The Universe of Discourse

Mon, 29 Mar 2021

Skin worms?

The King James Version of Job 19:26 says:

And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God:

I find this mysterious for two reasons. First, I cannot understand the grammar. How is this supposed to be parsed? I can't come up with any plausible way to parse this so that it is grammatically correct.

Second, how did the worms get in there? No other English translation mentions worms and they appear to be absent from the original Hebrew. Did the KJV writers mistranslate something? (Probably not, there is nothing in the original to mistranslate.) Or is it just an interpolation?

Pretty ballsy, to decide that God left something out the first time around, but that you can correct His omission.

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Fri, 26 Mar 2021

Something I didn't know and I bet you didn't either

The Panama Canal has a loyalty program.

If you're planning to ship at least 450,000 TEU per year, you can register in advance and get a discount on your tolls.

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Sun, 21 Mar 2021

Two sentences that made me stop to think

In The ancient fabric that no one knows how to make:

Islam was born in Bangladesh and moved to London about 20 years ago.

Whaaaat? Then I realized: It's someone named “Islam”. Okay.

In Wikipedia's article on some comic book person called “Steppenwolf”:

His decapitated head is crushed by the foot of Darkseid, enraged by his lieutenant's failure.

For this to be correct, Steppenwolf would have to have a second head growing out of his main head. Then if someone cut off the second head, the main head would be a decapitated head.

Not out of the question for a comic book person, but in this case not correct. I changed it to “disembodied head”.

[ Addendum 20210322: Shortly afterward, another editor changed it to “severed head”, which I agree is better. ]

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Sun, 14 Mar 2021

Synthesizer bands

Many years ago I bought tickets to see Depeche Mode live, and I wondered if I wasn't making a mistake. Would they appear on stage, press “play” on the sequencers, and then stand around doing nothing while Dave Gahan sang?

And yes, it was pretty much like that. They were definitely overstaffed. I think there were four people on stage and at any particular time one or two of them were standing around looking bored.

I hadn't thought of this in a long time, but I was reading a Washington Times article about the German synth-pop band Alphaville, contemporaries of Depeche Mode. The article is from 2017, and includes this exchange:

Question: How is it possible that you’ve never played live in America before?

Answer: In the ‘80s we didn’t play live at all because we couldn’t play.

Meaning, they couldn't play any actual instruments. Marian Gold sang, but the rest of the music was preprogrammed on sequencers or assembled in an editing studio. The group composed and produced the music, but there simply was no "performance" in real time. I have to credit Alphaville for refusing to pretend to be performers and instrumentalists.

(For an contrasting approach, consider The Residents, who face the same issue and have dealt with it in a completely different way. The Residents’ stage show is elaborate and spectacular. You hear the music, but there's no way to know who's playing it. There are people on the stage, but are they the composers? Are they instrumentalists? Are they even in the band? Who knows? And does it matter? No, not really. The Residents have never had names or separate identities anyway. I imagine that Daft Punk took a similar approach.)

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Fri, 12 Mar 2021

Trans-Siberian Railway

For no particular reason, I looked up the Trans-Siberian Railway today and learned that its name in Russian is

Транссибирская магистраль

pronounced roughly “trans-siberskaya magistral”. The Транссибирская is clear, but what is магистраль?

Wiktionary says it means "main line" or "trunkline". But it doesn't give an etymology. Still, it's not hard to guess: it's akin to the French (and also English) word “magistral” which means something that relates to a master.

So it's the Trans-Siberian master train line. But "train line” is implicit, the way English-speaking recording engineers use "master" to refer to a master tape, or Americans will call a trunk road an "arterial". English loves to turn adjectives into nouns in that way, but I didn't know that Russian did it also.

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Thu, 11 Mar 2021

Debate between Bird and Fish

I recently read Finkel and Taylor's excellent little book Cuneiform. On page 27 they discuss the kinds of texts that young boys studied in school :

Alongside ‘citizenship training’ through hymns, myths and law codes, schoolboys learnt how to debate. They trained on texts arguing the benefits to mankind of antagonistic pairs: winter and summer, sheep and grain or bird and fish.

“Hey,” I said. “I've read that!” I love when this happens, something pops up that I would have wanted to know a little more about, but it's already something I do know a little more about. I feel like I'm getting somewhere in my project of reading every book ever written. Progress!

From The Debate Between Bird and Fish, Sumerian, around 4000 years ago:

“You cause damage in the vegetable plots; you are a nuisance. In the damp parts of fields, there are your unpleasing footprints. Bird, you are shameless: you fill the courtyard with your droppings.”

Bird retorts:

You are bereft of hips!

It's not so much a debate as a diss battle.

[ Addendum 20210312: Now I would like to see an cartoon version of the debate, animated by Chuck Jones. ]

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Mon, 08 Mar 2021

Canon in Euopean languages and Arabic

Today I was reading about Avicenna's work The Canon of Medicine and learned that the original Arabic title

القانون في الطب

is rendered in Latin script as al-Qānūn fī al-Ṭibb with al-Qānun (“the law”) being translated into English as “Canon” (“rule” or “law”). The English word comes via French and Latin, ultimately from Greek κανών, “rule”.

Is the resemblance between Qānūn and κανών a coincidence, or is the Arabic word originally borrowed from Greek?

I was about to write the next sentence “and where could I have looked this up?” but then I remembered that this kind of thing can be looked up in English Wiktionary. English Wiktionary is not a dictionary of English, but a universal dictionary in English. It not only defines English words, but also words in many other languages, with the descriptions and etmologies written in English.

So I looked it up, and it is a Greek loanword!

The Internet is amazing and wonderful. Truly, we live in an age of marvels.

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Sun, 07 Mar 2021

Henry G. Baker archive

(Summary: Henry Baker's web site has disappeared after 30 years. I kept an archive.)

Henry G. Baker is a computer programmer and computer scientist, one of the founders of the Symbolics company that made Lisp Machines.

I discovered Baker's writing probably in the early 1990s and immediately put him on my “read everything this person writes” list. I found everything he wrote clear and well-reasoned. I always learned something from reading it. He wrote on many topics, and when he wrote about a topic I hadn't been interested in, I became interested in it because he made it interesting.

Sometimes I thought Baker was mistaken about something. But usually it was I who was mistaken.

Baker had a web site with an archive of his articles and papers. It disappeared last year sometime. But I have a copy that I made around 1998, Just In Case.

Baker's web site is a good example of mid-1990s web design. Here's his “Gratuitous Waste of Bandwidth” page. It features a link to a 320×240 pixel color photo of Baker, and an inlined monochrome GIF version of it.

Browsers at the time could inline GIF files but not JPEGs, and it would have been rude to inline a color JPEG because that would have forced the user to wait while the browser downloaded the entire 39kb color image. It was a rather different time.

Some of my favorite articles of his were:

(The Internet Archive also has a more recent copy of the site.)

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Sat, 06 Mar 2021

Pasta la Vista

Last week I thought “there must be a restaurant in California somewhere called ‘Pasta la Vista, Baby’”, so I asked the Goog. The Goog says it does not know of one!

It says there is a ‘Pasta La Vista’ in Winnipeg, which I was not expecting, and also one called ‘Pasta A La Vista‘ which has an acceptable excuse, since it is in Bella Vista, AR.

There are quite a few Pasta La Vistas in Europe. And there is one called ‘Pasta la Vista Baby’. It is near the University in Örebro, sixth-largest city in Sweden. This isn't the last place I would have expected to find ‘Pasta la Vista Baby’, but I don't think it's in the top thousand either.

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Tue, 02 Mar 2021


Often when I'm reading something that was translated from another language, I get to wondering what the original was. Often this appears in connection with some sort of wordplay. For example, the first chapter of Stanisław Lem's novel The Cyberiad begins:

One day Trurl the constructor put together a machine that could create anything starting with n. When it was ready, he tried it out, ordering it to make needles, then nankeens and negligees, which it did, then nail the lot to narghiles filled with nepenthe and numerous other narcotics. The machine carried out his instructions to the letter. Still not completely sure of its ability, he had it produce, one after the other, nimbuses, noodles, nuclei, neutrons, naphtha, noses, nymphs, naiads, and natrium. 'This last it could not do, and Trurl, considerably irritated, demanded an explanation.

"Never heard of it," said the machine.

"What? But it's only sodium. You know, the metal, the element..."

"Sodium starts with an s, and I work only in n."

In the end Trurl asks the machine to make “nothing”, which is an important plot point.

Okay, but The Cyberiad was written in Polish. I wondered for years: was it “N” in Polish also? If the Polish word for “nothing” happened to begin with a “W”, then the Polish text would have had to have had a machine that could create anything starting with “W”. Then the translator couldn't keep the “W” the way it was, because the whole point of the story leads up to “nothing”; they have to rewrite the whole thing with “N”.

One day I met the translator, Michael Kandel, and was able to ask. And yes, it was originally “N”; the polish word for “nothing” is nic.

(Here's a related question on SF Stack Exchange. It discusses how the original “N” items turn into their somewhat-similar “N” counterparts in English.)

But anyway, I meant to talk about Pippi Longstocking, which was originally written in Swedish.

Pippi and the Ibex

In one episode, Pippi goes to school, where the teacher tries to teach her the alphabet. She shows her a card with a letter ‘i' and a picture of an ibex. Pippi says:

Oh no, I don't think so. It looks to me like a stick with a fly-speck over it. I'd like to know what an ibex has to do with a fly-speck.

(I could not find the ibex translation, so that is from memory.)

Clearly Pippi is describing a lowercase letter ‘i’. “Ibex” is a pretty strange choice of animal, in English or in Swedish, so I wondered: was the picture an ibex in the original Swedish? It turns out it was not! “Ibex” in Swedish is stenbock. In the original Swedish, the picture is an igelkott, a hedgehog.

Well, in the translation I had as a kid, by Florence Lamborn, it was an ibex. But a different English translation (by Tiina Nunnaly) makes it an iguana, and another that I found, by Edna Hurup, contains the following elaborate invention:

[The teacher] therefore brought out a picture of a pretty little green island surrounded by blue water.

My philosophy of translation is opposed to this sort of thing. I will take all sorts of liberties, and I might make up an island if I have to, but having done so I would not describe it in detail as Ms. Hurup did so shamelessly. In the original the hedgehog is not described:

Därför tog hon fram en liten vacker plansch föreställande en igelkott.

(“Therefore, she took out a small, beautiful poster depicting a hedgehog.”)


Today I was thinking about Pippi, and I recalled that one of her goals in attending school was to learn “pluttification”:

“Hey, everybody,” hollered Pippi, swinging her big hat. "Am I in time for pluttification?”

In English “pluttification” is obviously Pippi's misunderstanding of “multiplication”:

“All kinds of things,” said the officer. “Lots of useful things, like the multiplication tables, for instance.”

“I've been fine for nine years without any pluttification tables,” said Pippi…

What was pluttification in Swedish?

It turns out, it wasn't any different. The Swedish for “multiplication tables” is multiplikationstabellen.

”Hejsvejs”, hojtade Pippi och svängde sin stora hatt. ”Kommer jag lagom till pluttifikationen?”

Pippi's Name

Long ago I wondered about Pippi's full name, which in the Lamborn version I read was:

Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Ephraim's Daughter Longstocking

The original Swedish was:

Pippilotta Viktualia Rullgardina Krusmynta Efraimsdotter Långstrump

and the English was a fairly close translation. Viktualier is “victuals”, and I think turning it into “Delicatessa” is clever. (Viktualia is actually a real Swedish name, although quite rare.) Rullgardina is exactly “windowshade”. (Literally “roll-curtain”.) Krusmynta is a nonsense compound of krus (see below) and mynta (mint). I thought that krus was “mackerel” but I can't find anyone to agree with me; everyone says that the Swedish for “mackerel” is makrill, as in most European languages.

The Nunnaly translation has:

Pippilotta Comestibles Windowshade Curlymint Ephraimsdaughter Longstocking

“Commestibles” is terrible, but “Curlymint” is just fine, because krusig is indeed “curly”.

The Hurup translation says:

Pippilotta Provisionia Gaberdina Dandeliona Ephraimsdaughter Longstocking

I don't like “Provisionia”, but it can be defended as a more literal translation than “Delicatessa”. I can't imagine why Hurup decided to replace “Windowshade Curlymint” with “Gaberdina Dandeliona”.

English Wikipedia has a whole section about this if you are not tired of it yet.


I recall that in the version I read, Captain Ephraim was "formerly the Terror of the Seas, and now a cannibal king", and that the original Swedish version of “cannibal king” was negerkung, “king of the negroes”. Mathilda Haraldsson's undergraduate thesis describes this as a “quite strong expression”, but adds that in the 1940s neger was considered inoffensive. (Recall that in the United States at the time, “negro” was the polite term.) It does appear that some people today consider negerkung offensive. And in any case it was never accurate; the people in question are not Africans, but Polynesians. In the Swedish version I looked at just now, the word has been changed to söderhavskung, “King of the South Seas”.

To me the most offensive part of all this is Lamborn's description of Ephraim's subjects as “cannibals” . As far as I can tell, the original Swedish says nothing about cannibalism, and this is a disgusting and completely unnecessary invention. Nunnaly makes it just “king of the natives” but Hurup inexplicably retains “Cannibal King”.

Norwegian Wikipedia has an article about Lindgren's use of negerkung, but Swedish Wikipedia does not!

[ Addendum: I just noticed that my discussion of the cannibal thing omits the word “racist”. This was an oversight. The cannibal thing is racist. ]

[ Addendum 20210303: Justin Pearson, Anders Nielsen, and Adam Sjøgren have each informed me that krusmynta is not a nonsense compound as I said. It is a standard term for spearmint. Also, is not Swedish Wikipedia. The language code for Swedish is sv. Wikipedia SE is Northern Sami Wikipedia. ]

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Mon, 01 Mar 2021

More fuckin' user interface design

Yesterday I complained that Google couldn't find a UI designer who wouldn't do this:

Three circular
red-and-white buttons, one with an icon of a microphone, one with an
icon of a hanging-up telephone handset, and one with an icon of a
video camera.

Today I'm going to complain about the gmail button icons. Maybe they were designed by the same person?

Check out the two buttons I have circled.

One of these "archives" the messages, which means that it moves the messages out of the Inbox.

The other button moves the messages into the Inbox.

I don't know the right way to express this, but I know the wrong way when I see it, and the wrong way is and .

How about, ummm, maybe make the arrows go in opposite directions? How about, put the two buttons next to one another so that the user at least is likely to notice that both of them exist? Maybe come up with some sort of symbol for an archive, like a safe or a cellar or something, and use the same symbol in both icons, once with an arrow going in and once with an arrow coming out? Or did Google test this and they found that the best user experience was when one button was black and one was white? (“Oh, shit!" says the confused Google engineer, “I was holding the survey results upside-down.”)

I explained in the last article that I consider myself an incompetent designer. But I don't think I'm incompetent enough to have let and into production.

Hey, Google, would you like to hire me? Someone once said that genius is the ability to do effortlessly what most people can't do at all, and it appears that compared with Google UI engineers, I'm a design genius. For an adequately generous salary, I will be happy to whack your other designers on their heads with a rolled-up newspaper until they learn to stop this bullshit.

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