24 dezembro 2004

Introducing the long-awaited sarcasm point

The English language must evolve. Not with emoticons or lol or brb or l8r or GRATUITOUS all caps used for emphasis, not with Spanglish or bumbling Bushisms or even cryptic Kerryisms. We don't need more quotation marks that "hedge" or try to make the same "old" thing sound "fresh." What we need is an honest effort to incorporate the way we live today. My fellow Americans, we need to embrace a new punctuation mark—one that embraces the irony and edge of contemporary conversation and clarifies rather than condenses or confuses.

It is time for the adoption of the sarcasm point. Why the sarcasm point? We have a mark that conveys that we mean or know something. We have one that says it with volume and force! We have one that communicates that we don't know something, don't we? We need one more: to do for language what shade did for drawing, what color did for television, and what eyebrows did for expressions—introduce finesse.

The problem is simple. We live in a whiplash, light-speed world in which motion can range, within minutes, from standstill to supersonic, decibel levels range from NPR to Limbaugh, and the range of sincerity can shoot from earnest to irreverent in nanoseconds.

Believe it or not, the world we've landed in is not only more image-obsessed than we've ever seen. It's also more text-based than ever. We finger-type and we thumb-type. We e-mail, we IM, we blog. And the forms cannot contain the content. There's a dastardly disconnect. Among other things, it makes Dave Barry columns somewhat difficult to read. Someone must step into the sarcasm chasm¡

I'm serious¡ See, there are people who are relentlessly sincere. So, what are they supposed to do when they're trying to sound a bit bitter? Suppose you're IM'ing that oft-earnest friend you have, and he writes: "I need to go to church tomorrow and confess the jealousy in my heart." You forget—have you ever heard him say nice things about God or do the opposite? "Wait … do you really?" "Sorry. I mean, I need to go to church tomorrow¡ To confess my jealousy¡ And the fact that I just renewed my subscription to Maxim¡" "Oh. Me too. Only as a Jew, I must do these things in synagogue¡"

And then there are people who are relentlessly sarcastic. How do we know when they're being straight? The other day my brother told me he respected Colin Powell. I had no idea what he was trying to say.

The sarcasm point can strengthen our communities and unite our broader culture¡

Sarcasm purists, Norm McDonald, and his acolytes might be troubled by all this talk. Good sarcasm, they'll tell you, is cueless. It trips dishonestly off the tongue. "What I'm looking forward to in prison is the prospect of anal rape." Telegraph your insincerity and the thrill is gone. Announce it and your friends won't experience the same delight in the spasm of sarcasm you use to praise the president.

The other day I told my girlfriend I loved her. I did it on Yahoo! Instant Messenger. And the sarcasm just didn't come across.

I grant that blue states will be at the vanguards in anointing the new sarcasm point. We'll use it in our MoveOn action alerts. We'll teach it our public schools, in those grammar classes they fail to teach. We will type it with excitable hands in Bruckheimer scripts and lace it in our advertising.

Red states will be slower to come along, perhaps. The first sarcasm point won't work its way into the Republican Party platform until 2028, into a Georgia English textbook until 2032, and won't appear in a prayer book until, I'm guessing, 2080. But the spread will be inevitable, kind of like civil unions.

Williams Safire and F. Buckley, chiefs of the language police, are retiring not two moments too soon. Let the organized grammatical crime commence¡

Do yourself a favor. Begin today. Suck in and cough out this little virus of an idea. Beam the meme. Use it at weddings, bar mitzvahs, and funerals¡ Try to keep it under wraps at gay coming out parties.

I mean it¡

And since I'm going to copyright this bugger, you'll have to type¡© But don't worry. You can take the copyright symbol ironically.

From Slate

A precious case from Middle Earth

Sméagol (Gollum) is a single, 587 year old, hobbit-like male of no fixed abode. He has presented with antisocial behaviour, increasing aggression, and preoccupation with the "one ring."

Sméagol comes from a wealthy and influential family, his grandmother being a wise woman in the river folk community. Nothing is known about Sméagol's birth or schooling. He was spiteful to others and had only one friend, Deagol, whom he later murdered after stealing the ring from him. For Sméagol this was an important life event; the ring enabled him to disappear and listen secretly to conversations. His family and community, appalled by his actions and believing he was a thief and murderer, banished him to a solitary life in the misty mountains. He lived for many years with the ring as his only friend and began to detest the outside world—loathing the sun, moon, and wind. He ate only live animals or raw fish. Eventually Sméagol created Gollum, the outsider, who had a more violent personality. When Gollum was 25, the ring was stolen by Bilbo Baggins. Since then Gollum has had obsessional thoughts and has dedicated his life to reacquiring it, sometimes with violence.

His forensic history consists of Deagol's murder and the attempted murder of Samwise Gamgee. He has no history of substance misuse, although like many young hobbits he smoked "pipe weed" in adolescence. Sméagol has forgotten many memories of his childhood, and we have limited collateral history on his premorbid personality. Before obtaining the ring he was an inquisitive child with odd interests, who enjoyed causing mischief and solitary activities such as burrowing under trees to look at roots. He dislikes himself, stale raw fish, and "hobbitses."

On general examination, Gollum is a pale, emaciated hobbit, with scanty hair and big eyes: "A skulking gangrel creature with an ill-favoured look." He is unkempt and wearing only the remains of a loin cloth. He displays animal-like behaviour, including crawling and hopping. He shows no evidence of clinical depression, although he subjectively feels sad and is anxious to be reunited with his "precious"—the ring. Objectively, he is emotionally labile and becomes jittery and nervous when discussing the ring. His speech is abnormal and he repeats phrases and noises—for example, "Yes, yes, yes" and "Gollum, gollum." In The Hobbit Tolkien writes of the many solitary years Gollum spent in the misty mountains: "He always spoke to himself through never having anyone else to speak to.

There is no disorder of the form of thought. He uses neologisms such as "triksy" and "hobbitses." Gollum has nihilistic thoughts, believing that he is a murderer, liar, and thief; although there is some basis in fact for this and he shows little guilt or remorse. He is preoccupied with, and deeply desires, the ring. He has obsessive thoughts but no compulsions, though he would do anything for the ring. He is hostile towards Frodo, the current owner of the ring. He has paranoid ideation about Sauron ("the eye is always watching") and about Samwise Gamgee ("the fat hobbit... he knows"). Gollum has difficulty controlling his thoughts and actions, exacerbated by prolonged contact with the ring. As Gandalf and Frodo have similar symptoms in the presence of the ring, we can attribute this somatic passivity to the ring. There are features of dissociation. Sméagol has separated his personality and is now Gollum as well.

He shows no evidence of any cognitive impairment. He has poor insight into his condition but he is aware of the Gollum-Sméagol dissociation.

Several differential diagnoses need to be considered, and we should exclude organic causes for his symptoms. A space occupying lesion such as a brain tumour is unlikely as his symptoms are long standing. Gollum's diet is extremely limited, consisting only of raw fish. Vitamin B-12 deficiency may cause irritability, delusions, and paranoia. His reduced appetite and loss of hair and weight may be associated with iron deficiency anaemia. He is hypervigilant and does not seem to need much sleep. This, accompanied by his bulging eyes and weight loss, suggests hyperthyroidism. Gollum's dislike of sunlight may be due to the photosensitivity of porphyria. Attacks may be induced by starvation and accompanied by paranoid psychosis.

An internet search found over 1300 sites discussing the nature of Gollum's "mental illness." We asked 30 randomly selected medical students if they thought Gollum had a mental illness. Schizophrenia was the most common diagnosis (25 students), followed by multiple personality disorder (three). On initial consideration schizophrenia seems a reasonable diagnosis. However, in the context of the culture at the time it is unlikely. Delusions are false, unshakeable beliefs, not in keeping with the patient's culture. In Middle Earth, the power of the ring is a reality. The passivity phenomena Gollum experiences are caused by the ring, and these symptoms occur in all ring bearers. Gollum does not fulfil the ICD-10 criteria for the diagnosis of schizophrenia.

The presence of two personalities, Gollum and Sméagol, raises the possibility of multiple personality disorder. In this diagnosis one personality is suppressed by the other and the two personalities are always unaware of each other's existence. In this case, Gollum and Sméagol occur together, have conversations simultaneously, and are aware of each other's existence.

Gollum displays pervasive maladaptive behaviour that has been present since childhood with a persistent disease course. His odd interests and spiteful behaviour have led to difficulty in forming friendships and have caused distress to others. He fulfils seven of the nine criteria for schizoid personality disorder (ICD F60.1), and, if we must label Gollum's problems, we believe that this is the most likely diagnosis.

From BMJ (British Medical Journal)

23 dezembro 2004

The aphorism "A hammer, when presented with a nail, knows to do only one thing" applies, par excellence, to George W. Bush. As governor of Texas, Bush tackled the social problem of street crime by presiding over the busiest execution chamber in the country. At the time of the thirteen death row exonerations in Illinois, Bush stated publicly that although states such as Illinois might have problems with a faulty death penalty system, he was certain that in Texas no innocent person had ever been sent to death row, much less executed. That remains to be seen. What is clear is that he had, as governor, no quality of mercy.

Sister Helen Prejean - from Dead Man Walking - and her new book, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions, excerpted in The New York Review of Books

22 dezembro 2004

The answers ...

Section one

1. Catherine Morland. Forget Babe Ruth - it's what we call "rounders".

2. In Persuasion, the Crofts' chaise almost "runs foul of a dung cart".

3. Yes. As officiating clergyman the Rev Elton performs the ceremony that unites Miss Woodhouse with Mr Knightley.

4. Sir Thomas Bertram, on his return from flogging slaves on his sugar plantation in Antigua. He means Miss Frances Price.

5. No. Austen's fiction is a smoke-free zone. Gentlemen never puffed in a lady's presence, any more than they swore, farted, or relieved themselves in the chamber pot behind the dining room screen.

Section two

1. First Impressions. Wise change, Jane.

2. No. The novel is, by reference to militia postings, identifiably set in the mid-1790s. It's 18th century. Back to the text, you hacks.

3. Wickham seduces Georgiana Darcy at Ramsgate when she is 14. He seduces Lydia Bennet, aged 15, in Brighton - then, as now, the philanderer's favourite resort. Given the later onset of menstruation at that time, Wickham qualifies as English fiction's first Humbert Humbert.

4. It's the card game that Jane and Bingley "prefer". They call it pontoon, the patriotic renaming of the French "vingt-et-un". There is a war going on, for God's sake.

5. According to Mr Collins, £800. This seems a vast sum - more than twice what Austen got from the lifetime sale of all her novels. It may be a printer's error or an example of Collins's sublime absurdity.

6. According to Bingley's sister, "tolerably good".

7. Almost the only thing we know about Kitty Bennet is that she "coughs". This was a death sentence in 1795.

8. "I believe it must date from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley." Gold-digging minx. 9. There is dispute as to how the reader should take Mary Crawford's remark in Mansfield Park: "Certainly, my home at my uncle's brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears and Vices, I saw enough. No, do not be suspecting me of a pun." Would Austen, with a brother in the navy, not know about rum, bum and the lash? Equally, the devirginated Lydia's instruction to her maid, "to mend a great slit in my worked muslin gown" is surely double entendre, coming as it does from the novel's prime slut. The slit within the muslin is past mending.

10. Probably Mary, named after Wollstonecraft, the "clever" Bennet girl who is despised by her family for her bluestocking pretensions. Mary is destined to remain the spinster daughter, caring for her parents in their old age. That's what you get in Jane Austen's world for reading too many books. Read it and weep, Virginia Woolf. Lydia, the youngest daughter, possessed of "animal spirits" - sexual appetites - is a Bridget Jones before her time.

How did you do? For 10 or over, collect your Janeite proficiency badge from the Jane Austen Society.

21 dezembro 2004

Hot and horny for Hitler
What drew German teens by the millions to the Hitler Youth? The uniforms, the camaraderie, the cultish adoration of Der Führer -- and lots of Aryan sex
Read more :-)

A question of pride
The women of Britain have spoken. Pride and Prejudice is the novel that has most transformed the lives of the nation's better half, according to Woman's Hour. But how well do they know the author? Let's play Mistressmind. Answers at the bottom of the page ...

First, five general questions.

1. Which Jane Austen heroine plays baseball?

2. There is one mention of excrement in the six major novels. Where?

3. Does Mr Elton (he who proposes after too much of "Mr Weston's good wine") actually marry Emma?

4. Who says, "Why do I not see my little Fanny?"

5. There is gambling, seduction and booze in the novels. Is there a whiff of tobacco breathing over the pages?

On to the winning novel itself.

1. What was P&P originally called?

2. The Guardian, last Thursday, called P&P "Jane Austen's salty-tongued commentary on the plight of women in the 19th century". Is it?

3. There are two instances of paedophile abuse of children in P&P. Who are the victims and who the perv?

4. Vegas comes to Longbourn. Who plays blackjack in the novel?

5. How much did the chimney piece in Lady Catherine de Bourgh's drawing-room cost?

6. How good, or bad, are the heroine's teeth?

7. Which of the five Bennet girls may have TB?

8. When, as Elizabeth tells Jane, did she first begin to love Darcy?

9. Does Austen ever talk dirty?

10. Of the five Bennet girls, Austen chose Lizzie as her heroine. Which of the sisters would a post-feminist Austen select?

17 dezembro 2004

The Guardian on Before Sunset:

"Something I've noticed about Hollywood of late is that, at the end of each year, I find it increasingly hard, looking back over the movies I've written about, to recollect most of them with any clarity. I'm not losing my memory. I'm only 41, and I can give you chapter and verse on films I saw in the 1970s and 1980s. No, I forget movies now mainly because they're forgettable. I think I managed to get through the entire June-to-November period without seeing a single worthwhile new movie come out of Tinseltown.

My movie of the year was Before Sunset, Richard Linklater's wise and wistful sequel to his sublime, nine-year-old Euro-American romance Before Sunrise. Talky, soulful, intelligent and, at 80 minutes, remarkably succinct and profound, it was an eloquent repudiation by example of the bloated and empty spectacles - and sequels - that mainstream Hollywood laid upon us. But much of its appeal had to do, tangentially at least, with geopolitics.

Here an American man and a Frenchwoman talked calmly and intelligently and listened to each other with respect and honesty. One of the most upsetting phenomena in American political discourse this year has been the United States' insulting dismissal of almost everything any European has to say about anything, besides the increasingly haunted-looking Tony Blair. As much as anything else, Before Sunset is a fantasy about how a lively discourse between the two countries, and by extension, the two main western power blocs, might or should be conducted. Linklater displayed an admirable determination not to speak in the grotesquely hostile manner of the Bush administration - and for that, no less than for the exquisite romance he and his collaborators have wrought, we should be grateful."


16 dezembro 2004


En una noche oscura,
con ansias en amores inflamada,
¡oh dichosa ventura!,
salí sin ser notada,
estando ya mi casa sosegada.

A escuras y segura,
por la secreta escala disfrazada,
¡oh dichosa ventura!,
a escuras e en celada,
estando ya mi casa sosegada.

En la noche dichosa,
en secreto, que nadie me veía,
ni yo miraba cosa,
sin otra luz e guía
sino la que en el corazón ardía.

Aquesta me guiaba
más cierto que la luz del mediodía,
a donde me esperaba
quien yo bien me sabía,
en parte donde nadie parecía.

¡Oh noche que guiaste!,
¡oh noche amable más que el alborada!,
¡oh noche que juntaste
Amado con amada,
amada en el Amado transformada!

En mi pecho florido,
que entero para él solo se guardaba,
allí quedó dormido,
y yo lo regalaba,
y el ventalle de cedros aire daba.

El aire de la almena,
cuando yo sus cabellos esparcía,
con su mano serena
en mi cuello hería,
y todos mis sentidos suspendía.

Quedéme, y olvidéme,
el rostro recliné sobre el Amado;
cesó todo, y dejéme,
dejando mi cuidado
entre las azucenas olvidado.


Numa noite escura
com ânsias em amores inflamada
Oh, ditosa aventura!
saí sem ser notada,
estando já minha casa sossegada.

Às escuras, mas segura,
Pela secreta escada disfarçada
Oh, ditosa aventura!
às escuras, disfarçada,
estando já minha casa sossegada.

Na noite ditosa,
em segredo, como ninguém me via,
nem eu via coisa alguma,
a não ser aqueloutra luz e guia
aquela que no coração meu ardia.

Ela me guiava
melhor estrela que a luz do meio-dia
aonde me esperava
quem bem eu sabia
no lugar onde ninguém se via

Oh, noite que conduziste!
Oh, noite mais amável que a alvorada!
Oh, noite que uniste
Amado com amada,
No amado a amada tornada!

No meu peito florindo
que inteiro para ele somente se guardava
aí caiu dormindo
e eu o admirava
e a aragem por entre os cedros refrescava

O ar d' ameia
quando pelos seus cabelos as minhas mãos corria
com a sua mão serena
no meu regaço acariciava
e todos os meus sentidos suspendia.

Dei-me ao abandono e perdi-me de mim
declinei meu rosto sobre o Amado;
cessou tudo, e deixei-me…,
deixando o meu cuidado
entre as açucenas abandonado.

[Para Carla]
This I got while investigating:


Obrigado / «arigato»


Numa discussão sobre a influência e marcas residuais da língua portuguesa na Ásia, caso da palavra "soldatu" na Malásia, um dos presentes jurou ter lido algo sobre a palavra japonesa "harigato" ter derivado da nossa "obrigado", coisa que por razões histórico-linguísticas me parece um absurdo.
Gostaria de saber se já alguma vez depararam com esta opinião absurda, e se tal poderia ter algum fundamento para além da pura coincidência de alguma semelhança.


Arigato (sem h, que representaria aspiração inexistente neste vocábulo), com origem no nosso obrigado, não seria tão absurdo como isso, mas o facto é que os Japoneses consideram a palavra autóctone, apesar de na sua língua existirem centenas de termos de origem portuguesa. Portanto julga-se que é pura coincidência a semelhança dos dois termos. Arigato propriamente quer dizer agradeço-lhe.

F. V. Peixoto da Fonseca

[from Ciberdúvidas]



Agora, uma lenda precisa ser desfeita: não poucas vezes encontrei a explicação de que a forma clássica de agradecimento japonesa, "arigatô", teria vindo do Port. obrigado. Explica um "entendido": "com a mania (?) dos japoneses em deixar a última sílaba mais forte, obrigado virou obrigadô - com o tempo, arigatô". Nossa! Isso é que é demonstrar profundo conhecimento e forte intuição lingüística! Agora, falando sério: arigatô, que podemos traduzir por nosso obrigado, vem de "arigatai" ("raro, difícil de encontrar"). Esse vocábulo já era usado no Japão muito antes de terem visto um português vivo; pode ser encontrado em textos antigos da literatura japonesa; aliás, era de se esperar que os japoneses, que falavam seu idioma mil anos antes dos portugueses aparecerem por lá, já soubessem expressar sua gratidão com palavras próprias. Essa explicação do "obrigadô" até parece coisa daquele sábio que demonstrava como a corneta veio do tambor: "Muito simples: o tam virou cor, e o bor virou neta"!

10 dezembro 2004

The Transformation Of Material Things

Once upon a time, I, Chuang Tzu, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chuang. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a distinction. The transition is called the transformation of material things.

Chuang Tzu, translated by Lin Yu-Tang, 1948

The Legend of Dragon Peak and A New Era for Whole Leaf Tea

600 plus years ago, in 1391, the founder of the Ming dynasty, the Hung-Wu Emperor, (aka Zhu Yuan Zhang, shown above) decreed that tributes of loose-leaf tea would replace traditional compressed teacakes. Simply put, the emperor thought cake tea was snobby and wasteful. Born of humble background, orphaned, and raised in a Buddhist Monastery, Zhu Yuan Zhang thought previous Chinese nobles had wasted too much time with elaborate tea making rituals.

His simple love of leaf and water transformed the art of making whole leaf teas throughout China and changed the way most of the world learned about and thought about tea.

The emperor’s first whole leaf tribute tea was probably Dragon Peak Green. The reason for this comes from a preceding period of struggle, when the emperor was battling to reunify China after centuries of Mongolian rule. According to the story, after losing the battle of JiuJiang, the emperor’s prescient advisor and strategist Liu Bo Wen retreated deep into the mountains where a peasant on Dragon Peak took pity on him and offered some tea.

Though General Liu hadn’t slept for the last three nights, one sip of this brew refreshed his spirit—spreading energy in his limbs and brightness in his eyes.

When asked about the tea, the farmer said, “It’s called Lightning Tea. After an early spring lightning bolt hit my field, 19 new trees were formed, and that’s where these leaves get their name. I’m honored that you like it.”

A keen mind, with a legendary ability to see the future, Liu Bo Wen had stumbled on something amazing. Born when lightning struck on Dragon Peak, a symbol of the imperial power, this tea was a sign of things to come. With the help of peasants and guidance from heaven, his troops would find new strength and seize the imperial throne. A grateful, general Liu rested for several days, thanked the peasant and returned to battle.

The tea was renamed when Liu was close to victory, and he brought the soon-to-be-emperor back to Dragon Peak and the peasant. Once again, with one taste, Zhu was amazed.

“Let’s call it Dragon Peak.” Said the leader. “Lightning Tea sounds too dangerous.”

And so a tea, a new dynasty, and new traditions were born.

09 dezembro 2004

Para ser grande, sê inteiro: nada
Teu exagera ou exclui.
Sê todo em cada coisa. Põe quanto és
No mínimo que fazes.
Assim em cada lago a lua toda
Brilha, porque alta vive.

Ricardo Reis

Para ser grande, sé entero. Nada
Tuyo exageres o excluyas.
Sé todo en cada cosa. Pon cuanto eres
En lo mínimo que hagas.
Así en cada lago la luna entera
Brilla, porque alta vive.

Ricardo Reis

08 dezembro 2004


a Raúl Gustavo Aguirre

Esta manía de saberme ángel,
sin edad,
sin muerte en qué vivirme,
sin piedad por mi nombre
ni por mis huesos que lloran vagando.

¿Y quién no tiene un amor?
¿Y quién no goza entre amapolas?
¿Y quién no posee un fuego, una muerte,
un miedo, algo horrible,
aunque fuere con plumas
aunque fuere con sonrisas?

Siniestro delirio amar una sombra.
La sombra no muere.
Y mi amor
sólo abraza a lo que fluye
como lava del infierno:
una logia callada,
fantasmas en dulce erección,
sacerdotes de espuma,
y sobre todo ángeles,
ámgeles bellos como cuchillos
que se elevan en la noche
y devastan la esperanza.

07 dezembro 2004


La fama de Bahamut llegó a los desiertos de Arabia, donde los hombres alteraron y magnificaron su imagen. De hipopótamo o elefante lo hicieron pez que se mantiene sobre un agua sin fondo y sobre el pez imaginaron un toro y sobre el toro una montaña hecha de rubí y sobre la montaña un ángel y sobre el ángel seis infiernos y sobre los infiernos la tierra y sobre la tierra siete cielos. Leemos en una tradición recogida por Lane:

«Dios creó la tierra, pero la tierra no tenía sostén y así bajo la tierra creó un ángel. Pero el ángel no tenía sostén y así bajo los pies del ángel creó un peñasco hecho de rubí. Pero el peñasco no tenía sostén y así bajo el peñasco creó un toro con 4 mil ojos, orejas, narices, bocas, lenguas y pies. Pero el toro no tenía sostén y así bajo el toro creó un pez llamado Bahamut, y bajo el pez puso agua, y bajo el agua puso oscuridad, y la ciencia humana no ve más allá de ese punto»

Otros declaran que la tierra tiene su fundamento en el agua; el agua, en el peñasco; el peñasco, en la cerviz del toro; el toro, en un lecho de arena; la arena, en Bahamut; Bahamut, en un viento sofocante; el viento sofocante, en una neblina. La base de la neblina se ignora.

Tan inmenso y tan resplandeciente es Bahamut que los ojos humanos no pueden sufrir su visión. Todos los mares de la tierra, puestos en una de sus fosas nasales, serían como un grano de mostaza en mitad del desierto. En la noche 496 del libro de Las Mil y Una Noches, se refiere que a Isa (Jesús) le fue concedido ver a Bahamut y que, lograda esa merced, rodó por el suelo y tardó tres días en recobrar el conocimiento. Se añade que bajo el desaforado pez hay un mar, y bajo el mar un abismo de aire, y bajo el aire, fuego, y bajo el fuego, una serpiente que se llama Falak, en cuya boca están los infiernos.

La ficción del peñasco sobre el toro y del toro sobre Bahamut y de Bahamut sobre cualquier otra cosa parece ilustrar la prueba cosmológica de que hay Dios, en la que se argumenta que toda causa requiere una causa anterior y se proclama la necesidad de afirmar una causa primera, para no proceder en infinito.

Jorge Luis Borges y Margarita Guerrero, El Libro de los Seres Imaginarios, 1967

[Es posible que el origen de la palabra Behemoth venga precisamente de Bahamut]

06 dezembro 2004

I'm So Glad I'm A Beta

Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they're so frightfully clever. I'm really awfuly glad I'm a Beta, because I don't work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas. Gammas are stupid. They all wear green and Delta Children wear khaki. Oh no, I don't want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse. They're too stupid to be able to read or write. Besides they wear black, which is such a beastly colour. I'm so glad I'm a Beta.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
Don't believe the hype

Ever felt you're missing the point with some of our biggest cultural heroes? Admit it - everyone can name at least one hip, wildly praised band, album, film, TV show or author that they've never really rated. In this special issue, Guide writers get personal and demolish some of the greats they hate

The Strokes
Four bars guitar. Stop. Four bars guitar. Stop. Then a muffled vocal that sounds like it's been recorded on a 1912 telephone line under the Atlantic. Bit more de na na na. The end. This is the Strokes - Status Quo, minus the jokey self-awareness that every single one of their songs is exactly, absolutely, 100% the same. At least the Quo looked good. The Strokes are a kind of Top Shop version of the Ramones. With Amanda de Cadenet in tow. So manufactured, they make Busted look like the Sex Pistols; so east coast posh and quotably articulate, they're basically a highly punchable cross between Mia Farrow and David Starkey, minus the humility. What we ever saw in them I shall never know, but one thing's for sure: I'll be buying the third album, just as I bought the first two.

James Brown
He's the godfather of soul, which is fine as long as "soul" is defined as funk workouts bereft of tunes. Brown is one of the most pernicious influences on pop for the last 50 years. His canon consists of little more than brass-driven aerobics workouts, over which he barks claims of his own magnificence, and were he to yell "Get up, I feel like a sex machine!" you'd be dialling 999 rather than leaping into bed. Apologists point to his work for the black community, but a former jailbird who has faced arraignments for armed robbery, tax evasion and spousal abuse looks exposed on the moral high ground. So say it loud: he's crap, and he's proud.

The Clash
They had white jeans and big gums and they went "WEUUUURRRGH " because they were punks. Only, unlike the Sex Pistols, who turned punk's musical limitations into a corking art-school pantomime, the Clash were beholden to cliche, their every discount riff, "spontaneous " guitar demolition and mucus-filled roar plucked from the lichen betwixt the flagstones of 60s rock. What's more, Sandinista! - a triple album of rubbish reggae, children's choirs and rub-a-dub dub - proved they were as prone to self-indulgence as the prog-rock braggards they had avowed to overthrow. "But," bleat the apologists, "they were political." The only sensible response to which being: "So was Enoch Powell, but even he'd have drawn the line at white jeans."

Pet Sounds
The word genius has been incorrectly applied for so long it's lost all meaning. Brian Wilson is considered a genius. Pet Sounds is his cure for cancer, his theory of relativity. His particular genius lies in making songs about summer sound like songs about Christmas and spending the best years of his life in a sandpit full of dogshit. With this album he went into the studio with nothing except the cream of LA's session musicians and created an album that is basically a series of finicky arrangements hunting for a song. Hardly anyone bought it when it came out and you can't dance to it. Well that's because it's art. It's anti-rock'n'roll: all candy-striped shirts and songs about how they can't wait to get old. A pop star's life is supposed to be aspirational. The only enviable quality Wilson has is his deafness in one ear: he'll never experience the full horror of this.

The Stone Roses
"Just play it from time to time," advise the sleevenotes. "It gets better and better." But after 15 years I'm wondering when any small improvement might spring from it and, frankly, I'm beginning to lose patience. Which is obviously a worry, because I might never appreciate THE GREATEST ALBUM OF ALL TIME. Instead, I'm sitting here listening to an average rock album - lyrically pedestrian and with a sonic policy swerving from the play-safe to the over-indulgent. This from a group incapable of playing live and whose inability to follow their debut's alleged genius with a decent second album proved that if this album did have merits, they were just a fluke.

U2 are probably the most over-rated band in history. Their debut, Boy, was a classic and still sounds fresh and impassioned. Fatally though, they became a band that believed their own (fawning) press and whose egotism has devoured their talent. The Joshua Tree showed what a good guitar group/stadium rock band U2 could be. Sadly, they had the sort of pretensions that usually afflict mediocre American outfits like the Chili Peppers. On Achtung Baby and Zooropa they started plundering other bands' innovations and moving into "dance music" - though only the whitest, geekiest student could dance to them. Bono's ego meanwhile became so over-inflated he made Robbie Williams look camera-shy. As a political mouthpiece, the effectiveness of what he's spoken out about has always been over-shadowed by the column inches he's received. His insistence on singing the key line in the new version of Band Aid for example hardly seems very... charitable.

Neil Young
Like the poor and Pauline Fowler, Neil Young is always with us, a reminder of the drearier things of life. Venerated by paunchy Mojo-reading types, Young - whose reedy voice is the exact timbre of a continental dial tone - has changed neither his riffs nor his plaid shirt since he left Buffalo Springfield in 1968. Forever droning on about a mythical, moral America, Young has even-handedly bored three generations equally thoroughly, and unleashed some unspeakable musical atrocities. His last record, Greendale, was a concept album apparently scripted by William McGonagall, the anti-communist dirge Rockin' In The Free World remains one of the direst songs ever penned, and so relentlessly maudlin is Young that poor, impressionable Kurt Cobain quoted him in his suicide note. The apologists who boast that Neil Young has "never sold out" forget the main reason things don't sell out: people don't want to buy them.

Elvis Costello
He's done rock. He's done classical. He's written songs for the woman out of Transvision Vamp, and with Burt Bacharach. And really, anyone who has ever experienced discomfort with Elvis Costello (and there have been plenty of opportunities for this: his voice, his hats, his use of the expression "the work" to describe his albums) may need no explanation beyond the diversity of that list. For all his punk integrity, Elvis Costello is at base a jack-of-all-trades, occupied as much with his facility with music's form as with its heart. There have been great bits - the words to Shipbuilding, say - but his re-invention speaks less of creativity, more of someone who can't make up his mind. He was great on Larry Sanders, though - so maybe acting's next.

David Bowie
The finite possibilities of rock'n'roll and the law of averages ensure that it is impossible, during a career as long and prolific as Bowie's, not to create something passable, unless you're David Byrne. So Bowie has had his moments: Starman and Rebel Rebel (as good as anything by Wizzard or Mud) and the incandescent Heroes, an eternal anthem for everything. However, he's also had his hours. The paradox of Bowie is that the albums upon which his legend are founded are his worst. Station To Station is perhaps a great cocaine record, but only insofar as it unimprovably demonstrates the drug's ability to turn people into humourless, self-absorbed bores. And Ziggy Stardust? Ziggy Stardust is, basically, a musical, a genre of entertainment for which no excuse can ever be made. Bowie is essentially a mildly amusing purveyor of novelty pop who has struck lucky more than most. Less Ziggy Stardust, more Alvin.

Elvis is basically Shakin' Stevens writ large. Musically, the legacy Elvis left behind is abject. Shaky, Showaddywaddy and, let's not forget, of course, a million and one sorry impersonators. Elvis's voice may have been unique when he first emerged but it sums up what an overrated singer he is that anyone can do Elvis's voice. Elvis was of course the first. Fair enough. He was also the first Rick Astley or Gareth Gates - a one-man boy-band singing other people's songs, and being managed by a svengali. Elvis may have been the first pop star but he was also the first sell-out, making a series of god-awful movies before prostituting himself for Vegas, the icing on the cake (or the burger) for a career that had all the credibility and substance of Liberace - and with some of the same costumes. At least Frank Sinatra - another overrated cabaret singer - made a couple of good films.

Bob Marley
No other figure in music is so reflexively fawned over as the man whose most tiresome fans insist on hailing him Robert Nesta Marley, as if having a middle name is a signifier of gravitas. Marley did fulfil two criteria for posthumous adoration - he looked cool and died early - but when contemplating his music and his lyrics, the only discussion to be had is about which was more boring, more witless. Despite the predictable three-chord plod to which every one of his songs was set, the wooden spliff goes to his words: rhyming-dictionary tosh unrivalled until the advent of Dolores O'Riordan. When Marley sang of being "Iron, like a lion, in Zion," one braced for the shout out to his mate Brian, who had a tie on. As one Marley fan said to another when the dope wore off: "Christ, this music's terrible."

Tom Waits
Writing about Bruce Springsteen, former MC5 manager John Sinclair found an excellent way of describing why The Boss's music wasn't rock'n'roll. Essentially, he said, it was about characters, not real people. Most damningly, that it was "like West Side Story". And really, that's Tom Waits all over. This isn't news to anyone, of course - Waits is a cool actor, who makes "dramatic" music - but if you value anything remotely like authenticity, or involvement with the music you listen to, then this is just clanking nonsense about dwarves. Of course, the fans maintain, "he's so far in character, it enables him to reveal more about himself". But so what? For all its supposed otherness, this is incredibly simple music, so boldly signposted ("what strange music", "what colourful characters") as to leave no grey areas in which your input, feelings, or responses are even necessary. If you like pantomime, it's fine. Just don't try to say it's rock'n'roll, that's all.

Captain Beefheart
There's nothing so boring as affected "madness": it's just depressing and annoying. Same goes for Captain Beefheart. He's namechecked far more often than he is listened to, and his Trout Mask Replica album is deep-fried toss on toast. If you recorded Anne from Little Britain over a soundtrack of toddlers blowing saxophones at random, you could sell it as newly discovered Trout Mask Replica out-takes featuring a guest vocalist. Just call it Zoot Talon Cornflake Mama and hey presto! Instant classic!

The little feller's inclusion requires qualification. Prince has made some great singles, though fewer than he thinks, and two albums worth owning (Parade, Sign O' The Times), both released when Reagan was still president. If Prince had jacked it in after Lovesexy, there would be no reason to regard him with anything but fondness. However, his failure to apply quality control, and hissy fits when record companies tried to restrict him from his preferred schedule of three albums of experimental funk and interminable guitar solos every month, have corrupted his legacy. The 80s albums have dated badly: 1999 sounds like the fifth-best rock group in Kiev, Purple Rain a riot of period pomposity in which you can hear the hair-spray. Diamonds And Pearls hasn't fared much better. Prince's extra-curricular buffoonery hasn't helped - insisting on being known by a squiggle like the sign on a toilet door, and declaring himself a "slave" of the record company which had paid him millions and indulged his turgid excesses. This was belief-beggaringly crass - the equivalent of claiming POW status because you got food poisoning at Butlins.

Why did Kurt Cobain whine and grimace like a man with crippling haemorrhoids? Maybe it was because he was a genius who channelled the existential despair of an entire generation through his poetic songwriting. Maybe he did have haemorrhoids. Or maybe it was because he was embarrassed. Embarrassed by the fact that Generation X had mistaken his navel-gazing lyrics and tuneless, guitar-thrashing noises for something more meaningful. Embarrassed by his crappy old jumper and lifeless, can't-do-a-thing-with-it hair. Embarrassed by the knowledge that, yes, he was in the defining band of the early 90s; but that the early 90s was the most rubbish era in pop history. Who were the competition? Ned's Atomic Dustbin? Sven Vath? Soho? He must have felt like Daley Thompson winning We Are The Champions. Nirvana was heavy metal by the back door, heavy metal without the consolation of Spandex and hairspray. Kurt knew it and he was so embarrassed he blew his own brains out. I didn't blame him.

The Rolling Stones
For years the debate raged - who's best: the Beatles or the Stones? Well, the debate raged between cretins, anyhow. Anyone with an ounce of sense and a pair of functioning ears knew there was no contest: the Beatles were better by a factor of 15,000. The Stones recorded some undeniably great tracks. But they also shat out a load of dull, ugly, clumsy rock. And don't start protesting that Mick Jagger is the most charismatic frontman the rock world has ever seen - he's a hideous, tulip-mouthed cadaver with nothing interesting to say, and the most grating voice this side of Sybil Fawlty. The most interesting thing about the Rolling Stones is the amount of drugs they took - and there's nothing more boring than that.

Jim Morrison
Only a blowhard stockbroker's son like Oliver Stone could fall in love with a boorish, spoiled admiral's brat like Jim Morrison. He styled himself "the Lizard King - I can do anything". This lizard didn't even survive a strenuous wank in a hotel bathtub, but he popped his alligator boots just in time to secure unwarranted legend status. If he'd lived another two years they'd have found him out - as they would James Dean. Cool band, though, for two albums (out of seven) and a couple of singles; pity about the pretentious name and the ridiculous high-school revolutionary lyrics. I cite the album Waiting For The Sun and the alleged poetry on the RIP-exploitation disc, An American Prayer, as evidence of Jim's profound inch-deepness. The one time it all came together, on LA Woman, he had to screw it up with all that "Mr Mojo Rising" crap in the middle. Always the knob with Morrison. Arthur Lee's Love is the real 1967 LA band. Who are those fools at his grave?

The Beatles
Thanks to these four, Britain's high watermark of musical creativity is still considered to be pub rock made by white idiots. As if polluting the 1960s with their safe, insipid music wasn't bad enough, they've exerted a stranglehold on culture since, inspiring generations of terrible bands and being feted by Chris Evans and Alan Partridge. Between their toe-curling rhyming couplets, tax-dodging, horseshit "spirituality" and Octopus's Garden, the Beatles embody everything wrong with the 60s in general and hippies in particular.

What's Going On
Often cited as the all-time greatest album by music critics sent into convulsions of overpraise by any modicum of political awareness on the part of their black heroes. Borne on a tide of blathery sax, hotel lounge-bar cooing and light orchestral strings, What's Going On is the very inessence of wishy-washiness. Set against the backdrop of the continuing Vietnam war, it's replete with astute observations: "Brother, brother/There's far too many of you dyin'", coupled with bullet-hard, imaginative prescriptions to end the carnage that wouldn't embarrass a greetings-card copywriter: "You know we've got to find a way/To bring some loving here today." On Right On, Marvin invokes Jesus as the ultimate solution, religion as we know having been the surest antidote to war since time began. Mawkish, handwringing idiocy that vaporises on aural impact.

From The Guardian

01 dezembro 2004

The 'Vinland Map'
This is a copy of the "Vinland Map" at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.. The map, which predates Christopher Columbus, may prove that he was not the first European to reach America. Danish scientists will apply modern dating techniques to the ink and paper of the original map to finally determine whether it is a forgery or not.
Danish experts will travel to the United States to study a controversial parchment said to be the oldest map of America and which, if authentic, would support the theory that Vikings discovered the New World five centuries before Columbus, officials said last week.

The map, which is said to date from 1434 and was found in 1957, is believed by some to be evidence that Vikings who departed from Greenland around the year 1000 were the first to discover America.

The document is of Vinland, the part of North America which is believed to be what is today the Canadian province of Newfoundland, and was supposedly discovered by the Viking Leif Erikson, the son of Erik the Red.

Three researchers from the Danish Royal Library and School of Conservation hope that modern techniques developed in Denmark will be able to "shed more light on this document whose authenticity is questioned worldwide," Rene Larsen, head of the School of Conservation in Copenhagen and the leader of the project, told AFP.

The trio will on Monday begin their work on the map, which is kept at Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in Connecticut.

The three have been "authorized to, for two to three days, photograph, analyze with microscope and undertake various studies of the document and its ink, but not alter it," Larsen said.

He said the results of the study would be presented early next year.

"We hope that the new techniques that we have developed in Denmark ... will help to better (date) the document and ink with which the map was drawn in order to lift the veil on its authenticity or counterfeit," he said.

The map was considered a sensation when it was found. Experts are largely in agreement that the parchment dates from the 1400s, but by the 1970s some experts had begun arguing that the ink used contained materials that were only developed in the 20th century.

British chemist Robin Clark has meanwhile said that he believes the document is a fake.

He based his conclusion on the work of another researcher, Walter McCrone, who in the 1970s found that the ink contained a derivate of titanium dioxide, which did not exist until the 1920s, according to the journal Analytical Chemistry.

From Discovery

30 novembro 2004


Check Robosapiens story abridged in The Independent (The image goes directly to the Robosapiens website itself)


Rubik's Cube

This perplexing treat became the must-have toy, Christmas 1981. This Eighties icon shifted more than 100 million units.

Sylvanian Families

This figurine franchise addressed the pressing debate as to how a fox and a chicken would get on were they ever forced to live in the same house - and dress in turn-of-the-century frontier costume. They won Toy of the Year an unprecedented three times, in 1987, 1988, and 1989.


Fickle children forgot that a Tamagotchi is for life, abandoning these virtual pets almost as soon as the 1996 festive rush was over. Their Japanese manufacturers shipped more than 70 million units in two months to the US and UK alone.


The cuddly, loquacious Furby took the toy market by storm in the late Nineties. Famously banned from the Pentagon, because they were "able to learn".

Book aid: a literary pantheon follows musicians' lead on Aids in Africa
First the pop stars sang for aid to Africa, and now an illustrious group of authors are helping victims of Aids in the continent. Twenty-one writers, including five Nobel prize winners, have produced an anthology to raise money for a charity helping those with Aids and HIV in southern Africa.

Telling Tales, a collection of short stories by Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Gabriel García Márquez, Susan Sontag, Woody Allen, John Updike and 15 others, will be launched at the United Nations headquarters in New York by Kofi Annan tomorrow, before World Aids Day.

The book was the brainchild of the Booker prize winning author Nadine Gordimer after it struck her that writers should follow the example of musicians, who have rerecorded Do They Know It's Christmas and have also been active in supporting Aids causes across Africa.

"I became very conscious of the fact that musicians and singers were having concert performances in aid of Aids and HIV victims, and I thought, 'What are writers doing?'" she said from her home in South Africa.

"There has been no gesture from writers themselves to show they are human beings and have social responsibilities too."

Gordimer wrote to an international list of 20 of her favourite authors and asked them to donate a story to the cause. To her surprise, every one, including Arthur Miller, Amos Oz, Günter Grass and Chinua Achebe, agreed.

Gordimer, a Nobel prize winner, edited the anthology and then persuaded the 11 publishers involved to waive royalties. All profits from the sale of the book will go to Treatment Action Campaign, which tackles HIV and Aids in southern Africa, the worst-hit region in the world.

Gordimer, the author of The Lying Days and The Conservationist, said she simply asked for stories about "anything in the vast range of human experience" which people would want to read and buy as a Christmas present for their friends and family. She laid down no rules for the authors but only stipulated that they should not submit work on the subject of Aids.

"I did not want anything about HIV/Aids. There are enough documents already giving us all the facts and figures," she said. "I hope the world is going to tackle this pandemic. One of the points the book makes quietly is that it is a pandemic.

"The writers come from all these different countries, many of which have the idea that Aids isn't their problem.

"There is a tendency in the west to think Aids is only really in Africa and doesn't affect us personally. This isn't true. Everyone travels all over the world now, and this awful disease travels with us."

29 novembro 2004

(...) marmalade. ‘I was told by the French owner of a well-known brand of jam,’ wrote the reader, ‘that the origin of the word marmalade is in fact the English mispronunciation of the French phrase ‘‘maladie de Marie’’. Mary, Queen of Scots, would visit her close ally the French king by sea from Scotland rather than risk the wrath of Elizabeth I by travelling through England. Mary suffered awful sea-sickness during the often choppy crossing. Eating portions of bitter Seville oranges was found to be an effective remedy for this illness. Hence the name of “guérir la maladie de Marie’’ (to cure Mary’s sickness) for small pieces of bitter Seville oranges.’

A likely story! When did these Marian visits to France during Elizabeth’s reign take place, then? And where does the French word marmelade come from, pray?

I’ve heard a less garbled version in which the supposed origin is ‘Marie est malade’. You might as well say mal de mer. But the truth, as a less Rutherfordian reader suggested the day before, is that marmalade comes from the Portuguese marmelada, from marmelo, ‘a quince’. The Portuguese got it, ‘with dissimilation of consonants’, as the OED neatly puts it, from the Latin melimelum, from Greek melimelon, as it were, ‘honey-apple’, melon being the Greek for ‘apple’, as malum is the Latin. In Spanish mermalada means ‘jam’, but once meant ‘quince preserve’, even though the Spanish for ‘quince’ is membrillo, also from melimelum. The English quince, like the Catalan codony, comes from Latin cotoneum.

In English marmalade first meant ‘quince preserve’, as is found in the 1530s, before Mary, Queen of Scots, was born. Oranges are not the only fruit, even today, but the first reference I know to non-quince marmalade in English is from Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy: ‘marmalet of plummes’. The famous Mrs Glasse writes (1767) of ‘marmalade of cherries’; the just as famous Eliza Acton (1845) of marmalade made from apples. The less famous Mrs Raffald (author of The Experienced English Housekeeper, 1769) counsels taking ‘the clearest Seville oranges you can get’. I was sorry to learn that, after her death, Mrs Raffald’s husband lived extravagantly until he died, aged 89.

The Brain's Own Marijuana
Research into natural chemicals that mimic marijuana's effects in the brain could help to explain--and suggest treatments for--pain, anxiety, eating disorders, phobias and other conditions
Marijuana is a drug with a mixed history. Mention it to one person, and it will conjure images of potheads lost in a spaced-out stupor. To another, it may represent relaxation, a slowing down of modern madness. To yet another, marijuana means hope for cancer patients suffering from the debilitating nausea of chemotherapy, or it is the promise of relief from chronic pain. The drug is all these things and more, for its history is a long one, spanning millennia and continents. It is also something everyone is familiar with, whether they know it or not. Everyone grows a form of the drug, regardless of their political leanings or recreational proclivities. That is because the brain makes its own marijuana, natural compounds called endocannabinoids (after the plant's formal name, Cannabis sativa).

Read on in Scientific American
Textbook Disclaimers, anyone?

The Give-and-Take At the Book Thing

BALTIMORE -- Early one morning a couple of winters ago, a homeless man scanned the spines of hundreds of books set in neat rows outside the Book Thing of Baltimore. As he searched for a good book to kill time before heading to a nearby shelter, a sparkling gold Mercedes-Benz SUV pulled up to the curb. Out stepped a fifty-something woman wearing a full-length mink coat and carrying two or three Neiman Marcus bags full of paperbacks.

"It was just so cliche," recalls Book Thing founder Russell Wattenberg. "It's like one of those things where if I saw this on a TV show, I'd say they were, like, stretching it."

The paperbacks were a donation to the Book Thing, a novel kind of exchange where thousands of books are given away each weekend. The woman wanted a receipt, so Wattenberg ducked into the crowded basement from which the Book Thing operates and wrote one up. When he emerged, he says, the wealthy woman and the destitute man were deep in conversation.

"The two of them are talking about who's better: Ludlum or Grisham, Scott Turow." Wattenberg watched as the woman began pulling books out of her Neiman Marcus bags, "and she says, 'This was real good' and 'If you like him, you're going to like this.' " Even after Wattenberg handed over the receipt, their conversation carried on for another 20 minutes.

"That's the whole thing with the Book Thing," Wattenberg says. "All I am is a middleman. The people have books. . . . They give them to me, they're happy to have a place to see them go somewhere, and the people that get the books are happy to get the books."

Wattenberg, perpetually clad in jeans and a black Book Thing T-shirt, still has the accent of his home town, Brooklyn. He was on his way to Florida nearly a decade ago in a tan Dodge van when he stopped for gas in Baltimore. He decided to stay.

While bartending at Dougherty's Pub seven years ago, Wattenberg overheard teachers at Friday happy hour lamenting their need for books. He began taking 10 percent of his tips each week to buy books for them at flea markets and used-book stores, he says. He would give the teachers the keys to the van and tell them to take whatever they wanted.

And so the Book Thing was born. It eventually incorporated and moved into a 950-square-foot basement at 27th and Charles streets near Johns Hopkins University about four years ago. Wattenberg, 32, says he now works full time at the operation, paying himself an annual salary of about $18,000.

Some of that money comes from donations from individuals, but most is collected through the sale of rare books. Wattenberg says he goes through all the books that come in and sets aside those he thinks might be especially valuable. If they are, he sells them at auctions or on rare-book Web sites and uses the profits to pay the Book Thing's rent, electric bill and other expenses. "One-tenth of 1 percent of the books that come in here get sold to fund giving away the rest of them," he says.

It's a bare-bones operation: The basement has no heat or running water, no bathroom, and most of the light comes from the hanging light bulbs in each alcove. The Book Thing's annual budget hovers around $50,000, according to tax records. That's a low figure considering the thousands of books the nonprofit gives away.

Inside the basement and scattered on the concrete outside are tens of thousands of books -- all donated, all free. Shelves line nearly every inch of wall space; books that couldn't be crammed onto the overburdened shelves lean against them in stacks several feet high. Every Saturday and Sunday, Wattenberg throws open the door to the public -- everyone is welcome and they can take away as much reading material as they like.

The only condition is that each book must be marked with the "THIS IS A FREE BOOK" stamp. "This way, we don't have people who are book dealers come in, haul away a bunch of books and sell them," Wattenberg explains. It is also a useful tool in keeping count of the books taken since everyone has to stop at the door and get each book stamped.

Wattenberg estimates that 20,000 books come in each week and 20,000 are taken out. Many are picked up by the weekend visitors or given away at major events such as the Baltimore Book Festival and ArtScape, but "the majority of books that go out are going to community centers, literacy programs, schools, libraries, prisons," he says.

What book turns up most at the Book Thing? " 'Iacocca,' " Wattenberg says without hesitation, explaining that any book that was a huge seller but had little staying power is likely to make its way, en masse, to this basement.

Children's books, cookbooks and "the hard subjects -- math, science, accounting" -- go the fastest, he says. "People take books to learn a skill like accounting. They can't afford to go to school; this is how they're getting their education."

On a recent Saturday, industrial engineer Waithaka Mukira is among those at the Book Thing. He will be moving with his family back to his native Kenya to be with his parents after 20 years in the United States, so he's looking for "something to keep us busy," he says. He comes to the book hub each Saturday, leaving with boxes of novels, science texts, even a few farming books for his dad. The science books are for Mukira's wife, Dawn, a high school math teacher who plans to work as a tutor in Kenya.

Packing novels into an overstuffed cardboard box, Mukira looks around at the bounty and says, "It is my heaven, I can tell you that."

Paul Britt is helping to start a library for children with sickle cell anemia at Baltimore's Sinai Hospital. He says he wants to provide "something for them to do to take their minds off what's going on."

A few shelves over, six or seven teenage girls from a Baltimore group home crowd around the family and parenting section. One yanks a paperback off a shelf and says excitedly, "Ooh! Who wanted to read 'A Child Called 'It'?" A redhead thrusts her hand in the air and shouts, "Me!" She grabs the book and tosses it into her box.

Abishek Chitlangia, 23, picks through piles of forgotten fiction. His friends consider visits to the Book Thing a ritual: "Anytime we come here, we have to pick up a book -- it's like when you go to a shrine and you have to touch the feet of an idol," he says. "This is a beautiful place."

But the Book Thing is in jeopardy. According to Wattenberg, the new owner of the building where it is housed raised the rent on the basement from $235 to $525 per month. Because the new lease is month-to-month, that figure could keep rising.

"Right now we're looking for funding from anybody we can get it from to purchase a building," Wattenberg says. In addition to the rent increase, "this place is way too small for what we need," he says.

Wattenberg wants the Book Thing to remain accessible by public transportation, be wheelchair-accessible, and be in a neighborhood where people feel comfortable dropping off their books.

Aleks Martray, 23, browsing in the history and politics section, is worried about the Book Thing's uncertain future. "I think a lot of people have that ambition of wanting knowledge and only have limited resources. But they come to the Book Thing and realize it's not that difficult," he says. "These kinds of things are essential -- I don't think they should be seen as disposable."

After all, he says, citing a former Baltimore mayor's slogan for the town, "this is supposed to be 'the city that reads.' "

From The Washington Post, registration required :-p

24 novembro 2004

Computers as Authors? Literary Luddites Unite!

For some people, writing a novel is a satisfying exercise in self-expression. For me, it's a hideous blend of psychoanalysis and cannibalism that is barely potent enough to overcome a series of towering avoidance mechanisms - including my own computer. Writers and computers nowadays are locked in such an enduringly dysfunctional embrace that it can be hard to tell us apart. We both rely heavily on memory, for instance. We are both calculating, complex and crash-prone. And like Hebrew National hot dogs, we both seem to answer to a higher power: writers, according to Plato, were divinely inspired; computers have Bill Gates.

Occasionally you hear of a Luddite novelist who shuns computers, but the truth is that most of us would be lost without them. If I rail and curse at mine, it is partly out of resentment at our miserable co-dependence. Imagine, then, the blow to my scribbler's vanity when I discovered a while back that computers might get along just fine without writers.

This is not science fiction. With little fanfare and (so far) no appearances at Barnes & Noble, computers have started writing without us scribes. They are perfectly capable of nonfiction prose, and while the reputation of Henry James is not yet threatened, computers can even generate brief outbursts of fiction that are probably superior to what many humans could turn out - even those not in master of fine arts programs. Consider the beginning of a short story dealing with the theme of betrayal:

"Dave Striver loved the university - its ivy-covered clocktowers, its ancient and sturdy brick, and its sun-splashed verdant greens and eager youth. The university, contrary to popular opinion, is far from free of the stark unforgiving trials of the business world: academia has its own tests, and some are as merciless as any in the marketplace. A prime example is the dissertation defense: to earn the Ph.D., to become a doctor, one must pass an oral examination on one's dissertation. This was a test Professor Edward Hart enjoyed giving."

That pregnant opening paragraph was written by a computer program known as Brutus.1 that was developed by Selmer Bringsjord, a computer scientist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and David A. Ferrucci, a researcher at I.B.M.

Or consider this sensitive reinterpretation of a literary classic:

"The road to grandmother's house led through the dark forest, but Little Red Riding Hood was not afraid and she went on as happy as a lark. The birds sang her their sweetest songs while the squirrels ran up and down the tall trees. Now and then, a rabbit would cross her path."

What you just read is the work of StoryBook, "an end-to-end narrative prose generation system that utilizes narrative planning, sentence planning, a discourse history, lexical choice, revision, a full-scale lexicon and the well-known Fuf/Surge surface realizer." Believe it or not, that description was written not by a computer but by the humans who created StoryBook, Charles B. Callaway and James C. Lester, who are computer scientists.

That no computer has yet written the Great American Novel may be because computers are subject to some of the same handicaps that afflict human writers. First, writing is hard! Although computers can work unhindered by free will, bourbon or divorce, such advantages are outweighed by a lack of life experience or emotions. Second, and all too familiar to living writers of fiction, there is no money in it. Unable to teach creative writing or marry rich, computers have to depend on research grants. And why would anyone pay for a computer to do something that humans can still do better for peanuts?

Still, what has been accomplished so far is scary enough, and surely there is more to come, thanks to rapid advances in computing power and the rise of "narratology" (how stories are told) as an academic field of study, among other unwholesome trends that are making the novelist's life ever more perilous.

Computers have been doing literary work for a while now - helping nab plagiarists, for instance - and there is even fiction-writing software for people to use, in one case complete "with 2,363 narrative situations." Professor Bringsjord meanwhile is working on a logical framework for the problem of evil, hoping a computer can write fiction on that theme next. It is hard not to worry that sooner or later computers will be monopolizing the best-seller lists rather than focusing on such worthwhile goals as producing an intelligible royalty statement.

Fortunately, flesh-and-blood writers are nowhere near having to hang up their turtlenecks. When I called Steven Pinker, the Harvard University psychologist whose research focuses on language and cognition, he pointed out that the human brain consists of 100 trillion synapses that are subjected to a lifetime of real-world experience. While it is conceivable that computers will eventually write novels, Dr. Pinker says, "I doubt they'd be very good novels by human standards."

If we don't get much good fiction out of computers, we may at least gain some wholesome new perspective on the process of creating literature. The advent of storytelling computers suggests that thinking people and thinking machines confront many of the same problems in writing fiction, even if their solutions are different. Computers have to rely on a rigorous system of logic, while human writers try to turn their disorganized natures to advantage. Our traditional emphasis on inspiration promotes a reliance on serendipity, which, in turn, helps dampen the potentially paralyzing awareness of the infinite choices available when you create a fictional world.

The economist Herbert Simon, who reminded us of the futility of trying to consider every possible alternative in a world without end, might have had in mind the budding novelist in Albert Camus's "Plague," determined to create a perfect first sentence and therefore unable to advance beyond it.

It was Simon's ideas - particularly his notion of "satisficing" - that first got me interested in fiction-writing machines. Though in theory a person shopping for new shoes could consider all the pairs on the planet, in fact, the cost is way too high - an entire life spent shoe-shopping. So in the real world we visit one or two stores, try on a few in our size and buy a pair.

Satisficing in this way - settling, or even sensing, what is good enough - is something novelists must do as well. We think of an idea and go with it because pausing to systematically consider every plot twist, character or phrase that might come next would lead nowhere.

Computers are just as subject as humans to Simon's "bounded rationality." Computers cannot create narratives by using brute computational force to mindlessly try every alternative. It may be fun to think that 10,000 monkeys typing for 10,000 years will sooner or later randomly produce "Paradise Lost," but evidently this is no more plausible for silicon than simians. Computers don't even play chess this way, Dr. Pinker told me, having noted elsewhere that the number of possible sentences of 20 words or less that the average person can understand is perhaps a hundred million trillion, or many times the number of seconds since the universe was born. "The possibilities boggle the mind very quickly," he says.

This doesn't mean nobody is trying. On the Internet, the Monkey Shakespeare Simulator (http://user.tninet.se/~ecf599g/aardasnails/java/Monkey/webpages/) generates random keystrokes and matches them against a database of Shakespeare's plays. The record, last time I looked, was 21 consecutive letters and spaces from - aptly enough - "Love's Labour's Lost."

From the NYTimes

Lud·dite Listen: [ ldt ]

  1. Any of a group of British workers who between 1811 and 1816 rioted and destroyed laborsaving textile machinery in the belief that such machinery would diminish employment.

  2. One who opposes technical or technological change.

[After Ned Ludd, an English laborer who was supposed to have destroyed weaving machinery around 1779.]

From Your Dictionary

18 novembro 2004

17 novembro 2004

Gutenberg Printing Method Questioned

Johannes Gutenberg may be wrongly credited with producing the first Western book printed in movable type, according to an Italian researcher.
Presenting his findings in a mock trial of Gutenberg at the recent Festival of Science in Genoa, Bruno Fabbiani, an expert in printing who teaches at Turin Polytechnic, said the 15th-century German printer used stamps rather than the movable type he is said to have invented between 1452 and 1455.
Gutenberg (c.1397-1468), whose real name was Johannes Gensfleisch, is credited with inventing a mold for small metal blocks with raised letters on them. The blocks could be put together to form words.
After a page was printed, the type could be reused for printing other pages.
With this method, Gutenberg is said to have printed an edition of about 180 copies — of which only 48 exist today — of the 42-line bible, so called for the number of lines in each printed column.
The invention produced a literary boom in Europe.
According to Fabbiani, Gutenberg printed his bible not with movable type, but with a brilliant metallographic invention.
After scrutinizing an original page of the 42-line bible, Fabbiani noticed that some letters were slightly superimposed.
"Movable type are metal blocks, sort of parallelepipeds put together, one attached to another, to form words. With this method, it is practically impossible for type to be superimposed," Fabbiani said.
Instead, Gutenberg used keys similar to those on a typewriter, according to Fabbiani.
"Just think of something like the keys of a typing machine, but bigger of course. Using them, a character after another, a line after another, Gutenberg impressed a metal plate until he created a page and printed it. With this method, it is quite likely that some imperfection such as the slightly superimposing type, occurred," Fabbiani said.
The researcher devised and showed 30 experiments at the trial that would indicate Gutenberg did not use moveable type.
The claim caused uproar among academics. Some researchers simply dismissed Fabbiani's experiments as a stunt.
Eva Hanebutt-Benz, director of the Gutenberg Museum in the German town of Mainz, where Gutenberg was born, told reporters that there are "many open questions" on how Gutenberg produced the Bible as no documents exist from the printer's workshop. But she was strongly skeptical about Fabbiani's claim.
Other experts were intrigued.
"This is very important and credible research. We should not be afraid to destroy the myths".

From Discovery