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2013
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January 31st; How Cola lost its coca. Last night a strange warm wind moans down my street, the kind of wind that promises change.
January 30th; A grain of wisdom weighs 1/7000th of 1 lb? Good to brush up on crucial details. Meanwhile, a top headline via Zdravko: Beheaded Goblin Fought Back Says Eyewitness. Proper news reporting.

January 29th; Here is a wonderful article packed with aggro, by someone called David Wong. The writer has honed his writing to the point of maximum shoutiness. It's a great read with some good thoughts, but slightly worryingly Wong also thinks it's wisdom. Notice the clever metaphor of the person urgently needing medical assistance. What American philosopher Daniel Dennett calls an 'intuition pump' - an image so compelling it twists your thinking about what it claims to explain. Interesting also to watch his favourite little clip from 'Glengarry Glenn Ross', a film I haven't seen, that some people adore.
January 28th; In contrast to the American who nearly set off nuclear war in 1962, here is a short account of a Soviet submarine first officer who persuaded his captain and another officer not to fire nuclear missiles in that same 1962 crisis, thus averting war. Slightly spoilt by a typo in the crucial sentence, where they write 'contract' instead of 'contact', it still makes for a sobering story. In case Gentle Reader is not fully aware of how creepy and omnipresent aerial drones are these days here is a short film of Norwegian hobbyists steering a flying drone to sneak up behind a moose or (more probably) reindeer. And for a final shot of soberhood, Aldous Huxley (again in 1962) discussing his worries that a scientific police state in the near future will, far from relying purely on terror to keep us in submission, use psychological and pharmacological ways to make us "love our servitude". That "near future", relative to the early 60s, would be ...round about now.

January 27th; Seems these people want to change how money works. So do I.
January 26th; Lesson with Ben in the Buda hills. Last night finished another book given to me by the kind Nigel of Light last month: 'Physics of the Future' by Michio Kaku. There is in fact no future physics in the book at all. He means 'Engineering of the Future', and almost all of it is familiar to anyone who was reading comics in the 1950s or 60s. Maglev monorails, space stations that rotate to make artificial gravity, people talking to their intelligent home computers, robo-doctors performing medical operations over TV links - it is all surprisingly unchanged from predictions early in the postwar period, and is already partly true today. The Day-in-the-Life features from the future sound particularly old-fashioned, virtually identical to similar magazine pieces 3/4 of a century ago. Kaku tries manfully to modify some of the boosterist gadget excitement with a bit of economics and vague mentions of ethics, but he is out of his depth on any and every topic except physics. He retails both the Great-Men-of-Science history of progress out of a tragic past mired in dark barbaric superstition, and the American national-myth version of this where social progress is something only citizens of the US (and perhaps Japan) truly understand. "Unfortunately, many nations do not grasp this fundamental fact [the apparently inevitable shift from commodity capitalism to intellectual capitalism] and do not prepare their citizens for the future..." reads a typical smug sentence. It is particularly funny to read his humming and hawing about artificial intelligence, which (with lots of caveats) he has the usual expectations for. Yet he repeats, almost word for word, in three different places in the book that software needs to be written "the old-fashioned way", with "paper, pencil, sitting in a chair quietly in a room". So he expects AI-driven computers to replace many jobs, just not ones done by people who might be buying his book. To hedge his bets, he also comes out with the cheerful line that robots will not be able to replace garbage collectors or nurses, without once asking himself why those jobs are low-paid. In fact I can pin down the one page, 289, that contained an idea I had not heard in any form before the end of the 1980s (unless you count the 1970s children's sci-fi book 'Trillions'): the idea tiny nano-scale spaceships are an affordable way to explore space.

January 25th; Green tea in central Pest with the cosmopolitan Dorothy. Interesting chat. A good Atlantic Monthly piece about what really happened in the early-1960s Cuban Missile Crisis. Not so surprisingly for anyone who has read about them, both Kennedy brothers emerge as unstable, aggressive oiks - what you'd expect from the privileged sons of a Prohibition gangster. JFK triply provoked the Cuban crisis by (1) dishonestly outhawking Nixon during the 1960 campaign with the 180-degrees-untrue "missile gap" allegation; (2) agreeing to the Bay of Pigs attempt to invade Cuba; then (3) putting missiles close to the Soviet Union, in Turkey, before any turned up in Cuba. After having provoked it, (4) John Kennedy showed dangerous recklessness in a diplomatic crisis that came close to global war, endangering allied nations for his own purely domestic political reasons (not justified by the strategic concerns he lied about), all so as not to look weak in front of US voters.
Meanwhile, a short interesting discussion of how education does not fuel economic growth as a leading indicator at all (as everyone piously insists), but follows growth as a lagging indicator. Spending on education might even hold a nation back or make it sink deeper into poverty.
January 24th; Rather dark news from friends some days back. Curious how the death of somebody you know quite well can change how the world feels. / A typically rubbish Harvard Business Review article is relieved by this picture. Offered as a kind of bleak abstract image for the American office floor covered in desks in cubicles, it's actually a lot more interesting than the article.

January 23rd; A couple of weeks ago, tasted the port Richard & Julia gave me along with the Czech mead I got from Mr Saracco. Both delicious. Two evenings of moderate tippling at home, like a proper middle-aged bachelor. Here's a sweet little table-top animation of how a small circuit powers a high-frequency pulsing lamp. First time I've ever seen play-dough or plasticine electricity - adorable.
January 22nd; The upper one of these two schematics looks feasible to try building.

January 21st; Am telephone-interviewed again on Tosha's unusual radio show in Texas. Some folk call in with questions about economics.
January 20th; Exotic Girl 1 mentions an article slating another article and praising this snide 1950s interview with Marlon Brando as high journalistic art. The earlier piece, practically Renaissance literature in the Vice hack's timescale, is interesting for showing just how pretentiously Truman Capote wrote. He strains for gravitas & wit with "he desires", "quite", "rather", "sugary perch", "vicissitudes", "a mile distant", not to mention fourteen pages (yes, 14) of tedious detail about the short and not very entertaining life of some film actor. The journalist who admires The New Yorker's 1950s Marlon Brando profile complains of the length of Esquire's Megan Fox profile. Both interviewers meet vain performers who immerse themselves in scraps of Oriental culture in a scrabble for dignity, and neither article really needed to be written. The difference is that in one the actor is sniped at by the smart-alec writer, and in the other the writer grovels to please the actor's publicist.

January 19th; Weather still gloomy. Wonderful bit of psychedelic film score unearthed by Candee Saint. 'Easy Dreamer' 1969.
January 18th; The annoying neighbour somewhere nearby upstairs is still playing one or two snatches of some rock opera through my ceiling a couple of times a day, but the volume has gone down in the last week since another neighbour began retaliating. Somebody, I think two floors above me, so one floor above the miscreant, has been for a week loudly playing just one song, 'I Follow Rivers' by Lykke Li 4 or 5 times every day. My more immediate neighbour seems to be slowly getting the message therein: "Oh I beg you, can I follow? ....I, I follow... I follow you..."

January 17th; Rather good article on the cocaine injected by Sherlock Holmes between the 1880s and the 1920s. Starts with the Great Cocaine Epidemic the young Freud was swept up in.
January 16th; Exotic Girl 1 sees another fine news item: programmer outsources his own job to China to give himself more time for Facebook & cat videos.

January 15th; Interesting footage of Bo Diddley putting on a show.
January 14th; Budapest transport declared free all day due to snow, and I have nowhere to go. Boooo! / Evil Nine say they have the resources.

January 13th; Another irreplaceable species driven to the rim of extinction by Brazilian deforestation. Exotic Girl 1 trumps that: if you thought Australians were tweeness-free and down-to-earth, check out their crooker-than-ocker photoshopped-phanny law.
January 12th; Lesson with Ben in the Buda hills. Business-crisis book gets good review in Britain - explains nicely what the book and the series are about. Delicious lunch with Marion afterwards at Cafe Vain.

January 11th; A romantically dark set of pictures. London in the 1930s, looking foggy & sinister at night. This is still, just about, the same London of the postwar 1950s Quatermass films. See how empty the streets are.
January 10th; Bit of snow, bit of greyness. Someone in the US plays a prank involving (yes, really) disguising themselves as a car seat. Here is the little movie he made of astonished serving staff in drive-through fast-food businesses gawping into what looks like an empty car. Although the jape is good, there is something sadder. Dreary aluminium-framed windows show group after group of bored people toiling in clean but bleak little kitchens.

January 9th; My article about gold trading gets picked up by the bullionvault website. Meanwhile a Chinese man hires virtual hitmen to kill son within video-game world he spends too much time in.
Hilarity at the supermarket check-out this evening, as the cashier girls check my purchase and we establish that a new stock of monstrous spring onions are in fact both huger and cheaper than the leeks in the neighbouring section. References to Chernobyl and Monsanto. Much merriment.
January 8th; Phelim's new show with the English National Opera & Teatro Real looks interesting. It's about the life of Walt Disney the man, not as seen through his cartoons. They are rehearsing in Madrid. Phelim says the Spanish capital seems to be mainly about ham.

January 7th; Some snow here. Wayne is involved with a stage play opening in Budapest: '(Here Comes...) The English Department!'
January 6th; Stanton Warriors 'Disco Infiltrator' tries harder by sampling a harp. "Bear in mind, we all fall behind, from time to time," whatever that means. + 1 man's noble fight to change the Low Countries: Ugly Belgian Houses. ++ English speaker comes out of coma only able to talk Welsh. +++ Hidden deep in Dorset, a weblog about cooking & glam girly things from Anthea's friend Jackie.

January 5th; The twonky upstairs still seems to be playing - very loud - some chunk of a Hungarian rock opera once or twice a day, as since about Dec 30th. Booming through the ceiling distorts the pastiche Andrew Lloyd Webber into something more like a school assembly hymn. One of the history operas from the 70s or 80s that convincingly portrays various Magyar despots as a heroic succession of fat balding blokes in leather.
Finish a paperback given me in December by the Nigel of Light, called 'One on One' by Craig Brown (101 True Encounters). This is a delightful read. For once the publisher's blurb doesn't exaggerate - it really is "a wholly original book." While perhaps a bit like that Viennese story from around 1900 where a succession of characters sleep with each other in a huge loop - A seducing B, B rogering C, C deflowering D, D disappointing E, and so on - 'One on One' is far more interesting and less contrived. The encounters make up a long chain of real meetings between various individuals, mostly famous, in the last 120 years. Each meeting gets about three pages, is written up with wit and restraint, and gives a fascinating thrill as we learn so-and-so was such an age when whatshisface was alive, and so on. The book gets off to a good start in 1931 with an Old Etonian 18-year-old waster badly driving his new Motor Car through Munich and knocking down a Mr Adolf Hitler, no serious injuries, followed up by Meeting 2 eight years earlier, where the same Etonian-to-be aged ten has a stroll round his father's castle grounds with an ageing Rudyard Kipling in the 1920s. Shuttling back and forth like this, the book loops together an extraordinary cast of characters, playing a much less boring version of what six-degrees-of-separation American internetists parochially call the 'Kevin Bacon game'. We read history unconsciously assuming famous people come into being just for their important year and then vanish again. A slightly more sophisticated mistake is to assume most famous people never meet most others, but often they do. Brown corrects both mistakes wonderfully. There is an extraordinary frisson from realising that Prince Felix Youssoupoff did not simply cease to exist after murdering Rasputin in 1916, but is still alive in the 1940s, singing for Noel Coward on the French Riviera. Or that Gurdjieff met Frank Lloyd Wright, bossily cooking sauerkraut for him in the architect's kitchen. Or that the author of the Mary Poppins books was a devoted follower of Gurdjieff's esoteric cult. Somehow the book's structure dignifies all this trivia, gives us hand-picked pearls of gossip, and quickly sketches each person beautifully in counterpoint to another historical figure paired with them if only on that one day.
The vignettes are revealing. James Joyce, the loquacious writer of long sentences and convoluted clever jokes aimed at the academy, has a rude affectation when invited to dinner of speaking very little, acting bored, and cutting conversations dead. Ernest Hemingway, the laconic writer of short sentences and aggressively plain prose desperately digging for Essential Rawness, is as impolite as Joyce in company but unlike the Irishman never shuts up. Joyce's grim determination to never be thought provincial and Hemingway's very American anxiety about his own masculinity both show right through, making us wonder at the gullibility of the 20th century. Each person's meetings are as informative as these. Even some footnotes are gems. Here is a footnote about Salvador Dali and his wife Gala: "He [Barry Humphries] seems to have got off a good deal more lightly than the art critic Brian Sewell, who a few years later, whilst holidaying alone in Cadaques, is invited back by Salvador Dali, then taken to an olive grove, where he is required to lie naked in the foetal position and masturbate as Dali takes photographs and fumbles in his own trousers. 'Sheepish and in silence', the two men then walk back to Gala, who is sitting in a giant eggshell in the garden."
January 4th; Finish the copy of 'Living at the End of the World' by Marina Benjamin that I borrowed from the school library on Zizi's library card. This is a book from the late 1990s about the year 2000 - specifically about extreme cults predicting the end of the world throughout history: millenarians. A back cover photo shows a sympathetic and sophisticated Jewish girl who in print, however, works hard at sounding gently amused with each idiotic preacher predicting imminent rapture or doom. A onetime New Statesman arts editor, she has the slightly tin ear of left-wing intellectuals - her attempts to sound clever in every sentence make the prose clunky. In Guardian style, words like arithmology, exegetes, unactualised, syntax, semiotics, prognosticators litter pages already thick with adverbs.
There is, however, good material, and many interesting paragraphs about different episodes. Some extraordinary stories like Munster cry out for more detail (but there is no time, she has to cover them all) and somehow she gets in the way - her imagination is too shallow for the sheer weirdness of these moments of mass excitement. We never get inside any of these crazed movements properly. There is interesting detail on the Waco siege, a fascinating section on the Mormons and the Jehovah's Witnesses (perhaps drawn from Harold Bloom's book which must be more sensitive and readable than this). A short and delicately nasty account of poor David Icke (now a loopy anti-semite) never addresses the interesting bit with him as with any of these prophets - what on earth happened to change him from TV sports commentator to self-appointed seer? Is there a disease, a known kind of minor stroke that alters people's personalities in that way? She is good on the doom-mongering Old Testament prophets, giving a useful summary of the Jewish experience of expecting Messiahs and Armageddon, though Sabbatai Zevi and Jacob Frank are rather hurried past. The only people she can mention without irony are (1) Mary Shelley and her novel about the last man left alive (an old dissertation of Benjamin's perhaps?) and (2) some French post-structuralists like Jean Baudrillard. Real respect for both emerges there. Otherwise, there is a deadly lack of empathy with these end-of-the-world movements. In the Preface we almost get a tinge of insight into the mass suicide of the Heaven's Gate group, and I certainly wanted to know more about the bizarre Swiss-based Order of the Solar Temple, who get just two sentences, not to mention the 17th-century Fifth Monarchy Men. The problem is she is too busy hoping these sects make up a bigger narrative, cruising past each cult like a bored tourist, aching to have the whole thing done already. The real hitch is that she herself belongs to a newer, larger millenarian sect so big she doesn't even see it: the left-wing consensus. Like her more easily mocked Muggletonians and Southcottians, socialists are also keen to get to the end, sum up, parcel everything together into one smart idea. Hence the evasive mention of Marxism, very much another millennial cult proclaiming a new age. Just as socialist Francis Wheen has great fun at the expense of 1970s conspiracy theorists, without ever seeing that Marx's theory of class is the mother-lode of modern conspiracy theories, Marina Benjamin seems also interestingly blind to the blatant end-of-the-worldness of 19th and 20th century socialism. It has all the same plot twists: The failure of the appointed date (how to console the faithful when the new socialist state fails to materialise): how to retain the faithful after the date has passed (redefine Marxism, 'spiritualise' it into a way of interpreting media and doing academic analysis, even if it promised to change the world not interpret it...), and so on. At one point, in the grip of some strange inversion trope, she writes of the French 200-year celebration of the 1789 Revolution that "Its sole purpose was to affirm that present-day France is not a place in which revolutions are acceptable." (There are states which affirm that revolutions against them are good? Ever?) The simpler idea that the 1989 celebrations and other bits of "fetishisation of a replica past" just reveal a growing realisation that the tradition-severing, 'modernising' spasms of the last two centuries were pointless, damaging, and unnecessary never occurs to her. This also follows from her being, rather like a 3rd-century Christian, right inside one of the more resilient millenarian worldviews.
All the people in these sad tales emerge as twits we can pity, and the book never helps us really understand who gets involved with an ecstatic cult or why. On page 205, she quotes Hiram Edson on the heartbroken disappointment ardent Millerites felt when Christ failed to appear for them as they waited in white robes on hilltops across the USA in 1844. Edson recounts how they "wept and wept", and we get a tiny glimpse of what Benjamin's book might have been.

January 3rd; Finish Richard L's copy of 'The Image in Form' (selected writings of Adrian Stokes). This really is a remarkable book, another tribute to the lost Pelican imprint, and is a collected set of snippets from the (apparently) many books of art critic Stokes, here chosen and edited by Richard Wollheim. Stokes, an early-20th-century aesthete well travelled but particularly in Italy, developed before and after World War II a couple of slightly strange theories of the visual arts. One was that a certain quality of quattrocento (1400 - 1500) Italian architecture and art can be extracted from that era and found elsewhere and at other times, in which case Stokes names it 'Quattro Cento'. So - if I grasp this rightly - all major quattrocento art is Quattro Cento, but not everything he labels Quattro Cento need be Italian or from the quattrocentro era. A Venn diagram called for, perhaps. Another of his theories is that 'carving' somehow is a deeper, more profound thing than 'modelling'. To model we mould in clay, or shape in plastic, or even pour concrete to shape, as in Corbusier's architecture. To carve, the mason in some way engages he says more sensuously and in a somehow deeper way with the material (ideally limestone, somewhere in the Mediterranean sun), cutting into the material, speaking directly with it.
Stokes' theories are really an outgrowth of his seductive way of writing about the painters and sculptors and cities he loves. For example, the colonnade on the front cover (link above) at the ducal palace of Urbino is, Stokes asserts, the finest ever built (so have a close look at that photograph). Each of these claims he is ready to defend with his distinctive rippling prose, difficult to excerpt briefly, which gradually lulls the reader into a kind of consenting trance like lapping water. Here he is on Venice: "But at twilight things lie horizontal among the bell-peals. Nothing mounts. So churches have their sway over the toppling water. Everything rests on the bobbing water, rests at ease or firm. The very smell of the boats which fought with whiffs from the calli, now are fresh out there on the lagoon, released; while the churches float firm like swans, the water risen to its greatest fluidity in these motions of spread and relaxation." The use of repetition & mimesis is strongly poetic, to the point where some sentences have to be felt rather than understood. Occasional but confident use of Freudian ideas in the art criticism dates the book most clearly to those decades, but is not obsessive enough to spoil the overall dream-like description. His reactions to Piera della Francesco, Giorgione, Turner, Cezanne are deeply persuasive and thought-through. Most strikingly, there is no trace of the fanatical intensity you often get from an art critic enchanted by a work's appeal. Here he is on a relief cut by Agostino: "See the angel's head at the bottom of the relief, his hand clinging to the frame as if he had emerged from the back layers and had passed through the Virgin to the front, or as if the stone were a sea in which he rocked by his hand to and from a breakwater." Another notable thing is the absence of a religious response (perhaps down to Wollheim's selections?) to what is very often religious art. A sort of sensual Freudianism and, more secretly, a hard-to-pin-down sense of nostalgia infuse his text with the missing spirit however. There some lost idyll he has somehow found, miraculously still alive and strong, by travelling to the south. This oddly sweet regret seems to recur among English writers schooled in Greek and Latin, rediscovering a strangely vibrant civilisation from before the Reformation, still there and living, but seen at one remove compared to how it must seem to Spaniards, Italians, or Frenchmen. His intoxication with this other world stands in for any Christian response - his religion is probably best described as English public-school classicism. "As I walk under the arcade of Locarno's main square, I see in a clear and liquid shade a cafe table with a light-blue cloth that touches a stone pier. I think I would be entirely safe there: leaning against the pillar I would be able to partake utterly of every thought: I would be immobile, provided for, as in the womb yet out-of-doors: existence within and existence without would be thinly divided: in the blue tablecloth I would clutch the sky."
January 2nd; Dental Attila returns from his majestic Christmas river trip down the Rhine from Switzerland to the North Sea. Town still misty. Good feelings about 2013.

January 1st; A lovely supper at Magdolna's with her friend Gabor and the neurotic orange cat Tevedes (Mistake). Gabor brings lots of alcohol, and he & I attempt to play noughts and crosses with teeny glasses of gin and the new plum-flavoured Unicum. I get lots of intriguing detail out of Gabor (until this year an airline operations man) about how airport landing slots really work.
A good mid-1980s article from the Atlantic Monthly archives - 'Have You Ever Tried to Sell a Diamond?' Slightly spoilt by an arithmetic error 1/3 of the way in, where diamonds costing 400 pounds in 1970 are stated as being in theory worth 400 pounds in 1978 after 300% inflation (of course he meant to write 1600 quid in 1978). The overall topic is the successful De Beers wheeze to sell diamonds as holders of value and indispensible symbols of romance to a broader public between the 1920s and now during a historic glut of diamonds worldwide - the writer calls this trick "the diamond invention". An enjoyable read, even with the usual American-magazine trait of being a bit plodding.

Mark Griffith, site administrator / markgriffith at yahoo.com