or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Weight Loss

As you know if you're in or past middle age, getting older has many, many downsides, one of which is that, for reasons simultaneously too complicated and too boring to get into, your weight tends to go up. Mine certainly has. Despite working on my feet for thirty plus hours a week — no desk job for me — and walking everywhere I go (because we've never owned a car), my weight has risen steadily for the last few years, so in a desperate attempt to do something about it, I've embarked on the South Beach diet, and I promise you I am not going to bore you endlessly with the details. (Well, except for this one: apparently, a loss of ten pounds or more is usual in the first two weeks, which sounds extreme, but it's almost all water, because, as a consequence of deliberately depleting the supply of glycogen in your liver, you are constantly peeing for the first week or so. Like every hour or two. And you're encouraged to drink lots and lots of water to mitigate the effects of increased protein intake on your kidneys. Good luck getting enough sleep.)

Anyway, I just finished reading a book called Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes; I had gotten a Kindle sample of his previous book (on the same topic) and was intrigued. After I finished the book, I wanted to read critical reviews of it, which haven't changed my mind about having to do something to lose weight, and carbohydrate reduction seems to be the way to go, at least for now. One of the critical reviews used a word I had never seen before: "sarcopenia".

Let's see if we can unpick that, shall we? (It will help if we have read a lot and know some Latin and Greek roots.) The first half, "sarco-", we have seen before, in the word "sarcophagus". A sarcophagus is a stone coffin, and "-phagus" is clearly related to the "-phage" in such words as "macrophage", another name for a white blood cell, which is large ("macro-") and which devours intruders into the body ("-phage") and other things it would be better to get rid of, so we might logically then guess that a sarcophagus is a corpse-eater*, and that "sarco-" refers to human bodies.

"-Penia" is, we might guess if we are particularly imaginative, related to English "penury", or poverty.

And so "sarcopenia" is literally a poverty of the body, or more specifically the wasting away of the flesh; it is used to refer to the characteristic loss of muscle mass that is seen in the elderly, yet another way in which getting older sucks.

*Literally a corpse-eater. We might imaginatively think that it's because a sarcophagus swallows up the body placed inside it, but in fact the word refers to a kind of limestone used to build the coffins, which was was thought to actively decompose the body.

Saturday, June 25, 2011


A big-ass thunderstorm is roiling about us and who knows? Perhaps the power will go out. So I'll just get this onto the screen and be done with it.

I beg you to listen to this song, an a cappella version of Ben Folds Five's "Magic", a radiantly, painfully gorgeous song about (I think) watching someone embrace death after a terrible illness:

If you want to listen to the (also gorgeous, though perhaps slightly less numinous) original:

It has been running through my head for, oh, ten hours now. I don't mind. I welcome it.

"Magic", since you might have been wondering and since I might as well attempt to tie this into my usual line of inquiry, is related though (of course) Indo-European "magh-" to the words "might" (both the noun and the modal verb, which, if you think about it, have an overlap of meaning: "to be able") and "machine" (a device with the ability to perform a task). I could go into more detail but, you know, thunderstorm.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Lost in Translation

Have you seen Bad Translator? It takes the core idea of sites like Hanzi Smatter/Engrish Funny, which is that it's hilarious to watch people arrogantly using languages they're not fluent in, to a whole new level by repeatedly running user-supplied text through machine translation (Google Translate, of course), into and out of the various languages (in alphabetical order), always running back into English so we can track the changes, and for maximum hilarity. I haven't managed to create any knee-slappers, but it's easy to see how tiny errors that creep in can reverberate throughout the generations in completely unexpected ways, in a sort of online version of the children's game called (in North America) Telephone (and the UK, Chinese Whispers).

One important thing you need to know about Google Translate, if you haven't encountered it already, is that when it runs across a word it doesn't know, it won't make an attempt at translation (and flag it as such), but will simply paste the word untouched into the translation.

Here is a sentence I happened to be reading at more or less the same time I discovered Bad Translator —what? I read more than one page at once, I can multi-task— from the latest edition of Fred Clark's minute, epic deconstruction of the Left Behind series:

There’s a vast and thriving cottage industry of this sort of thing in the evangelical subculture, one that has existed for decades on the traveling-speaker and seminar circuit and in recent years has proliferated online.

And here is the result of fifty translations from and to English:

Last year, travel, language laboratories, important industry in Saint Florian, the Bible, the Internet is everywhere.

The big question is, "Where did Saint Florian come from?" The fifth word, "thriving", was translated as "flourishing" on the trip back from Finnish, and survived in that form until Haitian Creole turned it into "florissante", from which there was no return: the translation into English couldn't make any sense of it, so "florissante" it remained in and out of tongue after tongue, until the translation from Italian, apparently assuming it was a name, capitalized it, and then all was lost. Japanese phonetically turned it into "Florian Santo", and there it remained for a few iterations until, mysteriously, it came out of Malay as "Saint Florian" (the mystery being why it didn't happen sooner), and there it remained until the end of the process.

Languages that use alphabets other than the Roman are where many errors pop up. "I want an apple" turns into "I want an apology" on its way through Korean, though "apple pie" survives unscathed, presumably because the phrase is a more or less universally known unit. (The equally unitary, but idiomatic, "Dutch door" almost instantly becomes "Netherlands".)

"Proliferated online" turning into "the Internet is everywhere" is charming, and the way stations are revealing: from "proliferated online" to "outbreaks online", then "the spread of the Internet" (since, I assume, an outbreak is the spread of a disease), and then "Internet penetration" for quite a few iterations, which rapidly becomes "the Internet is widespread", which stays in circulation for a while until "the Internet is everywhere" replaces it and never goes away, suggesting that such a basic construction (article-noun-verb-adjective, made of common words) can be very durable across languages.

It depends on the languages, though. "The sky is blue" quickly becomes "Blue sky" (in Arabic); "The dog is hungry" is sturdier, but even that eventually turns into "Hungry dog" (in Indonesian). I played around for a while, but I couldn't find a sentence that kept its identity to the last translation. ("Apple pie" might survive, but "Give me an apple pie" becomes, delightfully, "Apple of my pie.")

Still, I imagine it would be fairly easy to formulate a paragraph that comes out of the whole Bad Translator process more or less unscathed, lots of straightforward assertions and basic constructions. I know it would be simple to destroy highly idiomatic phrases, because I tried a bunch of them. One example: "It's raining cats and dogs" survives a few iterations, until it's replaced by another idiom, "it's pouring down in buckets", and then it's a series of missteps; "pour into buckets", "into the barrel", and then, disastrously, "in the tube", which predictably turns into "in the metro", and then "in the subway", "the subway", back to "Metro", and, charmingly, "England", where it remains in one form or another to the bitter end.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Tissue? I Hardly Know You

The French word for "fabric", I noticed yesterday, is "tissu", which is obviously the source of or a relative to the English word "tissue"; the French word is the past participle* of "tistre", "to weave", which is from Latin "texere", with the same meaning and obviously the progenitor of English "textile". The Spanish word for "fabric" (or also apparently "canvas") is "tela", which is related to French "toile", which is also a kind of fabric in English and which also means "canvas" in French; "tela" is also Latin for "web". (The fabric known to every bride as tulle is unrelated to these words: it's the name of a French town in which net-based lace was manufactured.)

While Jim and I were in New York, we went to see the Alexander McQueen exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and I am not exaggerating in the least when I say that McQueen was a genius and a visionary, and I am grateful to have been able to see his work so close. Not, perhaps, as close as I would have liked, considering the unbelievable crowds at the place (it's the best-attended clothing exhibit in the Museum's history), but close enough.

I don't know a whole lot about clothing — it falls on the continuum of "Potentially Artistic Things I Know About" with perfumery (quite a lot) and food (just about enough) on one side, architecture (not very much at all, really) and cars (virtually nothing) on the other — but I know art when I see it, and McQueen was an artist. A great one. Just look at this dress, the first thing you see when you enter the exhibition:

I wish you could see it from a couple of feet away. It is astounding. It puts ideas in your head. It is made of ideas. Even not knowing much about clothing, I can see how the following ideas and contradictions pile up and fight with one another in this piece:

1) It is superficially in the form of a dress, but it is made of razor-clam shells, so it is unwearable. (You might be able to walk down a runway with it on your person, but you couldn't actually wear it.) It's clothing, but not-clothing.
2) The shells look like fingernails, or claws: it's a dress made of weapons.
3) The layering of the shells resembles that of the feathers on a bird, and McQueen also used feathers** in his work; but where feathers are light and airy, shells are heavy and born of water.
4) It's made of what is essentially waste —clamshells found on the seashore, then cleaned up—and yet it is couture, and art.
5) It's clearly armour.
6) Though it calls to mind weapons and armour, it is also incredibly fragile. The show's notes say that the model who wore the dress on the runway "trashed it", surely through no fault of her own***; presumably it was reassembled for display. Look at the trail of shards:

Did it cut her as she tried to walk in it? Did she give her blood for art?

McQueen might have liked that, unfortunately. He was not a nice man. Geniuses so rarely are.

*Hedging my bets here: as far as I know, regular French verbs that end in -re have a past participle that ends in -u, though of course there may be exceptions, and sometimes these words show up in English: the pp of "fondre", "to melt", is "fondu", hence English "fondue", and "pursue" is from the old verb "porsivre", which was turned into "poursuir" and then anglicized into "pursuer". It would be amusing to think that through some tortured etymology, "ecru" was the past participle of "ecrire", "to write", but of course this is not so: it is of course French, but initially from an intensified version of Latin "crudus", "raw", and refers to an unbleached white colour usually known in English as "eggshell".

**Speaking of feathers, look at this astonishing, horrifying object:

The skirt is of feathers that shade from blood-red to black, a disturbing progression that in this context makes me think of someone bleeding to death, especially considering that the bodice is constructed of medical slides, bored with tiny holes to string them together and hand-painted red. Does that not create all sorts of dreadful associations in your mind?

***Actually, I later found a video of part of the show, and she does kind of smash up the dress, clutching at the shells and crushing them in her hands. I assume, then, that it was re-created at some point, possibly for the exhibition.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Cat Got Yer Tongue

I have been variously busy with work and knitting and reading (actual books, not online) and also preparing for an upcoming trip to New York, and consequently have nothing to offer in my usual line of edification and condemnation, but it occurred to me that you might not ever have seen this piece of whimsy, a parody of Blake's "The Tiger" by A. E. Housman, its especial genius being that once you have read it you can never again read the original with a straight face (because if nothing else when you read "brain" in Blake you will immediately think "bray"), and even if you have seen it, it never gets old, and so I share it with you.

O have you caught the tiger?
And can you hold him tight?
And what immortal hand or eye
Could frame his fearful symmetry?
And does he try to bite?

Yes, I have caught the tiger,
And he was hard to catch.
O tiger, tiger, do not try
To put your tail into my eye,
And do not bite and scratch.

Yes, I have caught the tiger.
O tiger, do not bray!
And what immortal hand or eye
Could frame his fearful symmetry
I should not like to say.

And may I see the tiger?
I should indeed delight
To see so large an animal
Without a voyage to Bengal.
And mind you hold him tight.

Yes, you may see the tiger;
It will amuse you much.
A tiger is, as you will find,
A creature of the feline kind.
And mind you do not touch.

And do you feed the tiger,
And do you keep him clean?
He has a less contented look
Than in the Natural History book,
And seems a trifle lean.

Oh yes, I feed the tiger,
And soon he will be plump;
I give him groundsel fresh and sweet,
And much canary seed to eat,
And wash him at the pump.

It seems to me the tiger
Has not been lately fed,
Not for a day or two at least;
And that is why the noble beast
Has bitten off your head.