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Ethel the Blog
Observations (and occasional brash opining) on science, computers, books, music and other shiny things that catch my mind's eye. There's a home page with ostensibly more permanent stuff. This is intended to be more functional than decorative. I neither intend nor want to surf on the bleeding edge, keep it real, redefine journalism or attract nyphomaniacal groupies (well, maybe a wee bit of the latter). The occasional cheap laugh, raised eyebrow or provocation of interest are all I'll plead guilty to in the matter of intent. Bene qui latuit bene vixit.

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Wednesday, June 28, 2000

THE ANNOTATED WHIFFLE
While I sort of promised a while ago - after disgorging a disturbing number of Wodehousean items in a single day - to stop flogging that particular horse for a while, the while is up. P. G. hasn't yet inspired as many homages (e.g. pastiches, parodies, trading cards, etc.) as, say, Conan Doyle's deerstalker-encapped detective, but what is there is jolly fine stuff. James Hogg's
Lord Emsworth's Annotated Whiffle, 'The Care of the Pig' is the most jolly of them all, and I'm not just saying that because he's pushing both my Wodehouse and pig buttons. This most enjoyable continuation of the second most famous of Wodehouse's fictive worlds, the Blandings mythos, concerns a copy of Augustus Whiffle's Edwardian classic The Care of the Pig previously owned and heavily annotated by Lord Emsworth of Blandings Castle. This 756 page tome has been discovered by our editor Hogg (his real name as far as I can ascertain), who offers us a much slimmer and less technical (e.g. Wolff-Lehman's complex tabulations on feed-to-weight ratios have been given the heave-ho) version that "concentrates on the anecdotal and philosophical side of Whiffle's work." Many of Lord Emsworth's marginal annotations have also been preserved such that the combination of old and new wisdom can teach us about the mores of two ages.

The first chapter - "Sir Craster's Manifesto" - not only spins us up on just why the pig is such a noble and unfairly besmirched beast (by way of anecdotes concerning Augustus' inspirational Uncle Craster), but offers a delightful example of that good natured back-and-forth that's been the hallmark of English-French relations for centuries. Whiffle on Buffon calling the pig gross and unclean:

In view of the makeshift conditions of pig-keeping he was accustomed to through accident of birth, this statement of Buffon's should be sent smartly back to the other side of the Channel. Condemning a whole species, on the basis of the unfortunable beasts whose fate it was to be born in his country, is not justice as we know it in Great Britain. Since the pig's powers of reply are confined to an uncomprehending grunt, I take up the cudgels on its behalf thus: given a sty eight foot square, half open to the sky, and with food slopped everywhere, even a French naturalist might find his standards slipping.
A chapter on pig-keeping in former times offers many an astounding anecdote on the ways in which our ancestors raised and bred pigs as well as their mythologies concerning them:
In Natterjacke's Bestiary: Mysteries of Ye Animales, the ancient writer Isaac Natterjacke describes how, at the full moon, pigs would gather in woodland clearings and form a circle; whereupon one of their number, usually the senior sow, would enter the ring and dance in the eerie half-light. 'Full many a time,' he tells us, 'have I seen the queene pygge treade a measure in the forest glade, while her subjects do keep companie with chaunte and groane.' However, as Natterjacke claims a few pages further on to know of a boar which gave birth to a litter of eight, we need to approach his evidence with a good deal of caution.
Another example of the delightful rapport the British have with the French can be found in a chapter on foreign breeds (which also brushes the reader up on some history):
M. Saint-Beuve, his his book Le Porc, states that French pigs supply meat of the highest quality. His claim is impossible to substantiate because the pork served in France is so smothered in sauces that one might as well be eating rabbit. However, if the lowly specimens I saw were an example of what Saint-Beuve considers a superior pig, I suggest he crosses the Channel and examines our finest porkers. I have a particular rapport with the French - my ancestor Gaspard Ouiffulhe came over with the Conqueror - and it would give Mrs. Whiffle and myself great pleasure to invite him to Longwindley to eat home-killed pork, boiled cabbage and gravy. I am sure he would find it an eye-opener.
And speaking of history, the final chapter relates the part played by pigs in WWI (and, as I'm sure you'll recognize, in even more recent affairs). It all started with the banning of Serbian pigs by Austria-Hungary in the tariff dispute of 1906. Whiffle continues:
The facts are as clear as daylight. Obliged to dispose of their pigs in distant markets, the Serbs entered the tinned meat trade; but they were checkmated when Bosnia-Herzegovina, their outlet to the sea, was smartly annexed by the imperial government in Vienna. I need not trouble readers with the subsequent huffing and puffing between the two sides, which culminated in the demise of the Archduke at Sarajevo. The details are too well known. However, for the benefit of historians, the decisive role of pigs at the start of the friction must not go unrecorded.
All in all this is a most entertaining and educational volume, offering us not only the nature and history of the pig but the inextricably linked nature of the pig and history. A finer homage to Pelham Grenville can scarcely be imagined.
posted by Steven Baum 6/28/2000 03:35:08 PM | link

RECAPITULATION
That
"ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" is one of the most significant phrases in the history of the biological sciences is best illustrated by that wholly nonobvious enquoted troika's garnering of 1038 hits on Google. That phrase, like so many others, made a random guest appearance in the cranium a few minutes ago and curiosity - having finished with the cat - had a go with me. In lieu of an interminable essay on the topic - which a countably finite number of Red Hook Hefe Weizens have made problematic anyway - I'll instead point the gentle reader to Ontogeny and Phylogeny, a fine review on the topic and its history by that financier's namesake, that deft and nimble crafter of prose known as Stephen Jay Gould. Sure, Gould's been the subject of significant backlash in recent years (most recently in the "New Yorker" as I vaguely recall) - some of which I understand has some validity - but he's still an effing essayist of the highest order. Note that I didn't prepend the modifier "scientific" to "essayist" in that last sentence. Hmmmmm. Note to self: Compile that frigging list of essayists what make you do the hokey-pokey before you end up like Mencken.

Addendum: It's been pointed out to me by Kendall over at Monkeyfist that the New York Review of Books is one place to find rational Gould criticism (i.e. that not liberally sprinkled with the phrase "burn in hell"). Since they're attempting to archive most of their stuff, I went over and had a peek. The most recent criticism (from both sides) involved Gould reviewing books by Daniel Dennett and Niles Eldredge, and then a fiery and most entertaining exchange of letters among the participants. This exchange is contained in:

The available archives currently don't extend back past 1996 so I can't find any of the older exchanges. If anyone knows of any other pertinent sources I'll be glad to include them here.
posted by Steven Baum 6/28/2000 12:05:52 AM | link

Tuesday, June 27, 2000

MENCKEN'S DIARY
After my bout of crankiness about diaries earlier today, I got to thinking about those I really have enjoyed. One jumped to the front of the mental queue almost immediately.
The Diary of H. L. Mencken as edited by Charles Fecher was first published in 1989, thirty-three years after he died from the complications of a stroke in 1956. Mencken's will ordered that the diary remain sealed until 25 years after his death. He assumed that everyone mentioned therein would be dead by then, although a fair number survived the passage of the quarter century. It wasn't first published until 8 years after that for other reasons, one involving the label Mencken had put on each of the five sealed wooden boxes:
This diary is to be deposited by my Executors on the understanding that it is not to be put at the disposal of readers until twenty-five years after my death, and is then to be open only to students engaged in critical or historical investigation, approved after propery inquiry by the Chief Librarian [of the Pratt library to which it had been bequeathed].
A lengthy debate ensued as to whether he intended the diary to be published at all. It was resolved mostly via a legal nicety. The labels on the boxes had the status of memoranda, and were not specifically mentioned in his will. The Pratt trustees therefore decided that "there is no ground on which it may be concluded that Mencken's memorandum is legally effective to prevent publication of his diaries." Lucky us.

Even after this decision some were reticent to publish for other reasons, which caused quite a stir at the time (1989) of its first publication. To be blunt, there's no way around the fact that Mencken believed that black people were inferior to whites, hated Franklin Roosevelt maniacally (much more so than most other politicians whom he merely despised), and was an anti-Semite. One can variously rationalize these things by bringing up temporal chauvinism, pointing out that he regularly published black authors in the "American Mercury" in the 1920s and evinced an egalitarian attitude in print, and was a good friend to as many Jews as not, but the words remain. And when the words are written by one the most powerful prose stylists of the 20th century - a man whose laundry lists read more powerfully than jeremiads by most others - it's not easy to ignore them. Quite simply, the man who avoided so many of the common prejudices of his time was unable to avoid them all. I agree with Fecher on the issue, i.e. there's no need to excuse or forgive but simply accept the fact and pass on.

That being said, let's get on with a most entertaining excerpt from April 25, 1931:

We had lunch with Harlow Shapley, the astronomer, at the Faculty Club. He turned out to be an inconspicuous and somewhat rustic looking man, apparently in the late forties. But the more he talked, the more his rusticity vanished. He said that the new 200-inch reflector, now being made, will be of very small value to astronomers save as an advertisement to their profession He said that practically everything it may be expected to accomplish could be accomplished by the existing telescopes. The latter have already revealed millions of stars, and studying them will occupy astronomers for the better part of a century. Shapley said that the Harvard Observatory needed no more than two or three really competent astronomers. The rest of the work is done satisfactorily by persons with relatively meager equipment. Some of them are girls from the women's colleges. Shapley said that he was opposed to training astronomers in any number. He said that the number of places open for really competent men is small, and that it would be very easy to over-crowd the profession. He expressed strong disapproval of Robert A. Millikan, and especially of Millikan's efforts to reconcile science and religion. I gathered from his talk that he himself is a thorough-going skeptic. He told us of a devastating saying, at Millikan's expense, by Sir Ernest Rutherford, the English astronomer. Rutherford said that publicity grabbing has become one of the learned sciences and a great force in modern life, and that it has become necessary to set up a unit to measure it. This unit, he said, is the "kan." It is, however, so large that is has become necessary to resort to a workable fraction of it. This fraction is the "millikan."
An entry that shows us that politicians haven't much changed comes from April 21, 1939, after Mencken had delivered the last speech at a meeting of the Society of American Newspaper Editors in Washington:
As I came into the hall I saw Josephus Daniels sitting in the front row. Daniels was a member of the Cabinet during the last war, and is an Ambassador under the present administration. In order to avoid embarassing him, I toned down my speech in a few details. After the meeting I had a palaver with him, and he surprised me by saying that during the World War he had protested bitterly to Albert S. Burleson, Postmaster General, against Burleson's almost insane efforts to censor the press. We did not discuss [Harold] Ickes directly, but I gathered from what Daniels said that he shared my fears [about Ickes attempting to repeat the insanities of Burleson in the next war, which Mencken clearly saw coming]. Altogether, the old boy rather surprised me. He is, to be sure, a hypocrite, but I believe that he was more or less sincere. I asked him if he was drinking any tequila in Mexico [what with the Volstead Act still in effect], where he is American Ambassador. He confessed that he had tasted it. He is, of course, a lifelong prohibitionist.
A July 30, 1947 personal entry is fraught with foreshadowing:
I awoke this morning in a considerable state of confusion. It was impossible for me to write a line on the typewriter without striking wrong keys and making blunders in spelling, and for [a] while I could scarcely write by hand or sign my name. In talking, too, I found it necessary to grope for words. This has been gradually passing off, but I still find typewriting difficult. It is a warm, humid day.
It's obvious he had a stroke the previous night, with Fecher adding that "the typing of this and the succeeding entries is strewn with errors." That he regained his considerable aplomb is well-evidenced by an entry nearly a year later on July 17, written immediately after attending the Democratic National Convention:
The convention was a show of almost incredible obscenity. Truman, when he arrived to accept his nomination, looked scared, despite his truculence. I sat only twenty feet from him with a clear view of him. Despite his braggadocio, it was plain that he was not sure of himself.
A few months later Mencken made his final entry on November 23, suffering a massive cerebral thrombosis eight days later that left him physically stable but completely deprived of the ability to read or write. He lived for another seven years before dying. If he deserved any punishment for the shortcomings outlined earlier, he certainly received it. This was a man who'd written for at least 8 hours a day for most of his life, whether it be regular newspaper or magazine pieces or any of dozens of books, including his massive and monumental The American Language. He'd also prided himself on answering every letter he ever received. They numbered in the thousands, especially his correspondence concerning American Language, which included hundreds of correspondents regularly supplying him with words and examples of their use. In other words, writing wasn't a hobby in which to indulge at the terminal with a few beers in the evening. He lived to write, and his eventual physical death must have come as a tremendous relief after waking each morning for seven years to mentally die all over again upon realizing that what he lived for was gone. Read some Mencken, eh? You should be able to find something appropriate amongst the 2433 volumes currently held at ABE.
posted by Steven Baum 6/27/2000 09:35:34 PM | link

NUKE 'EM QUICK
Reasons to nuke new meat as quickly as the synapses will allow:
  • a loading time greater than 15 (and soon to be 10) seconds;
  • opening another browser window without asking;
  • seeing XML more than three times at first glance;
  • a plethora of one liners (although I haven't decided whether it's more annoying when they do or don't contain links);
  • "this site designed to take advantage of [any feature that requires a specific browser]";
  • constant use of links of the form "click here" or "here";
  • more than 50% of entries snagged "via";
  • too many obviously "bandwagon" entries;
  • any "Javascript error" that keeps the page from loading;
  • dark text on a dark background, i.e. if I have to strain to read it then sayonara;
  • a preponderance of entries about seemingly daily design changes;
  • entries about "no entries today", especially those that drag on and on and on and become really boring entries;
  • an entry page that requires you to pass through it to get to the material;
  • daily new pictures of oneself to the exclusion of content;
  • metabloggery that constitutes the majority of material, especially if it concerns the sensation du jour; and
  • constant use of affectations like, e.g. "e.g." and "i.e.".
Nothing personal is intended by any of the above; I just have little interest in and/or patience for such things. Some items may not even be under the control of the author, although that isn't going to stay the reaper's hand. With the number of these things topping the 1000 mark, the blade's going to descend even if I'm just feeling a bit cranky. I also generally avoid journals and diaries. There aren't many such things by published authors, even those whose other work I find fascinating, that interest me - and those that do make it into print have themselves survived a filtering process wherein they've won out over a whole lot of chaff.
posted by Steven Baum 6/27/2000 10:38:51 AM |
link

ANATOMY
Holbrook Jackson's
The Anatomy of Bibliomania (1950) does for book collectors what Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melanchony (1621-1652) did for, um, melancholy in the days before lithium. (And speaking of the latter, why the hell hasn't it been webified yet? If any book screams for the sort of massively hyperlinked, cross-indexed, annotated-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life treatment that webniks have been salivating about and promising for years it's this timeless masterpiece by the other Burton.) The former is, litotically speaking, not unaware of the latter:
Robert Burton's ingenious treatise is a curiously wrought-out design. There are idle students and cavillers, who have advertised Burton as the creator of a peculiar anthologic maze, an amusing literary chaos, a farrago of quotations, a mere olla podrida of quaintness, a pot pourri of pleasant delites, a florilegium of elegant extracts, a tangled fardel of old-world flowers of thought, a faggot of odd fancies, quips, facetiae. loosely tied, the creator, in short, of a book for a rainy day and a cosy corner. And I will not deny that he has made for the curious and more bookish of readers our greatest work in this kind.
Those not unfamiliar with Burton's masterpiece have surely already detected a ring of familiarity, a smattering of deja vu, an unmistakable quintessence in the preceding excerpt from Jackson's prefatory matter. If not, then the opening paragraph of Bibliomania will surely remind the already melancholic - in a manner not to be compared unfavorably to a not unflying mallet delivered in an upside-the-headwise manner - of a land through which they've heretofore journeyed:
Books, the most excellent and noble creations of Man, are, saith one (1), for company, the best Friends; in doubts Counsellours; in Damps Comforters; Time's Prospectus, the home Traveller's Ship, or Horse, the busie man's best Recreation, the Opiate of Idle Weariness, the Mindes best Ordinary, Nature's Garden and Seed-plot of Immortality. He would have that Books are not only more than riches, but that they challenge Pre-eminence above the World's admired fine things(2): they are the Glasse of Counsel to dress ourselves by; and summing up their benefits he well adds, Books are Life's best business: vocation to these hath more Emolument coming in, than all the other busy terms of life. They are feeless counsellors, no delaying Patrons, of easy access, and kind expedition, never sending away any Client, or Petitioner, nor by delay, maknig their [Greek words omitted], Courtesies injurious (3).
The references are not included herein as the goal is to convey the spirit if not the complete contrivance of the thing.

Given the situational exigencies (e.g. copyright laws and a typing speed not exceeding 500 words per minute), I am unable to provide sufficient excerpts as I might desire (although there are over 140 copies available via ABE for those whose needs exceed my desires), but I will provide a list of the chapter titles as a further stimulant for the mental appetite:

  • Of books in general
  • Of their morphology and dimensions
  • The pleasure of books
  • The art of reading
  • Of fellowship
  • Of the reading of books
  • Study and book-learning
  • Of the uses of books
  • Of the bibliophagi or book-eaters
  • Of book-drinkers
  • A pageant of bookmen
  • How bookmen conquer time and space
  • The influence of books
  • Books pharmaceutically disposed
  • The origin of a species
  • Libraries and the care of books
  • Borrowers, biblioklepts and bestowers
  • The caparisoning of books
  • The misfortune of books
  • A digression of book worms
  • Of book-hunting
  • Of desirable books
  • Of bibliomania or book-madness
  • The symptoms of bibliomania
  • The causes of bibliomania
  • Do bibliomaniacs read their books?
  • Varieties of bibliomania
  • Of grangeritis
  • The cure of bibliomania
  • Of bibliophily
  • The five ports of book-love (hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, touching)
  • Bibliophily triumphant
I offer the following excerpt from the chapter title that I am certain piqued the most appetites:
Walter Bagehot in his early years found Keats and Shelley delicious, and Wordsworth and John Henry Newman were his daily food; John Burroughs lived for a year on Johnson's "Rambler" and "Idler," and for a whole summer he fed upon Emerson's "Essays"; George Moore for months fed on the made and morbid literature that the enthusiasm of 1830 called into existence; Coventry Parmore was helped to survive a course of theological reading which occupied four hours a day for five months by an occasional peg into the roast beef of Shakespeare; William Cory when at Eton dined on a grilled fowl, talking foreign policy with Northcote expeditiously, and read a very amusing part of the "Odyssey" by way of pudding; Lafcadio Hearn enjoyed Kipling, who was like Bourget boiled into thin soup. Hester Piozzi said she was always ready for a bit of Old Stilton, as Dr. Johnson called profane History. Not was she alone in finding books a substitute for cheese, for Edward FitzGerald once confessed to Frederick Tennyson that he was about to take down a Thucydides, to feed on: like a whole Parmesan; and Robert Louis Stevenson calls Herman Melville a howling cheese.
Getting back to that hyper-thing I was talking about earlier regarding the earlier Anatomy, this later Anatomy could well do with the same grand treatment, e.g. I left out the eight references in this paragraph but could well replace them and add just as many more. But, alas, the hour is late so it'll have to wait for another time.
posted by Steven Baum 6/27/2000 12:03:29 AM | link

Monday, June 26, 2000

BLEEDING EDGE FUNCTIONALITY
Thanks to the folks who've developed the open source package
Perlfect Search, you can now search the EthelCo archives for, e.g. those internal memoranda from 40 years ago that show we knew reading this blog would give you eye cancer. Enjoy.
posted by Steven Baum 6/26/2000 05:13:51 PM | link

META-META-SPOOKERY
Here's a bibliography of books about spy, mystery and detective fiction. This consists of the appropriate parts of Mary K. Chelton's
Readers Advisory Tools plus an additional 10 or so from Patience Beer's Spy vs. Spy: Classic and Contemporary Spy Thrillers. I've added just oodles of value by ordering them alphabetically according to the height of the author. Any additions are welcome and will promptly be added. Man those Samoans are a prolific bunch. Addendum: Today's lagniappe is the ABEfication of each of the references listed below. Enjoy.
posted by Steven Baum 6/26/2000 03:47:52 PM | link


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