Uninteresting things

Now I deny that anything is, or can be, uninteresting.

—G. K. Chesterton, ‘What I Found in My Pocket’

In the noble little essay from which this noble little sentence is taken, Chesterton waxed lyrical about the many things that he found in his pockets: his pocket-knife, the type and symbol of all the swords of feudalism and all the factories of industrialism; a piece of chalk, representing all the visual arts; a box of matches, standing for Fire, man’s oldest and most dangerous servant; and so on and on. (The one thing he did not find there was the magical talisman he was looking for; and that, though he must have felt it too obvious to remark upon explicitly, is the type and symbol of the fairytale. There is always something that the hero will not find in his pockets, so that he must go forth a-questing.)

Now, I heartily agree that every one of these things is very interesting indeed, and all for the same reason: they are things that you can do something with. But since his time, in the advance of all our arts and the decay of all our sciences, we have greatly multiplied another class of things that are, in the main, very uninteresting. You can do nothing with these things; you can only do things to them. And when the best that you can do to a thing is to ignore it, you have reached the very nirvana of uninterestingness. [Read more…]

From the lecture notes of H. Smiggy McStudge

‘We encourage the humans in the belief that every other job in the world, especially that of running the world, is so simple that only a malicious idiot could possibly foul it up; whereas one’s own job is skilful and complex and requires a genius that no outsider can understand. This encourages the useful habits of pride and ignorance, and moreover, brings each human’s pride into direct collision with all the others.’


A week after the second eye surgery, my distance vision is 20/20 in both eyes, intraocular pressure back to normal, and the incisions are healing as they should. I have also been fiddling about with reading glasses, and have found that a much weaker pair is better for work at a computer screen. The silly optician I consulted said I should move the screen closer to my eyes, but you can’t do that on a laptop without also shortening your arms: a surgery I cannot afford and most definitely do not want.

This should be the last post about my eyes before I start tackling my backlog.

Antici . . . pation

Just to let you all know:

My second eye surgery, which was scheduled for the first of this month, was postponed because the anaesthesiologist was unavailable and they could not find a substitute on short notice. I am getting my right eye done tomorrow, Deo volente et flumine non oriente.

I have been using my right eye exclusively for close work, with my old reading glasses; these will be useless after the operation. I have bought a cheap pair of non-prescription readers, which seem all right for reading print or using my phone, but may be a little too strong for computer work. Tomorrow or the next day, I hope to find out for sure.

(The $1.25 reading glasses I bought at the dollar store broke when I tried to make them sit properly on my nose. At least they lasted long enough to verify that they were of a suitable strength. One lives to learn.)

In the meantime, silence and suspense.


UPDATE, 8 February: The operation proceeded as planned, with the same substitute anaesthesiologist I had for the first eye, a Dr. Håkansson (if I have the spelling correct). The eye appears to be functioning, as I can peek out past the corner of the gauze, but I won’t know details until the bandage comes off tomorrow. —T. S.

I spy, with my altered eye

Yesterday I had the cataract removed from my left eye. The whole experience reminded me of the complaint by Paul’s grandfather in A Hard Day’s Night: ‘So far all I’ve seen is a train and a room and a car and a room and a room and a room.’ Leave out the train and the car, and that was the central part of my day. There is a waiting room where you wait, and a waiting room where you stow your belongings and put on a hairnet and disposable bootees, and a waiting room where they put 105 different drops in your eye to numb it and dilate it and freeze it and make it dance the cha-cha, and then there is the O.R., where you are in and out in the time it takes to play four songs off Mika’s debut album.

That, mind you, includes the extra time Dr. Crichton required to get my artificial lens (which is custom-made, and corrects for my astigmatism) installed at the correct angle. Even with the various drops and anaesthetics, I had an uncomfortable feeling that he was crushing my eyeball while he worked the lens round with his instruments. ‘Now I know,’ I said drily, ‘how an olive feels when you stuff in the pimiento.’ It appears that I have an abnormally large eye, and that, counterintuitively, makes it harder to get the lens in the right position and angle.

But the whole thing was done, and I took a ruinously expensive taxi home and slept it off.

Today I had the 24-hour followup. They removed the plastic shield from my eye, and the gauze underneath it, and lo! I could see better with that eye than at any time since I was fourteen. My vision is 20/20, messieurs et dames – at a distance – for close vision I shall need reading glasses for ever more, but I’ll take that over cataracts any day. Dr. Crichton then briefly examined me, checked that I was following the multitude of post-op orders, and I took another ruinous taxi home.

I have now bought a pair of non-prescription sunglasses for a buck and a quarter, which work very well, and a pair of non-prescription reading glasses for the same price, which hardly work at all because they won’t sit still on my nose, but keep going slaunchwise. As I type this, I am wearing my old (prescription) reading glasses, and my right eye is doing all the work. With my left eye, the screen is a hopeless white blur; which tells you how strong my prescription was.

And that is about as much close work as I can do without fatiguing my half-corrected eyes, so my nefarious scheme to resume the writing business at the old stand will have to wait a little longer. Somewhere, no doubt, Snidely Whiplash is twirling his moustache and cursing.


I made my last post with the best (or worst) intentions of returning to reasonably regular blogging. Then, as P. G. Wodehouse used to say, Judgement Day set in with unusual severity.

To begin with, I caught a fairly impressive case of the Official Plague, which is to say, the then fashionable strain of COVID. This kept both my Beloved Bride and me housebound and decrepit for the best part of a month, followed by a long, slow recovery in which neither of us was able to do anything much. My short-term memory was particularly hard hit. Many a time I found myself upstairs in the bedroom, having fetched up exactly one of the three things I was supposed to bring, and then trudging back down to get the other two. And sometimes it took a mighty effort to recall them both when I got there.

Sometimes, in this condition, I tried stringing four words together. The result would have been amusing, I think, if I had posted it here, but the joke would soon have grown stale.

This took me through October and November. Meanwhile, the cataracts have been growing.

Last spring, my optometrist gave me my regular eye test and fitted me out with new glasses. After a few weeks, I noticed blurry vision in my left eye, and supposed he had got the prescription wrong – or that my eye injury had been a little more severe than first thought. (I took the jagged end of a broken tree branch in the left eye. By luck or providence I blinked at just the right moment, and ended up with nothing worse than a bruised sclera.)

It turned out that I was developing a cataract in that eye, and it was now advanced enough to prevent my lens from ever quite focusing light correctly. No amount of fiddling with my prescription could correct this. If I looked at single points of light with that eye, they resolved themselves into bright, blurry rings. (Our Christmas tree this year is decorated with glowing O’s – but only to me.) He recommended that I follow up with the specialist who looks after my glaucoma from time to time.

The said specialist peered into my left eye and said, ‘Yup, you’ve got a cataract.’ He then checked my right eye. ‘And one starting in this one,’ he added. As luck would have it, his practice specializes in both glaucoma and cataracts, and he got straight down to business and booked me for surgeries. My eye specialist is not one for chit-chat; he runs a volume business and sees each patient, if possible, for just a minute or two. That day, when I saw him, there were upwards of forty thousand people in his waiting room – at least, I saw that many. Likely my eyes were exaggerating. I only saw one of him, but that doesn’t prove anything; he was sitting right in my face, looming, as he peered into my eyes through his fiendish apparatus, and there was not room enough in my visual field to see two of him.

So I have been nursing my cataracts along, cutting down on driving (though I am still legal for now) and close work (which gives me eyestrain after a few minutes). My left eye is due to have its dicky lens replaced on the 11th, and the other on the first of February. Then we shall see; that is, we shall see if we shall see.

Happy New Year to my 3.6 Loyal Readers, and I hope to be able to post more after the operations. For the first time in years, I am beginning to feel as if I have something interesting to say.

And then, of course, people come up with helpful things like this to vex me with:

The story so far

I wanted to get back online and make a post here, for reasons I shall presently describe; but vexations supervened.

In the first place, the password manager on my faithful old Mac has managed to metagrobolize its data. I have (or had, until today) three different login IDs and passwords that all claimed to belong to this site, none of which worked. I therefore had to get GoDaddy’s tech support to let me in. But first—

Yesterday, my Beloved Bride spent two fruitless hours standing in line at a government office, waiting to submit a request for paperwork, only to be sent home unserved and empty-handed at closing time. We then tried to submit the necessary form online, with endless trouble about uploading scans of supporting documents, and just as we had the problem sorted—

My cable modem decided to pack up and go on strike. The local cable monopolists don’t have telephone tech support after office hours, so I had to contact their online support; but with my Internet connection out, I couldn’t get online to do it. I tried using my mobile phone, only to be told that their site did not support my browser. Updating the browser requires a WiFi connection, which I did not have for the above-mentioned reasons. (‘There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza.’)

Eventually I jury-rigged a connection from my laptop to the world through my phone, and spent an hour or so talking to a junior technical clown, only to discover that my cable modem had disappeared off the face of the virtual earth. They could not even detect its presence from their end. So they ordered a technician to come out this Saturday and replace the bricked modem, the coaxial cable, or both, as required. I then cursed the name of the electron and went to bed.

This morning, my Internet connection was mysteriously restored. Strike over; I suppose the modem’s demands, whatever they were, were conceded by management. I was therefore able to get on with the next stage, and try to get myself logged in at my own blog. (‘With what shall I fix it, dear Liza, dear Liza?’)

An hour or so on the telephone with a very helpful young technical clown (he does not deserve the title, but circumstances thrust it upon him) got me nowhere, except face to face with a blank login screen for a PHP support site at which I had no known account ID and no password. My WordPress installation allegedly emailed me a link to reset my password – twice – but the emails never arrived, even when helpfully kicked by a pair of gigantic technical clown shoes. (‘With what shall I wet it, dear Liza, dear Liza?’)

Meanwhile, through clicking in the wrong place on the wrong screen, I found a back door into the site from my GoDaddy hosting account. There, nested about five levels deep in the menus, was a place where I could issue myself a new password. I did so, cut and pasted it, and was able to let myself back in by the front door of my blog. (‘With water, dear Henry, dear Henry, you twit!’)

And now here I am, just before the end of the day in my time zone; which is significant (to me), because it is still my umpty-umpth birthday. I admit to 123, but my friends who flatter me say I don’t look a day over 115. I have my doubts on that score. It seems like an auspicious day to resume blogging at the old stand; and I hope I shall.

So greetings to my 3.6 Loyal Readers, if you’re still with me; and pray for me, I beseech you, that I don’t have to go through all that circus again.

A dash of rhetoric

In a discussion at The Passive Voice, Karen Myers wrote at considerable length on the differences between the so-called prestige dialects of written English and other languages, and the colloquial dialects that make up the spoken languages. She ended with this bit of advice:

If you want to write an essay, use formal written English. If you want to write a narrative, use voice (the spoken language in all its registers).

Being the ancient curmudgeon that I am, I had to demur. And being the lazy curmudgeon that I am, I had to cut and paste and repost my response here, as a trifle of evidence that I have not gone entirely silent. Here is what I had to say:


The key, which hardly any linguists seem to have grasped, is that formal English is rhetorical and colloquial English is conversational. Nearly all the differences between them can be explained in terms of information theory.

(Referring again to ancient history: when I was a linguistics undergrad, information theory was not offered even as an option as part of the curriculum. It was a third-year maths course open, I believe, only to maths majors. My professors not only didn’t know it, they didn’t know it had any applicability to languages, and some of them, I believe, had never heard of it at all.)

In terms of information theory, the strict grammar and finely graduated vocabulary of formal English are error-correction devices. When you converse with another person or a small group, your listeners can give you immediate feedback, and if it appears that they did not understand you according to your intentions, you can immediately offer an explanation or a rewording. You can’t do this in either a published text or a speech to a large crowd. You therefore have to include such cues in the text as are needful to avoid ambiguity and misunderstanding. The art of rhetoric is not concerned only with swaying people’s emotions, as some people suppose; it is also about expressing your case with force and clarity when close two-way communication is not practicable.

This is a difficult art, and those who teach it are rewarded by being called ‘prescriptivists’, who, as any Postmodernist linguist can tell you, are the source of all evil in the universe. One of my professors told me flatly that all prescriptive statements about usage and grammar are by definition wrong; whereupon I concluded that she knew nothing about her subject and transferred to a different class.

The linguists of the anti-prescriptivist school claim that there is no such thing as an error in usage, that whatever any native speaker of a language says is automatically valid and grammatical. But they do not hesitate to use asterisks to indicate erroneous constructions: *goed, *childs, *gooses, and the like. What they object to is that people who know formal language should presume to teach it to those who only know the language in its colloquial registers. They believe that status-signalling is the only reason why formal language exists, and flatly refuse to ask how or why a given dialect came to be associated with high status in the first place.

In the cases of English and German, the formal language was codified chiefly in response to the need to translate the Bible, which is a notoriously difficult text. Luther in German, Tyndale and the Douay-Reims and King James translators in English, had to invent numerous idioms and turns of phrase to accurately convey the meaning of the original in a vernacular edition. And they had to do it in rhetorical, not conversational, language, because their translations would be read by multitudes of people who could not ask the translators for clarification, and they would be read from the pulpit to large crowds of people who could not even request clarification from the preacher. They had to solve the technical problem of error-correction for their translations to be useful at all. (Other translators tried and failed, or succeeded to a lesser extent, and their efforts are forgotten except by specialist scholars.)

A number of languages achieved their first literary form in this way. The principal surviving text in Gothic, for instance, is a large fragment of the Bible as translated by Wulfila (or a committee which he is believed to have led; cf. paintings by the ‘School of Rembrandt’). Several North American aboriginal languages were first committed to writing in the same way and for the same reason. In each case, the dialect employed in the translation became a standard reference point for the later literary use of the language, not because kings and princes favoured it, but because the Christian part of the population were familiar with their vernacular Bible, heard it weekly, often quoted it daily, and there was no other uniform published text which similarly large numbers of people could be expected to know well.

The Latinate garbage which was grafted onto formal English in the eighteenth century – the shibboleths about prepositions and infinitives and so forth (which I agree with you in despising) – was the product of a time when highly educated Englishmen were expected to be learned in Latin, and English gentlemen were expected to pay lip service to Christianity without actually believing it. To these people, the prestigious author par excellence was Cicero, and you can see exactly how they tried to remodel English to resemble his pompous and artificial Latin. But that attempt did not ‘take’ in the long run, because unlike the Bible, the works of Cicero were of no interest at all to the bulk of the literate populace. The professors worshipped Cicero, the schoolmasters assigned him, the upper-class schoolboys were bored by him, and the classes below them didn’t care a fig about him if they had heard of him at all.

In light of all this, I would modify your closing advice: If you want to write a narrative, use written (i.e. rhetorical or error-correcting) English – but disguise it with the idioms of whatever colloquial speech is appropriate. Part of the art of rhetoric, after all, is to plausibly deny that one is being rhetorical. Shakespeare knew this perfectly well, which is why he made Mark Antony say:

I am no orator, as Brutus is,
But, as you know me all, a plain blunt man
That love my friend, and that they know full well
That gave me public leave to speak of him.
For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth,
Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech
To stir men’s blood. I only speak right on.

Addendum. I do not know of any finer or pithier example of a man using rhetorical English, and even as he does, pretending that he is ‘just plain folks’ talking colloquially.

The new year in Gondor

As Gandalf reminded us, the New Year in Gondor shall always begin on the 25th of March; and here we are. But I have not been reading Tolkien recently, though I have been somewhat immersed in the work of one of his epigones – as I shall discuss below.

What I have been reading is From First to Last, by Damon Runyon, who wrote what silly people call ‘realistic’ or ‘mainstream’ fiction, but was really in the fine old tradition of the American tall tale. And my Beloved Bride and I have been watching The Witcher, based on the stories of Andrzej Sapkowski. And this experience, I find, gives the lie to the old canard that ‘worldbuilding’ is the particular province of science fiction and fantasy writers. For Runyon built a world, and a very colourful and recognizable world at that, founded in the gangster-ridden New York of the 1920s and 30s, but lovingly worked up into an imaginary and imaginative place all its own. Whereas Sapkowski’s worldbuilding is paper-thin, and the quality of his world seems to rely far more on the genre expectations of his readers or viewers than on his own imaginative powers.

I will say, however, that Sapkowski does a lively trade in Slavic mythology, and particularly in the wonderfully weird monsters that the Slavs are so good at inventing; and this contributes a great deal to the charm and interest of his work. Whereas the only monsters Runyon ever dealt in were gangsters and bootleggers, and maybe the occasional racehorse. Obviously these two authors cater to very different tastes; but of the two, I find that I have the more to learn from Runyon, because he has very few equals in the difficult art of using the language of his narration and dialogue to build up his world in the reader’s mind.

Whereas Sapkowski’s translators employ a style so pedestrian it actually makes me wince at times, and whatever merits he may have as a stylist, they fail to come across in the English version. What’s worse, the screenwriters for the TV adaptation have no idea how to tell a story straight, and mix together timelines across a span of fifty years or more without ever troubling to tell the viewer if t’other comes before which, or after which, or during which. This is less troubling to the sort of viewer who just wants to be swept along by sex and violence and good rollicking action, and doesn’t give a damn whether he can understand it or not. But there are websites and supporting videos and all manner of aids designed specifically to help people understand the storyline of The Witcher, which shows that there are a great many of the other kind of viewers, who do care and want to understand, and cannot make head or tail of the story without external help. This is a very grave fault.

I hope I shall have more to say about both these writers and their interesting works in the near future. But meanwhile I am beset with troubles, for my Beloved Bride is battling an injury, and a dear friend of mine has just lost her husband, and I am spending more time than I could wish helping them both cope with the practicalities of the situation. Life has set in with unusual severity, and for the moment, there is no time for stories.

New beginnings

I last posted on January 1, which is, in some respects, a singularly unfortunate time for new beginnings; especially in the throes of the Bureaucratic Plague. Between the assorted shutdowns, slowdowns, and putdowns, and beastly weather right from the North Pole, and the Narcissist-in-Chief duking it out with his successor, who has every appearance of being a slightly warm corpse, and Big Tech trying their hardest to unperson all the crimethinkers, and what not, I found it advisable to spend the last two months hibernating under a rock and then try again.

So here we are in March, which was the first month of the year in the early centuries of the Roman calendar. It was on the 15th of that month (Idibus Martiis) that the new consuls took office each year, and with it command of the year’s legions; and that day was the official beginning of the campaigning season. (This, by the way, is why Julius Caesar was assassinated on that day. Even after the New Year changed, the Ides of March remained a major festival, and it was considered most proper for the Senate to discuss military affairs on that day. Caesar meant to do both before he left Rome to finish the conquest of the Mediterranean world. Oops.)

The Ides of March continued to be New Year’s Day until the second century B.C., when it was moved to the Kalends of January. There it remained until the Council of Tours (A.D. 567) officially moved it to the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25. This was also the traditional date of Christ’s crucifixion, fitting the old Jewish tradition that prophets lived an exact number of years from their conception to their death. As it happens, there is some evidence supporting the notion that Jesus was born in December; so the tradition may actually have been true in his case.

Dionysius Exiguus (a.k.a. Little Dennis), a Scythian-Roman monk, had gone to enormous pains to work out the exact number of years since the birth of Christ (in which he was probably off by a shade) and his crucifixion (which he probably got right). This was an intellectual and historiographic feat of the first order – a fact that we too easily forget. [Read more…]