2000 Notebook: Transition XIII
12 April 2000
Soporific Technical Notes
I can think of few things more tedious than explaining irrelevant technical arcana. In fact, I can't think of anything more tiresome at the moment, so that's what I am going to write about on this stultifyingly boring day.

(Tip: if I were you I'd go to tomorrow's entry.)

Here's the situation. For some reason, the ultramodern twenty-first century Internet revolution is based on crude typographical technologies circa 1974. For example, to put this in italics, I have to write <i>this</i> in the part of the document no one ever sees except for very sad people. And things get much worse when it's time for punctuation.

"Let me give you an example," I said. "I used to use 'generic' quotation marks--with a couple of hyphens in lieu of an em-dash. Why? Because there wasn't a way of getting fancy quotes, em-dashes, et cetera, to appear on all computers."

"I notice you used the past tense," you noted.

“Exactly,” I replied. “As you can see, beginning with this paragraph I’m now using ‘fancy’ quotation marks—plus a real em-dash. It seems that at some point in the last year or two the technology has evolved to the point where fancy quotes and em-dashes will appear on all computers.”

“Last year or two?” you asked skeptically.

Enough of the fake dialogue. Yes, it’s true that I don’t spend much time keeping abreast of the latest technical developments in Internet publishing. Even I have better things to do than that. I probably could have safely made these modest typographic improvements many months ago; I just never bothered to notice that such little feats were now possible.

Even this latest development isn’t particularly exciting, because I now have a lot of extra work to do. Take these two sentences, for example:

"I used to use 'generic' quotation marks--with a couple of hyphens in lieu of an em-dash."

“But now, I’m using ‘fancy’ quotation marks—plus a real em-dash.”

Now, look at the underlying code I had to use to accomplish that:

&quot;I used to use 'generic' quotation marks--with a couple of hyphens in lieu of an em-dash.&quot;
&#147;But now, I&#146;m using &#145;fancy&#146; quotation marks&#151;plus a <i>real</i> em-dash.&#148;

This convoluted solution is made possible with the new (to me, at least) Unicode standard, ISO 10646-1. ISO 10646-1 contains over thirty thousand different characters, or, put another way, around thirty thousand characters more than I’ll ever use. Curiously, however, even ISO 10646-1 doesn’t provide for every character used in all of the world’s living languages.

If you’re still reading this, you must be as bored as I am. Let’s go out and do something.

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13 April 2000
The Queen’s Anus Horribilis
We all age as we age; that’s why it’s called aging. Even the queen of England ages, but, as in so many other fields, she does so differently than the commoners beneath her. I found empirical evidence of this tonight when I was going through some English coins.

I found a couple of two pence pieces from 1997 and 1998. The queen looks more or less eighteen years old on the 1997 coin, a fib that’s fine with me. Given enough to drink and favorable lighting, I occasionally see someone more or less eighteen when I look in the mirror. When I’m elected king of England with the keys to the royal wine cellar, I might issue a decree to the treasury (or to the mint, or to whichever government department is responsible for such matters) to use a twenty-five-year old photograph of me as the basis for next year’s coins and currency.

Apparently, the queen of England gave up sending such directives in 1997, when she had her “Anus Horribilis.” Every year on the twenty-sixth day of December, the queen gives a brief state-of-the-queen report, and it was in her 1997 review that she publicly admitted that she had an “Anus Horribilis.” I don’t know what “Anus Horribilis” means, but anything that sounds that terrible probably is. If it wasn’t embarrassing, she could have used clear English instead of obscure Latin.

The queen’s Anus Horribilis took a terrible toll. On the 1998 coin, she’s aged half a century, and her head’s swelled in size by perhaps fifty percent! The queen ordered a new crown to disguise her physical aberration, but the cosmetic move was in vain. It looks like even the queen of England can’t disguise the effects of an Anus Horribilis.

14 April 2000
A Rare Find
I have almost no formal training in writing, so I use the New Yorker magazine as my de facto style guide. Why? Unlike the other style guides, the New Yorker has lots of cartoons, some of which are very funny.

I recently made a remarkable discovery in a relatively recent New Yorker. On page 55 of the 20 December 1999 issue, I saw a word I didn’t recognize, “micturation.” I looked it up in my pitiful dictionary; it told me the word didn’t exist, and that the word I wanted was “micturition.” It seemed more likely that my piss-poor dictionary had erred than it did that the magazine’s legendary proofreaders let a misspelling through, but you never know. At least I didn’t, so I headed to the library.

I looked for “micturation” in the biggest dictionary I could find, the one from England that’s bigger than a couple dozen New York phone books. It turns out there really is no such word as “micturation.” I should probably look up the word in other dictionaries, but knowing the exact spelling of the polite word to describe a Cape Breton fiddler’s sexual practices with his underage partner is at or near the bottom of my list of priorities.

My modest achievement hasn’t made me very happy. I fear that finding a typographical error in the New Yorker could come back to haunt me. The editors of the New Yorker love to mock other publications’ grammatical and spelling mistakes. I fear those spiteful sophisticates could devote an entire issue to ridiculing my myriad mispellings, typos, and other errancies.

15 April 2000
Not the Nature of Genius
Michael Howe, the author of Genius Explained, has come up with a theory that will please no one. According to the article I read, Howe maintains that there’s no such thing as an innate or biologically-determined genius. “What makes geniuses special is their long-term commitment,” he argues. “They struggle very hard and they keep on persisting. They enjoy their work. They excel at concentrating and persevering.”

Who could agree with such a theory? No one, that’s who.

I would presume a genius would not like to hear that s/he’s not a genius as such, just someone who works very hard. What a putdown! It’s like Adam C. Engst said, “Any idiot can work all the time, and most do.”

Howe’s premise is even harder for someone like me to accept. I’ve always believed that being a genius was beyond me. And now Howe says I could have been (could be?) a genius if I wasn’t so slothful. Had I not spent so many sanguine evenings chatting with friends over a bottle of whatever, I might be a genius even at this moment. Oh well. That’s your loss, not mine.

I did learn something from Howe’s treatise: how not to write a popular psychology book. If I ever author such a volume, I’ll call it something like Stupid, Ugly People Make Great Lovers. That’s a message stupid, ugly people would pay to read. And anyone who’s not stupid and/or ugly would also appreciate the premise, since they would probably consider themselves somewhat better off than those profiled.

One needn’t be a genius to recognize that writing a popular psychology book doesn’t take a genius.

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16 April 2000
The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread
After humans have slogged through a few millennia eating misshapen loaves of bread, it’s not difficult to understand the origins of the phrase, “the best thing since sliced bread.” It’s a pleasure to come back from the store with a loaf of evenly-sliced bread, pull out a couple slices, thwack something tasty between them, and, voilà! A meal is born!

Even though I like sliced bread, I sometimes bring a large, solid, unusually-shaped piece of bread back to the lab. After opening a can of fish and a jar of mustard, I then dine as my ancient ancestors once did. I rip a piece of bread off the end of the loaf with my bare hands, smear it with spicy mustard, spear an immobile fish, then shove everything into my mouth. When I’m done, there’s a lovely tableau of bread crumbs, fish oil splatterings, perhaps a mustard stain, and an empty bottle of wine with greasy lip prints on the rim.

Yum! Unsliced bread is amazing!

After a while, though, I get tired of the mess, and frustrated with pulling sad chunks of bread out of the toaster to find a combination of untoast and charcoal. That’s when I go to the store and come back with a loaf of bread that’s been professionally and evenly sliced. Amazing!

I alternate between fascination with sliced and unsliced bread. And that reveals the secret of my happiness: a low entertainment threshold really is the best thing before or since sliced bread.

17 April 2000
The Nigel Experience
It’s been years since I mentioned Russell Hart’s admonition, “Beware of artists with only one name.” I may never use it again, having just come up with a modestly superior corollary: “Flee from ‘artists’ with only one name.”

The inspiration for my new corollary and the associated diatribe is some guy who calls himself “Kennedy.” I think he used to be called Nigel Kennedy in less pretentious days. I just had the misfortune of hearing Nigel “interpret” one of Jimi Hendrix’s songs, only it wasn’t just Nigel, it was, “The Kennedy Experience.” (Jimi Hendrix’s ensemble was called “The Jimi Hendrix Experience,” and now Nigel’s calling his band “The Nigel Kennedy Experience.” Get it? That Nigel, what a clever lad.)

Had Jimi Hendrix not suffocated to death in his own vomit in 1969, he probably would have done so after listening to Nigel. It was so bad, I could actually see him making the melodramatic “dying swan” gestures so popular among teenage violinists of all ages. I never thought a Jimi Hendrix composition could be saccharine or schmaltzy, but that was before I had my bad Experience.

Nigel is of those sad thirty-something year old “classical” musicians who tries hard—much, much, much, too hard—to be cool, or whatever successor to the word “hip” young people are using today. I usually don’t give any advice, let alone unsolicited advice, but I’ll make an exception for Nigel.

Nigel, give it up. Violin players have never been cool. Violin players are not cool. (Just ask Ashley MacIsaac: violin players who are cool are called, “fiddle players.”) And violin players never will be cool, never ever.

Well, almost never. I do have a recording of the Kronos [string] Quartet doing a nice rendition of Hendrix’s Purple Haze. But the Kronos Quartet successfully employed two successful strategies alien to The Nigel Experience: talent, and musicianship.

18 April 2000
Edward Albee on Deck
I found an interesting quote that may or may not be a corollary to the observation that adults call sexual innuendo jokes “juvenile humor,” and juveniles call such jokes “adult humor.” Edward Albee’s character Jerry in The Zoo Story said:

    “What I wanted to get at is the value difference between pornographic playing-cards when you’re a kid, and pornographic playing-cards when you’re older. It’s that when you’re a kid you use the cards as a substitute for a real experience, and when you’re older you use real experience as a substitute for the fantasy.”

That’s clever, but is it true? I’ve always fantasized about fantasy, and used real experiences as a substitute for real experience. I found both states overrated. I wonder if that’s because I’ve never had a deck of pornographic cards?

19 April 2000
Caffeinated Finns
I met some Finnish artists at a party a few weeks ago. I’m reviewing the notes I made at the time; they make little sense many mornings after.

We discussed drugs, as often happens at parties. Specifically, we talked about coffee. It turns out that Finns like their coffee more than many other nationalities. I think the reasons Finns like coffee is the same reason Americans like alcohol: they know it used to be illegal. That sounds nice, but it’s probably not true. Americans suffered through the prohibition on alcohol in the early twentieth century; Finns were banned from drinking coffee by the occupying Swedes on three separate occasions hundreds of years ago. In both cases, almost all the Americans and Finns legally deprived of their alcohol and coffee are dead.

Now here’s where my notes stop making sense. I recall that one of the Finns said that the Swedes outlawed coffee when they occupied Finland in late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. I looked up basic Finnish history in my cheap encyclopedia, and found myself very confused very quickly. It turns out that Finland, with Russia to the east and Sweden to the west, has been a battleground and/or occupied by one or the other for much of the last millennium.

I found myself terribly confused by historical events; I never did reconcile the party anecdote with the encyclopedia entry. Nevertheless, that’s not going to stop me from passing along the three different reasons the Swedes banned Finns from drinking coffee on three separate occasions.

First, there was the copper connection. In the eighteenth century, coffee making in Finland was quite a performance; the Finns used copper kettles for boiling water, copper pots for serving, et cetera. Apparently copper was in relatively short supply at the time, and the Swedes figured the Finnish coffee drinkers were using too much of it.

Later, Swedes again banned coffee drinking because it was “unhealthy.”

The third ban was the most mysterious, and thus the most interesting. The Swedes told the Finns they had to stop drinking coffee because it was “too stimulating.”

Those silly Swedes. Of course coffee is too stimulating; why else would anyone drink it?

20 April 2000
An Unapologetic Note
Molly sent me a very unusual missive today:

    Dear David,

    Today, I ate an incredible burrito at Taqueria Don Juan. It was stuffed with chipotle and jalapeño chilies, plus avocado slices marinated in tequila. The cylinder was glowing in a fiery adobo sauce, and was easily as big as a five-month old dachshund ... and every bit as succulent. Amazing! The Rainier Ale was from an uninspired bottling, but other than that it was a saliva tingly scrumptious meal.

    In other news, the house has stopped moving, and it turns out that Gladys was dead all this time after all! The little stinker!

    I need to fix the propeller, but thought I’d send this first. More later ...



    P.S. Never mind about the little “forestry problem.”

On the surface, this would appear to be an innocuous piece of informal correspondence. (I remain curious, though, if “saliva tingly” was supposed to have been one word or two.)

Molly’s note is, however, the first piece of correspondence I’ve received this year that did not contain some variation of “I’ve been meaning to write to you for quite some time ...” On the other hand, Molly’s letter, like every other message I’ve sent and received this year, did contain the obligatory promise of “more later.”

More later ...

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©2000 David Glenn Rinehart