Friday, 20 March 2015

Sony and Scott de Martinville

A bit of mail the other day asked if I'd review something I'd bought: the subject line helpfully told me There’s still time to review your recent Argos purchase. Normally I'd've ignored it, but as it reminded me of an impulse buy that I'd regretted I followed the link thinking 'OK Argos, you asked for it' and ranted away.
After a sentence or two I noticed the warning Maximum review-length exceeded by 243 characters. How very dare they,  invite me to vent and then pull the rug out from under my... er... keyboard? So I gave them a couple of dismissive sentences, and stored my words of wisdom for future recycling.
It was hard to set up, because the ON/OFF switch was hidden away at the back. With the radio I was replacing the ON/OFF switch was at the front. This was convenient because switching off with this button was more graceful (in engineering terms); think of a Windows PC – it has to be shut down properly. Switching off my previous  DAB radio directly at the socket made an audible popping sound (increasing wear on the speakers). With a button on the front, switching off properly was easy.
But, as it happened, this radio did not have a graceful way of shutting down; the popping sound was equally loud whether I switched off at the wall or using the inconveniently placed ON/OFF switch. So I ignore the popping sound and switch off at the wall. People who know me personally will know how to interpret the word 'ignore'.

OK, what's bought is bought; Quod empsi empsi.

But this serves to introduce the theme of sound transmission technology. Recently I caught the end of a TV series that asked How we got to now with Steven Johnson and as his name was part of the title I assumed he was an expert. Perhaps so [definitely, it appears], but not in all things, in particular with respect to phononograms. [Oops – I misheard his accent; he gets it right, but with a confusingly trans-Atlantic twang.]

The phonautograph, a precursor of Edison's Earth-changing invention, is described here (about 9 minutes in). Johnson asks
Why has nobody heard of this guy? Because, unbelievably, Scott's design was missing one crucial feature: playback.
It could record, but not reproduce. This is strangely (inversely, in every way, including commercial success) like the Sony Walkman, which was based on an existing dictation machine, but with the recording facility neutered. (For all I know the technology was still there inside the box, but as it had no User Interface it might as well not have been. This cnet piece may tell you.)
This reminds me of a project I worked on in the late 1980s, which similarly involved taking an expensive bit of kit and bastardizing it – 'cost-reduced engineering' was the buzzword du jour.
So whereas Sony made a mint by taking a sound recorder and removing the ability to record sound  – a sound recorder that couldn't record     Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville made not a sou by inventing a machine that could record but couldn't play back.

Ho hum. I wanted to find a quote from one of  Eça de Queirós's Cartas de Inglaterra. Eça was a sort of 19th-century Alastair Cook, based in England, and writing home not to the UK but to Portugal.

Full details here
When he hears reports of Edison's 1877 invention, he imagines their primary use will  be in making 'living wills' – understandable really as (in the words of that Johnson TV programme)
For the 100,000 years since language developed, every word  ever spoken by anyone was immediately lost to the air.
And one of the video clips used to illustrate these words is a death-bed scene. Letting the dead speak was a major selling point of sound recording technology. But that quote will have to wait until after the concert I'm singing in on Saturday. Don't miss it.

Update: 2018.03.10.17:05 – Removed old footer.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015


I took advantage last Sunday of an invitation to sing as an alumnus at a concert of possibly the greatest musical retelling of a story we all know well – some better than others.
In my youth I spent many an hour standing through readings  on Palm Sunday and on Good Friday (dramatized readings on that day, to the extent of having separate voices for the Evangelist, Jesus, Pilate, Peter et al., but without Bach's extraordinary music).
</autobiographical note>
And between rehearsals I went down to the Fitzwilliam Museum to see Those Bronzes. I can't say I was deeply impressed. The anatomical detail of the nude riders was impeccable, though the anatomical detail of the panthers was  no better than could be expected of an early 16th century European sculptor. And the mechanical/dynamic details were frankly extraordinary (in a bad way). The riders' backsides were hovering improbably about a hand's breadth (scaling up by a factor of 3 or 4,  as the bronzes were surprisingly small) from their steeds' backs. There were two possible explanations: the riders, supported, apparently, chiefly at knee-level, had remarkably (improbably?) strong thighs; or the sculptor was (wrongly) assuming a horse-like trotting gait (rather than a feline one) – with the riders effectively in mid-air.

My visit to the Fitzwilliam  was accidentally (and charmingly) prolonged by a Music in the Fitzwilliam lunchtime concert.  [That  link doesn't cover the Chamber Music recital I stumbled upon (quietly).]

So I was a few minutes late for the afternoon rehearsal.

The concert itself was good, though I could have done better – as I had sung the piece with two other choirs I thought I knew it better than I did. But the music was beautiful, and Knowles-proof. And I was amazed, as usual by the drama of Bach's word-painting.
from Rick Marschall's biography, p. 99 
[I imagine the English word 'beck' – now for the most part reserved for dialects and crossword puzzles  is related.]
Beethoven's pun came to mind as I listened to the recit before Peter's Ach, mein Seelinn, with its excruciating chromatic keening – a mixture of grief, fear, and self-pity. Not long afterwards the dramatic writing is no less oceanic when the veil of the Temple is rent 'from top to bottom' [cascade of  little black notes] and 'the earth did quake' [another three bars of frenetic black notes], until an uneasy peace is restored when 'many bodies of saints arose'. 

The concert was followed by dinner and drinks. (I transpired to be less resilient than I had been 40 years ago, and retired at tennish.)

My room was in a part of the college that I had last visited in my post-graduate year, as my Supervisor had rooms on P Staircase. I was disappointed in the morning  to find that breakfast was not, as billed, served in Hall, but in the Bar – which was decorated with a poster taken from the College Archives. It was a May Week production of Tamburlane the Great, which I thought I recognized as one I had seen in 1972.

But I soon realized – because of the prices ("5s. and 3/6") – that it couldn't have been.
In early 1971 I was working in Vehicle Registration (pre-Swansea) and one of my tasks involved part-reimbursement of road tax paid in £.s.d. and reimbursed in decimal money.
So  those prices must have pre-dated my matriculation. Besides, I now realize, the time of year was wrong. The production I saw was the Fresher's Production – done in the Michaelmas Term of my second year. The fresher producing it was one Robert McCrum, and it was, to say the least, a confusing event. It was done on a typical student shoe-string budget, and in modern dress. The cast of thous... [well, probably 20-30, there were only 60-odd in the undergraduate cohort ] were clothed from their own wardrobes, and the design concept was that the two armies had distinctly coloured sweaters – brown and green. But of course the Browns ranged from dark chocolate to khaki, and the Greens  ranged from British Racing Green to ... khaki. So there was a good deal of crossover.

Returning to the Bar and the poster, it featured a caricature of the 'Marlowe' portrait; 

and as it happened at dinner I was sitting next to the man who wrote an article (or completed it on behalf of the named author) in my Alumnus organ 'the Association Letter' last year, ) pooh-poohing the identification. In fact, some of the browsing and sluicing (not mine, that phrase, Wodehouse's) took place in a room where that  painting was hung – a neat coincidence.

I wrote some time ago here and here about the Corpus Chronophage. I failed, then, to mention a reminiscence that came to mind again this weekend:
A few years ago I was in Cambridge, and missed a trick. I was at the front of the crowdlet in front of the Chronophage, and a tourist behind  me wondered aloud what the inscription meant: 
Mundus transit, et concupiscentia ejus 
It took me a while to work it out, as two of the less obvious words (everything except transitet and ejus) had glyphs that hid the letters un and en behind the conventional stone mason's tilde, giving û and ê. But what it says could be rendered as The world passes, as does its concupiscence. (I think the comma justifies my as does).
 <meta_digression type="autobiographical">
Some might prefer greed or avarice. But my sixth-form form tutor, for whom the word cadaverous might have been invented, insisted that what 'concupiscence' meant in Canon Law (his focus at the time) was not just greed or avarice but the tendency to want that which you know you shouldn't indulge in. So that mundus tag could be rendered more pithily (in the words  of an anonymous 18th century suicide note) as All this buttoning and  unbuttoning.</meta_digression>
My opportunity was to contribute to The Cambridge Experience for these tourists, suggesting that around every corner there lurked a Vulgar Latinist. But by the time I'd worked it out, the moment had passed. So here it is now: talk about Esprit d'escalier – more like Esprit du plus ténu souvenir.

Enough of this; back to that mundum . And more word-hacking.


 In fact he was also my Director of Studies, though I had chiefly social contact with him during my undergraduate years, as most of my supervisions happened outside College. He supervised my postgraduate year.

Update 2015.03.10.17:10 – Added this note, correcting a faulty memory:
This, as I have been reminded by an erstwhile fellow chorister (who didn't sing on Sunday as he was otherwise engaged running), is rubbish(!) My memory derailed itself; and wronged both Robert McCrum (1972) and Howard Goodison (1971), producers of two different freshers' productions. The brown/green jumpers belonged to the previous year's play  –  Troilus.

Update 2015.03.11.15:45 – Added bit on Bach's word-painting in red.

Update 2017.01.09.23:14 – Corrected quoted text (Ach mein Sinn) and deleted old footer.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Keeping the conversational pot boiling.

Excuse the recent sparsity of blogging. I've been preparing for this concert and also hacking away at the word-face (assiduous followers may have caught my foray into the world of schmaltz as I‘m still on "-al".)

A few days ago I caught on Radio 4 Extra a reading of an Edith Nesbit ghost story:
The Ebony Frame (it was  a repeat of a recording made in 2012, so  not iPlayer-able; that link is to Google Books.) What caught my attention was this sentence:
Mildred and her mother kept the conversational pot boiling with a profusion of genteel commonplaces, and I bore it, as one can bear mild purgatories when one is in sight of heaven. 
What particularly struck  me was the expression "keeping the conversational pot boiling". Grim Tales , the collection that includes The Ebony Frame, was published in 1893 (says  ISFDB) and Etymonline dates potboiler to 1864 in what it calls "the figurative  literary sense". So Edith Nesbit was expanding  the scope of an idiomatic (and quite recent) coining, and at the same time illuminating it. Etymonline glosses it as "The notion is of something one writes solely to put food on the table"  – the figurative pot is the one on the author's cooker. Well,  ye-e-s-s-s, but where – there – is the idea of "keeping something going"? (the something  in question being a commercial literary presence)? It wasn't until hearing that Nesbit usage  that I saw this image's richness.

The word potboiler has – not inappropriately – been a slow burner, as the Collins frequency graph shows:

So much for pot boiling. 


PS A quick clue to keep you going: Letting off about marching orders. (9)

Update 2015.03.06.18:55 – Updated TES stats.

Update 2015.11.06.12:05 – Added PPS

And while we're on the subject of conversations, my ears pricked up earlier this week when I heard a reading from a book by Agatha Christie: it was a sentence something like 'They were dining tête-à-tête [I assume she would have used italics in those days] on the other side of the room.'  Now I know that tête-à-tête was originally, in French, a prepositional phrase, often used adjectivally, but that prepositional use in English struck me as rather dated. Onelook finds 18 (serious) dictionaries, some of which recognize this prepositional use, but the popular preference is summarized in this snippet:
screengrab from Onelook

This calls for further research – but not now. I  must do my Good Turn for the day.

(And I'm still thinking about that clue! I thought it was a good'un [though I says so as shouldn't] when I hatched it.)

Mammon When Vowels Get Together V5.2: Collection of Kindle word-lists grouping different pronunciations of vowel-pairs. Now complete (that is, it covers all vowel pairs –  but there's still stuff to be done with it; an index, perhaps...?) 

And here it is: Digraphs and Diphthongs . The (partial) index has an entry for each vowel pair that can represent each monophthong phoneme. For example AE, EA and EE are by far the most common pairs of vowels used to represent the /i:/ phoneme, but there are eight other possibilities. The index uses colour to give an idea of how common a spelling is, ranging from bright red to represent the most common to pale olive green to represent the least common.

I'm thinking about doing a native iBook version in due course, but for now Mac users can use Kindle's own (free) simulator.

Also available at Amazon: When Vowels Get Together: The paperback.

And if you have no objection to such promiscuity, Like this

Freebies (Teaching resources:  
well over 46,800 views  and nearly 7,000 downloads to date**. They're very eclectic - mostly EFL and MFL, but one of the most popular is from KS4 History, dating from my PGCE, with well over 2,500 views and well over 1,000 downloads to date. So it's worth having a browse.)

** This figure includes the count of views for a single resource held in an account that I accidentally created many years ago.