Against Ibsen

In one of my high school classrooms, there was a motivational (?) poster with this quote from Henrik Ibsen: “I hold that man is in the right who is most closely in league with the future.” I was bothered by the implications even then. I hold that a craven attitude. If in the future a majority decides that X is OK, that makes it OK.

With that attitude, what’s the point in fighting wrong or injustice? Today is yesterday’s future. We must all acknowledge that some things are wrong in the present. Most of that wrong in today’s world is the result of someone in the past who thought he was in the right, and because the wrong was then in the future, by Ibsen’s standard, he was in the right.


Continental Drift

In a world full of uncertainty, you might hope to find indisputable facts to cling to in anything as big and solid as the continents. How many continents are there, anyway? If you went to American schools, you probably learned there were seven: Africa, Antarctica, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, and South America. If you went to school in Europe, you may well have learned that there were six. America would have been described as one continent, encompassing both north and south.

Are islands parts of continents? Almost everyone agrees that the United Kingdom is in Europe.

And is the island of Cyprus part of Asia or of Europe? There is disagreement on that question. I suspect that Greeks would like to call it part of Europe, and Turks, part of Asia, in each case to strengthen their countries’ claims over the island. Politics also affects whether the Republic of Georgia, in the Caucasus, is considered part of Asia or of Europe. Even when a widely accepted definition of the line between Asia and Europe is used, it’s not clear whether the 2014 winter Olympics (Sochi) were held in Asia or in Europe. More details of the issues involved are presented at the Statoids site.


Envelope Art

When my fiancée was studying French in France, I wrote to her frequently. Sometimes I got artistic with the envelopes. Lots of other people have also created envelope art.


The Postal Service had issued a set of souvenir sheets for the bicentennial. Each one reproduced a painting from the American Revolution, with stamps that could be punched out. I took the one of Washington Crossing the Delaware, and clipped out the part I wanted to use, so that I could reinterpret an oarsman as a pool player.


Rally Without a Cause

I was introduced to road rallying when I was in graduate school. Motor sports enthusiasts may use the phrase “road rally” for a more specialized exercise. I don’t know of a better name for this game. Please allow me to continue calling it that for the rest of this post.

It was an activity of my church group. One of the members made up a list of directions and questions. The competitors formed two-person teams, each with a car. One person drove, and the other navigated. We drove around rural Baltimore County, following the directions on the sheet. Most of the directions were straightforward, like “Left at STOP,” but some were creative, needing judgment. As we drove, we tried to answer the questions, which were based on sights along the route. The directions took us to a park. We were judged on the number of miles on our odometer, and the number of correct answers. Only correct distance counted, not time.

It was so much fun, my friend Dave and I planned another such rally in Connecticut, and then another one. Independently of me, a student group at the college where I taught in New Hampshire organized one. Janice (later my wife) and I competed in it.

When Janice and I were living in California, we planned two rallies for our couples group at our church.

How do you plan a road rally? First, pick a starting and a finishing point. A park with picnic tables is usually good to end up at. Then drive from the start to the finish, taking careful notes as you go. You can take any promising detours you see, bearing in mind that participants may get impatient if the route is very circuitous.

Your notes will be the basis for the directions on the sheet you hand out. They should be easy to follow, because it’s no fun to get lost and maybe not even arrive at the destination. (In California, we gave out penalty envelopes that you could unseal if you needed to recalibrate your route.) It’s best to provide a direction for every STOP sign, the red octagons, even if it’s only “Straight at STOP.” Straight is the default if no direction is given. You must also take notes for questions along the way. Observe any quaint or unusual objects visible from the route. We went by a house whose owner had erected about a twelve-foot pole in the front yard, with a birdhouse at the top, and “AIR MAIL” painted on the birdhouse.

From your notes, type up a list of directions and questions. I would advise driving the whole route again, with a navigator who is not going to participate in the rally, to make sure that everything is in the right sequence, and that your directions are accurate and understandable, and that features are not going to change between now and the date of the rally. Also, it’s good to know a reasonable length of time to allow for the course, so that the rally will get to the park before it closes.

When you’re satisfied, run off about ten copies of the list, and invite a number of friends to meet at the starting point, telling them what they’re in for. Here is part of the invitation we used in California.


At around that time, there really was an incomplete freeway overpass in southern California.

Offhand Remarks (PG)

I’d like to hear that there’s a restaurant in Pago Pago, American Samoa, called DineDine. The menu would feature mahi-mahi, couscous, chow-chow, and hotshots. You could also order dikdik meat. The waiters wear lavalavas. A musician plays a tamtam. A nutritionist guarantees that you won’t get beriberi.

The woman came out of the diet doctor’s office where she had weighed in. She said,
“They took off two pounds for my clothes.” I slyly replied, “Once a girl came up to me in Covent Garden and offered exactly the opposite.”

When I went in to have my glioblastoma cut out, I found myself wishing I could stay awake for long enough to sing “Bicycle built for two” slower and slower. Would the surgeon recognize the allusion to “2001 A Space Odyssey”?

If you shelve your tools and implements alphabetically, with the blow drier next to the blowtorch, it could be a disaster when you pick one up with soapsuds in your eyes. Try getting a blow gun and a blowpipe to go in between them.

When you're walking in Hyde Park,
Be careful not to strike a spark.
For all you know, the Serpentine
May have been filled with turpentine.
If she's wearing taps, not sneakers, warn her
Not to go past the Speakers' Corner.

This image is photoshopped, of course, or more precisely, gimped.


My Illustrated Shakespeare

My summer job in college was shelving used books at the Book Barn in Bethany, Connecticut. This Mecca for bibliophiles was owned for many years by Gilbert and Everett Whitlock, two memorable old brothers. I spent most of my salary buying books that I came across. One of them was a one-volume Complete Works of Shakespeare.

This book had no illustrations. It had a lot of white space at the end of each play, so I drew my own illustrations for two of them.


Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act II, Scene IV. Thurio, Silvia, Valentine, Speed. Speed: “Master, Sir Thurio frowns on you.”


First Part of King Henry VI, Act V, Scene III. Before Angiers. Re-enter La Pucelle [Joan of Arc] fighting hand to hand with York. The horses are not in the script.


Literary and Historical Answers

Two days ago I posted a quiz. If you want to test yourself, scroll quickly down past “Proxy Song” or click on Literary and Historical Quiz. Here are the answers.






01.  “La Symphonie Pastorale”, by André Gide, was named after the subtitle of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony.  Leo Tolstoy’s “The Kreutzer Sonata” was named for the subtitle of Beethoven’s Ninth Sonata for Violin and Piano.  Are there others?
02.  (a) “We” (Zamiatin) and “‘We’” (Lindbergh). (b) “The Invisible Man” (Wells) and “Invisible Man” (Ellison). (c) “Joy in the Morning”:  in this case, the titles are actually identical.
03.  Thirteen:  Α, Β, Ε, Ζ, Η, Ι, Κ, Μ, Ν, Ο, Ρ, Τ, and Χ.  However, three of them are pronounced completely differently:  H (long a sound in Greek, more or less), P (r sound in Greek), and X (guttural kh sound in Greek).  Also, Y comes close, because the Greek letter upsilon looks like a Y with its two top ends curved. Only eleven letters in the Cyrillic alphabet (Russian) look like Roman letters:  A, B, C, E, H, K, M, O, P, T, and X.  (Actually, the Cyrillic K has curls on the diagonal lines, but when written in block letters looks just like a Roman K.  On the other hand, the Cyrillic Y (pronounced like U) has a tail like lower-case Roman y, even in block letters, which disqualifies it.)  Five of them stand for different sounds.  Thirteen Cyrillic letters look like Greek letters, and all but two are pronounced similarly.
04.  Yes.  German contains the letter ‘ß’, which is functionally equivalent to ‘ss’.  Icelandic contains ‘ð’ and ‘þ’, representing the sounds of ‘th’ as in “the” and “thing”, respectively.  They are the runic letters edh and thorn, and were used in Old English as well.  Faeroese uses the edh but not the thorn. Danish, Norwegian, and Faeroese have ‘ø’. French and some Scandinavian languages use the ligatures ‘æ’ and ‘œ’, also found in Latin. Turkish uses an undotted and a dotted ‘i’. Leaving Europe now, Marshallese, the language of the Marshall Islanders in Micronesia, uses ‘&’ as a letter.  Some African and Amerindian languages use various phonetic symbols, the Greek lower-case letter chi, a question mark without a dot, and so on – all within the context of the Roman alphabet.
05.  Portuguese has the most:  the acute, grave, and circumflex accents, tilde, cedilla, and diaeresis.  (French uses all of these except the tilde.) Dutch doesn’t require any diacritical marks.  Some may be used for phonetic spelling, foreign words, etc., but that’s true even in English. If we venture outside of Europe, we find Vietnamese, with nine diacritical marks.  Some of them may be combined with others, so that there are seventeen different kinds of ‘a’ in Vietnamese.
06.  The African ‘click’ languages in the Khoisan group.  There are five clicks heard in Nama, the language of the Khoikhoi (“Hottentots”); the other three are represented by ‘o’ or ‘#’, ‘/’, and ‘?’.  The language of the San (“Bushmen”) uses the letters ‘!’, ‘/’, ‘//’, and lower-case chi.
07.  Hawaiian seems to be the champion of parsimony, with only twelve letters:  A, E, H, I, K, L, M, N, O, P, U, and W.
08.  A bat (chauve-souris, Fledermaus, letuchaya mish’).  In Latin, a bat is vespertilio, related to vesper, evening.
09.  a.  Philip Melanchthon.  Both Schwarzerd in German and Melanchthon in Greek can be translated “black earth”. b.  Johannes Regiomontanus.  Königsberg in German and Regiomontanus in Latin both signify “king’s mountain”. c.  Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam.  Gheraerd in Dutch, Desiderius in Latin, and Erasmus in Greek all mean roughly “wanted” or “beloved”. d.  Gerardus Mercator, inventor of the eponymous map projection.  Kremer in German and Mercator in Latin mean “merchant”.
10.  All the summer months ended in -idor, the fall months in -aire, the winter months in -ôse, and the spring months in -al.  Thus the answer is Messidor, Thermidor, and Fructidor (the names derive from harvest, heat, and fruit, respectively).  Although the French revolutionary calendar was in official use for only a little over 12 years, it has left its traces in Zola’s novel “Germinal” and lobster thermidor, among other things.

a.  C.S. Lewis

b.  J.M.W. Turner

c.  W.H. Auden

d.  P.G. Wodehouse

e.  J.C. Penney

f.  T.S. Eliot

g.  J.R.R. Tolkien

h.  E.E. Cummings
12.  From place to place in the narrative, Cervantes mentions his putative source, Cid Hamet Benengeli (in the Spanish, Cide Hamete Benengeli).
13.  From “Ulysses”, by James Joyce, in which we read, “Three quarks for Musther Mark.”  Gell-Mann was hypothesizing three elementary particles, although since then, more have been required.
14.  In the first book in the series, “The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu”, the title character is described as having a “smooth, hairless countenance”.
15.  “A thing of beauty is a joy forever” – John Keats, Endymion. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” – Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn. “Truth is always strange, stranger than fiction” – Lord Byron, Don Juan, Canto XIV.
16.  Louis XVIII of France (reigned 1814-1824), unless there’s some petty dynasty in the hinterlands that I’ve missed.  If it weren’t for the Louis, the champion would be Carl XVI Gustaf, the current ruler of Sweden. It’s curious that, although XVII < XVIII, Louis XVII was Louis XVIII’s nephew.  Louis XVII was the dauphin who died in durance under the Directory, after the French Revolution.  His father was Louis XVI; his grandfather was another dauphin Louis.  This Louis never reigned (his father Louis XV outlived him), but three of his sons became kings:  Louis XVI (reigned 1774-1792), Louis XVIII (as above, a beneficiary of Napoleon’s defeat), and Charles X (succeeded Louis XVIII at his death).  Just imagine, when Marie Antoinette called “Louis!  Le dîner est servi!” what a stampede there must have been.
17.  George I-IV (reigned 1714-1830, altogether). Edward I-III reigned almost as long as the Georges (1272-1377).
18.  Ptolemy XIV, the last pharaoh before the annexation of Egypt by the Roman Empire.  The Ramessids (pharaohs named Ramses) made it up to XII.
19.  John XXIII (pope 1958-1963).  He was the first pope to use that name since 1334.  Note:  this does not imply that there have been 23 popes named John.
20.  There have been 36 Charleses, counting Carlos, Carl, and Carol. There were 23 Henrys. England had eight Henrys, Germany had seven Heinrichs, Castilla y León had four Henrys, and France had four Henris.
21.  Jeroboam son of Nebat (his story is found in I Kings xi-xv) and Jeroboam son of Jehoash (II Kings xiv:23-29).  They were both idolaters.