What’s making me happy today: élucubrations

You have to grab happiness where you can find it. What’s making me happy today: élucubrations.

You have to grab happiness wherever you can find it, right? I mean, I would love to be feeling happy today because I knew that the Constitution of the United States of America slept as safely last night as I did, or because I was confident that tomorrow’s foreign policy will not further weaken America and strengthen Russia. But, such is not my lot this morning–Trump is still in the White House, and not even his own cabinet knows what he talked with Putin about for two hours in Finland. That doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to feel good about, though.

Today my heart is gladdened by the existence of the word élucubration. I ran across it while reading the French-language translation of the magisterial World War Z, Max Brooks’s allegorical reflection on American culture in the early 20th century. Brooks on conspiracy theorists:

Le secret, ça fonctionne comme un trou sans fond ; et il y a toujours des paranoïaques pour essayer de le combler avec leurs élucubrations.

Word Reference defines élucubrations as “flights of fancy, hare-brained ideas.” (A hare is a kind of rabbit–lièvre, maybe?) French definitions emphasize the amount of work that goes into them:

Discours, pensée issus de recherches laborieuses mais dépourvus de bon sens (Maxipoche 2014, Larousse 2013)

Coming across the word in a translation as I did, it seemed too adorable to be true: surely such a lovely and useful word could not really exist in normal language? Wroooong again, Zipf.

In 1966, the singer Antoine released the song Les Élucubrations d’Antoine. According to Wikipedia, it differentiated itself from the typical yéyé (hippie) music of the time by its militancy, proposing that The Pill be sold in supermarkets and insulting music legend Johnny Halliday. The song sold like crazy and made his career. So…apparently I am the last person in the world to learn the world élucubration, and once again we see the awesome power of Zipf’s Law: most words are very rare–but, they do occur. Enjoy!

Combinatorics and pod hostels

Go to the shitty part of any decent-sized American city–usually on the edges of the old downtown area–in the early evening, and you will find a line of battered-looking men standing in line outside of a building–usually run-down.  The building is a homeless shelter.  A typical one will give you two nights a month for free, and more if you can pay a small amount.  Dinner is a baloney sandwich or something similar, almost always preceded by a non-optional and decidedly denominational church service. A couple of guys will walk up to the front and accept Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior.  The Christ will accept them with enthusiasm; the shelter staff, not so much, having seen it aaaaaaaall before.  Crusty old bums who may want to blow you, fuck you, get blown by you, or get fucked by you. (That’s 24 possible combinations of 1 or more sexual acts involving a crusty old bum and you, which equals 16; most of the time, nobody asks, and if they do, you politely say “no”–I am not judgmental, and I am not easily shocked–and that’s generally the end of it. So, a total of 17 possible outcomes, exactly one of which does not involve sexual contact between a crusty old bum and you.)  Breakfast is most likely to be a cup of coffee and a piece of toast (butter, unlike the church service, is optional), and then it’s out the door and on the street, regardless of the weather–no loitering during the day.  That’s fine, since you need to get to the day labor office really early if you want to find work, and if that part of your morning is unsuccessful, you need to haul ass to the plasma donation center as quickly as possible–otherwise your protein drops too low and they won’t let you donate, which means that you’re out round-trip bus fare and still have to figure out where you’re going to sleep that night.  The worst one that I’ve ever stayed in was a dank and dark one in Columbus, Ohio, next to a White Castle.  The best one that I’ve ever stayed in was a Veterans of America one outside of Sacramento, California–clean, sunny, and they offered some social-service-type stuff.  God bless the Veterans of America.  Hell, God bless anyone who will feed and house the homeless.


Then you join the Navy.  Boot camp is 80 guys in a large room; big, clean showers in the morning; 15 minutes three times a day to consume all of the food you can inhale (I actually gained weight in boot camp), and then it’s off to do interesting and/or fun things like make emergency flotation devices out of your clothing, learn what to do in case of nerve gas attack (gas mask on, syrette of atropine jammed hard into your thigh if you think you got exposed), and fight fires (pretty involved on a ship, since all of that water has to go somewhere outside of the vessel, or your ass is going to sink).  When you get to your ship, it’s three bunks deep in a compartment that smells of sweat, farts, and depression.  Plus, you learn to sleep with a 5-inch artillery piece firing directly over your head.  (I did, anyway.)  But, it’s warm, they feed you well, the food is quite good, and cigarettes are $1 a pack once you get out of American territorial waters.


Out of the Navy, you head to a super-nice college where everybody but you and the 12 kids in the theater department is polite; smart; attractive, even (possibly especially–who knows how the Upper East Side mates) in LL Bean boots; from New York, New Jersey, or Northern Virginia; and 18-22 years old.  But, you’re married and have a kid, and you’re paying your way via the GI Bill and weekends spent drawing arterial blood samples and adjusting the occasional ventilator at the local hospital, so you live in one of those apartment complexes.  That means (1) at night, entering the kitchen with your eyes closed, stomping like a motherfucker to kill as many cockroaches as possible, and then turning on the lights; and (2) during the day, hunting for their egg cases, ’cause every one that you crush and dump gleefully down the garbage disposal is 15 little cockroaches preemptively and preventatively obliterated.


…all of this to make it clear to my friends who have expressed concern about the fact that I’m living in a pod hostel at the moment that it is totally fine.  Warm, clean, and so far no bums have suggested blowing me, fucking me, me blowing them, or me fucking them.  Not that anyone makes a man of my age that kind of offer very often–I still politely say “no,” but being an old fat bald guy…at this point, I take it as a compliment.


English notes

Decent-sizednot small, but not necessarily big, either.  How much cake do you want?  Gimme a decent-size piece, but not too big, ’cause I’m old, fat, and bald.  How I used it in the post: Go to the shitty part of any decent-sized American city–usually on the edges of the old downtown area–in the early evening, and you will find a line of battered-looking men standing in line outside of a building–usually run-down.

To be out (something of value): To have spent a quantity of money or rendered something of value without getting anything in return.  I bought a bus ticket, but then I got stopped and frisked and I missed the bus, so now I’m out $25.50 and I’m still stuck in this shithole.  How I used it in the post:  You’re out round-trip bus fare and still have to figure out where you’re going to sleep that night.   

Boot camp is the American military’s basic training.  Recent graduates are known as boot camps, or just boots–confusing, I know.  No less than in France, where said recent graduates are either pieds-bleus (did I pluralize that correctly??), or just bleus.

Combinatorics is a branch of mathematics that (in my very limited understanding) has to do with efficiently calculating the number of  possible combinations of things.  No hate mail on this, please—just correct me in the Comments section.  The formula that appears in this post appeared on Quora–if you can prove it (in the mathematical sense), that would be much appreciated.  Note that I did not do the subtraction of 1, because the formula is for proper subsets only, and experience has given me no reason to exclude the non-proper subset option.

Proper subsets: subsets that do not contain all of the members of a set.

Non-proper subsets: subsets that include the subset containing all of the members of a set.  So, for the set = {1, 2}, the set of proper subsets is {1} and {2} (and maybe {}, the “empty set”–I don’t remember from Linguist School).  The set of non-proper subsets is {1}, {2}, and {1,2}.

 

What you do on Saturday night if you have no life whatsoever

That’s a whole lotta accents…

If you have no life whatsoever, what you do on Saturday night is (a) study French verb conjugations, and (b) binge-watch the excellent Netflix series Criminal: France–and not necessarily in that order, either.

I’ve recently been working on the passé simple, a French tense that’s used in some genres of writing, but only very rarely in the spoken language.  I love les chapeaux chinois (circumflex accents), and one of the nice things about the passé simple is that it uses them.  Specifically, they appear in the nous and vous forms: nouss aimâmes/finîmes/prîmes, vous aimâtes/finîtes/prîtes.

Find a verb with a circumflex accent in the stem, and it gets really fun.  So, it’s Saturday night, and I’m sitting on the back porch smoking a cigarette and and doing some exercises on the French Verb Forms iPhone app (no, I am not sponsored by Netflix, French Verb Forms, or Apple–I pay for that stuff just like everyone else), when I am presented with the verb apprêter “to prepare” to conjugate: Circumflex City!

No, the French do not hate Americans

It’s the weekend of the celebration of the liberation of Paris from the Nazis.  I step out on my balcony for a cigarette, and I see a parade of old World War II military vehicles roll down l’Avenue de la Motte-Picquet.  When the American vehicles come, the onlookers cheer and clap.  The French vehicles go by unapplauded.

It’s August in Paris, when there is dancing on the banks of the Seine.  I walk up to a woman and ask her to dance.  She walks into my arms and asks Where are you from?  Later, I ask her how she knew so immediately that I wasn’t French–in France, asking a French person where they’re from is rude, although it’s (mostly) fine for non-French.  (More on this below, in the French notes.)  You hesitated a bit before a word, she said.  Then she thought for a moment more: …and you walked up to me with this directness and openness that I admire in Americans.  

It’s my first time in France, and I don’t speak French. Someone is telling me where to find a specific hotel in Normandy, and says–in English, obviously–That’s where you saved our fucking asses–twice.

No, French people do not hate Americans.

520px-P1040957_Paris_XVI_avenue_du_Président-Kennedy_rwk
L’Avenue du Président-Kennedy, seen from the Bir-Hakeïm Bridge in Paris. Source: Mbzt [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D
P1220077_Paris_VIII_avenue_F_Roosevelt_rwk
L’Avenue Franklin-D.-Roosevelt, Paris. Source: Mbzt [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D


French notes

In France, you do not ask a French person where they’re from (vous venez d’où ?).  It’s rude, because the implication is that you don’t really belong in French.  Rather, you ask What region are you from–vous venez de quelle région ?  Point of pride: when I first started spending time in France as a francophone, people would ask me So, you’re an American?  Then, they progressed to Where are you from?, or occasionally So, you’re British/Belgian/German/Suiss?  Now, after 5 years of constant and intensive study of the langue de Molière, I very, very occasionally get what region are you from?  Always warms my heart.

Billet-doux: love letter

This is a love letter.  It’s not to my grandmother, although it could be.  My favorite memories of her: sitting together on her front porch in the morning, sharing a cup of coffee and a cigarette, talking about nothing–or just not talking at all.

izis-jacques-prévert-cigarette-cat
Prévert in Paris, 1946. Photographer: unknown. Cat: unknown.

This is a love letter.  It’s not to Jacques Prévert, although it could be.  I’m usually up at daybreak, and sometimes as the sun peeks over the horizon I’ll go outside to have a smoke and read his Encore une fois sur le fleuve.  I’ve read some of his poems so often that they form a sort of soundtrack in my head as I walk the streets.  In his photographs, he looks like the uncle you always wanted–a face that you can tell is just barely hiding a smile, a cigarette in his hand–or just hanging from his lips.

This is a love letter.  It’s not to my grandmother, although it could be.  When she died, I found her long white evening gloves and her cigarette holder.

This is a love letter.  It’s not to my grandfather, but it could be.  One of my mother’s friends told me this about him: his apartment was nothing but books and cigarette smoke.  

This is a love letter to cigarettes.  Yeah, I know: they’re gonna kill me.  Hell–if I didn’t smoke, I might live two years longer!  Two years against some connection, any connection, with the French grandfather who had my mother when he was as old as I am now (very), and died before I was born.  Two years against Jacque Prévert in my head when I walk the streets in Paris, or anywhere in the world, really.  Two years against that memory of my grandmother, the warm Florida mornings, the ashtray that my father made for her in summer camp.  Seems like I come out ahead on this one.

The picture at the top of this page is not my grandmother, but the American actress Carol Landis, photographed in 1946 for a Kislav glove ad.  Photographer: unknown.


English notes:

To walk the streets: be careful with this one.  It can mean walking nowhere in particular–not flâner, as it connotes a certain intensity and solitariness that is lacking in flâner.  It can also mean living by prostitution–compare the noun streetwalker, a prostitute qui fait le trottoir.  Yet another meaning: to be free after a time in prison.

  • How I used it in the post: I’ve read some of his poems so often that they form a sort of soundtrack in my head as I walk the streets.
  • With the “out of prison” meaning: Many are outraged that the convicted killer will be walking the streets after spending just two years in prison. (Source: the Farlex Free Dictionary.)
  • With the “prostitution” meaning, in a slightly different construction: 52 and still working the streets.

French notes:

le billet-doux: an old term for a love letter.  I understand that you can use it for comic effect.  But, compared to la lettre d’amour, I like the sound of billet-doux much more.  Doux: it just sounds…right.  (Phil dAnge, can you comment?)

Yes, please–do volunteer to be a reviewer

Yes, you CAN volunteer to be a peer reviewer!

Get any two researchers together in a bar at the end of a day at any randomly chosen conference.  They will get around to complaining about the difficulty of getting grant funding these days, service responsibilities in their institution, and how grad students don’t want to work as hard as we did back in the day.  But, before that, they will complain about the real pain point of academic work: reviewing.  (See the English notes below for an explanation of the expression “pain point.”)

“Peer review” is the process by which academic writing is considered for publication.  The mechanics of it are this:

  1. An author submits an article to a journal or conference.
  2. An “associate editor” at the journal or an “area chair” at the conference finds reviewers who are willing to read and comment on the paper–your “peers.”
  3. The reviewers read the paper, write up detailed comments on it, and make a suggestion regarding acceptance.
  4. The associate editor or area chair makes a decision about the paper.

That decision in step 4 can take a number of forms, including outright acceptance (rare), rejection (not rare), and giving the author the option of making changes in response to the reviewers’ comments and resubmitting the paper, in which case steps 3 and 4 repeat.  (They can repeat multiple times, too.)

At step 2, the associate editor or area chair needs to find three reviewers in the typical case–rarely fewer, and sometimes more.  (I once submitted a paper to a journal for which I am the deputy editor-in-chief, and the editor who handled it had it reviewed by SIX reviewers–the most I have ever seen.  To avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, that made sense.)

Three reviewers per submission, and the big conferences in my area (computational linguistics) typically get between 1,000 and 2,500 submissions–that’s 3,000 to 7,500 reviews per conference.  There are several big conferences in my area–assume five per year, and that’s 15,000 to 37,500 reviews that need to get written per year.  And that’s just the conferences–journal publications are appearing faster than ever before in history, which is in itself not a surprise–most things are happening faster than ever before in history—but, the publication rate has been growing logarithmically, and if you’ve been reading about Zipf’s Law for a while, you know that that’s fast.   Journal submissions take quite a bit more time to review than conference papers, too–a conference paper in my field is typically limited to 8 pages, but most journals in my field no longer have page limits at all.

Just for grins, here are the page counts on my 5 most recent journal articles: 15, 8, 14, 24, and 12.  The 8-pager was in a journal with a page limit–of 7 pages!  We paid an extra-page fee.

Who writes those peer reviews?  Well…your peers.  You write your share of those 15,000 to 37,500 reviews, and the authors of those 5,000 to 12,500 papers write reviews of your papers, and… Well, it’s a huge workload.  How huge, exactly?  It’s hard to say what an average would be, but I have a reviewed a couple hundred papers over the course of the past couple of years.  Is that typical?  Probably.  And the conference papers come in bursts–conferences are deadline-driven, so all of the 1,000 to 2,500 submissions to an individual conference are being done at once.  A reviewer for a conference in my field is typically assigned 5 papers.  Of course, there is a limited set of time slots when conferences can happen–they mostly take place during breaks in the academic year, so either during the summer, or around the end-of-year holidays.  That means that their submission deadlines tend to cluster together, so you are probably reviewing for multiple conferences in the same time period.  How many?  I’ve written 14 in the past two weeks.  I may actually have spent more time reviewing other people’s papers than working on my current grant proposal–and it’s the grant proposals that bring in my salary.  Could I say no to review requests?  Of course.  But, it would not be fair to do so–while I’m reviewing those papers, someone else is reviewing mine.

….All of this en préambule to the answer to a question that I don’t get asked often enough: can you volunteer to be a reviewer?  The answer: yes.  Here’s a good example of a request that I got recently:

Dear Dr. Zipf:

I am a Ph.D. student at university name removed, majoring in computer science, under the supervision of advisor name removed. My main research fields are bioinformatics, deep learning, machine learning and  artificial intelligence.
I have done some researches in bimolecular function prediction, Nanopore sequencing, fluorescence microscope super resolution, MD simulation, sequence analysis, graph embedding and catastrophic forgetting, which were published in journals, such as PNAS, NAR and Bioinformatics, and conferences, such as ISMB, ECCB and AAAI. Attached please find my complete CV about my background.

I am very interested in serving the community and acting as a reviewer for the manuscripts which are related to my background. I know you are serving as an associate editor for a number of journals, such as BMC Bioinformatics. If you encounter some manuscripts which are highly related to my background, feel free to refer me as a reviewer.

Thank you very much for your consideration! Have a nice day!

My response:

Hi, name removed,

Thank you for writing–it is always nice to see a volunteer for reviewing!  However, I only handle articles on natural language processing, which seems outside of your areas of expertise.  I would recommend that you send your CV, and a similar email, to associate editors who specialize in your areas.  Your advisor could suggest some, and you could also look at the editorial board of relevant journals, especially ones in which you have published.
Thank you again for volunteering, and keep looking for opportunities–I am pretty sure that you will find them!
Best wishes,
Beauregard Zipf
Response to THAT:

Dear Dr. Zipf:

OK! Thank you very much for the clarification and the instruction! Have a nice day!

Notice what you do not see in this exchange: what people are afraid of, which is a response saying something along the lines of “who the hell do you think you are to dare to propose yourself as a reviewer?”  Of the 200 emails that I probably plowed through that day, this offer might have been the only message that actually brought me a little joy–even though I couldn’t use this particular reviewer, I’m certain that someone else will.  Yes: you can volunteer to be a peer reviewer!


French notes

en préambule (à): as a preamble, en guise d’introduction.
la relecture par les pairspeer review.  WordReference.com also gives l’évaluation par les pairs and l’inter-évaluation, but I’ve never actually heard that last one.  Native speakers??
Want to read a French-language blog post about peer review in computational linguistics?  Here’s one by my colleagues Karën Fort and Aurélie Névéol.
English notes
pain pointa marketing term referring to the problem that a salesman is going to try to solve for you by selling you his product.  How I used it in the post: Before that, they will complain about the real pain point of academic work: reviewing.

Prévert’s Pater Noster

Our Father who art in Heaven // Stay there

Notre Père qui êtes aux cieux
Restez-y
Et nous nous resterons sur la terre
Qui est quelquefois si jolie
Avec ses mystères de New York
Et puis ses mystères de Paris
Qui valent bien celui de la Trinité
Avec son petit canal de l’Ourcq
Sa grande muraille de Chine
Sa rivière de Morlaix
Ses bêtises de Cambrai
Avec son Océan Pacifique
Et ses deux bassins aux Tuilleries
Avec ses bons enfants et ses mauvais sujets
Avec toutes les merveilles du monde
Qui sont là
Simplement sur la terre
Offertes à tout le monde
Éparpillées
Émerveillées elles-mêmes d’être de telles merveilles
Et qui n’osent se l’avouer
Comme une jolie fille nue qui n’ose se montrer
Avec les épouvantables malheurs du monde
Qui sont légion
Avec leurs légionnaires
Aves leur tortionnaires
Avec les maîtres de ce monde
Les maîtres avec leurs prêtres leurs traîtres et leurs reîtres
Avec les saisons
Avec les années
Avec les jolies filles et avec les vieux cons
Avec la paille de la misère pourrissant dans l’acier des canons.

Our Father who art in heaven
Stay there
And we’ll stay here on Earth
Which is sometimes so pretty
With its mysteries of New York
And then its mysteries of Paris
Which are worth every bit as much as the Trinity
With her little Canal of the Ourcq
Her Great Wall of China
Her Morlaix River
Her stupidities of Cambrai
With her Pacific Ocean
And her two fountains of the Tuileries
With her good children and her bad apples
With all of the wonders of the world
That are here
Just right here on Earth
Free to all the world
Scattered
In wonder over being such wonders
And who don’t dare admit it to themselves
Like a beautiful naked girl who doesn’t dare show herself
With the dreadful calamities of the world
Which are legion
With its legionnaires
With its torturers
With the masters of this world
The masters with their priests, their traitors, and their mercenaries
With the seasons
With the years
With the pretty girls and with the old jerks
With the straw of misery rotting in the steel of the cannons.


As someone smarter than me first observed: love poetry tends to be pro-love, while war poetry tends to be anti-war.  This one is by Jacques Prévert, a veteran of the First World War who was a major figure in French poetry, theater, and cinema after the Second World War.  There’s a lot of love in his poetry, a lot of Paris in his poetry–and a lot of war.  Like almost everyone who has ever been in a war, he hated it.  This poem follows a common pattern of Prévert’s war poetry: start off with something sweet and funny, and then…the war comes along.

Reading Prévert was the first thing that ever really made me grasp “the impossibility of translation.”  Most good poets will, at some point or another, play around with the sounds of the language; most of the time, I don’t notice it.  Prévert pushes it far enough for even me to get it.  For example, here are my second-favorite lines of the poem:

Avec les maîtres de ce monde
Les maîtres avec leurs prêtres leurs traîtres et leurs reîtres

The bolded words are all rhyming monosyllables.  I’ll just note in passing that when spoken, the lines have the effect of someone beating on a drum.  I’ll just note in passing that there is no way to translate that while maintaining that beautiful rhythm, that repetition of the internal rhyme.  I’ll just note in passing that as someone who loves the circumflex accent about as much as anything else he loves about the French language, the fact that each of those words has one is… a joy.  But, I’ll dwell a bit more on the vocabulary.

Le reître is obscure enough that even educated French people don’t necessarily know it.  Here’s what I found when I looked it up:

HIST. MILIT. Cavalier allemand mercenaire au service de la France aux xveet xvies. Vainement aussi il [le roi Henri III] tenta, en négociant, d’arrêter une armée allemande, vingt mille reîtres en marche pour rejoindre les rebelles de l’ouest et du Midi (BainvilleHist. Fr., t. 1, 1924, p. 179).

Translation: German mercenary in the service of France in the 15th and 16th centuries.  (I believe it’s also a regionalism meaning something like an old (retired?) soldier.  Being a fat old bald guy who spent 9.5 years in the service of his country: I can dig it.)

As an American, I find the word reître interesting because it opens a window on something quite topical: the US military’s low level of support for Trump.  He’s at under 50% approval among service members as a whole, and at 30% in the officer ranks.  Why?  Lots of reasons, some of which I’ve written about elsewhere.  The relevant one in this case: conscience.


When you join the American military, you take an oath.  The oath is not to protect the country, or the president, and certainly not to protect the flag.  (Has anyone ever been stupid enough to kill for a piece of cloth?)  The oath is to protect the Constitution.

What’s the Constitution all about?  Basic principles.  Principles in the sense of what is right, and what is wrong.  Note what is not in there: money.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

www.archives.gov

Let’s go back to the definition of reître now:

German mercenary in the service of France in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Is there anything wrong with being German?  No.  Is there anything wrong with being in the service of France?  No.  Is there anything wrong with being a mercenary?  Absolutely.


Being in the American military does not have much to do with the question What would you die for?  That’s straightforward: in the American military, you might die if your boss makes a stupid mistake, but if your boss doesn’t make a stupid mistake, you’re probably coming home again.  The question, then, is this: What would you kill for?  The answer to that: basic principles.  Justice, liberty, tranquility.  Notice what’s not on that list: money.  The American warfighter is not a mercenary.


How does that relate to President Donald J. Trump?  Because he–never a fighting man himself–seems to think that we do, in fact, kill for money.  Here are the kinds of quotes that make an American military person think that their Commander in Chief should not, in fact, be their Commander in Chief.  They are President Trump talking about American commitments of military troops to our allies:

…why are we doing this all free?…They should be paying us for this. 

President Donald J. Trump, excerpted from a Fox News interview with Greta van Susteren on April 5th, 2013: response to a question on US troop commitments in South Korea.

they have to protect themselves or they have to pay us.

President Donald J. Trump, from an interview with Anderson Cooper, quoted here.

…they [South Korea and Japan] have to protect themselves or they have to pay us.  Here’s the thing, with Japan, they have to pay us or we have to let them protect themselves.

President Donald J. Trump, CNN Town Hall on March 29th, 2016, quoted here.


My 9.5 years in the US Navy ended over 30 years ago.  One of my ex-military buddies is less than 30 years old.  Point being: I have some personal insight into the views of American military veterans over a wide range of time.  I get why the kids in the military today support President Trump at a level even lower than the general American population.  I get why my military veteran friends support President Trump at a level much lower than the kids on active duty.  I don’t want to get paid to kill people.  What non-sociopath does?

Death of the Ball Turret Gunner: Lexical fields

I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze…

In honor of National Poetry Month…

In a book about war poetry, I once read a striking point: poetry about love tends to be pro-love, while poetry about war tends to be anti-war.  This observation is probably related to the American military’s low level of support for Trump (under 50% overall, as it has been for a long time; about 30% in the officer ranks): he seems to feel virile when orders a bombing or a missile strike, while the military people who have to carry it out are much more likely to just feel guilty. (The link goes to a list of articles on the subjects of guilt and shame in combat veterans from the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed/MEDLINE database of biomedical journal articles.)

Randall Jarrell, the author of today’s poem, was a professor at the University of Texas-Austin when the Second World War started.  He left the university in 1942 to join what was called at the time the Army Air Force.  His poem The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner is widely anthologized, and most Americans will have read it in college (université in French, where collège is the American middle school).  A ball turret is a small sphere of metal and glass containing a heavy machine gun, some ammunition, and the smallest guy possible.  (No parachute.)  The ball turrets to which Jarrell refers were mounted on the underside of an aircraft.  As Wikipedia puts it:

The gunner was forced to assume a fetal position within the turret with his back and head against the rear wall, his hips at the bottom, and his legs held in mid-air by two footrests on the front wall.

Other than a ball turret, the belly of a bomber is unprotected, and the tendency at the time was for fighter pilots to attack bombers either by diving down and firing from above–or by climbing and firing into the belly from below.

The Death Of The Ball Turret Gunner

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

English notes:

It wasn’t until I started writing this post that I noticed for the first time–bear in mind that I’ve certainly read the poem tens of times since college–how much the lexical field (le champ lexical) of sleep is woven through it.  To wit:

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

lexical field is a set of words that are grouped by subject.  For example, in the poem, we have sleep, dream, to wake, nightmare.  This is an odd kind of grouping in linguistics, where we tend to group words by structural characteristics (e.g. sleep and dream can both be either nouns or verbs, and their nouns and verbs have the same form; phosphorylate and phosphorylation are a verb and a noun that are related by the addition of -tion to the former) or by semantic characteristics (e.g. to nap is a way of sleeping, pail is a synonym of bucket).  Subject, the grouping characteristic of a lexical field, is thus an odd sort of concept from a linguistic perspective–to the extent that a language is a structure, it is difficult to see how subject would be an element of that structure, rather than, say, an element of the world that we use a language to talk about, or an element of how we talk about that world.  In my profession–natural language processing–the concept corresponding to lexical fields is the lexical chain, which can serve as an indicator of the structure of a text and creates a context for disambiguating and otherwise interpreting the words of that text.  See this paper by Jane Morris and my colleague Graeme Hirst for more information on the topic:

How I used lexical field in the post: It wasn’t until I started writing this post that I noticed for the first time how much the lexical field of sleep is woven through it.

French notes

la tourelle: turret.  In a submarine, it is the conning tower.

la tourelle boule: ball turret.

 

 

 

Sanguine

The tip of your breast//has traced a new luck-line//in the hollow of my hand

The poetry of Jacques Prévert was one of the nicer discoveries of the past year for me.  Prévert did his military service around the time of the First World War (I’m not sure when–English-language and French-language Wikipedia give different dates).  During the Second World War, he protected the Jewish composer Joseph Kosma, who would set some of his poetry to music–and who joined the maquis (combatants in the Resistance) and was injured when he jumped on a mine during the liberation of Nice.

There are some themes that recur quite frequently in Prévert’s poetry.  They include Paris and the Seine; love; and war.  This being the very first day of National Poetry Month, I’ll give you one of his love poems, along with my attempt at a translation–we’ll get to some of the war poetry later.  The poem is Sanguine, published in 1951.

la pointe de ton sein
a tracé une nouvelle ligne de chance
dans le creux de ma main

the tip of your breast
has traced a new fate line
in the hollow of my hand 

Sanguine

La fermeture éclair a glissé sur tes reins
et tout l’orage heureux de ton corps amoureux
au beau milieu de l’ombre
a éclaté soudain
Et ta robe en tombant sur le parquet ciré
n’a pas fait plus de bruit
qu’une écorce d’orange tombant sur un tapis
Mais sous nos pieds
ses petits boutons de nacre craquaient comme des pépins
Sanguine
joli fruit
la pointe de ton sein
a tracé une nouvelle ligne de chance
dans le creux de ma main
Sanguine
joli fruit
Soleil de nuit.

The zipper slid down your lower back
and all of the happy storm of your loving body
right in the midst of the shadows
suddenly burst out
And falling on the waxed floor, your dress
made no more noise
than an orange peel falling on a rug
But beneath our feet
its little pearl buttons crackled like seeds
Blood orange
beautiful fruit
the tip of your breast
has traced a new fate line
in the hollow of my hand
Blood orange
beautiful fruit
night sun.


A number of Prévert’s poems have been set to music.  Here’s Yves Montand singing Sanguine:

 

…and here’s a guy with an odd accent–probably no odder than mine, me being, like him, an American–reading it:


French notes

la chiromansie : palmistry.  The chi is pronounced ki.  How would one know that, other than by looking it up (I had to)?  I don’t know–the pronunciation of chi usually baffles me.

la fermeture éclair: zipper, except when you’re talking about the zipper on a pair of pants, which is la braguette, as I learned the hard way in a café on rue des Écoles one day–a story for another time, perhaps.

A question (I’m lookin’ at you, Phil dAnge, and I have a poem for you later this month): why is the feminine form of éclair written without a final e?  Looks like clair to me, whose feminine is claire. 

Mix and match: miscellaneous Michelet

A shortage of French-language reading materials in Japan leads me to discover Jules Michelet, who turns out to be one shit-hot writer… Miscellaneous vocabulary from Les croisades and a random volume of Histoire de France.

Scroll down to the bottom of the page for today’s English notes.

Shit-hot: very, very good. Some examples:

That last example is especially interesting because it includes both “shit-hot,” which is quite good, and “shit,” which is quite bad.

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