Friday, September 20, 2002

Why do so many writers prefer pudder to simplicity?

One of my favorite books on writing is Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers. It's something like a British Elements of Style, and its wit and good sense remind me of Orwell's great "Politics and the English Language." Here's a taste of it.

Why do so many writers prefer pudder to simplicity? It seems to be a morbid condition contracted in early manhood. Children show no signs of it. Here, for example, is the response of a child of ten to an invitation to write an essay (its genuineness is guaranteed) on a bird and a beast:

'The bird that I am going to write about is the Owl. The Owl cannot see at all by day and at night is as blind as a bat.

'I do not know much about the Owl, so I will go on to the beast which I am going to choose. It is the Cow. The Cow is a mammal. It has six sides--right, left, an upper and below. At the back it has a tail on which hangs a brush. With this it sends the flies away so that they do not fall into the milk. The head is for the purpose of growing horns and so that the mouth can be somewhere. The horns are to butt with, and the mouth is to moo with. Under the cow hangs the milk. It is arranged for milking. When people milk, the milk comes and there is never an end to the supply. How the cow does it I have not yet realised, but it makes more and more. The cow has a fine sense of smell; one can smell it far away. This is the reason for the fresh air in the country.

'The man cow is called an ox. It is not a mammal. The cow does not eat much, but what it eats it eats twice, so that it gets enough. When it is hungry it moos, and when it says nothing it is because its inside is all full up with grass."

The writer had something to say and said it as clearly as he could, and so has unconsciously achieved style. But why do we write, when we are ten, "so that the mouth can be somewhere" and perhaps when we are thirty "in order to ensure that the mouth may be appropriately positioned environmentally"?

I've quoted this at length because the little essay Gowers includes is one of my favorite pieces of writing of all time.

Thursday, September 19, 2002

Warp drive in our lifetimes? Not bloody likely, but CERN researchers have managed to isolate 50,000 atoms of anti-hydrogen. As any trekkie (trekker?) knows, matter and anti-matter annihilate one another to create pure energy, but researchers are interested in discovering whether anti-hydrogen has the same physical characteristics as hydrogen.

Tuesday, September 17, 2002

The Roman Empire: from 1 AD until the fall of Byzantium

This site has simply the most exquisite colour maps of the Roman Empire I have been able to find anywhere on the net. If you thought the Roman Empire ended when the Goths sacked Rome in 476, then think again. Technically, the Roman Empire ended in 1453 with the fall of Constantinople to the Turks. These maps cover everything in between including the rise of the Carolingian Holy Roman Empire.

I actually found these maps some years ago, but then lost the link. Thankfully I was able to use Google's image search to relocate them. There are maps here that are optimised for slow links but I have to say that whether or not you are laboring under a 56K modem, you really oughta go for the big 'uns! Each map is about 250 KB.

There's plenty here for an history nut like yours truly to gawk at for hours.

Here they are for your viewing convenience:
1 AD 100 AD 200 AD 300 AD 400 AD 500 AD 600 AD 700 AD 800 AD 900 AD 1000 AD 1100 AD 1200 AD 1300 AD 1400 AD 1500 AD

Carthage must be destroyed!

"Cato began to urge that the only sure defense against a resurgent Carthage was to destroy it. Rome would never be safe so long as Carthage stood. He made a campaign of it: Carthago delenda est! -- Carthage must be destroyed! In the 150s [BC] this was Cato's slogan, repeated endlessly. At parties he would bring it up -- Carthago delenda est! In the Senate he might be speaking on any subject, but always found a way to work in his slogan: the harbor at Ostia should be expanded . . . and Carthage must be destroyed! the appointment of Gaius Gaius to provincial governor should be approved . . .and Carthage must be destroyed! A vote of thanks to a loyal tribal chieftain . . . and Carthage must be destroyed!"

A brief but extremely readable account of the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage. The defeat of Carthage was a critical turning point in Roman history it gave Rome mastery of the Mediterranean and in effect transformed it from a tiny republican city-state into a mighty empire.

Monday, September 16, 2002

Twenty years ago today

"The Commission determined that the massacre at Sabra and Shatilla was carried out by a Phalangist unit, acting on its own but its entry was known to Israel. No Israeli was directly responsible for the events which occurred in the camps. But the Commission asserted that Israel had indirect responsibility for the massacre since the I.D.F. held the area, Mr. Begin was found responsible for not exercising greater involvement and awareness in the matter of introducing the Phalangists into the camps. Mr. Sharon was found responsible for ignoring the danger of bloodshed and revenge when he approved the entry of the Phalangists into the camps as well as not taking appropriate measures to prevent bloodshed. Mr. Shamir erred by not taking action after being alerted by communications Minister Zippori. Chief of Staff Eitan did not give the appropriate orders to prevent the massacre. The Commission recommended that the Defense Minister resign, that the Director of Military Intelligence not continue in his post and other senior officers be removed."

--- Israel's Kahan Commission of Inquiry into the massacre at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Beirut which occurred between the 16th and the 18th September 1982
Is it not of national importance that we prepare all our young to be informed and active citizens? Look at the youth vote, or at the low esteem in which politicians are held generally-partly your own fault in parliament, and partly the cynicism of the press. This spills over into a contempt for political activity in general and for acting politically-negotiating, compromising, mediating. We are the last country in the civilised world to think that we need not prepare our young to act like citizens but only for the worlds of work, personal success or consuming pleasures.


You say that young people ought to be interested in the society around them. Who could disagree? My point is that the virtues of citizenship are already delivered by good schools in a variety of lessons and other activities. If good schools can do this, don't interfere with them. If bad schools can't or won't do it, let the inspection process point this out, and provide them with materials which they may want to use. Instead of that, I foresee the introduction of another period rather akin to an uninspiring religious studies lesson, which leaves no trace with the pupils once it is over. Anyone who thinks that making a difficult subject compulsory is the way to inspire young people should track the downward slide in religious observance in this country.

Bernard Crick faces off with Damian Green in a debate concerning the teaching of "Citizenship" in British public schools. Both make good points, but where do you stand? Does the teaching of these classes make better citizens? More active students? Investment in better politicians for a better government?
What smart urbanists want is to have a full range of society within neighborhoods. You need people who are CEOs, and people who are secretaries. You need school teachers, and you need somebody to deliver the pizza. Society doesn’t work unless there are all kinds of people around, in relatively close proximity. Any society that has only one income level is dysfunctional. And, by the way, the great thing about the American system is that everybody can actually aspire to rise to the level of “gentry.” We don’t have the generalized envy and resentment that you find in many other countries.

From an interview with Andres Duany.


On the 24th night of Ramadan there were scary explosions in the place where Osama bin Laden's cave was. It was completely erased, destroyed by an enormous 52ft missile. There is no doubt that Osama bin Laden died. Read on...

Sunday, September 15, 2002

Panoramic Maps of the USA

Aero view of Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1918.

Browse maps by geographic location

The Monkey King

Here is an illustrated version of the prelude to a "Journey to the West" by Wu Ch'eng-en (1500?-1582) a classic Chinese story which is about the fantastic adventures of an immortal Monkey, a Buddhist monk called Tripitaka and a pig spirit, a sea monster and a dragon who make their way to India in order to collect sacred Buddhist texts for the Emperor of China.

This story remains extremley popular in China and throughtout much of east Asia. Monkey's rebellious hell-raising spirit has delighted generations of readers and it has been made into countless movies, animated cartoons and (most notably) a really terrific televison series by the Japanese. Translations of the entire story can be found here and I can highly recommend the very readable abridged version by Arthur Waley.

The part of the tale related here recounts the birth of Monkey, his acquisition of magic powers and immortality, his rebellion against the gods, his capture by the Buddha and his subsequent punishment by burial under a mountain. The main story begins 500 years later when the monk Tripitaka discovers the imprisoned Monkey and sets him free to act as his guide for his journey to India.

One day the Monkey King turned sad. He worried that he would die and would not enjoy the pleasures of life forever. One of the monkeys had read the King's mind and he said, "In the world, only Sages, Immortals and Buddhas live forever. "On hearing these words, the Monkey King's sadness turned to joy. He said, "I will try to find immortality wherever it is. I shall set out tomorrow."

Read the Introduction or the rest of this classic here:

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