Yearly Archives: 2015

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Anyone who doesn’t think Hollywood is developing an edgy live-action My Little Pony movie has not been paying attention. • H. G. Wells’s epitaph was “I told you so, you damned fools!”. His Outline of History persuaded Costa Rica to abolish its military. • Workers building the Homer Tunnel in the 1950s were fed kea soup by their Bulgarian cook, a local codger tells the Little River Informer. • A Mormon at the door. I thought they only came in pairs, so was waiting for another to appear in my peripheral vision like a velociraptor. • In my experience, two hundred 13-year-old boys would make short work of a zombie apocalypse provided they had enough cricket bats. • When someone says “90 per cent of the time”, it’s a guess, not a statistic (90 per cent of the time). • If someone called Perrin Rowland were to meet someone called Rowland Perrin (both exist), would they stick together or explode? • To artificially inseminate queens, apiarists often need to extract semen from bees. It’s as easy as “Hey, bee: semen!” Thank you, you’re wonderful, I’m here all week. • The shampoo is designed to stand upright, and the conditioner on its head, but this obviously isn’t enough and I need a mnemonic. “Our upright stance is a SHAM; topsy-turvy is the human CONDITION.” #haircaremnemonic • The Hobbit credits are so long they have a three-act story arc. There’s a “making-of the credits” featurette in the DVD release. In fact the Hobbit credits have their own credits. Be sure to stay to the end of the credits credits for a surprise! [SPOILER: You get to go home.] • @adzebill

February Reading

Books Acquired

  • What If? | Randall Munroe

Books Read

  • Tenth of December | George Saunders
  • Latin for Birdwatchers | Roger Lederer and Carol Burr

I stumbled across Latin for Birdwatchers in the New Books section of the library, and it seemed like the perfect nerdstorm; I enjoyed it so much I wrote a whole page for the local paper about birds’ Latin names. The Whanganui Central Library is really pretty good for a town of 40,000: they have a reasonable acquisitions budget, good taste, and seem to take notice of patrons’ suggestions for purchase. 

The other good read this month was George Saunders’ latest collection. I’d really enjoyed Pastoralia, Persuasion Nation, and The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. He’s a postmodern writer uncannily like David Foster Wallace in tone and use of language, except without the footnotes. The style is fizzing and inventive, and good at slowly revealing a horrid truth bubbling away under the bland conversations of his characters. There are bleak character studies of damaged people put in impossible situations, in a disturbing America, sliding into dystopia or already there. The only thing I didn’t enjoy were the brief bits of science fiction seemingly written, just like DFW’s, by someone who thinks SF is a joke and an excuse to make up silly futuristic brand names. But most of this collection is haunting and memorable.

I started H is for Hawk, and finally opened Michael King’s Penguin History of New Zealand, which had been sitting on my shelves for many years. The Penguin History of New Zealand is rather like Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, an account of the long history of Aotearoa told from the perspective of penguins. Since I hate penguins, this may be a challenging read, and I’m not expecting too much to happen for the first few million years.

Dead Language, Living Names

latinbird.png Latin for Birdwatchers
Roger Lederer and Carol Burr
Allen & Unwin, 2014
9781760110642

Recently I helped fill a display case at the Museum with native birds of the Whanganui area, and we were preparing labels, which is not as easy as you’d think. For example, which of several English names should you use (Waxeye, Silvereye, or White-eye)? Māori names also vary from place to place – Bellbirds are both korimako and makomako. But when I mentioned including the Latin name on each label, I could sense the resistance from the non-scientists on the team, and stopped to ponder where that came from.

Why use names in an obscure language like Latin? Centuries ago, Latin was the universal language of scholarship, spoken by natural historians and philosophers across Europe no matter what their mother tongue was. Animals and plants would be referred to by a short description in Latin, but you would never know if you and someone from a distant country were both talking about exactly the same bird or tree. In 1735 the Swede Carl von Linné – known in Latin as Carolus Linnaeus – invented a system of binomial naming, in which everything got a precise name with just two parts, a genus and a species (like Homo sapiens). By sticking to those Latin binomials, everybody could be sure they were talking about the same thing.

Harrier Hawk

The Harrier Hawk is in the genus Circus, which refers to a Roman circus or racecourse (not one with clowns), and describes the way these birds circle endlessly looking for prey. | GaryNZ / Flickr

Nearly 300 years later, Latin names are still useful. Ninox novaeseelandiae got its scientific name back in 1788; in New Zealand it’s called a Morepork or ruru, but in Australia the same species is a Boobook Owl. A White Heron or kōtuku in Aotearoa is an Eastern Great Egret in Australia, but Ardea modesta in both places. A widespread bird or fish can have a dozen different common names but only one Latin name.

Scientific names are always written in italics, by the way, and the genus – the first part – always starts with a capital letter, while the species never does. The Wanganui Chronicle is one of the few newspapers that gets this right, but even so I’ve blogged a fairly-exhaustive Latin names style guide for journalists.

This book by Roger Lederer and Carol Burr, which I’ve been dipping into for the last few weeks, sounds like the most boring in the world: Latin for Birdwatchers. But it’s actually fascinating for someone who loves birds but might not have taken Latin in school to unpack familiar names and see how they make sense. The Kingfisher (Todiramphus sanctus) is a little bird (todus) with a big bill (Greek ramphos). There are seven different species all called Bellbirds, but the New Zealand one, Anthornis melanura, has its habits and distinctive features captured in its name: a flower-bird (anthus ornis) with a black (melas) tail (ours). Fantails belong to the genus Rhipidura: literally, fan (Greek rhipis) tail (oura). The New Zealand species is Rhipidura fuliginosa, or “sooty fantail” from the Latin fuligo or soot, because a small percentage of New Zealand fantails (especially in the South Island) are coal black.

Latin names aren’t just handy labels: they’re classifications, and designed to tell a story about the ancestry and relatedness of species. The common Blackbird (Turdus melura) is in the same genus as – and thus a close cousin of – the Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos), but also the American Robin (Turdus migratorius). American Robins are named after the European Robin (Erithacus rubecula) but are actually a type of thrush, as you can see from the name.

kereru300

The kererū (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae) is especially well-named: a hemiphage is a “half-eater”, a description of the way this bird can swallow fruit as large as karaka berries, which then pass through its body half-digested and are deposited somewhere else to germinate and grow. | digitaltrails / Flickr

New Zealand Robins or toutouwai aren’t robins either, but close cousins of Tomtits or miromiro: both are in the genus Petroica. Our robin, Petroica longipes, is named for its habit of perching on the forest floor (petra, rock, and oikos, home) and its big feet (longus, long, and pes, foot).

Latin names aren’t perfect, of course. You can find at least five different renderings of “New Zealand” in Latin: novaezelandiae, novaezealandiae, novaeseelandiae, novae-zealandiae, and novae-zelandiae. Because names are classifications as well as labels, they can change as we get a better understanding of a group’s evolutionary history. Recently the many species of the popular native shrub Hebe were reclassified into the genus Veronica, and nurseries had to rewrite all their catalogues. And sometimes Latin names just don’t make any sense: the Vermiculated Fishing Owl is in the genus Scotopelia, which means “pigeon of darkness” (what?). But for all their flaws, Latin names are full of stories, charmingly brought out by this book’s many sidebars and anecdotes; these, plus the abundant 19th century illustrations, would make it a great gift for a bird lover.

(A version of this appeared in the Wanganui Chronicle, 14 Feb 2015)

January Reading

Books Acquired

  • The Crack-Up | F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • The Society of the Crossed Keys | Stefan Zweig
  • Tenth of December | George Saunders
  • A Handbook of Biological Illustration | Frances Zweifel
  • Father and Son | Edmund Gosse
  • A Heart So White | Javier Marías

Books Read

  • The Crack-Up | F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • The Society of the Crossed Keys | Stefan Zweig
  • What’s Become of Waring | Anthony Powell

The Crack-Up, a collection of memoir and short fiction, was one of those books recommended on Twitter in a flurry of knowing tweets, possibly calculated to make you feel like a philistine if Gatsby was the only Fitzgerald you’ve read. It’s a short collection and certainly worthwhile: the title essay is particularly good, an exploration of Fitzgerald’s alcoholic breakdown with some pithy introspection. Of the short stories, I thought “Pat Hobby Himself” and “Financing Finnegan” were a pair of little gems, perfectly-formed satires of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

The corresponding European Golden Age is captured by an elegant sample of Stefan Zweig’s cultural history, autobiography, and fiction. Zweig was a journalist and biographer, and his moving evocation of pre-WWI Vienna, and what it was to be a cosmopolitan young writer amidst it all, is taken from his memoir The World of Yesterday. I first came across Zweig in Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia, an alphabetical examination of art and politics for which Zweig and his 1942 suicide provides the capstone; James praised his portrait of Vienna—a city I spent two summers in and adore—so I decided I’d read it “one day”. Which would probably not have happened but for this sampler, compiled by Wes Anderson to accompany The Grand Budapest Hotel—hence the twee pink hand-lettered cover and the twee title (a reference to a fictional society of concierges in the film, nothing to do with the author himself). But if the movie tie-in acts as a gateway to reading more Zweig, I can forgive it.

Anthony Powell to me is a wodge of tasteful bricks that make up A Dance to the Music of Time on other people’s bookshelves, one of those forbidding series of novels we always mean to read when we have a good long span to concentrate in, perhaps whilst in exile on St Helena. But younger Powell was a comic writer, and a couple of his short early amusements sounded worth a read. What’s Become of Waring is an entertaining jaunt, with a cunning structure that looks even more cunning in retrospect; Evelyn Waugh without the manic flashes of silliness or the blackest cynicism.

I Hate You. I Hate You. I Hate You.

“Sheila taught me a survival technique for getting through seemingly intolerable situations – boring lunches, stern lectures on attitude or time management, those necessary breakup conversations and the like: maintaining eye contact, keep your face inscrutable and masklike, with the faintest hint of a Giaconda smile. Keep this up as long as you possibly can, and just as you feel you are about to crack and take a letter opener and plunge it into someone’s neck, fold your hands in your lap, one nestled inside the other, like those of a supplicant in a priory. Now, with the index finger of your inner hand, write on the palm of the other, very discreetly and undetectably, “I hate you. I hate you. I hate you…” over and over again as you pretend to listen. You will find this brings a spontaneous look of interest and pleased engagement to your countenance. Continue and repeat as necessary.”

— David Rackoff, Fraud