28 December 2005

The first Onuspedia entry: 'Skwandro'

The trustworthiness of information is today challenged as never before. The Times of India sums up the 'storm' succinctly, and this St. Petersburg Times story is a good example of the crowing tone: When Wikipedians run amok on orderly online encyclopedia
What's the difference between an expert and an enthusiast?
the newspaper asks.

What's an innocent enthusiast to do? But worse, what's an innocent entry to do?

I heartily concur with the need to be forever vigilant. Many reputations have been sullied by inaccurate biographies, such as this description of the medlar in the two-volume £150.00 Cambridge World History of Food: a small, round, brown fruit that looks like a plum. The entry was quite small and didn't include a picture, but I'll post one here (taken with my own fair camera) for nothing:
I'm posting my own picture because Wikipedia's picture of a medlar also fails to look like a plum. Perhaps our cameras are inexpert. Wikipedia's entry, by the way, is far more informative than that of the hundred-and-fifty pounder, which doesn't even contain the word 'blet'.

Because of the untrustworthiness of information in entries of importance, my conscience calls upon me to do my bit. Thus, today, I must shine the light of knowledge upon another subject I happen to know something about. You might have recognised advertisements in publications such as The Economist and Foreign Affairs. If so, you probably know more than I. The upshot is, for those who haven't noticed, there are now exciting career opportunities, though the view from your workplace won't be. It is a field about which I predict much misinformation to come, but at the moment, there is a paucity.Therefore, I am launching with this posting, the first entry in the Onuspedia, your free guide to the previously hardly known:


James Godolphin (1780-1818?) was an adventurer but he was also at one time respected as a translator of Aramaic and Sumerian texts. His seminal work, like Darwin's, was deceptively small — only 52 pages. He titled it Squann-drough. In this epic, men of leather and lash gnashed against each other like millstones (Godolphin's words). He never revealed the exact place that he found the tablets. For the better part of ten years, he decoded them in the privacy of his secluded estate.

When he revealed
Squann-drough at the Royal Geographic Society in 1804, the cries of fraud were few. He was praised for his scholarship, his poetic cadence, and his monkish seclusion, dedicated to the cause of revealing the language and the message. The eight-word curse-prediction central to the message of the book was the subject of many learned papers. The opposition of leading bishops made Godolphin a celebrity, and in 1810, he became Sir James.

Yet, only a few years later, the discovery of the
Skwan-dhro (as Godolphin's 3th edition spelled it) fell into obscurity, as subsequent adventurers found nothing. Thus, by the tenth anniversary of Godolphin's appearance at the Royal Geographic Society, Sir James Godolphin and Squann-drough were synonyms for hoax. As to that prediction, it further poisoned Godolphin's reputation when Bartholomey McCauley himself translated the famous eight words — as a mundane list of nouns.

No one knows the date Sir James Godolphin died. His body was found in his bed by a debt collector. There was some speculation that he died on the same day as the celebrated virgin spinster of Chute Forest — 'mother of 32 frogs'.

In 1916, a camel helped to restore Godolphin's reputation when it uprooted a thornbush, exposing a rubbish-heap of tablets that turned out to be goods lists. The camel's rider was T.E. Lawrence, 'Lawrence of Arabia', and he said he kissed the sands when he read the first tablet. The noted linguist recognised the language at once. Because of warring tribes, he was unable ever again to visit the site of his discovery, but he legitimised the Aemetic language and the Aemete Kingdom. In 1921, his own version of the epic was published to a lack of acclaim. Though written for both a popular and academic readership, its battle-lust (and no sex) and that grim curse-prediction were 'positively pre-War', as one critic noted. Academically also, Lawrence should have realised that he was no longer tolerated. Even if he had concentrated on one discipline, his earlier celebrity had tainted him. However, he did prove that the academic world had a find that could be disputed.

By 1929, Aemetic scholarship was in its golden age. Lewis F. Cunningham of Harvard published a new translation that cleaned away the poeticisms of Godolphin. 'Pure translation, unadulterated by poetry, unsullied by sensational predictions', says his foreword to
Fight to the Death: The Book of Skwandro, translated directly from the Ametic. The Depression, and then the next war, took their toll. The ranks of scholars suffered further decimation post-war due to the waning of interest in all Mideast languages that weren't directly related to the Book.

In 2003 the tablets were stolen from the University of Utah. This theft coincided with a rebirth of interest in the Aemetic language and culture. There are today, no popular translations. The most respected texts are the Harvard edition by Cunningham (out of print) and his
Skwandro Concordance (out of print). Sir Geoffrey Gyre's 1929 Cambridge Comprehensive Aemetic Lexicon is now being revised, according to the publisher. T.E. Lawrence's Sahan-ro: A Thousand and One Wars is out of print.

For a discussion of the theft, see Lt. Col. Brewster ('Bud') Langley's 'The Skwandro Prediction' in
Armor, the Magazine of Mounted Warfare,Volume XI, no. 4, July 2002

An expert is someone who always makes sure of the spelling.

26 December 2005

A butterfly

A leap second will be inserted in the world's clocks this year, just before midnight at GMT on New Year's Eve.

25 December 2005

The beauty of 'English'

The unusually language-respectful Spencer just apologised for the grammar in his comment (and made me think I'll have to pull up my own socks, but [glancing down] luckily, I'm barefoot):

Curses, I just realized that I used the phrase "at all" twice in the same sentence. Apologies to everyone.

What an appropriate time for you to have done this, Spencer! Don't worry at all, at all. You have given me the perfect opportunity to post part of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Nigerian Pidgin English Version.

For December 10, 1948, di meeting of di whole world, wey dem de call United Nations (naim be say all di kontris wey de for di world come unite to be one), come hold talk and dem come bring out one paper and write wetin suppose to be our right inside. Dem call am Human Rights. Dis na di rights wey human beings get from di time wey dem born us. Na dis rights make human beings take different from animals. All di tings wey dem talk about di rights, wey human beings suppose to get, na im de for this small book. Since dis ting de veri important, dem come tell all di kontris of di world say make dem make sure say all di people for their kontri know about am, make sure say dem write and put am for where people go see am well, well, make sure say their people read am. Make dem also make sure say everibodi wey de for secondary skuls, unifasiti, plus dem all other places people dey go skul, know about am well, well. Make dem no worry wich kind goment de di kontris . . . .

Article 14

Everione naim get right to go anoda kontri, wey e like to tell dem say im wan live for dat kontri, sake for say dem de look for am for im own kontri or dem won arrest am for im kontri, wen im no do any bad ting.

But if dat person really do bad ting o, for im own kontri and e come run comot to wan go live for anoda kontri, sake for say di goment of im kontri de look for am, di goment of di kontri wey e run go, no go gree at all, at all o. Even sef, di meeting of di whole world wey we de call United Nations, say dis ting no good at all and dem too gree say if person do bad ting for im kontri, e good make im eye see wetin e de look for, as e do di bad ting for im kontri.

and now, to another continent:
The readings at hand are readings that could fundamentally change the way that you view language, that ever so essential tool of communication. They could also prove rather boring and difficult, however, we do not want to let that happen at all, at all!

A leaf

24 December 2005

The Arse-about-faceness of Bests Lists

This is the time of year they proliferate, watered by fascination. Disagreeing with any Best list is as easy as shooting a concrete duck, but my particular disagreement today concerns 'Best' when attached to books. Books are categorised like food in Bake-offs, but just as in food judging, books are judged wrongly. I'm not going to get sucked into the tarpit fight of genres, not because of my cowardice, but because I think that the genre of a book is as arse-about-face a way to consider Best reading as pie or main, Best eating.

For what do you do when you want to eat or read? Do you think first, about which division the thing you are about to consume will fit into? Do you think first of all: Pie or Cake or Main Meal, Science Fiction or Romance or Interstitial? Or do you think first about how you feel? Or more likely, you don't have to think about how you feel because you just feel it, and what you want to consume is based upon that.

In that case, Best is entirely based on your state of mind.

You're on your back spaced out on anything that's strong enough to take your mind away from the fact that your back is one recently zipped-up mess and you look like something badly repaired from the doll hospital. You're just conscious enough to want to escape this world. Your vote for Best book at this moment? Your vote for Best food?

Packing one book to take on holiday.

One book to read in jail.

Your last book, last meal.

A book for when you think that if you just kill yourself everyone you know will think that finally, everyone's wish for you has come true.

A book to read when all's right as right can ever be.

And then there's Public Best, and Private Best.

Each Best, to its mood, time, and place; knowing that it would fail utterly at others, and knowing full well that some foods are just plain horrible to many but never all, like fried Mars bars, and liver and onions, and 'Better than Sex Cake' .

Oatmeal and cream and salt, raw oysters and seaweed, lime pickle that sears wrinkles into your lips; anothermotherly kasha, dripping butter; the gazes of a stargazy pie . . . Books with beautiful plots and no artistry in words, books that are art-on-a-plinth. Pull out your box of comfits, knowing that to some people at some times and moods, if the salt water has gotten to those comfits, they're all the yummier.

As with food, here's to many delicious books — the pies of them, the main meals of them, and even the packet cakes of them — remembering that even the Best chocolate on a day when the sun melts the sky is as welcome as Death tapping the wiggling arse of a roué .

22 December 2005

My father's hobby time-machine: A *madeleine-free remembrance

at the crack of a crab

To get the saliva flowing in a reader's mouth, it is best to have it flowing in one's own when one writes a story about, say, medlar tarts. If the writer has never tasted a medlar tart, an overworked and perhaps dangerously resentful Imagination must substitute, on unpaid overtime, for that blithe, self-confident, maddeningly know-it-all Experience, who's probably being massaged by hummingbird tongues while gorging on medlar tarts and rabbiano cheese. So it was a bittersweet taste of sympathy and relief (glad it wasn't me being fried) that bubbled up from my craw when I read criticism of a recent short story: flawed by its unsophisticated treatment of time travel.

To that writer, I extend my sympathies and advise a sentence of penitential rusks for your Imagination. But don't let that miscreant imbibe them. Instead, rub briskly on its tender parts. If only you, dear writer ill-served, had grown up a bit earlier, or as another daughter of my father . . .

He'd converted his mother's icebox to electricity before he was tall enough to reach its top. Then he made radios before radio-tinkering became a hobby. He built radios for all his family and friends, and was bored with radios well before he'd built his last one, for twice-removed Aunt Zira and Uncle Eldo. And he wasn't even fourteen. Surrounded as he was by a family of tailors, and especially, by men who designed the earliest versions of ballistic brassieres, it was natural that he built his first time machine before he was old enough to be drafted into the family business.

He went to wars with the first one, but only at night.

Then one day, war started for him during the day, and he went to that.

His family, not knowing that their apartment possessed a time machine, destroyed it during a spring clean.

After the war, in those first years of marriage, he was too busy to build another. And for quite a few years he forgot all about them. Those were busy years for many hobbyists. The painted duck decoy that cleverly opened to reveal that it was a cigarette holder. The cobbler's bench coffee table, the hutch, the Williamsburg-inspired lathed pieces . . .

My mother loved antiques, so many weekends were taken up with driving, antique- shop hopping. My father always took the 'shortcut', which meant that we spent most of the time being lost, which was much more fun at first, than watching them look for something to buy. At first, he was interested too. Old handtools. He'd fondle them, but unless they could be properly displayed on the wall (framed) or made into a lamp, they were judged worthless as buys. By the time I was eight, Daddy's shortcut was a joke as thin as his hair was becoming. And that, I think, was when he decided to build another time machine.

He was still in the military, and wore missiles on his shoulder. One or two, I can't remember. I was too young to ask the questions I would ask now, when I can't, so I can't tell you what his first time machine was made of or looked like.

But the one he made when I was eight was more sophisticated. It was also miniaturised, since this was the beginning of the 'pocket-sized' age, and he was some sort of techie in secrets. I know they were secret because once when I visited his office, I looked at the wall behind him, and there was a curtain covering it, and a sign beside the curtain that said SECRET.

I remember when his time machine hobby became our secret— his and mine. I had just finished, under his tutelage (and mostly using his hands) a birdfeeder supposedly made by me.

We were sitting at the kitchen table, demolishing a crab and a couple of hard-boiled eggs. He'd just given me his tumbler of vodka to sip. This was a meal we both enjoyed, but my brother and mother retched at the smells, so we were alone.

"Want to go fishing this afternoon, or play with your friends?" my father asked . . .

* Warning: May and might include traces of nuts, and will include offal.