mánudagur, janúar 31, 2005

high stepping

At the café I saw a sleek black dog, and I admired the light glancing off his glossy shoulders and the whorls of fur on his narrow chest as he pranced around the legs of the outdoor table. He picked his forefeet up high as if he were stepping through a net held a little ways off the ground, as if he were a very little black horse with a fine gait trained for dressage.

Once I saw the white horses of the Spanish Riding School show their paces. They were very impressive, arching their powerful necks and snapping each foreleg in turn up into a bent curl held for an instant against their chests before thusting it, hoof foremost, back against the sawdusted ground. They floated around the ring with military precision and formal grace centered in that high step. They are trained for that.

On the bus on my way back from the café, an older man got on. He must have been in his 80s. He was saved the high step into the vehicle by a recent design change. The new busses in the fleet are built low to the street just so that elderly and less nimble riders do not have to climb steps. This gentleman, for example, was able to walk almost straight forward off the curb where he had been waiting. But once on the bus, he seemed momentarily confused, as if he had forgotten what he was doing. He looked from side to side, holding the fare in his hand but making no move to place it in the till. Then he pawed in the air with his right foot, black-shod, and found no stair there. But the motion reminded him of the next steps in the bus-boarding dance, and he let his coins fall into the funnel and stepped down the aisle.


The pleasantly nappy leather called suede is kennt við Sweden. I did not know this until just today, being weaker in the French part of my vocabulary than I might be. I learn that in the nineteenth century, the towns of Hälsingborg, Malmö, and Ystad produced the kidskin for gloves. Those articles must have come through francophone channels to the English-speaking world (or else they were simply so fashionable that a French name was de rigeur), for they were known as les gants de suède. This was shortened in the Anglophone mouth to suede gloves and, at least where I grew up, suede lost all association with a country and become a term for a specific material.

I add this to my list of the broader semantic footprint of Sweden and Swedes.

For example, depending on your personal variety of English, the following lines may or may not shock:

I wouldn't eat swedes until fairly recently. It's one of those childhood dislikes that carried on to adulthood. I've started eating them though and I've developed a real taste for them, to my great surprise my kids have followed suit.

I tend to hear this passage in the voice of a sort of Martha Stewart of the trolls, a thrifty giant homemaker from the mountain fastnesses of Jämtland giving advice to a neighbor on how to best prepare the locally-available humans. I suppose that she had been eating Norwegians from the next valley over before discovering the toothsomeness of the Swedes.

Though this interpretation has an undeniable charm, the subject of this snippet is actually rutabagas, a.k.a. Swedish turnips.

That is not the end of edible Swedes. I remember reading in the diaries of Nadezhda Durova (a Russian woman who rode as a cavalry officer in the Napoleanic wars) that the Polish word for pork cracklings is a homonym of the word for Swede.

Two entirely different foodstuffs are called swedes, then. It must be the result of that long-lived rivalry with their neighbors. The Danes, to my knowledge, only have danishes, and that is a dubious claim at best, because if you want a danish in Denmark you will have to ask for weinerbrød. The Swedes are ahead by one root vegetable and some fried lard.

sunnudagur, janúar 30, 2005


Something has gotten into me, clearly, for upon getting back from the market I set several different kinds of vegetables to pickling.

Watermelon daikon. This is a lovely round radish with a greenish rind and a pinkish tail, and the pink extends up into the globe of it in magenta streaks that only come into view when you slice into it. It gets the kimchee treatment: I have chopped it into slivers and shut it in with garlic, green onions, ginger, nori, sesame seeds, bonito flakes, a handful of red pepper.

Napa cabbage and beet greens. The cabbage is very white, the greens very dark. I have salted them all down with coarse-grain sea salt, and when enough of the juice of them is leeched out, I will close them up with garlic and red pepper as well. In a few days they will be kimchee.

Pale red and yellow beets with long tails. Once boiled, slipping them out of their skins was like peeling mice. Now they are curled up in the bottom of the dill pickle jar (empty of cucumbers since a few days ago when I chased some vodka shots with them, Russian-style). I tossed in some sliced carrots and turnips on top of them when I saw there was room left over.

How to explain this frenzy of pickling? Modern refrigeration makes this style of preservation unnecessary. I can only think that my internal clock has struck Þorri and commanded me to take perfectly palatable ingredients and perform culinary operations upon them that will render them sour, imperishable, and even slightly painful to consume.

laugardagur, janúar 29, 2005

an deisem Fenster

Dinner: Black rice and white beans with fried turnip, kimchee, rapini. Colorful and tasty.

The rapini has a pleasing abundance of names: raab, rapa, rapine, rappi, rappone, broccoli rape, broccoli de rabe. It isn't broccoli at all, it would seem, but something more akin to turnip greens. I always think it is the plant after which Rapunzel was named. You will recall that she gets her name from the plant in the witch's garden next door that her pregant mother spies out the window and must eat:

Eines Tags stand die Frau an diesem Fenster und sah in den Garten hinab. Da erblickte sie ein Beet, das mit den schönsten Rapunzeln bepflanzt war, und sie sahen so frisch und grün aus, daß sie lüstern ward und das größte Verlangen empfand, von den Rapunzeln zu essen.

But apparently Rapunzel is rampion and not my rapini at all. Not that we should get hung up on the Grimms's version. In Italian she was Petronsinella already in 1637 in the Pentamerone of Giambattista Basile, named after petrosine, parsley, the rock-herb (petra is stone, compare Icel. steinselja). She appeared again in French, in 1697, as Persinette (for persille, again parsley), thanks to Charlotte Rose de Caumont de la Force. Elsewhere the mother's craving is for a plum, and the child is named accordingly. AT 310 is a well-travelled tale, and we may expect the kind of vegetable variation that is desirable in anyone's diet.

I will continue to eat rapini and think of the Maiden in the Tower. Call it a personal oikotype. And as the door downstairs still does not respond to the buzzer upstairs, I will continue my practice of granting visitors entry by letting down my extra set of keys on a red ribbon hung out the window.

fimmtudagur, janúar 27, 2005

speed is the key

Moving too fast, I forget where I am. I'm sure Heisenberg has something to say about this, maybe in German and maybe in Danish. I hear that he spoke a little -- a side effect of his friendship with Niels Bohr. I wonder what his accent is like. Or rather, I would wonder what his accent was like if I were not much too busy. Dashing, dashing, I read over the passage to make sure I understand it, and I do. I throw on a short leather jacket before speeding out the door. But it is too warm for this garment, and when I am asked about the passage I realize that I have forgotten to move the text from one language to the other, and it is still sitting where it started. I turn my mental pockets inside-out in search of the right English words, but I do not have them with me. I must have grabbed the jacket instead.


The rain has returned. The water falling through the shaft outside the bathroom window makes a sound like someone in an adjoining apartment just finishing his shower, about to step out onto the mat as the showerhead lets the last heavy drops fall into the wet porcelain. But the last drops never come; there are always more. The water keeps falling and the imaginary bather never steps out onto the mat. He is transfixed in the final moments of the fictional shower, running his hand through his newly washed hair but never reaching for the towel.

þriðjudagur, janúar 25, 2005

robbie, þorri, nýyrði

It's Burns's supposed birthday, and the BBC has a whole website dedicated to Burns Night doings. Included are recipes. Reading them, it occurs to me that it must be some cosmic calendrical joke that puts Burns Night in all its haggis-munching glory in the month of Þorri in all its hákarl-chewing horror. Trust Iceland to be the place where people eat sharks rather than the other way around. Cured shark, as I suppose one should render kæstur, though the cure may be in this case worse that the disease.

I digress. Glancing, as I said, over the Burns Night food tips I of course find a note on haggis:

A one kilogram haggis should be boiled in a large pot for approximately 20 minutes. For larger sizes, consult the label for boiling time. Vegetarians should look out for the many variations of vegetarian haggis.

I was previously unaware of the existence of vegetarian haggis (but I will now look out for it, in the full range of that phrase's ambiguity). What could possibly be the point of vegetarian haggis? Is it in any way distinguishable from a bowl of oatmeal? And furthermore, is there vegetarian hákarl? Here I have a leap of intuition: maybe that's what tofu is. Tofu and hákarl share at least a vague physical resemblance, as both are sold in the form of white cubes. And this would provide at long last a good nativist word for the soy protein: grænmetishákarl.

Of course tofu is an unconvincing substitute for hákarl, being mild and inoffensive in flavor, whereas hákarl tastes much like something between strong licorice and Danish cheese soaked liberally in kerosene. But I'm sure that vegetarian haggis is about as similar to traditional haggis as tofu is to hákarl. Which is another way of saying that I may be on to something here with this coinage.


One of these handsome fellows finally came to take a little bow on the fire escape after his daily seranade.

His morning arias have entertained me for months now, but the performer had not previously made his identity known. My shy songster is Aphelocoma californica, the western scrub jay, one of the arrestingly azure corvids that flit about these parts.

mánudagur, janúar 24, 2005

cheap red

I will not wax nostalgic for the restrictive alcohol policies of the North, though I grant the two points in favor of the system a well-travelled friend has pointed out:

With a government monopoly as the sole importer, there is a baseline quality control. The state does not import true swill. It has, after all, some pride.

With an obscenely high sin tax on the alcohol itself, by percentage, rather that the price of the goods, it pays in the long run to drink at the higher end of the available scale quality-wise. It isn't that much more expensive once you've put down for the ethanol itself.

These are good points.

Nevertheless, I am a believer in cheap red wine. I take barbaric glee in purchasing a monster bottle of something labelled merely red, any distinction between merlot and cabernet long mongrelized out of existence. For all I know it is the blended runoff from twenty dubious varieties, pushed from the pressing floor with a squeegee. It is certainly priced as if this were the case. I do not care. I hum a merry tune to myself and upend the thing over my biggest cooking pot, hold it affectionately as it disgorges its boozy contents in gouts like a friend who has overendulged at a party.

There is after all nothing wrong with cheap red wine that a long boiling with onions and meat will not cure. On the other hand there is much wrong with the cuisine of the North that a long boiling in cheap red wine would cure, but alas, it is not to be had there.

sunnudagur, janúar 23, 2005

donkey boiler

The hot water tap in the kitchen brays like a demented ass. I'm not sure why this should be, but it is.

I have no other real complaint about the hot water tap in the kitchen. It delivers reliably hot water, as it is a but a short way from the inæsthetic and dusty water heater in the corner, so that is as it should be. It is merely a pity that the hot water should be accompanied by a sound so unpleasant. Adding cold water affects the timbre somewhat, I have found, and I am convinced that the right mix of hot and cold would quiet the flow entirely. However, I have not found the correct mix yet, and accordingly, whenever I use the kitchen tap, I find myself twiddling the spigots in search of the perfect setting while all visible plumbing judders and screams and I pray silently that the neighbors do not think I am actually tormenting some benighted equid.

The ass would definitely qualify as a benighted equid. G. K. Chesterton remarked on this too, capturing the ridiculousness and vocal quality of the animal in this stanza:

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil's walking parody
On all four-footed things
But asses and donkeys have lent their considerable toughness to many a human project. They can be good workers and the extra bit of strength needed to get a job done. Perhaps for that reason auxilliary engines and boilers in the age of steam got the name donkey engine and donkey boiler. Here is one.

I would like this bit of nomenclature to explain somehow the obnoxious racket emitted by my kitchen tap, or better yet, point to a way to cut short that obnoxious racket, but no solution presents itself. I will continue to wince while drawing hot water, fighting down the impression that the sound eminates from the infernal regions where actual boiling of donkeys would seem to be taking place.

laugardagur, janúar 22, 2005

waiting for madeleine

One goes to the coffee shop to write, purposefully to the coffee shop with the dodgy Wi-Fi so that one will not be tempted to surf about getting up to date on the day’s slang in the Icelandic blogosphere, savoring the confusion in Norway stemming from the Bush family’s choosing to flash the easily mis-parsed longhorn salute at the inauguration, discovering well-illustrated sites dedicated to the erotics of typography and otherwise not addressing the task at hand.

One orders a medium coffee, stubbornly insisting on medium and refusing to use the absurd and oh so faux patois the coffee shop in question imposes on its customers. In reality, one hates this coffee shop, but its Wi-Fi is so terrible that it becomes a selling point in itself for the easily distracted.

One orders the medium coffee and even gives up a first name, knowing that it will be mangled by the fellow behind the counter, wishing that it were enough to promise to respond to the name of the beverage (medium coffee) or even the name of the beverage in the ludicrous local Java-Volapük (which will not be recorded here) instead of indulging in this perverse pseudo-familiarity with the pimply caffeine-dealers behind the counter. One considers taking up a pseudonym for the sole purpose of ordering coffee at such places. One toys with the idea of taking up a specifically Javanese pseudonym for this very purpose. One discards this as a stupid joke no one will get.

Thus lost in thought, one permits oneself to be sold up inasmuch as one purchases also prepackaged baked goods in the form of three reasonably wholesome-looking madeleines. One decides to forgo egregious pretension by making the obvious reference. (And one has not in fact read Proust anyway.)

One collects the coffee, takes a seat, boots the computer, dunks a madeleine in one’s coffee, bites into the madeleine, and, slave to procrastination, hapless weightless feather on the swirling floodwaters of recollection, falls to reading the older contents of one’s harddrive. One relaxes into the inevitable and decides to enjoy it. Never otherwise will one's juvenalia be this fascinating.

föstudagur, janúar 21, 2005


Cool air in the hills this evening. I keep thinking that Lapsang Souchong tea is steeping in great quantities somewhere nearby, but it is actually the smell of a hundred fireplaces burning fragrant wood. In such an atmosphere I expect to dream of Islay single malts, cold smoked trout, cigar boxes, tanned leather, snuff, and dried meat cut thin enough to filter light.

miðvikudagur, janúar 19, 2005


Fascinating bit of borrowing and influence going on in Icelandic right now. I've just run across the phrase að hös(t)la sér völl in informal register net-writing. Here's one speaker with the t-variant spelling (plus a bit of fyrning on the spelling of sjer):
South Greenland Touring AsP er nýtt ferðaþjónustufyrirtæki sem er að höstla sjer völl á suður Grænlandi og er að leita sjer að Umsjónarmanni sem á að sjá um að coordinera túra af ýmsum gerðum um þetta magnaða ferðasvæði.

Here are some more examples:

Ég gruna fastlega að þarna hafi verið á ferð erlend vændiskona sem hafi verið að höstla sér völl á Íslandi ...

(That's a pretty entertaining example, actually, since the blogger goes on to support the idea that his interlocutor had been a foreign prostitute with the observation that she hadn't spoken Icelandic. The construction ég gruna in the writer's own prose is non-standard; mig grunar is the preferred form. Anyway.)

Another blog provides this:

Síðastasem ég ætla að tjá mig um er að það fer rosalega í taugarnar á mér þegar fokríkt og frægt fólk reynir að höstla sér völl á einhverju öðru sviði, líklegast bara með það að markmiði að verða enn ríkara og mögulega frægara en það er orðið.

And another, a t-less variant:

Eitt þektasta fyrirtæki á símamarkaði,vodafone, virðist ætla að hösla sér völl á Íslandi ...

The last example, like the first, doesn't imply the same sense of proper boundaries being overstepped that examples two and three do. One and four are about legitimate businesses gaining a foothold; two and three are about the encroachments of prostitutes and annoying rich people. In short, two and three imply more robust hösl.

Hösl is hustling, loosely speaking. Hustling for chicks, for their phonenumbers, for attention or business, whatever. The verb is hösla. It is a borrowed bit of slang. The phrases above make perfect sense as hustling for space or a venue or a foothold, however you would like to read völlur (field) metaphorically.

The thing is (if you were waiting for the thing, here it comes) that the standard and older phrase is hasla sér völl. Observe the many hits here. The best rendering might be to stake a claim, as it implies delimitation of territory with little pegs - perhaps once of hazel wood, though no hazel grows in Iceland. Descriptions of dueling in saga are sometimes explicit about the delimitation out of the combat area with just this language as in Gísla saga Súrssonar (ch. 2):
Nú fer Gísli við tólfta mann í eyna Söxu. Skeggi kom til hólmsins og segir upp hólmgöngulög og haslar völl Kolbirni og sér eigi hann þar kominn né þann er gangi á hólminn fyrir hann.

(There is no reflexive pronoun sér because Skeggi 'hazels' the field for Kolbjörn, who is right there in the dative case as you would expect.)

Even more famously, Kormáks saga (ch. 10) purports to report the dueling law entire:
Það voru hólmgöngulög að feldur skal vera fimm alna í skaut og lykkjur í hornum. Skyldi þar setja niður hæla þá er höfuð var á öðrum enda. Það hétu tjösnur. Sá er um bjó skyldi ganga að tjösnunum svo að sæi himin milli fóta sér og héldi í eyrasnepla með þeim formála sem síðan er eftir hafður í blóti því að kallað er tjösnublót. Þrír reitar skulu umhverfis feldinn, fets breiðir. Út frá reitum skulu vera strengir fjórir og heita það höslur. Það er völlur haslaður er svo er gert. Maður skal hafa þrjá skjöldu en er þeir eru farnir þá skal ganga á feld þó að áður hafi af hörfað. Þá skal hlífast með vopnum þaðan frá. Sá skal höggva er á er skorað. Ef annar verður sár svo að blóð komi á feld er eigi skylt að berjast lengur. Ef maður stígur öðrum fæti út um höslur fer hann á hæl en rennur ef báðum stígur. Sinn maður skal halda skildi fyrir hvorum þeim er berst. Sá skal gjalda hólmlausn er meir verður sár, þrjár merkur silfurs í hólmlausn.

Here the field of play is the surface of cloak held down at the corners with pegs called tjösnur (not a word that is well understood). Three concentric rings of cord then set up about that area are called höslur, the area is thus 'hazeled' (haslaður), and flight beyond the bounds of the höslur means forfeit of the duel.

It seems that what exactly the höslur in að hasla sér völl might be has been rather foggy for some time. Gísla saga leaves it very unclear, whereas Kormáks saga will have them be strings, and I invariably remember them as hazel stakes (which is what the word implies etymologically) unless I am actually looking at the text of Kormáks saga. Nonetheless, the overall meaning of the phrase has not changed much. Claims are still being staked.

But the new element is the slang hösl or hösla, which, I think, is influencing how some speakers analyze the old phrase. Young speakers know, after all, exactly what hösl is (unlike höslur and hasla, which not even old speakers in 1300 seem really to have understood), and so hösla sér völl may suddenly make a whole lot more sense than að hasla sér völl, even if the overall semantic burden of the phrase is unchanged. The new analysis may also be bringing with it a new sense that the claim-staking is undesirable, illegitimate, or simply sleazy encroachment of some kind.

The t in höstla might be either phonetic spelling (due to devoicing, there is a wee dental between s and l in Icelandic, and children learning to write sometimes insert a t there) or a conscious or unconscious imitation of the English spelling of hustle.

It all makes me wonder if anyone else has noticed this and staked a claim on the material.


Here is a whole site dedicated to researching tool use among New Caledonian crows. There are movies showing these very self-possessed black birds bending wire into hooks for the purpose of fishing desirable objects out of narrow-necked jars. Astonishing.

I'm coming late to this, I see. Some of the media coverage of this phenomenon is from 2002, I see. And I'm only just learning about New Caledonia. That is was in Melanesia I knew; that it was French I did not. Caledonia, the old one, had been the name used by the Romans to refer to Scotland, that is, unconquered northern Britain. Given the cultural ties between Scotland and France over the centuries, it seems appropriate that New Caledonia should speak French.

Lord knows what these birds speak. Maybe I am suggestable. I have after all just finished reading the very wonderful Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, in which the long shadow of the magical sovereign of medieval northern England, John Uskglass, the Raven King, falls darkly upon all subsequent British history. I am in that queer state in which I have not made full exit from the fictional world drawn up in the novel, and I am thus not wholly convinced that the Raven King did not in fact exist. I may indeed be somewhat suggestable, but the footage of these black birds is most uncanny, and if were to read tomorrow that they had begun addressing the Oxford researchers in Scots gælic or some færie tongue, I would not be entirely surprised.

mánudagur, janúar 17, 2005

too much information

The New York Times has an article today on some topics of interest. Apparently, the Educational Testing Service is working on a test of students' information literacy.
In 2001, the testing company brought together an international consortium of educators, technology specialists and government representatives to begin defining the core characteristics of information consumption at the college level.

Knowing where and how to find information, they agreed, was just the beginning. Interpreting, sorting, evaluating, manipulating and repackaging information in dozens of forms from thousands of
sources - as well as having a fundamental understanding of the legal and ethical uses of digital materials - are also important components.

Leaving aside the problem of how one tests this sort of thing, I totally agree that these skills are critical. They always have been critical, but now the volume of information easily acquired is suddenly so high, and it is packaged in new ways that we have associations one way or the other about, as far as reliability goes.

Apropos of which, one wonders what will become of the traditional exhortation against judging a book by its cover. Will it be updated? Will we be told not to judge a site by its domain? Or by its webdesign? Or will the saying remain, becoming ever more opaque to succeeding generations? Ah, I am doomsaying again. I don't actually think that books will disappear.

But more on-topic: the flood of data and how to sort it. I must say that I don't think Google's engine is helping matters here. As I understand it, the program ranks search results more highly (that is, lists them higher up, where you are more likely to see them) the more other people performing the same search have themselves clicked on them. This is a very clever feedback loop for generating popularity. In fact, it may be the perfect simulation of a pack of thirteen-year-old girls opining on their peers. But for vetting and evaluating information, I am not so sure it is ideal. It generates obscurity as well as popularity. The information that is not found early is then not found often, and then, as it is not used either early and often, that information becomes progressively less accessible to everyone.

How can that be good? The thought makes me long for the physicality of the library. There, the book that hasn't been opened for some months doesn't spontaneously slide down the shelf into the dusty shadows or worse. True, volumes less frequently checked out may end up being stored off-site or even deacquired, but it doesn't happen automatically through the workings of software. Actual humans and their judgement are involved.

In fact, the metaphor of the books moving about on their own is not even wholly apt, for in the case of the Google search of the web, it is not the texts, the objects of the search, that move in relationship to each other as a result of searchers' actions; they are all ostensibly still on the same servers and at the same addresses as before. It is the index, the entries in the card catalogue, that are affected. Can you imagine? It is not that the less frequently-consulted book moves off-site, and then you must endure the hassle of requesting it. It is rather that the very information that such a book exists becomes harder and harder to find. Perversely, the Google engine, designed to make the information within documents more accessible, results in the marginalization of this meta information about the existence of some documents.

It is all rather troubling. I long, as already noted, for the library, and I worry about the future. Clearly other people do as well, and some of them have made this flash, which portrays itself as a history of media from the future. I recommend it as a thoughtful piece of speculative fiction.

sunnudagur, janúar 16, 2005


Sunday morning jog. These are the dogs I saw taking the air with their people.

A pair of chihuahua-pug mixes. A patient beagle who reminded me of a beagle-owning (but not beagle-like) friend in Denmark. A trim glossy black mongrel with a jaunty air and a stripe of fur on his back growing back-to-front, the only evidence, perhaps, of a Rhodesian Ridgeback somewhere in the tangled family tree. A dog chasing a favorite hurled toy, one that slightly arrestingly turned out to be a good-sized plastic unicorn. The dog himself seemed oblivious to any possible symbolism. Another dog sunk into wolfish concentration in pursuit of some squirrel, his domesticity and need to please lost for the moment in the tension of stalking live prey. The ancient and dignified ancestry of dogs becomes visible at such times. But this one's essential doggishness was constantly betrayed by the soft tips of his ears and the way they obstinantly flipped always opposite to the direction of his predatory motion.

I had to smile at him before jogging on past, braided hair swinging like a clock pendulum.

laugardagur, janúar 15, 2005

titan & tungl

Pictures are coming back from Titan. They are very orange. It is all very exciting.

Titan, I learn, was discovered by Christiaan Huygens in 1655, but it was only named Titan much later, in 1847, by a Sir John Herschel. Seeing the surface of Titan today is additionally amusing because of a strange hoax in 1835 that concerned Herschel and the surface of our own moon.

In 1835 the New York Sun published a series of articles reporting astronomical discoveries made through a huge new telescope that allowed the detailed examination of the moon's surface. Among the features observed was a basaltic rock outcropping:

"Its color was a greenish brown, and the width of the columns, as defined by their interstices on the canvass, was invariably twenty-eight inches. No fracture whatever appeared in the mass first presented, but in a few seconds a shelving pile appeared of five or six columns width, which showed their figure to be hexagonal, and their articulations similar to those of the basaltic formation at Staffa."
But far more astonishing even than this close-up of stuðlaberg or even the poppies seen to grow nearby it were the bison, the society of bipedal beavers, the bat-winged humans, blue unicorns and other animate wonders that also graced the variable lunar landscape of vermillion hills and sandy shores and cavorted before the eye of the gaping astronomer at his lens.

The gaping astronomer and maker of these astounding discoveries was identified in the articles as none other than Sir John Herschel. Herschel had of course made no such discoveries; he was also apparently blissfully unaware of the articles until someone showed them to him. The true author of the Great Moon Hoax was someone else entirely, probably a Richard Adams Locke, though he never wholly admitted it.

Locke died in 1871, but I wonder what he would have thought of Titan's orange plains and misty shorelines.


Funny how things have their words and words have their associations. I just saw a blimp overhead and thought blimp: American football, used cars, life insurance.

It didn't have to be that way. There are other words.

Dirigible. Steam and coal dust, soot and titanium steel. Materials handbooks. Celluloid, plastic when it was a sexy new thing and expensive, replacing horn and rubber.

Zeppelin. All of the immediately above and more, and in German. Fritz Lang, van der Graf, field marshals, black and white film, and, inevitably, an electrified bass line.

Airship. There is something evocative about the simple term airship. Or perhaps it is just that I know a story from the monastery at Clonmacnoise. The annals report that the monks were at prayer when a clattering was heard and the anchor of a ship was seen to have fallen from the sky, swung into the church and caught there, the fluke of the anchor under the altar. Amazed, the monks rushed outside and looked upward only to be yet more amazed to see that the anchor was at the end of a rope extending upward to a ship in full sail above the church. It is difficult to imagine their astonishment or, even, terror, for Clonmacnoise was one of those inland foundations established after the first assaults of the vikings pushed Irish monks ashore from their prior favorite haunts on offshore islands. In the middle of Ireland they must have though themselves impervious to maritime raiders, and yet here was a ship. Gazing up at the hull from beneath, they saw a man leap over the side and swim downward beside the rope as if the air offered to him the resistance of water. His cheeks were puffed out with the strain of holding his breath. Reaching the end of the rope, he strained at the anchor, but could not free it. The monks realized that he was on the point of drowning and lent their strength to the task. The anchor was freed, and the man then pushed off upward again swimming and was hauled aboard by his fellow crewmen. The airship then sailed off again.

It would have been totally different if it had been a blimp, I think.

föstudagur, janúar 14, 2005

konungur og keisari

Hljóta ekki þessir ágætu menn að hafa kynnst og orðið að nokkuð góðum vinum í dauðanna ríki? Jørgen Jørgensen og Joshua A. Norton. Þeir voru nú meiri karlarnir.


I am having intermittent trouble remembering that I should be interacting with people in service situations in English. Maybe this is not too surprising.

It is, however, I sign that I miss the not always gentle resistance offered by life elsewhere, in other tongues. Some of them offer an ideal difficulty in human interaction, in the day-to-day of getting papers, phonecards, containers of fermented milk products, pastries. A robust grammar and some tricky consonants are like the right amont of gustiness on the walk to work, some five or six meters per second of cool salt air catching your coat and making you work to stride forward. You lean on the force of it and it gets in your hair and makes you feel the root of every strand tingling. Up at eight meters per second it may blow your mouth open and force you to laugh, but weirdly, when it comes out it is a genuine laugh that is then whipped away over Skerjafjörður past the bobbing eiders. One feels dramatic and impressive just for walking in that wind. It is a pleasurable struggle.

Losing that resistance can be troubling. At worst, the sudden ease of all linguistic transactions results in a sort of universal vertigo: one may fall in any direction. Up, for example. On a bad day, though one is confident in one's own ability to get meaning and expression to match up and also to grasp what others mean when they speak, none of it feels particularly meaningful.

In this context I am reminded of runes. The commonplace about the graphemic system of the runic alphabet is that the staves are so shaped as to let their forms stand out when incised on shaved stick of wood. That is, the letters are designed to be cut against the grain. Their legibility depends on it, even, if you care to push the point, their very meaning.

It's a fine theory. It has a data problem, namely that we don't have any runes carved on shaved sticks of wood from the very earliest period of use. We have some from much later. But it is nonetheless a fine theory with a lot going for it. It's making particular sense to me at the moment in this rather still air.

fimmtudagur, janúar 13, 2005

e mare libertas

I have been to Sjæland, that is, Zealand, that is, the Danish island on which sits Copenhagen. I have never been to its antipode, New Zealand, but I have met New Zealanders. I have even met New Zealanders who live on the old Zealand. It is all very disorienting.

But I have never been to Sealand.

The Principality of Sealand was founded in 1967 on Roughs Tower, an abandoned WWII fortification some seven nautical miles off the eastern coast of England, and its sovereignty declared. There has been some disagreement on this point, as you might expect. The British Navy seems to have gotten involved, in a sort of inverse cod-war fashion, as well as British courts. Warning shots, summonses, that sort of thing.

Meanwhile, Sealand has issued passports and currency and carried on despite not being recognized by the United Nations. Doubters may be interested to learn that certain parties have even gone to the trouble of forging Sealand passports, something that perversely enough seems to increase the authenticity of the original Sealand passports if only by providing contrast.

More recently Sealand has been looking into internet hosting. The activities of HavenCo Ltd. have gotten some press here, here, and here. This site suggests that HavenCo has fallen on hard times, but it does provide some interesting pictures. Here are more.

I am less interested in the Sealandic presence in the realm of the internet than I am in the whole project of sovereignty and of placemaking. I have learned that a group of Dutch designers are trying to create "a national visual identity" for the Principality of Sealand here. The use of the Böcklin painting on their website is very evocative. I wish I had heard them present their work at this conference.

It seems appropriate that the Dutch would be involved, seeing as they have their own Zeeland (where I have also never been) and seeing as they have great experience claiming or reclaiming land from the sea. They have long made places where there weren't any before and then, stubbornly, named them (itself a final act of placemaking) after the no-place of the rolling sea.

miðvikudagur, janúar 12, 2005


In my travels I found this picture:

This was a famous woman, someone who liked to provoke. And she is wearing a fabulous hat. I'm more intrigued by her dog, however. He is not very interested in the painting of this portrait. There is something off to the left that has caught his eye (though not, it would seem, his ears), but he looks like he knows better than to try to investigate; the leash is very short and the collar very broad and high. I am a little sad for him.

I very much like the white toes on his left hind foot. I rather hope that the Marchesa did too, or even more so that the Marchesa liked the rest of him as well and that the inclusion of those white toes, a clear violation of the silky black dress code here in force, is a sign of that affection.

þriðjudagur, janúar 11, 2005

frænkur í heimsókn

It is good that I am not pöddufælin. It takes a nasty bug indeed to startle me. Spiders I like quite a lot. Insects as a class do not faze me. I admit that centipedes can give me a turn, but they are both fast and poisonous and besides that smell bad. I think one can dislike centipedes rather strongly and still be essentially unopposed to crawling things.

Ants do not bother me at all. How fortunate that is, for a goodly number of them were present to greet me upon my return from winter travels. One should never leave sugar unattended; that much is clear.

In Norwegian and Danish, the ant is maur (compare the second element in the older English pismire), easily confused with a moor: maurer. The Golden Age of Islam has in fact been on my mind of late, and so on that level the long column of tiny black figures recalled to mind Old Cordova, the Alhambra, El Cid. But the current world being what it is, the individuals who had suicidally squeezed between the door and the body of the freezer only to die in heaps inside had more sobering connotations on top of being a distasteful addition to my frozen goods.

But ants are not confusable with aunts. Not by anyone who has kin in Boston, anyway.

sunnudagur, janúar 09, 2005

through two windows

Chasing the sun from the volcanic tongue of Reykjanes over open water to Greenland, over and onward, the Saint Lawrence Seaway is choked with sea ice wrinkled and cracked like the skin on acrylic paint left too long in the open air. Over Newfoundland the lighter pigments (titanium white and cobalt blue, some aquamarine) seem to have been dragged with a gigantic palette knife over the roughly painted ground (mars black and gesso, dabbed in thickly with a stiff-bristled brush). Some rivers, winding and oxbowed, have been painted in with a soft hair brush afterwards, also with the lighter color. Here and there, almost invisible, are tiny settlements with warm lights (picked out with tapered round brush in palest cadmium yellow).

Later, on the Hudson Line, in the relentless grayness that builds up in this rocky valley in the winter rain, the Palisades are barely visible for the clouds streaming down from the tree-furred clifftops. The great marsh sheltered behind the pier (yellow ochre) is a narrow smudge pushed with the thumb across wet paint. The Hudson River School is not in session here. Or else George Guðni is a visiting professor during the winter qarter.

fimmtudagur, janúar 06, 2005


Isn't it always the case that only on the last day in a borrowed apartment does one manage to turn off the hall light before mistakenly flicking the outdoor light switch first?

miðvikudagur, janúar 05, 2005

que quer dizer nu em Viking

This story is all over the net now. I have seen it in Hungarian, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, English, and Portugese, among other languages. The Daily Times in Pakistan has picked it up. I can no longer find it on the Las Ultimas Noticias site, but that doesn't mean it isn't there somewhere.

I don't find the idea of 38 women being photographed naked in front of Pablo Neruda's house in Santiago so arresting, truth be told, but I am fascinated by this line:

Photographer Rene Alejandro Rojas took the picture,
called Munvich, which means naked in Viking.

This sentence has been translated and retranslated. If you doubt me, tap 'munvich' into the search engine of your choice and enjoy the show. Should you do this, you will find, as I did, that an album of photographs resides here, labelled thusly:

Tomas de desnudos artísticos hechos en Chile, organizados por Munvich.
They are indeed photos of nekkid people.

There seems also at one point to have been a site www.munvich.com, or at least the Google cache remembers one, but it is not accessible at the time of writing.

At this point I should probably clarify the nature of my fascination. I am not trolling for nudies with a new keyword. I am trying to figure out the origin of this mysterious word munvich. Munvich does not mean naked 'in Viking' or even 'in an ancient Nordic language' if what is meant by either of those terms is Old Norse or anything like it. Finnish is also right out, unless I am greatly mistaken. Estonian might possibly have a word resembling this one, but and here we are really pushing the boundaries of both vikingness and the ancient. For the moment, I am stumped.

I don't know how Pablo Neruda feels about this all, but I can't help thinking that José Luís Borges would have been rather disappointed.

three small stones

Three little things that have somehow gone unmentioned in the course of this winter sojourn:

The sign at the end of the allé, near Hringbraut, is made of two posts with thin strips of metal bearing names bolted to them, with narrow gaps between them. In a high wind, the air catches in the gaps and whines and sings, and the whole structure becomes a harmonica. The unwary passer-by making for the busstop in the dark may be startled, thinking that she is hearing voices or the playing of flutes.

Glitský. Eerie, uncommon, opalescent clouds high in the chilly atmosphere. I have seen several. I still do not know what they are called in other languages. They look like something you might see if an oily film were imperfectly cleaned from the membrane of the sky; a smear of fat from the flesh of a salmon, perhaps, or a thumbprint.

I encounter again and unexpectedly a dog whose acquaintance I had made on a previous trip and find that he remembers me and is pleased to see me, smell my hands, lick my face, and rest his long bristly jaw in my lap.

mánudagur, janúar 03, 2005


It has clearly been far too long since I spent quality time with the periodic table of the elements. I really hadn't noticed these names as such before.

Four elements memorializing the North:

Thulium Tm 69 (for Ultima Thule)
Scandium Sc 21 (for Scandinavia)
Hafnium Hf 72 (for Kaupmannahafn, that is, Hafnia or Copenhagen)
Holmium Ho 67 (for Stockholm)

Four more elements all named after the town of Ytterby in Sweden:

Erbium Er 68
Terbium Tb 65
Yttrium Y 36
Ytterbium Yb 70

Two for Old Norse dieties:

Thorium Th 90 (for Þórr, of course)
Vanadium V 23 (for Vanadís, a name of Freyja)

Several for Greco-Roman figures beyond the very obvious Mercury, Helios, etc.:

Niobium Nb 41 (for Niobe)
Tantalum Ta 73 (for Tantalus, her father)
Titanium Ti 22 (for Titan)
Cerium Ce 59 (for Ceres, by way of the asteroid)
Palladium Pd 46 (for Pallas, also by way of the asteroid)

sunnudagur, janúar 02, 2005

objects in mirror

Still and clear, -10° C. Uncommon cold. Even the heated pathways are dotted with round lenses of ice. Facing Vífilsfell from in front of the main University building (usually the apparent source of all wind but today weirdly becalmed), a rising column of steam is visible in the distance, over the hill, past what used to be marshland, on the far side of Hellisheiði.

Sometimes the visibility here is shockingly good. Gott skyggni. Esja towers over the downtown, despite the intervening old harbor between. Things in the far distance hang just beyond the fingertips. Snæfellsjökull glitters too near. Bessastaðir and Keilir poise themselves to rush down Suðurgata at the careless driver. Every lava outcropping and tussock on Suðurnes imposes itself on the eye.

Other times I am grateful for the suffocating fog, and sometimes when that insulation lacks I wish I could hire Georg Guðni to work his magic on the landscape just for me, dull the sharp edge of sight so that it does not cut so readily or deep. Skyggni is not an unmitigated good, and some days I would prefer my skyggni mitigated.

I heard once of a seer, a woman who was skyggn and saw things other people did not, who didn't care much for parties. In a crowd, she could not tell the living from the dead or earthly men from hidden folk and so greeted everyone. This was both distressing to the host and other guests and taxing for her, and so she avoided social events.

I think of her on painfully clear days, when distant things crowd the mind's eye.

laugardagur, janúar 01, 2005

twist and shout

Set the fireworks screaming off into the sky and bellow in admiration when they explode. This is a crucial part of the annual festivities. Watch the grown men in your company regress decades in age. When a particularly enormous bomb flowers directly overhead their voices drop in awe, and they whisper Nú, hver er með svooooona? wondering who among their neighbors had dared to light the fuse of such a monster. Watch the women, even the young ones, feign slight boredom with the spectacle, clucking with affectionate condecension at the boyish antics of their mates, brothers, fathers and sons, obediently performing the established practical, mature, and motherly role that passes for the feminine in these parts. Watch the one poor fellow find that he has nowhere to take the conversation after the foreign guest answers that yes, in fact twice before she has seen New Year's Eve in Reykjavík. (That question is also a traditional part of the annual festivities.)

Note that the name of the box of rockets fired from this roof is Snorri Sturluson: historian, poet, kisser-up to kings, failed politician of the thirteenth century. A literary giant. His first name meant something like 'trouble-maker,' as did that of his father, Sturla, 'stirrer.' In firework form, Snorri Sturluson is forty or fifty twisting squiggles of silver sparks that whistle and scream off over the nearby rooftops.

Hvaðan þið eruð