Thursday, 28 February 2008

Another curious creature

A couple of days ago I posted illustrations of some imaginary creatures, and to follow this up I am devoting this post to a real one. Proving that the saying about truth being stranger than fiction is not only a boring cliché but completely untrue, here is a real animal which is far less strange—or at any rate far less interesting—than any fictional one could possibly be: Expert On Anteaters Wasted Entire Life Studying Anteaters is a perfectly cast and beautifully acted piece telling the tragic story of an interviewer who is finally reduced to speechlessness by his guest.

[Anyone to whom this masterpiece is unfamiliar has probably also missed other Onion News Network items. Get the flavour of their morning show Today Now and then sample some of its in-depth reviews of such items as Time Magazine's Annual List of the 299 Million Least Influential Americans.]

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Curious creatures

In James Thurber's The Beast in Me and Other Animals, published in 1948, there was a collection of drawings which he called A New Natural History, featuring such creatures as the Hopeless Quandary.....

...the Whitefaced Rage and the Blind Rage.

I wonder whether Thurber got the idea from A Phenomenal Fauna by Carolyn Wells, with pictures by Oliver Hereford, which came out in 1901. I discovered this charming old children's picture book today in Project Gutenberg, where it was posted this week as an addition to its library of 100,000 free downloadable books. Here is the Brick Bat and its accompanying verse:
Oft through the stillness of the summer night
We see the Brick Bat take his rapid flight.
And, with unerring aim, descending straight,
He meets a cat on the back garden gate.
The little Brick Bat could not fly alone,—
Oh, no; there is a power behind the thrown.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Hwurl, hwawrl, wurl, wawrl

I have never been sure how to pronounce whorl; dictionaries give several variations but do not make clear which are the acceptable ones and which would cause contemptuous laughter if I used any of them in conversation with better-educated people.

Happily, it has not been difficult to avoid using it since I have rarely found myself participating in discussions about spinning machines, ethmoidal crests, the verticil of a flower, the convolutions of a spiral shell, fingerprints, or the action of drawing up with a pulley. The word has been used in connection with these things since 1440, but I have been able to lead a fairly full life without the need to use it in any context.

There is of course no problem when writing it, so I do not risk embarrassment by passing on the information that Jalebi is an Indian sweet consisting of a slightly fermented batter forced through a nozzle into hot clarified butter so that it forms loops or whorls. When these have set they are lifted out of the fat and dropped into hot syrup scented with saffron and rosewater, then drained and served.

Mere teeth-rotting delight to us, but in the Middle East this confection has interesting poetic associations and is mentioned in the stories of the Thousand and One Nights. There is a poem in which a man describes how he fashioned a chain from the whorls and hung it around the neck of his beloved, and put rings of it on her ears. Very romantic, and of course he would be well placed for a nibble.

Friday, 22 February 2008

Patently obvious

Tipi Eisberg, a contributor to Martin G's Really Magazine, normally reviews the more intriguing American patent applications but has recently started selecting some and showing only the drawings, leaving readers to guess what purpose the devices are intended to serve. That this is not always easy may be judged by looking at the three currently selected (Week 08); you can find the answers by clicking on the drawings, but I will spoil these puzzles by revealing that these patents cover, respectively, an electronic device for training animals, a helmet for wearing in the water which enables you to squirt stuff at other swimmers, and a method of gas stunning chickens before slaughtering them.

But the simplest inventions are always the best, and my current favourite is An Apparatus for Improving the Taste of Beverages. Martin is greatly taken by the idea, as everyone may well be, of turning a bottle of plonk into something really good by putting a magnet in it.

One reason why I like this one is that although it is indeed very simple, its description runs to one sentence of 399 words; I like long sentences. The longest one I have ever posted was a mere 164, but that was in 2004, when I was young.

[Unaccountably, I missed Disposable protector for engaging a clogged toilet and containing splashes in the clogged toilet occurring during unclogging of the clogged toilet by a plunger when Martin published it at the end of 2007.]

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

The Pharaoh speaks

A rather feeble joke from Private Eye,
but it's a gorgeous picture, isn't it?

Monday, 18 February 2008

Fracas in mid-air

There was an item of news earlier this month which must have been of much interest to anyone compiling an anthology called Amazing Stories from New Zealand, and finding himself a bit short of content.

Reports in the Australian and New Zealand press were fairly incoherent, but most included some of the following details: 33-year-old Blenheim woman (or in some reports, "Somali refugee") attempts to hijack small commuter plane going to Christchurch, produces a knife and has another in her shoe, says there is a bomb on board and demands to be taken to Australia, tries to seize the controls, wrestles on the floor with the pilots, stabs one on the hand and the other on the foot, plane lands safely and armed police with dogs arrest the woman.

Two of the passengers, according to one newspaper "were named as a man and a woman".

Clearly an exciting time was had by all, and there were international repercussions: "...the England cricket team's flight from Christchurch to Wellington was delayed for two-and-a-half hours".

Nowadays the threat posed by two knives and a bomb does not dismay experienced airline pilots: one wonders whether the incident might have ended less happily if the woman had armed herself with something more calculated to inspire terror.

Saturday, 16 February 2008

Julius de Basil and his icons

After all that depressing stuff I wrote about websites, let's have a nice picture of an icon. Nowadays we use the word most often in one of its two modern meanings. The OED says:

1a. An image, figure, or representation; a portrait; a picture or illustration in a book
1b. An image in the solid; a monumental figure; a statue.
1c. Computing A small symbolic picture of a physical object on a VDU screen.
2. Eastern Church A representation of some sacred personage, in painting, bas-relief, or mosaic, itself regarded as sacred, and honoured with a relative worship or adoration.
3a. Rhetoric A simile. (Obsolete)
3b. Philosophy A sign which represents its object by virtue of having some character in common with the object.
4. A realistic representation or description in writing. (Now rare or obsolete.)

Oddly, the other modern meaning apart from 1c appears in the OED as a draft addition from 2001, though it was recorded in print fifty years earlier:
A person or thing regarded as a representative symbol, esp. of a culture or movement; a person, institution, etc., considered worthy of admiration or respect. (e.g. "Hollywood's female gay icons Jodie Foster, Susan Sarandon and Jamie Lee Curtis").

But never mind about those, or about the bits of art that clutter up our screens. Meaning 2 has the best images, and here's one from the 6th century: the oldest icon of Christ Pantocrator (encaustic on panel, ca 6th century:Saint Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai). My friend Julius de Basil, a bit of an icon himself, is dotty about the things, and has some nice ones among the family anecdotes in his blog.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Your genial host

In 2003 I started designing and publishing websites for individuals, small businesses and charities. They were simple, rather amateurish affairs, but adequate for their purpose, and some of them are still useful and remain on line. I charged very little or nothing for the work as it was an enjoyable pastime.

But of course I had to register the domains and buy some webspace, and I chose the cheapest host I could find, an outfit aimed particularly at students. I hadn't been a student since George VI was on the throne, but they were happy to accept me as a paying guest, and all went fairly well until last December, when it became clear that things were going wrong with my host: it became impossible to get replies to emails, their billing portal was inaccessible so that I couldn't pay for renewals, and technical support was non-existent. So I had to think of transferring my webs to a new host, and thus began a three-month nightmare.

For a start, wresting control of my domains away from the firm I had light-heartedly handed them over to four years earlier proved difficult since they would not co-operate, and I had to open an account with another firm, get a Domain Release Certificate and obtain Authorisation Codes (for the .coms) and get the tags changed (for the ones) so that the domains could be transferred, and then find a suitable new host.

All this would be child's play, of course, to an experienced computer person. Well, I suppose I am experienced in one sense—I have been playing with the things since 1982—but I am not an expert: I was never much good with them, and most of the skills I acquired are either forgotten or irrelevant (who nowadays needs to write DOS batch files, or use DbaseII?).

But the real reason it all became a nightmare is that the kind of people who work in the Support departments of computer companies are not, to put it mildly, of the highest calibre; never before have I encountered in such a short space of time so many stupid, pig-ignorant, incompetent, ill-natured swine. It has been like taking a winter break at Conservative Central Office.

There were times I have needed every ounce of those qualities for which my name has long been a byword—the quiet diffidence, the mildness of temper under provocation, the reluctance to rebuke or even to criticise, the calm tolerance of human frailty—in order to stop myself from speaking out severely or even intemperately.

Then I was recommended to a vast telecoms outfit who are business-oriented but were prepared to accept my little account, and I started another transfer process. All went swimmingly until, after an exchange of some forty-eight emails and several hours on the telephone, I found out that they could not provide something I needed (FrontPage extensions, if you must know), and I had to start looking again.....

Finally I have got back to where I was last November, with the domains safely ensconced and the webs uploaded. My new webhosts seem all right, but it is early days yet: in response to one complaint I made to them I received an email which was addressed "Dear Individual" and read: "...I have checked the extensions on that domain name and can confirm that there was an issue. To resolve this I have tried removing and re-adding the extensions from here."

There was an issue... This is computer-speak for "Yes, there was something wrong at our end but we don't do apologies. Anyway, we have no idea what it was, but we may well have put it right now, for all we know."

Well, they had fixed it, so I suppose I must try not to worry any more....

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

The Isambard Look

Time, I think, for another Sensational Hats post. Most of the headgear featured in this popular series is in one way or another extraordinary, but this is an exception: for men of substance in Victorian times, hats like the one illustrated here were thought to be absolutely ordinary, in fact de rigueur, and you would be considered eccentric or possibly even subversive if you were seen in public without something of this kind on your head.

I have taken a holistic approach here and shown the hat not in isolation but as part of an ensemble which is very much of its time, with regard not only to the crumpled trousers but also to the massive chains forming the background; this was the age of real heavyweight engineering, when mighty machines were clanking and steaming rather than buzzing and flickering like the piddling toys of our effete age.

If ever a man had an excuse for displaying crumpled trousers and a waistcoat in disarray, it was the great Brunel in this picture, though his demeanour, coolly smoking one of his 40-a-day cigars, belies the stress of the occasion, the difficult sideways launching of the SS Great Eastern (two people were killed). This was an iron sailing steam ship he had designed, the largest ship ever built at the time, with the capacity to carry 4,000 passengers around the world without refueling.

Sadly, Brunel suffered a stroke and died in 1859, just before the Great Eastern made her first voyage to New York.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Rhyming the Rhythm Method

When writing the other day about a Prophylactic Poetry Competition to celebrate the opening of National Contraceptive Awareness Week, I was quite wrong to suggest that it would not attract many entries: in fact, there were more than fifty.

I have to say, though, that the standard of those selected as winners and runners-up was not very high; most of them had uncertain metre and defective rhymes. I mean, "silly" with "willy" is OK if a bit obvious, but "johnny" with "funny" should have been grounds for instant disqualification.

Anyway, none of those I saw were in the same class as the one I submitted on behalf of one of my correspondents whom I know only as Outeast; he couldn't enter it himself because he lives outside the UK* and couldn't afford the stamp, so he sent it to me in a comment on this post. Pity he didn't win, because I had promised him that the prize would have gone to the Save the Children Fund.

The competition was clearly a success, but I am less certain about the NCA week which has just begun. It may well be that preparations have been hindered by death threats from the Vatican's hit squads, and that at this very moment heavy mobs from Opus Dei are tearing down the displays.

They do these things better in the United States. For instance, over there during National Gall Bladder Week every Main Street has its parade (with the Cholecyst Queen), its banners, and stalls manned by top brass from the Gall Bladder Society of America.

Let the final poetic word on contraception go to Tom Lehrer, who ended his version of the Boy Scouts Marching Song with:
....If you're looking for adventure of a new and different kind,
And you chance to meet a Girl Scout who is similarly inclined,
Don't be nervous, don't be flustered, don't be scared....Be Prepared!

* I have no idea where; indeed, I know very little about him. Or her? I have an idea that she may actually be a young Turkish widow whom I remember meeting once some years ago under curious circumstances in the Levant. I do know that he/she is a poet of note: a sonnet of his/hers is included among

Friday, 8 February 2008

Cantuar cocks it up

Actually, he is formally known as The Most Reverend Father in God, Rowan Douglas, by Divine Providence Lord Archbishop of Canterbury, Primate of All England and Metropolitan, but that would have made too long a title for this post.

When I told the story of my shameful failure to accost Michael Ramsey, the one hundredth of this line of churchmen, when I encountered him and his sensational eyebrows some years ago in a corridor of the Okura Hotel, I compared him very favourably with his successors, the obscure Coggan, the sycophant Runcie and the slimy Carey, friend of Pinochet, but was non-committal about the next one, describing him in a kindly if patronising way as a little bearded Welsh fellow.

How wrong I was! Williams is clearly a remarkable man, having succeeded, with a few suggestions about Sharia Law, in putting back racial harmony in this country by a couple of decades and hastening the eventual demise of the Church of England by perhaps a similar period. If its leader doesn't have the sense to realise that his words were certain to give rise a flood of clips on TV news showing floggings and beheadings, how can this palsied institution hope to survive much longer?

We are used to celebrities pontificating on subjects way outside their area of expertise—if they have such a thing—and are merely irritated when we are told Prince Charles' views on architecture or medicine, or the Pope's on family life, though I suppose pontificating is what pontiffs are expected to do. But when an archbishop holds forth with proposals for changes to the English judicial system we can only marvel at their idiocy and his presumption.

Not all the effects of this are depressing. Hearing that most of the legal profession and all three political parties promptly and roundly condemned what Williams said is cheering, and the notion that having 26 clergymen of the established Church of England, the Lords Spiritual, serving by right in the House of Lords must surely now be recognised as lunacy.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

National Ballet

I have absolutely no comment to make on this picture

Monday, 4 February 2008

The Gendarmes once more

I have noted before that quite often someone hits Other Men's Flowers in search of the lyrics of a song about two gendarmes which they mistakenly believe was written by Gilbert and Sullivan. I had always assumed that the familiar words were a translation from the French, for the song is from a comic opera by Offenbach.

I was curious to know the original French words but so far I have not been able to find them anywhere. Geneviève de Brabant's two-act French libretto was written by Louis-Adolphe Jaime and Etienne Tréfeu, and the operetta was first staged at the Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens, Paris in 1859. Thanks to Boosey and Hawkes it was easy to download the censor's copy of the libretto and I ploughed through it all to see if I could identify the words which became "We run them in..." A word search showed me that there were no gendarmes in the operetta (there weren't any in the medieval legend on which it was based, either, but Offenbach had an offhand way with legends—there were no Can-Cans in Orpheus' underworld) so I assume that the translator had simply interpolated a comic song in English that had no relevance to the plot. But I couldn't even locate in the libretto the original words which must have gone with the tune that we and the US Marines know so well.

Wikipedia tells us that Henry Brougham Farnie (1836–1889), a British librettist and adapter of European operettas, wrote the English version, which became very popular and was produced in New York in 1868. Some of his English-language versions of other operettas became record-setting hits on the London stage of the 1870s and 1880s, strongly competing with the Gilbert and Sullivan operas being played at the same time (and he wrote a song called Sweet Dreamer with Arthur Sullivan, so perhaps thinking that Les Deux Gendarmes is by G&S is not so silly).

By now I am bored with these public guardians bold yet wary and so I do not want any comments on all this. But I would still like to know the French words which were sung to that tune, and if anyone can find them and tell me or give me a link to them I will send £20 to the Save the Children Fund.

H. B. Farnie was not a bit boring. Apart from writing or adapting libretti for dozens of operettas, he wrote the first book on golf instruction, The Golfer's Manual: being an historical and descriptive account of the national game of Scotland, under the pseudonym, "A Keen Hand". Here he is, without a huge stovepipe hat but otherwise a typical Victorian, gazing at us sternly as eminent sitters for portrait photos usually did. No vapid smiles for the photographer: these were men of character, making no attempt to look cheerful. Glum, hirsute and even with a hint of anger, they seem to be saying: Look, I've just built The Great Western Railway and started work on the Oxford English Dictionary, and I've grown these terrific whiskers, you expect me to twinkle at you as well?

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Good blog, bad blog

It has been said that the best blogs:
have a consistent style; are focussed on a particular theme; are honest and sincere; contain no offensive material; are planned to appeal to special groups, or to a general readership; are written tightly, without padding; are unpretentious, avoiding the use of words which few will understand; and are pleasingly styled, with original and striking graphic design.

Other blogs are:
inconsistent; unfocussed; deceitful and disingenuous; full of objectionable content; totally unplanned and therefore likely to appeal to hardly anybody; verbose and banal; show-offs, using rare words for effect; and based on a bog-standard template which the writer cannot be bothered to modify.

Foremost among these is Other Men's Flowers. During its four years on line it has attracted both brickbats and bouquets, and some of the former can be considered as compliments. Take the Weblog Review, for example: one of its reviewers gave the blog 2 out of 5 and wrote: I left this site feeling ripped off... feel as if I have nothing from it ... no bit of wisdom to carry on ... no real desire to return to this site at all, which is fair comment if a little blunt, but another noted that ...the vast majority of the posts are off topic and trivially nondescript.

This showed great discernment and I was much encouraged when I read it in 2004, for it is exactly the effect I have always aimed at.