March 31, 2009


Abnormal inability to fix the attention; what we now call ADD, I assume. The OED has an 1889 use in English, and an 1887 one in--German?. They give the etymology in Greek, but I don't think that implies that it was an actual Greek word.

Posted by clew at 04:49 PM

March 29, 2009

Twenty, Stella Benson


  You promised friends and songs and festivals.
  You promised true. Our friends, who still are young,
  Assemble for their feasting in those halls
  Where speaks no human tongue.
  And thus our songs are sung.

Pretty sounds in mournful poems, precariously balanced between with-your-shield-or-on-it investment in the ?noble sorrow? of war, and a conviction that the war is just more of the usual (tragedy).


  It was young David mocked the Philistine.
  It was young David laughed beside the river.
  There came his mother--his and yours and mine--
  With five smooth stones, and dropped them in his quiver.

  You never saw so green-and-gold a fairy.
  You never saw such very April eyes.
  She sang him sorrow's song to make him wary,
  She gave him five smooth stones to make him wise.

  _The first stone is love, and that shall fail you.
  The second stone is hate, and that shall fail you.
  The third stone is knowledge, and that shall fail you.
  The fourth stone is prayer, and that shall fail you.
  The fifth stone shall not fail you_.


(Five Smooth Stones has a reference to a crooked cross that confused me enormously until I remembered that she's writing in the First world war.)

Militant civilian can be taken either way. She's still a citizen of London:


  I will repeat old inexpensive orgies;
  Drink nectar at the bun-shop in Shoreditch,
  Or call for Nut-Ambrosia at St. George's,
  And with a ghost-tip make the waitress rich.

  My soundless feet shall fly among the runners
  Through the red thunders of a Zeppelin raid,
  My still voice cheer the Anti-Aircraft gunners,
  The fires shall glare--but I shall cast no shade.

  And if a Shadow, wading in the torrent
  Of high excitement, snatch me from the riot--
  (Fool that he is)--and fumble with his warrant,
  And hail a hearse, and beg me to "Go quiet,"

  Mocking I'll go, and he shall be postillion,
  Until we reach the Keeper of the Door:
  "H'm ... Benson ... Stella ... militant civilian ...
  There's some mistake, we've had this soul before...."


Project Gutenberg etext #12643, Twenty, Stella Benson

Posted by clew at 03:47 PM

March 19, 2009

Farmers of Forty Centuries, F. H. King, D.Sc.

I'd like to find a contemporaneous review of this book. King toured China, Korea and Japan with an expert eye on their intensive, sustainable agriculture and what seems to me to be a radically approving tone for his day. There were still anti-Chinese settlement laws and riots up and down the West Coast, after all, and Jack London was mocking foreign farmers specifically for their prudence and industry. Current reviews of this (it's still in print) are all in the trail of Wendell Berry, who approved; I looked it up because of a half-crankish reference in a composting journal.

King, for someone clearly approving, comes across as a transparent, inquisitive author, who must have had a busy translator to extract all the techniques and price-lists and explanations that make it into the book. Mostly, this is a travelogue with 'pods' (in Elise Hancock's words) of dense agro-tech exposition hanging off; and many photographs of a startlingly pre-industrial world.

The frame of King's curiosity, though, is his claim--as a Wisconsin professor of agriculture--that the U.S. could not possibly sustain its wasting methods of agriculture, its intentional losses of topsoil and nutrients, and that the Far East had a long history of supporting high populations, and probably knew something we needed. From the Preface (by a Dr L. H. Bailey):

We in North America are wont to think that we may instruct all the world in agriculture, because our agricultural wealth is great and our exports to less favoured peoples have been heavy; but this wealth is great because our soil is fertile and new, and in large acreage for every person. We have really only begun to farm well.

Following, many details of how the fields are leveled, green and muck manures preserved and spread, crops and fallow rotated, irrigation accomplished, markets made. King points out early that the areas around the China Sea are of naturally high productivity, being warm and well-watered (by rain, as well as rivers that bring them silt); but the astounding effort put into farming every square foot, into dredging that silt out of an enormous delta--by human labor--to raise and, indeed, create the land, is no less amazing. King was always happy to notice what clever tricks cycled nutrients, but modern lazy I, I notice that the cleverness usually relies on human effort and a good bit of desperation. There were also devastating famines in China, over those forty centuries. I don't know if they were less common there than in, say, Europe; and this seems crucial to enthusiasm for the book... If we are to consider if this is a good plan for humanity (and many permaculture enthusiasts do), then I want to know how many population crashes that 'sustainability' requires. King quotes an interlocutor saying that in poor years the girl children are sold or given away, which King refuses to believe.

It would be nice to think that we could have a less dense population, and still recycle as intensively, leaving a margin for ourselves and natural systems. It seems unlikely to me. Not just the physical labor, but the constant attention, seem to me to be so extreme that we would not keep them up without a constant fear of personal failure and starvation:

But above any other factor, and perhaps greater than all of them combined in contributing to the high maintenance-efficiency attained in these countries, must be placed the standard of living to which the industrial classes have been compelled to adjust themselves, combined with the most rigorous economy which they practise along every line of effort and of living.

The permaculture doomers assume that we'll have that fear soon enough, and will want to know how to survive; fair enough. Or possibly we will teach our robots to do it for us. Wall-E would have been a much, much better movie had Wall-E found a copy of this book.

Interesting details: comparing the smallest unit of currency, the cash, about 1/1750 of a US dollar at the time, to the smallest unit, used "On the Pacific coast [of the U.S.], where less thought is given to little economies than perhaps anywhere else[...] the nickel". Foot-propelled paddlewheel passenger boats cost less per passenger mile than the US railway tariff. King suggests diverting the lower Mississippi over the "200 miles of country" behind its levees, in order to preserve and increase fertile farmland. "Everywhere we went in China, the labouring people appeared happy and contented, and showed clearly that they were well nourished. The industrial classes are thoroughly organized, having had their guilds or labor unions for centuries." The compost practices were detailed and labor-intensive; Chinese villagers built clamps of mud over aging compost; the Japanese National Department of Agriculture published plans for a handsome stercorary. (It's evident that Japan had more timber than China.) There's a reference to 'parking' but the word means 'making a park of' land, planting trees.

Find in a Library: Farmers of Forty Centuries

Posted by clew at 06:38 PM

March 18, 2009

Ideas Into Words, Elise Hancock

If I were writing about science for non-scientists, I would cleave to this book, which reminds me very pleasantly of Strunk & White but covers even more material. I particularly liked the chapters on recognizing cutting-edge scientific research from crankery, and on how to manage an interview, and on the possible forms of organization and style for an article.The last is metaphorical and practical at once:

Within the general framework of get in (clear), tell 'em (interesting), and get out (short) lie a thousand possibilities, each of which has a particular organic shape. As you go along, try to "see" that inherent shape in the material itself--a spiral, meander, beech leaf, delta, or such--then use it to structure your article.

It is not a book on how to write a scientific paper.

Find in a Library: Ideas Into Words

Posted by clew at 05:45 PM

March 15, 2009

I dreamt I dwelt in marble stalls

This is a truly useful bathroom-stall door:

Oak door with rack and hooks

When you walk in, the sheaf of paper and books you probably have in your arms goes into the hayrack, and then your bag onto the intermediate hook, and a coat (and hat, even) onto the top hook. They've been useful for about a hundred years now. The building as a whole needs an overhaul, and I hope these subtle perfections of the old days will not be lost.

Posted by clew at 02:27 PM

March 08, 2009

The Lives of the Necromancers, William Godwin

You wouldn't think a book with this title could be as dull as this one is. It opens with a promising assurance that it has the highest historical ends in view, not low titillation, but I didn't think it achieved either. I didn't get very far, though.

Project Gutenberg file #7082:Lives of the Necromancers

Posted by clew at 04:50 PM

Snake and Sword, Percival Christopher Wren

Cliché Gothic romance, set half in India. Sub-Beau Geste.

Bits I liked: the uniforms of cavalry troops -- I should think they needed to be over six feet and all in proportion, just to fit in the plumes and sashes. Contrast with "...the khaki kit so admirable for work (and so depressing unswanksome and anti-enlistment for play, or rather for walking-out and leisure)...". Boxing is the measure of a man, as in a Jeffery Farnol novel, but the heroine learns to box too:

it was in her heart to smite the Haddock on the lying mouth with the straight-from-the-shoulder drive learned in days of yore from Dam, and practised on the punching-ball with great assiduity.

She doesn't, though.

Several references to the desirably small extremities of an upper-class man. My lower-class imagination sniggered. Sort of tries to argue for better treatment and respect of the middle and lower classes, especially Tommies, but undermines itself by assuming that practically everything is inherited and ought to be; both the Snake and the Sword are dementias of the hero inherited, in great detail, from traumas experienced by ancestors he never met.

A cavalry funeral described; new handkerchiefs a perquisite of those close to the deceased (were they still expensive, handkerchiefs, or is this left over from centuries earlier?); and the slow funeral marches to the grave are contrasted with the merriest tune the band can play, leaving. I had thought that was a New Orleans innovation.

The Wise thank God for Work and for Sleep--and pay large premia of the former as insurance in the latter.

Project Gutenberg file #10667:Snake and Sword

Posted by clew at 04:46 PM

March 03, 2009

When A Man Marries, Mary Roberts Rinehart

Just a fluffy romance, only good because Rinehart is good at pacing and foreshadowing; but in passing, as a plot-bunny, a reminder of what life was like before universal inoculation. The butler took sick and dropped a tray, and the servants are mysteriously all missing, and:

There was a man on the top step, with his mouth full of tacks, and he was nailing something to the door, just below Jim's Florentine bronze knocker, and standing back with his head on one side to see if it was straight.
"What are you doing?" Jim demanded fiercely, but the man only drove another tack [...]
It said "Smallpox."

They're all locked into a house together under police guard, because one person taken out of the house may have smallpox. This is not necessarily a brief sentence:

...keeps the commuter at home for three weeks with the measles; that makes him get the milk bottles and groceries from the gate post and smell like dog soap for a month afterward, as a result of disinfection.

Before that, a combination of mob attacks, walled cities, and general Decameron-style flight to places previously uninfected.

Project Gutenberg etext #1671, When A Man Marries

Posted by clew at 08:54 AM

March 01, 2009

The White Linen Nurse, Eleanor Hallowell Abbott

`Nurse romances', almost always between a nurse and a doctor or surgeon, are quite common. I've found a site that implies they're a WWII phenomenon; can't be that, as this one dates to 1913 (as does this New York Times headline on the subject... ) The interesting thing about that is that professional nursing is not *very* old, not much older than the ninteenth century, and the status of sick-nursing previously was peculiar; all women were expected to be willing and able to nurse their families at home, and the poor if possible, but secular professional nurses were confused with camp-followers.

UWMilwaukee has a special collection of them, and a summary that also makes them a post-WWII phenomenon, but Hallowell Abbott is in the game for "the image of nurses and the nursing profession in popular culture, and the books that serve to reinforce not only popular misconceptions of nurses, but of women generally, and professional women in particular."

We have: a student nurse who doesn't want to graduate because her 'trained face' distresses her; her childhood sweetheart who broke the engagement because she washes male patients; a socialite nurse; a nurse who dies in saving an annoying old patient from a fire; a car-accident; a lame child right out of The Secret Garden; heaps of money and house-decorating; and a marriage with an indefinitely postponed consummation (but a happy ending). I'd call that a solid third of the evergreen cliches, and the prose is springy enough.

Project Gutenberg file #14506, The White Linen Nurse

Posted by clew at 06:15 PM

Under the Storm, Charlotte Mary Yonge

More Yonge being pro-Papist, despite her presumed Protestantism, because she's writing a book set in the civil war and the Roundheads are far too anti-establishment for her. I think. My grasp of the theological issues is nonexistent, so what I read was a novel about the dangers of extremism, the difficulty of civil war, the art to know well to die, and -- possibly what really attracts me -- the skilled heavy labor and complex social backup needed for even `subsistence' living, in most of history.

It's sort of a Boxcar Children novel; children orphaned and made houseless by disease and ill-controlled soldiers move into a collapsed hermit's hut in the woods, make mostly good. But: neighbors would have taken them in, taking all their surviving goods in exchange; leaving the land would have broken the ?feudal? right to it, which they keep despite their poverty because the lady of the manor can't afford to rebuild their house (she owes them housing if they owe her labor); and they only survive because they can act in the market, in a small way, for instance to get a spinning-wheel and salt in exchange for their butter.

Minor oddity; referring casually to the `slime' of the Bristol channel. I suppose it was silting up already in the 17th. c.

Project Gutenberg file #6006, Under the Storm

Posted by clew at 04:54 PM

Unitarianism defended, Anonymous

The language with which anonymous disputants complain of misprisions has declined sadly. From 1839:

To persevere, against all remonstrance, in the repetition of a misstatement injurious to an opponent, and to do this so coolly as to use almost his own words in imputing to him the very opposite of what he has said, is at least a convenient, if not an honourable nor yet a formidable policy.

I was proofing Unitarianism defended because it is my default to work on the oldest unfinished project -- a default I flee from, often, because they're almost always dull political tracts with foreign inclusions in non-Latin-1 alphabets. On the other hand, one does get these constants of human nature in their prolix forms.

The particular argument is over what our theological reaction to the incomprehensible should be, and both sides use the unsounded sea as a figure for the incomprehensible; the author is angry that `his' metaphor has been interpreted in a different way. As one to whom theology is like Star Trek physics, I take this as evidence that metaphors are only useful in explaining things to people who don't actually disagree with you to start with.

Two pages later there is huffy accusation that Unitarians are being compared to Mahometans, bar bar misleading attribution bar bar outdated source. Really nothing changes:

"nothing new under the sun," of this description, for our modern days. Hildebrand himself, yes, GREGORY THE SEVENTH, like our poor selves, was suspected of a leaning to "Islamism,"...

Completely by the by: When proofing, as when reading modern PDFs in Skim or so forth, I often spend time fiddling the zoom and side-scrolling until only the actual text block is displayed. Am I the only person who bothers? Would 'Fit to non-background-color' be that much harder than 'Fit to page size'? (For Distributed Proofreading scans of foxed, marked-up books it might be, but even there it would work *sometimes*.)

Posted by clew at 01:21 PM
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