Monday, May 25, 2015

Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811)

     [A Member of the Whip Club] Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811) Foreword by R. Cromie, 1971. This version is based on an earlier one, with additions and corrections. Obviously hastily printed, with numerous typos, and bleeding ink on many pages. This is a photolithographed copy of the original.
     Anyone who likes to know how the language develops will find this a useful source. Besides, it’s entertaining, which I think was the intention of the compilers. Like any specialised dictionary, it’s also a snapshot of the culture. To judge from this list, the 18th and early 19th century was a brutal time. There are multiple words for hanging, for theft (a trade with many specialties); begging; prostitution and prostitutes; copulation; drink; jokes and japes, many of them cruel; and frauds. There are many more words for women’s than for men’s private parts, which either reflects the fact that a man compiled the book, or that women aren’t as interested in talking about men’s parts as men are in talking about women’s.
     The picture of daily life and its dangers and pleasures is a good antidote to the romanticised one that most readers of Austen take from her books. But it also helps us grasp the subtext of 18/19th century literature better. Many words and phrases have improved or worsened in meaning; some have become innocuous colloquialisms in one of their senses. “Rum” has become a negative. “Quip” has become to mean a one-line joke. “Plump” was slang or cant back then, and is now ordinary usage. And so on. We still fear burglary, theft, and robbery, but it was much more of a daily (and nightly) threat then than it is now.
     Many of the terms are “jeering appellations” of people suffering from some physical flaw or disability, or merely the effects of age. “Hopping Giles” referred to as man with a limp, as St Giles was the patron of lepers, etc. I don’t know if we are kinder now, but we don’t have near the number of such terms as are listed here.
     There are a few surprises. “Yorkshire Dolly” refers to a contrivance for washing, by means of a wheel fixed in a tub, which being turned about, agitates and cleanses the linen put into it, with soap and water. A washing machine, which is not as modern an invention as we may think.
     The net effect of reading through this list of words is the feeling that life is a lot safer and more pleasant now. ***

Friday, May 22, 2015

Monday, May 18, 2015

Solar energy and the Stirling engine.

The Guardian reports that a combination of mirrors to focus the sun's heat and a Stirling engine to drive a generator could be the game changer for solar energy. The Stirling engine works by moving gas between a heated cylinder and a cooled one, or by moving the gas between a heated and a cooled end of a single cylinder. Any source of heat will work. Wikipedia has an article about it here. Stirling Builder is dedicated to the engine, and has some free instructions on how to build one. The main advantage of  Stirling's invention is that it can exploit much smaller temperature differences than the steam engine.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Prometheus (2012)

     Prometheus (2012) [D: Ridley Scott. Noomi Rapace, Guy Pearce, Michael Fassbender, et al] A couple archeologists (Rapace and Marshall-Green) find a Significant Cave Painting on Skye, of all places. The painting shows the same constellation as found in other ancient images (here Scott and his writers use a rather loopy speculation), and apparently persuade the Weyland Corporation to fund an expedition to the far side of the galaxy to find the Planet of Origin. It seems the human race was seeded on Earth by some genetic engineers who used their own DNA to make us. Or whatever. A good deal of Mystery and Mayhem ensues, only Rapace survives, but on the Origin Planet the Alien we know and love to fear has been born.
     As several reviewers on IMDb have pointed out, the plot is full of holes, the characterisation is variable, and the Deep Questions that supposedly animate the story aren’t really answered. Actually, they’re not very clearly put.
The best you can say for this movie is that it’s interesting. The visuals are pretty good, and Rapace plays a thankless role well. So does Fassbender as David the bio-robot. Worth a look if you want to know something more about the Alien universe.
     About the title: Prometheus was the god who gave humans fire, despite Zeus's prohibition. For this he was chained to a rock where an eagle came and ate his liver every day. Being a god, the liver grew back. I suspect we're supposed to think of the pale-grey creators as Prometheus, but in such a thematically muddled story, it doesn't really matter. *½

Friday, May 08, 2015

A Mourning Wedding (2004)

     Carola Dunn. A Mourning Wedding (2004) Daisy Fletcher has travelled to the Haverhill country home to assist at her friend Lucinda’s wedding. Lucinda’s Aunt Eva is murdered sometime during the night, and almost immediately Det. Supt. Alec Fletcher is ordered to investigate. Of course it’s a family member who’s responsible. Daisy supplies the nudge needed, of course. Lucinda’s uncertainty about getting married is happily resolved. Oh, and Daisy’s pregnant. So that’s all right.
     Another nicely done pastiche of the English country house mystery set on the 1920s. Dunn is good at keeping the story moving, and at drawing characters just far enough off the stereotypical that we blissfully accept them as real long enough to get to the end of the story. Well done puzzle, too. **½

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Grantchester (2013)

     Grantchester (2013) Series 1, 6 episodes. [D: James Norton, Robson Green, Morven Christie] The Rev. Sidney Chambers (Norton), like Father Brown, stumbles into investigations of murder. His police partner and opponent, Detective Geordie Keating (Green), becomes his friend. His love interest, Amanda Kendall (Christie), marries another man for social (and economic) reasons. The cases are morally ambiguous, but both Chambers and Keating value truth and justice and realise that the law may hinder both.
     The scripts, based on a series of novels by James Runcie, are well written, high on ambiguity, irony, and psychological complexity, but with a clear narrative arc. The mood varies, the photography is excellent, the acting shows us people conflicted in ways they don’t fully understand. Good and evil are implicated in each other; no one is perfect. This is one of the very few narratives that understands sin. It’s the only series that I’ve kept on the PVR. ****

Amanda Cross. The Players Come Again

     Amanda Cross. The Players Come Again (1990) A publisher asks Kate Fansler to write a biography of Gabrielle Foxx, wife of a Very Important Modernist Novelist. Ann Gringold, connected to the Foxxes through childhood friendship with Dorinda Goddard and Nellie Foxx, has written a memoir, and has custody of Gabrielle’s papers. There follows a meandering tale of travels and conversations and revelations and direct and indirect commentary on the academic literature racket. There is a murder, far in the past, but it’s not relevant to the problem of whether Kate will write the biography. What matters is how four lives intersected, and how Kate (and therefore we) realise that no life can be fully known. Biography, like any narrative, is made from limited materials.
     All three women, now in their 60s, have made peace with their pasts, and have freed themselves from their connections to men. They have found out how to live on their own terms, which for two of them does include a man, but not a husband. Kate likes them all. We realise that the reason she’s married Reed Amhearst (who has a walk-on role) is that each expects the other to be autonomous. An ideal marriage is one of equals, but to be an equal partner you must know yourself.
     Not a conventional mystery, but a good read. ***

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Visual Illusions

Visual illusions remind us that we don't see what's really there. In fact, we can't see it. The "real world" is an illusion created by our brains, with "I" at the centre (more or less). See Distractify for a really nice collection. Warning: Distractify is addictive.