Not Literally

Jeff Strabone in his blog:

Far be it from me to advocate syntactical conservatism, but one of our most valuable words is experiencing an intolerable slippage into its opposite, and all of us who care about language must do what we can to stop it. I’ve always appreciated the ceaseless engine of innovation that is language. For me, the 1980’s in particular stand out as a period of great ferment as hip hop shook up the English-speaking world. We are all the richer for having ‘mad’ as an adverb (as in ‘mad phat’), ‘science’ restored to its original Latin meaning (as in ‘dropping science’), and ‘dis’ as a diminutive for ‘disrespect’. But there is one word whose literal meaning cannot be allowed to change, and that word is ‘literal’.

02_content01People are increasingly using ‘literally’ to mean ‘figuratively’. Here is an instance from the floor of the U.S. Senate on March 9, 2007. The speaker was Senator Mary Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana:

Now, normally this redtape is a nuisance. We work through it. It is inconvenient. It is a nuisance. But we just sort of move through the redtape of Government. But in this case, it is literally a noose that is around the necks of people, of business owners, large and small, family members—strangling their efforts to recover their communities that were devastated.

Is it time for Northern troops to occupy Louisiana again as they did during the Reconstruction? Is someone literally lynching people down South with nooses made of literal red tape? Senator Landrieu seems to think so.

More here.  [Thanks to Asad Raza.]


From The Washington Post:

World If human beings vanished from the Earth, our ceramic pottery and bronze statues would last much longer than our wood-frame houses. New York’s subways would be flooded within days; Lexington Avenue would be a river within decades. Head lice would go extinct, and predators would make short work of our doggies, but a lot of endangered fish and birds and trees would flourish in our absence. We endangered them, after all.

A diligent and intelligent science writer named Alan Weisman discovered all this while investigating what would happen to this planet if people suddenly disappeared. Now he has converted his thought experiment for Discover magazine into a deeply reported book called The World Without Us, and it’s full of interesting facts. For example: The European starling spread like avian kudzu after some Shakespeare buff introduced every bird mentioned by the Bard into Central Park. The demilitarized (and therefore depopulated) zones of Korea and Cyprus have become undeclared wildlife sanctuaries; so have Chernobyl and abandoned forests in New Englans and Belarus. Almost every ounce of plastic that’s ever been manufactured still lurks somewhere in our environment. And radio waves are forever, so extraterrestrials at the edge of the universe might be able to watch “I Love Lucy” reruns billions of years after we’re gone. Who knew?

More here.

Orangutans use ‘charades’ to talk

From BBC News:

Orang_2 Richard Byrne, an evolutionary psychologist and an author on the paper, said: “When humans communicate, we routinely use our knowledge of what our audience knows and what they don’t know automatically. “We wanted to find out whether the great apes, that have so much flexibility with their communication, do the same thing.” Six captive orangutans were presented with a keeper who had treats, such as bananas, and blander food, such as leeks or celery. The animals gestured to attract the keeper’s attention so the tasty treat would be passed to them. However, once the orangutans had done this, the keepers did one of three things: they either handed them the treat, handed them the bland food or handed them half the treat.

“When the keeper gave the orangutan the really nice food, understandably, that was the end of it,” explained Professor Byrne. “But when the keeper pretended to fail to understand the original gesture and gave the wrong food, the orangutans stopped using the gestures they had used before and started using some different gestures,” he explained. “And when the keeper half understood and gave the orangutan part of the treat, the orangutans started to repeat the same gestures that they had used, but they would repeat them even more enthusiastically.”

Professor Byrne likened it to a game of charades.

More here.

nightmarish American Babel?


In 1945, Jean-Paul Sartre visited the US at the invitation of the American Office of War Information. He was following in the footsteps not only of that most famous of transatlantic literary voyagers, Alexis de Tocqueville, but also those of Chateaubriand and Céline. Sartre’s visit attracted the attention of Time magazine, which reported that during his stay, the “short, square-shouldered” “philosopher-playwright” had developed a taste for corned beef hash and chocolate ice cream, not to mention an “awed liking” for “squalor-spotted, ill-mannered New York City.”

The pieces Sartre filed home for Le Figaro and Combat had a rather different flavour. Manhattan, he wrote, was a vast “rock desert” in which thousands of houses built of brick, wood or reinforced concrete appeared to be “on the point of flying away.” Indeed, all the American cities Sartre visited seemed to him touched by a sense of impermanence or lightness. The prefabs he saw in Fontana, Tennessee, on a tour of the Tennessee Valley Authority, were American dwellings par excellence, fragile and provisional; and even in New York, he was struck by the “flimsiness of the building materials used.”

more from Prospect Magazine here.

A Zionist politician loses faith in the future

David Remnick in The New Yorker:


The self-regard of Israelis is built, in no small part, around a sense of sang-froid, and yet few would deny that the past year was deeply unnerving. Last July, Israel launched an aerial attack on Lebanon designed to destroy the arsenal of the radical Islamist group Hezbollah, the Party of God, and force its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, to return two kidnapped soldiers and end its cross-border rocket attacks. “If the soldiers are not returned,” Dan Halutz, the Israeli Army’s chief of staff, said at the time, “we will turn Lebanon’s clock back twenty years.” Israel bombed the runways of the Beirut airport, the Beirut-Damascus highway, and numerous towns, mainly in the south; Hezbollah, from a network of guerrilla installations and tunnel networks worthy of the Vietcong, launched some four thousand rockets, mainly Katyushas, at cities in northern Israel. Israel degraded Hezbollah’s military capabilities, at least temporarily, but there was no victory. Hezbollah survived and, in the eyes of the Islamic world, in doing so won; Nasrallah emerged as an iconic hero; and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, one of his sponsors, called yet again for the elimination of Israel from the map of the Middle East. Halutz, who had dumped all his stocks on the eve of the war, resigned, and Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, saw his approval rating fall to as low as two per cent.

More here.

Psychohistory in the Making?

Ken Binmore reviews A Beautiful Math: John Nash, Game Theory, and the Modern Quest for a Code of Nature, by Tom Siegfried, in American Scientist:

Johnnash_3Game theorists have won five Nobel Prizes in recent years. The best known of these laureates by far is John Nash, whose remarkable life was the subject of Sylvia Nasar’s best-selling 1998 book, A Beautiful Mind. A movie with the same name starring Russell Crowe then made Nash into a modern folk hero.

The highs and lows of Nash’s life are out of the range of experience of most human beings. As an undergraduate, he initiated the modern theory of economic bargaining. His graduate thesis formulated the idea of a Nash equilibrium, which is now regarded as the basic building block of the theory of games. He went on to solve major problems in pure mathematics, using methods of such originality that his reputation as a mathematical genius of the first rank became firmly established. But at the age of 30 he fell prey to a serious schizophrenic illness, which persisted for many years, during which time he languished in obscurity. By the early 1990s, he was no longer delusional, although this fact was not widely appreciated. Fortunately, his recovery was brought to the attention of the Nobel committee just as they were deciding who should get a Nobel Prize for game theory, which had by degrees totally transformed the face of economic theory while Nash was out of action.

More here.

The Bhut Jolokia (also known as the Naga Jolokia)

Ruchira Paul in Accidental Blogger:

Screenhunter_13_aug_01_1514Do you like hot foods? What is the limit of your personal “heat” index – black pepper, jalapeno, serrano, the slinky Thai pepper or the more daunting Habanero? When does mouthwatering enjoyment deteriorate into agony? The Aztecs utilised chilli  peppers in a traditional drink. With heat levels spanning a wide range of “burn,” chilli peppers are an essential ingredient in cuisines across the world from Mexico to the Far East, to suit every type of dish and palate. My own palate is far from fire-proof, but I do love hot foods. Sadly enough, as I grow older, my level of tolerance for “heat” is dwindling although I have heard that the opposite should happen with advancing age. I could handle Thai foods at a respectable 3.5 to 4 level of spicy with relative ease just a decade ago. Now I order a wimpish 2. Even then, my refrigerator is always stocked with a fresh supply of jalapeno or serrano peppers which I like to bite into during meals and an assortment of hot sauces to spread on bland dishes. I read once that the Indian born conductor Zubin Mehta carries hot peppers in his pocket when he is invited out to dinner, even to the fanciest banquet.

More here.

accounting for days


NOT LONG AGO, diaries housed private thoughts and feelings too intimate or shameful to reveal. Virginia Woolf wrote in hers daily, expatiating on yesterday’s parties, ideas, and dinner conversations. Some believe remembering can keep us sane, but Woolf succumbed to madness, and remarked on its approach in her diary.

Blogs are, oxymoronically, public diaries, where bloggers play with exposure, others’ and their own. Some use handles for anonymity, but with fingerprints in cyberspace and with erasure near impossible, nothing’s lost and everyone can be found. Billions of disclosures light up the Internet with electric abandon. While “private” and “public” have for years been theorized as permeable spaces, even illusory divisions, people once lived those separate realities. Now they have actually blurred, and privacy and secrecy are becoming quaint ideas. IDs and personal information are hacked and jacked constantly, and individuals adjust their desires, needs, and aims in sync with technology’s capabilities. In this electronic revolution, as written and filmed self-reportage and confessions choke the virtual highways, voyeurism and exhibitionism are just normal.

Stephen Shore wanted his travel diary, compiled in six weeks in the summer of 1973, to be a document of documents, one without commentary.

more from artforum here.

the handbook of all handbooks


I spent the mid ’90s in a café called Limbo, smoking and trying to write a novel. A friend who worked at Henry Holt gave me a copy of The Field Guide to North American Males by Marjorie Ingall, and I saw that I’d been pegged: I was the “Acerbic Bipolar Novelist” cross-bred with the “Slacker Boy Toy.” Among the things that anger the Novelist are “a huge advance for… a writer he considers marginal” and “a price increase at Kinko’s.” Check and check. The mating call of the Boy Toy is: “Wanna come over and watch The Simpsons?” It was like reading my biography, or at least my FBI file. It was like reading the file of every guy I’d ever met between the ages of nineteen and forty. There’s the “Patriarchal Yet Nurturing College Professor” who “takes you to the one ‘fancy’ Italian restaurant in range of campus.” The “Witty Advertising Exec” can be found “in his ironic yet slavishly decorated apartment.” It’s an ingenious and sweeping exhibition of the female gaze—which turns out to be a lot sharper, wittier, and more considered than the male gaze. In the years since, I’ve given the book away a number of times. Having your quirks and values exposed in a venue like this is both thrilling and embarrassing. It’s comforting to be recognized and nestled into a category—and scary to realize you can be so easily reduced to a comic set of predictable gestures.

more from The Believer here.

Side by side, but not crowded, / A fire, but not smoky


The painter Leonid Pasternak was not sure how to react when his son wrote to Rainer Maria Rilke in April 1926, asking the elder poet to send an inscribed copy of one of his books, “perhaps the Duino Elegies”, to his “greatest and probably only friend”. “Her name is Marina Tsvetaeva”, Boris Pasternak explained, “and she lives in Paris, 19th arrondissement, 8 rue Rouvet”. He told Rilke that Tsvetaeva was “a born poet, a great talent . . . . who writes in a way that none of us in the USSR now writes”.

Leonid Pasternak, who had met Rilke in Moscow twenty-five years earlier, when his son and Tsvetaeva were just schoolchildren, persuaded himself that his anxieties about the propriety of the request were due to the excessive decorum of his generation and his own insufficient understanding of the ways of poets. “Perhaps among you poets it’s accepted to exchange books without being personally acquainted”, he concluded with paternal deference. For Rilke, Pasternak and Tsvetaeva, separated by geography, politics and domestic circumstances, the exchange of books was itself the source of the immediate and ecstatic sense of kinship – far over-running the bounds of conventional “personal acquaintanceship” – recorded in their correspondence of summer 1926.

more from the TLS here.


The Village Voice on Irwin’s genius video rendition of Escort’s “All Through the Night”:

Jim Henson is doing the Hustle in his grave. For the finest collision of infectious disco and Muppet exuberance known to man, avail thyself of Escort’s video for “All Through the Night,” the zenith of a truly splendid couple of weeks as far as YouTube is concerned. (Its partner in dominance is that bewildering clip of Filipino prison inmates re-enacting the “Thriller” video.) For three and a half mesmerizing minutes, Rolf, Animal, Sam the Eagle, the Pigs in Space, and various other furry personages are expertly synced to the Brooklyn disco orchestra’s fourth and latest single, a Technicolor blast of dance-floor dynamite propelled by a helium-huffing, syllable-stuffing chorus of Giveittomesayittomeworkitwithmeif- you’rereadyI’mabouttopop. Given the relatively basic mechanics of Muppet speech—few teeth, fewer tongues, mouths just clamping open and shut—they are credibly edited so as to espouse more erotic commentary than you have perhaps grown accustomed to; it’s amazing. Irving Coffee, a jovial filmmaking friend of the band who’s worked on The Chappelle Show and a documentary called The Beauty Academy of Kabul, sat down with eight DVDs’ worth of raw Muppet material and bashed it out. “Discounting all the technological bullshit, it took three days,” he recalls.

Michelangelo Antonioni, Director, Dies at 94

From The New York Times:

Antonioni1600_3 Michaelangelo Antonioni, the Italian director whose chilly depictions of alienation were cornerstones of international filmmaking in the 1960s, inspiring intense measures of admiration, denunciation and confusion, died on Monday at his home in Rome, Italian news media reported today. He was 94. He died on the same day as Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish filmmaker who died at his home in Sweden earlier Monday..

“With Antonioni, not only has one of the greatest living directors been lost, but also a master of the modern screen,” said the mayor of Rome, Walter Veltroni. His office said it was making plans for Mr. Antonioni’s body to lie in state on Wednesday, Reuters reported. Tall, cerebral and resolutely serious, Mr. Antonioni harkens back to a time in the middle of the last century when cinema-going was an intellectual pursuit, when purposely opaque passages in famously difficult films spurred long nights of smoky argument at sidewalk cafes, and when fashionable directors like Mr. Antonioni, Alain Resnais and Jean-Luc Godard were chased down the Cannes waterfront by camera-wielding cinephiles demanding to know what on earth they meant by their latest outrage.

More here.

Japan study finds coffee may prevent colon cancer

From Scientific American:

Coffee Drinking three or more cups of coffee a day may cut the risk of colon cancer in women by half, according to a study by Japanese scientists.

Researchers from Tokyo’s National Cancer Center studied data from more than 96,000 men and women aged between 40-69 over a period of up to 12 years from 1990, a member of the team said on Wednesday. They found no significant benefit in men. Even after adjusting for other factors including diet and exercise, they found that women who drank three or more cups of coffee a day had half the risk of developing colon cancer, compared with those who drank no coffee at all. The researchers, whose findings have been published in the International Journal of Cancer, did not find any link between consumption of green tea and colon cancer.

More here.

Black Holes Exposed

From Science:

Holes Astronomers are missing as many as one-third of black holes by looking with the wrong telescopes, according to a new study which finds that massive black holes may be hiding behind thick clouds of dust and gas in the centers of galaxies. Astronomers speculate that every galaxy has a supermassive black hole at its center. Our own Milky Way has one, although it’s not actively sucking in matter. Researchers know that there are millions of galaxies in which a glowing disc of particles circles the central black hole, and sometimes jets of ions burst from inside the doughnut-shaped hole under twisty magnetic forces. Most of these so-called active galactic nuclei (AGN) have been found using ground-based optical telescopes, which are cheaper than space-borne x-ray instruments. But when it became clear that huge amounts of x-rays were coming from galaxies that astronomers didn’t think had these active cores, scientists raced to understand why these AGNs had evaded detection.  An international team of astronomers used the Suzaku telescope, which is sensitive to x-rays, and an optical telescope to peer at two objects identified by a previous survey as AGNs. They found that the disk of debris around the black hole smothers all but the highest energy radiation and thus renders the black holes undetectable by optical telescopes. However, x-rays were powerful enough to penetrate the thick dust and gas cloud.

More here.