Saturday, November 30, 2019


Long ago, I used to read John Simon's movie reviews. Given his reputation, and given the movies, I must have read many savage put-downs. Yet curiously the only two reviews I remember were favorable: one of The Lacemaker, one of an Italian comedy. I did see a number of hard things said in Paradigms Lost: Reflections on Literacy and Its Decline. It was something for Simon to have been thought to be the model for the obnoxious critic in Wilfrid Sheed's Max Jameson, and something to have acknowledged or boasted of the rumor, even if Sheed was in fact his own model.

(The Strand Books website places Paradigms Lost on the third of eight pages if one searches for "John Simon" as author. I can't but think that the late critic would have admired the title of a book on the first page, Filth-diseases and their Prevention, and might have supposed his endeavors to have some relation to those of the earlier John Simon.)

I started to read Clive James much too late, a few book reviews apart. I was hooked a few years ago when I opened Cultural Amnesia to the essay on Margaret Thatcher, which opens with the word "Solzhenitskin", a Thatcher coinage. I am slightly embarrassed to find that of the references in the book, I have followed up at most three: Nirad Chaudhuri, Sergei Diaghilev, and Egon Friedell. (Diaghilev, by visiting the National Gallery of Art's exhibit on the Ballets Russes a couple of years ago.) I have given copies of Cultural Amnesia and Latest Readings to friends, and have read Cultural Cohesion.

Both Simon and James died on Sunday, November 24.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

At the Airport

On Tuesday afternoon, we had a two-hour layover at the Philadelphia airport. When we arrived at the B concourse, we were amazed to find that most of the seats in view--bar stools or seats along tables--had tablet computers in front of them. The tablets' size was about ten inches by six, their manufacturer Initio. One could buy merchandise or services, play games, I suppose watch shows. The one thing one could not obviously do was to sit down without a bright display shining at one.

This was not true of all seats without exception. Along the windows there were the standard low seats one is used to find at airport gates. I suppose that some of the tables in restaurants must be without them, but I'm pretty sure I saw most with. A fortnight before, we saw no tablets in the concourse from which international flights leave.

The good news, we found, is that one can remove the tablet from its stand, and lay it face down on the bar or table. My wife and I did so. Our son simply opened his laptop in front of it so that it could not be seen. Still at least two of us found their presence obnoxious.

Many of the tablets are at long tables. The tables have the merit of offering power outlets, which can be scarce in airports. The tables are tall, about bar height, and the chairs in front of the tablets are bolted to the floor. One could defend both choices: the height of the table, to reduce shoulder surfing, i.e. keep the passers by from reading over one's shoulder; bolting down the chairs to keep the restless or careless from toppling a chair and injuring themselves or others.

It is hard not to see the motive for installing the tablets as a combination of the old human need for distraction--Pascal judged that eighty percent of the world's trouble arises from the inability to sit quietly in a room--and modern business's lust for our data and our dollars. Still, some may find the tablets useful. As long as we can place them face down, I won't resent them that much.

Monday, November 11, 2019

A Joke Lost

In the movie of The Accidental Tourist, there is a scene in which Macon Leary's boss, visiting the home of the Leary siblings, watches them all look at a ringing phone without making a move to answer it. They consider who might be calling--not the brother who is off on an errand, for he would know to call a neighbor instead. The boss becomes more and more nervous as the phone goes unanswered. The scene got a good laugh in the theater where I saw it.

Would anyone under twenty-five understand it? I'm not sure how many under thirty remember the days when a phone readout did not show who was calling (or purporting to call). Few enough live in a household with a landline and a telephone in a common area. Phones these days ride in the pocket and display the caller, or at least the purported number.

Though I grew up with landlines, I can sit peaceably and ignore a phone as once only eccentrics did. I'm sure no movie script would contain such a scene today. But it was funny then.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Dates and Databases

A co-worker of admirable initiative is learning SQL in what is probably best way there is: to meet an immediate need. I have offered a clarification or two when asked, but as far as I can tell she has been mastering it quickly.

A while ago, though, a query that should have produced some rows produced none, and it was not clear why. I had a look at the query provided, where the final restriction was something like
ImportantDate BETWEEN 2015-01-01 and 2017-12-31
meaning "the important date occurred in 2016, 2016, or 2017".

Now, not all database engines will accept this. Oracle will reject it as an attempt to use a number where a date belongs. SQL Server, though, and evidently MySQL will happily read 2015-01-01 and 2017-12-31 as arithmetic expressions reducing to 2013 and 1974 respectively. Now, there is no number that is larger than or equal to 2013 and less than or equal to 1974, so such a condition will never allow rows to be returned. She dropped single quotation marks around the dates, and got what she needed.

Monday, November 4, 2019

On Borrowed Words

Ilan Stavans's On Borrowed Word: A Memoir of Languages turned up here, though I don't quite remember buying it. I must have bought it, and that was the right decision. Stavans is tremendously interesting. I have little or no first-hand knowledge of most of what he writes about: the lives of Mexican Jews (of the generation about to turn 60 and their parents), Mexico in general, or life in Israel. But Stavans gives an interesting picture of his worlds, and of his parents' worlds.

The languages he writes of are Spanish,
I never learned to love Mexico. Instead, adoro the Spanish language. It is far easier for me to think of my birth as having occurred in the tongue of Quevedo, Cervantes, Borges, and Octavio Paz than to perceive myself as un mexicano hecho y derecho.

 Yiddish, a language for which
the number of speakers, whose average age was around fifty, made it a less used language than Serbo-Croatian .... [but] the mother tongue, whereas Spanish, the street language, the one I most often used, was the father tongue. The duality was not artificial; Jewishness (though not Judaism, at least not then) was in my heart and soul.

English, in which at first
 I could, indeed, make myself comfortable in English, but I could not dispel the sense of inhabiting a rented house, of bothering another person's suit.
Hebrew enchanted me. .. But language alone does not make the man, and when I exhausted my curiosity toward Israel, I also let go of the Holy Tongue and gravitated toward Europe.
By the time of writing the book, 2002, he had been resident in the US for a dozen or so years, as student and then as professor, and as journalist explaining the US to Latin America and vice-versa. He was quite at home in the rented house. Few enough born to the tongue write so well.

There are oddities in the book. Stavans's description of his Mexican passport seems to be badly copied from Robert Graves's description of his own in Goodbye to All That. Stavans says that the passport gives his height as 1.58 meters. This is about 5'4", but one can transpose the last two digits to get 1.85 meters, which matches Graves's 6'2". Stavans gives his weight as 170 kg., where Graves stated that he weighed 170 lb. Now 170 lb. is a lean 6'2" and a hefty 5'4". But 170 kg. is a weight for the occasional NFL lineman (generally 1.9 meters tall) or the morbidly obese.