The Daily

On the Shelf

When All You See Is Falling Blocks, and Other News

August 1, 2014 | by

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Is this, like, your reality, man? Photo: Aldo Gonzalez, via Wikimedia Commons

  • Whence comes relatability? A hundred years ago, if someone said something was relatable, she meant that it could be told—the Shakespearean sense of relate—or that it could be connected to some other thing. As recently as a decade ago, even as relatable began to accrue its current meaning, the word remained uncommon. The contemporary meaning of relatable—to describe a character or a situation in which an ordinary person might see himself reflected—first was popularized by the television industry … But to reject any work because we feel that it does not reflect us in a shape that we can easily recognize—because it does not exempt us from the active exercise of imagination or the effortful summoning of empathy—is our own failure. It’s a failure that has been dispiritingly sanctioned by the rise of relatable.”
  • And for a certain audience, video games are all too relatable. They begin to impinge on reality, an occurrence that scientists call game transfer phenomena: “I used to play [Tetris] for hours every day. When I went to bed I would see falling blocks as I closed my eyes. I often experienced the same thing when waking up … a female video game player [was] suffering from delusions of being persecuted, exhibiting violent behavior and experiencing constant imaginary auditory hallucinations triggered by the music of the Super Mario Brothers video game.”
  • How do Hollywood studios create so much prop money for their movies without being detained as counterfeiters? (And why don’t we do the same?)
  • MFA vs. NYC = MFA vs. DMV. My personal favorite: the “Widening Gyre” road sign. New drivers always miss those.
  • The German film theorist Harun Farocki has died at seventy. His best-known work is probably The Inextinguishable Fire, from 1969: “In the film’s most famous moment, the camera dollies in on Farocki—who has just finished reading a napalm victim’s report out loud—as he puts out his cigarette on his arm, explaining that napalm burns at seven times the temperature.”

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Sleep Aid

A Practical Handbook on the Distillation of Alcohol from Farm Products

August 1, 2014 | by

It’s late, and you’re still awake. Allow us to help with Sleep Aid, a series devoted to curing insomnia with the dullest, most soporific prose available in the public domain. Tonight’s prescription: “Alcoholometry,” a chapter from A Practical Handbook on the Distillation of Alcohol from Farm Products, published in 1907.

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David Rijckaert III, Man Sleeping, ca. 1649

Alcoholmetry is the name given to a variety of methods of determining the quantity of absolute alcohol contained in spirituous liquors. It will readily be seen that a quick and accurate method of making such determinations is of the very utmost importance to those who are engaged in the liquor traffic, since the value of spirit depends entirely upon the percentage of alcohol which it contains. When alcoholic liquors consist of simple mixtures of alcohol and water, the test is a simple one, the exact percentage being readily deducible from the specific gravity of the liquor, because to a definite specific gravity belongs a definite content of alcohol; this is obtained either by means of the specific gravity bottle, or of hydrometers of various kinds, specially constructed.

All hydrometers comprise essentially a graduated stem of uniform diameter, a bulb forming a float and a counterpoise or ballast. The hydrometers may either be provided with a scale indicated on the neck or else with weights added to sink the hydrometer to a certain mark. The first instruments are called hydrometers of “constant immersion,” the others, of “variable immersion.”

At the latter end of the last century, a series of arduous experiments were conducted by Sir C. Blagden, at the instance of the British government, with a view to establishing a fixed proportion between the specific gravity of spirituous liquors and the quantity of absolute alcohol contained in them. The result of these experiments, after being carefully verified, led to the construction of a series of tables, reference to which gives at once the percentage of alcohol for any given number of degrees registered by the hydrometer; these tables are invariably sold with the instrument. They are also constructed to show the number of degrees over-or under-proof, corresponding to the hydrometric degrees. Other tables are obtainable which give the specific gravity corresponding to these numbers.

The measurement of the percentage of absolute alcohol in spirituous liquors is almost invariably expressed in volume rather than weight, owing to the fact that such liquors are always sold by volume. Nevertheless, the tables referred to above show the percentage of spirit both by volume and weight. Read More »

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Our Daily Correspondent

Sound Off

July 31, 2014 | by

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The Cincinnati Public Library card catalog. Image via Retronaut

The other day, a friend sent me a link to a Reddit conversation: What common sounds from a hundred years ago are very rare or just plain don’t exist anymore? 

This, in turn, led us to the Museum of Endangered Sounds, which I highly recommend to anyone with a pair of headphones and a few hours to kill. Of course, we can’t even document some of them—the early-morning scuttle of coal, for instance, was probably too humble ever to rate a recording. I mean, how many of us have bothered to record the hiss of a radiator—and presumably that won’t be around forever. For that matter, someone ought to memorialize the rattle of a dead, incandescent bulb.

I must have had this in mind when I ran across this image on Retronaut. Because the sound of a card catalog—the squeak of the drawer, the slight ruffle of the stiff paper, the sliding noise as a card is pulled from the file—is almost certainly on the endangered list. (To say nothing of everything else in the picture.)

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Look

How to Win Friends and Influence People

July 31, 2014 | by

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Daniel Defoe, beloved in the pillory. Line engraving by James Charles Armytage, 1862.

Before he wrote Robinson Crusoe or Moll Flanders—before he wrote any novels at all, actually—Daniel Defoe was a pamphleteer, fomenting controversy in the London of the early eighteenth century. On July 31, 1703, he landed himself in the pillory for seditious libel; he’d written an anonymous satire mocking the hostility toward Dissenters, suggesting that the whole lot of them should be killed. It didn’t take long for authorities to pin him as the author. Then they did what authorities do: fined him to the point of bankruptcy, threw him in prison, and subjected him to ritualized public humiliation.

Before his stint in the stocks began, Defoe managed to write and disseminate a poem, “Hymn to the Pillory.” Legend has it, however dubiously, that the public was so enamored of his verse that they came to greet him at the pillory with flowers, toasting his health instead of hurling stones at him.

Lesson learned: in the court of public opinion, nothing carries more weight than a well-timed poem. Bear this in mind next time you’re stoking the flames of religious unrest in your community.

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On Poetry

On the Slaughter

July 31, 2014 | by

A political poem’s ironic new life.

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Bialik at around age thirty.

ON THE SLAUGHTER

Heaven—have mercy.
If you hold a God
(to whom there’s a path
that I haven’t found), pray for me.
My heart has died.
There is no prayer on my lips.
My hope and strength are gone.
How long? How much longer?

Executioner, here’s my neck:
Slaughter! You’ve got the ax and the arm.
The world to me is a butcher-block—
we, whose numbers are small
it’s open season on our blood:
Crack a skull—let the blood
of infant and elder spurt on your chest,
and let it remain there forever, and ever.

If there’s justice—let it come now!
But if it should come after I’ve been
blotted out beneath the sky,
let its throne be cast down.
Let the heavens rot in evil everlasting,
and you, with your cruelty,
go in your iniquity
and live and bathe in your blood.

And cursed be he who cries out: Revenge!
Vengeance like this, for the blood of a child,
Satan has yet to devise.
Let the blood fill the abyss!
Let it pierce the blackest depths
and devour the darkness
and eat away and reach
the rotting foundations of the earth.

Political poems lead strange lives—they often wither on the vines of the events they’re tied to. Old news gives way to new, and the whole undertaking starts to seem, well, an expense of spirit in a waste of shame. For many and maybe most American readers, “poetry and politics just don’t mix.”

But sometimes they do. Quite violently.

On June 12, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped while hitchhiking home together from their West Bank yeshivas. They were murdered—most likely within hours of being taken—and, eighteen days later, after an extensive search, their bodies were discovered under some rocks in a field near Hebron. Israel mourned, and raged. Emerging from a cabinet meeting convened just after the corpses were found, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his condolences to the families and quoted the great modernist Hebrew poet Hayim Nahman Bialik: “Vengeance … for the blood of a small child, / Satan has not yet created.” He went on in his own words: “Hamas is responsible—and Hamas will pay.” For good measure, the Prime Minister’s office tweeted the lines as well.

As anyone who hasn’t lived atop a column in the Congo for the past seven weeks knows, a series of violent, retaliatory acts followed. Israel carried out mass arrests on the West Bank, killing six in the process; a Palestinian teenager was beaten and burned alive by a group of Jews; throngs of Palestinians destroyed tracks and stations on the Jerusalem light-rail line; Jewish gangs shouting “Death to the Arabs!” rampaged through Jerusalem in search of victims—and found them; some thirty-five thousand Facebook users “liked” a page called “The People of Israel Demand Revenge”; Hamas fired rockets by the dozen into Israel from Gaza; Hamas officials warned that “the gates of hell” would open if Israel attacked in retaliation for the killings or the shelling. Read More »

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On the Shelf

Ovid (or You) in Ossining, and Other News

July 31, 2014 | by

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Photo: Jason O'Neal, via Newsweek

  • Want to buy John Cheever’s old house in Ossining? Have at it. (A mailbox bearing the Cheever name is still there.)
  • On the late Thomas Berger’s Arthur Rex, a 1978 retelling of Arthurian legend: “Berger adopts the distinct voice of the medieval-epic narrator, slipping easily into the rhythm and pattern of courtly speech, with its ‘And’s and ‘Now’s and ‘Whilst’s, its frequent and self-serious references to the glory of God and the sin of doubt. He uses the old style of speech to tell what has always been a surprisingly modern story: that of a kingdom in which every socioeconomic problem is brilliantly resolved and its people turn to a pure and destructive religious idealism.”
  • The actress Lisa Dwan is taking her production of three one-woman Beckett playsNot I, Rockaby, and Footfalls—on a world tour.
  • Advice for reading blurbs: Don’t. “Cover blurbs aren’t reviews. They’re advertisements. No space for balanced, nuanced positivity. Nothing can be interesting; it must be fascinating. Good isn’t good enough; it must be great.”
  • Rock stars are not gods but rather human beings whose emotions happen to resonate with millions—emotions that are inspired by other human beings, some of whom have written memoirs. These books are often disregarded as attempts to cash in, but while the books are sometimes bitter, they’re rarely cynical. Taken together, they comprise a shadow history of classic rock, an account from within the aura and from the margins of the rock star’s hero journey.”

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