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Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Fine frogs

Frogs do not get good press in the Bible. We see plagues of frogs being used as a weapon against Pharaoh, and in the Revelation of St John the Divine, we read:

And I saw three unclean spirits like frogs come out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet.

In spite of this, frogs like Kermit the muppet are generally seen as lovable creatures, but we all know that frogs were an ingredient in the witches' brew in Macbeth:
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg and howlet's wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
 Perhaps the frog is only there to make up a rhyme with 'dog'. Whatever the reason, any fear we may once have had of frogs seems to have been dispelled.

A poll is a head, and when politicians go to the polls, or pay attention to opinion polls, they are literally counting heads, while a poll-tax is a head tax. In Middle English, a polwygle was what we would now call a poll-wiggle, a wiggling head, and this name lives on in America as an alternative name for a tadpole, though it has by now become a polliwog or a pollywog. The more common form, tadpole, comes from the Middle English word for a toad, grafted onto poll, presumably because it appears to be a tailed head which has yet to grow the rest of the toad.

The Old English origin of 'frog' lies in the word frogga, not too unlike the German frosch or the Icelandic froskr. A toad was tádige or tádie, so when children call tadpoles 'taddies', they are not so far from their remote ancestors, a millennium ago. The frogs would not be all that impressed — if the palaeontologists are to be believed, the frogs have been around in much their present form for about 200 million years.

A frog may also appear on a coat, where it appears to be the Portuguese word frocoi, deriving from the Latin floccus, meaning 'flock', which, along another line, also gives us out word 'frock', as in 'frock-coat'. This sort of frog is an attachment to the coat for holding weaponry, or else a fastening, where a covered button passes through a loop on the opposite side of the garment. On a horse's hoof, though, a frog is not an old-fashioned form of road-kill, but a horny growth, possibly derived from a similar Italian word, forchetta.
A frog march involves four men each taking one limb of a difficult person, and carrying them, face down, a position which leaves them likely to be injured if they try to struggle, and we say we have a frog in our throat when we have sore throat that makes us croak. That particular usage was first recorded by the OED as far back as 1656.

Railway lines also have frogs, grooved pieces of iron that are placed where one rail crosses over another, and the French are often called "frogs" or "frog-eaters" by the English when they intend to be offensive. Legend has it that the residents of the 3rd Arrondissement in Paris, in the area near the Bastille known as Le Marais, or 'the marsh', commonly referred to themselves in the past as grenouilles, or frogs, so perhaps the term is not so offensive after all.

The act of eating frogs may turn out to be seriously offensive. In 1987, India banned the export of frogs from there to France, arguing that the loss of frogs led to increases in insects such as mosquitoes and also in tiny crabs that attack rice crops.

In all, the cost of insecticides and the losses to crops added up to more money than India earned in frog sales. Almost all French frog species have been protected since the 1950s, and the search for fresh supplies has caused problems in a number of countries, with the emphasis now on South-East Asia. Overall, it seems, the frogs are more good than bad.

So I am sad not to have seen any, so far on this trip.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

What is better than a Swiss Army Knife?

I will come to that in a moment.  First, let me say that we made it up Mt Pilatus today. I will say more of this later, but here is some proof:
Pilatus Kulm, complete with zig-zagging track, scree slope and folded beds. A rather better shot will appear in a future book.
But what is better than a Swiss Army knife?  A Swiss Army band!

Chris was feeling a bit poorly, so we set out to buy her a hat.  Just a peaked cap, like the one I bought near the Bourbaki Panorama (another story to tell one day), just SF 11 of shopping therapy, and we had agreed to go quietly.  "Unless," I said, "we come across a Swiss oompah band in the streets and feel compelled to dance.

This is a Swiss Army Band, and it is better than a Swiss Army Knife.  You can't quite dance to them, and they are deadly.  Here is why:

Alp horns (so-called), in fact disguised artillery that scared the pants off Napoleon (to Josephine's delight,
but that's another story).
They may look harmless:

Harmless enough...

But wait until you look down one!

I gave these the professional once-over, and a wizened old soldier saw my knowing wince.  He plucked my sleeve ad drew me to one side, then led me into a back alley, where he showed me these:

"Zis is why we are never invaded," he told me, with a gap-toothed old  soldier's grin.  "We possess ze world's only supply of weapons of mass distraction."

Friday, 12 July 2013

Of Eurish and Croatian English

One of the things I treasure from Ljubljana is a pair of small pictures of a memorial to the visit to Ljubljana made by James Joyce in 1904.

He was a young man then, but some of his ideas would have been starting to gel.

Ulysses  was some years away, Finnegans Wake was two decades away, but the Eurish that he used to make polyglot puns in the Wake must have been all around him.  Few signs of this remain,  but on Platform 6 in Ljubljana's main station, if you are ever there, look on the right as you come up the stairs.

Eurish is still alive and well when it comes to communicating in Europe.  Most travellers know the English 'WC' in its German form of 'Vay-tsay', and we all know twah-let, the bastardised form of the French form of 'toilet'.  The other night, I stepped out of the dining hall, seeking the loo, bog, khazi or dunny.  I met another bloke who looked a bit nonplussed, as though he was trying to walk with his legs crossed.

"Vay-tsay?" I essayed.  "Twah-let," he replied.  I was no closer to identifying his nationality, but we we aligned.  We shruggeed to each other and divided to halve the load.  It occurred to me to wonder what his nationality was: one night in Bergamo in Italy, a man approached me with a question in Italian, of which I had a sparse few words, back in 1986: I have a few more now, but I still have a minimal grasp of syntax.

"Francesi?", I essayed.  He nodded and lapsed into French as poor as mine and we limped along, then my son asked mje what we were discussing.  "He is asking me where the xxx is..."

Before I could enlarge on this, slightly amazed American tones asked "You speak English?" and the rest of our chat was concluded in our respective versions of that tongue

Anyhow, back to the comfort search: I found the target room, and running through my assortment of Eurish terms,  I selected the one most likely to compute.  "Aha!", I cried in triumph.  It worked, we relieved ourselves, nodded mutely to each other at the wash-basin, and moved off on our own paths.  Eurish still works, but it is nowhere as potent a communication tool as English is in the modern world.

In retrospect, he may have been an English speaker, but I doubt it.

Today, Joyce would have a far poorer command of Eurish, because the billboards all carry English sentences like "We love to go shopping!" and other short samples of English.  Television is full of programs in English, with Croatian subtitles, English is taught in schools, and because they speak English, all of the brighter young children have assured jobs, albeit in the service industries.

Still, in a few cases, the command is less than it ought to be. These excerpts from a holiday guide show what can go wrong:
"Trogir lies on a small island between the mainland and the island of Ciovo, connected by bridges.  It is connected with all towns in Dalmatia by Adriatic road. because of the position and nature of protection, Trogir is favourite harbor for boaters.

As they near the airport and highways, not one place, no port, nor an island are not far enough that it could be avoided....

Tourist committed town has a good range of accommodation in various hotels, apartments and private houses, adorned by beautiful sandy beaches...."
The Swiss were once renowned for this sort of thing, according to Gerard Hoffnung, but in the cities at least, they are well beyond that. Out in Heidiland, where we were yesterday, I needed every scrap of German that I could muster.

But that's another story, saved for another day.

Anchovies as a case in point

'Anchovy', that humble little fish whose natural habitat seems ever to be the top of a pizza, is a symbol of probably one of the few words that has come into English from the Basque language, although we actually took it from the Spanish and Portuguese anchova, rather than directly from the Basque anchoa, which is also the name of one genus of anchovy.

And while anchovies may seems like a harmless salty topping for pizzas, they were also behind one of Alfred Hitchcock's films, The Birds, which was inspired by peculiar behaviour shown by shearwaters in and around the California town of Santa Cruz in 1961.

Some birds need no chemical help to go
completely berserk.
While Hitchcock drew on a Daphne du Maurier story for the basic story-line, the actions of the shearwaters helped shape the detailed plot of the movie. And those actions, it seems, were shaped in turn by a marine neurotoxin called domoic acid.

This chemical comes from a marine alga called Pseudo-nitzschia australis, and when the algae are eaten by anchovies, the toxin is then introduced into the food chain that leads to the shearwaters.

Most people only heard of the El Niño effect after the Peruvian anchoveta (Cetengraulis mysticetus) fishery fell to very low levels in the early 1970s, in part as a result of over-fishing, but also because of the climate changes brought by an El Niño event at that time. This is a different species of fish from the Mediterranean anchovy, Engraulis encrasicholus, but it was also able to be pickled and sold far away, without refrigeration.

The sardine, is a small fish of the herring family, cured and soaked in oil, which gets its name from the island of Sardinia, although the same or similar fish could also be gathered off the coast of Brittany, but even there, far from the Mediterranean island, the fishermen seem to have kept the Latin name for the fish. There is a 'sardine stone' mentioned in the Bible in Revelations which was also a precious stone, perhaps the same as the 'sardius', mentioned in Exodus and Ezekiel.

It is always risky second-guessing those who translated the Bible into English, but at a guess, this may be either the sard, which is another name for a carnelian, or perhaps a sardonyx, which has alternating bands of sard and white quartz.

Then there is the pilchard, a fine example of excrescence in the language. While this sounds suspiciously as though it may be obscene or scatological or plain unpleasant, it is none of these. In fact, an excrescence is something added on to make a word sound more euphonious. In Twelfth Night, Feste (often referred to as the Fool or the Clown) uses the old form when he tells Viola:
" . . . fools are as like husbands as pilchers are to herrings - the husband's the bigger."
Shakespeare knew the anchovy as well, and it rates a mention in Henry IV (Part I, II iv 588), when Prince Hal searches the sleeping Falstaff's pockets and finds a bill featuring this:
Item, Anchovies and sack after supper. ii s. vi d.
It appears that anchovies and sack was a repast much to the fat knight's liking. But then sack, capons, sauce, bread and more sack, were all much to the liking of Sir John. Dickens, however, seems to have a more mixed view: the Snagsbys in Bleak House serve "delicate little rows of anchovies nestling in parsley" to the Chadbands, and Mr. Pickwick speaks of anchovy sandwiches as "glorious" — at least in the presence of devilled kidney.

David Copperfield, on the other hand, was less impressed when dosed with anchovy sauce by his aunt, Betsy Trotwood, to stop him crying. In that case, though, the anchovy sauce was in between aniseed water and salad dressing, so perhaps the sauce was no problem at all.

Anchovy sauce was obviously held in low esteem, as Pip in Great Expectations notes an anchovy-sauce cruet in an inn where he takes tea with Estella, " . . . and somebody's pattens". These were wooden overshoes that help lift one's real shoes out of the mud, and on the basis of these items, Pip objects to the room, and they are ushered into another.

If there had been pilchers in the room, that would have been a greater reason to object, for what had been a pilch soon after the time of Sir John Falstaff, a flannel wrapper worn over a baby's nappy or diaper, was by now a pilcher, going by the name the fish had vacated when it became a pilchard.

The over-garment would probably have been more offensive to the sensitive Pip and Estella than even the muddiest of overshoes.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013


While we were in Slovenia, we visited the town of Idrija, where there was once a mercury mine. When I get home, I will add some pics, but I am a bit busy travelling, right now.

The element mercury has been known since the time of the ancient Romans, who obtained it from mines in Spain and Italy, and called it 'living silver', or argentum vivum. We merely translated this to get our name 'quicksilver'. The word 'quick', in this sense does not mean 'fast' or 'rapid', but 'alive', a meaning we preserve when we speak of a fetus quickening in the womb, the quick on a fingernail, or if we speak of 'the quick and the dead'.

People often assume this last phrase to mean that those who do not move fast (in a lively manner or quickly) are dead, but that just reflects the way we now interpret the term. The Greeks called it 'water silver', hydrargyros, which explains why chemists use the symbol Hg when they speak of mercury. The chemists have no element with the symbol M, which is just as well, as it leaves them free to use that letter to indicate any generic metal.

Mercury was one of the seven metals (gold, silver, iron, mercury, tin, copper and lead) known in antiquity, and directly or indirectly by associations with the various gods, these metals gave their names to the days of the week. Our Wednesday, in French, is still Mercury's day, or Mercredi. Sunday belonged to the sun, which is gold, Monday to the silvery moon, Tuesday to Mars or the Saxon Tiw, both linked to iron.

Thursday belonged to the Saxon Thor or to Jove, whose metal was tin, while Friday belonged to Venus or the Saxon Frig and copper, and leaden Saturday was the Saturn's day. The astrologer's symbol for Venus and copper was a looking-glass and gives today's biologists their 'female' symbol, while the symbol for iron and Mars, the sword and shield of Mars, is now used by biologists to indicate 'male'.

Metallic mercury was fascinating stuff, with its ability to roll around like a liquid on a flat surface, and the way it would form an amalgam with many metals, forming an alloy which is in effect a metal-metal solution. It took us rather longer to discover that mercury is one of the 'heavy metals', like lead and cadmium, and that like those, it is poisonous, damaging the nerves. People like hatters who used mercury in their work often showed signs of this damage by twitching, giving us the expression 'as mad as a hatter'.

Later, the metal was recognised as a special sort of poison which could be used to destroy certain microbes, particularly those causing venereal disease, leading to the expression 'one night with Venus led to a lifetime with Mercury'. These days, antibiotics produce a far tighter control, and GPI, the general paralysis of the insane (otherwise called tertiary syphilis) that carried off Frederick Delius in the end is never seen today, because the spirochaetes are killed by everyday antibiotics given for boring and unrelated illnesses, long before they can get that far.

Long before the Romans, the Chinese and the Hindus knew and marvelled at the liquid metal, and it has been found in Egyptian tombs dating back to 1500 BC. It occurs rarely as the metal, and more commonly as the red ore cinnabar, mercury sulfide, which breaks down when heated to make sulfur dioxide and mercury metal vapour, which can be condensed.

Mercury is shipped in iron
bottles because iron does
not form an amalgam with
These days, we don't play with quicksilver any more, and calomel, Hg2Cl2, is only rarely used in medicines now. The metal is still found in a few barometers and in thermometers, mercury switches, mercury vapour lamps and a few other things, but in most of the world, uses of mercury are becoming fewer and fewer.

The one use which cannot be entirely avoided is in the ubiquitous 1.5-volt dry cell or battery. Mercury is added to the mix in these devices to prevent 'gassing', where bubbles of hydrogen gas build up inside the cell until the pressure breaks the seal, causing corrosive electrolyte to dribble out and damage some piece or other of expensive equipment. The amount of mercury used in a dry cell is now much less, but there is mercury there still, inside the dry cells that power your electrical equipment.

One reason why we use less mercury today is that we know about the damage done by a form of mercury that caused Minamata disease, a form called methyl mercury, but while that is controlled better today, metallic mercury use is out of control in the third world, where alkali plants use a process that leaks mercury into the environment.

Mercury distillation apparatus, Thames, New Zealand.
Mercury is also being misused by enthusiastic gold hunters in Brazil and in parts of Indonesia, where crushed ore is immersed in mercury to dissolve the gold into the mercury as an amalgam. Then later, the amalgam is heated, and the mercury evaporates off, leaving the gold behind.

Much of the mercury is condensed out and used again, but each heating loses more mercury into the environment, where it must be building up right now. This pollution will last a long while: in California, the fish in some of the rivers of the Sierra Nevada still have raised levels of mercury, a century and a half after the gold rush, and so do fish in the San Francisco Bay.

In 1924, the German Siemens and Halske company thought they had found the Philosopher's stone when they found that gold was 'growing' in a new type of mercury vapour lamp, and they even took out patents on the process before they worked out that their mercury contained small amounts of an impurity from an earlier use — traces of gold, in fact.

Mercury made several scientists famous, including Fahrenheit, whose real achievement was not to make a thermometer, but to find a way of cleaning the mercury so it would work in a thermometer, and Torricelli, who made the first mercury barometer. Lavoisier cracked the secret of chemical reactions by heating calx, mercuric oxide, and others followed him. The best vacuum pumps used mercury as well, and it seems fair to wonder how many scientists over the past two centuries, were killed by quicksilver.

One thing is certain: plenty of miners were killed that way...

Monday, 8 July 2013

The Reichenbach Falls

Arthur Conan Doyle was tired of Sherlock Holmes, and wanted to kill him off. He did so by sending him to Meiringen in Switzerland, where he and his arch-enemy, Moriarty, struggle before they apparently both fell to their deaths. Before that, Holmes was allowed to write a note to Dr. Watson, who had been lured away:


I write these few lines through the courtesy of Mr. Moriarty, who awaits my convenience for the final discussion of those questions which lie between us. He has been giving me a sketch of the methods by which he avoided the English police and kept himself informed of our movements. They certainly confirm the very high opinion which I had formed of his abilities. I am pleased to think that I shall be able to free society from any further effects of his presence, though I fear that it is at a cost which will give pain to my friends, and especially, my dear Watson, to you. I have already explained to you, however, that my career had in any case reached its crisis, and that no possible conclusion to it could be more congenial to me than this. Indeed, if I may make a full confession to you, I was quite convinced that the letter from Meiringen was a hoax, and I allowed you to depart on that errand under the persuasion that some development of this sort would follow. Tell Inspector Patterson that the papers which he needs to convict the gang are in pigeonhole M., done up in a blue envelope and inscribed "Moriarty." I made every disposition of my property before leaving England and handed it to my brother Mycroft. Pray give my greetings to Mrs. Watson, and believe me to be, my dear fellow

Very sincerely yours, SHERLOCK HOLMES.

Well, as every Baker Street Irregular knows, Holmes didn't die, but the cunning Swiss tourism people still celebrate the death that didn't happen.

What most people don't know is that Moriarty also survived, only to be killed by an explosion in Australia when Holmes was assisting Henry Cruciform in experiments on an explosive called nitrogum, which was based on eucalyptus oil. This is a story I plan to tell, Real Soon Now.

Cruciform and Holmes met, the same night that Holmes "died", so I went to Meiringen in pursuit of the details today.  I mean, how else can I make a more convincing story of it?

Actually, I was looking for two main things: the geology and topography of the area, and unrelated to any present work plan, the way the cunning Swiss have managed to lock onto the story.  Consider the following:
A statue of Sherlock Holmes outside the Sherlock Holmes
Museum, which we only entered far enough to see if they
had a shop that sold caps (I needed one, but as I had
predicted, they only had deer-stalkers).
This was nearby

And this.
Here is a close-up
And this wasn't far off.
And as this shows, the whole thing is a fafle: this pipeline carries the water up that comes down the falls.  Maybe.
And my faulty German says they are planning to claim Schwimmbad, the Sailor.

Serious stuff
The falls are, in fact, quite remarkable.  The train from Luzern to Interlaken arrives in Meiringen one hour and 17 minutes after leaving Luzern (Swiss trains are like that).  You walk out of the station, turn right, find the main road, turn right along that an follow it until you see a bridge.  Cross over and go along the left-hand (western) side to avoid a nasty roundabout.

Approaching the roundabout, head at about 10 o'clock, using the pedestrian crossings as rural Swiss drivers are a bit feral, and get to the funicular that takes you up (it is 20 Swiss Francs return and well worth it, as there is more climbing at the top.

On the way there, we saw this through the train window, and wondered how modern the Swiss were. The next two shots show the reality: the Swiss like to play games and dress up!

What we saw at Meiringen

Can you tell the passengers from the tourists?
And here are two shots of the falls themselves.  I will add more shots later.
Spray made good photos difficult, but there is a lot of water.

And as you can see, there is serious power there: note the hole through the rock.