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Wednesday: June 28, 2006

A Missed Opportunity

Filed under: — site admin @ 12:16 PM GMT-0500

The BBC reports the discovery (or reclassification) of a huge underwater volcano off the south coast of Sicily, which scientists have named Empedocles. They explain the name in their last paragraph:

The volcano was named Empedocles after the Greek philosopher who hypothesised that all matter consisted of four elements – earth, air, fire and water.

This is inadequate. They ought to have mentioned that Empedocles was from Acragas (now Agrigento), on the south coast of Italy, though further east than his eponymous volcano. He was a local boy, and that surely influenced the naming of the volcano. They ought also to have mentioned that Empedocles had a closer connection to volcanos than any other ancient writer, even the Elder Pliny, since he was said to have died by throwing himself into the crater of Mount Etna. The legend was once so well-known that Matthew Arnold could title a poem about a dying woman “Empedocles on Etna” with no further explanation (text here). Other notable bits of nachleben are Hölderlin’s play Der Tod des Empedokles (I haven’t read it, but assume a volcano is involved), the postscript to the suicide note of Ryonosuke Akutagawa (author of Rashomon), and the last page of Horace’s Ars Poetica (463-66):

                                        Siculique poetae
narrabo interitum. deus immortalis haberi
dum cupit Empedocles, ardentem frigidus Aetnam

I will tell you the end of the Sicilian poet. Empedocles, eager to be thought an immortal god, coldly leapt into burning Etna.

In researching this post, I ran across Peitho’s Web, which includes a Greek text of the fragments of Empedocles, interleaved with Leonard’s 1898 translation.

Two Riddles

Filed under: — site admin @ 11:07 AM GMT-0500

What fact connects the following words?

cross, lane, return, rock, waltz

How about the following series of words and phrases?

amnesia, babe, baby, blues, crowd, gal, girls, hardwood floor, healin’, heart, husband, man, merry go round, moon, night time man, season, song, troubles, waltz, women

Too hard? If suffixes count, the second series also includes -in’ and -itis. And the two riddles are parallel: they have different answers, but work in much the same way. Answers may be placed in the comments. There is no prize but the honor of solving the puzzle. There may be another clue around here somewhere, too.

Tuesday: June 27, 2006

Eliza 2.0

Filed under: — site admin @ 11:05 PM GMT-0500

I think I have solved the mystery of ‘actus’, one of the most insufferable trolls infesting the lush meadows of Protein Wisdom. The clue was at the end of this comment, where ‘actus’ writes: “in your grad school days you may have run across some non-gendered pronouns”. Of course, some of us learned about ‘it’ in junior high, if not before. But the resolute refusal to be pinned down as a ‘he’ or a ‘she’ suggests that ‘actus’, despite the masculine Latin name, is in fact neither. No, I do not mean that ‘actus’ is intersexed, rather that ‘actus’ is a pseudonym of Eliza 2.0.

Who — or rather what — is Eliza? To quote Wikipedia, “Eliza is a famous 1966 computer program by Joseph Weizenbaum, which parodied a Rogerian therapist, largely by rephrasing many of the patient’s statements as questions and posing them to the patient. Thus, for example, the response to ‘My head hurts’ might be ‘Why do you say your head hurts?’ The response to ‘My mother hates me’ might be ‘Who else in your family hates you?'”

It appears that forty years of progress in computer technology and linguistic analysis have now brought us Eliza 2.0, aka ‘actus’. Where Eliza 1.0 was necessarily non-directional, given the limitations of 1960s computers, Eliza 2.0 is semi-directional, giving a very good approximation of a human being who suffers from ADD or OCD and mild mental retardation. The mysterious creators of Eliza 2.0 have succeeded in building a convincing parody of a common troll, who which replies to arguments with a random assortment of inane counter-arguments, misdirected snark, and trivial diversions, and is never at a loss for a come-back. To the unwary observer, it appears almost human, with an IQ in the low 80s. I anticipate further advances in the next decade leading to a robot troll of apparent normal or even above-average intelligence, though with argumentative coherence and basic social skills still well below the human average.

Bad Metaphor Alert

Filed under: — site admin @ 10:22 PM GMT-0500

The blogger known as ‘Billmon’ really ought to try his hand at the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. In a post published yesterday, he wrote that Kos’s recent book “took a sawed off shotgun to the leeches attached to the Democratic Party’s flabby underbelly”. I don’t doubt that a sawed-off shotgun would be a very effective way to kill leeches, but wouldn’t it also kill or maim the owner of the flabby underbelly to which the leeches were attached? Perhaps Billmon is hinting that he — or Kos — is willing to kill the Democratic Party in order to save it from the ‘leeches’. Then again, perhaps he thinks of Kos as a microscopic warrior blasting leeches one by one with a microscopic shotgun, in a demented parody of Fantastic Voyage. Either way, this has to be one of the worst metaphors ever written — satirical examples excepted, of course.

Wednesday: June 14, 2006

Unfortunate Metaphor

Filed under: — site admin @ 9:44 AM GMT-0500

Reporting on a Hillary speech in Reason, David Weigel writes “she continues elucidating her non-position on the war, almost feeding off the angry rump of activists”. A political journalist should never ever use “rump” (“angry” or otherwise) as the direct object of “feeding off”. Too many readers will find their thoughts led down paths they do not wish to travel. At best, they will be reminded of restaurants like this one, where customers eat sushi served on naked women (though not on their rumps, to judge by the picture — possibly NSFW). At worst, they may be given an unwanted image of a cannibal Hillary leaping into the audience to feed on an activist’s plump rump like a lion in a herd of zebras. Perhaps I’m verbally oversensitive, but I’m sure I’m not the only one. (þ John Podhoretz in The Corner)

Wednesday: June 7, 2006

World’s Oldest Country Music Fan?

Filed under: — site admin @ 9:18 PM GMT-0500

That would be 110-year-old Jutland veteran, Henry Allingham, “who once attributed his old age to ‘cigarettes, whisky and wild, wild women'” (þ Harry’s Place). None of the first dozen or so commenters noticed that that was a direct quotation from the Sons of the Pioneers’ 1947 #5 hit “Cigareets [sic] and Whuskey [sic] and Wild Wild Women”: cf. disc four of Swinging Hollywood: Hillbilly Cowboys (Properbox 75). Perhaps there are other versions.

Pedantic Footnote

Filed under: — site admin @ 9:08 PM GMT-0500

Ann Althouse reminds us of “that famous old lefty line ‘the only position for women . . . is prone'” (Stokely Carmichael, 1964). Of course, righties generally prefer their women supine (face up) rather than prone (face down).

An Unnecessary Gloss?

Filed under: — site admin @ 8:57 PM GMT-0500

In Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), the subtitles quote the maid as telling Priape Boudu “You behave like a Neanderthal”, but the last word is clearly audible as ‘troglodyte’. Was the gloss really necessary? Surely anyone likely to watch a 74-year-old movie in a Criterion edition knows the meaning of the word ‘troglodyte’?