Buying Books: The Perils of Nabokov

To the tune of: April March – Poor Lola

You are browsing the second-hand books in a small town’s famous covered market, waiting for the other reader to finish whatever the other reader is finishing, when you happen across a book. It is amongst the Books You Normally Read and The Books You Like The Cover Of, a most fortuitous placing, and it is a Book You Always Wanted To Read as well as a Book You’re Ashamed You’ve Never Read, and possibly a Book You Pretend You’ve Read.

It is Lolita, a book you are so familar with that you can trip the first three syllables of the book off your tongue, Lo-lee-ta, in a self-pleasing parody of the book’s first line which, again, you’ve never read. You’re excited, because you’re a fan of Nabokov, and you’ve never found this in a second-hand bookshop – whether through the prurience of proprieters or the retention of readers, you don’t know.

However, and there’s always a however in your Calvino mental life, there’s a reason you’ve not gone out of your way to buy this book in the past, though you’ve always been interested in buying it. That’s because, even though this is a classic work of literature by the greatest writer of the 20th Century, since the pornographers degraded the name Lolita and since the advent of a frothing, scare-mongered disgust in your country regarding the book’s subject, you wouldn’t want to be seen with the book in public. Especially if you’re a funny-looking person relative to the people around you, you wouldn’t want to be tarred with the Humbert brush.

But, here, the book has practically fallen into your hands. And you know it’s a great book, and he’s a great author, and you know your own reticence is silly and irrational. It’s just a book, with a plain cover and small text. You’re treating it like Mein Kampf. You’ll just wander over to the bookseller’s office, buy it quickly, and be done with this overthinking. Or perhaps you should pick up another book or two, to hide it?

You look up. The nearest Mac-wearing bookseller has already noticed your hesitation and she is a she, and is pursing her lips at you curiously, while you been stood there lost in thought. If you’d actually been browsing the book that wouldn’t have been a problem, but you’ve been standing, lost in thought,  and partially blocking the isle with your bags (I neglected to mention how weighed down you are with the accoutrements of two people, so that your every move is a collecting-heaving-shuffling-dropping motion). Now she’s caught your eye and smiles welcoming. In a moment she’s going to ask you if you need any help.

The moment is at hand. Before she can speak you collect and heave and shuffle and drop so you’re next to her, book in hand, asking politely for this one please. She smiles, glances at the book’s title, and changes her expression as she asks for the money. The smile’s still there, but you can’t tell if there’s confusion or disgust behind it, for the moment, as you hand over a note. By the time she has shuffled into the small office, found your change and extended her arm through the door, her smile has gone completely to be replaced with a intense stare with the bowed eyebrows you think are associated with curiosity. You leave, rapidly, and wait elsewhere for the other reader.

It has been three months. You’ve still not opened the book.

A Timely History of Briefs.

Today, he announces to much fanfare, is the 65th anniversary of the creation of the briefs,those underpants of the first order. They were first sold by Coopers Inc of Chicago (now Jockey International) on January 19th 1935, designed by apparel engineer Arthur Kniebler as a replacement for the jockstrap, hence their name of jock-brief. (Briefs are known as jockeys to Americans, presumably because it reduced a man’s wotsits until they were midget-sized.) In England the traditional design meant they came be to be called Y-fronts – due to the unusual apeture at the front for extracting the wotsit.

(To The Tune of: Fortinbras, King of Techno by Songs To Wear Pants To)

Today, he announces to much fanfare, is the 65th anniversary of the creation of the briefs,those underpants of the first order. They were first sold by Coopers Inc of Chicago (now Jockey International) on January 19th 1935, designed by apparel engineer Arthur Kniebler as a replacement for the jockstrap, hence their name of jock-brief. (Briefs are known as jockeys to Americans, presumably because it reduced a man’s wotsits until they were midget-sized.) In England the traditional design meant they came be to be called Y-fronts – due to the unusual apeture at the front for extracting the wotsit.

With this flimsy justification, here’s a brief history of the undergarment:

The Lioncloth

The Lioncloth
At the dawn of history, Man’s rapacious shame nearly made the fig tree extinct, so an alternate form of genital coverage had to be found. Enter the lioncloth, as modelled by Conan, Jesus and other fictitious barbarians! Early hunters decapitated entire species to turn them into fetching puce or leopard-skin print pants. As the various large cats became extinct and the pun became too egregious, the early freedom experienced by the hunter-gatherer society faded, and they moved into the middle ages.

The Boxer Rebellion

Braies Yourself
In the Middle Ages, people still hadn’t really conceived of underwear as a good idea – they just wore the same clothes all the time, or until codpiece fashion changed. Braies were halfway between commando jodphurs and man-nappies – large folds of cloth wearers stepped into. The codpiece was actually a pocket in the braies to allow urination (in this instance cod meaning scrotum, rather than edible fish), which gradually became larger because Henry VIII thought his willy should be bigger than everyone else’s (or possibly because he filled it with syphillis-medication – true fact!) In Scotland, this shifted into the Sporran, as an ideal place for haggis storage.

...or stretching a joke too far...
Long John Silver's Silver Long Johns

The Boxer Rebellion
As the century moved on, braies got replaced by hose or drawers. Industrialisation meant that cotton fabrics became widely available, and people no longer had to make their own pants out of firehoses or dresser drawers. In the late 19th Century, some New York chappy created the Union Suit, a one piece suit with an ‘access hatch’ or ‘fireman’s flap’ at the back. This was the precursor of the Peak Pant, the Long Johns, a favourite of tramps and boxers everywhere, which became the male world’s preferred undergarment.

War is Pants
Despite the deaths of most of Britain’s men, those who returned from the front were equipped with army issue shorts – much like modern boxers and a sea-change in pant design. Those with the limbs left to wear them, rapidly adopted this modern convenience. Then 1935 saw the advent of the brief, shorts with the legs removed, and the 1980s saw a further refinement, in the advent of the G-string, which removed the back, and crotchless pants, that removed the bottom.

The Future
With the trend of the last hundred years being a gradual retreat from the apex of the pant, the Long John, we can see that soon there will be no pants left at all in the wild, and will only be kept alive in special museums, or old people’s homes. Everyone else will be going commando, which will keep military recruiters very happy indeed.

Veni, Vidi, Validity – Blue Monday and Valid Arguments

(This post to the tune of…)

Professional statistics-mangler Professor Cliff Arnell is conquering the news again today, for his yearly profile-raiser about this being the most depressing day of the year. As Ben Goldacre has pointed out, he was paid to produce this research by Porter Novelli, a PR firm, who pitched the idea and date out to several academics back in 2005, to persuade people to buy holidays from a client of theirs. However, as any fule logician knos, merely because something has dodgy premises, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true – and vice versa, just because something is right, doesn’t mean that it was arrived at validly.

Admittedly, Arnall’s premises are totally flawed. His first assumption is, not only that depressive the  measurable, but that it’s the same for people all around the world; his statement is so all-encompassing that the ridiculousness of the equation he came up with isn’t really undermined by his self-deprecating honesty in saying “I’m only doing this for the money” – essentially he’s renting out his qualifications to the PR firm. The travel firm had chosen this date because it was the date they wanted people to start booking their holidays, and it was a cheap way of getting lots of national newspaper coverage (compared to advertising).
There’s an argument about validity here – arguments can be valid, but not true, and statements true, but not valid. Cliff Arnall’s argument is valid like so;
1: The day that maximises this equation is the most depressing day
2: January 18th maximises the equation.
C: Therefore January 18th is the most depressing day.
Sadly, his first premise is false, as his equation is utter bollocks, but there’s a second point – it’s possible to have a true conclusion even when all the premises are false.
1: Everything that has either Perpetual Yeast or Infundibulum Baking Soda in rises every day.
2: The sun is 90% Perpetual Yeast.
C: Therefore the sun rises every day.
So this could be the most depressing day, independent of his nonsense – and it has to be admitted that this _is_ a tremendously depressing day in Britain, the day when the glow of the holidays has completely gone and the grind of the next 11 months becomes apparent. Doing a quick straw poll of Facebook and Twitter, there’s significant number of people (above the normal monday whingers) complaining about this being a rubbish day/week. I’m not going to claim that this is statistically significant – just that my experience seems to bear up Arnall’s arbitrary claim. This could, of course, be because those people have seen the Blue Monday coverage in the news, and they’re highly impressionable.
There’s also the point that even if this is the most miserable day of any year, which I doubt considering the snowbound depression many people were in early in the year, or the Mumbai attacks of November 2008, or the tube attacks of 2007, even if it was for Britain, it’s not for the rest of the world. As Goldacre has said, seasonal suicide peaks vary from country to country and there’s been no consistent findings amongst studies. Of course, again, one shouldn’t link suicide peaks to depression peaks – though our intuition is that the two should be linked, the connection isn’t necessary, especially not when talking about the population at large. Many people were depressed when, say, England lost the cricket, or the Princess of our Hearts forgot to put her seatbelt on.
Cliff Arnall is wrong on so many levels; moral, factual, mathematical; that one should really just ignore him, but the total invalidity of his premises sadly doesn’t invalidate his conclusion.

A Week In Politics

Order! Order! Following the Parliamentary Education Services release of their edutainment flash-game ‘MP For A Week‘, I’ve written a bit of analysis over at Nicholas Lovell’s GamesBrief of the title, covering its accuracy, education value and entertainment value.

The axe that the commons authorities want to grind is razor sharp – this game makes the average stolid backbencher look amazingly active and busy, hurrying between constituency and parliament, justifying that great wodge of cash we give each MP every year (around £175,000 including expenses, each), and the huge number of MPs.

I’ll be sending Nicholas my expenses bill later.

On meetings of minds.

At the start, chance happenings – two good brains happening on each other, meeting by renown and word of mouth. Nothing else, no writing. Then, with writing, papyrus passing from palaces of the kings as edicts, the only minds that were known. Then writing widens, concepts are allowed and others than the kings have raw materials to communicate over long distances. Books are born, but not correspondence – that is solely by couriers, word of mouth and long-distance travellers. Ideas are communicated but not refined by the best, only by the local leisurely.

Then writing becomes commonplace and the brains start to gather at cities. Support networks spring up to bring the best and brightest to the palaces to work – and they take themselves. True meetings of minds begin – the bright spark of Athens, Rome and its poets, Constantinople, then the reflected glories of palaces and monasteries, running in parallel. Parchment becomes cheap, correspondence and letter-writing springs up, from Rome onwards, the mental community becomes wide and slow, with fast-moving hubs.

As the population grows, travel becomes no longer just for trade and war, but for exploration and self-improvement – by the 17th century, poets, thinkers, musicians and so on can move between the courts and gain fame in several places – Handel, Descartes, Leibniz and the rest dance between kingdoms, meet and share wealth. Slowly the speed and wideness of renown increases til it peaks, in the early 20th – a small number of wealthy talents hopping between Bloomsbury and the Algonquin – Pavlova, Chaplin, Gertrude Stein – but still separated by transatlantic difference.

After that the number of minds blossoms, the world becomes soaked with them and great ideas become hard to disseminate – the mixtures of medias, the cheapness of communication, gradually reduces fame. A century passes, greatness weakening. Now I see great minds online lost in the noise, spreading themselves thin for a grasp at glory, but connecting their with their compadres, albeit perfunctorily. Communities struggle into existence, ideas spread and die rapidly, alienation from the locale is easy but not complete. Where next?

She’s Un’armed, Folks!

Dear Maria got up at 5am this morning, so she could get to work for 7. On a Saturday. That’s retail! I spent the afternoon with a plumber, getting our boiler fixed. Her work day done, at 4.30pm we met at Daunt Books in Belsize Park, to go and give Christmas presents to my auntie and cousin, and have a nice dinner.

At 4.35, I was ringing for an ambulance, as Maria had fallen awkwardly on a un-gritted path and bent  her arm the wrong way. At 11.30pm, we finally left the hospital, after a Doctor had finally popped her arm back on. He was rather impressed with her, as her arm should have snapped but the Ulna had popped out instead, twisting around to the side, and then she’d taken half again the usual dose of morphine to go under. (Needless to say, she’s sleeping like a babe now, a fresh plaster cast adorning her.)

Anyway, this is merely to say – I won’t be doing a usual one-a-day post today. I thought this year was meant to be better than 2009?

The Modern Trogloditarian

Somedays you wonder if there’s any point opening your eyes. Despite the miracles of daylight saving, when I get up to go to work it’s dark. In our cramped flat trapped between the motorway, tube lines, and ‘retail parks’ (such a horrible word, evoking branded daffodils and planting gold to harvest tat), it’s brown outside the windows, and even darker in our windowless bathroom. I shower, get dressed and head out into the snow, reflecting meagre light. As the tube heads under Hampstead hill, there’s a rosy glow spreading.
I get to work. I sit at a desk. I work through lunch. Outside the great ten foot windows, it’s light, clouds dance, the De Beers’ chairman’s helitaxi winds up on the next rooftop and wap-wap-waps him back to his estate over us city-bound scurriers. It gets dark, early. It’s night. I finish work, late, again. Homeward.
The snow is still heavy around our home, deep and crisp and deadly, patches like teflon and glass, spots where idiots have tried to wash it away with water. The street-light outside our house is broken. Inside, it’s cold and dark. The boiler’s broken. I huddle up to the lamp for warmth and wait for morning.