Saturday, September 20, 2008

From Paris to Texas to Timbuktu

Once, in Texas, I met a man from Timbuktu, and mentioned that I had been discussing his native country a few days prior. I explained that at least here in the USA, "Timbuktu" is a sort of a symbol of a place that is very faraway - a place difficult to get to. "The 'ends of the earth'" a mutual friend paraphrased. "And very exotic." Timbuktu guy seemed shocked to find this out.

I had conversed about this very subject with Henry, a Texan, and Frederic, from France, who said that Timbuktu was no big deal; he traveled near there a lot and had once driven through it on a motorcycle. So we had asked him, well, Fred, what do they say in France to generically represent the faraway place? "Texas. We say it is as far away as Texas."

I got the idea he sort of thought we should have known this! After all, this all occurred IN Texas. But just like the African I was to meet, we Americans in Texas had not known this, and were all greatly amused. And so when the subject arose with Timbuktu guy, I added this nugget of recently acquired knowledge: Texas is France's Timbuktu.

In answer to my recent queries about this idea, a friend from Brunei has stated the following: "Some people, especially the literary types, borrow 'Timbuktu.' In the local context, our 'Timbuktu' is a place called 'Temburong' which is a Brunei county. The place is actually not that far away. It feels far because one has to take a long windy road, cross into a neighbouring country, and then ride on a ferry to get there. The ferry ride is very short. It takes maybe 2 minutes to walk across the river if you could walk on water. It takes a couple of hours to get there by land and by boat it's probably 1.5 hrs."

Another friend from Venezuela just shrugged when I asked him, and said Timbuktu as a metaphor was used the same way there. By the way, the man from Timbuktu could think of no comparable expression from his native locale, so we came to a dead end. I guess we were hoping he would say something on the order of, "Siberia is Timbuktu's Timbuktu!"

(A story of Timbuktu)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Curious Case of the Chronosynclasticly Infundibulized Engine

I am writing to you Gentlemen (and Ladies) regarding your ambitious yet, in my humble view, completely attainable, goal of constructing a sub-surfacial-traveling powered ship, rumours of which have been circulating in the pubs back of J. street since Thursday last.

Mr. Fulton of the Colonies in particular is seen to remain in good spirits and has been noted to enthuse over your plans quite openly, although I have reproached him privately as I have some reason to believe your Party has taken some pains to keep this matter privy. Be that as it may, I found myself unable to stop thinking about your astounding Conceptions, and in a moment of great lucidity last evening a great Idea struck me with great forcefulness, relating both to your works and those to which I have been lately dedicated, since devouring both the writings of Mr. Franklin and certain sensational and lurid chapbooks of unknown author but rumoured to be of Maltese origin, (which I hastily sought out at the home of a certain Gentleman, B. of the Royal Society , and read last week), and experiencing the events I shall recount to you below.

As I am sure you have been involved in the tale of Mr. Fulton's ruination and the splintering of the hull timbers and consequent sinking of his experimental Vessel due to the Unsustainable Weight of the Watt engine, you should know I find it a great Disaster, (although I cannot help but note that I have been recorded as warning him of this very hazard) and that it will ever be an Impossibility for the Watt device ever being of use at Sea, needing a Stone foundation for anchorage on Land.

For I have of late found what I reckon to be, (and I hurry to assure you I have been performing the most controlled experiments in my laboratory, outfitted by B. who wishes to remain uninvolved at this time, for reasons I will make clear forthwith,) a great source of rotary Power.

If you follow the proceedings of the Society I am sure you recall the mention of the Device to Alert the Living of the Revivification of the Thought-to-have Passed. Humility indicates you might not have connected this modest invention with myself, but I am indeed its Inventor. In any case, it is but a simple thing to affix a strike bar in the coffin and a bell and ringer above ground. I was observing the Groundkeepers at Alderney Road Cemetery the Monday evening a fortnight ago, ensuring their proper training, and whilst lecturing the two heard an unusual whirring noise emerging from one of the coffins awaiting burial the following morning. (To my chagrin, the actual bell-alarum was not activated), but in our excitement, we flung open the coffin and stood stupified as we witnessed the recently departed, identified by a small plaque affixed to the coffin, as a Mr. Barry Morris Goldwater, spinning rapidly an inch above the bottom of it!

While I have yet to account for this phenomenon, for he is undeniably dead, I transported the fellow's remains (amidst yet another mystery, for the whereabouts of his family nor even the circumstances of his appearance have been determined) to my laboratory, and with a series of leather belts and sheaves have driven an Archimedes pump uninterrupted for the last 12 days, producing the amount of 17.2 Horse Power. Requiring only the proper amount of formalin to be kept on hand and a small Leyden Jar, and with the weight of both the poor deceased Mr. Goldwater plus the attached apparatus, not exceeding the weight of just over twenty stone, I think I have found The Engine which your Company seeks.

Yr. Humble Servant,
Dr. Prichard Mitford

Alas, a great calamity has ensued since I penned my missive. Last night I hastily entered my laboratory, hearing a "pocketa-pocketa-queep-pocketa-queep! Pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-queep-pocketa-queep!!" The poor fellow had begun emitting a faint vapor. I began fingering delicately my row of glistening valves. “Give me a dram of whale oil!” I snapped to my assistant, Igor. But it was too late. The leathern belts alike began to ignite, and the Archimedes pump, off centered, began to moan as well in mechanical distress.

Suffice it to say the ensuing fire engulfed my laboratory, I am ruined, Igor has left my employ, and the entire affair has come off disastrously. And worst, not even the smallest remaining shards of burnt ossia from the unfortunate Goldwater have been recovered. Even any impulse towards some remaining curiosity over these matters is tapped out. As is my erstwhile benefactor B.

I have repaired to the Sloth and Pennywhistle to lick my wounds, and have acquired passage to Alyaska (Beringia). My ship is to sail at dawn.
and respectfully,

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Lying Eyes

When I decided to adopt my dog, Trouble, I knew there was a big age-difference problem. After all, she was barely past adolescence. She wanted to do young things, and I wanted to mostly sit and read and drink old tawny port, and smoke my pipe, and think about Spinoza. And occasionally go down to the Old Boys' Club and sit in the dark mahogany library, and talk to the other gentlemen about the shipping stocks, and the lost glory of the Empire. And she's usually glad to see me when I arrive home. Most nights she sleeps by my bedside.

Trouble, however, wanted to run free, and go jogging, and had dreams of being an Iditerod sled dog. God knows we live too far from Alaska, but I have never had the heart to destroy the hopes and dreams of such a young and beautiful animal. So even though she's not supposed to, every so often Trouble goes out on me, late at night, and sometimes doesn't come home until dawn. I see the evidence: the KFC wrapping paper in the yard; and sometimes I can even tell another dog has been with her. I just don't let on.

Those nights, this old house sure gets lonely. I guess I'm her rich old Man, and she won't ever have to worry. But she still can't hide her lying eyes.

A Nice Pair

The ocher one took seven years. I sure learned a lot about Jackson Pollock while doing that one. I could have called it "Another Punk Throws Paint" because it's pretty common a thing to do among beginners. (Do you throw paint? I throw paint! Don't tell!) I never could figure out a good name for it. I tried to call it "The Gnostic Revelations of Jack Black" (Old #7, of course) but the actor was just becoming well known about a week after I finished. What the heck. I hereby rename it "Old #7."

The other one, Corridor Head, I started at the same time and finished in about 2 months.
I mixed Varathane Diamond floor finish (extremely tough, completely clear, never yellows) in with my acrylic paints as I painted to give the lustrous translucence of oils. It's similar to generic water-based acrylic gloss medium sold in stores, but cheaper by the gallon. I'm such a chemist. I balled up the photography, too. I ought to re-shoot with my tripod, like I knew I should in the first place.
From the early to mid '90s. Each about 2' x 3½'

Yes, they ARE for sale. Glad you asked!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Bizarre Argots, Ceazarny, and Bithageer

Secret languages, whether spoken by children, gypsies, con men, dissidents, criminals and even solely by one gender (the language of women, known as Nushu in China), have been around for a long time. After all, Pig Latin is known to almost every kid born in the U.S., and if you meet people who aren't native English speakers, and explain the concept, you'll probably get some stories about something similar in another language, from childhood. And likely each will smile as he or she remembers.

Long ago I encountered a variety of secret language known as "Carny talk," the secret language of carnival workers, among some Miami, Florida youths. It's lately mutated into a Rap-related sort of thing known as "izzle." But back then, the rules were simple, if slightly varied: after each initial consonant "ee-ah-z" was inserted. Shoes became "shee-ah-zoes." A fine car was a feeazine ceeazar, and police were either peeazolice or peeazoleeazice, depending, I guess, on whether you were in a hurry.

Into this group had alit one fellow who had learned a variant of this lingo or argot, which he constructed by a similar rule. The add-in was "ih-thug" with a voiced "th" as in "the." Beer became bithageer. Eagerly they all taught each other all their variations.

And began mixing the two variant constructs in their language. "Theazats a fithagine weazomithagon" was not unusual to hear. ("That's a fine woman.") I was usually, but not always, lost. I deciphered some of it.

It took me a long time to reconstruct all that, because when I learned later the "formal" rules of Carny, there was no ih-thug, it was all eaz-uh. This was the form popularized by Murray the K, I later learned.

Once I was in a car with a Frenchman and a Belgian, and with no warning, just for kicks, I began speaking Carny. "Wheahzen weaze geazet teazo theaze beazar, eazi'm dreazinking a beazeer." Silence. They both turned and looked at me with great horror on their faces. I couldn't keep a straight face and started laughing, looking at their expressions. They thought they had lost their command of English!

A few years later I recalled all that, and tried the same thing with my sister-in-law. To my utmost shock, she began rattling off Carny talk so fast I couldn't keep up! I had no idea she would ever have learned this! I guess she then enjoyed the look on my face. As it turned out, she had been in range of Murray the K's radio shows where she grew up; I never had been.

A few years ago, I did some research on "Carny talk," and at that time came up with a few web pages, which was the best I could find on the internet:
(those are pretty good, and with bibliography)

So I decided to revisit this fascinating topic, and checked around on the internet using Google and Wikipedia. Google mostly returned the same seven year old links, above. Wikipedia is a mess. The best they have is this article on Argot.
I occasionally contribute to Wikipedia. I spent some time adding judiciously to this one, crosslinking some other articles, and calling attention to the information in the link mentioned above. In my view, all the various Pig Latins, Carnys, and such should be connected with one article. They properly distinguish between argot and jargon.

In the meantime, I found the original author of one of the 1994 summary pages has gone on to editing The SpecGram.

Nushu - Women's language Language Games - Wikipedia
The end of Nushu

(A tip o' the hat will be given to any who identify the mystery carny in the illustration!)