Dried Roses

I like more trouble

The American Library Association has a list of the “100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000”. The grey level indicates how sure I am that I’ve read the book.
It’s significant that in this list, unlike the list of “dangerous books”, I’m certain I’ve read all but one of them, and that I’ve read the entire book. Sendak’s book was published years after I’d grown out of its intended audience; I know I’ve seen it but I’m not sure I’ve read it. The same goes for many of the other children’s and young people’s books on the list. For Sex Ed, I went right to the sources: the Larousse Mythology, the Kama Sutra, Kinsey, Candy
Why on earth are A Wrinkle in Time and Flowers for Algernon on the list? Don’t the meddling idiots of this world have better things to do? —Though I suppose that banning innocuous books is just the sort of thing a meddling idiot would do.
Both books are very much worth reading, by the way. Algernon is perhaps better known as the movie Charly with Cliff Robertson. Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle was where I first learned the word ‘tesseract’; not long after I read Hinton’s Fourth dimension and did a science fair project on it, building hypercubes and hypertetrahedra from bamboo skewers.

LinkOctober 1, 2005 in Books

Sunday cat pix

A nice quiet nap till I came along with my silly camera. (Notice the vacuum cleaner. One of these days I’ll find out if it works.)


LinkOctober 1, 2005 in Cats

Writing HTML and XHTML: quick concepts

What follows is a very condensed guide to the ideas behind hypertext markup languages (HTML, XHTML) and cascading style sheets (CSS).
An HTML/XHTML document is a text document that can be edited in any program that allows you to edit text. It consists of content and markup. The markup—more precisely, the semantics of the markup—tells a “user agent”
(typically a web browser like Firefox, Opera, or Omniweb) how to format the content. It also contains information about the document—for example, that it uses a particular character set, or that it is an HTML document.
I use Marsedit or Ecto for this weblog, and BBEdit for other stuff.


There’s nothing to learn: it’s the same as what you’d put into a word processor. The only novelty is that some characters that are not in the basic ASCII set (which includes only the Roman alphabet, basic punctuation, and a few special characters like \) require “escape” codes. The character é (as in blasé) is encoded as é (notice the semicolon: it’s part of the code). In a modern operating system (Mac OS X, Windows after 2000), you don’t need to worry about this, because all modern systems use Unicode, which has “slots” for almost 64,000 characters, and the encoding should be done automatically in whatever program you use for writing HTML. But you could write webpage code even in DOS, because the character set used in coding is just the basic ASCII set.
Characters that have special significance in HTML—especially the characters < and >—should be replaced by their escape codes. The escape code for < is < . The code for > is > . If you want to include an escape code in your text without having it be “decoded”, you must escape the ampersand: < . To cite the escape code for the ampersand itself, you must write &. I’ll let you figure out how to cite the escape code for citing the escape code for &.


Markup consists in tags. Tags have a syntax and a semantics. Example: the “italics” tag is <i>[your stuff goes here]</i>. When a web browser sees the <i>, it puts everything after that into italics until it sees </i>.
The syntax here consists of an opening tag <i> and a closing tag </i>.
The semantics (that is, what a web browser does when it sees the tag) is: “put everything after the opening tag into italics until you see the closing tag”.
A word processor like Word uses markup, but normally you don’t see it. All you see is the interpretation of the markup: the word processor, guided by the semantics of the tags, displays the text in the format you’ve given to it. That’s what WYSIWYG (“what you see is what you get”) means: all you see is interpreted code.


LinkOctober 8, 2005 in Web/Tech

It was three before

A bit of clarity on the situation in Iraq:
Gen. Casey: We fully recognize that Iraqi armed forces will not have an independent capability for some time, because they don’t have the institutional base to support them. And so Level 1, as you’ll recall from the slide, that’s what’s got one battalion. And it’s going to be a long time before…
Sen. McCain: Used to be three. Now we’ve gone from three to one?
Gen. Casey: Pardon me?
Sen. McCain: It was three before.
Gen. Casey: Right.
Sen. McCain: The previous report was you had three battalions. Now we’re down to one battalion.
Gen. Casey: Right, and things change in the battalions. I mean, we’re making assessments on personnel, on leadership, on training.
Sen. McCain: And you…
Gen. Casey: I mean, there are a lot of variables that are involved here, Senator.
I’m sure there’s a dialogue very much like this in Catch-22. If this were fiction, the mark of genius would be that word ‘Senator’ in the last line. Only a very good writer would have known to put it there. And only a very good writer would have the General respond ‘Right’ after being caught in a contradiction. The connotation is that General Casey has gone into classic BS-to-superiors mode.
From Senate hearings on the war in Iraq, 29 September, archived at PBS. Via Billmon.

LinkOctober 10, 2005 in Current Affairs · Language

An etymological journey, or Sex science secured

In an information sheet on removing mildew (it seems we have some in our basement) Q came across the word ‘mildewcide’. Some paints contain mildewcide. Painting over mildew is not recommended, because the mildew will discolor the paint. Paints containing mildewcide overcome the problem.
Q asked about the -cide suffix. It’s a productive suffix in English: we have homicide from Latin, the eighteenth-century suicide, the twentieth-century genocide, and now many other -cides. Murderous times we live in.
The suffix -cide, as it turns out, is from the Latin cædo, from a hypothetical *(s)kaido, from the root SKA-, SKE-, other forms of which are SAC-, SEC-. By way of this root, -cide is related to securus and segmen (from seco, ‘cut’), to serra (‘saw’, hence Eng. serrate(d)), sexus, and scio ‘distinguish’, hence ‘know’ (Eng. science). In prefixed stems, cædo becomes cido, whence decido (Engl decide, deciduous), and trucido ‘slaughter, massacre’ from trux ‘wild, rough, harsh’, from which English gets the rare word ‘trucidation’, used by R. L. Stevenson in a letter of 1883.
The word ‘scienticide’, which before I wrote this was almost a Google hapax, thus contains two occurrences of the same root.
Sources: Lewis & Short, Elementary Latin Dictionary (a still useful dictionary which has been in print for over 125 years; it includes a vocabulary of Indo-European roots as an appendix); the Oxford English Dictionary (for ‘trucidation’).

LinkOctober 11, 2005 in Language

Sunday cat pix

Two days late and dollars short we show
Th’ intrepid Josie, rising from below.


LinkOctober 11, 2005 in Cats

Wednesday garden pix



LinkOctober 12, 2005 in Garden

From the Annals of Unnacceptable Results

Marijuana builds strong hippocampi
Forget the stereotype about dopey potheads. It seems marijuana could be good for your brain.
While other studies have shown that periodic use of marijuana can cause memory loss and impair learning and a host of other health problems down the road, new research suggests the drug could have some benefits when administered regularly in a highly potent form.
Most “drugs of abuse” such as alcohol, heroin, cocaine and nicotine suppress growth of new brain cells. However, researchers found that cannabinoids promoted generation of new neurons in rats’ hippocampuses. {…}
This is quite a surprise,” said Xia Zhang, an associate professor with the Neuropsychiatry Research Unit at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.
There’s a good supply of the stuff, since “Drug agents can’t keep up with pot growers” in California (John Ritter, USA Today 12 & 13 Oct 2005).
Meanwhile US officials are arresting people on hospital gurneys and dragging them off with catheters still attached (Gene Johnson, “Lawyer: Ailing Vet Deported From Canada”, AP 13 Oct 2005). Why should their behavior surprise us? After all, this adminstration has made torture part of its SOP.
Religion a risk factor for social dysfunction
The Journal of Religion and Society recently published a report by Gregory S. Paul, entitled “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies”. From the abstract:
[…] United States is the only prosperous nation where the majority absolutely [I think he means “an absolute majority”] believes in a creator and evolutionary science is unpopular. […] Data correlations show that in almost all regards the highly secular democracies consistently enjoy low rates of societal dysfunction, while pro-religious and anti- evolution America performs poorly.
I’m not so sure that there isn’t a common cause of the “religiosity” Paul has in mind and dysfunction. Orthodox Jews and the Amish are not notably dysfunctional—not to my knowledge. The toxic combination of an enclave religion with a conservatism bent on destroying the public sphere, rather than religion alone (which in earlier times could be joined with populism) probably accounts better for the phenomena referred to by Paul. The question is what has made that alliance possible.

LinkOctober 15, 2005 in Current Affairs

Sunday cat pix

Lights out under the rail.


LinkOctober 16, 2005 in Cats

Friday nights at the library

It’s not actually Friday, and I’m not in a library. This is in keeping with the spirit of the times. The books, however, are real. I won’t be talking about imaginary books. I’ll leave that to Stanislas Lem, not to mention Borges and Coleridge.
Including a day of the week in your rubric is a commitment. A commitment even stronger than something like “Today’s best”. Today, after all, is any old day; even if you miss a day, the next day is today too, and only the curious reader who examines the fine print at the end of an entry will notice a gap. But you can’t pretend that Monday is Friday. Most readers will know the difference. If you procrastinate you have to own up.
So today, Monday, I begin “Friday nights at the library”. No, wait—since I’m writing about books, I’ll translate this into book-blurb language.
In notes as wise, heartfelt, and uplifting as when they were written, DD integrates grounded narratives of personal experience in larger theoretical notions. The result is an important contribution, provocative, thoughtful, and illuminating, that wonderfully succeeds in suggesting a treasure trove of insights.
Pfew. I’m glad I got that off my chest. Nothing like a little self-revelation to refresh the soul. Now for a book.
Paris in black & white
Atget’s no secret. There are many collections of his photographs, monographs, colloquia. Atget Paris contains 840 pictures of Paris. The earliest are from the late 1890s, the last from the 1920s. My copy is beginning to fall apart: the binding is not up to the task of holding together 785 pages. Other than that, it’s a well-designed book (even if the new
cover lacks the austere charm of the one pictured here). On most pages there is just one photo, with only a place and date—there’s no intrusive commentary. In the same series are volumes on Doisneau, Marville, and (now out of print) Paris in the 30s.
For the last six months or more I’ve had this volume sitting on the dining room table. When I eat there alone I study a half dozen pages. The pictures, of a Paris that no longer exists, of ways of life that have passed away, transport me out of whatever distractions the day has had to offer. Atget took his photographs by preference in the early morning. The streets are almost empty; long exposures make ghostly figures of the few people moving about. In some plates there are cracks or masking (“vignetage” in French; the introduction says that it arises from the “de-centering” needed to bring the optical focus above the middle of the image). Atget was no postmodernist, but in the photographs the signs of artifice remind you that what you see is the representation of a view, not the view itself.
The result is a feeling of stasis, if not permanence—in some pictures you can see buildings being demolished; those taken in the outskirts of the city in Clignancourt and Charonne, with their wooden fences and wagon-cabins, convey rather the instability of the lives of the working class and those yet worse off. Central Paris, on the other hand, was built to last: walls of stone (which in other pictures you see being cut on the banks of the Seine), neo-Classical or Palladian façades, marble interiors. Before he became, around 1890, a photographer, self-taught, Atget was a not-very-successful traveling actor; that, perhaps, accounts for his photographs' seeming at times to be stage sets.
Appartenant encoreBelonging still, by virtue of his technique, to the nineteenth century, he is, by his vision, firmly in the twentieth. His gaze was frontal and frank, but he knew better than anyone else how to make the imaginary coexist with the real, and thus he invented modern photography. par sa technique au XIXe siècle, il est, par sa vision, de plain-pied dans le XXe. Son regard était frontal et franc, mais il a su mieux que tout autre faire coexister l’imaginaire et le réel, et il a ainsi inventé la photographie moderne.
But they remain actual. Even in those that include people, there is nothing of the theatrical. On the contrary, the actors tend to be absorbed into the scene (no doubt the exposure times have some part in this).
In photography an æsthetic of letting things be competes with one of capturing the moment. Both can be debased: the ad shot that purports to present an object unadorned and real, but which is in fact entirely arranged; the photo-op shot that “captures a moment” enacted solely for that purpose. On the whole I prefer the first. Atget arranged the circumstances under which he photographed his scenes of Paris; but he gives the impression thereafter of leaving things to themselves.
Atget Paris. Présentation de Laure Beaumont-Maillet. s.l.: Hazan, s.d. (Distributed by Gingko Press, who also distribute the Historic Folding Rule.) The quotation is from p. 18 of the introduction. A large collection of his photographs can be found at Gallica. Search for “lots d’images” with author ‘Atget’.

LinkOctober 17, 2005 in Books | TrackBack (0)