Sunday, 31 July 2011

Koskaan et muuttua saa

A pleasant musical find: above, Koskaan et muuttua saa (You will never change) as performed by the excellent Finnish musician Maria Kalaniemi. It's an inspired and reflective adaptation (I assume, from the venue, intended to have religious interpretation) of a pop song generally given rather slight arrangement, as in this version by Lakeuden Kuu.  The first verse gives the flavour:

Vaihtuvat päivät
pois leikit nuo jäivät
mut koskaan et muuttua saa
vuodet niin kulkee
ne paljon pois sulkee
mut koskaan et muuttua saa

The days are changing
those childhood plays are gone already
but you may never ever change
the years may go pass
they take a lot away from us
but you may never ever change
- translation kindly done by Cantilena91 at Yahoo! Answers (see here for all five verses).

The attribution is a little complicated. The Finnpicks blog, which focuses on Finnish pop music covers, traces the vocal version to a 1969 hit by Pasi Kaunisto, but the tune comes from an earlier instrumental composition, Adagio Cardinal. A news item in Billboard for 30 Nov 1968 says this was originally a guitar piece by a Spanish composer, Michael Vacquez ...

Barclay, which released the first compatible EP classical recording in France, with 10-string guitarist Michel Dintrich playing the "Canon of Pachelbel," has followed up with a new Dintrich compatible EP and a cassette featuring featuring the "Adagio Cardinal" by the Spanish composer Michael Vacquez.

This first recorded performance of the work, made in the Eglise du Liban in Paris, will be distributed by Barclay throughout the world. The cassette version contains an introduction to the work by Ivan Pastor, director of Barclay's classic label, and Dintrich. The cassette has one blank track upon which guitar enthusiasts are invited to record their own version of the "Adagio Cardinal".

... but the Catalog of Copyright Entries 3D Series Vol 23 Pt 5 Secs 1-2 (1969) (page 4) gives multiple authorship for a piano version. I'm not quite clear if it's saying that Michael Vacquez is a pseudonym of Hubert Ballay, or vice versa:

ADAGIO CARDINAL; (Ah! Qu'il est doux)
paroles de Hubert Ballay, musique de
Guy Boyer & Michael Vacquez, pseud,
of Hubert Ballay. Piano & chant.
[France] 2 p. © Ste des Nouvelles
Editions Eddie Barclay & Productions
EFO-1I5958 Musicales Baboo; 31Dec68;

See Adagio Cardinal - Koskaan et muuttua saa for an appreciation and MP3s of several versions. There are also a number of instrumental versions on YouTube. They tend toward the cheesy and Mantovani-esque; the totally different Maria Kalaniemi accordion version is by far the best I've encountered.

Addendum: Something was naggingly familiar about Adagio Cardinal, and it just surfaced. It has a close similarity to the intro section of Feed the Birds (above), written by the Sherman brothers for the 1964 musical film Mary Poppins.

- Ray

Thursday, 28 July 2011

"Sparrow" tattoos

OK, so this is a going to be a terminological peeve. The above images show: (left) a sparrow, which is a chunky, short-tailed and typically brown garden bird; and (right) a swallow, a streamlined migratory bird, brightly coloured in many species, with a long forked tail. How could anyone confuse them?

And yet, I've noticed lately a highly prevalent misnomer of referring to the trad swallow tattoo design - most commonly based on the red-and-blue North American barn swallow - as a "sparrow tattoo".

Very occasionally it really is a sparrow.  But (judging by a sample) in the vast majority of the 110,000 Google images hits for "sparrow tattoo", the bird depicted is clearly a swallow - the colourful bird with a forked tail - exactly the same as in the 146,000 Google images hits that correctly describe it as a "swallow tattoo".

I can't at this instant fathom the genesis of this. Did it arise merely from the phonetic similarity; or was it helped along by association with Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean, who as a mariner has a swallow tattoo (above)?

Addendum: And I quite forgot another piece of terminology in the same territory. A Monroe piercing is a piercing above the left upper lip, named after the location of Marilyn Monroe's facial mole beauty spot. This has led to a back-formation where the "monroe" is used as a term for this part of the face (as evidenced by many references to getting "my monroe pierced"). So far it's much less common for the opposite location, named after Madonna's now-removed mole, to be called the madonna, but it's not unknown: see "my madonna pierced".

- Ray

International Linguistics Olympiad

If you enjoy puzzles and language,check out the International Linguistics Olympiad.

The IOL is one of 12 International Science Olympiads, and has been held annually since 2003. Each year, teams of young linguists from around the world gather and test their minds against the world's toughest puzzles in language and linguistics.

No prior knowledge of linguistics or languages is required: even the hardest problems require only your logical ability, patient work, and willingness to think around corners. Give some of our past problems a try!

While the teams have to solve them under exam conditions, the 2011 problems are also available for download here, along with past problems. The sample problems give an idea how it works. This is the first and easiest ...

Ancient Greek

Consider these phrases in Ancient Greek (in a Roman-based transcription) and their unordered English translations:

(A) ho tōn hyiōn dulos ____ (1) the donkey of the master
(B) hoi tōn dulōn cyrioi ____ (2) the brothers of the merchant
(C) hoi tu emporu adelphoi ____ (3) the merchants of the donkeys
(D) hoi tōn onōn emporoi ____ (4) the sons of the masters
(E) ho tu cyriu onos ____ (5) the slave of the sons
(F) ho tu oicu cyrios ____ (6) the masters of the slaves
(G) ho tōn adelphōn oicos ____ (7) the house of the brothers
(H) hoi tōn cyriōn hyioi ____ (8) the master of the house

1. Match the Ancient Greek phrase (A-H) with the corresponding English translation (1-8).
2. Translate into Ancient Greek:
a) the houses of the merchants
b) the donkeys of the slave.

Note: the letter ō stands for a long o.

- By Todor Tchervenkov
For the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad 2007

... but the puzzles range widely, not limited to Indo-European as in the example above, nor even to spoken human languages. This year's are Menominee Verbs, Faroese Orthography, Vai Translation, Nahuatl Translation and EAN-13.

Thanks to Language Log.

Addendum: I've posted my solution to the Ancient Greek puzzle here.

- Ray

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The Jacket

A slight curiosity of literature: Jack London's 1915 The Jacket (a.k.a. The Star Rover), which is online in various imprints at the Internet Archive (such as ID starrover01londgoog) and Project Gutenberg (Etext 1162). It tells of a university professor, Darrell Standing, wrongly imprisoned in San Quentin State Prison, who is subjected to torture by straitjacket when he is suspected of concealing information about stolen dynamite. He finds he can relieve the torment by astral travel, going through space and time to past lives.

I read it a while back, and it's an odd mix. The framing narrative of Standing's imprisonment is harrowing social realism, based on Jack London's conversations with ex-convict Ed Morrell.  As told later in the latter's 1924 autobiography The Twenty-Fifth Man (see Providentia or The Encyclopedia of American Prisons for an an overview), California's San Quentin was notorious for its treatment of prisoners in the early 20th century.  One form of punishment/coercion was the 'San Quentin Overcoat', a form of torture introduced in 1900 and only eradicated after multiple boards of enquiry and public debate over more than a decade.  But Standing's astral travels are a series of historical fantasy vignettes of varying literary quality; if the Wikipedia article is correct, at least part of the historical material comprised out-takes from a Western historical novel Jack London planned to write.

It was adapted to film twice: in 1923, and in 2005 as psychological / time travel thriller The Jacket.  I saw the latter last night, and it wasn't at all bad.  Structurally it's more coherent than the novel, taking the hero (a Gulf War veteran subjected to experimental treatment in an institution for the criminally insane in 1992) fifteen years into the future, a future in which he finds he died of an explained head injury in 1993. His attempts to elucidate how he died allow him to take information back into 1992 and become an agent of redemption in the lives of others who suffered through wrong decisions in the original timeline.

- Ray

Saturday, 23 July 2011

The Jumart ... and Gallica

While browsing around the concept of unlikely hybrids (a spinoff from a Languagehat discussion - see Tityre-tu), I ran into the picture above. This benign-looking creature is technically a monster: the fabled "jumart".

Etymology: < French jumart, formerly jumare, < Provençal gemerre, gemarre, of uncertain origin.
A hybrid animal, erroneously believed to be the offspring of a bull and a mare or she-ass, or of a horse or ass and a cow.
1690 J. Locke Ess. Humane Understanding iii. v. 216 We have Reason to think this not impossible, since Mules, and Gimars [1714 Wks. I. 206 jumarts], the one from the mixture of an Horse, and an Ass, the other from the mixture of a Bull, and a Mare, are so frequent in the World.
- Oxford English Dictionary

Even among unsophisticated peoples, millennia of livestock farming experience ought to have been enough to dismiss the possibility of such a cross. Nevertheless, even in the 19th century, you find occasional reports of the myth persisting, and of attempts to verify its truth. The jumart, like the Indian Rope Trick, had a habit of never appearing when a reliable observer wanted to see it.

If we may credit the testimony of several persons, the ox too has its mules, the reputed offspring of a bull with a mare or she-ass, or of a horse or an ass, with a cow. These have been called jumarts. They say these monstrous productions, and, they add, extremely rare, are chiefly to be found in the burning climes of Egypt and Barbary: yet, during more than three years travelling in the east, I was never able to obtain the sight of such a creature, though I made all possible enquiry for the purpose.
The French settled at Cairo assured me, that a little before my arrival, a jumart was shewn there, said to be the offspring of an ass and a cow. But these popular reports were confirmed by no observation or particularity. I could not even obtain any knowledge of the principal outlines of the sigure of this animal; so that possibly, as well as that described by Shaw, it was nothing more than a particular variety of the ox. Thus, the pretended jumarts of Dauphiny, and the Pyrenees, are nothing but the offspring of the horse and she-ass.
- Charles Sigisbert Sonnini, Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt, Volume 2, 1799, pages 316-317

Vitality Of Traditions: The Jumart. —The jumart, or hybrid between the bovine and equine race, is still believed in through all the southern countries. There was a reputed jumart at Seidekene, near Smyrna, in Asia Minor, during my stay there, and I heard of another. The jumart came into Smyrna several times, and I had made preparations to get a photograph, but it always escaped me. The description fully conforms to that given in books of natural history of the alleged jumart. This one was said to be the offspring of an ass and a cow; whereas the jumarts recorded in books are said to be the offspring of bulls with mares and she asses. The existence of the jumart is doubted by most naturalists. The alleged jumarts as yet examined have been hinnies.
- Hyde Clarke. Notes and Queries. Dec 21, 1867, page 500.

I initially found the jumart picture at a French image/clipart site, Dessins (Drawings), but it tracks down to plate 199 in Illustrations de Histoire générale des animaux, des végétaux et des minéraux. Partie 1, Les Quadrupèdes de la France, a natural history book published some time in the 1700s with drawings by Jacques de Sève (engraved by  Rousselet, and with text by Buchoz).  The images, in a slightly naive style and in natural and neo-classical settings, are lovely and worth a browse: see The Cat, The Hedgehog, The Garden Dormouse, The Squirrel, The Wild Boar and Boarlets, and so on.

The scans of Illustrations de Histoire générale des animaux... are hosted at the Gallica bibliothèque numérique (Gallica digital library) - an interface to the digitised collections of BnF (Bibliothèque nationale de France - the National Library of France). Gallica is a mind-blowing resource that gives free searchable access to, currently, around 1.5 million documents (books, manuscripts, maps, images, periodicals, sound recordings, and scores).  As I have work to do, I've dared only the briefest browse so far; you could get lost in there a long time.

Addendum: While looking for the Locke quotation cited by the OED, I ran into this very nice haiku error message at the University of Sussex Library site:

Server is willing
Alas, the file is crafty
It cannot be found

I did find it elsewhere. Locke had weird ideas about hybridisation; the full paragraph in his 1690 An essay concerning human understanding reads:

...for if History lie not, Women have conceived by Drills; and what real Species, by that measure, such a Production will be in Nature, will be a new Question; and we have Reason to think this not impossible, Mules and Gimars, the one from the mixture of an Ass and a Mare, the other from the mixture of a Bull and a Mare, are so frequent in the World. I once saw a Creature, that was the Issue of a Cat and a Rat, and had the plain Marks of both about it; Marks of both about it; wherein Nature appear 'd to have followed the Pattern of neither sort alone, but to have jumbled them both together.
- see The Works of John Locke, 1722, page 206

- Ray

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Doré's London

I've just been reading The London of Gustave Doré, a very nice 1987 Wordsworth Editions reprint of the 1872 London: A Pilgrimage, an account - illustrated with 180 Doré engravings - of the artist's explorations of London with the writer William Blanchard Jerrold.

Doré spent three months a year in London for five years on the project, receiving the humungous sum of £10,000 a year 1 - an investment for the publishers that was more than recovered following the book's commercial success. However, it initially got critical stick for its bleak view of London.  I haven't been able to find the source text for the much-cited, but never identified, Art Journal piece that accused Doré of "inventing" rather than "copying", but I did manage to track down the also well-cited Westminster Review piece:

The pilgrimage made round London by Mr. Blanchard Jerrold and M. Gustave Doré has given us the most splendid gift-book of the season. A book in which the triumphantly popular characteristics of M. Doré's facile pencil are conspicuously exhibited with every perfection of skilled engraving and printing, and in the full advantage of luxurious broad-sheets of cream-tinted paper. Mr. Jerrold's accompanying text is sufficiently pleasant light reading, and is attractive from the total absence of the moral or literary affectations which usually beset writers on a theme like this. He describes the scenes shifting before him, and almost invariably leaves them to point their own moral. They stand clearly out before us in that objective reality which is full of the deepest suggestiveness to those who choose to look for it. The public are too familiar with the brilliant qualities of M. Doré's work for them to need any note of distinction here. They do not desert him in this new task. We find him always ready, always clear and intelligible, always seizing the most salient points his subject with unerring swiftness, always arranging it with an eye trained and accustomed to watch for picturesque effect. In the docks, in the Parks, at the opera, at a penny gaff, all the intermediate shades between abject poverty and the pride of wealth find in M. Doré the same quick-witted, sharp, unsympathetic observer. He is one of the most successful of modern artists, and of the most successful he is perhaps one of the emptiest. He gives us sketches in which the commonest, the vulgarest external features are set down with an unsparing and vigorous hand. In this, if we are content with this, he is supreme, but if we look beyond these sharply-defined outlines we find a blank. It is rarely indeed that he handles any subject in such a way that we are tempted to ask him to give us more in it, so that we may dwell upon it longer; we are generally satisfied with a glance, with a minute's amusement and wonder. But in the present work M. Doré now and again (as, for instance, in the sleeping group which heads chap, xxi.) touches matter so full of pathos, that we are drawn instinctively to ponder it, and dwell long and inquisitively upon the lines which present it to us with such a semblance of fitting solemnity and grandeur. It is with a deep sense of dissatisfaction and disappointment that we turn away; our long scrutiny has yielded us nothing beyond the sharp-cut, unvarying, inexorable first impression.
- pp 340-341, The Westminster Review, Volume 99, 1873

It's not hard to see what the critics disliked.  Doré's depiction of people is Hogarthian, the city permanently in hard chiaroscuro, and I strongly suspect he exaggerated crowd density to make the images more busy. Nevertheless, the engravings convey brilliantly the contrasts of a city that was, in modern terms, the equivalent of a Third World megalopolis, combining conspicuous wealth with astonishing poverty.  Peter Ackroyd's introduction and appreciation in the 2005 Anthem Press reprint is worth reading.

London: A Pilgrimage features some of Doré's most iconic works such as the Father Thames title image, Over London–by Rail, Newgate Exercise Yard, and, at the end, Macaulay's New Zealander contemplating the ruins of London.  There's a searchable electronic edition online at the Tufts Digital Library - here - and Cardiff University's London and Literature in the Nineteenth Century site has a selection of the engravings. See GUSTAVE DORÉ AND BLANCHARD JERROLD, London: A Pilgrimage (1872).

1. According to the historical currency conversion site Measuring Worth, £10,000 in 1870 is equivalent to around £700,000 based on retail price index, or nearly £6M measured against average earnings.
- Ray

Addendum upgraded from comments. Felix Grant writes:

As an afterthought ... could I mention two current editions of Doré's wonderful series?

My own copy is from Dover's "Pictorial Archive":
Dore, G. and B.L.a.p. Jerrold, Doré's London : all 180 illustrations from London, a pilgrimage. 2004, Mineola, N.Y.: Dover ; Newton Abbot : David & Charles. 0486432726 (pbk) : £10.95.

Or, for a newer and UK published hardback alternative:
Dore, G. and V. Purton, Doré's London : all 180 images from the original London series with selected writings. 2008, London: Foulsham. 9780572034320 or 0572034326 (cased) : £16.99.

Excellent - thanks!

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Batrachian breakfasts

A recent post at Fencing Bear at Prayer - Bear's Frogs - reminded me of an aphorism that has had my attribution-sense tingling for some time. A fairly typical statement of it is this:
Mark Twain once said that if the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long.
- -Brian Tracy, Eat That Frog! 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time (2007)
It's a very good metaphor for workflow - a reminder of the necessity to tackle the unpleasant/dull tasks rather than procrastinate - but if it's by Twain I'll (metaphorically) eat a batrachian for breakfast. Twain and frogs are linked thematically via his rather unpleasant 1867 story The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, but no such aphorism appears there; furthermore, a quick search of Google Books for "eat * frog" Twain finds no attributions to Mark Twain prior to Brian Tracy's self-help book, so I think it's likely the Twain part started there.

The aphorism comes in variants of what you have to eat - the first version I heard concerned a live toad, and rarely it's a bullfrog - but none of them at first glance seemed very old. For instance:
Above the cash register was a small sign which read, "Eat a live frog for breakfast and nothing worse can happen to you all day."
- Foreign Service Journal, Volumes 56-57, American Foreign Service Association, 1979

Eat a Bullfrog First Thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.
- advertisement in Hobbies, Volume 82, Issues 1-6, Lightner Pub. Co., 1977

Upon rising each morning a man should eat a live toad, to be sure that for the rest of the day he will have to swallow nothing more disgusting.
- The thirty-eighth floor: a novel, Clifford Irving, McGraw-Hill, 1965
However, one major lead takes the trail right out of the English language, two centuries back, and to a firm attribution: Cyril Connolly's 1945 The Unquiet Grave ("a collection of aphorisms, quotes, nostalgic musings and mental explorations") contains a discussion of the French writer Nicolas Chamfort (1741-1794) and the following footnote:
"All literature might be ransacked in vain for a more repulsive saying than this (of Chamfort): 'A man must swallow a toad every morning if he wishes to be sure of finding nothing still more disgusting before the day is over.'" — Morley: Studies of Literature, p. 95
Googling "Nicolas Chamfort" crapaud rapidly found the source of this quotation. Although Chamfort specialised in acerbic aphorisms, in this case he's citing an earlier author, who is commenting on high society:
M. de Lassay, homme très-doux, mais qui avait une grande connaissance delà société, disait qu'il faudrait avaler un crapaud tous les matins, pour ne trouver plus rien de dégoûtant le reste de la journée, quand on devait la passer dans le monde.

M. de Lassay, a very indulgent man, but with a great knowledge of society, said that we should swallow a toad every morning, in order to fortify ourselves against the disgust of the rest of the day, when we have to spend it in society.

- pp. 35-336, Oeuvres, Volume 4, Sébastien Roch Nicolas de Chamfort, 1795.
- translation from page 192, Causeries du Lundi, Volume 7, Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, Routledge, 1851
The M. de Lassay cited by Chamfort is Armand de Madaillan, Marquis de Lassay (1652-1738), a flamboyant character nicknamed "the Don Juan of the Grand Siècle" ("The Great Century" = the 1700s in France) and who was a well-known aphorist.  Obviously Chamfort didn't get the toad aphorism first-hand - he was born three years after M. de Lassay's death - and I haven't been able to find an earlier citation.  Still, tracking it to 1795 is a good result, and it well disposes of the Mark Twain theory.

- Ray

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Bayan time (7)

Another outing for the bayan at Topsham Folk Club.  It was so-so. I'd practised a nice arrangement of Cailín Óg a Stór, the majorly old Irish tune used for The Croppy Boy, Lady Franklin's Lament, and many other songs. However, when it came to performing it, about half-way through I managed to complete lose my finger position in the basses, and had to restart one verse. After that, being a bit flustered, I rushed the The Bluebell Polka, and it was far less tidy than I would have liked. It wasn't a complete disaster, but it stresses the need for as much public practice as possible - and a sign that I need to practise more at finding the C bass (this being a B-system accordion, the textured bass button, for locating the key by touch, is a B). There are options: 1) get used to it; 2) glue a rhinestone or similar to the C button;  3) open the bayan and see if the buttons can be swapped. Hmm.

Addendum: And I  played at the Drakes open mike night.  I guess it was a better class of so-so. The majorly good point was that the performance anxiety is decreasing a lot; I got through Stranger on the Shore, and Stormy Weather without mistakes (and even managed to slightly improvise in the latter's mid-section). However, while I feel I played pretty well, the whole gig felt indefinably flat. In large part, I think it was because I was competing with the seriously good singer-songwriter resident artist Sam Green (who also played well-liked rock stuff such as the Steve Miller Band's tiresome The Joker) and a remarkable virtuoso guest performance by a guy playing didgeridoo. Plus I'd be the first to admit I don't have much stage presence.

- Ray

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Weblog findings

I just added two weblogs to the blogroll (see left column).

Classical Journey, run by "Luch Càise-Dearg" (a pseudonym meaning "red cheese mouse"), is the companion blog to the Phonic FM radio show Classical Journey, and is largely on topics relating to classical music and arts events in the Exeter area, Handily, it reminded me to mention the Topsham-based Exeter Alternative Theatre's forthcoming production of Quills at the Barnfield Theatre.

And Beachcombing's Bizarre History Blog (kindly recommended by "Leon" at MetaFilter): "The outlandish, the anomalous and the curious from the last 5000 years". Among wide-ranging topics, it has a number of regional and literary posts, such as: Mary Anning and the Fire from Heaven (about a family belief that the Lyme Regis fossil-hunter was vitalized by a lightning strike); Missing Holmes (about Sherlock Holmes cases, such as the Giant Rat of Sumatra, that Conan Doyle only alludes to); a series on 'Invisible Libraries' (books that exist only as allusions or fake titles); a series on 'Burning Libraries' (in reality and fiction); and a 'Bizarre Bibliography'.

- Ray

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

HG Bell: the first cyborged leg?

Further to The Steam Arm: the paper ‘The Steam Arm’: Proto-Steampunk Themes in a Victorian Popular Song (Kirstie Blair, Neo-Victorian Studies, 3:1, 2010, pp196-207) mentions a parallel broadsheet to the 1834 one of the rogue cyborg arm: the rogue cyborg leg in The Cork Leg.

The Cork Leg appears in William Evans Burton's 1837 Burton's Comic Songster (pp12-13) credited as "Written by Mr. Hudson, expressly for Mr. Burton". Its first US publication appears to be a broadsheet by Hudson, The cork leg,and Oyster maid (see Yale University Library Catalogue) published in Boston in 1832.  There were also British versions circulating, uncredited, around the same time: the Bodleian Harding collection's Harding B 11(3925) manuscript has one published by a J Catnach, London, between 1813 and 1838.

In a story somewhere between The Red Shoes and The Wrong Trousers, it tells of:

... Mynheer Von Flam,
Who every morning said "I am
The richest merchant in Rotterdam."

who has his leg amputated after breaking it, and replaced with an artificial one:

An artist in Rotterdam, it should seem,
Had made cork legs his study and theme,
Each joint was as strong as an iron beam,
And the springs were a compound of clock-work and

The leg, however, goes Horribly Wrong.

He walk'd through each square, and he pass'd each shop,
Of speed he went at the utmost top,
He went with a bounce, and a jump, and a hop,
When he found his leg he could not stop.

Horror and grief were in his face,
The neighbours thought he was running a race,
He clung to a lamp-post to stop his pace,
But the leg kept on nor gave up the chace.

And finally...

He walk'd of days and nights a score,
Of Europe soon he made the tour,
He died, and though he was no more,
His leg kept on the same as before.

The leg-maker grumbles and loudly swears,
That of his bill he'll increase the amount,
But for all this the leg never cares,
But still keeps up a running account.

I've told my story fair and free,
Of the funniest man I ever did see,
He never was buried, though dead he be,
And I am now singing his L E G.

Googling "steam leg" finds a number of contemporary references to the song. However, it also finds something different: this allusion by Thomas De Quincey to a different and earlier work.

... thence doubling back upon London, like the steam leg in Mr H. G. Bell's admirable story.
- page 285, De Quincey's Works, 1853

HG Bell was the Scottish lawyer, poet and historian Henry Glassford Bell (1803–1874), and the reference tracks to his 1832 anthology My Old Portfolio; or Tales and Sketches and the story "The marvellous history of Mynheer von Wodenblock" (pp83-94). First published in the Edinburgh Literary Journal, 47 (1829), this erudite and literate story tells how a wealthy Rotterdam merchant, Wodenblock, is fitted with a complex prosthetic cork leg by the instrument-maker Turningvort.  Its power source isn't explained - it's described as containing "wheels within wheels" and "springs acting upon springs". However, it proves unstoppable, with horrific outcome.

Leyden is more than twenty miles from Rotterdam, but the sun had not yet set, when the Misses Backsneider, who were sitting at their parlour window, immediately opposite the "Golden Lion," drinking tea, and nodding to their friends as they passed, saw some one coming at furious speed along the street. His face was pale as ashes, and he gasped fearfully for breath; but, without turning either to the right or the left, he hurried by at the same rapid state, and was out of sight almost before they had time to exclaim, " Good gracious ! was not that Mynheer Von Wodenblock, the rich merchant of Rotterdam.

Next day was Sunday. The inhabitants of Haarlem were all going to church, in their best attire, to say their prayers, and hear their great organ, when a being rushed across the market-place like an animated corpse, —white, blue, cold, and speechless, his eyes fixed, bis lips livid, his teeth set, and his hands clenched. Every one cleared away for it in silent horror; and there was not a person in Haarlem, who did not believe it a dead body endowed with the power of motion.

On it went through village and town, towards the great wilds and forests of Germany. Weeks, months years, past on, but at intervals the horrible shape was seen, and still continues to be seen, in various parts of the north of Europe. The clothes however, which he who was once Mynheer Von Wodenblock used to wear, have all mouldered away ; the flesh, too, has fallen from his bones and he is now a skeleton—a skeleton in all but the cork leg, which still, in its original rotundity and size, continues attached to the spectral form, a perpetuum mobile, dragging the wearied bones for ever and for ever over the earth!

May all good saints protect us from broken legs! and may there never again appear a mechanician like Turningvort to supply us with cork substitutes of so awful and mysterious a power!

Given the uncertainty of chronology of British publication, it's unclear if the The Cork Leg is a rehash by Hudson of Bell's 1829 story, or if Bell wrote up the broadsheet as a story; either way, the unfortunate Mynheer von Wodenblock definitely pre-dates the 1834-35 The Steam Arm as an example of a cyborg in fiction.

Henry Glassford Bell looks worth reading. My Old Portfolio; or Tales and SketchesThe marvellous history of Mynheer von Wodenblock, they include The dead daughter (highly reminiscent of Poe's Ligeia with its tale of a family's new daughter who grows up identical to the one who died); The living mummy, and the Leyden professor (about a professor who finds a skinny merchant to be a suitable candidate as a mummy for his museum); The Wreck of a World, a Day-Dream (a vivid apocalyptic fantasy); A Tale of the Sea (about a passenger stranded aboard a drifting ship after waking to find the whole crew has decamped); and Dicky Cross, the idiot of Exeter (in which a young woman, taking a short cut through Exeter Cathedral, finds herself locked in with a murderous idiot).

- Ray

The Steam Arm

Via the SF weblog Jesse Nevins writes about The First Cyborg Horror Story: "The Steam Arm" Ballad of 1834-35.  It tells of a Waterloo veteran who lost an arm and has it replaced with a steam one, which proves uncontrollable.

"The Steam Arm" features the (arguably) first cyborg in popular fiction and the (arguably) first use of the possessed-limb motif which would become common in 20th century horror fiction and film. More importantly, it's an early work of science fiction horror from a time in which horror fiction was still separating itself from its Gothic roots. The contemporary setting and concerns of "The Steam Arm" are a very great distance from the Gothic setting and tropes of much 1830s horror fiction, and its science fictional content makes it possibly unique.

Having seen Boilerplate: History of a Victorian Era Robot, I mildly suspected a hoax. But no: you can confirm for yourself its existence in contemporary sources such as the 1836 Every Body's Album (page 172). There's a scholarly paper by Kirstie Blair, ‘The Steam Arm’: Proto-Steampunk Themes in a Victorian Popular Song, in the very interesting online journal Neo-Victorian Studies ("a peer-reviewed, inter-disciplinary eJournal dedicated to the exploration of the contemporary fascination with re-imagining the nineteenth century and its varied literary, artistic, socio-political and historical contexts in both British and international frameworks").

The Steam Arm's unruly behaviour strongly reminds me of the similar scenario in Harry Harrison's Bill, the Galactic Hero, where the hero Bill, having lost his arm in battle, gets a new one (of the wrong colour and handedness) grafted from his dead comrade Tembo.

The sergeant stared at Bill's mismatched hands, his eyes flickering back and forth quickly from one to the other. "Where did you get that hand, trooper? Speak up! I know that hand."

"It belonged to a buddy of mine, and I have the arm that goes with it too."

Anxious to get onto any subject other than his military crimes, Bill held the hand out for the sergeant to look at. But he was horrified when the fingers tensed into a rockhard fist, the muscles bunched on his arm and the fist flew forward to catch the first sergeant square on the jaw and knocked him backward off his chair ass over applecart. "Sergeant!" Bill screamed, and grabbed the rebellious hand with his other and forced it, not without a struggle, back to his side.

There is, by the way, a real neurological disorder called alien hand syndrome. Nor, also by the way, are steam-powered prosthetics beyond possibility : see The RegisterUS boffins demo steampunk artificial arm - and the Vanderbilt house magazine article, which has video footage of the scary steam-spitting prototype of this arm (it would suit Mean Machine Angel) powered by the catalysed decomposition of hydrogen peroxide.

Addendum: the 1913 Reminiscences of Henry Clay Barnabee; being an attempt to account for his life, with some excuses for his professional career (Internet Archive ID reminiscencesofh00barniala) contains an embellished version of The Steam Arm that emphasises the cyborg aspect of the story and ends with the arm killing its owner.

The Patent Arm

There was a man in sixty-four
Who hung a shingle at his door :
"Ye who would patent arms secure,
Come buy, come buy, beg alms no more."
Ri tu, di nu, Ri tu, di ni nu,
Ri tu, di nu, ri na.

It was an arm of curious twist
Muscles to work, and supple wrist,
A bona-fide five-fingered fist
No foe when doubled could resist.
Ri tu, di nu, etc.

Inside this arm of rare design
Was hid a dollar steam engine,
Which speed and safety both combine,
And got red hot on spirits of wine.
Ri tu, di nu, etc.

Into his shop there came one day
A chap whose arm was shot away;
Who looked it, o'er, then cried "Hooray!
With your patent arm I'll march away."
Ri tu, di nu, etc.

His aid the tickled genius lent,
To the soldier' stump 'twas quickly bent;
A valve was ope'd by way of vent,
A screw top turned, and away it went.
Ri tu, di nu, etc.

"Aha, she goes!" cried the patentee,
"A finer arm you ne'er did see;
Such a cure deserves a noble fee,
Five hundred in gold pay unto me."
Ri tu, di nu, etc.

Said not a word the soldier chap,
The genius got from his arm a rap
Which came so like a thunder clap,
What could he do but quickly "drap"?
Ri tu, di nu, etc.

Out of the house the soldier flew,
Seeking in vain to turn the screw
And let off steam, which stronger grew,
And sent the arm in a circle new.
Ri tu, di nu, etc.

The people scooted from the street,
The horses fled in wild retreat;
A big policeman came to meet
The arm he caught, and changed his beat.
Ri tu, di nu, etc.

Then came a squad on capture bent,
Over his head a noose was sent,
Fast pinioned to a cell he went,
To let off steam, perhaps repent.
Ri tu, di nu, etc.

Once in the cell, they set him free,
Up came the arm, and down went three;
He banged them 'till they couldn't see,
Beat down the walls and fled in glee.
Ri tu, di nu, etc.

He hurried home, 'twas getting late,
His loving spouse stood at the gate;
To his arms she sprang with joy elate,
His arm sprang too, and broke her pate.
Ri tu, di nu, etc.

He turned the screw; with an awful whack
Round came the arm, on another tack,
And flew in his face, till alas! alack!
It laid him out flat on his back.
Ri tu, di nu, etc.

A crowner's jury quickly roped,
The fallen soldier's boiler ope'd,
And when they found the steam had sloped,
Decided he was telescoped.
Ri tu, di nu, etc.

And from that time the rumor ran
A skeleton to walk began;
Who threw out his arm with a lengthy span,
'Twas the ghost of the patent arm-y man.
Ri tu, di nu, etc.

Addendum 2: This topic vaguely reminded me of something, and I just recalled what: one of the nastier cyborgs in SF, Prince Red, who is the antagonist in Samuel R Delany's excellent Nova. Apart from being a "spoilt psychopath", Prince is particular embittered by lacking an arm, which doesn't permit him to have a full set of the neural sockets that are ubiquitous in the future world Delany depicts. As the novel proceeds, he has a series of more and more dangerous prosthetic arms (one of which scars the hero in a fight) until he turns up uninvited at a party and threatens the guests.

At the sand-pool he stopped, stooped between the twins, scooped his false hand into the sand, and made a fist. "Ahhhh ..." His breath, even with parted lips, hissed. He stood now, opened his fingers.

Dull glass fell smoking to the rug. Idas pulled his feet back sharply. Lynceos just blinked faster.
"Consider it a demonstration of my love of strength and beauty. Do you see?" He kicked the shards of hot glass across the rug. “Bah! Too many impurities to rival Murano. I came here—"
By the great window, Ruby picked up the ugly lumps of glass. She examined them, seeming unconscious of the conversation. But Prince held out his hand. Immediately, she placed them on his palm. She was following their words closely.

"I wonder," Prince said, looking at the fragments, "if this will work." His fingers closed. "Do you insist on reopening this feud between us?"
Prince’s fist began to quiver. His hand opened. Bright crystals were shot with internal blue light. "Heptodyne quartz. Are you familiar with it? Mild pressure on impure glass will often produce—I say ‘mild.’ That’s a geologically relative term, of course."

How such an arm could be powered isn't explained, but I assume it's by the superheavy nucleotide "Illyrion" that powers other hardware in Nova

Addendum 2, Feb 13th 2012. From the Daily Mail: Hands up who wants one? Fan proves you really can 'make anything' with Lego after creating prosthetic arm and hand.

- Ray

Monday, 4 July 2011


Cardoon, Shelly Road, Exmouth - click to enlarge
We took a break from shopping in Exmouth to walk around the quay area, where I took the above crossed-eye stereopair of a cardoon, a close relative of the globe artichoke. It's a legacy vegetable (see John Claudius Loudon's 1849 The Horticulturist, page 671, and various older texts made rude and amusing by the "long s"). It might best be described as technically edible: most of it, except the leaf stalks, is bitter and/or spiky, so it's mostly used ornamentally in Britain these days. The garden where the above nice specimen grows, on Shelly Road, is in front of Exmouth's "Ropewalk wall", which formed the back of a 200-yard covered area used to dry newly-tarred ropes. See Memories of the Quay’s shipbuilders, by Ian Dowell, at the Exmouth Quay Residents' Association site.

- Ray

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Bayan time (6)

I just took the bayan on its first public outing, and played a short spot at Topsham Folk Club: Jay Ungar's Ashokan Farewell and the traditional Finnish waltz Metsäkukkia (Forest Flowers), both of which adapt very nicely for bayan. I was sufficiently nervous to fluff a few notes, but I was mostly fine and the slot got a very positive response. I ended up playing a bit of Stormy Weather in the car park for some of the attenders who were interested in how the five-row keyboard layout worked. It was reassuring to hear that I'm not alone in well-practiced pieces going wrong the moment you get in front of an audience; the Folk Club organiser told me that at a recent folk festival, he'd seen badges saying "I can play this perfectly at home". Anyhow, I'm not at all unhappy with how it went.

After getting on for four months playing, I found it was impossible to simultaneously keep up to speed on my old piano accordion.  It seemed to be interfering with developing muscle memory for the bayan's bass button spacing.  Consequently, I lent it to a friend who wanted to learn; he got on well with it, so I gave it to him as a birthday present, and he cooked us a Thai curry. Good result all round.

Bookmarked: Left hand chord combining on the accordion, an interesting page at Hans Palms's that lists button combinations for getting moody jazz chords that aren't available on the Stradella basses.

- Ray

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Squire Mushroom

This rather tickled me. While browsing Literary Anecdotes of the Eighteenth Century (John Nichols, Samuel Bentley, 1812, Internet Archive ID literaryanecdote05nichuoft) I ran into the intriguing title Strictures on the absurd Novelties introduced in Gardening, and a humorous Description of Squire Mushroom's Villa.  A satire written in 1753 by the young clergyman Francis Coventry, its text is findable in the 1910 An Eighteenth-Century Correspondence (Internet Archive ID eighteenthcentur00dickuoft); it's a still-pertinent dig at the architectural pretensions of those with more money than taste.

Squire Mushroom grew ambitious of introducing himself to the world as a man of taste and pleasure, for which purpose he ... resolved to have a villa.Full of this pleasing idea he purchased an old farm-house, not far distant from the place of his nativity, and fell to building and planting with all the rage of taste. The old mansion immediately shot up into Gothic spires, and was plastered over with stucco; the walls were notched into battlements ; uncouth animals were set grinning at one another over the gate-posts, and the hall was fortified with rusty swords and pistols, and a Medusa's head staring tremendous over the chimney. When he had proceeded thus far he discovered in good time that his house was not habitable; which obliged him to add two rooms entirely new, and entirely incoherent with the rest of the building. Thus while one-half is designed to present you an old Gothic building, the other half presents to your view Venetian windows, slices of pilaster, balustrades and other parts of Italian Architecture. . . . But the triumph of his genius was seen in the disposition of his gardens, which contain everything in less than two acres of ground. At your first entrance the eye is saluted by a yellow serpentine river, stagnating through a beautiful valley, which extends nearly twenty yards in length. Over the river is thrown a bridge partly in the Chinese manner, and a little ship with sails spread and streamers flying floats in the midst of it. When you have passed this bridge you enter into a grove perplexed with crooked walks ; where you are led into an old hermitage built with roots of trees, which the Squire is pleased to call St. Austin's cave. ... At length when you almost despair of ever visiting daylight any more, you emerge on a sudden in an open and circular area, richly chequered with beds of flowers, and embellished with a little fountain playing in the center of it. ... As every folly must have a name the squire informs you by way of whim he has christened this place Little Maribon ; at the other end of which you are conducted into a pompous, clumsy and gilded building, said to be a temple, and consecrated to Venus, . . . To conclude, if one wished to see a coxcomb expose himself in the most effectual manner, one would advise him to build a villa; which is the chef-d'oeuvre of modern impertinence, and the most conspicuous stage which Folly can possibly mount to display herself to the world.
- An Eighteenth-Century Correspondence, pp263-254, originally in The World, 15, April 12, 1753.

- Ray