Tuesday, December 28, 2010


This post really arises out of our ongoing group reading of Finnegans Wake, where the word "demiurge" came up, probably via Joseph Campbell, and made us all scratch our heads a bit last time. But in trying to get a handle on it, I thought of "demimonde" and also "demitasse". I realized I'd been fudging them all a bit, because I don't really know the meaning of that initial prefix. One member of our group was fairly certain that a demiurge was a sort of god. I am thinking that demimonde is a kind of subworld, like, for instance, the underworld of crme, and a demitasse is a kind of small cup, so maybe 'sub' is the general meaning here. It's quite possible that I am not only wrong about the underlying meaning but about the more general meaning of the words themselves, so I suppose it really is time to just plunge in...

Did I say 'half'? I really did think half at one point, but since we already have hemi and semi, I didn't think that could possibly be right. What gives?

Well, hemi, semi and demi do all mean half. They probably all relate back to one of those Protoindoeuropean roots, but they are filtered through, respectively, Greek, Latin and Old French. Demimonde, interestingly comes from and old Alexandre Dumas fil comedy, in which the demimonde is "half the world". It is "the link between good and bad society ... the world of compromised women, a social limbo, the inmates of which ... are perpetually struggling to emerge into the paradise of honest and respectable ladies". One of these denizens is called a demimondaine.

A demitasse is, fairly straightforwardly, a halfsized cup.

But things are never simple. It turns out that demiurge, the impetus for this blog post, does not come from "demi" at all. It comes from "demos", the common people, and "ergos", work. The demiourgos was a public worker in Greece, and this was sometimes used as a title for a magistrate. Kind of like a public servant in our parlance, I expect. In Platonic thought, the maker of the world was  such a magisterial being, a subordinate to the Supreme Being and not always working for the good. (Look around--are you surprised?)

I did discover a term I had never heard of before: the hemidemisemiquaver, or a 64th note. You've heard of a quarter note, right? Think about it...

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

It's not that I've run out of ignorance, but...

...I have run out of time, at least till Christmas is over. So I thought I might leave a couple of links to things you might be ignorant of. How's that for a concept? Both do relate to our current festive season, by the way.

First, a Christmas tale from a blog that's new to me, but apparently has a rabid fan base. Can't remember exactly how I came across Hyperbole and a Half--was it you Kathleen?--but I know I'll be following it hereafter. (Yes, the picture has been swiped from that blogger. I hope that the fact that I'm advertising it will suffice.)

And then, though I've already posted about this on another blog, I can't resist repeating that we are all having a rollicking good time over at Do Some Damage, reading Christmas Noir--or at least each writer's idea of what Christmas Noir might look like. You may see some familiar names there as things roll along, and a certain power hitter has the Christmas day honors.

Happy holidays everyone. I'll be checking in  at all the usual places.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Lincoln Place Apartments

Okay, let's call this a departure, as it's not a typical "Confessions of ignorance" post, but I think it fits within the broader reaches of the idea. We'll see.

I am not a Facebook user. Why that in particular should seem a bridge too far, I don't know, but I have at least for now decided to forego the entertainment I could have by stalking my friends in favor of other pursuits. The main drawback I can see is that in this world of searching out long lost acquaintances, people are typing in my name, and coming up blank. Well, not exactly blank--I believe that what they actually get is an attractive young black woman, whom they would probably be much happier having as a Facebook friend anyway.

There are one or two people I wouldn't mind connecting with again out of the past, though. And on just that whim, I tried to search out the identity of a boy I went to kindergarten with before we both moved away. It's not too likely that I will be successful at this, because I don't even remember his last name, although that might come back to me--you never know.

Anyway, purely on a whim I did some googling around our old grade school, and when that proved fruitless, I decided that somehow researching the old apartment complex where we both happened to live might help. It didn't. I mean why would it, it's not as if he signed the lease.

But, as is sometimes the way with fruitless searches, the secondary rewards can compensate you to a degree for the loss of the primary ones. Because just by chance I came across a blog post about those very apartments. And here is where my subject and the theme of this blog finally come together.

I didn't know, for instance that when I was between the ages of about three and six that I had lived in a housing project. This isn't because I was ashamed about my past, or tried to block it out, it's just that I didn't think of it as what we've come have as the stereotyped image of a project, which I suppose would include the adjectives 'scary, unsafe, graffiti-scrawled and probably in a skyscraper. These two-story buildings with spacious lawns in between were none of that. But their building was funded with section 608 subsidies by the Federal Housing Authority. Section 608 was born out of the emergency need for housing for returning vets after the war and was thought of as War Housing Insurance. Lots of scandal around it too, but that's another story.)

Anyway, my parents were part of that wave of veterans who married and came to L.A. and began starting a family as they, meaning mostly my dad, began his post service career path. This housing complex in still low-priced Venice, though still near to my grandmother in more tony Santa Monica must have seemed a fine first step.

Here's a couple more things I was ignorant of, though. First of all, this complex was apparently designed by Ralph Vaughn, one of the few African-Americans architects then--or now. The issue was apparently so charged that project manager Heth Wharton acted as a kind of beard. One of the developers of the project said that they hadn't known Vaughn was African-American and it wouldn't have mattered if they had. They later received death threats for working with a black architect, but were not deterred. The full story is

Seems like enough to know about a place you once lived in, right? Well, maybe, but in this case, no. Because one of the most important events to happen in this place happened in this our current millennium. In August of 2005, the tenants of the Lincoln Place Apartments were treated to the largest single day eviction lockout in L.A. history. By then, the property owner was AIMCO, one of the largest apartment owning companies in the country. Predictably, they wanted to tear down this complex and put up expensive condominiums.

Okay, enough holding out on my source for all this stuff. You can read the blog and see the pictures here.  There is a little film about the eviction that is quite moving. You'll be happy to learn that the story has a happy, if ambivalent ending.

For me, of course there are other reasons to be moved. The touching thing is how little any of this has changed. There might be a slightly different demographic these days, but apparently the way of life that the architecture was meant to facilitate remained intact for almost half a century. It is a bit uncanny to see, actually.

It's as if I never left.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


Just woke up thinking of this word for some reason. I think I was thinking of using the phrase "arms akimbo" in a sentence. Then I realized that I didn't really know if I had it right or not. At the present time, I think it means with arms or legs crossed and folded. But I think when I used to read it, I thought it meant "strewn about all over the place". Maybe it means neither.

Where does it come from? It sounds like it could be African, but maybe that's because it has a sound association to the unfortunate Little Black Sambo. Or maybe it's one of those words from India that migrated with returning soldiers. Well, with my luck at guessing such things, it is probably Old English. Let's see...

Darn. How can I be so right about being so wrong? It is in fact, Middle English--kenebowe kene- (origin unknown--hate when that happens!) +bowe which is "bow" or "bend". Like elbow. And in fact elbows have a lot to do with it, because akimbo is really about the elbows pointing out to the side with hands on hips. Yeah, yeah--I got that wrong too.

However, there is a bright side. Turns out that the ever provocative Anatole Liberman has written an article about the problematic etymology of the word for the OUP. Hooray! I advise you to stop reading this highly speculative blog and read his article here.

If you must choose to read on, I will pose a quiet note of contradiction, though. Liberman says:

"A third putative source of akimbo is Gaelic cam “bent, crooked”; the English adverb kim-kam “all awry, all askew” has been attested...The suggestion that just one component of akimbo is Celtic has little to recommend it."

Well, maybe. I find it interesting, though, that I had some underlying sense of the 'all awry, all askew' meaning, even if it did not pan out. Does that come from my Irish roots? Or, more probably, has this shadowy secondary meaning haunted the word all along?

Mr. Liberman, I hope that some day, these questions will be answered.


Wednesday, December 8, 2010


Okay, enough about Spam and enough about spam. "Salient" is actually taking a step backwards. Sure, I think I know what I'm saying when I mention the salient point about something. To me I mean, the crucial point, or the most revealing point--something like that. But when I was researching resilience a few posts back, I noticed  a passing reference in the etymology of the word that "salient" was actually a relative. In short, we have another of those salire words, meaning that somehow it probably incorporates the concept of leaping or bouncing. Right? The bouncing point? The leaping point? What? I wouldn't believe it was the same root, but apparently it is. Time to find out how.

So first things first. I am not too far off base in my sense of the word, because "salient" means conspicuous, noticeable, prominent. It is what juts out above the surface. It is, I suppose, what leaps out at one, which connects it to its other salire relatives. It has a military meaning, as when a part of the forward line pushes forward into enemy territory, and it has a geometrical meaning, where an angle of less than a 180 degrees is a salient angle. It has a meaning in heraldry, where it applies to creatures that are leaping or springing. Speaking of springing creatures, the superorder that includes frogs and toads and related fossils is called Salientia.

But the salient point in all this is, well, the salient point. According to the Online etymology dictionary, the "salient point" first appeared in English in the 1670s. The salient point is the heart of an embryo,which seems to leap. It goes all the way back to Aristotle, as the punctum saliens in his writings. "Hence," as the dictionary entry so eloquently ends, "the 'starting point' of anything."

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Spam--Part 2

Before we entirely leave the topic of SPAM- part one, I will confess that I failed to pursue my research far enough to include the classic Monty Python skit on same. For those of you who haven't seen this error corrected by astute blog commenters, I have included the YouTube above.  I have actually left out a lot of SPAM lore and culture, and this blog acknowledges that it has hit only the tip of the SPAM iceberg.

But before this image imprints itself too deeply, let's quickly move on to the other meaning of spam. Of course we all know what it is by now, though I will attempt to define it more precisely.  How did the email junk mail we love to hate come to adopt this name? And how does electronic spam really work? How effective is it? Do people really leap to buy Viagra through these means?

Well, as it turns out, that Monte Python skit is more relevant than I knew. (Go ahead, check it out if you haven't, because what follows will be a spoiler otherwise.) In the skit, the cast of characters slowly drown out all other requests off the breakfast menu in a dense insistence on Spam, Spam, Spam! as breakfast ingredient of choice. And at least the Wikipedia article I read says that the skit alludes to the "preponderance of imported canned meats" in the post-WWII United Kingdom as it struggled to get its agriculture back up to steam. So SPAM itself became a kind of spam, although in this case, it seems the real villain was canned corned beef from Argentina, which unfortunately for Hormel, does not provide such a good acronym.

Of course, all this was ripe to make a good metaphor for a bulk electronic message system that has tended to gradually drown out more legitimate or at least wanted messages unless some sort of filter is put in place. I was not surprised to learn that spam comprises a good percentage of email, but even so, I was flabbergasted that as a conservative estimate, MAAWG, the Message Anti-Abuse Working Group, has spam as taking up 80 to 85 percent of the world's email. Our piddling little conversations about our personal lives and passions seem pretty meaningless in this context.

SPAM wasn't just a metaphor in its early usage, though. Apparently, there were a lot of Monty Python aficionados on the early web who used to fill up electronic bulletin boards and the like with the word "Spam" over and over in order to force readers to scroll and scroll to get to more relevant content. Sometimes, they even put whole portions of the skit's text in the boards. It was often an insiders vs. outsiders tactic, forcing the newcomers to give up and leave. Star Wars fans and Star Trek fans used to attack each others' fan boards in this way.

Okay, I think we can all understand the role of spam as an annoyance factor on early message boards and games. But to consider its commercial value, we have to consider its relation to email. Why do people spam? Do they actually make money? Is there really a sucker born every minute? And do they all have a computer?

Well, as far as I can tell, the beauty of spamming is that there is no real cost to the spammer--the cost of spam is borne elsewhere.  I learned the term "barriers to entry" in the course of writing this up. Barriers to entry are the obstacles someone seeking to take part in a market faces. They may have to pay start up fees, get professional credentials and licenses, or be forced to compete with a larger rival that has access to better pricing, etc. Apart from the cost of an internet connection and a computer, a spammer has basically no barrier to entry. His--or her--profit comes from sending out an email ad to millions of people and then pocketing the money from the tiny one or two percent of people who actually reply back. When the numbers are this high, even a small amount of response can translate into a decent living. Here's a blog post on how Viagra spam works, that I found quite informative. One key element is that Pfizer still controls the market on the product in the U.S., but in other countries this patent has expired, which enables them to make a generic Viagra at a fraction of the cost.

According to this MSNBC article, often those in the shadowy spam world are affiliated in some hard to trace way to legitimate companies, which enjoy getting lists of potential clients as well as anyone. Put in this light, spamming doesn't really seem any more dubious than other corners of world finance we have come to know and love, such as the bundling of mortgages for unaccountable entities to hold.

Let me admit that, every once in awhile, I do enjoy a good halfway literate scammer. I doubt that putting your writing talents to work actually adds much to the income flow, but at least the results aren't tedious. Here is one that's been making the rounds of late. You may have read it. If not, enjoy...

Hey Family!

Just wanted to write you and let you know, how the degree program I tried out went.
Well, six weeks later, I graduated, finished & received my Masters Degree with no study required and %100 verifiable.

Yeah mom, I know you and Dad doubted it at first, but this turned out to be %100 legit. This opportunity was given to me because of the professional experience and previous course work I had accumulated.

I’m so excited mom and dad, this was a life altering opportunity & for once in my life I took advantage of it.

I already have jobs, that wouldn’t have given me a chance before, now they are calling off the hook! This really is a godsend.

Tell Susan and Cousin Joey that they better hurry up and call that # I gave them the other day.

Again these are the degrees they offer, BA, BSC, MA, MSC,MBA and PhD, and the number to call is (I'm deleting the number lest I unwittingly become an accomplice) Tell them to leave a brief message with their name, the degree they are interested in and their day and evening phone numbers. They will contact you soon after,

Anyway, much love, and tell the rest of the family I said hello

Your son,


Mom, why don’t you send this email to a few of your friends? My professor told me that if we send over referrals the school can give us a scholarship.