18 September 2007

Scenes from a cocktail party

Annoying guest: So what are you planning on going to graduate school for?

Ardith: Sanskrit.

Annoying guest: Wow. Is there a big market for that in the world today?

Ardith: Well, no. I mean, it leads to an academic career.

Annoying guest: I had no idea that you could study something so ... specialized. So you’ll teach people to write in this ... Sanskrit’s an old kind of writing, isn’t it?

Ardith: No, Sanskrit is the most important ancient language of India. You
’re thinking of the script it’s usually written in, which is Devanagari.

Annoying guest: So, do you need to learn Indian? I mean, when you read it, do you translate in your head into Indian or English?

(long pause)

Ardith: India
’s a very linguistically diverse country, sir.

More on the sturdy barons

Blackstone, 3 Comm. 278 (1st edn., 1768):
The first return in every term is, properly speaking, the first day in that term [ . . . ]. And the court sits to take essoigns, or excuses for such as do not appear according to the summons of the writ: wherefore this is usually called the essoign day of the term. But the person summoned has three days of grace, beyond the return of the writ, in which to make his appearance; and if he appears on the fourth day inclusive, the quarto die post, it is sufficient. For our sturdy ancestors held it beneath the condition of a freeman to be obliged to appear, or do any other act, at the precise time appointed or required.
An enimently civilized attitude to tardiness.

13 September 2007

Radio play, act 3, scene 5

A: What's that in the sky? Is that because of the Empire State Building?
B: It seems like it.
A: It's awful. It looks like yellow toxic industrial smoke.
B: Oh, like in . . . um . . . what am I thinking of? . . .
A: New Jersey?
B: No, the Antonioni movie.
A: Oh, Red Desert.

28 August 2007

Ma non troppo

“You really don’t like men in uniform?”
“Well, I like men in vestments. Does that count?”

(Conversation reported by a friend in the metropole.)

The Church of Saint Paul the Disseisor

Another wonderful linguistic trouvaille in Maitland and Pollock (I:499-500, nonessential footnotes omitted):

At least for the purposes of popular thought and speech, God and the saints became the subjects of legal rights, if not of legal duties. [ . . . ] In the old land-books the notion is put before us in many striking phrases. In the oldest of them the newly converted Æthelbert says, ‘To thee Saint Andrew and to thy church at Rochester where Justus the Bishop presides I do give a portion of my land.’ The saint is the owner; his church at this place or that is mentioned because it is necessary to show of which of his many estates the gift is to form part. [ . . . ] Gradually (if we may so speak) the saint retires behind his churches; the church rather than the saint is thought of as the holder of lands and chattels. When it comes to precise legal thinking, the saint is an impracticable person, for if we ascribe rightful we may also have to ascribe wrongful possession to him, and from this we shrink, though Domesday Book courageously charges St Paul with an ‘invasion’ of land that is not his own*.

*D.B. ii. 13: ‘Aliam Nessetocham tenuit Turstinus Ruffus ... modo Sanctus Paulus invasit.’ We might compare this to those phrases current at Oxford and Cambridge which tell how Magdalen has won a cricket match and the like; but there is less of conscious abbreviation in the one case than in the other.

A remarkable Scrabble word

Yex, v. To hiccough. OED illustrates with, inter alia, a quotation from Urquhart's Rabelais: "He ... yawned, spitted, coughed, yexed."

25 August 2007

Overheard in the Atlantic conurbation (2)

“She thinks that Jesus is a hug. She actually said that to me.”
“Well, my mother thinks that Jesus is an ice-cream social, but she wouldn’t say it.”

“Most of my views on causation developed as a reaction against the Reagan administration.”

Prose composition project

Inspired by a joke I made up for a friend yesterday, when I wrote some dog-Greek referring to ‘brain in a vat’ as

Write a parody Platonic dialogue setting out Frank Jackson
’s well-known knowledge argument against physicalism, in the best Attic you can. Unlike the other challenges I’ve posted so far, I’ll have a go at this one myself, when I get time. Unfortunately that may be a while.


There are many reasons to read Pollock and Maitland’s masterpiece, The History of English Law before the Time of Edward I (Cambridge: CUP, 1895, 18982), but surely the wonderful words that one learns are high on the list. Example: vifgage (vivum vadium), in contrast to mortgage (mortuum vadium) (II.119): in a vifgage, the amount of the debt is progressively reduced by the profits that the creditor takes from the land given to him as a gage; in a mortgage, it is not. Further, if somewhat fanciful, etymological speculations in Glanvill x, 8, and Littleton § 332, according to the footnote.

20 August 2007

Overheard in the Atlantic conurbation

“----- is wonderful. It’s like being friends with a soap opera. Or several.”

“I thought you said that you only drank in class once.”
“No, I meant I only drank in one class.”

“There are many ways you can react to a six-foot tall painting of a vulva, but sneering isn’t really one of them.” (In reference to the nightclub Berghain, in Berlin.)

The abominable fancy

Nietzsche, Zur Genealogie der Moral, I, § 15, KSA 5:284:
Denn was ist die Seligkeit jedes Paradieses? ... Wir würden es vielleicht schon errathen; aber besser ist es, dass es uns eine in solchen Dingen nicht zu unterschätzende Autorität ausdrücklich bezeugt, Thomas von Aquino, der grosse Lehrer und Heilige. „Beati in regno coelesti“, sagt er sanft wie ein Lamm, videbunt poenas damnatorum, ut beatitudo illis magis complaceat.“ Oder will man es in einer stärkeren Tonart hören, etwa aus dem Munde eines triumphirenden Kirchenvaters, der seinen Christen die grausame Wollüste der öffentlichen Schauspiele wiederrieth — warum doch? „Der Glaube bietet uns ja viel mehr — sagt er, de spectac. c. 29 ss.viel Stärkeres; Dank der Erlösung stehen uns ja ganz andre Freuden zu Gebote; an Stelle der Athleten haben wir unsre Märtyrer; wollen wir Blut, nun, so haben wir das Blut Christi ... Aber was erwartet uns erst am Tage seiner Wiederkunft, seines Triumphes!— und nun fährt er fort, der entzückte Visionär: [ . . . ]
And then follows a quotation from De spectaculis too long to transcribe. I was asked some time ago for the technical name of the doctrine to which the quotations of Tertullian and Thomas allude. There was, as far as I can tell, no specific term for this at the time when it was propounded as doctrinal orthodoxy; but the nineteenth-century phrase is ‘the abominable fancy’, due to one Dean F.W. Farrar, in a sermon preached in 1877 at Westminster Abbey. This is, at least, the source given by D.P. Walker in his useful The Decline of Hell: Seventeenth-Century Discussions of Eternal Torment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), p. 31. Walker also gives an interesting quotation from Bayle, demonstrating (on his reading) a view of the doctrine midway between the unqualified endorsement of Tertullian and the revulsion of Farrar:
Il y a même je ne sai quoi qui choque notre raison dans l’hypothese que les Saints du Paradis tirent en partie leur félicité de ce qu’ils savent que dautres hommes sont tourmentez & le seront éternellement. [Bayle, Œuvres diverses, 3:863, quoted by Walker, p. 30]
Incidentally, I’m fairly certain that Walker (and, for that matter, Nietzsche) considerably oversimplifies the post-patristic history of the doctrine: St Thomas’ claim is that the blessed rejoice not per se but per accidens in the torments of hell, inasmuch as in observing them they observe the workings of divinely ordained justice: et sic divina justitia et sua liberatio erunt per se causa gaudii bonorum, sed poenae damnatorum per accidens (In IV Sent. d. 50 q. 2 a. 4 qc. 3 co.). This seems clearly conceptually distinct from, if not much less offensive than, the enjoyment Tertullian is describing.


In the post of 5 August, entitled "A Puzzle", there is a fencepost error: the calculation should read 64442 gridpoints, not 64082 (360 degrees of longitude · 179 degrees of latitude + the two poles).

Intactus, -a, -um

Also in conversation with Philalethe, I rather pompously used the term intactus in reference to a male virgin. I hardly imagined that this was particularly novel, but (had I bothered to think about it) I should have thought that the term would probably not have been used with a male personal referent in the Classical period, given the Romans' disinclination (to say the least) for even verbal sexual egalitarianism. But is this so? The examples in Lewis and Short all have virgo, puella, or such as the antecedent; however, I now remember that Catullus uses integer in an essentially synonymous sense in reference both to men and women:
Dianae sumus in fide
puellae et pueri integri
Dianam pueri integri
puellaeque canamus

Learning from one's mistress

(From a discussion with Philalethe, in the college bar, on the subject of undergraduates who think that it's appropriate to cite to Wikipedia in papers: as my interlocuter put it, "They need to learn that the reference room is one's wife and Wikipedia is one's mistress.")

By means of that wonderful electronic concubine, I learned today:
1) that deodands were abolished by statute, 9 & 10 Vict. c. 62, after coroner's juries began reviving them as a means of getting around the legal impunity of railway companies for fatal accidents;

2) that "A Swiss Army knife is commonly called "Macgybar Chakku" in Bangladesh, "Maekgaibeo Kal" in South Korea, and "Pisau MacGyver/Pisau Lipat MacGyver" in Indonesia/Malaysia".
There was, in fact, a reasonable path that got me from (1) to (2), but that's of no moment.

Trystero against Thurn und Taxis

A few weeks ago, the online Times offered a list of the "world's strangest laws", which has been reprinted on many blogs. Many, perhaps, are genuine archaic statutes, unrepealed through inadvertence or indifference, but some have the ring of urban legends; one of them I know to be:
23. It is an act of treason to place a postage stamp bearing the British monarch upside down.
This absurd claim is demonstrably false, as can be discovered in a half a minute on Wikipedia and confirmed almost as quickly in a real source. In the main, British treason law is set by the Treason Act 1351, 25 Edw. 3 st. 5 c. 2, which says nothing about postage stamps (although it does have a number of archaic provisions, and one ("si home [...] soit adherant as enemies nostre seigneur le roy en le royalme, donant a eux eid ou confort en son royalme ou par aillours", although the text is cited variously, cf. 1 Hale P.C. 88, 3 Co. Inst. 10-11) that lies behind the oft-misquoted provision in the American Constitution). Nor are such things to be found in the other relevant statutes in force.

But, of course, the point of this post is that there are such things as treasonous postage stamps, just not in England:
"I'm not sure I understand," Oedipa said.
"Allow me." He rolled over to her a small table, and from a plastic folder lifted with tweezers, delicately, a U.S. commemorative stamp, the Pony Express issue of 1940, 3¢ henna brown. Cancelled. "Look," he said, switching on a small, intense lamp, handing her an oblong magnifying glass.
"It's the wrong side," she said, as he swabbed the stamp gently with benzine and placed it on a black tray.
"The watermark." Oedipa peered. There it was again, her WASTE symbol, showing up black, a little right of center. (95-96)

And, as the cognoscenti know, The Crying of Lot 49 only seems to be fiction. I saw the evidence myself back in the Web's younger days, but evil Thurn und Taxis henchmen brought the site down, so we are forced to rely on the Wayback machine and this tireless investigator.

Construction task (2)

In English, there are a number of pairs of words differing only by one letter with more or less opposed senses. (Ignore a privative for these purposes, as it makes things too easy.) Make up a grammatical sentence, preferably true, using as many of these pairs as possible. A small-scale example to start: "Wilson dared to prescribe overt, but not to proscribe covert, diplomacy."

18 August 2007

Reality show

Bruited about over lunch: an idea for a reality TV show ordered around zeugmas. Contestants would be timed as they carry out various tasks which have nothing in common except being grammatical complements of the same verb. Round one: drive a golf ball, a nail, a tractor, and your partner to drink. Round two: get hired, fired, high, laid, and the measles. Round three: kill half an hour, a six-pack, and at least one of the judges. And so on.

17 August 2007


Tonight, it occurs to me: if I could only take three films with me to a desert island, they would have to be Resnais' Muriel (1963), Bresson's Au hasard Balthasar (1966), and Antonioni's L'eclisse (1962). Of course, if I thought about it a week from now I might well give a different answer, but nonetheless, I'm surprised that the three films that come to mind were all made in such a short span of time.

The Iron Chancellor's drinking habits

Only the cellars [of Bismarck’s house in the Wilhelmstraße] were properly stocked. When Bismarck left in 1890, 13,000 bottles of wine had to be cleared out in a couple of days. This is not surprising in view of his statement that he intended to consume 5,000 bottles of champagne in his lifeand this only as light refreshment after the table wines and brandy, to say nothing of beer.
A.J.P. Taylor, Bismarck: The Man and the Statesman (London, 1955), 112.

Go forth and ogle

Law Book Exchange offers a reprint of the Opera omnia of John Selden.

Unfortunately, its not cheap. In fact, you can get the original for only $500 more.

The reprint of the vulgate edition of the Year Books is also something to dream about, although probably less fun than Selden.

11 August 2007

An aphorism

In the end, I am not sure that Schmitt is as original or significant a political thinker as is often claimed--although, given his importance in Weimar intellectual history, the dark fascination he holds for many on the Left (myself included) is not difficult to understand. But he does at least deserve to be remembered as a extraordinary aphorist. Here is a gem I found recently:

“Daß die Anarchisten langweilig werden, ist vielleicht das letzte Zeichen dafür, daß es mit einer Gesellschaft zu Ende ist.”

Letter to Ernst Jünger, 2 Jan. 1934, in
Briefe 1930-1983, ed. Helmuth Kiesel (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1999), p. 21.

The context, strangely enough, is a comment on C
éline's Voyage au bout de la nuit.

05 August 2007

A puzzle

It occurred to me that there are 64082 points on the surface of the earth whose longitude and latitude, calculated in degrees, are both integers: 360 degrees of longitude · 178 degrees of latitude (from 89ºN to 89ºS) + the two poles.

How many of these gridpoints are on land? It would be tedious to count, but probably about 18600 of them, since 71% of the earth's surface is covered in water (64082 · 0.29 = ~18583).

Now for the generalization (which can be developed in various ways): take a simple closed curve on the surface of a sphere, defined by an equation of a particular form but with parameters unspecified, subject to the constraint that the curve encloses some fraction j of the total surface area of the sphere; assuming randomly chosen (real-valued) parameters satisfying the constraint, calculate the probability distribution for the number of gridpoints lying within the curve. At least for garden-variety, well-behaved curves, one imagines that the distribution will peak at 64082j and taper off as one goes above or below that. If one allows in too many strange curves, there might be a problem even defining a probability measure on the set. I don't know exactly how one would go about beginning to solve this problem except for the simplest cases.

(Am I right, by the way, in thinking (1) that there are a total of beth-two simple closed curves on the surface of a sphere in R³ and (2) that at least some of these will enclose no well-defined area, for Vitali/Hausdorff reasons?)

(Disclaimer: I am not a mathematician. For all I know, there might be an extensive literature on this problem. )

Construction task

Write a meaningful, grammatical Latin sentence, all of whose words end with the letters -t- + -vowel- + -r. Entries will be judged on length, creativity, and stylistic polish.

03 August 2007

Leslie Stephen on the prince of burglars

From Leslie Stephen, “The State Trials”, in Hours in a Library (a most unjustly forgotten jewel of Victorian minor literature), new edn. (New York and London: Putnam, 1904), iv. 281-326, quotation at pp. 293-7:
Another hero of that time, unfortunately a principal instead of a mere spectator in the recorded tragedy, is so full of exuberant vitality that we can scarcely reconcile ourselves to the belief that the poor man was hanged two centuries ago. The gallant Colonel Turner had served in the royal army, and, if we may believe his dying words, was specially valued by his Majesty. The colonel, however, got into difficulties: he made acquaintance with a rich old merchant named Tryon, and tried to get a will forged in his favour by one of Tryon’s clerks; failing in this, he decided upon speedier measures. He tied down poor old Tryon in his bed one night, and then carried off jewels to the value of 3000l. An energetic alderman suspected the colonel, clutched him a day or two afterwards, and forced him to disgorge. When put upon his defence, he could only tell one of those familiar fictions common to pickpockets; how he had accidentally collared the thief, who had transferred the stolen goods to him, and how he was thus entitled to gratitude instead of punishment. It is not surprising that the jury declined to believe him; but we are almost surprised that any judge had the courage to sentence him. For Colonel Turner is a splendid scoundrel. There is something truly heroic in his magnificent self-complacency; the fine placid glow of conscious virtue diffused over his speeches. He is a link between Dugald Dalgetty, Captain Bobadil, and the audacious promoter of some modern financiering scheme. Had he lived in days when old merchants invested their savings in shares instead of diamonds, he would have been an invaluable director of a bubble company. There is a dash of the Pecksniff about him; but he has far too much pith and courage to be dashed like that miserable creature by a single exposure. Old Chuzzlewit would never have broken loose from his bonds. It is delightful to see, in days when most criminals prostrated themselves in abject humiliation, how this splendid colonel takes the Lord Chief Justice into his confidence, verbally buttonholes “my dear lord” with a pleasant assumption that, though for form’s sake some inquiry might be necessary, every reasonable man must see the humour of an accusation directed against so innocent a patriot. The whole thing is manifestly absurd. And then the colonel gracefully slides in little compliments to his own domestic virtues. Part of his story had to be that he had sent his wife (who was accused as an accomplice) on an embassy to recover the stolen goods.
“I sent my poor wife away,” he says, "and saving your lordship’s presence, she did all bedirt herself—a thing she did not use to do, poor soul. She found this Nagshead, she sat down, being somewhat fat and weary, poor heart! I have had twenty-seven children by her, fifteen sons and twelve daughters.” “Seven or eight times this fellow did round her.” “Let me give that relation,” interrupts the wife. “You cannot,” replies the colonel, “it is as well. Prythee, sit down, dear Moll; sit thee down, good child, all will be well.”
And so the colonel proceeds with amazing volubility, and we sympathise with this admirable father of twenty-seven children under so cruel a hardship. But—not to follow the trial—the colonel culminated under the most trying circumstances. His dying speech is superb. He is honourably confessing his sins, but his natural instinct asserts itself. He cannot but admit, in common honesty, that he is a model character, and speaks under his gallows as if he were the good apprentice just arrived at the mayoralty. He admits, indeed, that he occasionally gave way to swearing, though he “hated and loathed” the sin when he observed it; but he was—it was the source of all his troubles—of a “hasty nature.” But he was brought up in an honest family in the good old times, and laments the bad times that have since come in. He has been a devoted loyalist; he has lived civilly and honestly at the upper end of Cheapside as became a freeman of the Company of Drapers; he was never known to be “disguised in drink;” a small cup of cider in the morning, and two little glasses of sack and one of claret at dinner, were enough for him; he was a constant church-goer, and of such delicate propriety of behaviour that he never “saw a man in church with his hat on but it troubled him very much” (a phrase which reminds us of Johnson’s famous friend); “there must be,” he is sure, when he thinks of all his virtues, “a thousand sorrowful souls and weeping eyes” for him this day. The attendant clergy are a little scandalised at this peculiar kind of penitence; and he is good enough to declare that he “disclaims any desert of his own”—a sentiment which we feel to be a graceful concession, but not to be too strictly interpreted. The hangman is obliged to put the rope round his neck. “Dost thou mean to choke me, fellow?” exclaims the indignant colonel. “What a simple fellow is this! how long have you been executioner that you know not how to put the knot?” He then utters some pious ejaculations, and as he is assuming the fatal cap, sees a lady at a window; he kisses his hand to her, and says, “Your servant, Mistress;” and so pulling down the cap, the brave colonel vanishes, as the reporter tells us, with a very undaunted carriage to his last breath.

Sir Thomas More with his flashes of playfulness, and Charles with his solemn “Remember,” could scarcely play their parts more gallantly than Colonel Turner, and they had the advantage of a belief in the goodness of their cause. Perhaps it is illogical to sympathise all the more with poor Colonel Turner, because we know that his courage had not the adventitious aid of a good conscience. But surely he was a very prince of burglars!

A Gibbonesque footnote in Pocock

One learns many things reading J.G.A. Pocock, some more surprising than others. From the postscript to the reissue of The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957, 1987²), pp. 376-77 and fn. 95, discussing the opposition of the country party to George III:
The kings aristocratic opponents saw themselves playing the roles of Russell and Somers, Pym and Hampden, Simon Montfort and Stephen Langton; the Whig interpretation of history entered its third volume; and again much was heard (as it had never ceased to be) about the liberty-loving and sturdy (if uncouth) barons of Runnymede.*

*This image of the barons
as representing both sides of the “Gothic” personality—had been around for some time and had a long life before it. John Cleland's Fanny Hill on one occasion—which it is unnecessary to describe in as much detail as she does—is reminded of their ancient vigour, and their battle-axes.
Sadly, my copy of Fanny Hill is not at hand to check the reference.

’s footnote is not quite equal in coy prurience to Gibbons comments on Theodora (chap. XL, fn. 24, II:565 in Wormersleys edition), but surely up to some of the quality of some of the masters other sallies. Of course, by now Pocock is at work on volume five of Barbarism and Religion.