Wednesday, November 30, 2022

"Like Robinson Crusoe's money" in Charles Dickens's "Little Dorrit" (1857)

During my reading of Charles Dickens's novels in chronological order (which I started sometime in mid-2020), I have frequently noted his references to Robinson Crusoe. In "Little Dorrit" (1857), Arthur Clennam spends two decades in China with his father after the end of his engagement with Flora Casby, and the "wealth" of his memory of her is evoked with Crusoe: “That wealth had been, in his desert home, like Robinson Crusoe's money; exchangeable with no one, lying idle in the dark to rust, until he poured it out for her.” Unlike Crusoe's money for Clennam, Crusoe is a source of figurative exchange for Dickens, to be poured out again and again. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 30 November 2022)

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

"Had nothing to say and said it": John Cage and the Circumlocution Office in Charles Dickens's "Little Dorrit"

John Cage wrote his "Lecture on Nothing" in 1949 and published it in "Silences: Lectures and Writings" in 1961. I have long known one passage from it: "I have nothing to say / and I am saying it / and that is poetry / as I need it." I was surprised to find an anachronistic "reference" to Cage in Charles Dickens's "Little Dorrit" (1857) when the "Circumlocution Office", with its principle of "How not to do it", is first described in the chapter "Containing the Whole Science of Government", in one of the Office's reactions to being challenged in Parliament: "[...] the Circumlocution Office had nothing to say and said it." (Andrew Shields, #111words, 29 November 2022)

Monday, November 28, 2022

On rereading Charles Dickens's "Little Dorrit" and remembering my father as well as Alec Guinness as Mr. Dorrit

Before I read Charles Dickens's "Little Dorrit" in 1999, I'd seen Christine Edzard's 1987 film with Alec Guinness as Mr. Dorrit, Derek Jacobi as Arthur Clennam, and Sarah Pickering as Little Dorrit. Although I've watched the film again since then, I'd forgotten many details before my recent rereading of the novel, so I was overwhelmed anew the other day when an ailing Mr. Dorrit (presumably having a stroke) speaks of his time in the Marshalsea prison while at a social event in his honor. My father, who loved Guinness and his Mr. Dorrit, succumbed to his third stroke in September 2016, twenty-plus years after he first introduced me to the film. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 28 November 2022)
Alec Guinness, Derek Jacobi, Sarah Pickering

Sunday, November 27, 2022

The missing attribution to a common quotation from Emily Dickinson – and the unquoted half of the sentence

The other day, I came across a quotation attributed to Emily Dickinson: "To live is so startling, it leaves but little room for other occupations." I wondered, first, if the attribution was correct, and secondly, where she said it. Unfortunately, the quotation is pervasive on the internet with no further information, but eventually I thought of checking Wikiquote, which says it's from her letters. After more digging, I found it in a letter to Thomas Higginson in 1872; the rest of the sentence never comes up when it's quoted: "To live is so startling, it leaves but little room for other occupations though Friends are if possible an event more fair." (Andrew Shields, #111words, 27 November 2022)


Saturday, November 26, 2022

Adding Elizabeth Bishop's reference to Lucky Strikes to the Wikipedia page about the cigarettes

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the reference to Lucky Strike cigarettes in Elizabeth Bishop's poem "At the Fishhouses" and how it was not included in the list of cultural references to the cigarette brand on the Wikipedia page about it (which include its roles in the "Mad Men" TV series and in the movie "Beverly Hills Cop"). When I also mentioned that I had never edited a Wikipedia page, I admit I was hoping somebody would do it for me, but in class, a student told me that it looks easy to sign up, so this morning I did, and I added the reference to the Lucky Strike page. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 26 November 2022)


Friday, November 25, 2022

Reading a note about reading Hans Magnus Enzensberger in 2004 and re-reading him in 2017

In early 2017, when I reread several books by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, who died yesterday at 93, I posted several quotations from his poems in the course of several weeks – as I'm wont to do while reading poetry. But I also write notes in books: thoughts about lines, connections with other poems and other poets, and comments about what's going on as I read them. So one of my HME posts from 2017 is not about his poem but about my biography: "A note from the last time I read Enzensberger's "Leichter als Luft", next to the line 'dauernd wird jemand geboren' (people keep getting born): 20.4.2004, Luisa three days old." (Andrew Shields, #111words, 25 November 2022)

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Palindromic dates and square and cube years: Calender numerology

In most of the world but the United States, today's date is a palindrome: 22.11.22. Unless I'm mistaken, it's the last one before 13 November 2031: 13.11.31. Such numerological play with dates is meaningless but fun. The other day I came across the claim that "2022 is a cube", which I understood arithmetically. But the cube root of 2022 is 12.64...! The last cube year was 1728; the next will be 2197, so none of us will experience one. But the most recent square year was 1936, and the next one will be 2025, so anyone turning 89 three years from now will have lived from one square to the next. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 22 November 2022)

Monday, November 21, 2022

"What sense in borders and nations and patriotism?" A speech from "Harold and Maude"

Andrea organized a dinner this evening for international students in Basel, and she wanted to know a passage from Hal Ashby's film "Harold and Maude" (1971) that I quote sometimes, so I found the scene in my download of the film and transcribed it for her – such a stunning performance by Ruth Gordon: "I don't regret the kingdom. What sense in borders and nations and patriotism? But I miss the kings. When I was a little girl, I was taken to the palace in Vienna to a garden party. I can still the sun shining, the parasols, the flashing uniforms of the young officers [...] But that was all before ..." (Andrew Shields, #111words, 21 November 2022)

Sunday, November 20, 2022

"She wants her cup full of stars" in Shirley Jackson's novel "The Haunting of Hill House"

When Eleanor Vance stops for lunch on her trip, she exchanges glances with a little girl sitting with her family nearby. Then she overhears the girl's mother, "She wants her cup full of stars." It turns out there are images of stars on the bottom of the girl's favorite cup at home. When the mother tries to convince her to finish her glass of milk anyway, Eleanor mentally urges her not to, and she's pleased when the girl remains stubborn. This scene with the "cup full of stars" from the first chapter of Shirley Jackson's novel "The Haunting of Hill House" struck me enough today to write this note about it. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 20 November 2022)

Saturday, November 19, 2022

From two domains to three domains to two domains: Prokarya, Eucarya, and Archaea from 1977 to today

When I took high-school biology in the late 1970s, we learned about two basic domains of life: the Prokarya and the Eucarya (roughly, bacteria and multicellular organisms). But at the same time, in the Woesian revolution (after Carl Woese) a third domain of life was beginning to be identified: the Archaea (originally discovered as extremophiles in extreme conditions, such as hot springs, but now known to be everywhere). I learned about the three-domain system about twenty years ago, but today I learned that the recent discovery of the Asgard group of Archaea has led to hypotheses that there are only two domains after all, with Eucarya being included in the Archaea. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 19 November 2022)


Friday, November 18, 2022

"Presentism" in history and the history of "presentism": Past celebration and present criticism of powerful institutions

When the issue of "presentism" in history came up again recently, I wondered about the history of "presentism": "A bias towards the present or present-day attitudes, esp. in the interpretation of history." The earliest reference for that Oxford English Dictionary definition is from 1916, as the Wikipedia page on the concept notes, while also referring to the "Whig history" of 19th-century British historians who interpreted history as culminating in their own perspective and thus celebrated the history and institutions of the British monarchy and Empire. The sense of "presentism" may be the same today, but charges of "presentism" now come up in attempts to discredit critical histories of such powerful institutions. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 18 November 2022)

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Grover Cleveland objects to a CBS chyron

Last night, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah included several clips from or about Donald Trump's announcement of his candidacy for the Presidency in 2024, including one from CBS Mornings with a chyron about the news: "Donald Trump announces 2024 Presidential bid. Aims to become first President to win two non-consecutive terms." While I would expect such an ahistorical statement from Trump himself, who famously seemed to think that nineteenth-century abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass was still alive during his term as President, President Grover Cleveland would beg to differ with CBS, as he served non-consecutive terms as the 22nd and 24th President of the United States from 1885-1889 and 1893-1897. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 17 November 2022)



Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Are washing machines as labor-saving devices sustainable?

When I'm doing our laundry in our apartment building's laundry room, I often ponder how many person-hours of work laundry entailed before the washing machine was invented, as well as whether washing machines are at all sustainable. In our old house, we had one washing machine for five people; in our new building, there are two washing machines for ten apartments (with twenty-seven people in all). If all the world's eight billion people had access to an industrial, energy-efficient, labor-saving washing machine (at a rate of one per twenty people, say), would the energy and resources involved in building, transporting, using, and maintaining those four hundred million machines overwhelm the climate? (Andrew Shields, #111words, 16 November 2022)

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Songs by the same bands with two different texts: The Beach Boys, The Grateful Dead

For this Friday's session of my course on poetry and songwriting, I asked the students to compose or borrow a melody to work on writing lyrics to.  Just now, I was listening to "Pet Sounds", by The Beach Boys, and I rediscovered that "I Know There's an Answer" is the official version of a song originally called "Hang On To Your Ego" – two recordings with identical music but different texts. I was reminded of Bob Weir's Grateful Dead song "The Music Never Stopped", with words by John Perry Barlow, which was originally "Hollywood Cantata", with words by Robert Hunter. So now I'm wondering about other pop songs with two different texts. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 15 November 2022)

Monday, November 14, 2022

"Colonialism or whatever" and the justification of evil

On "Last Week Tonight" last night, John Oliver discussed the British monarchy. One sequence took up the response of an Australian broadcaster, Caleb Bond, to what he felt was disrespect by the women's Australian rules football league for the late Queen Elizabeth II during the official mourning period after her death: "You can have your arguments about colonialism or whatever, but the Queen [...] was a force for good." Well, you can have your arguments about the Queen, but Bond's dismissive phrase "colonialism or whatever" exemplifies a mode of argumentation that is never "a force for good" but is always connected to the justification of whatever evil is preceded by "whatever". (Andrew Shields, #111words, 14 November 2022)


Sunday, November 13, 2022

Watching the students in my creative-writing course begin to distinguish themselves from each other.

At the beginning of the semester in my creative-writing course on poetry and songwriting (whose title's stolen from an Al Stewart song, "Songs and Poems Were All We Needed"), most of the students write very similar poems, very conventionally "poetic", with end-stopped rhyming lines. In my comments, I highlight their flashes of individuality, and I give them exercises to push toward other ways to write – in forms and in free verse, with more images and storytelling, with fewer abstractions, with more surprising language. And always, about halfway through the semester, the poems begin to change, and the students begin writing poems that are more singular and individual than when they started. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 13 November 2022)

Saturday, November 12, 2022

Grading an essay written by GPT-3: AI needs to learn argumentation and the avoidance of formulaic language

Thomas Basbøll asked his readers to grade an essay written by GPT-3. In Switzerland, I'd give it a 4.5 (4 is a pass, 6 is best). It's a list, not an argument: shuffling the order of points would not change much. It often uses placeholder language ("play a role") that leaves connections vague. While students handing in such essays might pass my course with a mediocre grade, AI needs to learn argumentation and avoidance of formulaic language to get them better grades. The former might be possible; the latter is tricky: mediocre human writers overuse formulas, and the AI presumably learns more from them than from good writers who avoid formulas.  (Andrew Shields, #111words, 12 November 2022)


Friday, November 11, 2022

On joining Facebook, Twitter, and Mastodon

I joined Facebook in 2007, and Twitter in 2011. On both sites, finding people and organizations to friend or follow was easy and intuitive, and I've been able to cultivate many connections on Facebook and add to my list of people and organizations to follow on Twitter so that both offer me rich interactions with people all over the world, as well as a wide range of information on my feeds. It takes years to build up such personal networks, so I don't expect my four-day-old Mastodon account to be the same yet. But so far I have found it far less intuitive to find and follow people and organizations there. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 11 November 2022)


Thursday, November 10, 2022

My father is introduced by Toby Berger to Carl Sagan

In the late seventies, my father Paul Shields did research in information theory with Toby Berger at Cornell University, including a semester as a visiting scholar there. In honor of my late father's 89th birthday and of Toby, who died earlier this year, here's a story about them. One morning, my father went to see Toby in his office, and Toby introduced him to one of his Cornell colleagues: "Paul Shields, this is Carl Sagan; Carl Sagan, this is Paul Shields." My father said, "Nice to meet you", and Sagan responded, "Haven't your heard of me?" And my father – in a moment he treasured – said, "No, haven't you heard of me?" (Andrew Shields, #111words, 10 November 2022)

Wednesday, November 09, 2022

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the Namibian parliamentary elections in November 1989

On Thursday, 9 November 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, my friend Jim was was working as a Peace Corps teacher in Swaziland. That evening, he and his housemates turned on the radio to hear about the Namibian parliamentary elections taking place that week, the first in the country's history. The big issue was how South Africa would react to the results. When the BBC news announced the news from Germany, Jim (who's an economist, not a historian or Germanist) had to explain to his Swazi friends not only why it was such a big deal but also how it came to pass that Germany was divided in the first place. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 9 November 2022)

Tuesday, November 08, 2022

Enjambment in prose, while reading in the bathtub

Prose is written in sentences and paragraphs, and on the page, the ends of prose lines are usually an accident of page and font size. So the effect of enjambment in verse, where line lengths are intentional, is rare in prose. But today, in the bathtub, I was reading Adam Gopnik's discussion of Jedediah Purdy's "Two Cheers for Politics" in The New Yorker of 12 September 2022, and when I came to the end of a page, I turned it so slowly I had time to wonder what noun was coming next: "Yet Purdy does think that Trump’s campaign, like those of Obama and Sanders, signalled an appetite for democratic [...]." (Andrew Shields, #111words, 8 November 2022)

Monday, November 07, 2022

The Handel and Haydn Society and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"

Andrea stumbled on the end of a show on BBC Four, "Great American Railway Journeys", with Michael Portillo, just in time to hear the story of the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston, which was founded in 1815 and is the oldest continuously active arts organization in the United States. The story ended with a choir from the society singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," which was written in November 1861 by Julia Ward Howe. One special feature of that choir performing that song is that Howe herself was a member of the choir in the mid-nineteenth century. That connection made this performance of the powerful old song especially moving. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 7 November 2022)

Sunday, November 06, 2022

Competition or Cooperation in Richard Linklater's "Tape" (2001) and Sophie Hyde's "Good Luck to You, Leo Grande" (2022)

In Richard Linklater's "Tape" (2001), written by Stephen Belber, Vin (Ethan Hawke), Jon (Robert Sean Leonard), and Amy (Uma Thurman) gather in a motel room and compete to control the story of their school days together. The actors also seem to compete with each other – with Uma Thurman always winning. In Sophie Hyde's "Good Luck to You, Leo Grande" (2022), written by Katy Brand, Nancy (Emma Thompson) and Leo (Daryl McCormack) meet in a London hotel room to cooperate in the creation of a mutual story of teaching and learning. The actors also seem to cooperate instead of compete, with a superb Thompson playing off an equally brilliant performance from McCormack. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 6 November 2022)

Saturday, November 05, 2022

Homeopathy in "Cien Años de Soledad"

I first read "One Hundred Years of Solitude", by Gabriel García Márquez, in 1985, in Gregory Rabassa's translation, and again in 1988. Today, slowly reading the novel in the original, I came across a passage that wouldn't have struck me as much back then – the introduction of the revolutionary and homeopath Alirio Noguera: "En el estrecho cuartito atiborrado de frascos vacíos que alquiló a un lado de la plaza, vivió varios años de los enfermos sin esperanzas que después de haber probado todo se consolaban con glóbulos de azúcar." I only learned about homeopathy after moving to Germany in 1991 – where Noguera had his faked University of Leipzig medical degree from. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 5 November 2022)

Friday, November 04, 2022

Ed Sanders performing Sappho in Basel in 2019

At the conference on "The Death of the Hippie" at the English Department in Basel in September 2019, poet, journalist, and musician Ed Sanders gave a memorable poetry reading (as did Anne Waldman). For some of the pieces he performed, Sanders accompanied himself on a one-stringed dulcimer, either chanting the poems or singing them. One of the pieces he sang was his setting of a poem by Sappho, which he sang in the original Greek (he recorded it on a 1992 album, "Songs in Ancient Greek"). Sappho lived around 600 BC, so Sanders' performance magically connected him and his audience to the poet across the 2600 years between us and her. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 4 November 2022)

Thursday, November 03, 2022

Sending in my Michigan ballot for the midterm elections in the United States

I sent in my Michigan absentee ballot for the midterm elections in the United States weeks ago. I was especially pleased to vote in favor of the abortion-rights amendment to Michigan's state constitution, but I also fulfilled what I see as my duty to vote the straight Democratic Party ticket for the national House of Representatives and the Michigan State House and Senate, as well as more local offices. I only started doing so in about 2012, when I realized I am the kind of solid Democratic Party voter the party counts on to support them against a Republican Party that was already then becoming increasingly radicalized in its anti-government positions. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 3 November 2022)

Wednesday, November 02, 2022

"Like what we imagine knowledge to be": My understanding of knowledge and Elizabeth Bishop's "At the Fishhouses"

I wonder about my agreement with the concluding turn to knowledge and history in Elizabeth Bishop's "At the Fishhouses": "It is like what we imagine knowledge to be: / dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free, / drawn from the cold hard mouth / of the world, derived from the rocky breasts / forever, flowing and drawn, and since / our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown." Perhaps I have a confirmation bias here because I like the understanding of "cold hard" knowledge in this poem I first read at 19. But in fact, these ideas fit mine because mine actually come from thinking about this poem for almost forty years now. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 2 November 2022)

Tuesday, November 01, 2022

Adjacent posts about crows and ravens: Coincidences in the Most Recent feed on Facebook

Sometimes on Facebook, two posts about the same thing show up next to each other in my Most Recent feed. Just now, one friend posted an article about "How to Befriend a Crow" and added a line from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" that one should not scream when befriending black birds; right below it, another friend shared pictures of a raven sculpture in Virginia. Posted one minute apart, these posts were adjacent because none of my other friends posted anything between them. And as these two friends have no friends in common but me, nobody else could have seen the two posts next to each other in their own feed. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 1 November 2022)