Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Thriller Literature (expanded)

From time to time (not too often nowadays), I am seized by a hankering for a whodunit, or (in a different mood) a thriller.   Such a yen is as elemental and sensuous as that for a milkshake or hamburger.  Yet while the latter are a snap to satisfy, the only check being a rather abstract concern about cholesterol and expanding waistlines,  it has become increasingly difficult even to half-satisfy the craving for thrillers or mysteries.  We must sadly conclude that the chefs and confectioners  have done their work better than have the authors.

Time was, in the 1950’s, myself a lad of eight and nine, such satisfaction could as readily be had as that of a hamburger -- both being limited only by my own exiguous financial resources, the principle income to which was provided by a weekly allowance, first of a nickle, later of ten cents.   This happy circumstance, which has proven unreproducible in later life, resulted from the perfect intersection between my uncomplicated ladly desires, and the workmanlike industry of the team of anonymous ghostscribblers at the Stratemeyer Bookbarn, who regularly churned out the Hardy Boys.

Eheu!  ubi sunt?

[Footnote:   Now even those simple pleasures, while of course subjectively unrecapturable,  cannot easily be objectively reviewed, since the whole series was bowdlerized, dumbed-down, and politically corrected, beginning just around the time I stopped reading them.]

Herewith, something in the forlorn spirit of A Guide to Fine Dining in Oshkosh, or The Antiquities Museums of Gary, Indiana,  our attempts to provide anyhow a bit of reflection and guidance.

Commercial Break
A private detective  confronts the uncanny;
an ecclesiastical mystery:
Murphy Calls In a Specialist

A Superior Thriller

[Well, at least, that was the title I started with, as I began reading Michael Connelly’s Chasing the Dime.  It flags midway;  towards the end, I just wanted it to wrap it up and get it over with -- the fewer arbitrary last-minute plot-twists  the better.]

The background to Connelly’s thriller is highly promising:  hi-tech industrial espionage, such as has been brilliantly depicted in the movie “Duplicity”, and the thriller Paranoia, by Joseph Finder, and (even better) Neil Stephenson’s unclassifiable Cryptonomicon.  And the immediate premise, the McGuffin as it were, is likewise delightful:  A sciency guy, trying to make a killing in business, having moved into a bare apartment after his divorce, and with (accordingly) a new landline, immediately gets a host of calls for a mysterious “Lilly”;  the callers never leave their names, but hang up.   Apparently he was assigned a discontinued number previously used by a high-priced call-girl.  Instead of simply asking the phone company for a new number stat, he is intrigued, and is drawn in deeper, and deeper, beyond his depth …

There are some excellent high-tech vignettes early on (I once worked in that milieu, and can testify), but they peter out.   The real disappointment, though, is that the author, instead of trusting his instincts (for some voice within  was surely calling to him here) and allowing his protagonist to pursue his ananke unfettered, trumps up some frigging dimestore-psychology miniseries sentimental backstory, “explaining” why the protagonist  reacted as he did.   He thus progressively abandons any engagement with the unconscious drives that impel us, with results that are ultimately banal.

To be fair … The prose is literate, intermittently humorous; and there is just one Chandleresque fragment:

She had  looped over her shoulder  a purse that looked big enough to hold a pack of cigarettes  but not the matches.


C.S. Lewis somewhere (in time, in retirement, I might recover the passage) surveys the spectrum of plot-outlines, and notes that that of Orpheus  retains its power to spellbind, even in a bare-bones form, whereas that of almost all worthy modern novels, become as dust  upon such summary.

We venture now  upon that territory  where words fail …  We have ourselves depicted the obsessive pursuit of das Ewig-Weibliche, in the story  “Lost and Found”, reprinted in the collection I Don’t Do Divorce Cases (available here).

Blogspot for detective fiction:

[Update, 29 October 2013]   People keep viewing this post, even though it doesn’t really say anything interesting.  So at least I’ll say something more along these lines, even though it won’t be especially interesting either.

Exhibit B:  The King of Torts, by John Grisham (2003).
The couple of times I’ve tried to read a Grisham book, the writing was so bad -- simply at the paragraph level -- that I had to toss it aside.   But this one begins really well.   Some tasty phrasing (“He stutter-stepped forward, [ankle-]chains rattling.”), and surprisingly likeable characters, with fine writerly observation of the family dynamics in the country-club scene.  The ostensible plot premise is ridiculous, but I figured it was just a ruse -- the first layer of the onion, which would be peeled, Spanish-Prisoner-fashion, until we reached the center and either found the key or (post-modern fashion) found it hollow.

The initial premise, which sets the action going, is perfectly adequate for genre fiction:  A company has been testing an experimental drug to treat addiction , which alas turns some of its users temporarily into homicidal maniacs.   Testing is discontinued and the drug is never marketed.   Fair enough so far.   Only now the novelist adds:  In addition to the usual sort of testing in faraway hapless third-world countries, some testing went on right in Washington , on hardcore addicts-- but in such secrecy that there could not be, without inside information and enormous investigative effort, any way of proving this.  And, the small handful of actual murderers having either died or recovered from their drug-induced homicidal mania, and the victims being all of them the usual lowlifes, the books have been closed on these cases, as being just the sort of thing that goes on all the time among the marginal population in D.C.  --  Okay, a bit of a stretch, but we are happy to pay out thus much rope to the author, and see where he will run with it.

But then, Grisham goes off on an absurd tangent:   A shady character contacts a burnt-out no-rep Public Defender, and offers him wealth beyond the dreams of avarice if he will simply … Well, not so simply, because it makes no sense, neither in Realityland nor in fiction.

The P.D. is supposed to go somehow snuffle-out the ‘families’, the ‘bereaved’, of the late lowlifes;  whom-all, given their life-styles, were not exactly close.
Next, he is supposed to REVEAL THE WHOLE DASTARDLY PLOT;  and offer to pay them off, with millions.
Now, by intra-novelistic hypothesis, the dark facts were a priori  unlikely to surface;  whereas this ‘strategy’ is playing with dynamite. 
OK so, we who have been schooled on David Mamet and other artisans of the scheme-within-a-scheme, will already have surmised …
-- No -- Cut;  life is too short;  not even worth dissecting to criticize.

At the point at which I bailed out,  the novel threatened to become a Tendenz-roman -- an anti-tort tract:

“That’s outrageous!”
No, Clay, that’s mass tort litigation at its finest.  That’s how the system works these days.”

Now, abuses of tort law are indeed worth fighting and even satirizing;  but fiction is not an especially effective vehicle, especially if you start out with a plot that seems to take place on Jupiter.


Relax with the Murphy brothers,
tough-talking, pistol-packing,
two-fisted private eyes:


I won’t have anything to say about the works of Tom Clancy, which are too well known to need notice, but merely advert to an apparent deep cleavage in his oeuvre, and an odd publishing decision by Putnam.   They put out a nice hardbound edition boasting “Two Complete Novels”, with font large enough for these aging eyes:  Red Storm Rising, and The Cardinal of the Kremlin.   Yet, offering these bound together is like confecting footwear out of an oxford for the left foot, paired with a wooden clog for the right.  For while The Cardinal of the Kremlin is quite in line with the other Jack Ryan thrillers, with a solid plot and a scattering of excellent lines, Red Storm Rising -- not one of  the Ryan series -- seems to be written for twelve-year-olds.   I flipped through the thing in increasing disbelief -- not a single good thing to say about it anywhere.  It read more like the script for a video game than a real novel:  and indeed, pursuing the thing into Wikipedia, I learned that such is exactly what it has become.
The decent thing to do in a case like that, is to use a separate pen-name for potboilers that are unlikely to appeal to readers of your main line.

[Update 18 July 2015]  I thoroughly enjoyed Joseph Finder’s 2014 thriller Suspicion.   The only other book of his I’ve read -- likewise excellent -- is his industrial-espionage thriller Paranoia (2004).    Only after-the-fact did I realize that the books share an identical premise to trigger the action.
In both cases, a likeable protagonist engages in a piece of legally sketchy behavior, not for selfish reasons, but to aid another.  And in both cases, another party, with a sinister agenda of their own, discovering his role, use that leverage to grab him by the short-hairs and force him into extremely delicate and dangerous behavior.
The fact that I didn’t realize until afterwards that, to that extent, I was reading the same book over again, simply illustrates the role of motifs in literature.  It is no crime to swipe them, to reuse them consciously or unconsciously.  In the Middle Ages, that was taken for granted.   And even today, in genre fiction, it is recognized to be no harm no foul if the book or movie employs such tried-and-true vignettes as the Spy Called Out of Retirement (the Cincinnatus motif), or car chases, or femmes fatales.

[Update 19 July 2015]  By an accident of meteorology, I found myself in the atrium of the local library, a lethal heat outside, and A/C like an ice-blanket within.  Seeking an excuse to remain amid the soothing cool, I browsed a bit, and stumbled upon another Joseph Finder -- Buried Secrets (2011).
Today, sheltering indoors, I curled up with the book.   This time, parallels to Suspicion  leap to the eye  immediately.

*  Both novels focus on a teen daughter, product of swank New England boarding schools, abducted by a sinister crime organization (in one case genuinely, in the other only initially-supposedly, a Latino drug cartel).
Now, I myself never had a daughter, and didn’t attend prep school:  but with the slightest tip of the die, I might well have done so.  Therefore these themes are of personal interest, as being might-have-beens, real in a closely adjoining alternate universe.  
So, I read and imagine.  Along the way, I meet the slang that has come into currency since the Beatles broke up.
*  The central target of elaborate blackmail is a very wealthy man who made his pile in high-finance, hedge-fund type activity.  In either case, he has an over-manicured tarty trophy bride, whom we see in her “soapstone-topped” sparkly kitchen.  In both cases, in addition to his criminal pursuers, the magnate is being closely monitored by Federal law enforcement (FBI bzw. DEA), who are wise to his game.
 About halfway through, though, Buried Secrets begins to unravel.  Oh well.


 Seeking a book suitable for a bedtime story, I picked up a "Grantchester" novel by James Runcie, specifically Sydney Chambers and the Shadow of Death (consciously echoing titles from the Harry Potter series).  It has two things going for it:  a not-quite-contemporary English setting; and an ecclesiastical detective protagonist (the cover calls him a "clergyman-sleuth", rather recalling the old designation of gentleman-cambrioleur).

Unfortunately, the plotting is weak, the style merely workmanlike, and the theological content -- which made the Father Brown stories so uniquely fine -- nonexistent.  (I tried my hand at one of those -- Father Brown meets Sherlock Holmes -- here:

http://worldofdrjustice.blogspot.com/2014/04/a-narrow-escape.html )

Only in the very last story does the author comes up with a nice ‘high-concept’ premise:  During a performance of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”, when the actors all stab Caesar, apparently one of the knives was real, and the gentleman playing Caesar dies for real.  Only -- that plot isn’t really pursued, even along such elementary lines as autopsy.   Instead, Runcie goes in for a spate of virtue-signalling, loftily condemning those who, in 1953, failed to adhere to the politically-correct line on homosexuals prevailing 2012.   He makes the murderer be a homophobe; boo.


E. Phillips Oppenheim was once an extraordinarily popular author.  His The Spy Paramount (1935) was recently re-issued in a handsome paperback, in the series “British Library Spy Classics”, for a song -- or, remaindered at Daedalus, for a snatch.  The back-jacket copy accurately describes the book as a forerunner of Ian Fleming’s “James Bond” series -- a debonnair spy, of no particular politics, who zips from locale to locale as though in a movie.  Since the book was published shortly after the Machtergreifung, and is set in western Europe, I had high hopes, for a period feel at least.

The book is terrible.   Plot, dialogue, characterization, sense of period or place, all are throwaway.   Where Raymond Chandler’s advice to thriller author’s whose muse had fallen mum, was to “have someone come through the door with a gun” (after which, you’ll think of something), the earmark of this school is to have bigwig snarl or splutter something --

“That is all very well, General,” the Prime Minister declared impatiently.

The titular character is never shown actually doing or saying anything intelligent, nor as displaying genuine bravery as opposed to bravura, but he gets praised constantly:

“Fawley is the only man in Europe today who can save us from war.”

It’s like the fantasy of a nine-year-old.  From the psycho-developmental perspective, the book represents a case of arrested development, well below the level of, say, the Hardy Boys, who are modest, resourceful, brave but not foolhardy, respectful towards their detective father from whom they learn much.


John Grisham, The King of Torts (2003).  (Rescued from my wife’s throwaway-pile, retained to some period of cerebral insufficiency and rainy days.)

(1) The novel begins with a hapless Public Defender, who is stuck with the case of a typical pointless young black D.C. murderer.   Only, it turns out there’s a funny drug angle --  prescription drug that might have homicidal side-effects.
(2) Later, a Man of Mystery  enters the scene from nowhere, and (unaccountably) gives the P.D. inside dope, that leads him on towards fortune.
(3)  Later still, an old-hand superstar tort-lawyer takes our erstwhile P.D. into his confidence, proposing a partnership.

So far, nothing much of interest.  But I stuck with it, imagining developments that really would not have been than difficult to unroll:

(1’) Manchurian Candidate scenario.  International implications.  The random D.C. shooting was only an experiment.  Ultimate target:  The President.
(2’) M. of M. is working for …. (shadowy entity  too numinous to name).
(3’) A “Spanish Prisoner” scenario -- obviously the superstar is playing the P.D., maybe even working for the company P.D. is suing.

Only … None of that comes to pass.  Instead, it’s all just more of the same -- this lawsuit and that lawsuit, ultimately descending to the level of some mismixed bricks in Baltimore.  It is like reading the Baltimore police blotter for a year -- nothing is significant in itself, and nothing relates to anything else.

How could the author bother to write such drivel?  Why do people buy it and read it?

Monday, February 27, 2017

The depth psychology of paleontology

Re the heated debate over what happened to dinosaurs (and other life-forms) at the K-T boundary:

All this might seem to be the huff and puff of scientific debate, but what has surprised me is the vituperation with which the arguments have been prosecuted .  … It is a curious parallel  that the supposed violence of the Cretaceous end  is matched by the violence of the twentieth-century exchanges. … There is a degree of outrage here which is out of proportion to the stimulus. … I can suggest something darker and more subconscious as a reason for the anger:  this is the apocalypse.
-- Richard Fortey, Life (1998), p. 252-3

That gnawing sense that there is something here that does not lie on the surface, is examined at length in our essay:


Sunday, February 26, 2017

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Methodological Monostich

Thére the mátter must rést,     pénding more ádequate dáta.

[The above is a dactylic hexameter -- the heroic line -- here found nestling in scholarly prose.
Source: David Lightfoot, Principles of Diachronic Syntax (1879), p. 213]

Friday, February 24, 2017

Kafka im “Hotel Lux”

Franz Kafka once spent a single night in the “Hotel Lux”;  he left hastily at dawn, and never referred to the incident again.  But he left a hand-penned fragment in a desk, that was recently unearthed.  In its entirety:

» Wir kommen abends gleich zu euch rüber«
rief Ernst  der jungen Frau  nach,
bevor sie,  scheu und schnell,
ohne mich zu begrüßen,    schräg gegenüber
hinter einer  Zimmertür  verschwand.

[Source: Ruth von Mayenburg, Hotel Lux (1978), p. 39]

Thursday, February 23, 2017

SRO Lux monostich

zwischen vier engen Wänden     die Einsamkeit

[ -- Ruth von Mayenburg, Hotel Lux (1978), p. 251]

Monday, February 20, 2017

Word/gesture of the Day: "Raute"

"Raute" (literally 'lozenge, rhombus, diamond-shape') has become the new nickname for Merkel (earlier: Erika, after her supposed DDR intel career), based upon her characteristic hand-gesture.  The term is used with much the same dismissive tone that people said Dubya for George W. Bush.

You can read about the background here.

French feminists use the symbol as well:

[Update 2 April 2017]


[Update 21.II.2017]   My, my, scarcely a day goes by,  without something new under the sun.
Now it’s a portmanteau-word, ‘Nipster’:

Schwesig will User vor "Nazi-Hipstern" schützen
Sie posten ihr veganes Frühstück auf Instagram, ein Selfie mit Sonnenbrille - und mittendrin ein Bild einer Nazi-Demo: Rechtsextreme präsentieren im Internet einen jungen Lifestyle und ködern so gezielt Jugendliche. Familienministerin Schwesig warnt vor hippen Rechten, den "Nipstern".
Doch dann wird Rapper "Komplott", wie der junge Mann sich nennt, deutlich. Er warnt davor, dass "unser liebes Land" geflutet wird von Kriminellen, "die so aussehen wie Robinsons Freitag". Er nennt sie eine Bedrohung für die ethnische Kontinuität Europas. Und er ruft zum Widerstand auf: "Wir werden unsere Fahnen tragen, in den Heldenkampf marschieren." Und am Ende spricht eine martialische Stimme heroisch: "Unser Volk ist noch lange nicht am Ende."

Randbemerkung:   If you’d been quick about it, you could have viewed, at the URL, an interview with the Familienministerin, with the question, “Wollen Sie Wahrheitsministerin sein? “ (“Do you wish to become Ministress of Truth?”)  Yet, oddly, that video has already been flushed down the memory-hole (over a black blank, the words, "DIESES VIDEO EXISTIER NICHT MEHR"  Note, not merely "has been removed from this site", but.... "no longer exists"  It has become an unvideo.   Conceivably her first act as Wahrheitsministerin.)

Tut uns Leid, that video is *streng verboten*

[Update]  Here is another German finger-gesture word  for which no common expression exists in English:

Schwurfinger (plural) thumb, first finger,  and second finger,  raised in swearing an oath
-- Collins-Klett German English Dictionary

Somewhat reminiscent of the Cub Scout oath-gesture (two fingers raised) or that of the Boy Scouts (three).


“Presidents” Day

[We re-post our essay from last year, as it still applies.]


I grew up in a moderate secular home, in a religiously moderate place and time (New Jersey; Eisenhower).   There would be bunting on Main Street on the Fourth of July, and a parade, at which the children might wave little flags -- though these were no more pugnaciously patriotic than banners at our high school football games (the red, white, and blue  passing imperceptibly into “Fight, fight, maroon and white!”).  Columbus Day and Thanksgiving were occasions for teaching schoolchildren some easy bits of American history;  there would be a crèche on the lawn by the town hall at Christmas;  all without arousing controversy.  Patriotism blended inconspicuously into religion, to the benefit of both:  each infused the other with its own better nature;  religion shed some potential sharp edges in that it was aware that it served the whole nation, and patriotism was put in its proper, modest place, as we were reminded that there is something higher than White House or town hall.   That the whole nation (so it seemed) celebrated Christmas (or quietly acquiesced in its celebration), made that holiday itself both less and more than specifically religious.   It was, if we may so phrase it, political but not politicized -- a symbol of the collective reverent well-being of the polity.   And (by duality), occasions like Washington’s Birthday or Columbus Day, though amenable to tub-thumping if you were so inclined, still partook of a certain prayerfulness, as though we were acknowledging secular saints.
Prayer itself, in those days, was by no means excluded from the public square, nor from our public schools.    Group recital of the Lord’s Prayer was like a mini-holiday within each schoolday, as we bowed our heads and joined our hands -- and were permanently the better for it.    (Coming personally from an utterly unchurched background, I yet never felt this as any sort of imposition.  Rather, it was a welcome window upon an aspect of life shared by a majority of the townspeople, and from which I felt otherwise uncomfortably excluded. )

Now all that lies in ruins, undermined  in part  by identity-politics of increasing stridency, in ways all too familiar, that need not be here rehearsed (consult our essay, Happy Sacagawea Day), in part by mere indifference or convenience.   Latterly, such Presidents as Princetonian Woodrow Wilson, or ten-dollar Alexander Hamilton, are under attack from sectarians -- and on grounds, that would apply equally to Washington and (yes even) Lincoln, or almost anyone of consequence that you might name.   And the campaign race for that sadly tarnished office, has become ever more feral.  Come time, the holiday itself may be buried, along with Columbus Day, to be replaced, perhaps, by Subaltern Day.

The snare of convenience we may observe in that subtly poisoned chalice, the Monday Holiday Bill. 
Now, in origin, the word holiday means ‘holy day’, and not simply a day off, or an opportunity to get bargains at WalMart on flat-screen TVs.   The days on which these were to be observed  were based either on fact (Fourth of July) or on tradition (Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter).  And the most important ones still retain these roots.  But the second tier now gets shunted to Mondays.  Mind you, I enjoy a three-day weekend like anyone else;  just pointing out that something was lost when we decided, as a nation, to “reschedule”.   We went from “Washington’s Birthday” to “Washington’s Birthday (Observed)” to … Washington’s Birthday (Forgotten).
The final blow to this last  was when it was folded in with Lincoln’s Birthday  to re-emerge as the entirely bland and meaningless “Presidents” Day, on which we observe the mighty accomplishments of such leaders as Millard Fillmore and Rutherford B. Hayes…  

In this age when the top P.C. priority is to shun controversy and offend no-one, it is easy to forget that neither Washington’s Birthday  nor Lincoln’s Birthday  were  in origin  blandly celebratory or pro-forma.    They did not commemorate these men as merely persons --  both Washington and Lincoln were, in their own day   and for some time thereafter, subjected to such scurrilous abuse as makes the Birthers’ razzing of Obama seem mild by comparison.  Their contingently quirky personalities were not at issue -- this was not Oprah, this was not People magazine -- rather, they each represented a principle.   Those holidays in fact commemorated violent events of rebellion, one of which gave birth to the nation, while the other (by bloody surgery) prevented its death.   So far from being apple-pie-and-motherhood, these were principles, and drastic remedies, which anyone might well oppose, and many did:  at the time of the rebellion against our Colonial master, about a third of Americans supported the insurrection, a third were opposed, and a third sat on the fence;  and the Civil War split us cleanly down the middle.

Washington, we salute you.  Lincoln, we salute you.  Aye, and Columbus as well -- without whose bold adventure, your service might never have come to pass.


[Update 15 February 2016]


Sunday, February 19, 2017

Chimps Typing Shakespeare

It is a commonplace of elementary statistical expostion, that if a million monkeys typed continuously for a million years, one of them might wind up typing-out the complete works of Shakespeare, or at least Hamlet (a simian favorite, to believe the expositors), or at least “To be or not to be”, or “fretful porpentine”.  Only, nobody has ever actually run the experiment.  Until now.

Using the vast wealth at our disposal (which we came clean about here;  the expense in bananas alone  would wreck a typical European economy), we assembled a team of a billion chimps (substituting them for monkeys, since monkeys -- bless their little hearts and tails -- are lousy at touch-typing), and allowed them to type at random, for a billion years (measured by the internal metric; we used a Poincaré transformation to depress that time into a supertask; viewed externally, the entire experiment took place while we were out at our usual three-martini lunch).  

What then was our surprise, that in the time generously provided, not a single one of those flea-scratching hominidae  managed to come up with so much as Two Gentlemen of Verona, let alone Hamlet or Lear.  In fact, those banana-nomming beggars never even made it as far as “fretful porpentine”  (one of them did type “fragrant porcupine”:  close, but no cigar).  As scientists, we must ask:  How can this astonishing result be explained?

The answer is surprising in itself:   It turns out that chimps, like all the Great Apes, simply do not appreciate Shakespeare.  In fact, they are weak on the Elizabethans  across the board.
On the other hand, it turns out that, like most infrahuman imbecillidae, they are avid readers of People magazine, and quickly typed out (seemingly from memory) most of the back-issues of that noted grocery-checkout periodical.   Indeed, sources suggest that most of the articles in that journal  are simply written by chimps in the first place.  No wonder they could type them from memory!

Carmel River monostich

Frogs        blink          from its banks

[from:  John Steinbeck, Cannery Row (1945).]

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Marcel Proust: the Zapruder fragment

Proustians around the globe  rejoice today, as an old film-clip dating from 1904  shows their seldom-photographed and almost never filmed idol  skipping down the steps after a wedding.  You can read about it, and watch the film, here:

C'est Marcel Proust, aimable écrivain mondain à l'audience encore confidentielle, qui se trouve être un ami proche du marié. Peut-être est-ce lui, ce jeune homme en manteau clair, coiffé d'un chapeau melon qui laisse les yeux dans l'ombre, laissant apercevoir la moustache et l'ovale du visage, dévalant précipitamment les marches, doublant le cortège sur le côté droit, afin de rejoindre avant les autres l'éblouissante belle-mère ? On le voit quelques secondes sur un film d'amateur – une pellicule de deux minutes à peine, conservée aux Archives françaises du film à Bois-d'Arcy.

It’s actually an odd little sequence:  stately couple after stately couple slowly descend the outdoor stairway, the ladies in their finery (as awkward to walk in as a burka ), the gentlemen all without exception  in top-hats -- when suddenly from stage-left  a rather dapper but hardly fancy figure, in a Chaplinesque bowler hat, hurries past all the worthies and disappears, rather like a streaker.  He seems more like Zellig or Forrest Gump, than like a society figure, or anyone destined to greatness.
The film cuts off  just before the shots rang out, changing history forever.


The question then presents itself, whether the World of Dr Justice TM (headquarters: Geneva) might possess, in our extensive private holdings, additional images of the famous novelist, not previously recognized for what they are.   And indeed, such proved to be the case.  We submitted an old daguerrotype taken at the Exposition Universelle (Paris, 1900) to an entero-chiasmic homothetic image-analysis of the sort that is probably familiar to you from “24”, and were able to make the identification.   The incomparable man of letters is the fourth figure from the left:

Le grand romancier essaie de se perdre parmi la foule


These are just the latest discoveries of previously unrecognized Proustiana in slightly over two years, the earlier having been a letter from Proust, written to his friend Charles Haas but never posted, containing fairly explosive material, which it was our own good fortune to unearth.  You can read the background to this literary coup here:

and the text of the letter here:

Note:   Owing perhaps to quantum entanglement, a chunk of Du côté de chez Swann once became lodged in the throat of the Riemann Conspiracy, with results you can read here:

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The roots of LOL

Back in the days of Sputnik, before the Internet and social media, we children used but few social acronymic sigilla.  One indelible in memory was SWAK, which stood for “Sealed With A Kiss”:  you put it on the back of the envelope (over where you would have licked the flap) of a letter to your girl- or boyfriend.   But its acronymic status was accidental -- it was not part of any acronymic army, such as we have in today’s busy world of BRB and TYT -- and functioned much like (what would later become) such sublinguistic symbols as the happy-face.  Indeed, those same envelopes often had, subscripted to the stamps, the amazingly kid-witty formula entreating speedy delivery:

Postman postman -- Don’t D-lay!
Do D cha-cha  all D way!

Today’s acronymic armamentarium is incomparably greater, in extent and sometimes even in structure.  As, when  to LOL  there effectively accrete  a comparative and a superlative (à la  good/better/best):   ROFL;  LMAO.


Such reflections were occasioned by a passage in James Gleick’s entertaining survey, The Information (2011), as he recounts that earlier splendid invention, telegraphy, which anticipated the Internet in quasi-instantaneously connecting (eventually) everyone to anyone else.   Initially simply for economy (since the sender paid by the word), later also for comsec,  telegraph-fans came up with such LOL&SWAK-like acronyms as

GMLT (give my love to…)
YMIR  (your message is received)

and even


which, as you possibly guessed  but more likely not, stood for   “Will you exchange gold for eastern funds”.    And with that, afficionados were well on their way to the construction of extensive subject-specific codebooks, and thence, generalizing, to subject-neutral cryptography.


It is remarkable, what pleasure a certain cast of mind takes, in coming up with artificial languages and coding-systems.   Some are systematic, are meant to be practical, and are very ambitious, spanning the whole of natural language:  Leibniz’s characteristica universalis, or Volapük and its congeners.  Others are practical but limited to a given domain, like shipping-codes.   And still others are just for fun:  Netspeak, and LOLcats lingo.  (Strenuous fun, though: the entire Bible has been translated into LOLcats, Old Testament and New.)   Mankind hasn’t had so much fun  since Adam named the animals.

Bonus:  mini-emojis (a minimal-pair):

In a novel by Kingsley Amis, I Like It Here (1958), a woman signs-off her love-letter thus:

             yum yum yum yum

      x (bitey one)            X (open mouth one)

Monday, February 6, 2017

Zora Neale Hurston meets the Rootabaga Stories

that strange being
with the huge square toes,
who lived       way in the West.

[from:  Their Eyes were Watching God (1937)]