing some of my visual acuity might not be such a bad thing:

...it is eleven years since I have seen my figure in a glass, and the last reflection I saw there was so disagreeable, that I resolved to spare myself such mortification in the future, and shall continue that resolution until my life's end. To indulge all pleasing amusements, and avoid all images that give disgust, is, in my opinion, the best method to attain or confirm health.

This is perhaps a good place to paste in a remark by Joan Collins:

Being beautiful is like being born rich and getting poorer every day.

15 January 2009

Galbraith strikes again

Anne--this one's for you!!

WRITING about one of the great swindles of the 1930s, J.K. Galbraith pointed to three traits of any financial community that he believed put it at risk of fraud.
There was the tendency, he wrote in 1961, to confuse good manners and good tailoring with integrity and intelligence. There was the sometimes “disastrous interdependence” between the honest man and the crook. And there was the “dangerous cliché that in the financial world everything depends on confidence. One could better argue the importance of unremitting suspicion.”

The Economist, 18.12.08
The Madoff affair
Dumb money and dull diligence
Like mould, Madoffs flourish in the darkness


I am an occasional not a frequent reader of poetry. From the pile of assorted books by my bedside, I'm more likely to grab a novel than anything else--and that's only when I've finished the Guardian review section. But ... the lines I treasure from poems resonate in a way most other writing doesn't. Before I start copying a few favorites into this blog, I'm going to use today's post as a dumping ground for quotations I've come across about rather than from this quicksilver form of language. As I go through my commonplace journals, I'll return with other "gems" I can't find at the moment.

We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.
W.B. Yeats, “Anima Hominis,” Essays (1924)

Reading poetry in translation is like looking at embroidery from the back.
Ian Jack, Guardian 22.10.05, quoting a Tagore enthusiast he met in Kolkata when it was still Calcutta


I am now* going to revert to the same method I used years ago to fill a journal my husband had given me in hopes that I might actually be inspired to write something original. Having bored even myself after a few dull and egocentric entries, I decided I was far more interested in recording other people's ideas. Hence my first commonplace book was born, which has now run to three volumes, plus a beautiful leatherbound, wood-spined version that my daughter tracked down and had inscribed "CJW Commonplace." I'm very choosy about what I put in that--and conscious that my calligraphy skills aren't on a par with this treasured gift.

In cyberspace, however, no one can see my scribbles. Here is the first entry I nervously inked in Kate's 2003 Christmas present on 3 Feb 2006:

There are places, there are things that, once you've heard of them, move into your future and wait there for you to arrive. It may take years, but sooner or later the meeting will happen.
Russell Hoban
Guardian 22.11.03

And the second, not dated as my recording techniques at times leave something to be desired:

I'm not a reader who returns to novels: I feel the pressure of all the unread books out there too keenly.
Kate Pullinger

The third was dedicated to both our children, to whom Thoreau might have been writing personally in Walden. They have certainly embraced this philosophy enthusiastically.

I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes....

I'll continue to fillet my commonplace books for choice blog morsels. And then--AT LAST--I'll be able to find those elusive quotations when I want them. Thank you, Google!!

*actually, my previous blog is also a compendium of quotations.
The only difference is that they weren't excavated from my existing collection of bon mots.

09 January 2009

Dabbling in science

This is my husband's province, but he's brought a few magpie bits to my attention recently.

Great phrase used by Amanda Gefter in the New Scientist:
But to suggest that if this [multiverse] theory doesn't pan out our only other option is a supernatural one is to abandon science itself. Not only is it an unfounded leap of logic, it suggests intelligent design offers as valid an explanation as a cosmological theory does, and lends credence to creationists' mistaken claim that the multiverse was invented to serve as science's get-out-of-God-free card.

The physicist/statistician Lenny Smith (who says upfront that "Man-made climate change is real") interviewed in the same New Scientist issue:

For advancing our understanding, they [climate models] are fundamental. For decision-making, even given their uncertainties, they can help minimise our vulnerability. They are also a source of information about what might plausibly happen - even if they cannot yield probabilities on what will actually happen.

That is fair enough. In the real world we don't usually expect certainty, and don't have much use for averages - but we do need information about plausible risks. When I cross the street, average statistics about cars and how they are driven are of less value to me than the sound of a bus heading my way. Models help us listen for that bus. So let's forget the spurious certainties, and even the spurious probabilities, and concentrate on what matters.

Earlier in the interview, his response to a question on whether one should believe reports issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was:

Broadly yes - we understand a lot. You have to read the qualifiers carefully, though. In the most recent report, for instance, there is an explicit acknowledgement that the range of simulations in today's models is too narrow. That is, future warming could be greater or less than what is suggested by the diversity between models in the report. It's good that the qualifier is in there, but it is a hell of a qualifier to find on page 797.

A statement by Einstein that I've corroborated via this piece on James Clerk-Maxwell by Duncan Macmillan: http://news.scotsman.com/arts/One-of-the-most-important.4764615.jp

Maxwell inherited the Newtonian view of the world as consisting of matter in space, but he left to us the very different understanding that the universe is shaped by fields of energy unified by a single constant, the speed of light. Einstein was quite clear about Maxwell's status. His field theory, he said, changed our "conception of reality." That is pretty fundamental. Einstein also said famously that as a scientist, he stood not on Newton's shoulders, but on Clerk-Maxwell's.

And finally, the phrase "survival of the fittest" is not Charles Darwin's, nor even T. H. Huxley's, but comes from the work of their contemporary, the philosopher Herbert Spencer, after he had read On the Origin of Species. Darwin then used the term in later editions of his work--despite the fact that Spencer actually endorsed Lamarck's idea of "inheritance of acquired characteristics."

08 January 2009

First book of 2009

"She was like everybody else because there was nobody like her." If this sentence irritates you, read no further.

I was led to Aleksander Hemon's novel The Lazarus Project by Adam Mars-Jones's review in the Guardian. My husband often comments ruefully that I spend more time on the opinions of critics than reading books or watching films. Probably true, but the reviews I pay most attention to are the enthusiastic ones: I'm not put off by carping criticism, but I am willing to take a chance on a novel/movie/CD/restaurant that a reviewer raves about. Over the years, of course, this policy has occasionally led me astray, but on the whole, I think the triumphs have significantly outnumbered the failures. Michael will eventually forgive me for the days he wasted on Foucault's Pendulum....

The remarkable fact about Hemon that is flagged immediately in any discussion of his work is that, despite his virtuosity in English, he is not a native speaker. This MacArthur Foundation "genius," born in 1964, came to Chicago from Sarajevo in 1992. In The Lazarus Project, he uses the historical records of the 1908 killing of Lazarus Averbuch by the Chicago chief of police as an imaginative prism to examine his Bosnian narrator's post-9/11 sense of dislocation. The resonance of the anti-immigrant, anti-socialist hysteria of the first decade of the twentieth century with the first decade of the present century requires no authorial comment, and Hemon avoids unnecessary overstating of parallels.

Averbuch was most likely unarmed when he knocked on the door of Chief Shippy's mansion; Emma Goldman's imminent arrival had created anarchist paranoia in the forces of law and order. Alienated writer Brik (very tempting to see as the author's doppelganger) uses Lazarus's sister Olga as the human face of the 1908 story, which alternates with his own, a hundred years later. In the present-day story, he uses his quest for background material in Moldova, the former Bessarabia where a pogrom drove the Averbuchs into exile, as an excuse to revisit Sarajevo. His companion is Rora, the photographer, storyteller and war veteran whose sangfroid underscores Brik's inveterate navel-gazing.

Hemon studied Nabokov's works to finetune his English, and the influence shows. He is more restrained, however, in his use of arcane vocabulary. What impressed me most in this picaresque tale of philanthropists and gangsters, anarchists and doctors, is the energy and powerfully original use of compressed language: "a couple of bronze Soviet soldiers cast in victorious eternity" (p.203). Having spent six weeks this autumn in Kazakhstan, I know exactly what he means. Hemon's prose is as muscular as these statues.

The hardback version of The Lazarus Project is also beautiful, with photos from the Chicago Historical Society alternating with those taken by Hemon's own real-life sidekick, the photographer Velibor Bozovic. In this case, I wouldn't wait for the paperback.

Lazarus Averbuch, deceased (front)
Lazarus Averbuch, deceased (front)
Photo from: http://homicide.northwestern.edu/crimes/lazarus/scenephotos/averbuchfront/

"Prose this powerful could wake the dead." Adam Mars-Jones.

04 January 2009


Or, as language authority David Crystal titled his spirited defense in the Guardian, "2b or not 2b?" I may be of the generation that finds it hard to leave out apostrophes and use condensed forms like "c u," but I'm also weary of all the jeremiads against one more way in which English is evolving. Crystal points out that we've been abbreviating for a long time--exam, fridge, bus--and that rebuses were enjoyed ages before cellphones appeared: YY U R YY U B I C U R YY 4 ME (Too wise...). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "cos" and "wot" date from the 1820s. The playful use of language in texting can be seen as implying an engagement with and understanding of the relation between words and sounds. Recent studies have shown "strong positive links between the use of text language and the skills underlying success in standard English in pre-teenage children. The more abbreviations in their messages, the higher they scored on tests of reading and vocabulary."

In a short companion piece, Will Self adds the (to me) FF that texting is actually a bit of commercial serendipity: "Nokia included it in its first mobile phones as a way for engineers to report problems."

While the texts of Nokia engineers may have been indistinguishable, the same is not true of the trillion-plus messages now sent each year, generating more than three times Hollywood's box office totals. You don't have to be T-Mobile's Txt Laureate to have a distinctive style. In a 2002 UK murder trial, an uncle was convicted of his niece's murder in part because forensic examination of texts she supposedly sent after her abduction were shown to have been composed by him. In the words of Dr. Tim Grant of the Forensic Section of the School of Psychology at University of Leicester:

"One feature of text messaging is that it is creative, there are very few rules that people try to obey.

"We don't try to be grammatical or follow ordinary spelling, because of that potential for creativity, there's more potential for variation.

"There's the possibility that one person uses predictive text functions and others use traditional texting abbreviations, so it is possible to spot these differences....

"What was argued in court by the forensic linguist was that the messages from the girl's phone were in the style of the uncle who was trying to text as a teenage girl but there were significant differences in the style and that was able to break his alibi."






02 January 2009


Fancy a salad of cold cooked turkey, figs, oysters, samphire, potatoes, hardboiled eggs, and beets, with an oil and vinegar dressing? Or a stew with turtle and squirrel meat, anchovies, parsley, cinnamon, and lemon? If so, welcome to the world of salmagundi--a little bit of this, a little bit of that, whatever the cook has on hand. Possibly derived from the Italian for pickled salami, the French term salmigondis came to mean a hodgepodge of disparate ingredients. In the magpie version presented here, salmagundi will be made from scraps I think might divert and entertain family, friends, and whoever else happens to come across this blog. Bon appétit!