Droll Words: Amazon Reviews as a Prose Form

Tipped by a friend (who shares my insomnia), here’s a droll Amazon review of a sleep mask. A little random, but fun:

“The velcro allows you to really get the mask nice and tight so it won’t slip while you’re tossing and turning at night. You may remember the movie Aliens, and the little face sucker that attached itself to your face and injected you with its alien eggs? The mask is like that, but instead of covering your mouth and nose and using you for breeding purposes, this friendly little mask covers only your eyes and ears and quite possibly whispers sweet nothings directly into your brain. The first night I wore the mask I slept wonderfully, but I did have a dream that I was trying to drive my car with the mask on, and then I had another dream that I was blind and wondering around a local shopping center. I am fairly certain these were just dreams, but in case it wasn’t a dream, my experiences would have to force me not to recommend driving or wondering around the mall looking for neon hotpants while wearing this mask. Comfortable fit and really keeps out the light and noise of the world, but may cause wacky blindness dreams. Since I enjoy both sleeping soundly and wacky dreams, this mask gets a well deserved 5 stars. ”

This reviewer’s other contributions are also fun: who knew that the George R.R. Martin series has its own cookbook? And, in the weird way of the Web, you get to know this reviewer and his sensibility:


Provocative Words: Pianomania

Just finished watching the documentary, Pianomania, which does for Steinway piano technician Stefan Knüpfe, what Jiro Dreams of Sushi does for Jiro Ono, namely meticulous documentation of a nearly insane level of perfectionism in highly specialized work. I know more and care more about the world of pianos than I do about sushi, so found it more compelling, and also weirder.

At one point, the amiably, but ultra-demanding pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, asks Knüpfe to prepare a piano for a Bach recording in a way that can bring to life four different musical personalities, organ-like, chamber-like, harpsichord-like and clavichord-like. Stefan goes to see examples of a clavichord in action, and the expert he consults has these intriguing comments. (Helpful context: the clavichord is a small pre-19th century keyboard instrument often thought of as a precursor to the piano. It was personal–you could just carry it around–soft in volume, so quiet that only the player and perhaps one other person could hear it, and thus much more direct. Unlike a modern piano, there wasn’t much between your finger and the mechanism that made the string sound. It is pre-industrial, in its ambitions, and its effect.)

Alfons Huber: “The modern concert piano is a fascinating music machine. There is no alternative for a large hall with 4000 people. But volume is always combined with a loss of color. On this point we totally agree. And a machine that is so agressive that I can’t even draw the string that makes it sing without bloodying myself, a thing that requires three people to be transported, it has developed a certain inhuman dimension for me.”

It is true that the concert grand (and its milieu) is a product of the industrial age. The art lies in making it sound like something other than a machine. The pianist Alfred Brendel (featured in the film) used to teach that the first thing in playing the piano well is not to make it sound (merely) like a piano, which has, after all, a basic sound that is not all that intrinsically interesting.

One pianist for whom the piano sings with an extraordinary, and to me, a nearly human beauty is Krystian Zimerman, the great and elusive Polish pianist. Perhaps not incidentally, he is an obsessive about the mechanics of the piano and recording. Check out this YouTube find of his playing an arrangement of the Bach Chaconne for 15 minutes of something cosmic for lack of a better word.

See A Beautiful Picture: Two Remarkable Photos

Item 1: (tipped by Nerd Republic) Henry Stuart’s astonishing and tagable) giga-pixel photo of the end of the men’s 100 meter race.


Other of his gigipixel photos, as well as 3D, 360, and cut outs are on the Getty Global Assignment site and some general information on these massive pictures, and many links, can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gigapixel_image.

Item 2: the news that a team in Singapore has used nanotechnology to create a photo with a resolution of about 100,000 dots per inch, an order of magnitude past the best ink-jet technology. Think about that…it approaches the limit possible because of the nature of the diffraction of light, well past the ability of somebody with 20-20 version to discern, as the article notes, “[photos] look higher than high definition.”

The technology looks to have possibilities in archival work and security.

I would speculate about item 1 x item 2, (gigapixel combined with nanotechnology photography), but I think I need to take a nap.)

Reasonable Words: ‘Lick it into Shape’

Rambling around in Natalie Haynes’ The Ancient Guide to Modern Life, a great browse, came across this in a chapter on the eternal debate between city and country life. As things will, the story meanders on to thoughts on writing and the surprising origins of the phrase “lick something into shape.”

From Chapter 6, “There’s No Place Like Rome”

“But the Roman countryside had a greater cheerleader than Horace or Cicero. It had Virgil, the man who would spend the last ten years of his life carving out The Aeneid, leaving it unfinished at his death (and had his wishes been followed, it would have been destroyed then.) But before he embarked on his epic, he wrote The Georgics, a poem about farming and Italy.

“The poem is divided into four books, on field crops, trees, animals and bees. Although ostensibly a didactic poem, this is no farmer’s manual. Virgil writes extensively on vines, in the second book, but he has less interest in olives, for example, which he mentions only briefly. Poetry is more important to him than accuracy. He certainly took care writing it, according to Suetonius, who claimed that every day Virgil would dictate a large number of verses, which he had thought of that morning: ‘Then he spent the whole day reducing them to a tiny number, wryly saying that he wrote his poem like a she-bear, finally licking it into shape,’ If you’ve ever wondered where the phrase ‘lick into shape’ comes from, wonder no more. The Romans believed that a newborn bear wasn’t yet bear-shaped, but a furry blob which needed some work. The mother bear licked her cub, not to clean it, but to turn it from protean bear-matter into the shape of a small bear. This may seem like a foolish thesis, but the Romans had the good sense not to get too near a mother bear with a new cub. And the phase has stayed with us to this day.”

Do my blog posts go from “protean blog-matter into the shape of actual writing.” Might I get a “aliquando” from Virgil? (Latin for sometimes.)

Data Visualization

An engrossing, and disturbing, data visualization of arms imports and exports, done by a research lab at Google. Use Chrome.

From the FAQ:

The mapping arms data (MAD) visualization of small arms, light weapons and ammunition transfers was produced by Google as part of the Google Ideas INFO (Illicit Networks, Forces in Opposition) Summit with support from the Igarape Institute and data provided by the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) small arms database.

It seems like the year-over-year data is normalized as relative percentage change.

This presentation, I assume unintentionally, recalls the way “Star Wars,” the space-based “Strategic Defense Initiative” proposed during the Reagan years, was depicted.

Tipped form Nerd Republic‘s weekly email.


Poetic Words: Two by DJ Enright

An underrated British poet, one who kept a light touch even on dark topics…

Apocalypse by D J Enright

From a Berlin tourist brochure:
‘After the New Apocalypse, very few members were still in possession of their instruments. Hardly a musician could call a decent suit his own. Yet, by the early summer of 1945, strains of sweet music floated on the air again. While the town still reeked of smoke, charred buildings and the stench of corpses, the Philharmonic Orchestra bestowed the everlasting and imperishable joy which music never fails to give.’

 It soothes the savage doubts.
One Bach outweighs ten Belsens. If 200,000 people
Were remaindered at Hiroshima, the sales of So-and-So’s
New novel reached a higher figure in as short a time.
So, imperishable paintings reappeared:
Texts were reprinted:
Public buildings reconstructed:
Human beings reproduced.

After the Newer Apocalypse, very few members
Were still in possession of their instruments
(Very few were still in possession of their members),
And their suits were chiefly indecent.
Yet, while the town still reeked of smoke, etc,
The Philharmonic Trio bestowed, etc.

A civilisation vindicated,
A race with three legs still to stand on!
True, the violin was shortly silenced by leukaemia,
And the pianoforte crumbled softly into dust.
But the flute was left. And one is enough.
All, in a sense, goes on. All is in order.

And the ten-tongued mammoth larks,
The forty-foot crickets and the elephantine frogs
Decided that the little chap was harmless,
At least he made no noise, on the bank of whatever river
it used to be.

One day, a reed-warbler stepped on him by accident.
However, all, in a sense, goes on. Still the everlasting
and imperishable joy
Which music never fails to give is being given.

Dreaming in the Shanghai Restaurant

I would like to be that elderly Chinese gentleman.
He wears a gold watch with a gold bracelet,
But a shirt without sleeves or tie.
He has good luck moles on his face, but is not disfigured with fortune.
His wife resembles him, but is still a handsome woman,
She has never bound her feet or her belly.
Some of the party are his children, it seems,
And some his grandchildren;
No generation appears to intimidate another.
He is interested in people, without wanting to convert them or pervert them.
He eats with gusto, but not with lust;
And he drinks, but is not drunk.
He is content with his age, which has always suited him.
When he discusses a dish with the pretty waitress,
It is the dish he discusses, not the waitress.
The table-cloth is not so clean as to show indifference,
Not so dirty as to signify a lack of manners.
He proposes to pay the bill but knows he will not be allowed to.
He walks to the door like a man who doesn’t fret about being respected, since he is;
A daughter or granddaughter opens the door for him,
And he thanks her.
It has been a satisfying evening. Tomorrow
Will be a satisfying morning. In between he will sleep satisfactorily.
I guess that for him it is peace in his time.
It would be agreeable to be this Chinese gentleman.

[In a reading, Enright remarked, “I should perhaps say the restaurant wasn’t in Shanghai nor indeed in any other part of China but in Singapore.”]

And there’s a Goethe connection. One of his favorite quotations:

“You cannot give the world the slip more certainly than through art, and you cannot bind yourself to it more certainly than through art.” – Goethe

Unreasonable Words: The Most Difficult Books

Richardson’s 1500 page epistolary novel from 1748. Not my summer reading choice.

Years back, when he was in the middle of his ““Oprah’s Book Club flap,” novelist Jonathan Franzen made this observation,

“One pretty good definition of college is that it’s a place where people are made to read difficult books.”

From an article of his about William Gaddis, among other things, that appeared in The New Yorker.

The difficult books that defined my college experience included almost the entire second half of a course in Modernism in American Fiction (once Fitzgerald and Hemingway were out of the way, the going got tough). Despite (because?) of that it was the most stimulating course I had in college, and one of three that has stayed with with me. Plato’s Theaetetus and Parmenides, on the other hand, flummoxed me categorically at age 19 and drove me from being a philosophy major. Something I should perhaps be grateful for. God knows, I’m introspective enough already.

I’m sure, however, that somebody out there loves the Parmenides, if only for coming to terms with what Wikipedia understatedly terms its challenging and enigmatic character. Books evoke intensely personal reactions–favorable or not (“This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”–Dorothy Parker). “Difficulty” is as personal as love, and, as with anything, only the individual reader can decide whether it is at some level earned and why.

That doesn’t check the irresistible impulse to make lists of the hardest books, and the literature site The Millions has been up to just that for the last few years. Publishers Weekly has the final results, all winners of the heavyweight round.

No arguments from me against the claim that these are challenging. Nightwood was one of the works I came to grief on in that Modernism course. Pretty opaque–although that was part of the point–and having a swifter student explain what was happening, particularly in the icky last scene, is not a part of the course I treasure.

However, not sure Heidegger and Hegel belong on a list that is otherwise mostly fiction. German philosophers = bad prose, it’s the brand essence. Arguably, philosophy is a species of technical writing anyway, and the ranks of turgid technical books (at least a few of which will pass the test of time) is vast.

Then there’s modernism: four of the ten are modernist novels from the first half of the 20th century, including the aforementioned Nightwood. Being hard was part of the point of modernism: hard on the idea of narrative, hard on traditions of the novel, hard on the reader’s expectations, hard on language itself. Seems like they deserve a league of their own: which Stein and Joyce would still probably win. Woolf’s sentences are so lovely that you can kind of lap it up like a cat and not notice you haven’t known what the hell was going on or who was speaking for pages.

The Millions writers, Garth and Emily, still deserve our praise. Their annotations certainly suggest they made it through the whole lot. I’d be scared to even download the 1,500 page Clarissa to my iPad. I only got the 16 gig.

My overall response: searching for lists of the best books under 200 pages!

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