Saturday, July 10, 2021

Death by Balloon

Eight years ago I put up a post about Japan’s World War II rather random weapon, the incendiary balloon. I just came across a more thorough account in Nicholas Basbanes’ history of paper. The balloons were made of paper, so … 

[This] ambitious [balloon] offensive was deemed feasible on the strength of meteorological research conducted in the 1930s that had discovered ‘rivers of fast moving air’ flowing in the upper atmosphere toward North America, wind patterns that we know today as jet streams. …

Seven manufacturing centers were set up around Tokyo to assemble what was code-named the Fu-Go Weapon (the first character of the word for balloon is fu), with handmade paper selected for the skin of the thirty-two-foot-diameter balloons, six hundred individual sheets required for each one, all glued together in a lamination that made no allowance for gas leakage. …

It is believed that nine thousand balloon bombs were launched from three coastal locations in Japan between November 3, 1944, and April 5, 1945, each inflated with nineteen thousand cubic feet of hydrogen. About a thousand are thought to have reached North America … Sightings were confirmed in locations that ranged from Alaska, British Columbia, and Manitoba … to Oregon, Washington, California, Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska … One traveled as far east as Grand Rapids, Michigan … Wreckage … turns up from time to time in densely wooded areas, one as recently as 1992. …

Unwilling to give the Japanese any information to fine-tune their assaults, American censors placed a strict embargo on all details of the raids. … The … assault was not without its victims, however. On May 5, 1945, a woman and five children on an outing near the Gearhart Mountains, northwest of Klamath Falls, Oregon, came across a strange object lying on the ground; all six were killed when one of them apparently tugged on a dangling line, triggering a bomb. A memorial plaque erected after the war identifies the location as the ‘only place on the American continent where death resulted from enemy action during World War II.’

The people killed in the ballon bombing campaign were almost all children. Children killed by balloons. Children love balloons!


On Paper: the everything of its two-thousand year history

by Nicholas A. Basbanes

2013. Alfred A. Knopf, New York

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

The structure of Oz

In her book on writing Ariel Gore uses The Wizard of Oz to illustrate “the classic five-act” structure for a novel. She calls it “the traditional Western male story structure that so much of modern prose relies on.”

Act I : “This is your background … This act shows your character in her known world, in her daily life, in her culture or subculture. This is Dorothy in Kansas before the tornado.”

Act II : “Your character faces a crisis and leaves something that is known for something that is unknown. … This is Dorothy landing in Oz.”

Act III : “This act introduces a complication or further conflict. Here your character faces tests, bumps in the road, a temptation or distraction from the goal. … This is Dorothy crossing a fast-moving river, falling asleep in the poppy field, seeking an audience with the Wizard.”

Act IV : “In this act, it appears that the forces of ‘evil’ will win out, the character will never reach her destination … Total defeat. The Wizard is a fraud.”

Act V : “There is a turn of events … that enables your character to resolve the problem, get to her destination or home again. … Dorothy realizes she has what she needs within herself to get home. Tap, tap, tap.

Ariel Gore mixes up the original L. Frank Baum novel and the MGM movie adaptation somewhat. There’s no fast-moving river in the movie, but there is in the novel. There is no realization in the novel that Dorothy has always had everything she needs to get home. But it does take a sorceress to tell her the silver shoes will get her there, the very shoes she’s been wearing ever since she shook the dust of the Wicked Witch of the East out of them. Her companions, the Tin Woodman, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion, are the ones who already had what they needed within themselves.  


How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead

by Ariel Gore

2007. Three Rivers Press / Crown Publishing / Random House

Monday, April 19, 2021

“make it impossible”

In an interview with a book editor, Ariel Gore asks for tips on the kind of query they would like to see. 

The editor shakes their head at “sloppy” authors who don’t “really put a lot of time and effort into making the best impression.” The editor goes on, “The sad truth is that, like everyone else, agents and editors are busy, and as much as we want to find the next book we can’t turn down, there is such a high volume of material coming in that it’s easier to find reasons to say no than to say yes.”

The editor concludes, “The author’s job is to make it impossible for us to say no.”

That’s what the author’s job is. The book is obviously secondary. You’d better be good at sales, author. You’d better be a real salesman. 

None of this is a new information. Since I was a kid I’ve been reading books on how to be a writer and achieve publication. But this is one of those things about being an author that I find discouraging. Sales. I’m no good at sales. 

The editor’s obvious disgust for authors is offputting, too. I get it. Editors are overwhelmed by the mass of manuscript that comes their way. On their bad days they’d prefer 99% of the hopefuls clogging their in-box would just drop dead. In order to stand out you’d better be good at jumping up and down on the page and shouting in just that way that demonstrates your brilliance, the million-selling potential of your product, your obedient and marketable personality, etc. 

I like to write. I get a lot of value out of it. Having written interesting things, I would like to find a publisher for them. But the sort of advice the editor is dishing up always depresses me. Make it impossible, they say. But that seems to be their job.


How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead

by Ariel Gore

2007. Three Rivers Press / Crown Publishing / Random House

Thursday, March 11, 2021

word of the day: suguration

word of the day: suguration

The elderly, ailing Aunt Jane is telling her heirs what to expect from her will.


Aunt Jane turned to her brother.

‘I have also provided for you, John, in the sum of five thousand dollars.’

‘Me!’ he exclaimed, astounded. ‘Why, suguration, Jane, I don’t —‘

‘Silence!’ she cried, sternly. ‘I expect neither thanks nor protests. If you take care of the money, John, it will last you as long as you live.’

Uncle John laughed.

I googled “suguration” and got one search result — Aunt Jane’s Nieces. The website Word in Context quotes exactly the same passage, but offers no definition. 

Presumably Baum coined it. I’m guessing the first two syllables “sugur” sound like “sugar.” So the word might be heard as “sugar-ration.” 

There is a long tradition of nonsense words being used in place of curses or other taboo words, from “darn” for “damn” to “freaking” for “fucking,” and Baum is not the first or last to make one up himself. Nor is it unusual to switch something sweet in for something nasty. The “honey wagon” that pumps the sewage out of your septic tank comes to mind.

source: Aunt Jane’s Nieces

by L. Frank Baum, writing as Edith Van Dyne

1906/2003. International Wizard of Oz Club, Antioch CA

Sunday, March 07, 2021

Wizard of Oz as allegory

In her book on Modern Monetary Theory Stephanie Kelton touches on the most obvious, inarguable allegory of The Wizard of Oz:

The United States is the wealthiest country in the history of the world. But even when Americans were at their poorest during the Great Depression, we managed to establish Social Security and the minimum wage, electrify rural communities, provide federal housing loans, and fund a massive jobs program. Like Dorothy and her companions in The Wizard of Oz, we need to see through the myths and remember once again that we’ve had the power all along.

The Cowardly Lion was already brave, the Tin Woodman already compassionate (not what you’d expect for someone without a heart), and the Scarecrow (despite having a head stuffed with straw) took care to think things through. In other words, the Oz friends had to learn that what held them back were “myths,” as Kelton puts it. 

The myth Kelton addresses in her book is the myth that the U.S. is deeply in debt and we must continually cut spending in order to keep from going under. I’ve found this truism of Washington politics most curious in the case of our endless wars and so-called defense spending. There never seems to be an issue about paying for that stuff. And yet the economy doesn’t crash based on profligate military budgets. 

Don’t our taxes pay for everything the government does? No, says Stephanie Kelton. Taxes don’t actually pay for the federal government. The federal government self-funds — by printing money. Also, the federal government is never in debt. Those treasury bills bearing interest, that we can read as the federal debt? They’re not really a debt. They’re a way to get people to use the money the USA creates. 

There’s a lot more to Kelton’s argument, and I’m not sure I get it all. But before I read the book I knew there was plenty of money — there is plenty of money to do everything we need to do, everything that’s really a good idea, and a lot of silly, just-for-fun things. Stephanie Kelton backs me up on that. 

The last time I wrote about Wizard as allegory was back in 2012


The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the birth of the people’s economy

by Stephanie Kelton

2020. Public Affairs / Perseus Books / Hachette Book Group, New York

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

unholy math

In medieval Europe the numerals we use today weren’t so much unknown as they were taboo. They were sinful, evil, because Christianity. 

Numbers were dangerous; at least these Indian [also known as Arabic] numbers were. They were contraband. The zero was the most unholy: a symbol for nothingness, a Hindu concept, influenced by Buddhism and transplanted to Christian Europe. It became a secret sign, a signal between fellow travelers. Sunyata was a well-established Buddhist practice of emptying the mind of all impressions, dating as far back as about 300 B.C. The Sanskirt term for zero was sunya, meaning ‘empty’ or ‘blank.’ Flashing a zero to another merchant let him know that you were a user of Hindu-Arabic numerals. In many principalities, Arabic numerals were banned from official documents. Math was sometimes exported to the West by ‘bootleggers’ in Hindu-Arabic numerals. There is plentiful evidence of such illicit number use in thirteenth-century archives in Italy, where merchants used Gwalior numbers as a secret code.

Hindu-Arabic numerals were so much easier to use in calculations than Roman numerals that they were even considered magical — which, of course, made them more verboten. 

I wonder how many mathematicians were burned at the stake. 


Lost Discoveries: the ancient roots of modern science — from the Babylonians to the Maya

by Dick Teresi

2002. Simon & Schuster, New York, NY

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

New York City tableau

The musician known as Moby namedrops a lot in his memoir Then It Fell Apart. He also drinks a lot and does a lot drugs.  This was the paragraph that maxed the namedropping: 

Teany had become a place where some of the public figures in the neighborhood like to hang out, and somehow today they had all shown up at the same time. Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore, and Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth were at one of the tables. David Bowie and Iman and their toddler daughter were at another table. A few feet away Gus Van Sant was having tea with Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and Joaquin Phoenix. Outside, Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal were having scones.

Do I want to hang out with David Bowie and Jake Gyllenhaal and that lot? Wouldn’t it be nice?

Moby is, like, one month older than me. He found fame and wealth pursuing his art. The adoring crowds, the money, the celebrity buddies made him feel loved. For a little while. 

Teany was a tea shop / lounge that Moby and his girlfriend Kelly opened in NYC. Moby had a lot of money to throw around. He financed teany, but says Kelly did almost all the work. Theirs is one of the longer relationships Moby describes in his book. Intimacy gives him panic attacks, he says, and he evens himself out with large quantities of drink. 

Moby describes taking every kind of drug, often in poured in together, though he drinks so much the drugs are really only sprinkles on the alcohol cupcake. 

It’s hard to feel sorry for someone who buys a three-storey penthouse apartment with expansive views of Central Park. But, yeah, the poor guy was unhappy. And Natalie Portman wishes he wouldn’t say they were ever in a relationship. 


Then It Fell Apart


2019. Faber & Faber, London UK

Saturday, February 06, 2021

The French in Bernard into Battle

Bernard into Battle is the last book in Margery Sharp’s Rescuers series (or, as the author seems to prefer it, the Miss Bianca series). This last adventure has the mice who live in the Embassy threatened by an invasion of rats from the sewer. The mice must mount a defense, and, it turns out, it’s a deadly battle. 

The rats lay siege to the Moot Hall of the Mouse Prisoners’ Aid Society, which is an old wine barrel. To thwart the rats, the mice fight back with chemical warfare — a particularly stinky old cheese:

[The] fumes [of the bad cheese] proved so deadly, the rats succumbed as before a gas attack. Those in front fell sideways from their hunkers with all four feet in the air, and even the rearmost ranks choked and spluttered but a moment before following suit, and within a moment all were hors de combat (which is French for being down and out). Even Hercules was hors de combat, he the foremost of all having received the Gorgonzola’s full blast absolutely nez a nez (which is French for head on), and lay senseless upon what should have been his field of victory!

The deadliness of the fumes prove to be more figure of speech than real poison, and the rats recover to attack another day.

While the rats are recuperating, our old friend Bernard convinces Miss Bianca to stay out of any future fray. She may be able to talk a cat out of eating a mouse, but Bernard doesn’t think Miss Bianca’s silver tongue is up to the challenge of a swarm of rats. Miss Bianca, however, refuses to be cooped up 24/7.

Bernard … consented to [Miss Bianca] walking out for twenty minutes or so each day in the Radish Patch, which permission he gave more readily because the Radish Patch was surrounded by practically a cheval-a-frise of close set holly bushes …

The war culminates in a real pitched battle. Pen-nibs have been appropriated from the Ambassador’s office to act as spear heads. Even thus armed, our mouse heroes are outmatched by the burlier rats.

Many a pen-nib indeed found its mark in rattish vitals, but even a rat struck to the heart could ere he succumbed still bowl his assailant over and leave it to a fellow-rat to administer the bite, or coup de grace.

Hercules, the leader of the rats, is confident of victory.

Hercules advanced at the head of his corps d’elite (again French, meaning his best troops).

definitions: Margery Sharp usually provides quick translations of her French in Bernard into Battle. But here are some versions from the internet, too:

hors de combat : Out of action due to injury or damage.

nez a nez : face to face

cheval-a-frise : an obstacle, usually a piece of wood with projecting spikes, formerly used to hinder enemy horsemen 

coup de grace : a death blow or death shot administered to end the suffering of one mortally wounded

corps d’elite : A select group


Bernard into Battle

by Margery Sharp

illustrated by Leslie Morrill

1978. Little, Brown, & Co., Boston

Monday, January 25, 2021

word of the day: jeu d’esprit

word of the day: jeu d’esprit

Miss Bianca has returned from what turned out to be a rather boring vacation for her in the mountains. She couldn’t play in the snow with the Boy, who is her special human friend, so she’s mostly been restricted to staring out windows. Upon her return to the Embassy she learns that Bernard has gone off on a rescuing mission without her. Miss Bianca is the prime mover of the Mouse Prisoners’ Aid Society so she is worried. She knows Bernard is capable, yet … 

So when he shows up at the end of his own adventure, Miss Bianca is much relieved. 

“[H]ow tired you must be …, my dear, dear Bernard!”

"Just a bit whacked," admitted Bernard. "Did you miss me at all, Miss Bianca, while you were away at that mountain resort?"

"Did I miss you!" exclaimed Miss Bianca. "You were hardly absent from my thoughts! I even wrote a poem about you!"

"Really?" cried Bernard. "Really and truly? Oh Miss Bianca, won’t you repeat it to me?"

"’Twas but a jeu d’esprit which I’ve almost forgotten," said Miss Bianca.

"Can’t you remember even a line or two of it?" pressed Bernard.

"Well, the last two," said Miss Bianca, "were O Bernard are you all right / Out of my sight?"

Bernard drew a deep, happy breath.

Ah, to be immortalized in a poem by the beloved! Now, if only she would love him. 

definition (Collins): a clever, witty turn of phrase, piece of writing, etc.


Bernard the Brave

by Margery Sharp

illustrated by Leslie Morrill

1977. Little, Brown & Co., Boston

Sunday, January 24, 2021

word of the day: facer

word of the day: facer

In the role of rescuer (representing the Mouse Prisoners’ Aid Society) Bernard has at last succeeded in the necessary first step of mounting a rescue — finding the prisoner. 

The heiress to be freed from bondage expresses full confidence in her would-be savior. 

“I … place myself entirely in your hands!’ [the young lady says.]

This was a bit of a facer for Bernard, who … had as yet no solid plan for rescuing her.

definition (Merriam-Webster): British : a sudden often stunning check or obstacle


Bernard the Brave

by Margery Sharp

illustrated by Leslie Morrill

1977. Little, Brown & Co., Boston

Saturday, January 23, 2021

word of the day: midinette

word of the day: midinette

Bernard, in his role as agent of the Mouse Prisoners’ Aid Society, is trapped himself when two scrubwomen enter the room where he has not found the missing heiress. The women are “discuss[ing] their Easter bonnets — Easter bonnets meaning as much to a scrubwoman as any topknot worn by a midinette in Paris on St. Catherine’s day.”

Thus the women, who otherwise could spell doom for a mouse, are distracted enough for Bernard to make his escape. 

definition (Merriam-Webster): a Parisian shopgirl; especially : a Parisian seamstress


Bernard the Brave

by Margery Sharp

illustrated by Leslie Morrill

1977. Little, Brown & Co., Boston

Friday, January 22, 2021

word of the day: rebarbative

word of the day: rebarbative

Trying to fulfill his rescuing duties as agent of the Mouse Prisoners’ Aid Society, Bernard confronts the largest house on the Grand Boulevard. It’s supposedly where a young heiress is being held captive to prevent her coming into her fortune. 

The front door is impenetrable. 

[Bernard’s] experience of prisons, however, had taught him that however rebarbative their frontage, there was often a weakness at the back; so … he … nosed cautiously round the building’s huge bulk, where his expectations were fulfilled by the sight of [a] back door … so jammed ajar by cartons and waste-paper, Bernard was easily able to slip in.

definition ( causing annoyance, irritation, or aversion; repellent.


Bernard the Brave

by Margery Sharp

illustrated by Leslie Morrill

1977. Little, Brown & Co., Boston

Thursday, January 21, 2021

word of the day: doss

word of the day: doss

Miss Bianca and Bernard have always mounted their rescues together, being the main actors in the Mouse Prisoners’ Aid Society. But Miss Bianca has gone with her human family on a salutary excursion to the ski slopes, so when an elderly mouse shows up to beg their help with his darling human mistress, it is only Bernard who can heed the call.

When the entreater expresses doubt about Bernard’s ability, Bernard retorts,

“I’ve had more experience in prisoner-rescuing than you seem to realize. I don’t suppose a few hours [delay in beginning] will make any difference; you doss down where you are [on the couch] and I’ll go back to bed.”

For [Bernard] always believed in getting a good night’s rest before any unusual enterprise, and if possible a good breakfast as well.

definition (Merriam-Webster): chiefly British

to sleep or bed down in a convenient place —usually used with down

We’ve encountered doss before as part of the compound doss-house


Bernard the Brave

by Margery Sharp

illustrated by Leslie Morrill

1977. Little, Brown & Co., Boston

Friday, January 08, 2021

“a single character was missing”

In their book about the New Horizons mission to Pluto authors Alan Stern and David Grinspoon go on at length about the proofreading, troubleshooting, and rehearsals required for the mission. Nothing was checked just once — or just twice. Everything had to be gone over again and again. 

At times the failed attempts to explore Mars have made that planet seem cursed. Yet the authors want you to know that Mars didn’t do anything — we fucked up. Cognizance of that history deeply informs all planetary missions.

The history of space flight is replete with … tragic examples of … accident[s caused by seemingly tiny errors]. NASA’s Viking 1 Lander, the first successful Mars lander, had been lost six years after it touched down on the Martian surface, when a software update, meant to correct a battery-charging error, had accidentally included commands to redirect the communication dish. The errant commands pointed Viking 1’s dish antenna at the ground, where it could no longer communicate with Earth, and just like that - the mission was over. Similarly, Russia’s Mars probe called Phobos 1 was lost in 1986 when a single character was missing from a software upload. This minuscule mistake caused the spacecraft to deactivate its attitude-control thrusters; as a result its solar panels could no longer track the Sun, and the batteries lost all their power. It was never recovered. And in one of the most painful and embarrassing failures in the history of spaceflight, NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter came in too low as it approached Mars in 1999, burning up in the atmosphere. The problem was traced to the fact that two groups of engineers had used different sets of units when computing the Mars orbit insertion maneuver: one engineering group had been using imperial units (feet and pounds), while the other group had been using metric (meters and Newtons).

All that checking and rechecking paid off for the New Horizons mission and we have amazing close-up views of a world we can barely see from Earth. 


Chasing New Horizons: inside the epic first mission to Pluto

Alan Stern and David Grinspoon

2018. Picador, New York