Saturday, May 27, 2006

Verbs with unusual suffices

In mathematics, when we make an arbitrary linear algebraic group into a semisimple one, or a presheaf into a sheaf, we call it semisimplification, or sheafification. I am ashamed to say I got very worked up about this -- not ashamed, that is, because I got worked up, but rather ashamed because I was completely in the wrong. When thinking about the words 'semisimplification' and 'sheafification', my thoughts turned to gerunds like 'putrefaction' -- which is formed from the verb 'putrefy' -- and I wondered indignantly how we could be so ignorant as to say 'semisimplification', for example, instead of 'semisimplifaction'. It wasn't until I was pouring out my outrage to another mathematician friend of mine (this is one of the benefits of being close to me, that one is first to hear such breaking news as my unhappiness with grammatical minutiƦ) that I realised that it was misplaced. The gerund 'semisimplification' is formed from the noun 'semisimplify', not 'semisimplefy' -- and similarly for 'sheafification'. Thus I withdraw this (anyway ridiculous) objection. For those who think I have thereby gone soft, however, let it be known that I shall never accept the term 'moduli space', which, as far as I am concerned, can be used only by those who also use 'vectors space'. (I am told by Italian and Russian friends that their languages appropriately use adjectives, not nouns, to modify their equivalent of the word 'space' -- in French, a vector space is an 'espace vectoriel' -- which neatly avoids the question of whether the modifying noun should be singular or plural.)

Now that I've so artfully engaged your attention, here's the point to which I'm getting. It sure seems, to me anyway, on casual thought that -ify is a more common verb suffix than -efy; but, after a little thought, I can come up with three common English verbs ending in -efy (one of which is 'putrefy' above), whereas I can only come up with two common English verbs ending in -ify (obviously, not counting 'semisimplify' and 'sheafify' -- which are scarcely common). I am curious if you, my manifold readers, can come up with any more. To make the challenge extra-specially exciting, I will withhold four of the five examples I've got until the deafening clamour of protest forces me to reveal them.

P.S. In other (grammatical) news:

  • The phrase "Methinks the lady doth protest too much" is, though we are all I think enamoured of that form, no different in meaning from "Methinks the lady does protest too much" (or, come to that, from "I think she protests too much", but that fits in less well with the point I'm trying to make). Thus, however sexy the use of slight archaisms seems to you, please, Alanis Morissette, don't title your song "Doth I protest too much?".
  • On the excellent comic Questionable Content, one of the characters complained recently that she had been "hoisted by [her] own petard". Of course I found this jarring, but I couldn't figure out why I should have a problem with 'hoisted' in this context and not in any other. Thanks to the insuppressible magic of the OED, I now know that 'hoist' in this context is a participial adjective 1, not a verb, formed from the verb 'hoise', which is an archaic form of -- you guessed it -- the modern verb 'hoist'. The same construction gives us 'learnt' and 'smelt' (and, Wikipedia reminds me, 'burnt'). (Shakespeare preferred the preposition 'with' to 'by', but either form seems to make sense.) A 'petard', by the way, which I had always vaguely pictured as the seat of one's pants (making the process described in Hamlet essentially a fancy version of a wedgie), is rather a small bomb.

UPDATE 11 October 2006. (My apologies to any viewer who clicked trustingly on the superscript 1 above, expecting it to link to a footnote. By way of compensation, the word UPDATE above, though no superscript 1, functions as would such a digit, by linking back to the point in the original article from which you have so recently come.) A friend of mine -- a friend whose first language is not English, worse yet -- pointed out to me that a participle (which is how I first described the word 'hoist') is a verb, thus making the original rant meaningless. The term for which I was searching (and with which I have now replaced the original) is, as you have already seen, 'participial adjective'.

Monday, May 22, 2006


As far as I know, there's no <newman></newman> tag in HTML, or I would've used that. Today, when I went to read the Ironic Times (America's Premier News Source on Mondays), I saw a story headlined "English declared 'national' language". It is sometimes hard for me to tell, in today's world, what in satirical newspapers is completely exaggerated for comic effect, and what is an actual, depressing report on the world today; so I Googled 'English + national language'.

Interestingly, the second hit (after the first, which is a webpage critical of the English-Only Movement) is an Ask Yahoo! question about whether or not the United States has or had an official language, to which the answer is that, no, it never has -- immediately followed by the third hit, a New York Times story about the Senate's voting (as part of the massive Godawful immigration bill) to make English the national language of the United States. (Well, it might seem bad, but fortunately, Alberto Gonzales, who finds the Geneva Conventions "quaint and outdated", reassures us that, "as I read it", the law is purely symbolic -- which, I am forced to ask, begs the question of why are we wasting our time passing useless symbolic laws?) Who, the reader may ask, could author such a singularly feeble-minded piece of legislation? Why, everybody's favourite cute and cuddly Senator James "I'm more outraged by the outrage" Inhofe!

Sunday, May 21, 2006

More legal agreements

I have another post in the works -- about NPR interviewers, and why why why can't they ask follow-up questions when administration or other official spokespeople blow them off -- but, in the meantime, I just can't wait to post the following gem, to which one must agree before submitting a visa application to the UK:
I am aware that it is an offence under the Immigration Act 1971, as amended by the Immigration and Aslyum Act 1999, to make to a person acting in execution of the act a statement or representation which the maker knows to be true and to seek to obtain leave to enter in the United Kingdom by means which include deception.
(Italics mine.) Dearie, dearie me. "You swore", I can imagine them saying, "that the statement you were making was false, and yet it was true." "Yes," reply I, hastily, "but have you heard of the liar's paradox?"

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Terms of Service

It has long been my practice -- for my father instilled in me a sense of the importance one should attach to contracts -- actually to read the various terms of service-type documents with which one is nowadays presented prior to every transaction, of goods or information, more advanced than ordering a meal. (Perhaps some fast food places would do well to have an EELA -- end eater license agreement, of course -- to which one agrees implicitly by eating the relevant food, prohibiting such unlikely activities as joining in class-action lawsuits or eating such food only for a month in order to document the effects. They could probably even print it on the wrappers for the burgers. However, one shouldn't say such a thing outside of parentheses, because who knows but that the idea will actually be implemented.) This frequently leads one to discover such unexpected tit-bits as the disclaimer on the back of some plane tickets that the airline in question does not actually, contractually (an interesting but strange rhyme), have to convey one from one's starting place to one's destination. (Specifically, though I can't remember the exact wording, neither end of the itinerary is guaranteed to be where it is supposed to be.) While I can understand the CYA-type motivation behind such a statement, it does seem a mysterious thing to which to agree -- and yet we do, not just because we don't read these agreements, but also because some services are essential, and the contracts are so ubiquitous that the best, it seems, that we can hope to do is to avoid getting more than usually screwed.

I think the highlight of my experience came when my wife was trying to buy a Verizon cell phone at Radio Shack. After we had selected the phone, the serviceperson took us to the cash register and presented us with an electronic signature pad. "Sign here to indicate your agreement to the terms and conditions," he instructed us, to which I could not help rejoining that we had not, in fact, seen the terms and conditions, and would maybe he care to show them to us before we agreed to them? This request seemed a little startling to him. (I have frequently noticed that people squirm when they see that I fully intend to read through the pages of documents they expect me to sign. I don't mean to cause trouble for people who, after all, bear no responsibility for the state of such contracts; but, if you as a company want me to agree quickly to your terms and conditions, present me with something like the GPL -- which, whatever its faults, is short, standardised, and, not least, very, very user-friendly.) After that parenthesis, we rejoin the serviceperson just in time for him to say "We can't print out a copy of the terms and conditions until you sign to indicate your agreement." When I balked, he pointed out that, even if (to paraphrase a bit) later reading indicated that one of the conditions was our agreement to host colonies of guppies in our intestines, we could simply immediately cancel our contract and be none the worse for wear. This was hard to argue with -- not, mind, because it was such a convincing argument, but rather because, presumably, my right to cancel, rather than being God-given, would, or would not, be granted by the terms and conditions to which I (my wife, rather) was being asked to put my name sight unseen. I know that doubting the existence of such a provision would be an undue indulgence in paranoia, and we did eventually sign the pad and obtain a copy of the contract, which we duly read, and which was not so offensive to cause us to cancel -- but still, to have a setup whereby one cannot print out the terms and conditions without a signature, and doesn't even have a spare copy for reference, seems a very strange one indeed.

However, this is a rare highlight in my contract-reading adventures. Given the national media spotlight which, I am sure, shines relentlessly down upon me, I thought I would take the opportunity to bring attention to two less spectacular but still amusing snippets from EULAs. I have excised the company name from the first one because, despite its ludicrousness, I find the software very useful and don't want to appear to be criticising the software itself:

Because of the unique nature of the Software, you understand and agree that xxxxx will suffer irrevocable damage in the event you fail to comply with any of the terms of paragraph 3 of this License Agreement and that monetary damages may be inadequate to compensate xxxxx for such breach.
I cannot help picturing, when I read this, officers of the company brushing away offers of monetary restitution with a sniffled "No ... you've hurt me too much for that now." (Paragraph 3 instructs the end user not to reverse engineer the software, pretend to be its author, or redistribute it.) As I say, I like the software a lot, but I'm none too sure what its 'unique nature' is (though I did agree to this EULA).

The other snippet comes from the terms of service for Blog*Spot itself. Curiously, a similar statement occurs in the terms of service for Blogger (which appear first!), but without the prelude. In any case, here it is:

Now, this next part seems really damn obvious, but everyone else has it in their TOS's so someone's probably gotten sued for not having it. So: In order to use the Service, you must obtain access to the World Wide Web, either directly or through devices that access web-based content, and pay any service fees associated with such access.
I was vacillating a bit over which blog-hosting company I'd choose, but to see such a sentence in the terms of service I must confess allayed some of my fears. (Aside from the ones working for companies which are so nasty they must swathe the nastiness in many obscuring layers of gauzy legalese, do lawyers really think that a friendly, conversational, and understandable -- but still precise -- ToS would be less successful than the kind we have now?)

I thought I'd close with a lovely quote from Manin's article in the April 2006 issue of the Bulletin of the AMS. I have omitted a few words, but only because they are (to the layman as well, I can't help believing, as to not a few expert mathematicians) incomprehensibly technical, not because they change the meaning of the sentence.

[MacPherson] has also invented a construction which ... revives Euclid's original intuition in the context of refined perversity.
I have decided that, if I ever again teach a class on Euclidean geometry, I will tell my students that we are working towards the end goal of refined perversity. (Incidentally, although I understood very little of it, I enjoyed the article very much for its manifold (no pun intended) perspectives on the seemingly fairly innocent idea of dimension.)

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The amazing dexterity of Loren

Lately, I have been playing a lot of table tennis with a good friend of mine here in Ann Arbor. I also played quite a bit a few years ago, and, though I got up to a sufficient level of competence that I didn't consistently embarrass myself while playing, I was never very good. Of course, when I resumed playing after two years' break, I was even worse; but we have been playing every week day, or nearly every week day, for between an hour and two hours, for about ten days, and not only have I reached the level of skill that I had back when I used to play, but also I have gone beyond it -- or anyway, it seems so to me. One of the ways I judge my skill is by how well and how consistently I return my opponent's shots, and my friend here has a significantly different style of attack from the people I used to play, so that maybe it's just that that style is well suited to mine rather than that I've shown any significant improvement. Whatever -- one way or another, I feel good and confident about my game. I was talking to the aforementioned friend last night and mentioned that, with all the clumsiness I show in every other walk of life, it is very rewarding to feel, at least in table tennis, that my body is under my control -- that I can react quickly and confidently even to unexpected shots and can, more often that not, at least come within the neighbourhood of the ball. My friend's comment was that, despite the profusion of stories I tell of myself in which I am a hapless bumbling incompetent, it seems to him I am not actually as clumsy as all that.

OK. This is heartwarming, right? The ugly (or clumsy) duckling comes to realise the true beauty (or dexterity) he keeps within himself. Good. Now let's consider the following story.

The light bulb in the computer room in my house recently burnt out, and, since the room gets lots of natural light during the day, I would keep forgetting to replace it until night time, at which point -- wouldn't you know it? -- the room was dark; and, since I couldn't find a flashlight and the light was an overhead one embedded in one of those translucent shells that often encase ceiling lights (I don't know the word for them), I was reluctant to fiddle around with it when I couldn't see. (One of the many stories I tell on my clumsiness involves my, after some effort -- for I had never had to deal with such a thing before, and didn't have a ladder, or indeed a normal chair, so was instead wavering unsteadily on one of those swivel chairs which are often found in offices but which, mysteriously, seem to have been designed with no thought given to how they will serve as stepstools -- finally unhinging from its housing a similar shell covering a similar ceiling light in my first apartment, setting it on the floor, and then, as I got off the chair to fetch the light bulb -- for of course I had neglected to get it in advance -- putting my foot right in the middle of the shell, shattering it. This and other indignities I visited on the apartment were, however, eventually miraculously forgiven me, for the building was torn down, which rendered moot the question of whether or not my apartment was in sufficiently good condition to merit the return of the security deposit.) This situation had gone on for some days, until finally this morning I managed to remember that it needed to be remedied, so I fetched a light bulb and (let no one accuse me of indecisiveness) did it. The old light bulb I took downstairs (to throw away), together with my laptop, which was in the computer room but needed to go in my bag (also downstairs) so that I could take it to university.

Let us pause, for a moment, to regard this laptop. The first laptop I ever got was won from my parents after much whinging -- I still cringe with embarrassment when I remember working myself up to tears in their presence over the thought that I would be the only kid in my class without a notebook, a concern (this was 1995) that they initially thought could easily be remedied by a trip to the stationery store -- and was a Toshiba. This computer was innovatively designed with an integrated bit of electronics (I didn't know, and for reasons that will become obvious never bothered to find out, the specifics) that obviated the need to carry around a bulky external transformer -- a design that appealed to me and that, after further studious whinging, was induced to appeal to my parents; and the convenience of not having to carry the external transformer was moderated only slightly, eventually, by the fact that this internal bit of hardware got so hot that it literally melted my keyboard. (Toshibas are apparently viewed now as bastions of reliability; I can only assume that, as was the case with the Toyota Corolla I owned for a while, my usual luck sufficed to get me the one bad machine that an otherwise reliable company made.) Anyway, that troublesome behaviour was still in the future when, carrying one day through the university my laptop in its trusty carrying-case, I reached out in haste to catch a heavy double-door which was about to fall closed; and, in doing so, somehow managed to release my grip on the computer itself, so that, rather than catching the door, I threw the computer at it. As you can imagine, this did not work wonders on its (already heatstroke-stricken, I suppose) innards -- more specifically on the monitor -- and, though I eventually got the monitor replaced under warranty (I seem to remember that getting the coverage entailed my conveniently forgetting to mention how the damage to the monitor had occurred), a proper respect for the delicacy with which one must treat a laptop was instilled in me.

Well, the laptop, as such machines must do, became obsolete, and, because I didn't do much travelling, I contented myself with desktops for a long time; but, in the past few years, I have found myself ofttimes at conferences where the laptop-owners were easily checking their mail (and performing whatever other important online tasks they needed to do), but where I and the other technological dinosaurs were reduced to hand-to-hand combat over who would have access to the lone computer which had been set up with a guest account which we could use for SSH. (Another important factor is that I type much, much faster than I write, which means that a laptop would impart -- and has imparted -- a significant speed-up to my note-taking.) Thus, last June, I went out and bought a new laptop; and, at the urging of friends, got an Apple -- specifically, a 15" Powerbook G4. Of course this machine I handled with due delicacy (not least because it had cost me $2000 rather than the $0 which I personally had had to spend on the Toshiba). I was delighted with it from the beginning, but my faith in the infallibility of all things Mac took a slight hit when, five days after I had got it (and a few hours after I had transferred over all my important files from the PC and -- keep your groaning to yourself -- deleted the originals), the computer gasped, sighed, and (in the middle of one of the only games of chess in which it has looked like I had a chance of winning against the computer) died, no more to be revived. Well, it would boot, but it couldn't find the hard drive; and that was that. I bid a tearful farewell to my data, sent it off to Apple, and, creditably quickly, received in return a new one.

This new one was again a delight, but you can imagine that my joy was slightly tempered by what had happened so far. I instituted (as I had frequently promised before to do) a system of regular backups, and so far all has been well -- if, that is, we forget the brief interlude in December when the machine would sleep every thirty seconds, a malady which the repair shop could not diagnose but which a few moments with my system.log and Google revealed to me was probably caused by a faulty temperature sensor in my trackpad. (Temperature Monitor revealed that, as far as the trackpad was concerned, the temperature was going in a few seconds from a chilly -200 C to a balmy +400 C; and, computer manufacturers having apparently learned something since the days of the Toshiba I described above, the computer viewed this as a no-no and, quite reasonably, went to sleep.) When I mentioned this to the technicians, they said that they had actually seen this problem many, many times -- in fact, so often that the part which would need to be replaced was out of stock, and probably couldn't be had for a month and a half. As I mentioned, I do have a desktop PC at home, but once one is used to the convenience of a laptop it is hard to give it up, and I found the idea of waiting so long undesirable. Fortunately, again with some insight gleaned from a few moments with Google, I called Customer Relations and expressed my wonder at a company which prides itself on quality and reliability but, given ample opportunity, cannot seem to provide me with a computer with both a working hard drive and a working trackpad. This seemed to do the trick and I got my part within a week -- and, though a further bit of the lustre of the Mac had worn off (metaphorically, not to mention a bit literally, too), it's been quite reliable ever since and I would be loath to be parted from it.

With all that said, the reader will probably understand why I try to handle my laptop with particular delicacy. In particular, it's not obvious to me that there is any particularly safe way to grip it (it seems like holding it as one would a book is likely unpleasantly to squeeze various internal organs), so I have a habit when I carry it of balancing it horizontally on my fingers as a waiter would a tray of food. Thus -- to recap the story so far -- I am going downstairs, with my laptop computer, daintily balanced on my fingers, in one hand, and an expired light bulb in the other.

This is a situation that the gods of fate cannot resist; and, in the form of my two cats, who were eager to be fed, they had their agents in the field to teach me the error of this style of descending the stairs. Sure enough, while threading my way past the menagerie, I missed a step, and, given the choice between again throwing my laptop at an unoffending target, or smashing the lightbulb if I tried to grip something with the other hand, I wisely elected to fall and slide down the remaining five stairs. (The lightbulb made it unscathed; the laptop flew out of my hand, did a few neat pirouettes in the air, missed the railing, and came down on top of a soft cat toy on the (rather deep) carpet, all of which cushioned it sufficiently from the impact that it's still working -- at least at the moment. It was asleep at the time, so I think also the hard drive was parked; but, all the same, I'll do another backup tonight.) For a few moments I lay on the floor and offered my thoughts on life to my startled cats, who gave me the sort of looks which only cats, with their blessedly short memories that exclude from recall those times they slightly miscalculated their jumps, can give. When this amusement palled I got up gingerly. Of course my coccyx was none too thrilled about the adventure, but the pain faded fairly rapidly; but the left side of my neck felt a bit stiff.

I started trying to bend and stretch my neck to limber it up a bit, until I remembered an anecdote from the delightful book "The Wayward Professor" by Joel Gold. He was out, he says, one day on some sort of field trip with his students -- I forget what exactly -- engaged in a venture that in some fashion necessitated travelling over ice. (It may have been just that he was going into a museum and had to cross a patch of ice to do so.) Displaying the grace and agility for which I have often been celebrated, he inadvertently performed an elegant bit of ballet as he tried to cross the ice, a performance whose undue ambition was rewarded with a strangely stiff and sore ankle. This, he bravely told the students, was nothing, and though he was having trouble walking he supported himself on whatever (including said students) came to hand, meanwhile flexing the ankle to keep it from getting too stiff. (I have the opinion that here I am actually conflating two of his stories with similar plots, but the point here is the punchline, not the details.) Eventually, the field trip over, he was prevailed upon to get medical attention, which he did. The examining nurse took a peek at the (by now ugly and swollen) ankle, and said, "You haven't been bending it, have you?"

Well, he's not the laugh-out-loud kind of humorist. Anyway, with this cautionary tale in mind, I decided that maybe I would check with a reputable grown-up before doing something stupid. My first thought was to call my wife, but she is working in a supervisory capacity at a factory and is often on the (very loud) factory floor, where conversation (especially on a cell phone with poor reception) is not easy. Thus I bethought myself to call my father, who works at home and, besides therefore being usually to be counted upon to be at home, has seemed before to be both able to make time for a quick chat mid-day and also not averse to doing so. However, this usually reliably present fellow was absent (or at least not picking up the phone), so I decided to call my wife after all. The following exchange, well, followed:

Me: Do you have time to talk for a minute?
My wife: About your little brother?
Much as one likes to keep spice and variety in married life by spontaneity and originality in conversation, this did seem a bit strange. My little brother, despite his many virtues, crops up rarely, if at all, in our conversations. Thus:
Me: No ....
My wife: Have you read your e-mail?
Curiouser and -- wait for it -- curiouser. This question (especially in that tone, which the reader cannot hear but I could), even the most adventurous cannot help thinking, usually presages bad news.
Me: No, what?
My wife: He's been in a very serious accident.
This story as a whole is meant to be lightly humorous (could you tell?), and, however one addresses such a thing, putting this bit of the conversation in the midst of a rambling playful story cannot help but be jarring. All the same, this is the conversation as it occurred; and, following the lead of the great Douglas Adams, I will anticipate the rest of the conversation by saying that, though the accident was quite serious, and the consequences initially appeared so, as of now it seems that no lasting injuries were sustained (by him or anyone else in the accident). That established, I felt a bit awkward about seguƩing to what came next, but it was, after all, what I had called to ask:
Me: Well, this seems a bit anti-climactic after that news, but I fell down the stairs and think I strained my neck, and just wanted to ask you if there's anything I need to do.
My wife: You need to go to the emergency room right now.
My wife knows that I, in common with men the world over, believe in ignoring any injury or medical condition as long as possible, and so naturally took my calling her about it as an indication that it was very serious indeed. (I had anticipated this response, but had secretly been hoping that the reply would instead be "Eh, it's nothing, shrug it off.") Though I argued that I didn't want, or have time, to go to the emergency room, she insisted that I at least go to immediate care; but eventually we agreed that I would call the nurses at FirstHelp, the service provided by Blue Cross to its insurees who, unlike me, do not have a wife or other responsible adult to call when they do something stupid. I called them, and had the usual experience with them (I've had to call a few times before), to wit: The nurses I have dealt with have all been very polite and professional, but one can tell that they are aware that the caller's injury or condition is very minor, and they are bored to have to go through the routine, as well as also maybe a little disappointed in him or her for not having had the wit to see this him- or herself. (I should emphasise that this is purely my impression derived from perhaps imagined subtleties of tone, and, again, nothing of word or deed of the person to whom I spoke was less than exemplary.) The conversation concluded with my interlocutor's telling me that I should apply cold and heat as appropriate, and expect some soreness and stiffness, but not worry unless I experienced any of -- well, some list of symptoms ('shortness of breath' was one, but I'm an asthmatic, so that wasn't very helpful; I think 'massive unexpected bleeding out the ears' didn't make the list, but fortunately it hasn't happened, so I guess there's no need for concern).

The part of my story dealing with my fall is, despite its prominent and lengthy position, actually only the prelude to this story (steel yourself, dear reader, and plunge ahead -- we are almost to the end of this post). As I mentioned, in common with so many others who share my sex (errm -- or perhaps that phrasing is poor), I usually try to ignore or deny any condition that would take me to the doctor, so there have been, that I can recall, only two times when I called my wife to whinge about some injury I had suffered. One was the incident I have just related, which was followed by the conversation above; the other I will recount now (briefly). Several years ago I broke my leg (by wandering into traffic), and so got to spend the summer in a cast (attended, let me mention since it can never be mentioned too often, by my wife, then girlfriend, who dropped everything and, at about twenty minutes' notice once she heard, took a ten-hour bus trip to be with me). As the summer wore on, I got to be pretty good with crutches, to the extent that one day, as I was walking (or hobbling) in to university, I found myself behind someone walking along the sidewalk more slowly than I. Aggrieved by this obstacle in my path, I veered onto the grass, then discovered that sudden abrupt changes of trajectory onto wet and slippery surfaces are not to be recommended while on crutches -- in concrete (no pun intended) terms, I fell, heavily on the sidewalk. (I had devised over the weeks I was wearing the cast a fairly elaborate way of carrying with me the books and papers I would normally have had outside my bag and in my hands. Though I think this was a reasonably clever method, it did not allow for such catastrophic changes, so, in addition to trying to pick myself up, I had also to retrieve my far-flung and now bedewed papers.) Now much exercised at the poor hand fate had dealt me, I made my way to the university and, on arrival, called my wife. "Hello," said I (my inventiveness at full pitch); to which "Have you seen the news?" replied she. It was September 11, 2001.

I can take a hint from fate. No more shall I try to tell others about my injuries.

P.S. The massive irony inherent in making a blog post detailing my intention no more to tell anyone about the subject of said post is not lost on me.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

It is regrettable that ...

... I have come, only ten or twelve years late, to the blogging party. (According to Wikipedia, the first "online diary", as apparently these objects were originally known -- before the nomenclature ascended to the incontrovertible bliss of the word 'blog' -- was started in 1994; although, tantalisingly, this information comes without any mention of what the site was, by whom it was run, and whether it still exists today.) Also regrettable is that the slightly more memorable address is already taken.

I'm not sure yet what the content of this blog will be (I haven't taken the intelligent step I've seen others take, of preparing content first and only starting a blog once enough has accumulated that they are sure their pages won't be a lonely 'Here I am' post for six to seven years; no, rather, in reading someone else's blog I was suddenly seized by the thought that I would have my own, and, deliberation not being for me, here it is), but I have a vague idea that it'll be a place where -- wallow, O reader, in the originality -- I will comment on the books and movies (and, to a lesser degree, music) of the moment.

After much eager waiting on my part, I have just finished watching Riget II, the sadistic exercise with which Lars von Trier walloped his dedicated fans not too long after they recovered from the sadistic exercise of Riget I. (Well, Riget I was no more Riget I than World War I was World War I -- as it were -- but in retrospect the title is natural.) I can't remember how I discovered the original -- I think I saw a preview for it while watching a ghost movie which tried, with almost touching desperation, to be artsy, but could manage only to muster a bit of nudity -- but I got my hands on it as soon as I could (a slightly difficult prospect, given that had not yet made the rare and out of print as easily accessible as it is today; again I can't remember exactly where I got it, but it took a bit of a search to do so). I sat down to watch it, and was captivated and enthralled. It is four episodes of a TV miniseries, and I had planned only to watch the first one in my first sitting, but I couldn't stop and ended up watching them all at once. The plot is a mixture of horror and humour (I can't resist the slight alliteration) which could easily have gone wrong in other hands -- I seem to remember that From Dusk to Dawn tried it, and I certainly remember that that movie was a dismal failure, whatever the genre was to which it was supposed to belong -- but which, in von Trier's, was manipulated so deftly that the contradictory moods expertly played off and enhanced, instead of weakening, one another. The climax of the movie mixes the two so brilliantly that (at least on first viewing, when one doesn't know what to expect) one is simultaneously weak with the tension of wondering what will happen, and laughing at the absurdity of the way events unfold. The movie impressed me so much with its director that, over the next few years, I snapped up whatever of his I could get and watched it, but nothing else worked such magic on me; indeed, nothing else even seemed particularly accomplished. (Some of his movies -- like The Element of Crime -- were strange and unrewarding exercises in surreality; some of them -- like the famous Breaking the Waves -- were just cruel, a quality of his which seems only to have become more pronounced with his later films. I haven't yet seen Five Obstructions.) Anyway, after these disappointments, I was stunned to discover that there was a sequel (actually, the original ends in a way that cries out for a sequel, but, as I mentioned, I thought this was just von Trier's way of catching our attention and frustrating our expectations), and immediately set about trying to get hold of it. By this time, I had become familiar with the wonder that was, but Riget II was never released in North America, and even the Marketplace had no copies of it to offer me.

I resigned myself to being perpetually unable to see Riget II -- because, you see, though I now knew of I was not yet familiar with It would be more years yet before I would become sufficiently comfortable with even to use it, and then a while longer still before it occurred to me that surely in this venue I could satisfy my (by now) ages-old search. Sure enough, I found a seller in London who had a copy, and, though the shipping to the US was immense, it was worth it to me, so I began bidding. There was someone else who wanted it, and we engaged in a fierce bidding war -- in which I, as I think so many first-time e-Bayers, found somewhat to my surprise that the amount I had set as my final and absolute spending limit for the DVD was in fact actually far less than I was willing to bid once the fight was underway. The auction was to end in four days, and I was checking literally almost every waking hour, indeed at times dreaming about this movie, in my anxiety to get my hands on it. (Around this time I convinced my wife -- who is not at all a fan of horror movies -- to watch the movie, thinking that, when she gasped in frustration at the movie's tantalisingly open-ended ending, I could spring on her the welcome news that she had only a little while to wait before seeing how all was resolved.) As we came into the final minutes I was checking every five minutes, which turned out to be a good idea (or so I thought then), as the other bidder, after about a day's silence, sniped (if that is the proper use of the verb) literally a last-minute bid. I put in my higher bid, which brought the total to $95, including shipping.

Aha! I had won! My satisfaction was dampened only slightly by the fact that, when I checked my e-mail shortly thereafter, I found that the seller had sent me a mail about an hour before the auction ended saying that I didn't have to bid so high, as he had another copy of the DVD which he would be putting up for auction after this one ended. I wrote to him thanking him for the sentiment, but opining that it was a bit late now; and he graciously gave me a small credit, something like $15, which brought the total cost down in the neighbourhood of $80. (Some masochistic impulse within me caused me to search for not longer after I had concluded the auction, only to notice that there was a US seller selling it for about three quarters of the price. Over this I gritted my teeth a bit.) This I paid -- and then I waited.

I will save you, dear reader, the agony of waiting with me, as months go by, and the seller responds to mails no longer on a daily basis but every few weeks, always with plausible reasons why he hasn't been able to respond, and always with a plausible excuse for why the DVD mightn't have arrived. When it becomes clear that the delay is ridiculous, and I threaten to leave negative feedback, the seller agrees to send me another copy; when it becomes further clear that this second copy will never arrive, and I further threaten negative feedback, the seller says (after a sufficiently long delay that the three-month deadline has expired both for feedback and for a refund through that he will send me yet another copy. To this I agree, and, eventually, this (hypothetically) third mailing does arrive -- but it is four (two for the original, two for the sequel) DVDs-R. On consulting the seller's most recent mail to me, I see that the sentence "I will have to send you a copy if you want", which I took to be a lamentation of the need to mail me a third copy of the DVD, actually meant that he would be sending me just that -- a copy, not an original. (I still don't know whether this guy intended all the time to send me only a copy -- I guess that's most likely -- or actually had the misfortune of losing two copies in the mail.) Oh well. My goal is to see the content of the DVD, not the DVD itself, so, though this is a disappointment, after all this time -- six years since I started looking! -- I am willing to settle for this, and I take the DVD home, where my wife, just as eager as I am by now to find how the saga continues, sits down with me to watch it.

All is happiness now, and all is joy, as we sit down to watch it. For about an hour our joy (fettered only by the abysmally poor subtitles) frolics, until suddenly the DVD player chokes and stops. There is a bad sector, perhaps, or a scratch, or something which is keeping the finicky DVD player from being happy enough to proceed. (It is possible to fast-forward past the bad patch, once one knows where it is, at the expense of missing about thirty seconds of the movie, but then there is another one just a little farther on past which one cannot fast-forward.) Not one to be so easily kept from my prize, I take the DVD to my computer and rip the VOBs, determined at least to watch the movie on the computer -- which seems like a reasonable, if again disappointing, plan, until I come to the later bad patch mentioned above, and discover that, though the movie does resume again, it does so only after about ten minutes' worth of unwatchable 'test screen'-type colour blocks. Despite my wife's urgings that ten minutes out of four hours' worth of movie is not really that much, I am bitterly disappointed, and shelve the DVD (comforting myself only with the sour-grapes justification that it probably wouldn't have lived up to the original anyway). My mail to the seller, suggesting that if, after four months' wait, all I have to show for my trouble is a copied DVD which is not even playable, then at least he could refund a small percentage of the charge, goes (surprise!) unanswered. If anyone out there wants -- say, for a 'Fraudsters of e-Bay' collection -- a bad print of Riget II, it can be had for only a nominal fee.

About two weeks ago (nearly a year after the debacle mentioned above), the masochistic impulse I mentioned seized me again, and I searched on e-Bay. A US seller was selling Riget II, available to Buy Now, for $16.95! This deal could not be resisted (though I tried) and I snapped it up. The seller sent no confirmation e-mail, despite my mailing him asking him to do so, and about a week went by with no sign of the DVD, so dire thoughts were filling my head; but, at the close of the week, the DVD arrived. This was the DVD itself, not a copy, and shrink-wrapped to boot. My spirits were high, though I tried to temper them, and once more I sat down with my wife to watch Riget. I hit play, sat down to watch -- and, after about an hour, the movie stopped playing, and returned us to the menu screen.

This, one following the adventures of our hero must say, is enough, indeed is too much. I was contemplating whether some such masculine remedy as punching a hole through a wall might not be the appropriate response to the problem, and mumbling various demented things to myself, when my wife (to whom all praise) pointed out that, in my hurry to navigate the architecture of the DVD (whose menus are all in Chinese), I had chosen only to play an individual scene, not the entire movie. We found the 'Play All' menu selection, pressed it, and sat back to watch -- and, despite one or two small burps in the sound and (as I mentioned above) the terrible subtitling, all went smoothly. The movie played. After the negligible outlay of $100, I had finally acquired a (working!) copy of Riget II!

My seven-year quest has reached its end. Trumpets sound, angels chorus, and everyone, without knowing quite why, sleeps now a little bit easier. After four hours, I finally know how the tale of the denizens of the Rigshospitalet continue -- and what to say? It's not a very good sequel. Oh, well. (Lars von Trier planned, and indeed wrote, a third installment -- the second ends on just as much of a cliffhanger as the first, although it feels less earned -- but three of the principals died, so I think everyone has essentially given up hope of its ever being filmed. Apparently Stephen King had access, while remaking the series, to the scripts for the third season, but, again according to Wikipedia, it's not clear whether or not he actually made any use of them.)