Nov 122018
 

Today is the birthday (1915) of Roland Gérard Barthes, French literary theorist, philosopher, linguist, critic, and semiotician. Barthes’ ideas explored a diverse range of fields and he influenced the development of many schools of theory, including structuralism, semiotics, social theory, design theory, anthropology, and post-structuralism. His book, Mythologies (1957), originally a series of essays on the interpretation of popular culture published periodically, was an influential work in anthropology because it introduced anthropologists to semiotics – the analysis of signs and how they operate. Barthes’ work had its vogue in the 1960s and ‘70s, especially because he was a French intellectual whose writings were somewhat clearer and more readable than those of many of his contemporaries, and they appeared to be fertile ground. I always felt that his analyses were trivial, and most of the social scientific world now agrees with me – with the exception of holdouts in France. No worries: I despaired of French social scientists and philosophers a long time ago.

Barthes was born in Cherbourg in Normandy. His father, a naval officer, was killed in a battle during World War I in the North Sea before Barthes’ first birthday. His mother, Henriette Barthes, and his aunt and grandmother raised him in the village of Urt and the city of Bayonne. When Barthes was 11, his family moved to Paris. He claimed that his attachment to his provincial roots remained strong throughout his life – although he does a fair imitation of the bored, Parisian, left-bank intellectual that you could easily be fooled.

Barthes spent from 1935 to 1939 at the Sorbonne, where he earned a degree in classical literature. He was plagued by ill health throughout this period, suffering from tuberculosis, which often had to be treated in isolation in sanatoria. His repeated physical breakdowns disrupted his academic career, affecting his studies and his ability to take qualifying examinations. They also exempted him from military service during World War II. His life from 1939 to 1948 was largely spent obtaining a degee in grammar and philology, publishing his first papers, taking part in a medical study, and continuing to struggle with his health. He received a diplôme d’études supérieures from the University of Paris in 1941 for his work in Greek tragedy. In 1948, he returned to purely academic work, gaining numerous short-term positions at institutes in France, Romania, and Egypt. During this time, he contributed to the leftist Parisian paper Combat, out of which grew his first full-length work, Writing Degree Zero (1953).

In 1952, Barthes settled at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, where he studied lexicology and sociology. During his seven-year period there, he began to write a popular series of bi-monthly essays for the magazine Les Lettres Nouvelles, in which he examined “myths” of popular culture (gathered in Mythologies). The essays in Mythologies were reflections on French popular culture ranging from an analysis of soap detergent advertisements to a dissection of popular wrestling. Though knowing little English, Barthes taught at Middlebury College in 1957 and befriended the future English translator of much of his work, Richard Howard.

Barthes spent the early 1960s exploring the fields of semiology and structuralism, chairing various faculty positions around France, and continuing to produce more full-length studies. Many of his works challenged traditional academic views of literary criticism and of renowned figures of literature. His unorthodox thinking led to a conflict with a well-known Sorbonne professor of literature, Raymond Picard, who attacked the French New Criticism (a label that he inaccurately applied to Barthes) for its obscurity and lack of respect towards France’s literary roots. Barthes’ rebuttal in Criticism and Truth (1966) accused the old, bourgeois criticism of a lack of concern with the finer points of language and of selective ignorance towards challenging theories, such as Marxism.

By the late 1960s, Barthes had established a reputation for himself and traveled to the US and Japan. During this time, he wrote the 1967 essay “The Death of the Author,” which, in light of the growing influence of Jacques Derrida’s concept of deconstruction, would prove to be a transitional piece in its investigation of the logical ends of structuralist thought. Trust me. If you don’t know what I am talking about, you don’t want to know. Derrida, Bourdieu, Foucault . . . are all names that have me running for the exit.

Barthes continued to contribute with Philippe Sollers to the avant-garde literary magazine Tel Quel, which was developing similar kinds of theoretical inquiry to that pursued in Barthes’ writings. In 1970, Barthes produced what many consider to be his most prodigious work, the dense, critical reading of Balzac’s Sarrasine entitled S/Z. Throughout the 1970s, Barthes continued to develop his literary criticism; he developed new ideals of textuality and novelistic neutrality. In 1971, he served as visiting professor at the University of Geneva.

In 1975 he wrote an autobiography, and in 1977 he was elected to the chair of Sémiologie Littéraire at the Collège de France. In the same year, his mother, Henriette Barthes, to whom he had been devoted, died, aged 85. They had lived together for 60 years. The loss of the woman who had raised and cared for him was a serious blow to Barthes. His last major work, Camera Lucida, is partly an essay about the nature of photography and partly a meditation on photographs of his mother. The book contains many reproductions of photographs, though none of them are of Henriette. On 25th February 1980, Roland Barthes was knocked down by a laundry van while walking home through the streets of Paris. One month later, on March 26th, he died from the chest injuries he sustained in that accident.

I was going to gather together a series of pithy quotes from Barthes as a small homage, but as I re-read his work I realized that I detest his writing so much that I could not find a single one I like. Here’s a small sample:

Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire. The emotion derives from a double contact: on the one hand, a whole activity of discourse discreetly, indirectly focuses upon a single signified, which is “I desire you,” and releases, nourishes, ramifies it to the point of explosion (language experiences orgasm upon touching itself); on the other hand, I enwrap the other in my words, I caress, brush against, talk up this contact, I extend myself to make the commentary to which I submit the relation endure.

Some anthropologists find this kind of thing useful in interpretive analysis. I find it a complete waste of time. He rails against bourgeois culture, yet this sort of writing could not be more elitist. How many coal miners or steel workers are going to be intrigued by his words? How are these sentiments going to help them in their daily struggles? I have no time for this kind of self-centered, self-congratulatory twaddle, and I am glad to say that a great many intellectuals now agree with me. Einstein once said that if you cannot explain something simply, you do not understand it. Roland Barthes and his kin want to turn that sentiment on its head: “If you cannot make a simple idea impenetrable to the masses, you are not trying hard enough.” “Confusing” is not a synonym for “nuanced” or “profound.” Ask yourself, in the cracks, why every one of my photos of Barthes here shows him smoking.

This video, Semiotics in the Kitchen by Martha Rosler, is a perfect parody of semiotics and Barthes. Also perfect as my recipe du jour. That is, at the end of the video you will not have learned anything new, you will not have help in creating a dish, and you will still be hungry.

 

 

Oct 072018
 

Cornell university’s Inauguration Day took place on this date in 1868. The previous day, each of the candidates who showed up in Ithaca was given an entrance examination. There were 412 successful applicants. With this initial enrollment, Cornell’s first class was, at the time, the largest entering class at a US university. On the occasion, Ezra Cornell delivered a brief speech. He said, “I hope we have laid the foundation of an institution which shall combine practical with liberal education. … I believe we have made the beginning of an institution which will prove highly beneficial to the poor young men and the poor young women of our country.” His speech included another statement which later became the school’s motto, “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.”

Ezra Cornell

Two other Ezra Cornell-founded, Ithaca institutions played a role in the rapid opening of the university. The Cornell Library, a public library in downtown Ithaca which opened in 1866 served as a classroom and library for the first students. Also Cascadilla Hall, which was constructed in 1866 as a water cure sanitarium, served at the university’s first dormitory.

Cornell was among the first universities in the United States to admit women alongside men. The first woman was admitted to Cornell in 1870, although the university did not yet have a women’s dormitory. On February 13, 1872, Cornell’s Board of Trustees accepted an offer of $250,000 from Henry W. Sage to build such a dormitory. During the construction of Sage College (now home to the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management as Sage Hall) and after its opening in 1875, the admittance of women to Cornell continued to increase.

Significant departures from the standard curriculum were made at Cornell under the leadership of Andrew D. White. In 1868, Cornell introduced the elective system, under which students were free to choose their own course of study. Harvard University would make a similar change in 1872, soon after the inauguration of Charles W. Eliot in 1869. It was the success of the egalitarian ideals of the newly established Cornell, a uniquely American institution, that would help drive some of the changes seen at other universities throughout the next few decades.

In 1892, the university library was opened. Known today as Uris Library, it was the result of a gift from Henry W. Sage in memory of Jennie McGraw. In her will, she left $300,000 to her husband Willard Fiske, $550,000 to her brother Joseph and his children, $200,000 to Cornell for a library, $50,000 for construction of McGraw Hall, $40,000 for a student hospital, and the remainder to the University for whatever use it saw fit. However, the University’s charter limited its property holdings to $3,000,000, and Cornell could not accept the full amount of McGraw’s gift. When Fiske realized that the university had failed to inform him of this restriction, he launched a legal appeal to re-acquire the money, known as The Great Will Case. The United States Supreme Court eventually affirmed the judgment of the New York Court of Appeals that Cornell could not receive the estate on May 19th, 1890, with Justice Samuel Blatchford giving the majority opinion. However, Sage then donated $500,000 to build the library instead.

My association with Cornell is a bit circuitous, but longstanding. Cornell University Press published my Ph.D. dissertation in 1988, and re-issued it as an e-book in 2017. During the initial phases of editing the book for publication I visited Ithaca several times, and toured the campus and surrounds. I also had several students go on to

do graduate work at Cornell, and attended their commencements. Several of my students also had a parent on the faculty at Cornell. All rather fine threads, but weaving a strong fabric all the same.

The school colors of Cornell, carnelian and white, also have a strange history with me and lead to today’s recipe. I am always fascinated by the roots of English words and /CARN/ (flesh) is one of my favorites because it spawns a plethora of words that seem to be unrelated, yet all tie to “flesh” somehow – carnival (remove flesh for Lent), carnation (flesh-colored flower), carnivore (flesh eater), incarnation (taking flesh), and, of course, carnelian (a flesh-colored stone). But it does not stop there. Campbell’s canning company was started in 1869 by Joseph A. Campbell, a fruit merchant who lived in Bridgeton, New Jersey. It started out by producing canned vegetables, jellies, soups, condiments and minced meats. But in 1897, John T. Dorrance, a chemist with degrees from MIT and Göttingen University, joined the company and developed a way to condense their soups. By halving the quantity of its water, he reduced the can size, and condensed soup took off.

Its blue and orange label was a mainstay for nearly 30 years, until a company executive, Herberton Williams, saw the Cornell University football team in action. Impressed by the carnelian red and bright white of their uniforms, he convinced the company to switch branding colors.

I’m not a huge fan of canned soups, condensed or otherwise, but a couple of Campbell’s offerings work for me, namely, Pepper Pot and Scotch Broth. You can go to the Campbell’s website for recipe ideas using their soups, but I don’t recommend them. There’s something a tad 1950s-ish to me about using canned soup to tart up a recipe. I prefer natural – i.e. unprocessed – ingredients when I am cooking. I make my own pepper pot and Scotch broth from scratch also, but the Campbell’s varieties used to be my standbys when I wanted something quick. Maybe you have a fav? You can comment if you do.

Sep 302018
 

Today is the birthday (1923) of Donald Ibrahím Swann a musician, singer and entertainer who is best remembered as one half of Flanders and Swann. His middle name hints at his unusual background. Swann was born in Llanelli in Wales. His father, Herbert Alfredovich Swann, was a Russian doctor of English descent, from the expatriate community that started out as the Muscovy Company. His mother, Naguimé Sultán Swann (born Piszóva), was a Turkmen-Russian nurse from Ashgabat, now part of Turkmenistan. They were refugees from the Russian Revolution. Swann’s great-grandfather, Alfred Trout Swan, a draper from Lincolnshire, emigrated to Russia in 1840 and married the daughter of the horologer to the Tsars. Some time later the family added a second ‘n’ to their surname. His uncle Alfred wrote the first biography of Alexander Scriabin in English.

The family moved to London, where Swann attended Dulwich College Preparatory School and Westminster School. It was at the latter that he first met Michael Flanders, a fellow pupil. In July and August 1940 they staged a revue called Go To It. The pair then went their separate ways during World War II, but were later to establish a musical partnership writing songs and light opera, Flanders providing the words and Swann composing the music.

In 1941 Swann was awarded an exhibition to Christ Church, Oxford, to read modern languages. In 1942 he registered as a conscientious objector and served with the Friends’ Ambulance Unit (a Quaker relief organization) in Egypt, Palestine and Greece. After the war, Swann returned to Oxford to read Russian and Modern Greek.

When by chance Swann and Flanders met again in 1948 it led to the start of their professional partnership. They began writing songs and light opera, Swann writing the music and Flanders writing the words. Their songs were performed by artists such as Ian Wallace and Joyce Grenfell. They subsequently wrote two two-man revues, At the Drop of a Hat and At the Drop of Another Hat, which they performed all over the world until their partnership ended in 1967.

At the same time, Swann was maintaining a prolific musical output, writing the music for several operas and operettas, including a full-length version of C. S. Lewis’s Perelandra, and a setting of J. R. R. Tolkien’s poems from The Lord of the Rings to music in The Road Goes Ever On collection. In 1953–59 Swann provided music for seven plays by Henry Reed on the BBC Third Programme, generally known as the Hilda Tablet plays for one of the fictional characters, a lady composer of avant-garde “musique concrete”. Besides incidental music, Swann composed for this character an opera, “Emily Butter” and several other complete works. A lifelong friendship with Sydney Carter resulted in scores of songs, the best known being “The Youth of the Heart” which reappeared in At the Drop of A Hat, and a musical Lucy & the Hunter. After his partnership with Flanders ended, Swann continued to give solo concerts and to write for other singers. He also formed the Swann Singers and toured with them in the 1970s. Throughout the 1980s and early ’90s he continued performing in various combinations with singers and colleagues and as a solo artist. In the later years of his life he ‘discovered’ Victorian poetry and composed some of his most profound and moving music to the words of William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti, Oscar Wilde and others. He wrote a number of hymn tunes which appear in modern standard hymn books.  It is estimated that Swann wrote or set to music nearly 2,000 songs during his career.

Swann died in London on 24th March 1994.  His lifelong friend, John Amis, wrote in his obituary:

I have never met anybody who knew Donald Swann who did not like him; his friends positively adored him. And he seemed to inspire love because love was what he was about; it came out in his life and his music. Like any (other) saint he could mildly infuriate from time to time with his absent-mindedness and with his seeming inability to see things, sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically. But one came to realise that these minor failings came through his single- mindedness or loyalty or the depressions that he suffered from. So were they failings?

I was a great fan of Flanders and Swann in the 1960s. I suppose they have not worn well with age, but their songs still amuse me. In my youth I was known to sing “The Gas Man Cometh” and not terribly long ago I gave a public performance of “The Hippopotamus Song.” Videos of live performances are rare, sad to say. Here is “Song of Patriotic Prejudice.” It does make me cringe a bit these days with its stereotypes and lack of political correctness, but it also shows their innocence and joviality:

In the spirit of Swann’s lighthearted joviality I suggest you do something  creative with thyme today in honor of one of Swann’s earliest musical endeavors, Wild Thyme, which has a long run in London in the 1950s. I use thyme in my beef and chicken stews to good effect, and very often in sauce for roast meat. I am sure you can be more creative than me.

 Posted by at 9:10 pm
Jun 282018
 

Not entirely by coincidence, today marks both the beginning and ending points of the Great War, also known as the First World War and World War I. That is, archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo on this date in 1914, leading directly to war, and the Treaty of Versailles, which officially ended the war was signed on this date in 1919. Here we run into the problem of identifying certain dates, or events, as “significant.” It took some time for the various forces in Europe to mobilize for war after the assassination, and for the war to spread beyond Europe. Furthermore, fighting had been concluded 7 months before the Treaty of Versailles by an armistice on 11th November 1918. In a way these facts undermine the premise of this blog – but only in a small way. After all, the birth date of someone who went on to do “significant” things is really of no consequence in the grand scheme of things. Nor are dates of national independence and whatnot. History is a steady continuum, so that marking any single day as “important” is a bit misguided. But . . . if we don’t do something like this we end up not celebrating anything. Some people don’t like celebrating their birthdays. My wife hated them. I make a big deal out of mine. You can call this narcissistic of me. Maybe it is. But I will defend myself by saying that I have spent a lifetime in service to others as a pastor, teacher, firefighter, and emergency paramedic, (all either underpaid or not paid at all), so ONE day of the year taken to please myself seems reasonable. Likewise, taking one day of the year to turn the spotlight on a person, event, or place of lasting importance seems fair enough.

Today’s anniversaries are admittedly singular actions in a steady flow of history that may have points you can highlight but which is really a continuous stream – punctuated, sadly, by brutal wars. I have the (bad) habit of seeing the Treaty of Vienna of 1815 — http://www.bookofdaystales.com/congress-vienna/ — as a particularly disastrous agreement between powerful states that plunged Europe and the world into chaos for the rest of the century and beyond. I call it a “bad habit” because the treaty was not just one event, but the culmination of a whole sequence of events that led up to it, and there were numerous other factors causing the subsequent chaos. But there is a point to be made here. The Treaty of Vienna set up the notion of a balance of powers as the recipe for peace. The reasoning was that if Europe consisted of a number of strong nations such as Britain, France, Russia, and Austria-Hungary, with neutral buffer states in between (that everyone agreed upon), no single state would seek war with another because the other states would step in, triggering a massive war that would be too costly to contemplate. However, these major powers were busy carving out empires in the rest of the world throughout the 19th century, fueled in large part by their own industrial revolutions that needed massive inputs of raw products. Yes, it’s all interconnected, and is much more complex than I am sounding – bear with me.

Towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, Europe had divided itself into 2 camps: the Triple Alliance of Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary, and the Triple Entente of Britain, France, and Russia, with the Balkan states in the middle. The member states of each alliance promised aid to the other members should they be attacked. By dividing the powers into two blocs, instead of having many, the concept of the balance of power was narrowed dangerously (and was also upset by the emergence of newly unified nations such as Italy and Germany – which came into being because of dissatisfaction with the Treaty of Vienna by ethnic groups). Now, instead of independently operating nations, you had two giant power blocs with the nationalist aspirations of ethnic groups in the Balkans sitting between the two. Slavs in the Balkans wanted a united Slav state similar to Italy and Germany, but to achieve this goal they had to break parts of this imagined state (Yugoslavia – i.e. united Slavs) free from Austria-Hungary. Hence the assassination of the heir apparent to the crown of Austria-Hungary by a (mostly) Serbian set of conspirators as the match to the powder keg. By themselves, the Balkans were a small powder keg, but they set off much bigger ones. Austria-Hungary and Germany declared war on Serbia in retaliation, Russia came to the defense of Serbia, and almost immediately the other members of the alliances joined in. The Ottoman Empire was rather late to the game, but entered on the side of Germany/Austria-Hungary, and Italy dithered around for a while trying to pick the winning side before joining in on the side of the Triple Entente even though they were one-third of the Triple Alliance.

Because both sides had massive empires, the war spread around the globe, with very few countries being able to maintain neutrality. When you look at a map (above) of the areas of the world on the side of the Triple Entente (green), and the areas on the side of the Triple Alliance (orange), with neutral countries in grey, you can get a sense of why Italy made the choice it did. The map is deceptive, though, because the crucible of the war was in Europe where the two blocs were evenly matched. Battles in other parts of the world were significant, but secondary, and when the US entered on the side of the Triple Entente in 1917, the balance shifted, leading to a conclusion in late 1918. The war was labeled the Great War, because nothing so all encompassing had ever happened before, even though the Napoleonic wars came close. It was not called the First World War until there was a Second.

In hindsight, historians see the Second World War as a consequence of the Treaty of Versailles. But historians also ask the hypothetical question: “Could either war have been prevented?” Counterfactual questions such as this one have limited utility, but they are always worth asking because similar circumstances can always re-emerge. THE POINT OF STUDYING THE PAST IS TO UNDERSTAND THE PRESENT. If Trump were ever to carry out his earlier threat of annihilating North Korea, for example, it could easily escalate into a world war between China and Russia on one side, and the USA and Europe on the other, much in the same way that the Great War started. Of course, if he pisses off Europe, Canada, and Mexico enough with trade wars he may find himself going it alone – but one hopes these speculations are all drastically hypothetical. They do, nonetheless, point out that apart from national objectives being at stake, individual egos are in the mix also.

Historians sometimes argue that the Great War could have been prevented by diplomacy if all the potential belligerents had been willing to sit down together at a congress instead of jumping straight into war mode.  This is hindsight speaking, though. The various factions thought that the war would be over by Christmas instead of dragging on for 4 ruinous years. Here’s where a time machine would have come in handy. If you could have shown the various parties the consequences of war, perhaps they would have thought twice before starting one. Perhaps. But there were also individual egos involved in starting the war, and these egos fueled the Treaty of Versailles. The Allies who won could have simply agreed to let bygones be bygones and gone about rebuilding their nations; but they didn’t. In the flush of victory they demanded that the losers admit that they had started the war and that they pay for their actions. Therefore, Germany was hit with crippling reparation payments which it could ill afford before the Great Depression, let alone during it. Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire also had to give up their colonies, and the latter two were split apart into separate nations. The seeds of the Second World War, not to mention Middle East conflict, the Maoist revolution, etc., were sown.

One of my personal points of despair at this stage is that generations are growing up without a firm grasp of history. My grasp of history is certainly tenuous and biased, but at least I understand its importance. Also, a great many of my relatives who I grew up with (as well as scores of family friends) were participants in either the First or Second World War. I have seen the effects of these wars on a completely personal level. Nowadays, wars are devastating enough, but people growing up in the dominant nations are distanced from them. Conscription is a thing of the past, so that if a family member is killed in a foreign war, relatives can be (minimally) consoled by the notion that they knew the risks when they signed up. Otherwise, wars are the stuff of periodic images on news programs while daily life goes on as usual. Both world wars were engaged in by nations who were convinced of their military superiority: firm in the belief that they could win quickly, and  gobsmacked when this turned out not to be the case. In my humble opinion, we are living in the same world today.

When I choose my daily recipe I am often left with a puzzle because, like nations, local dishes are both the product of local circumstances and intersecting influences from all over the world. Neapolitan pizza would not be what it is without tomatoes from the New World; green chile stew in the southwest of the US has pork as a principle ingredient, and pigs were first domesticated in Asia. The drive to integrate ideas and ingredients that are global in origin is universal and ongoing on the local level. Here’s your challenge. Can you come up with a dish that melds English, Russian, German, Hungarian, Italian, and Turkish elements in one? I can’t for now, but I will give the matter some thought, and maybe add a coda later if I come up with one.

May 232018
 

Today is the birthday (1934) of Robert Arthur Moog (rhymes with “vogue”), a US electronics and mechanical engineer who is best known as the inventor of the Moog synthesizer. Moog was not a musician, but he knew how to work with innovative musicians to showcase and push the boundaries of his inventions. The two most famous are probably Walter/Wendy Carlos and Keith Emerson. I have to say that I very much miss the days when the Moog synthesizer was brand new (late 1960s to early 1970s), and still play the early records (although I no longer have my original vinyls because of my many moves). Nowadays, anyone with a laptop and computer can generate a host of synthesized sounds and they all sound artificial and dull to me. Moog’s first synthesizers were gritty and it took real artistry and technical knowledge to put them through their paces.

Moog was born in New York City and attended the Bronx High School of Science, graduating in 1952. He earned a B.S. in physics from Queens College and a Masters from the Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science in 1957. He received his Ph.D. in engineering physics from Cornell University in 1965. In 1953 at age 19, Moog founded his first company, R.A. Moog Co., to manufacture theremin kits.  He produced his first theremin in 1948 from circuit diagrams, and then went on to refine the electronics and then manufacture and market the kits based on his design. During the 1950s, composer and electronic music pioneer Raymond Scott approached Moog, asking him to design circuits for him. Moog later acknowledged Scott as a major important influence. The Moog synthesizer was one of the first widely used electronic musical instruments. Early developmental work on the components of the synthesizer occurred at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, now the Computer Music Center. While there, Moog developed the voltage controlled oscillators, ADSR envelope generators, and other synthesizer modules with composer Herbert Deutsch. Moog created the first voltage-controlled subtractive synthesizer to use a keyboard as a controller and demonstrated it at the AES convention in 1964. In 1966, Moog filed a patent application for his unique low-pass filter U.S. Patent 3,475,623, issued in October, 1969. He is a listed inventor on ten US patents.

Moog had his theremin company (R. A. Moog Co., which later became Moog Music) manufacture and market his synthesizers. Unlike the few other 1960s synthesizer manufacturers, Moog shipped a piano-style keyboard as the standard user interface. Moog also established standards for analog synthesizer control interfacing, with a logarithmic one volt-per-octave pitch control and a separate pulse triggering signal. The first Moog instruments were modular synthesizers. In 1971 Moog Music began production of the Minimoog Model D, which was among the first synthesizers that was widely available, portable, and relatively affordable.

Walter (later Wendy) Carlos was one of Moog’s earliest musical customers, and he credits Carlos with providing feedback valuable to further development. Through his involvement in electronic music, Moog developed close professional relationships with artists such as Don Buchla, Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, John Cage, Gershon Kingsley, Clara Rockmore, Jean Jacques Perrey, and Pamelia Kurstin.

Moog was diagnosed with a glioblastoma multiforme brain tumor on April 28, 2005, and died at the age of 71 in Asheville, North Carolina on August 21, 2005.

Quite a number of classically trained musicians objected to Switched on Bach and other presentations of classical music on the Moog synthesizer, and I think that Carlos’ response was quite apt (although a touch disingenuous). It heart he said words to the effect that if you don’t like it, don’t listen to it. His basic point was that his use of the Moog synthesizer to play Bach, Mozart, Purcell, etc. did not destroy the originals. You can still play them as they were originally written – even on period instruments if you want. All that performing these pieces on the Moog did was add a different set of possibilities to what already existed, and continues to exist. Here is Carlos rendition of Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary – used by Stanley Kubrick in A Clockwork Orange:

All right – so maybe you don’t like this rendition. You’ve still got this one:

You can shut your ears to the first and listen only to the second, if you wish. I prefer to listen to both. As far as I am concerned, they both have merit. In any case, the world of music is always changing, even when performers want to replicate the sounds of the past. No matter how much research you do into performance styles, period instruments, and whatnot, you are never going to duplicate the sounds of past musicians, or know exactly how composers conducted their own music. It’s always interesting to experiment, but, for my money, it’s also interesting to try new things.

In the world of cuisine, electronic engineers have made some significant strides. For centuries, professionals in culinary arts and perfume production have had to rely on the services of “noses” – rare and well-trained individuals with a highly developed sense of smell, who can analyze and synthesize complex tastes and odors. Since the 1980s, electronic devices have been designed and tested that can mimic – to a degree – the human sense of smell. These machines are particularly useful in detecting the deterioration and spoilage of food products for market. What they cannot do, of course, is mimic human aesthetic sensibility associated with smell and taste.

A really interesting new development if the use of electronics in manipulating taste (akin to the way Moog manipulated sound is described in this article: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2016/10/13/diet-cutlery-electronic-spoons-which-make-food-taste-sweeter-on/

A team at the University of London is developing an apparatus called the Taste Buddy. It sends signals to taste receptors in the tongue that stimulate specific areas making you think you are tasting something quite different from what you are actually eating. The apparatus is in prototype stage at the moment and is quite big. The hope is to miniaturize it using microchip technology so that it can be inserted into cutlery, such as forks and spoons. That way, when you eat something using a spoon with a Taste Buddy in it, the spoon will trick your tongue. So far they are able to make foods taste sweeter than they are naturally. However, the claim that they will be able to make cabbage taste like chocolate or tofu taste like ice cream seems far-fetched to me. Most flavors concern receptors in the nose more than those on the tongue, and they are very complex. In fact, flavor chemists have not yet been able to isolate all the taste components of items such as chocolate and coffee. They seem to contain thousands of aromatic components and they cannot be duplicated adequately yet. So, I expect they can make cabbage taste sweeter than it is naturally, but making it taste like chocolate is surely a pipe dream. Still, the idea of a Moog spoon does seem intriguing. Like Moog and his synthesizer, I would not want the Taste Buddy spoon to replicate flavors from the natural world, any more than I would want an electronic keyboard to sound like a pipe organ. I’d want to use the Taste Buddy spoon to make funky new flavors that cannot be produced naturally. That would be original.

May 062018
 

Today is the birthday (1856) of Sigmund Freud, born Sigismund Schlomo Freud. I was rather surprised to discover that I had not commemorated Freud in a post previously, even though I have posted numerous things about him and his (erstwhile) followers. Freud is rather like Marx in my mind in that (a) he was not a Freudian (any more than Marx was a Marxist), (b) his ideas were complex and changeable over his lifetime, and (c) he was and is misunderstood by the general public. I lectured on Freud for decades, and I always prefaced my lectures with: “You probably all think that Freud was all wrong and his theories are outdated. Well, think again. He was wrong about a lot of things, but he was also right about a lot of things, and I expect that many of his theories that were new in his day, you take for granted as obvious without attributing them to Freud.” Many of his theories, such as the psychosexual stages of development, are patently the result of his own self analysis and are rooted in his culture, and are, therefore, not generalizable to all cultures. Anthropologists were on that path of criticism early on while Freud was still alive, and, one way or another, put serious dents in his theory. But we use the term “Freudian slip” as a matter of course, perhaps not as trenchantly as Freud, but still with a sense that a slip of the tongue is revealing. More to the point, we accept the existence of thoughts and motivations that lie below the surface of what is conscious to us. The common term is “subconscious” although Freud used the term “unconscious.” Before Freud such an idea did not exist. He saw dreams and slips as avenues into the unconscious, which is not a normal part of modern therapies, but it is not a trivial insight. He pioneered the “talking cure” – using various methods, such as free association, to get patients to talk through their issues (under guidance from a trained therapist). Unfortunately, the question that has never fully been answered is whether the talking cure actually works.

Freud was born to Jewish parents in the Moravian town of Freiberg, in the Austrian Empire (later Příbor, Czech Republic), the first of eight children. Both of his parents were from Galicia, in modern-day Ukraine. His father, Jakob Freud (1815–1896), a wool merchant, had two sons, Emanuel (1833–1914) and Philipp (1836–1911), by his first marriage. Jakob’s family were Hasidic Jews, and although Jakob himself had moved away from the tradition, he came to be known for his Torah study. He and Freud’s mother, Amalia Nathansohn, who was 20 years younger and his third wife, were struggling financially and living in a rented room, in a locksmith’s house at Schlossergasse 117 when their son Sigmund was born.

In 1859, the Freud family left Freiberg. Freud’s half brothers emigrated to Manchester in England, parting him from the “inseparable” playmate of his early childhood, Emanuel’s son, John. Jakob Freud took his wife and two children (Freud’s sister, Anna, was born in 1858; a brother, Julius born in 1857, had died in infancy) first to Leipzig and then in 1860 to Vienna where four sisters and a brother were born. In 1865, the 9-year-old Freud entered the Leopoldstädter Kommunal-Realgymnasium, a prominent high school. He proved an outstanding pupil and graduated from the Matura in 1873 with honors. He loved literature and was proficient in German, French, Italian, Spanish, English, Hebrew, Latin and Greek. Freud entered the University of Vienna at age 17. He had planned to study law, but entered the medical department at the university, where his studies included philosophy under Franz Brentano, physiology under Ernst Brücke, and zoology under Darwinist professor Carl Claus. He graduated with a medical degree in 1881.

In 1882, Freud began his medical career at the Vienna General Hospital. His research work in cerebral anatomy led to the publication of an influential paper on the palliative effects of cocaine in 1884 and his work on aphasia would form the basis of his first book On the Aphasias: a Critical Study, published in 1891. Over a 3-year period, Freud worked in various departments of the hospital. His time spent in Theodor Meynert’s psychiatric clinic and as a locum in a local asylum led to an increased interest in clinical work. His substantial body of published research led to his appointment as a university lecturer or docent in neuropathology in 1885, a non-salaried post but one which entitled him to give lectures at the University of Vienna. In 1886, Freud resigned his hospital post and entered private practice specializing in “nervous disorders”. The same year he married Martha Bernays, the granddaughter of Isaac Bernays, a chief rabbi in Hamburg. The couple had six children: Mathilde (b. 1887), Jean-Martin (b. 1889), Oliver (b. 1891), Ernst (b. 1892), Sophie (b. 1893), and Anna (b. 1895). From 1891 until they left Vienna in 1938, Freud and his family lived in an apartment at Berggasse 19, near Innere Stadt, a historical district of Vienna.

Freud had greatly admired his philosophy tutor, Brentano, who was known for his theories of perception and introspection, as well as Theodor Lipps who was one of the main contemporary theorists of the concepts of the unconscious and empathy. Brentano discussed the possible existence of the unconscious mind in his Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint (1874). Although Brentano denied its existence, his discussion of the unconscious probably helped introduce Freud to the concept. Freud owned and made use of Charles Darwin’s major evolutionary writings, and was also influenced by Eduard von Hartmann’s Philosophy of the Unconscious (1869).

Though Freud denied having read Friedrich Nietzsche until late in life, analogies between his work and that of Nietzsche were pointed out almost as soon as he developed a following. One historian concluded, based on Freud’s correspondence with his adolescent friend Eduard Silberstein, that Freud read The Birth of Tragedy and the first two of the Untimely Meditations when he was 17. In 1900, the year of Nietzsche’s death, Freud bought his collected works. He told his friend, Fliess, that he hoped to find in Nietzsche’s works “the words for much that remains mute in me.” Later, he said he had not yet opened them. Freud came to treat Nietzsche’s writings “as texts to be resisted far more than to be studied.” His interest in philosophy declined after he had decided on a career in neurology.

In October 1885, Freud went to Paris on a fellowship to study with Jean-Martin Charcot, who was conducting scientific research into hypnosis. He was later to recall the experience of this stay as catalytic in turning him toward the practice of medical psychopathology and away from a less financially promising career in neurology research. Charcot specialized in the study of hysteria and susceptibility to hypnosis, which he frequently demonstrated with patients on stage in front of an audience. Once he had set up in private practice in 1886, Freud began using hypnosis in his clinical work. He adopted the approach of his friend and collaborator, Josef Breuer, in a use of hypnosis which was different from the French methods he had studied in that it did not use suggestion. The treatment of one particular patient of Breuer’s proved to be transformative for Freud’s clinical practice. Described as Anna O., she was invited to talk about her symptoms while under hypnosis (she coined the phrase “talking cure” for her treatment). In the course of talking in this way these symptoms became reduced in severity as she retrieved memories of traumatic incidents associated with their onset.

Anna O.

Freud’s clinical work eventually led him to the conclusion that more consistent and effective symptom relief, compared to that achieved by using hypnosis, could be obtained by encouraging patients to talk freely, without censorship or inhibition, about whatever ideas or memories occurred to them. In conjunction with this procedure, which he called “free association”, Freud found that patients’ dreams could be fruitfully analyzed to reveal the complex structuring of unconscious material and to demonstrate the psychic action of repression which underlay symptom formation. By 1896, Freud had abandoned hypnosis and was using the term “psychoanalysis” to refer to his new clinical method and the theories on which it was based.

Freud’s development of these new theories took place during a period in which he experienced heart irregularities, disturbing dreams and periods of depression, a “neurasthenia” which he linked to the death of his father in 1896 and which prompted a “self-analysis” of his own dreams and memories of childhood. His explorations of his feelings of hostility to his father and rivalrous jealousy over his mother’s affections led him to fundamentally revise his theory of the origin of the neuroses. On the basis of his early clinical work, Freud had postulated that unconscious memories of sexual molestation in early childhood were a necessary precondition for the psychoneuroses (hysteria and obsessional neurosis), a formulation now known as Freud’s seduction theory. In the light of his self-analysis, Freud abandoned the theory that every neurosis can be traced back to the effects of infantile sexual abuse, now arguing that infantile sexual scenarios still had a causative function, but it did not matter whether they were real or imagined and that in either case they became pathogenic only when acting as repressed memories.

This transition from the theory of infantile sexual trauma as a general explanation of how all neuroses originate to one that presupposes an autonomous infantile sexuality provided the basis for Freud’s subsequent formulation of the theory of the Oedipus complex and the development of the superego. Freud described the evolution of his clinical method and set out his theory of the psychogenetic origins of hysteria, demonstrated in a number of case histories, in Studies on Hysteria published in 1895 (co-authored with Josef Breuer). In 1899 he published The Interpretation of Dreams in which, following a critical review of existing theory, Freud gives detailed interpretations of his own and his patients’ dreams in terms of wish-fulfillments made subject to the repression and censorship of the “dream work”. He then sets out the theoretical model of mental structure (the unconscious, pre-conscious and conscious) on which this account is based. An abridged version, On Dreams, was published in 1901. In works which would win him a more general readership, Freud applied his theories outside the clinical setting in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901) and Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious (1905).[42] In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, published in 1905, Freud elaborates his theory of infantile sexuality, describing its “polymorphous perverse” forms and the functioning of the “drives”, to which it gives rise, in the formation of sexual identity. The same year he published ‘Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (Dora)’ which became one of his more famous and controversial case studies.

There is much more, but I will stop there. I taught Freudian theory in anthropology classes related to psychology and anthropology, and I usually used Totem and Taboo (1913) and Civilization and its Discontents (1930), although I ranged much farther afield than these texts in my lectures, and did occasionally assign other readings. One great difficulty with Totem and Taboo is that Freud was using anthropological texts that nowadays have zero value because they were not based on actual fieldwork, but focused on the idea that all cultures evolve in the same ways over time. By this theory, modern cultures that are more primitive than Western civilization are at an earlier stage of cultural evolution. Therefore, they can be studied to investigate how we behaved in past millennia. This theory has been completely debunked, so Freud’s theories are based on worthless conjectures, and therefore are equally worthless. Totem and Taboo is completely mistaken when it comes to understanding what totemism is all about.

In the strict realm of psychoanalysis, Freud started a movement that is now a gigantic business. Freud had 2 principal concepts that he adhered to strictly: (1) Therapy is only for people with serious problems that they wish to be rid of. As far as Freud was concerned, if a person had a condition that he deemed clinical, but that person was coping with it, there was no point in therapy; (2) Therapy should be intensive and finite. Freud saw his patients every day and expected the therapy to result in a cure in a limited period of time. Thus, Freud treated psychoanalysis like physicians in other specialties treated illnesses within their realms. Freud’s ideas have fallen by the wayside completely in this regard. Many people start seeing therapists as teenagers or young adults, and continue their entire lives. Furthermore, therapy has shifted from medical practitioners to a host of allied professionals, including psychologists with M.A.s or Ph.D.s, and social workers. Psychiatrists with M.D.s spend most of their time dispensing medications rather than working in therapy. Approaches to therapy have also diversified enormously, starting with Freud’s own students who diverged from him in different ways almost as soon as they had qualified.

Wolf Man

This state of affairs has caused a great many critics to wonder (out loud) whether therapy actually works. Freud’s own patients could be critical of the efficacy of Freud’s work with them. The Wolf Man (Sergei Pankejeff), for example, ended up in analysis for 6 decades (including with Freud’s students) even though Freud pronounced him cured. It is also the case that many psychological disorders, such as schizophrenia, cannot be cured by psychoanalysis because they do not stem from childhood (or other) traumas (conscious or unconscious), but from biophysical/neurological problems. Freud, like many pioneers, was making up psychoanalysis from scratch, so it is unfair to dwell too long on his shortcomings. He made many missteps, but that is no reason to diminish his stature as an original thinker of great insight.

Freud wrote a fair bit about his home life in private notes as well as publications, and there is a 2000 book Zu Tisch bei Sigmund Freud (At table with Sigmund Freud) that discusses his eating habits. Even though he was married to the granddaughter of a famous rabbi he not only did not keep kosher, he actually believed the diet was harmful to one’s health. Being the (amateur) Freudian for a moment, I suspect that this attitude had a lot to do with his vehement rejection of God and Judaism which in turn stemmed from his conflicts with his father. He also had some seemingly irrational food aversions, the two most well known being chicken and cauliflower. According to his son, Martin, he had an aphorism, “One shouldn’t kill any chickens; let them live and lay eggs.”

You should not be surprised to learn that Freud saw asparagus as an obvious phallic symbol and that eating asparagus (which was conventionally done with the fingers in the late 19th century), was a substitute for masturbation. It may cause you to smile, therefore, to know that he was fond of asparagus. He was also fond of picking wild mushrooms to eat instead of store bought mushrooms. His wife apparently disapproved of this habit, although it is not clear whether she did not trust Freud to distinguish edible from poisonous fungi or whether she thought they were unclean (in the Judaic sense).

My suggestion for today’s recipe, therefore, is to make a wild mushroom omelet with a side dish of asparagus. You can follow this with homemade vanilla ice cream which was Freud’s favorite dessert.

Apr 192018
 

Today is the birthday (1900) of Richard Arthur Warren Hughes OBE, a British poet, short story writer, novelist and playwright. He is best known for his novel A High Wind in Jamaica (1929), but, in the middle of talking about his life and work in general, I want to focus on the fact that he wrote what is generally considered to be the first strictly written for radio drama, A Comedy of Danger (1924), and muse on what subsequently grew out of this small beginning.

Hughes was born in Weybridge in Surrey. His father was Arthur Hughes, a civil servant, and his mother was Louisa Grace Warren, who had been brought up in the West Indies in Jamaica. He was educated first at Charterhouse School and then at Oriel College, Oxford. A Charterhouse schoolmaster had sent Hughes’s first published work to  The Spectator in 1917. The article, written as a school essay, was an unfavourable criticism of The Loom of Youth, by Alec Waugh, a recently published novel which caused an outcry because of its account of homosexual passions between British schoolboys in a public school. At Oxford he met Robert Graves, also an Old Carthusian, and they co-edited a poetry publication, Oxford Poetry, in 1921. Hughes’s short play The Sisters’ Tragedy was staged in the West End of London at the Royal Court Theatre in 1922.

In 1923 Hughes was commissioned by Nigel Playfair of the BBC to write a play strictly for radio, and he produced A Comedy of Danger, broadcast on 15th January 1924. This is usually considered to be the first radio drama in the strict sense of a play produced solely for broadcast on the radio, but a little context is necessary.  Danger was certainly not the first play, or dramatic production, broadcast via radio, but it has a legitimate claim to being the first play written exclusively for radio.

The BBC broadcast Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream on 2LO on 25th July 1923, which predates Danger, of course, but is not, in any sense, a radio drama. Listings in The New York Times and other sources for May 1923 indicate that at least 20 dramatic offerings were scheduled (including one-acts, excerpts from longer dramas, complete three- and four-act plays, operettas and a Molière adaptation), either as in-studio productions or by remote broadcast from local theaters and opera houses. Remember, these were the very early days of public broadcasting, and it took a bit of experimenting to find out what the medium was good at. Commissioning a solely-for-radio drama was a new departure from adapting stage plays for radio, or featuring dramatic components in variety shows.

Bear in mind that this was the era of silent movies, so film drama and radio drama were really two halves of a whole. Movies gave audiences all of the visuals with no sound, and radio was all sound and no visuals. Radio drama could incorporate sound effects and music to heighten the sense of realism, and to fill in for the lack of images, but there was great reliance on well-written dialog. A Comedy of Danger is, rather cleverly, set in a Welsh coal mine in the dark. Thus, what the audience experiences is the same as what the players are experiencing (sound without sight). Not an idea that could hold up for too long, but good for the first effort.

The plot of Danger is simple. Three people – a young couple, Mary and Jack, and old Mr Bax – are trapped in the dark in a mine after an accident. At first, Mary is highly excitable, and Jack provides the calm voice of reason. Then they set about discussing life and death. Both Jack and Mary, while realizing that they have their whole lives ahead of them, contemplate death as a great adventure. Bax, on the other hand, though he has had a great many experiences, does not relish the prospect of death. After an explosion, water suddenly comes into the mine, and the three become restless. From a distance you can hear the rescue squads singing, but nobody knows if they will reach the group in time. In the end, the rescuers make it and save Mary and Jack, while the old Mr. Bax does not survive.

The original broadcast was not taped, but it was recreated 30 years later. Here it is preceded by commentary from Hughes:

One of the earliest and most influential French radio plays was the prize-winning “Marémoto” (“Seaquake”), by Gabriel Germinet and Pierre Cusy, which presents a realistic account of a sinking ship before revealing that the characters are actually actors rehearsing for a broadcast. Translated and broadcast in Germany and England by 1925, the play was originally scheduled by Radio-Paris to air on October 23rd 1924, but was instead banned from French radio until 1937 because the government feared that the dramatic SOS messages would be mistaken for genuine distress signals. This reminds us of War of the Worlds with Orson Welles, which I covered here: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/war-worlds/

Some radio plays are now legendary, even though many are eminently forgettable. Perhaps most famous is Under Milk Wood, by Dylan Thomas. Although it has been adapted for stage, it works best as a radio drama because it primarily consists in the inner thoughts of the characters stitched together by a narrator. For my money, the best radio drama of all time is Douglas Adams’ Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, which I used to own on cassette and play (repeatedly) on long car trips. Attempts at filming the drama fail miserably for me. The combination of superb writing and great voice characterization (plus sound effects), make attempts at turning the drama into a movie a non-starter for me. I don’t want to see some movie producer’s idea of what Marvin, the paranoid android, or Zaphod Beeblebrox look like. Their voices are enough for me.

Radio drama has had an illustrious history which I have noted in posts on Tony Hancock, The Goon Show, and many others. It is one of my great delights whenever I get the chance to hear rebroadcasts, or when I am driving in the UK. Sadly in the US, radio drama is all but dead, replaced by myriad music stations and call-in shows. Not the main reason I no longer live there, but a contributing factor.

Hughes was employed as a journalist and traveled widely before he married Frances Bazley in 1932. They settled for a period in Norfolk and then in 1934 at Castle House, Laugharne in south Wales. Dylan Thomas stayed with Hughes and wrote his book Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog whilst living at Castle House. Hughes was instrumental in Thomas relocating permanently to the area.

Hughes wrote only four novels, the most famous of which is The Innocent Voyage (1929), or A High Wind in Jamaica, as he renamed it soon after its initial publication. Set in the 19th century, it explores the events which follow the accidental capture of a group of English children by pirates. The children are revealed as considerably less moral than the pirates (it was in this novel that Hughes first described the cocktail Hangman’s Blood). In 1938, he wrote an allegorical novel, In Hazard, based on the true story of the S.S. Phemius that was caught in the 1932 Cuba hurricane for 4 days during its maximum intensity. He also wrote volumes of children’s stories, including The Spider’s Palace.

During World War II, Hughes had a desk job in the Admiralty. He met the architects Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry, and Jane’s and Max’s children stayed with the Hughes family for much of that time. After the war, Hughes spent ten years writing scripts for Ealing Studios, and published no more novels until 1961. Of the trilogy The Human Predicament, only the first two volumes, The Fox in the Attic (1961) and The Wooden Shepherdess (1973), were complete when he died. Twelve chapters, less than 50 pages, of the final volume are now published. In these he describes the course of European history from the 1920s through World War II, including real characters and events—such as Hitler’s escape after the abortive Munich putsch—as well as fictional.

Later in life Hughes relocated to Ynys in Gwynedd. He was churchwarden of Llanfihangel-y-traethau, the village church, where he was buried when he died at home in 1976.

For a recipe you can listen in to the BBC on your radio (if you have one and live in the UK) or on the internet at www.bbc.co.uk Normally I do not post drink recipes but Hangman’s Blood from A High Wind in Jamaica is maybe worth a tip of the hat.

According to Hughes:

Hangman’s blood… is compounded of rum, gin, brandy, and porter… Innocent (merely beery) as it looks, refreshing as it tastes, it has the property of increasing rather than allaying thirst, and so once it has made a breach, soon demolishes the whole fort.

In the 1960s Anthony Burgess (Clockwork Orange) described its preparation as follows:

Into a pint glass, doubles of the following are poured: gin, whisky, rum, port and brandy. A small bottle of stout is added and the whole topped up with champagne… It tastes very smooth, induces a somewhat metaphysical elation, and rarely leaves a hangover.

I don’t drink alcohol, so you will have to tell me how it works out if you decide to take the plunge.

Mar 212018
 

Today is World Puppetry Day. The idea came from the puppet theater artist Javad Zolfaghari from Iran. In 2000 at the XVIII Congress of the Union Internationale de la Marionnette, (UNIMA) in Magdeburg, he put up the proposal for discussion. Two years later, at a meeting of the International Council of UNIMA in June 2002 in Atlanta, the date of the celebration was fixed. The first celebration was in 2003. The original focus for the day was marionette puppets, but it can easily be expanded to include the whole cascade of possibilities. These are a few that I have encountered and enjoyed.

A hand puppet (or glove puppet) is a puppet controlled by one hand, which occupies the interior of the puppet. The Punch and Judy puppets are familiar examples of hand puppets, and I have enjoyed them over the years. In fact a good friend of mine operated a Punch and Judy show as a sideline, and Tony Hancock’s Punch and Judy Man is stellar film concerning English class values. As a boy, I have to say that Harry Corbett and Sooty won out for me, though. I even had my own Sooty puppet. Akin to the hand puppet is the sock puppet, a particularly simple type of hand puppet made from a sock. One of the best-known practitioners was Shari Lewis with Lamb Chop. Not my thing – sorry, Shari.

Marionettes, or “string puppets,” are suspended and controlled by a number of strings, plus sometimes a central rod attached to a control bar held from above by the puppeteer. The control bar can be either horizontal or vertical. Basic strings for operation are usually attached to the head, back, hands (to control the arms) and just above the knee (to control the legs). This form of puppetry is complex and sophisticated to operate, requiring greater manipulative control than a finger, glove or rod puppet.

A shadow puppet is a cut-out figure held between a source of light and a translucent screen. Shadow puppets can form solid silhouettes or be decorated with various amounts of cut-out details. Color can be introduced into the cut-out shapes to provide a different dimension and different effects can be achieved by moving the puppet (or light source) out of focus. Javanese shadow puppets known as Wayang Kulit are what I know best. Shadow puppetry in Asia may have originated in China during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE), but it became widespread, especially in SE Asia.

The Ventriloquist’s Dummy is a puppet although they are called dummies because they do not speak on their own. I have loved these acts since childhood, and never tire of them.

Múa rối nước is a Vietnamese water puppet form, originally used in flooded rice paddies. Múa rối nước literally means “puppets that dance on water.” The tradition supposedly dates back to the 10th century. The puppets are built out of wood and the shows are performed in a waist-deep pool. A large rod supports the puppet under the water and is used by the puppeteers to control them. The appearance is of the puppets moving over the water. When the rice fields would flood, the villagers would entertain each other using this puppet form.

The water also provides the setting for traditional stories depicting day-to-day village life. Water puppets bring wry humor to scenes of farming, fishing, festival events such as buffalo fights, and children’s games of marbles and coin-toss. Fishing turns into a game of wits between the fisherman and his prey, with the fisherman getting the short end (often capturing his surprised neighbor by mistake). Besides village life, scenes include legends and national history. Lion dogs romp like puppies while dragons exhale smoke and shoot sprays of water at the audience. Performances of up to 18 short scenes are usually introduced by a pig-tailed bumpkin known as Teu, and accompanied by a small traditional orchestra.

There are many more types of puppets, of course, and you probably have your own favorites. I was thinking of cooking lamb chops as the recipe of the day, but I expect Shari Lewis fans would not be amused. Instead, here is the Swedish chef from the Muppets making popcorn.

Mar 042018
 

Today is National Grammar Day in the United States. It was begun in 2008 by Martha Brockenbrough, author of Things That Make Us [Sic] (2008) and founder of the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar (SPOGG). Right from the start I will express my ambivalence about this day. Certainly, I value good grammar. Grammar mistakes are not just wrong in a technical or aesthetic sense, they can obscure or change meaning. Some common mistakes always set my teeth on edge, such as, incorrect placement of the apostrophe of possession, using “of” instead of “have” in verbal inflections (“I should of thought before I acted”), and phrases that use inappropriate prepositions, most notably, “centered around” and “based “off” (both need “on” to make sense). I do, however, exercise some restraint in commenting on other people’s mistakes, particularly on social media, but also in emails. I would rather have some communication, even if full of grammar mistakes, than none.

When I was a university professor I began in that career by correcting every grammar and spelling error in every paper I received. It was a monumental task, and I doubt that my efforts did much to change my students’ habits. Judging by the posts of some of them on Facebook these days, they have improved very little. Over the years I mellowed. Their grammar did not improve, but I preferred to spend my time railing against their inability to put together a decent argument, rather than worrying about subject-verb agreement or misplaced commas. It was a case of picking my battles. Make no mistake. If your application for a job comes across my desk and it has grammar errors in it, it goes straight in the waste paper basket. That is a case of lack of professional competence. I can afford to cut my friends and students some slack, mainly because not a great deal hangs on whether they can construct a sentence properly or not. My last (proper) girlfriend made errors in grammar left, right, and center in her emails. I could have pointed them out to her and I would have wound up sleeping on the couch. She’s been gone a long time now, and it was not grammar that did the relationship in.

Not only is pedantry misplaced in ordinary writing among friends, it is also an impediment to clear writing. When the dust has settled, we need our writing to accessible, and if strict grammar rules get in the way they need to be broken. This website is worth taking a look at on this day: https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/national-grammar-day . Among other things you will find this little quiz. Which of these statements is correct?

  1. A run-on sentence is a really long sentence.
  2. You shouldn’t start a sentence with the word “however.”
  3. “Irregardless” is not a word.
  4. There is only one way to write the possessive form of a word that ends in “s.”
  5. Passive voice is always wrong.
  6. “I.e.” and “e.g.” mean the same thing.
  7. You use “a” before words that start with consonants and “an” before words that start with vowels.
  8. It’s incorrect to answer the question “How are you?” with the statement “I’m good.”
  9. You shouldn’t split infinitives.
  10. You shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition.

The answers are on the site. Some may surprise you.

As a writer I have to cope with the fact that different presses have different rules. For British presses I have to use British English spelling and grammar, for U.S. presses I have to follow their rules. Furthermore, within each country the rules can vary. It is not worth fighting about. My practices vary according to the needs of presses, and in common discourse I am a mongrel. Getting all high and mighty about one system over another is, in a word, stupid.

Cookbooks have to follow strict guidelines with their recipes these days, and the sole purpose of these rules is clarity. I am not much of a stickler here either because recipes are no more than suggestions most of the time. When it comes to baking there is not much room to maneuver, but for most dishes you can play around a great deal with quantities and ingredients. I always add more herbs and spices than recipes call for, primarily because I never cook with salt, but also because I like bold flavors. I understand that presses want kitchen-tested recipes in the cookbooks they publish, and there are grammar issues at stake. Take these two different ingredient listings:

2 cups chopped grapes

2 cups grapes, chopped

Word order and a comma make a big difference. In the first listing you chop the grapes first, then measure them. In the second listing you measure the grapes whole, then chop them. There will be more grapes in the first listing than in the second.

 

 

 

 

Feb 282018
 

The first example of nylon (nylon 6,6) was produced on this date in 1935, by Wallace Hume Carothers at DuPont’s research facility at the DuPont Experimental Station. In response to Carothers’ work, Paul Schlack at IG Farben developed nylon 6, a different molecule based on caprolactam, on January 29, 1938. Nylon was first used commercially in a nylon-bristled toothbrush in 1938, followed more famously in women’s stockings or “nylons” which were shown at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and first sold commercially in 1940. During World War II, almost all nylon production was diverted to the military for use in parachutes and parachute cord.

DuPont, founded by Éleuthère Irénée du Pont, first produced gunpowder and later cellulose-based paints. Following WWI, DuPont produced synthetic ammonia and other chemicals. DuPont began experimenting with the development of cellulose based fibres, eventually producing the synthetic fibre rayon. DuPont’s experience with rayon was an important precursor to its development and marketing of nylon. DuPont’s invention of nylon spanned a nine-year period, ranging from the start of the project in 1930 to its exhibition at the World Fair in New York in 1939. The project grew from a new structure at DuPont, suggested by Charles Stine in 1927, in which the chemical department would be composed of several small research teams that would focus on pioneering research in chemistry that would lead to practical applications. Carothers was hired from Harvard University to direct the polymer research group. Initially he was allowed to focus on pure research, building on and testing the theories of German chemist Hermann Staudinger. He was successful in his pure research because it greatly improved the general knowledge of polymers.

In the spring of 1930, Carothers and his team had already synthesized two new polymers. One was neoprene, a synthetic rubber greatly used during the war. The other was a white elastic, strong paste that would later become nylon. After these discoveries Carothers’ team was made to shift its research from a pure research approach investigating general polymerization to a more practically-focused goal of finding one chemical combination that would lend itself to industrial applications. It wasn’t until the beginning of 1935 that a polymer called “polymer 6-6” was finally produced. The first example of nylon (nylon 6,6) was produced by Carothers on February 28, 1935, at DuPont’s research facility at the DuPont Experimental Station. It had all the desired properties of elasticity and strength. However, it also required a complex manufacturing process that would become the basis of industrial production in the future. DuPont obtained a patent for the polymer in September 1938, and quickly achieved a monopoly on the fiber.

The production of nylon required interdepartmental collaboration between three departments at DuPont: the Department of Chemical Research, the Ammonia Department, and the Department of Rayon. Some of the key ingredients of nylon had to be produced using high pressure chemistry, the main area of expertise of the Ammonia Department. Nylon was considered a godsend to the Ammonia Department which had been in financial difficulties. The reactants of nylon soon constituted half of the Ammonia department’s sales and helped them come out of the period of the Great Depression by creating jobs and revenue at DuPont.

DuPont’s nylon project demonstrated the importance of chemical engineering in industry, helped create jobs, and  advanced chemical engineering techniques. DuPont developed a chemical plant that provided 1800 jobs and used the latest technologies of the time, which are still used as a model for chemical plants today. The success of the nylon project thus had to do with its ability to achieve the rapid mobilization of a large number of DuPont’s chemists and engineers. The first nylon plant was located at Seaford in Delaware, beginning commercial production on December 15, 1939.

DuPont went through an extensive process to generate names for its new product. In 1940, John W. Eckelberry of DuPont stated that the letters “nyl” were arbitrary and the “on” was copied from the suffixes of other fibers such as cotton and Rayon. A later publication by DuPont explained that the name was originally intended to be “No-Run” (“run” as in stockings), but was modified to avoid making such an unjustified claim. Since the products were not really run-proof, the vowels were swapped to produce “nuron”, which was changed to “nilon” “to make it sound less like a nerve tonic”. For clarity in pronunciation, the “i” was changed to “y.”

An important part of nylon’s popularity stems from DuPont’s marketing strategy. The fiber was promoted to increase demand before the product was available to the general market. Nylon’s commercial announcement occurred on October 27, 1938, at the final session of the Herald Tribune‘s yearly “Forum on Current Problems”, on the site of the approaching New York City world’s fair. The “first man-made organic textile fiber” which was derived from “coal, water and air” and promised to be “as strong as steel, as fine as the spider’s web” was received enthusiastically by the audience, many of them middle-class women, and made the headlines of most newspapers. Nylon was introduced as part of “The world of tomorrow” at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and was featured at DuPont’s “Wonder World of Chemistry” at the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco in 1939. Actual nylon stockings were not shipped to selected stores in the national market until May 15, 1940. However, limited numbers were released for sale in Delaware before that. The first public sale of nylon stockings occurred on October 24, 1939, in Wilmington, Delaware. 4,000 pairs of stockings were available, all of which were sold within three hours.

Another added bonus to the campaign was that the release of Nylon meant reducing silk imports from Japan, an argument that won over many wary customers. Nylon was even mentioned by President Roosevelt’s cabinet, which addressed its “vast and interesting economic possibilities” five days after the material was formally announced. However, the early excitement over nylon also caused problems. It fueled unreasonable expectations that nylon would be better than silk, a miracle fabric as strong as steel that would last forever and never run. Realizing the danger of claims such as “New Hosiery Held Strong as Steel” and “No More Runs”, Du Pont scaled back the terms of the original announcement, especially those stating that nylon would possess the strength of steel.

Also, DuPont executives marketing nylon as a revolutionary synthetic material did not at first realize that some consumers experienced a sense of unease and distrust, even fear, towards non-organic fabrics. A particularly damaging news story, drawing on DuPont’s 1938 patent for the new polymer, suggested that one method of producing nylon might be to use cadaverine, a chemical extracted from corpses. Although scientists asserted that cadaverine was also extracted by heating coal, the public often refused to listen, as in the case of a woman who confronted one of the lead scientists at DuPont and refused to accept that the rumor was not true.

DuPont changed its campaign strategy, emphasizing that nylon was made from “coal, air and water”, and started focusing on the personal and aesthetic aspects of nylon, rather than its intrinsic qualities. Nylon was thus domesticated, and attention shifted to the material and consumer aspect of the fiber with slogans like “If it’s nylon, it’s prettier, and oh! How fast it dries!” After nylon’s nationwide release in 1940, production was increased. 1300 tons of the fabric were produced during 1940. During their first year on the market, 64 million pairs of nylon stockings were sold. While nylon was marketed as the durable and indestructible material of the people, it was sold at almost twice the price of silk stockings ($4.27 per pound of nylon versus $2.79 per pound of silk). Sales of nylon stockings were strong in part due to changes in women’s fashion. By 1939 hemlines had inched back up to the knee, where they were in 1929. The shorter skirts were accompanied by a demand for stockings that offered coverage without the use of garters to hold them up. However, as of February 11, 1942, nylon production was redirected from being a consumer material to one used by the military  DuPont’s production of nylon stockings and other lingerie stopped, and most manufactured nylon was used to make parachutes and tents for World War II.

Once the war ended, the return of nylon was awaited with great anticipation. Although DuPont projected yearly production of 360 million pairs of stockings, there were delays in converting back to consumer rather than wartime production. In 1946, the demand for nylon stockings could not be satisfied, which led to the Nylon Riots. In one case, an estimated 40,000 people lined up in Pittsburgh to buy 13,000 pairs of nylons. In the meantime, women cut up nylon tents and parachutes left from the war in order to make blouses and wedding dresses. Between the end of the war and 1952, production of stockings and lingerie used 80% of the world’s nylon.

Nylon is commonly used in kitchen utensils and it has a number of advantages over other materials. Of major importance is that nylon utensils do not scratch non-stick and other sensitive cooking surfaces. Conversely, cheaply made nylon utensils may melt if exposed to high temperatures. They should be able to withstand 450˚F/230˚C, and should be so rated. If utensils are not marked with a heat rating, chances are they cannot withstand high heat. Also, nylon utensils crack over time, creating places where harmful bacteria can hide, and cannot easily be cleaned out. Nylon is also non-biodegradable, so your worn out utensils will sit in landfills a very long time.