Wednesday, June 28, 2017

A p@ge-ninety test

A page-ninety test, conducted while browsing in a bookstore:

From this starting point as a unit of measure in southern Europe, by the eighteenth century the @ symbol had entered English as mercantile shorthand for “at the rate of,” and by the later nineteenth century the symbol was known by the flatly descriptive appellation “commercial a.” Prospering in commercial circles, noted but not dwelled on by printers and typographers, and rarely warranting much interest from the general reader, the stolid @ symbol nevertheless came close to extinction in the face of two of the nineteenth century’s greatest innovations.

Keith Houston, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, & Other Typographical Marks (New York: W.W. Norton, 2013).
I liked the purposeful repetition: “by the eighteenth century,” “by the later nineteenth century.” I liked the phrase “flatly descriptive appellation.” I liked the parallelism — “prospering,” “noted but not dwelled on,” “rarely warranting” — and the amusing personification of the @ symbol as a “stolid” citizen, doing its work, minding its own business, and suddenly facing extinction. I liked the playful use of color, which runs through the book. And of course I wanted to keep reading: just what were the innovations that threatened this symbol’s life?

Reader, I bought it.

Related posts
Ford Madox Ford’s page-ninety test
My Salinger Year, a page-ninety test
Nature and music, a page-ninety test
A history of handwriting, a page-ninety test
A book about happiness, a page-ninety test
The Slow Professor, a page-forty-five test

[The innovations: the first commercially successful typewriter and Herman Hollerith’s Tabulator for punch cards. Each machine lacked the @ symbol.]

Used-book-store score

Elaine and I just finished what Stefan Zweig called “the large Balzac,” his full-length biography of Honoré de Balzac. Elaine has a 1946 hardcover copy that she treasures. I was reading the book as a PDF from With one day to go in our reading, we stopped for frozen yogurt, checked out the new stuff at the used-book store next door, and found a copy of the 1946 edition, just $3.25. Score.

Related reading
All OCA Balzac and Zweig posts (Pinboard)

[Caution: the PDF is missing two pages.]

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

In search of fake Time

The Washington Post reports that at least four of Donald Trump’s golf courses have displayed a fake Time magazine cover featuring Donald Trump.

[Post title with apologies to M. Proust.]

Balzac, speculating

In 1847 Honoré de Balzac traveled to the Ukraine in pursuit of the wealthy, elusive Madame de Hanska:

As a composer transmutes an emotion or a mood into music, so Balzac made everything he saw into the basis of a financial calculation. He remained the incorrigible speculator. Before he had even arrived at Wierzchownia, while still travelling through the forests on the estate, he gazed at the magnificent trees with an eye to the profit that their owner might reap. His previous failures to make a large fortune at one stroke were forgotten and he immediately submitted to Count Mniszech a plan for exploiting the inexhaustible stocks of timber and turning them into cash. A railway was being built on the frontiers, and in a short time this would link Russia with France. With impatient pencil Balzac drew on a piece of paper a line connecting the forests of Wierzchownia with the sawmills of France:
There is a demand in France at the present moment for enormous quantities of oak to make railway sleepers, but we haven’t got the oak. I know that oak has almost doubled in price, both for building purposes and for cabinet-making.
Then he began to work out the profit and loss. The freight from Brody to Cracow would have to be considered. From Cracow the railway already ran as far as Paris, though with a number of interruptions, since the River Elbe had not yet been adequately bridged at Magdeburg or the Rhine at Cologne. The Ukrainian sleepers would therefore have to be ferried across these two rivers. “The transport of sixty thousand balks will be no trifling matter,” and it would add very considerably to the cost, but they would endeavour to interest bankers in the project and the directors of the French railway company might be persuaded to reduce their charges if it were proved to them that this would be to their own advantage. If they only made five francs profit on each balk, they would be hundreds of thousands of francs to the good even after deduction of all expenses. “It is worth while thinking the matter over.”

There is, perhaps, no need to record that this final offspring of Balzac’s speculative genius never got further than the stage of preliminary discussion.

Stefan Zweig, Balzac, trans. William and Dorothy Rose (London: Casell, 1947).
Related reading
All OCA Balzac and Zweig posts (Pinboard)

[Balk: “beam, rafter” (Merriam-Webster).]

Earl Greyer, correcter

The Republic of Tea makes an excellent Earl Grey tea, Earl Greyer. Its container includes this bit of text:

Goslan gives the account of sipping in the early nineteenth century with the master of Human Comedy: “As fine as tobacco from Ladakh, as yellow as Venetian gold, the tea responded, without doubt, to the praise with which Balzac perfumed it before letting you taste; but you had to submit a kind of initiation to enjoy the droit de degustation . . ."
Nearly two months ago I wrote a letter to the maker:
Dear Republic,

I am a great fan of your teas, particularly your Earl Greyer. But there are three changes you should make, not to your Earl Greyer but to its packaging:

1. The account of drinking tea with Balzac is by Léon Gozlan, not Goslan. If you’re using one of Jason Goodwin’s books on tea, both have the name wrong. The name can be easily verified online.

2. The excerpt from Gozlan’s account is missing a word: “you had to submit to.”

3. The French word dégustation should have its accent, as in Goodwin’s A Time for Tea. It’s part of a French phrase preserved in the English translation, droit de dégustation. The French can be checked in Google Books by searching for gozlan droit de dégustation.

With best wishes for accuracy and good tea,
I thought I’d receive a reply. Maybe even some tea. No reply. No tea. Just this post.

Related reading
All OCA tea posts (Pinboard)

[Correcter, I know, is not a word. I realize now that Goodwin’s The Gunpowder Gardens: Travels through India and China in Search of Tea (1990) and A Time for Tea (2009) are one and the same. For me, reading the package is a habit that began with the breakfast cereals of childhood.]

Monday, June 26, 2017

Henry TV

[Henry, June 26, 2017.]

Do you remember the television-as-furniture? French Provincial and Mediterranean TVs? The set-on-a-cart was a more affordable alternative. That must be why older people always had one (or so it seemed). I hope there’s a copy of “the Guide” on the lower rack.

Henry’s dog Dusty joins Henry, Linus van Pelt, Nancy Ritz, and Woodstock in sitting too close to the television.

Related reading
All OCA Henry posts (Pinboard)

Roscoe Mitchell in TNYT

Roscoe Mitchell, talking to The New York Times. A sample:

“I was once in the car, listening to this radio show, and then all of a sudden this saxophone player came on and I was thinking, like: Wait, every note is different. Every articulation is different. And then at the end they said: ‘That was Benny Carter.’ I was so relieved, I didn’t know what to do.”
Related reading
Other OCA Roscoe Mitchell posts (Pinboard)

[Mitchell’s position as the Darius Milhaud Professor of Music at Mills College is still slated for elimination, along with ten other faculty positions.]

“The old-school landline telephone”

Diane Schirf writes about a relic, “the old-school landline telephone”: And another relic: “The sound of the telephone bell clanging loudly and all the household teenage zombies coming to life with a shout of ‘I’ll get it!’”

[For years I had a thrift-store Model 500 in my office, a present from my children. Its ring startled and delighted visitors. I’ll get it!]

Mystery actor


Do you recognize her? Do you think you recognize her? Leave your best guess in the comments. I’ll provide a hint or two if needed.


Three hours, and not one guess. Here’s a hint: this actor is best known for a role that required a wig.

More mystery actors
? : ? : ? : ? : ? : ? : ? : ? : ? : ? : ? : ? : ? : ? : ? : ? : ? : ?

[Garner’s Modern English Usage notes that “support for actress seems to be eroding.” I’ll use actor.]

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Handwritten letters, 25¢ each

In the Boise Public Library, the Two Quarters Collective’s “Letter Box Project” uses a repurposed vending machine to dispense handwritten letters in English, Basque, Farsi, and Spanish. Since June 1, the machine has dispensed about 400 letters. They sell for 25¢ each.

Related reading
All OCA letter posts (Pinboard)