Welcome to Digressions

You've arrived at the main page of Digressions, my personal blog. To leave a comment to a post (and please do!) click on the post title and you'll find a Comments box at the bottom of the post, or click on the Comments link at the bottom of posts on the main page. If you want to read about watches, clocks, and other mechanical diversions, I'm the US editor for Revolution Magazine, whose homepage is at www.revo-online.com.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Short Subjects II: Growing Up On the Lower East Side of Manhattan

My oldest son is 13. We rode the local bus from our apartment building to his school the other day, and when we got off, he stopped for a moment to read a graffito adorning the scabrous front of a bodega near the bus stop. Someone had left there, written in black magic marker, the bitter missive: "4 AM, no beer. F*** you."

Zach impassively regarded this scribbled outburst for a moment, and then remarked, "Of course, probably the last thing whoever wrote that needed is more beer."

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Short Subject. . .


It occurred to me, while taking a morning walk, that if you name a Microsoft Word document "Whats_Up" the resulting filename will be "Whats_Up.Doc."

All the wasted years.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Eric, Idle



The Eric in question is Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell.

We go back a bit. I first read Orwell when I was around ten -I'd like to think it was out of precocity but it was really morbid curiosity. I was an avid Sunday Comics reader (I remember as a kid thinking my parents were nuts to prefer the New York Times,with its perplexing lack of daily and Sunday strips) and one Fourth of July, Gasoline Alley celebrated American Democracy by having one of the characters (I think it was Walt Wallet) have a nightmare about what it would be like to live in the universes imagined by Orwell in 1984 and Huxley in Brave New World.

I didn't really know or care all that much about totalitarianism or the erosion of individual freedoms by institutionalized hedonism, but I did have an interest in anything that smacked of something possibly off limits, and the result was that my Mom took me to the bookstore, after some pestering, and bought me a copy of each. 1984 had a dark cover, Brave New World was an anaesthetic white, and I read both over a week or so. Brave New World didn't have all that much resonance for me at the time -it felt closer in tone to a lot of the Golden Age science fiction I was also reading -but 1984 was a nasty shock. I had read a few books where, as William Goldman says in The Princess Bride, the wrong people die (most notably Charlotte's Web) but 1984 was much, much worse, because it didn't seem so much about the need to recognize some upsetting but fundamental realities (like everyone dies eventually and eating often means killing) but about the fact that the wrong people win. It was a perfectly plausible depiction of something that was horrifying, and not just horrifying, but in a very specific way. Orwell didn't leave me with any sense of hope at all, and it was the first book I'd ever read that had had that effect (and still one of the very few I can think of that's that unsparingly bleak; even the most pessimistic writers seem to need to let a little light in. To this day, the four words He loved Big Brother are the single most depressing sentence in English literature I can think of.

I didn't get around to the essays, though, until last month. A collection of Orwell's essays was on an airport bookstore shelf, and I bought it to read on a flight to Zurich and back, having had, recently, a talk about Orwell with my friend, the writer Jesse Larner. Of course they were wonderful, and (of course) they were beautifully written and (of course) one of the essays that struck home the hardest was Politics and the English Language. I couldn't understand how I'd gotten this far along in life without at least having been exposed to his rules for writers. (One of the other big surprises was a long, fascinating, very warm essay on Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer -I would have bet anything if anyone had asked that Orwell loathed Miller.)

Orwell himself allowed that his rules were inevitably going to be broken, but didn't talk much about why that might be the case. The essay made me feel much better about writing about luxury goods for a living than I had in a long time, because at the very least, I could try and keep these rules in mind, and writing well (or at least, trying to write well) would have some meaning in and of itself; I would be trying not to be a party to language that "does your thinking for you." I'm not, now, sure that that's really the case -I suppose it's perfectly possible to write well and originally in the service of triviality or worse, and maybe it actually makes matters worse to do so -but the feeling that one has standards seems an important psychological survival tool.

The subject of rules, and psychological survival (Well. Survival is a little strong. People in concentration camps and in combat are trying to survive) came up most recently when an editor I work with did something very common: used the expression begs the question to mean raises the question. That question begging is actually a specific kind of error in logic -the Latin name for it is petitio principii, a form of circular reasoning -is something lost on most who misuse the expression (there's a great little blog post on the subject from John McIntyre, copy editor for the Baltimore Sun, here) including, until a few years ago, me.

While I would like to think I share McIntyre's disposition towards usage (he describes himself as a "mild linguistic prescriptivist") and Orwell's devotion to precision, it's certainly true that I'm a bit of a know-it-all and there are few things more satisfying than a linguistically ubiquitous technical error to which you can, with an air of performing a community service, call your hapless interlocutor's attention. The fact that I can throw some Latin in there just sweetens the deal.

But should I? First of all, the usage of begs the question for raises the question is essentially ubiquitous, and ubiquity is a strong symptom of an idiosyncratic usage achieving sufficient universality to require that it be acknowledged as acceptable (a point McIntyre makes as well, though he clearly doesn't feel that begs the question is there yet.) Secondly, the real point of standards should be to facilitate communication, and surely most people who say begs the question when they mean raises the question are clearly understood.

It's bracing to fantasize that in taking exception to it, I'm saving untold legions of future Winston Smiths a bullet to the brain, but of course the attraction of prescriptivism is at least in part a sense of intellectual superiority -snobbery, in a word. I'm still going to object to it though. First of all, man does not live by bread alone (one is entitled to a few acts of self-indulgence, intellectual and otherwise -or if not entitled one should at least acknowledge they're inevitable) and secondly, I do think the (mis)use of begs the question obscures an interesting and fairly common error in logic -the substitution of an arbitrary assertion of the truthfulness of a statement for any actual proof or logical argument; linguistic authoritarianism for discourse.

Linguistic prescriptivism easily shades into self-indulgent intellectual snobbery, of course. Probably every prescriptivist at one time or another both enjoys a primitive, primate-hierarchy sense of superiority when the opportunity to correct someone presents itself, and even Eric Arthur Blair doesn't completely avoid sounding a touch smug when he dissects his examples of poor and incoherent writing (though they are, undeniably, good examples of poor and incoherent writing. It occurs to me just now that telling people George Orwell's real name was Eric Arthur Blair is another way to indulge my know-it-all tendencies. Also that Orwell probably would have had something to say about my tendency to be parenthetic, and overuse of semicolons. And digressiveness. Now where was I?) But at the same time, I just can't help but feel that his rules for writers are important -not as laws to be followed thoughtlessly (the very thing against which he spent much of his career as an essayist railing against) but as standards by which to judge one's own work. For the linguistic prescriptivist, snobbism is one extreme, and it's tempting to say that fear of being caught in a mistake is the other. But I think the real fear is much more fundamental: that of being a bad writer.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

In Which I Reach the "I Have Been a Bad Blogger" Point with Alarming Rapidity


Well, that certainly didn't take long. Blogging unfortunately gave way for some time to my other activity, which consists of doing my bit to keep the wheels of commerce greased. It can be a somewhat dreary occupation -I remember a conversation about a year ago with a good friend whose mother said to her, with some asperity, when she began working in PR after a stint teaching math in South Africa, "You know, I didn't send you to Princeton for this."

Another good friend, who is also an editor I work with, once remarked to me that the shreds of dignity one has as a magazine writer essentially consist of whatever modicum of quality and work ethic you can bring to your writing, and that in the venal world of being a hack for the slicks (as Damon Runyon would have put it) that's pretty much all you have to keep you going. A rather bleak but not inaccurate assessment, although I suspect it depends
somewhat on the kind of journalism you're doing. Sir Kingsley
Amis once wrote, "There's no point in being a journalist if you can't offend people" (he should know) and I have fairly few opportunities to do so in my current journalistic incarnation (not that I would necessarily attempt to emulate Kingsley Amis in any general or particular way -though another of his famous remarks, that any habit the giving up of which would merely result in an extra two years of life in a nursing home in Weston Super-Mare is not worth giving up resonates more and more as I get older.) This picture of Amis (thank you Wikipedia- again) always reminds me of a painting by Philip Guston:


. . . called "Smoking, Drinking, Eating," which are a sort of quintessence of the three bad habits I'd indulge in to the hilt if what I wanted was a sort of hedonistically logical extension to where the kind of writing I do now locates me philosophically. However, at least for now I'm trying to follow my Editor Friend's advice to wrap such shreds of qualitative decency remain to me as a writer around me like a warm blanket and warm myself therewith as best I can. God knows there are worse ways to make a living, of course, but I do miss the opportunity to be pejorative. The fact is criticism is often at its most interesting when you're taking something or someone down a notch -or better yet, when you can just excercise the faculty for appreciation and insight without worrying about whether you're either currying favor or giving offense at all.

Which brings me, rather circuitously, to one of my favorite passages in English literature. I'm sure that We Have Always Lived in the Castle is not everyone's, haha, cup of tea, but it has a great opening paragraph. I don't know whether it's one of the greatest opening paragraphs in English literature as such (whatever that means) but I certainly enjoyed it more than almost anything else I've read in a long time:

"My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenent, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead."

I have had to be content with what I had. Haha, forsooth. Haven't we all, Merricat, haven't we all.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Marx, Opium, and not reading the whole book. . .


A few years ago, my curiosity piqued by the ongoing debate over intelligent design (an interesting idea inasmuch as even dedicated theologians have struggled for centuries with the disturbingly large body of evidence that is as indicative of malicious design as intelligent) I took a stab at actually reading Darwin's The Origin of Species. I was surprised to find Darwin an extremely gentle advocate for his own ideas -his tone is so carefully self deprecating, so literate, and so un-polemical that it stands in startling contrast to the often virulently ad hominem tone of his detractors. He comes across, in other words, as a nice guy, and one who was concerned to convey what he felt was the real beauty of evolution's miraculous proliferation of apparently inexplicable complexity of form and behavior:

"There is grandeur," he writes in conclusion, "in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whist this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful, and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

I owe this rumination on authors taken out of context to a good friend who, in a recent email exchange on Orwell (we decided that of 1984 and Animal Farm, the latter is actually rather the more depressing) pointed out to me that the famous quote from Karl Marx, that "religion is the opiate of the masses," is actually a graceless and unjust excerpt of a longer remark that speaks of a tremendous compassion for the misery of humanity and a desire to find some solution to it. So, thanks Jesse, and here's the whole thing:

""Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

"The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

"Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. . ."

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Blogging, Neurology, and Perfume


The idea of having a blog never particularly interested me before but I've been feeling more and more as if there are things I'd like to have on the 'net that don't necessarily fit well in some of the other venues I habitually use. Wristwatch discussion forums, for instance, are useful professionally and interesting personally, but they're hardly a good place for discussing (say) the neurophysiology of smell (or, in many cases, for being candid about watches in particular and the luxury goods world in general, for that matter.)

Which brings me to the subject of my first blog post, a wonderful book by Luca Turin called The Secret of Scent. It's been out a while -since 2006 -and it's interesting both as a sort of introduction to the fragrance industry (and it is an industry) and as a scientific detective story. The author's spent a good deal of his professional life researching the mechanisms by which we smell, and while he's profoundly fascinated by perfumes, their history, and their design, the book is equally an attempt to present a novel theory of how smell actually works. When I taught introductory neurology at the Swedish Institute we always had to gloss over a lot of the interesting details of how the special senses work -for one thing, stuff like conformational changes in photoreceptor pigments are not of immediate urgent importance to massage students, and for another the material came up at the end of the term, when I would have been hard pressed to get students to come to a lecture on how to use Swedish massage to cure cancer. So I'd parrot the conventional wisdom on olfaction: that odorant molecules bind to a repertoire of receptor molecules on the olfactory nerve endings, and that the almost infinite variety of scent sensations are achieved through the cognitive blending of a combination of receptor types.

Like most explanations of neurological events, there's an air of hopeful hand-waving about all this, and Turin uses the lush world of perfume chemistry to introduce an alternative theory, which is that what we're really detecting is the vibrational mode of odorant molecules. As a lapsed alternative medicine practitioner I'm predisposed to find anything that invokes molecular vibrations suspect, but as it turns out, the concept is based on well accepted chemical science -the vibrational mode of a molecule is more properly known as its Raman spectrum (after the Nobel Prize winning scientist, Chandrasekhara V. Raman, who discovered molecular spectra.) And there are databases of thousands of molecular spectra which have been developed since Raman became interested in the problem in the 1920s. While there are many open questions with the vibrational model, the notion that the nose functions as a spectroscope is a fascinating one. One olfaction researcher who pioneered the theory (Malcolm Dyson) wrote:

"Let us commence the inquiry with a simple case -selecting some group of substances with an indisputably characteristic odor which is unlike that of the vast majority. . . I have selected the mercaptans (-SH) as the most suitable; once their powerful and clinging odor has been observed it forms a most vivid impression and most chemists would recognize it again. . . Is there any corresponding characteristic feature in their Raman spectra? The answer is that there is indubitably a unique feature in the Raman spectrum of all alkyl mercaptans, a line with . . . frequency 2567-2580. No other compound has such a line."

Turin also writes very beautifully about the challenge of understanding science:

"In almost every science textbook, there is one point, usually of paragraph length, where the style of the author matches exactly one's style of understanding, and which we then grasp properly and permanently. The trick is then to read hundreds of books, so that the paragraphs gradually come to cover one's field of interest, like fliers strewn on a football pitch. This, over a period of about ten years, is what I tried to do with undergraduate solid state physics."

And for someone like me, who lies awake nights wondering if writing about luxury products for a living is really an intellectually respectable thing to do, there are his wonderful insider's observations on the frustrating mediocrity that he observes in his own industry:

"Ten years ago, a fine fragrance used to cost 200-300 euros per kilo. These days, 100 is considered expensive. Bear in mind that only 3 per cent or so of the price in the shop is the smell. The rest is packaging, advertising, and margins. The cheapness of the formula is the main reason why most 'fine' perfumes are total crap. Other reasons include slavish imitation, crass vulgarity, profound ignorance, fear of getting fired, and general lack of inventiveness and courage."