Language

Gray Area

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A legal conundrum from Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope’s Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus (1741): Sir John Swale bequeaths to Matthew Stradling “all my black and white Horses.” Sir John has six black, six white, and six pied horses. Should Stradling get the pied ones?

On the one hand, “Whatever is Black and White, is Pyed, and whatever is Pyed is Black and White; ergo, Black and White is Pyed, and, vice versa, Pyed is Black and White.”

On the other, “A pyed Horse is not a white Horse, neither is a pyed a black Horse; how then can pyed Horses come under the Words of black and white Horses?”

Perhaps this will help — a proof that all horses are the same color, condensed from Joel E. Cohen, “On the Nature of Mathematical Proofs,” Opus, May 1961, from A Random Walk in Science:

It is obvious that one horse is the same colour. Let us assume the proposition P(k) that k horses are the same colour and use this to imply that k+1 horses are the same colour. Given the set of k+1 horses, we remove one horse; then the remaining k horses are the same colour, by hypothesis. We remove another horse and replace the first; the k horses, by hypothesis, are again the same colour. We repeat this until by exhaustion the k+1 sets of k horses have each been shown to be the same colour. It follows then that since every horse is the same colour as every other horse, P(k) entails P(k+1). But since we have shown P(1) to be true, P is true for all succeeding values of k, that is, all horses are the same colour.

Word Sums

If A=1, B=2, C=3, etc., then ARM + BEND = ELBOW and KING + CHAIR = THRONE.

In a Word

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fress
v. to eat often or in large quantities

RACTER

In the early 1980s, William Chamberlain and Thomas Etter programmed a computer to write English prose at random. “The specifics of the communication in this instance would prove of less importance than the fact that the computer actually appeared to be communicating,” Chamberlain wrote. “Quite simply: what the computer said would be secondary to the fact that it said it correctly.”

Written in BASIC, RACTER (short for “raconteur”) ran on 64K of RAM. Its output, which strung together individual words according to programmed structures and rules of composition, was largely gibberish, but it could produce startling flashes of apparent lucidity:

More than iron, more than lead, more than gold I need electricity. I need it more than I need lamb or pork or lettuce or cucumber. I need it for my dreams.

Bill sings to Sarah. Sarah sings to Bill. Perhaps they will do other dangerous things together. They may eat lamb or stroke each other. They may chant of their difficulties and their happiness. They have love but they also have typewriters. That is interesting.

A crow is a bird, an eagle is a bird, a dove is a bird. They all fly in the night and in the day. They fly when the sky is red and when the heaven is blue. They fly through the atmosphere. We cannot fly. We are not like a crow or an eagle or a dove. We are not birds. But we can dream about them. You can.

A tree or shrub can grow and bloom. I am always the same. But I am clever.

And even the gibberish could be deep. RACTER’s first published work, Soft Ions, appeared in OMNI in November 1981. Its conclusion included some apparent nonsense about eating a leotard that was replenished by hordes of commissioners. But then the program reflected: “Is that thought understandable to you? … I wonder. Yet a leotard, a commissioner, a single horde, all are understandable in their own fashion. In that concept lies the appalling truth.”

Zip Lit

“Bored silly” one day, science fiction author Damon Knight and his wife invented logogenetics, “the new science of selling stories without actually writing”:

  1. Get two books and open each to a random page.
  2. Choose a word from the first book and then another from the second that might reasonably follow it. Write these down.
  3. Read the next word in each book. Write these down.
  4. Continue in this way, discarding “lousy” words as necessary, until you’ve spliced together an entire story.

As an example, Knight combined A.E. van Vogt’s The World of Null-A with Ray Bradbury’s “The Golden Apples of the Sun” to produce The World of Null-Apples, by A. Ray Van Vogtbury:

Gosseyn moved, but around the door.

‘Swallow the pills.’ In the sky with great desperate coming-in, danger flowering unreal whistlings, Prescott quietly said, ‘From the women that saw it, helicopters will blizzard.’ The hotels, the private people, cities that rose to strange power. Warm, strangely, with easy pink picture faces, because the race of bound men would sound mysterious. ‘You opposed the assault, man!’

Murder. Two supposed chocolate Gosseyn malteds. He smiled curtly, for the mute problem would slowly, reluctantly untangling, tell him the partial color acceptance. It again was a picture of a mind, dark, closer to sanity, one uneasy white reverie shining down. …

Logogenetic writing seldom makes sense, but Knight points out that it’s ideal for writing little books to go with exhibitions of ultramodern art. And he found it particularly entertaining to combine how-to articles from Woman’s Day:

With a whisk knife, sweep 3/4 inch under crust. Vacuum 1 cup grated pedals or rugs. Spread seats in trunk; put dirt on floor. Bake 1 tablespoon moderate detergent, 325° F., in hot bucket. Break upholstery apart, and serve.

UPDATE: A reader tells me that computer algorithms using Markov chains have been used similarly to marry texts — here’s Alice in Wonderland combined with Genesis and Revelations.

A Foreign Tongue

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English was Joseph Conrad’s third language. Born in Poland, he learned French as a child but heard no English until he went to sea as a teenager. In 1874 he had just rowed a dinghy alongside an English cargo steamer at Marseilles when a deck hand threw him a rope and called, “Look out there.” “For the very first time in my life, I heard myself addressed in English — the speech of my secret choice, of my future, of long friendships of the deepest affections, of hours of toil and hours of ease, and of solitary hours too, of books read, of thoughts pursued, of remembered emotions — of my very dreams!”

His captivation with the language, he would later say, was “too mysterious to explain,” “a subtle and unforeseen accord of my emotional nature with its genius.” He made his way to England and began to puzzle out newspaper articles with help from a local boat builder. “I began to think in English long before I mastered, I won’t say the style (I haven’t done that yet), but the mere uttered speech,” he wrote to Hugh Walpole in 1918. “You may take it from me that if I had not known English I wouldn’t have written a line for print in my life.”

Though he spoke with a strong Polish accent throughout his life, with “years of devoted practice” his writing advanced him to the first rank of English novelists. Graham Greene declared him the best English stylist of the 20th century; T.E. Lawrence called him “absolutely the most haunting thing in prose that ever was.” Here’s his memory of that morning in Marseilles as he watched the English steamer depart:

Her head swung a little to the west, pointing towards the miniature lighthouse of the Jolliette breakwater, far away there, hardly distinguishable against the land. The dinghy danced a squashy, splashy jig in the wash of the wake and turning in my seat I followed the James Westoll with my eyes. Before she had gone in a quarter of a mile she hoisted her flag as the harbour regulations prescribe for arriving and departing ships. I saw it suddenly flicker and stream out on the flagstaff. The Red Ensign! In the pellucid, colourless atmosphere bathing the drab and grey masses of that southern land, the livid islets, the sea of pale glassy blue under the pale glassy sky of that cold sunrise, it was as far as the eye could reach the only spot of ardent colour — flamelike, intense, and presently as minute as the tiny red spark the concentrated reflection of a great fire kindles in the clear heart of a globe of crystal. The Red Ensign — the symbolic, protecting warm bit of bunting flung wide upon the seas, and destined for so many years to be the only roof over my head.

“The truth of the matter is that my faculty to write in English is as natural as any other aptitude with which I might have been born,” he wrote in A Personal Record. “I have a strange and overpowering feeling that it had always been an inherent part of myself. English was for me neither a matter of choice nor adoption. The merest idea of choice had never entered my head.”

In a Word

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pentheraphobia

n. fear of one’s mother-in-law

Above: “My Wife and My Mother-in-Law,” from Puck, November 1915.

Asked what was the maximum punishment for bigamy, Lord Russell of Killowen said, “Two mothers-in-law.”

News to Us

Unfortunate newspaper headlines collected by readers of the Columbia Journalism Review:

READER IS UPSET OVER DOG EATING FILIPINOS (The Wayne County Outlook, Monticello, Ky., Feb. 25, 1982)

MORE OF US WILL LIVE TO BE CENTURIONS (The Times Reporter, Dover-New Philadelphia, Ohio, Feb. 11, 1987)

POLICE BRUTALITY POSTPONED (The Mishawaka, Ind., Enterprise, Oct. 1, 1981)

DESPITE OUR BEST EFFORTS, BLACK EMPLOYMENT IS STILL RISING (The Evening Times, West Palm Beach, Fla., Oct. 3, 1980)

BRITISH LEFT WAFFLES ON FALKLANDS (Guardian, April 28, 1982)

FRIED CHICKEN COOKED IN MICROWAVE WINS TRIP (The Oregonian, July 8, 1981)

CROWDS RUSHING TO SEE POPE TRAMPLE 6 TO DEATH (Journal Star, Peoria, Ill., July 9, 1980)

HERE’S HOW YOU CAN LICK DOBERMAN’S LEG SORES (Reading Eagle, May 23, 1982)

EYE DROPS OFF SHELVES (Tri-City Herald, Pasco, Wash., Aug. 5, 1982)

PESTICIDE CONCERNS BLOSSOM (Williamsport, Pa., Sun-Gazette, May 21, 1985)

PRINCE ANDREW TAKES KOO PEASANT HUNTING IN SCOTLAND (The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Nov. 28, 1982)

In February 1986 the Durham, N.C., Sun reported that contributions to Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business had increased by 120 percent in the previous year. It chose the headline FUQUA SCHOOL GIVING UP.

In a Word

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perpension
n. careful consideration

Misc

  • Holmes and Watson never address one another by their first names.
  • Until 1990, the banknote factory at Debden, England, was heated by burning old banknotes.
  • The vowels AEIOUY can be arranged to spell the synonyms AYE and OUI.
  • 741602 + 437762 = 7416043776
  • “In all matters of opinion our adversaries are insane.” — Mark Twain

Two trick questions:

Who played the title role in Bride of Frankenstein? Valerie Hobson — not Elsa Lanchester.

Did Adlai Stevenson ever win national office? Yes — Adlai Stevenson I served as vice president under Grover Cleveland in 1893.