01/21/14

For want of a nail…


Big SwitchBought a book at Loblaws (of all places) this week, one by Harry Turtledove: The Big Switch. It’s one of his many alternative history novels, about what might have happened if things had happened a certain way – a different way from what actually transpired – in the opening years of World War Two.

He’s written several in this vein and they’ve all been generally well received. I’ve liked what I’ve read of him in the past.

Many authors have taken up this sort of speculative fiction, although none as frequently as Turtledove. What would have happened if Hitler had invaded England? If the USA had not entered the war? If Germany had developed the atomic bomb? If India and the colonies had used the war to spark a rebellion against British rule? What if the USSR sent troops and materiel to Spain to help the republican cause?

I suspect every major theme in WWII has been explored in such speculative novels.

Every event in history is open to this sort of what-if debate. Since at least the 1950s, science fiction writers have been giving us alternate reality stories – that awkward neologism, Uchronia – where timeline-changing events have shaped a universe just like ours, but made different because of different choices or results. It’s a rich field, and great intellectual exercise.

Alternate history fiction offers different sorts of challenges to fiction writers, as opposed to say, scifi where writers can create their own new worlds. And for readers too, because the skeins have to be both imaginative and close enough to reality to make sense. Orson Scott Card’s Redemption of Christopher Columbus, for example, offers an alternate history world where Columbus is shipwrecked in the Americas, and rises to political power there. Fascinating stuff.

More recently, the TV series Fringe explored the alternate-universe concept through five seasons of entertaining shows. (Well, entertaining at least through the three-and-a-half seasons we’ve watched so far).

It’s always fun to explore the ideas, and to read what intellectual landscapes others have created around them. Such speculation is even captured in colloquial proverbs often called for want of a nail:

For want of a naile the shoe is lost, for want of a shoe the horse is lost, for want of a horse the rider is lost.
George Herbert: Outlandish Proverbs, 1640

Those readers who are also M*A*S*H fans will recall the episode in season two called, “For Want of a Boot.” Shakespeare aficionados will think of King Richard shouting “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” in Act V, Sc. 4 of Richard III.

Small changes can have ripple effects that run through to shape the larger history. or as Wikipedia says it, “a failure to anticipate or correct some initially small dysfunction leads by successively more critical stages to an egregious outcome.”
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12/23/13

Dictionaries: Concise, Compact, and dacoit


Compact Oxford DictionaryDacoit: noun; one of a class of criminals in India and Burma who rob and murder in roving gangs. A member of a band of armed robbers in India or Burma. A bandit. Origin: Hindi and Urdu.

I love dictionaries. I like opening them up to a random page and just reading, discovering words and uses that I didn’t know. I love finding origins of words and phrases; linguistic connections between past and present. I will happily spend hours reading through Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, or a glossary of Shakespeare’s or Chaucer’s words.

I’ll open any dictionary at random and read a page or two. I’m almost always assured I will find something new. Some, like Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, are delights to read; others are dry and dull.

“Do you read the dictionary?” French author Théophile Gautier once asked a young poet. “It is the most fruitful and interesting of books.”

Last week I bought a used copy of the Oxford Compact English Dictionary, 2005 edition, at the local used bookstore, Cover to Cover (used, but is superb condition, I should add). And when I opened it at random to page 247, I read the definition of dacoit – a word I can’t ever recall encountering before last week. Sandwiched between dachshund and dactyl. Now I know a lot more about it, thanks to a bit of research in print and online sources.

It’s still in use today, albeit not in any media I regularly read. Every reference I’ve found comes from India or Pakistan. In 2004, The Telegraph of Calcutta wrote about the violent evolution of dacoits:

Sten guns, cellphones and agents on the job ‘ the image of the Chambal dacoit has changed over the years. What hasn’t is the centuries-old cycle of violence in the region.

The International News of Pakistan had a headline as recently as Dec. 19, 2013, saying:

Most-wanted dacoit carrying Rs1m bounty arrested

Dacoit, according to the two-volume Oxford Compact Dictionary, has many 19th century references for use in English, dating as far back as 1820. It’s also referred to as dacoity and dacoitery in some sources.

Wikipedia tells us the East India Company established “the Thuggee and Dacoity Department” in 1830. The ruling British enacted legislation called the “Thuggee and Dacoity Suppression Acts” in India between 1836 and 1848. Thuggee has survived in English, reduced to the shorter “thug.”

Not that I’d have much reason to use dacoit in any form. It’s one of those imperialist-period words that wouldn’t find a place in a contemporary vocabulary. George Orwell would have known it; maybe my father uttered it sometime before he left England. I have to wonder what force is keeping it intact in a dictionary that is constantly pressured by new entries: neologisms and borrowed words from other languages that keep popping into our increasingly international, technological language.

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11/27/13

The Weird World of Plotto


PlottoI came across Plotto a few years back – references to it in other works, rather than the actual book. it sounded strange, complex and wildly over-reaching. I couldn’t find one – it was long out of print. It wasn’t until I got my own copy that I realized how really odd, clumsy – and delightful – it is.

Plotto was first published in 1928, and not reprinted until recently as far as I can tell, which is why it’s not been readily available to read and comment on. But it has been lurking in the background, a collector’s item. The young Alfred Hitchcock was one of the early adopters of the work. So was Earle Stanley Gardner, author of the Perry Mason books. It’s been  referred to, with a combination of reverence, humour and skepticism, by many other writers about writing.

In 2011, it was reprinted by Tin House Books, and finally made available to the general public again. My recently-received copy is the 2012 second printing (another edition was released in 2011 by Norton Creek Press). And I’m gobsmacked by it.

What’s all the fuss?

Plotto was the brainchild of a wildly prolific, early 20th century pulp writer, William Cook (he also wrote screenplays for silent films). Cook was a writing machine: he pumped out the paperbacks, sometimes more than one a week. But he was also passionate about the process of writing itself. He made it his goal to catalogue all types of plot and create a mechanism for writers to be able to create their own novels by selecting from a menu of plots, activities and characters.

And we was obsessive about it, drilling down deep into levels of minute detail. On its own site, Tin House says:

In the first stage, Cook demonstrates that “a character with particular traits . . . finds himself in a situation . . . and this is how it turns out.” Following this, each Master Plot leads the reader to a list of circumstances, distributed among twenty different Conflict Groups (these range from “Love’s Beginning,” to “Personal Limitations,” to “Transgression”). Finally, in Character Combinations, Cook offers an extensive index of protagonists for what serves as an inexhaustible reservoir of suggestions and inspiration.

Once you have the skeletal structure chosen, all you need to do is fill in the blanks – the verbs, the adjectives, the dialogue, and voila: your own novel. Sort of. It’s not that easy, of course, but Cook wanted to take the guesswork out of the cogitation part of the formative process that often led to writer’s block. So he catalogued and indexed and outlined like crazy. And ended up with a combination encyclopedia and rebus puzzle.

The result is stunning – and confusing. As Brainpickings tells us:

In 1894, French critic Georges Polti recognized thirty-six possible plots, which included conflicts such as Supplication, Pursuit, Self-sacrifice, Adultery, Revolt, the Enigma, Abduction, and Disaster. In 1928, dime novelist William Wallace Cook, author of Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots, did him one better, cataloging every narrative he could think of through a method that bordered on madness. His final plot count? 1,462.

That’s a lot more than the three or four I learned about in school! And more than the 36 basic plot situations the French writer, Georges Polti, described.*

Here’s a sample (see here for some follow-up numbers):

Plotto sample

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11/19/13

Doing it by the numbers


Bakers' percentageThe first thing I learned – well, not the first but up there, for sure – is that volume measurements are for amateurs. Being an amateur (and expecting to be there for some time yet), I took it on the chin when asking typical neophyte questions about recipes and ingredients.

Might as well have hung a sign around my posts shouting “newbie!” Well, they were gentle with me, but strict. Tough love among bakers.

Good bakers use weights, not volume, they told me in no uncertain terms. No more cups of flour: grams of flour, instead. Good thing I bought a kitchen scale a while back.

Pro bakers throw percentages into the mix and talk offhand about hydration levels and quote recipes like 60-2 bread, or 80-2-2.5. Ouch. That sound is my head exploding.

This makes baking like an exercise in advanced math, you know that class that caused your head to ache in high school? Yeah, like that. Not convinced? Watch this video (I have, a few times):

Got that? Good, there’ll be a test later… (here’s some more study material and part two is here…). And that’s what the real bakers use.

But, you argue, my mother (or father) always used volume and her (his) bread always turned out okay. Well, it’s still okay to use them, but it’s a by-guess-and-by-golly method and you can never be quite sure what you baked with that recipe last time will turn out the same the next.

Like imperial measurements lack the crispness of metric, volume lacks the precision of weight. The pros use weight. And percentages. And if I want to talk with the big kids, I need to be able to speak their language. My baker’s textbook is, by the way, on a UPS truck as I write this.

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10/30/13

Burning Books, Burning Bibles


Pastor Marc Grizzard, of Amazing Grace Baptist Church in Canton, NC is back in the news this week, but I’m not really sure if it’s because of something he did or something that was dredged up online from a few years back and has just been regurgitated.

This week, a story in The Telegraph about Grizzard resurfaced on Facebook. But it’s from 2009, not dated 2013. I’m unable to find a contemporary reference that doesn’t refer back to the 2009 story. Mayhap it’s a hoax. But it’s fun and informative to revisit, anyway.

Back then, the Telegraph reported that Grizzard intended to burn books in his North Carolina church. Religious books in particular, especially those of a Christian nature, albeit just not his particular – and peculiar – Christian nature. Bibles, too:

Marc Grizzard, of Amazing Grace Baptist Church in Canton, North Carolina, says that the first King James translation of the Bible is the only true declaration of God’s word, and that all others are “satanic”.
Pastor Grizzard and 14 other members of the church plan to burn copies of the other “perversions” of Scripture on Halloween, 31 October.
The New Revised Version Bible, the American Standard Version Bible, and even the New King James Version are all pronounced to be works of the Devil by Pastor Grizzard and his followers.
Pastor Grizzard said: “I believe the King James version is God’s preserved, inspired, inerrant, infallible word of God… for English-speaking people.

Grizzard also wanted to throw in books by Christian authors onto the flames as well:

…the pastor and his associates will be burning books by various Christian authors, as well as music of every genre.
“[We will be burning] books by a lot of different authors who we consider heretics, such as Billy Graham, Rick Warren… the list goes on and on,” Pastor Grizzard told reporters.
Mother Teresa is also on the list of Satanic authors.

Mother Teresa? Yeah – she was Catholic. Fundamentalists believe all Catholics are going to Hell. One fundie write says its because “Catholicism is a manmade religion.” Well, I thought they all were. I mean, do we have polar-bear-made religions? Spider-monkey-made religions? Dolphin-made religions? Jack-Russell-terrier-made religions? I don’t want to digress too much from the smoldering books, but this stuff is pretty wacky.

So you can’t be just any sort of Christian writer; Grizzard wants you to be one of his sort of Christian, which is apparently a pretty narrow field. Otherwise, anything you wrote is tossed into the flames (assuming the law lets them…). Which is, of course, merely a thin metaphor for burning someone at the stake, a favourite hobby of fundamentalists past.

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10/28/13

The Circuitous Path from Bulge to Budget


If tinkers may have leave to live,
And bear the sow-skin budget,
Then my account I well may, give,
And in the stocks avouch it.
Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale,  Act IV, Sc. III, Shakespeare

These lines got me thinking about the town’s finances. Sow-skin budget? What does that mean? And how does that relate to the financial plan for the coming year staff is preparing for council’s review? I did some reading (of course…).

In Shakespeare’s time, the online etymological dictionary tells us the word budget meant something quite different:*

“leather pouch,” from Middle French bougette, diminutive of Old French bouge “leather bag, wallet, pouch,” from Latin bulga “leather bag,” of Gaulish origin (cf. Old Irish bolg “bag,” Breton bolc’h “flax pod”), from PIE *bhelgh- (see belly (n.)). Modern financial meaning (1733) is from notion of treasury minister keeping his fiscal plans in a wallet. Another 18c. transferred sense was “bundle of news,” hence the use of the word as the title of some newspapers.

The use of budget as a verb comes from much later – 1884. But for the Bard, a budget was a leather purse (or pouch or wallet). The annual budget is also a fairly new invention, as the Telegraph tells us:

It was not until the early 18th century that a version of the annual Budget emerged. The origins of the word Budget lie in the term “bougette” – a wallet in which documents or money could be kept. While at first referring only to the Chancellor’s annual speech on the country’s finances, the word quickly became used for any financial statement or plan…
Budget Day has historically been held during Spring because the collection of the Land Tax took place in April, and much of the country’s wealth derived from agriculture.

There’s a great description on World Wide Words of the convoluted path the word took to get to today’s usage:

Its first meaning in English indeed was “pouch, wallet, bag”, and followed its French original in usually implying something made of leather…
By the end of the sixteenth century, the word could refer to the contents of one’s budget as well as to the container itself. People frequently used this in the figurative sense of a bundle of news, or of a long letter full of news, and the word formed part of the name of several defunct British newspapers, such as the Pall Mall Budget…
The connection with finance appeared first only in 1733, as the result of a scurrilous pamphlet entitled The Budget Opened, an attack directed at Sir Robert Walpole… It probably also echoed the idiom to open one’s budget, “to speak one’s mind”, which was current then and continued to be so down into Victorian times…

Marina Orlova, the entertaining and pulchritudinous word lady at Hot for Words.com, gives us a more amusing etymology in the Youtube video at the top of this post. Who says learning has to be dull?

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