Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

Writing nonsense is hard (but writing rubbish is easy)

May 5, 2018

It is not easy to write nonsense which just hovers on the edge of being comprehensible – but is not. Writing rubbish is easy and examples can be seen every day.

But real nonsense is not so common.

Wikipedia: Gibberish, light verse, fantasy, and jokes and riddles are sometimes mistaken for literary nonsense, and the confusion is greater because nonsense can sometimes inhabit these (and many other) forms and genres. Pure gibberish, as in the “hey diddle diddle” of nursery rhyme, is a device of nonsense, but it does not make a text, overall, literary nonsense. If there is not significant sense to balance out such devices, then the text dissolves into literal (as opposed to literary) nonsense.

Light verse, which is generally speaking humorous verse meant to entertain, may share humor, inconsequentiality, and playfulness, with nonsense, but it usually has a clear point or joke, and does not have the requisite tension between meaning and lack of meaning. Nonsense is distinct from fantasy, though there are sometimes resemblances between them. While nonsense may employ the strange creatures, other worldly situations, magic, and talking animals of fantasy, these supernatural phenomena are not nonsensical if they have a discernible logic supporting their existence.

Edward Lear is among my favourites and his Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo living on the Coast of Coromandel is just genius. (Madras Day, the Coromandel coast and the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo). The Dong is not so far behind.

From The Dong with the Luminous Nose:

Long years ago
The Dong was happy and gay,
Till he fell in love with a Jumbly Girl
Who came to those shores one day.
For the Jumblies came in a sieve, they did, —
Landing at eve near the Zemmery Fidd
Where the Oblong Oysters grow,
And the rocks are smooth and gray.
And all the woods and the valleys rang
With the Chorus they daily and nightly sang, —
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and the hands are blue
And they went to sea in a sieve.

 

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Swedish Academy is wallowing in the gutter – of its own volition

April 28, 2018

It would be a travesty if a Literature Nobel was awarded this year. It would a greater travesty if any of the present members of the Swedish Academy are allowed to remain in their posts. The Nobel brand is being tarnished by the Academy. It is time for the Nobel Foundation to put its foot down – and very heavily.

Svenska Dagbladet writes (with spelling errors corrected):

The man at the centre of the Nobel scandal is being accused of having harrassed Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden. Three people have told Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet that they witnessed Jean-Claude Arnault, a major cultural figure, touching the Crown Princess on her behind at an event in Stockholm.

The Swedish Academy, which has awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature since 1901, is embroiled in the worst scandal since it was founded more than two centuries ago.

At the centre of the scandal is 71-year-old Jean-Claude Arnault – a French native who has close ties to the academy since he’s married to one of its lifelong members, and a close friend of the man who used to head the academy.

Inspired by the #metoo movement eighteen women last year accused Mr. Arnault of having sexually assaulted and harassed them. Some of the events allegedly took place at properties owned by the Swedish Academy in Stockholm and in Paris.

Other incidents allegedly happened at a prestigious private cultural club that Mr. Arnault ran together with his wife, Katarina Frostenson, who is one of Sweden’s most famous poets.

Mr. Arnault has also been accused of leaking the names of Noble prize winners. He and his wife have also been criticized for receiving money from the academy for their club’s activities.

Svenska Dagbladet can now reveal that three people within or with close ties to the academy have witnessed how Mr. Arnault sexually harassed Crown Princess Victoria by putting his hand on her behind. The incident allegedly took place at a gathering at the academy’s villa Bergsgården on the picturesque island of Djurgården in central Stockholm.

Additionally, according to two independent sources, the former head of the academy, Horace Engdahl, was told to “take measures” to make sure that the Crown Princess and Mr. Arnault did not end up “alone together” at the reception following a formal gathering of the academy in late 2006.

Horace Engdahl who seems to have been one of the staunchest protectors of Arnault has much to answer for.


 

Nobel Foundation may cancel 2018 literature prize

April 25, 2018

The Nobel Foundation has assigned the Swedish Academy the job of choosing the annual winner of the Literature Nobel Prize. However Horace Engdahl and his ilk have brought the Academy into such disrepute that the Nobel Foundation may find it necessary to distance themselves from the Academy and protect the Nobel brand.

Swedish Radio: 

This year’s award of the Nobel Prize in Literature may be postponed after the crisis in the Swedish Academy.

“We are working on it right now. We will return to the question. You will be notified soon” said permanent secretary Anders Olsson.

The storm around the Swedish Academy continues, and may affect the award of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. According to Kulturnytt’s information, there are some within the committee in the Swedish Academy, which chooses the Nobel Prize winner, and the , who believe that the prize can not or should not be awarded this year.

If this Academy chooses, any prize winner would be horribly tainted.

The problem is that those within the Academy who have fatally tarnished it, don’t get it and are in denial. They do not even see what they have done.

The Nobel Foundation needs to cancel this year’s award and to lay down the rules for any newly constituted Academy to choose a winner.

Horace Engdahl and co. have brought the Academy into disrepute (image TT)


 

Grimm brothers vindicated – Fairy tales go back to ancient beginnings of Indo-European language

January 20, 2016

The Royal Society has a new paper

Sara Graça da Silva, Jamshid J. Tehrani, Comparative phylogenetic analyses uncover the ancient roots of Indo-European folktales

The Smith and the Devil - Russian folk tale or something much older?

The Smith and the Devil – Russian folk tale or something much older?

The BBC reports:

In the 19th Century, authors the Brothers Grimm believed many of the fairy tales they popularised were rooted in a shared cultural history dating back to the birth of the Indo-European language family.

Later thinkers challenged that view, saying some stories were much younger and had been passed into oral tradition having first been written down by writers from the 16th and 17th Centuries.

Durham University anthropologist Dr Jamie Tehrani, who worked with folklorist Sara Graca Da Silva, from the New University of Lisbon, said: “We can come firmly down on the side of Wilhelm Grimm. Some of these stories go back much further than the earliest literary record and indeed further back than Classical mythology – some versions of these stories appear in Latin and Greek texts – but our findings suggest they are much older than that.” ……

….. 

It also used a tree of Indo-European languages to trace the descent of shared tales to see how far they could be demonstrated to go back in time.

Dr Tehrani said Jack And The Beanstalk was rooted in a group of stories classified as The Boy Who Stole Ogre’s Treasure, and could be traced back to when Eastern and Western Indo-European languages split more than 5,000 years ago.

Analysis showed Beauty And The Beast and Rumpelstiltskin to be about 4,000 years old. And a folk tale called The Smith And The Devil, about a blacksmith selling his soul in a pact with the Devil in order to gain supernatural abilities, was estimated to go back 6,000 years to the bronze age. Dr Tehrani said: “We find it pretty remarkable these stories have survived without being written. They have been told since before even English, French and Italian existed. “They were probably told in an extinct Indo-European language.”

Tale telling around a camp-fire must have been one of the major contributors for the evolution of language. But what is a little surprising is that the oral tradition can be so persistent, and for so long. That suggests that orally transmitted tales from ancient cultures should probably be given much more weight. The origin of many concepts, which are often dated to the beginning of written records, are probably much older than thought.

Abstract

Ancient population expansions and dispersals often leave enduring signatures in the cultural traditions of their descendants, as well as in their genes and languages. The international folktale record has long been regarded as a rich context in which to explore these legacies. To date, investigations in this area have been complicated by a lack of historical data and the impact of more recent waves of diffusion. In this study, we introduce new methods for tackling these problems by applying comparative phylogenetic methods and autologistic modelling to analyse the relationships between folktales, population histories and geographical distances in Indo-European-speaking societies. We find strong correlations between the distributions of a number of folktales and phylogenetic, but not spatial, associations among populations that are consistent with vertical processes of cultural inheritance. Moreover, we show that these oral traditions probably originated long before the emergence of the literary record, and find evidence that one tale (‘The Smith and the Devil’) can be traced back to the Bronze Age. On a broader level, the kinds of stories told in ancestral societies can provide important insights into their culture, furnishing new perspectives on linguistic, genetic and archaeological reconstructions of human prehistory.

The science of Poohsticks (and the language of Poohlish)

August 26, 2015

I have known all along that “Poohsticks” is no mere game of chance. The choice of stick, the manner of dropping it, the strength of the current, the strength and direction of the wind, the position of the sun, the amount of honey consumed at breakfast,  and even the phase of the moon on the night before are all critical factors that affect the outcome. Of course, all these factors cannot even be described without knowledge of “Poohlish” which still remains a mystery. Just as physics becomes almost indescribable without the language of mathematics, knowledge of Poohlish is necessary to completely discern the science of Poohsticks. For a practitioner just knowing Poohlish needs to be augmented with practical training in Poohmatics and the art of thinking things through:

“Think it over, think it under.” ― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

Nevertheless some aspects of the game are beginning to be be quantified and some of the more superficial matters – such as the selection of a winning Poohstick – are beginning to be unravelled.

Cambridge News:

The game, in which competitors drop sticks into a river upstream off a bridge and see which comes out downstream first, is first mentioned in The House At Pooh Corner by AA Milne published in 1928.

The research, commissioned to celebrate the release of The Poohsticks Handbook: A Poohstickopedia – a new book featuring Winnie the Pooh and friends, written by comedy writer Mark Evans and illustrated by Mark Burgess – reveals the secrets to finding the perfect Poohstick according to a top scientist, and names the best places in the country to play. ……

….. The formula disproves the views of more than half of Britons (57%) who believe Poohsticks is a game of sheer luck.

Egmont Publishing joined Dr Rhys Morgan, director of engineering and education at the Royal Academy of Engineering, to equip the 39% of people who already take time sourcing the perfect Poohstick with the formula to ensure they pick the speediest stick to sail to victory. …….

…… It turns out that just 11% of Britons naturally pick the right sort of stick, with a third of people (30%) heading straight for a long and thin stick, which according to Dr Morgan is only half right.

The scientist, a father of two and avid Poohsticks player himself, said the main variables that need to be considered when designing the optimum Poohstick include cross sectional area, density/buoyancy, and the drag coefficient.

The perfect Poohstick = tubby and long, fairly heavy (but not so heavy it will sink to the bottom of the river), with quite a lot of bark to catch the flow of the river like paddles – or

PP (Perfect Poohstick) = A x Ï? x Cd.

Cross Sectional Area (= A) is important and the greater the area of an object, the more drag it creates. Normally, a large cross-sectional area decreases speed, but when it comes to Poohsticks, drag is key. If more water is able to influence the trajectory of the stick, it will accelerate more quickly. So when it comes to Poohsticks the tubbier, the better.

The density (= Ï?) of the stick affects its position in the water. The fastest part of the stream is below the surface, so theoretically, a waterlogged stick which sinks into the water a little will go faster than a stick which is floating right on the surface (where it could be slowed down by wind or other external variables).

The drag coefficient (= Cd) describes the shape of stick and roughness of its surface. Generally, a rough stick will create more drag than a smooth stick, so in general, bark is good. However, according to Dr Morgan, a certain roughness can make the stick apparently smoother, similar to the effect created by dimples in golf balls.

Meanwhile, VisitEngland has compiled a list of the best Poohsticks bridges alongside the original Poohsticks Bridge in Ashdown Forest in East Sussex.

The list includes bridges from Cumbria to Cornwall, including Sheepwash Bridge, Ashford in the Water in Derbyshire, Morden Hall Park in London, Heale Gardens in Salisbury, Wiltshire, Packhorse Bridge in Watendlath, Cumbria, and Mottisfont in Romsey, Hampshire.

Merely picking a potentially winning Poohstick is not enough of course. To truly understand the nuances of the game and become a Poohstick Master requires a sound grounding in Poohlish and some practical training in Poohmatics.

Mapping Älvdalen to Middle Earth places Rivendell at Trondheim

May 22, 2015

In my previous post I suggested that the municipality of Älvdalen in the county of Dalarna in Sweden was probably as close as one could get to Tolkien’s Lothlorien.

Trondheim to Älvdalen

I have posted earlier about Peter Bird’s wonderful mapping of Middle Earth to a pre-Holocene Europe where sea levels would have been some 120m lower than today.

Middle Earth by Peter Bird

Assuming

  1. that present day Älvdalen corresponds to Lothlorien in Middle Earth, and
  2. then taking Peter Bird’s mapping of Middle Earth to a Europe where sea levels were some 100m lower than today, and
  3. that the Misty Mountains lie between present day Norway and Sweden, and
  4. The Gates of Moria are not to be taken as the present day Mora in Dalarna, and

since the Fellowship of the Ring travelled south and east from Rivendell and through the Gates of Moria across the Misty Mountains to get to Lothlorien, then,

it follows that present day Trondheim maps to Rivendell of Middle Earth.

Frodo's Journey Rivendell to Lothlorien

Frodo’s Journey Rivendell to Lothlorien

Runes and elvish in the Valley of the Älv

May 21, 2015

“Älv” in Swedish means “river”. But the origin of “elf” in English is the old English “ælf”. So when it is found that in Älvdalen, runes were used just 100 years ago and they still speak their own ancient Norse language, Elfdalian, it is difficult not to conjure up visions of Legolas and Elrond and of Galadriel in Lothlórien.

ScienceNordic: Elfdalian (älvdalska in Swedish and övdalsk in the language itself) sounds like something you would more likely encounter in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings rather than in a remote Swedish forest. But the small town of Älvdalen, which gives the language its name, is not an Elven outpost. It is one of the last strongholds of an ancient tongue that preserves much of Old Norse, the language of the Vikings. …. has preserved linguistic features that are to be found nowhere else in Scandinavia, and that had already disappeared from Old Norse by 1200AD. ….

Because of its relative isolation, Elfdalian evolved in an entirely different direction than the modern Scandinavian languages. Its sounds, grammar and vocabulary differ radically from Swedish. So, while speakers of Swedish, Danish and Norwegian can easily understand each other in simple conversations, Elfdalian is completely unintelligible to Swedes who are not from the area.

Only about 2,500 people still speak Elfdalian but it is now being taught again in primary schools in the region.

Älvdalen is a municipality in Sweden and the name actually means River Valley. It is isolated from the rest of Sweden by its mountains, forests and lakes.

Älvdalen

ScienceNordic: “Älvdalen lies extremely deep within the Swedish forests and mountains. You can get there by boat up the river, Dalälven — a journey of more than 100 kilometres — and getting there and back used to be quite an expedition. So people in the area weren’t particularly mobile and were able to preserve this very special culture, considered in Sweden to be extremely traditional and old fashioned,”

The runic script was the dominant written language in Denmark and the rest of Scandinavia until the advent of Christianity in the ninth and tenth century introduced the Latin alphabet.

By the 15th century the Latin alphabet had almost wiped out the use of runes – but not in Älvdalen. Here, the Swedish linguist Henrik Rosenkvist recently saw a letter dated 1906 written partly in runes.

“The runes we see in Älvdalen are probably the most recent use of the script we know of. Runes otherwise died out in the Middle Ages so their use in so recent times is exceptional,” says Rosenkvist who speaks and studies the unique language spoken in Älvdalen.

The runes of Älvdalen — dalrunerne — are reminiscent of those used on runes stones in Denmark but there are a number of differences. Dalrunerne developed over time, influenced partially by the Latin alphabet. Here are the runes as they looked in the period leading up to the 20th century. (Illustration: Tasnu Arakun/Wikimedia Commons)

Nielsen agrees. “The use of runes in Scandinavia gradually ceased during the 15th century. There are the odd areas of Gotland in Sweden and in Iceland where the rune tradition survived until the 17th century, but in Älvdalen their use was widespread until the early 20th century,” he says.

According to Nielsen the runes in Älvdalen were most commonly found on houses and inscribed in furniture. In addition to this, they were also engraved into ’message blades’ which were sticks of wood that were circulated among the farms in the area. “The people who herded the cattle up in the mountains would write messages to each other in runes,” says Nielsen.

Tolkien took much of his inspiration for his elves (and fairies) from a mixture of Norse and Celtic mythologies and medieval writings. But his elves and their love of ships and their writing are straight out of Norse mythology. In that sense the real world Älvdalen is probably as close to  the enchanted – but fictional – forests of Lothlórien as it is possible to get.

Poltergeists on Mars

January 21, 2014

Mysterious forces and poltergeists are at work  on Mars (which in due course will be found not to be so mysterious after all). But stories about moving rocks, and possible aliens are not new. The latest however is just doing the rounds based on the pictures SOL 3528 and 3540.

Rock appears mysteriously in front of Mars Opportunity rover

Rock appears mysteriously in front of Mars Opportunity rover

(Phys.org)The lead scientist for NASA’s Mars rover exploration team (Steve Squyres) has announced that recent images beamed back by the Opportunity rover show a rock sitting in a place nearby where there wasn’t one just twelve days prior. The image, he says, has caused quite a commotion with the rover team as possible explanations for the sudden appearance of the rock are bandied about. The announcement was part of a meeting at California Institute of Technology to celebrate a decade of service by the tiny rover. …… 

….. How it got there has NASA’s best scratching their heads. Thus far, they have two main likely explanations: either the rock was tossed to that spot after a meteorite impact nearby, or far more likely, it came to rest there as a result of clumsy maneuvering by Opportunity itself. The rover is having trouble getting around these days as one of its actuators has failed. This means one wheel winds up scrapping the ground during turns, producing what Squyres described as “chatter” which he said could have caused some debris to be flung to where the rock is now.

But these stories have been appearing since – at least – about 2009 (based for example on pictures SOL 1833 onwards). Moving rocks on Mars have a long history of fanciful – and some not so fanciful – notions. A whole bunch can be found here and here. But it would seem that most of the conspiracy theories and “Life on Mars” stories are connected to the selling of particular books.

As far as stories are concerned, the first ever fictional account of Mars was probably Across the Zodiac (1880) by Percy Greg. But for me, The War of the Worlds (published in 1898) by H. G. Wells  and Edgar Rice Burroughs and his Martian Trilogy – published between 1912 and 1943 and which I first read in 1959 – are not easily surpassed.

Tolkien’s Middle Earth mapped to Europe

January 9, 2014

Some 45 years ago when I first read Tolkien, I recall making (or trying to make) a relief map of Middle Earth on cardboard with crumpled paper and glue and paint and plasticene for the relief features. I never had the patience to get it quite finsished and it was too large to survive my many moves as a student. But maps and cartography have fascinated ever since.

I have just come across this map of Middle Earth which – I think – is about 10 years old. Peter Bird is Professor Emeritus at the Department of Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences of UCLA and this map of Tolkien’s Middle Earth is from his personal page. Here he superimposes Middle Earth onto a Europe at a time when sea levels (in my estimation) were more than 100m lower than they are today. All very fanciful of course, but interesting and for me very nostalgic.

From Frank Jacobs at strange maps:

But, as Tolkien states in the prologue to ‘The Lord of the Rings’, it would be fruitless to look for geographical correspondences, as “Those days, the Third Age of Middle-earth, are now long past, and the shape of all lands has been changed…” And yet, that’s exactly what Peter Bird attempts with the map here shown. Bird, a professor of Geophysics and Geology at UCLA, has overlapped the map of Middle-earth with one of Europe, which leads to following locations:

  • The Shire is in the South-West of England, which further north is also home to the Old Forest (Yorkshire?), the Barrow Downs (north of England), the city of Bree (at or near Newcastle-upon-Tyne) and Amon Sul (Scottish Highlands).
  • The Grey Havens are situated in Ireland.
  • Eriador corresponds with Brittany.
  • Helm’s Deep is near the Franco-German-Swiss border tripoint, close to the city of Basel.
  • The mountain chain of Ered Nimrais is the Alps.
  • Gondor corresponds with the northern Italian plains, extended towards the unsubmerged Adriatic Sea.
  • Mordor is situated in Transylvania, with Mount Doom in Romania (probably), Minas Morgul in Hungary (approximately) and Minas Tirith in Austria (sort of).
  • Rohan is in southern Germany, with Edoras at the foot of the Bavarian Alps. Also in Germany, but to the north, near present-day Hamburg, is Isengard. Close by is the forest of Fangorn.
  • To the north is Mirkwood, further east are Rhovanion and the wastes of Rhûn, close to the Ural mountains.
  • The Sea of Rhûn corresponds to the Black Sea.
  • Khand is Turkey
  • Haradwaith is the eastern part of North Africa, Umbar corresponds with the Maghreb, the western part of North Africa.
  • The Bay of Belfalas is the western part of the Mediterranean.
Middle Earth by Peter Bird

Middle Earth by Peter Bird
Allowing for polar wander and sea level change, most sites are recognizable. The southern Hithaeglir and northern Ephel Duath have sunk, unless perhaps they were only illusions that have been dispelled.

Men, muscles and noses (and why the Dong has a luminous nose)

November 20, 2013

A new study suggests that men have larger noses than women because they have greater muscle mass to supply with oxygen. That is also possibly why archaic humans with greater muscle mass than modern humans also had larger noses.

Nathan E. Holton, Todd R. Yokley, Andrew W. Froehle, Thomas E. Southard, Ontogenetic scaling of the human nose in a longitudinal sample: Implications for genusHomofacial evolutionAmerican Journal of Physical Anthropology, 2013; DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.22402 

The University of Iowa’s news release:

Human noses come in all shapes and sizes. But one feature seems to hold true: Men’s noses are bigger than women’s.

A new study from the University of Iowa concludes that men’s noses are about 10 percent larger than female noses, on average, in populations of European descent. The size difference, the researchers believe, comes from the sexes’ different builds and energy demands: Males in general have more lean muscle mass, which requires more oxygen for muscle tissue growth and maintenance. Larger noses mean more oxygen can be breathed in and transported in the blood to supply the muscle.

The researchers also note that males and females begin to show differences in nose size at around age 11, generally, when puberty starts. Physiologically speaking, males begin to grow more lean muscle mass from that time, while females grow more fat mass. Prior research has shown that, during puberty, approximately 95 percent of body weight gain in males comes from fat-free mass, compared to 85 percent in females. …. 

…. It also explains why our noses are smaller than those of our ancestors, such as the Neanderthals. The reason, the researchers believe, is because our distant lineages had more muscle mass, and so needed larger noses to maintain that muscle. Modern humans have less lean muscle mass, meaning we can get away with smaller noses.

“So, in humans, the nose can become small, because our bodies have smaller oxygen requirements than we see in archaic humans,” Holton says, noting also that the rib cages and lungs are smaller in modern humans, reinforcing the idea that we don’t need as much oxygen to feed our frames as our ancestors. “This all tells us physiologically how modern humans have changed from their ancestors.” ….

And by whatever strange associations that go on in my brain, Edward Lear’s explanation for how his heartbroken and stalwart Dong made himself a prosthetic, luminous nose (which I must have first read some 50 years ago) keeps going around in my head (extract from Edward Lear’s nonsense poem).

……. And those who watch at that midnight hour
From Hall or Terrace, or lofty Tower,
Cry, as the wild light passes along, —
            “The Dong! — the Dong!
      “The wandering Dong through the forest goes!
            “The Dong! the Dong!
      “The Dong with a luminous Nose!”
…….
Playing a pipe with silvery squeaks,
      Since then his Jumbly Girl he seeks,
      And because by night he could not see,
      He gathered the bark of the Twangum Tree
            On the flowery plain that grows.
            And he wove him a wondrous Nose, —
      A Nose as strange as a Nose could be!
Of vast proportions and painted red,
And tied with cords to the back of his head.
      — In a hollow rounded space it ended
      With a luminous Lamp within suspended,
            All fenced about
            With a bandage stout
            To prevent the wind from blowing it out; —
      And with holes all round to send the light,
      In gleaming rays on the dismal night.
…….
And all who watch at the midnight hour,
From Hall or Terrace, or lofty Tower,
Cry, as they trace the Meteor bright,
Moving along through the dreary night, —
      “This is the hour when forth he goes,
      “The Dong with a luminous Nose!
      “Yonder — over the plain he goes;
            “He goes!
            “He goes;
      “The Dong with a luminous Nose!”

The Dong was first published in 1846 and maybe Rudolph, who first appeared in a 1939 booklet written by Robert L. May, got his glowing red nose, in a similar way to the Dong.


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