Booch News

In November 2018 I launched a new blog.

Booch News is the premier source for independent news about all aspects of the kombucha industry — the beverage that is taking the world by storm.

It offers an in-depth look into the kombucha industry,  discusses the latest trends, marketing techniques, news, profiles, and other topics related to kombucha.

I’ll still post occasional updates to Professionally Speaking, but most of my attention these days is on Booch News. Meanwhile, the 900+ posts and 100+ podcast interviews on this site will remain as an archive of useful information.

Library books

Two books about libraries have delighted me.

Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr

I’ve just finished Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land. The author of All the Light We Cannot See has crafted a delightfully complex novel that spans the centuries and features three very different libraries: the ancient, the contemporary, and the virtual. Three main characters: Anna, Zeno, and Konstance are united by the text of an ancient Greek manuscript which translates as the title of the novel.

Constantinople

Anna is a young orphan who discovers the original text in a monastery immediately before the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. The ancient, abandoned library where she finds the treasure is a “round room, partially open to the sky, that smells of mud and moss and time…on the walls of this little chamber, scarcely visible in the moonlight fog, doorless cupboards run from floor to ceiling. Some are filled with debris and moss. But others are full of books.”

Lakeport, Idaho

Fast forward to a small town in Idaho (Doerr’s home state) in 2020 and Korean war vet, Zeno Ninis–who learned Greek in a POW camp–is rehearsing five children in a play based on the Cloud Cuckoo text he has translated. They are scheduled to perform in the town library which has been his refuge since he was a child. It’s “a light-blue two-story Victorian on the corner of Lake and Park.” A confused eco-terrorist who loves owls (which feature in the Greek text) is planning to blow the library up. Like Constantinople, this library is in a state of siege.

Interstellar space

Meanwhile, some decades in the future, Konstance is a young girl living with her family as they voyage light years across time and space to an earth-like planet, leaving behind a world devastated by climate change. Zuckerberg’s “metaverse” is fully instantiated and the few dozen adults and children on the voyage live in a sealed, windowless, spaceship. They are entertained by donning VR headsets and perambulating around the sum of human knowledge hosted by the AI known as “Sybil” (as opposed to, say, HAL or Alexa). On her tenth birthday she celebrates her “Library Day” when she’s allowed, for the first time, to don a Vizer and enter the virtual world:

She stands in a vast atrium. Three tiers of bookshelves, each fifteen feet tall, served by hundreds of ladders, run for what appear to be miles down either side. Above the third tier, twin arcades of marble columns support a barrel-vaulted ceiling cut through its center by a rectangular aperture, above which fluffy clouds float through a cobalt sky…through the air, for as far as she can see, books–some as small as her hand, some as big as the mattress on which she sleeps–are flying, lifting off shelves, returning to them, some flitting like songbirds, some lumbering along like big ungainly storks.

The secrets the library on the spaceship hold are key to the eventual resolution of the various strands in the book which Doerr unlocks in a grand finale. To say more would spoil the readers enjoyment.

The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig

I reviewed award-winning author Matt Haig’s How To Stop Time in 2018. His blockbuster The Midnight Library is a New York Times bestselling phenomenon, the Winner of the Goodreads Choice Award for Fiction, The October 2020 Good Morning America Book Club Pick, and one of the Independent (London) Ten Best Books of the Year.

Other Lives

Similar to the virtual library in Cloud Cuckoo Land, Haig has written about a library that contains an infinite number of books, each one the story of another reality. One tells the story of your life as it is, along with another book for the other life you could have lived if you had made a different choice at any point in your life.

The protagonist, Nora Seed, finds herself faced with the possibility of changing her current life for a new one, following a different career, undoing old breakups, realizing her dreams of becoming a glaciologist. She must search within herself as she travels through the Midnight Library to decide what is truly fulfilling in life, and what makes it worth living in the first place.

While the virtual library in Cuckoo Land plays with the idea of a metaverse, Haig teases out the implications of a multiverse:

Between life and death there is a library…and within that library the shelves go on forever…Every life contains many millions of decisions. Some big, some small. But every time one decision is taken over another, the outcomes differ. An irreversible variation occurs, which in turn leads to further variations. These books are portals to all the lives you could be living.

Like the autonomous books in Cuckoo Land, the library Nora visits is animated:

The shelves on either side of Nora began to move. The shelves didn’t change angles, they just kept on sliding horizontally. It was possible that the shelves weren’t moving at all, but the books were, and it wasn’t obvious why or even how. There was no visible mechanism making it happen, and no sound or sight of books falling off the end – or rather the start – of the shelf. The books slid by at varying degrees of slowness, depending on the shelf they were on, but none moved fast.

The Midnight Library consoles Nora, who gradually learns to live without regret. Reviewers have noted that it gives a needed perspective at this difficult time in the world, teaches that the little things matter, and helps us learn to love being ourselves and not be influenced or concerned by how others see us.

Those who love libraries will appreciate these wonderful novels for the environments they explore and the vistas they reveal.

What to wear for public speaking

FT fashion editor Carola Long has posted a timely article (subscription required) on “clothes that speak volumes” when delivering a speech or participating in a panel at a live event. As conferences, talks and festivals return, the need to look good in real life and on screen, she notes, is more complicated than ever.

She quotes Roman orator, and speechwriters’ mentor, Cicero: “In an oration, as in life, nothing is harder than to determine what is appropriate.” So what is the appropriate dress code for today’s professional speaker or executive?

San Francisco Bay Area stylist Victoria Cárdenas Hitchcock shares advice on dressing for live events:

Many people have so much information and experience in thought leadership but they don’t know how to hone that into the perfect presentation so that you don’t lose your audience in the first minute,” Hitchcock says. She has a checklist that informs outfits: what is the venue, the time of year? Will you be sitting or standing? Is the light hot, is it hitting you from above? Who is moderating? Who are your peers?”

She has observed that while famous tech titans are synonymous with a scruffy, ultra normcore (sic) look she finds that “people at the mid-level, in management and decision making, are upping their game. There is no more need to wear the messy jeans, the white sneaker, the T-shirt with a ‘pi equals whatever’ symbol. It used to be that the more anti-conformist the better, and now it’s “how can you help me express who I am?

She advises pantsuits for women. For a business-casual look on men she recommends a polo with an open blazer and jeans, or trousers with a deconstructed jacket and button-down shirt.

New York bespoke tailor Leonard Logsdail, has made suits for the TV show Succession, shares some billionaire-appropriate tips on how to make an impression:

If you are in a group or a panel I would advocate something slightly stronger so it sets you apart. When you look at politicians and they all have a plain suit, a plain shirt and a plain tie, there isn’t anything that really sets them apart. Just don’t go over the top.

Helena Morrissey, financier, (and self-proclaimed mother of nine), and author of Style and Substance; a Guide for Women Who Want to Win at Work, chooses bold colors with pockets to clip a mic on. She advises to check on seating arrangements:

Sitting on a too high stool doesn’t make you feel grounded or at home, so I have learned to ask ahead of time if I can have a different sort of chair,” she says. “We have all heard lots of technically flawless talks that have no heart, so making an emotional connection with a smile, a warm hello and an outfit that reflects your audience is a good starting place.

Finally, good fit is essential, since”oversized suits can still make the wearer look like a child trying on their parent’s clothes.”

Book Review: There is Nothing for You Here, by Fiona Hill

Fiona Hill burst onto the national, and international, stage when she testified in the 2019 impeachment hearings for President Donald J. Trump.

At the time, British commentators were struck by the woman with a distinctive working-class Northern accent who was an advisor to a US President and senior member of the American foreign policy establishment. The Financial Times referred to her as the “improbable” Fiona Hill. The sting in the tail of her testimony was, for the British establishment, her comment that she felt her background impeded her in the UK in the way it did not in the USA. They wondered how on earth she’d made it from an obscure northern hometown (Bishop Auckland, County Durham) to work in the White House, or, as she puts it in her new book There is Nothing For You Here, “from the coal house to the White House.”

The book is part autobiography, part indictment of the failings of the Trump administration. It embodies the lyrics of the Beatles song, Honey Pie:

She was a working girl
North of England way
Now she’s hit the big time
In the U.S.A.

A coal miner’s daughter

Hill was, literally, a coal miner’s daughter. Born in 1965, her childhood was marred by the decline of the mining industry in the north-east of England. Her father was laid off from the mines and scraped by as a hospital porter. Her lived experience in the region stayed with her as she passed the 11+ exam, survived the challenges of a comprehensive school, made it to St. Andrews University, a scholarship to Harvard, and a stellar career as a fluent Russian-speaking expert the geopolitics of the 21st century and Vladimir Putin.

The book resonated for me because it has echoes of my own path from the north-west of England and the declining industrial town of Crewe to the States. I bailed out of an academic career, but the coincidences, fortuitous meetings, significant mentors, and sheer improbability of life in the USA that Hill notes were also my experience. That, and a shared distaste for what America has become under Trump, were themes in the book that grabbed me.

Populism at home and abroad

Throughout the book, Hill notes how the three countries she has lived and traveled in have embraced populism. The declining industrial areas of the UK are mirrored in the “Rust Belt” regions of the USA and magnified by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Time and again, in ways large and small, she notes how the rise of an authoritarian like Putin is predicated on the same populism exploited by Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage’s Brexit campaign in the UK, and, inevitably, the 45th President of the US.

Her academic background and serious foreign policy chops give rise to analysis and insights that distill the confusion surrounding Trump, Brexit, and Russian influence into clearly understandable themes. When political elites ignore the dispossessed, strongmen take center stage. Here’s one of many passages in the book–worth quoting at length–where Hill analyzes this:

Those who were attracted to the Tea Party and other populist movements were reacting to, and hoping to counter and even reverse, the effects of economic crises and demographic changes. The populists’ supporters were also reacting to and seeking a salve for the intense emotions that these changes and challenges elicited. Major societal changes, especially when they happen rapidly and in combination, help fuel what celebrated scholars of the twentieth century like Fritz Stern called “cultural despair.” Cultural despair is the sense of loss, grievance, and anxiety that occurs when people feel dislocated from their communities and broader society as everything and everyone shifts around them. Especially when the sense of identity that develops from working in a particular job or industry, like my father’s image of himself as a coal miner, also recedes or is abruptly removed, people lose their grip on the familiar. They can easily fall prey to those who promise to put things–including jobs, people, or even entire counties–back in “their rightful place.”

Hence, Hill demonstrates, Brexit, Putin, Trump. The clear and present danger she identifies is the continuation of populism and the emergence of a leader as competent as Putin on the American scene.

In the aftermath of Trump’s disastrous reign, it was tempting to breath a sign of relief. But that would have been premature, because there was no indication that his dynasty would fade away. And American populism looked like it was here to stay–unless we could find a way to mend our social and political divisions.

The “Russia bitch”

The experience of this multi-lingual academic expert in the Trump White House is no surprise, but nevertheless shocking. It follows challenges she’d experienced being mistaken for a high-end prostitute by hotel doormen when attending senior-level meetings in Moscow, discovering her salary as a woman was significantly lower than less qualified male counterparts in academia, and–early in her university days–being dismissed as a ‘common northerner’ by hoity-toity classmates. In the White House Trump’s first words to her were to yell “Hey, darlin’, are you listening?” when he mistook her as the only woman in an Oval Office meeting for a secretary. Later, she heard, staffers and first family members dismissed her as “the Russia bitch.”

She dishes the dirt on how Trump’s view of the world was that of a New York construction boss used to bullying suppliers, his lack of interest in briefing documents, and fragile ego easily exploitable by savvy foreign powers. Her account adds more damning evidence to the likes of Woodward and Costa’s Peril and Leonning and Rucker’s I Alone Can Fix It.

Education

Hill mounts an appeal to expand the opportunities that gave her a ticket out of County Durham, and me a ticket out of Crewe: education as, in the words of the books’ subtitle a way of ‘Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century.’

Absent this, she concludes

These left-behind people deserve better. but their problems are everyone’s. They are our fellow Americans and fellow Brits, in some cases our family members and friends. Helping them will not be purely a selfless act. Because as long as they feel that there is no hope for them, there will be no hope for the rest of us. There will be nothing for us, anywhere.

Misleading COVID-19 map

This map is an Edward Tufte-level poster child of the poor visual display of quantitative information.

MSNBC show it at least once a day.

At first glance it appears to show that Wyoming, Vermont, and Maine are *much* safer places than COVID-19 hotspots like California and Texas. Look! They have less than 1,000 cases … hardly surprising given that the population of WY of 578,000 vs. 39 million in CA.

Hasn’t anyone heard of percentages?

What’s more, the States with 500,000+ cases are counter-intuitively darker than the States with 1+ million. Adding final insult to injury, the title font with the confirmed case total is smaller than the total fatality number — yet this is a map of cases, not fatalities.

“The minimum we should hope for with any display technology is that it should do no harm.”― Edward Tufte, author The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

Dylan’s Lyrics: Written for the ears not the eyes

On a recent episode of the charming Start the Week BBC Radio 4 program we heard Frances Wilson, Salman Rushdie and Simon Armitage discuss the rehabilitation of DH Lawrence and the relationship between the writer and their work. In the closing minutes (approx 37:00) host Andrew Marr asks Armitage about an essay that claims Bob Dylan’s lyrics “don’t really hold up as great poetry, you have to listen to the songs in order to understand the interleaving of the music and the words….can you tell us what you think doesn’t work on the page? Is it repetition, is it sloppiness of the language, evasiveness?”

Armitage responds that in a poem “everything that happens in a poem has to happen within the text, in silence really…it has to be done with the alphabet.” Whereas songwriters can “write the lyric and even ‘la-la-la’ might sound very good if you put it to the right chord progression. It can be utterly transcendent if it’s working well with the music and if you’re wearing the right cowboy boots and if you’ve got the right voice.”

He reports taking Dylan lyrics into his poetry class where younger students (unfamiliar with the tune) might appreciate the poetic aspects, nevertheless see cheesy rhymes, repetition, tautology and other elements “that you can’t get away with on the printed page.”

Speechwriters as songwriters

In many ways Armitage is stating the obvious. Songs are created to be listened to, not read (as rewarding as a close reading of Dylan’s lyrics can be). As with great songs, so with great speeches.

Speechwriting authorities Nancy Duarte and Bob Lehrman drive home the message that speeches (like songs) need to be written for the ear not, (as are poems) for the eye.

Sparklines

Nancy Duarte’s seminal 2010 book Resonate focuses on visual storytelling. With the use of what she calls ‘sparklines’ she graphically illustrates the arc of a speech and maps the emotion and delivery by tracking the laughter and applause alongside the words (lyrics) of great speeches such as Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. It would be fascinating to apply a sparkline mapping audience reaction to live musical performances.

Political speechwriting

Political pundit and speechwriting professor Bob Lehrman (literally) wrote the book on speechwriting. In examining why persuasive speeches work, he lists the various forms of repetition (anaphora, epistrope, antimetabol, and climatic order) and forms of vivid language (simile and metaphor, understatement and irony) that work on the heartstrings, not just the head space, of the audience.

While these techniques can be employed by poets, they resonate differently when delivered by a compelling speaker.

In the beginning was the word

In claiming that “everything that happens in a poem has to happen within the text, in silence really” Armitage overlooks the pre-literate origins of poetry, when bards of old, the minstrels of Medieval times, recited epic poems which the tellers knew by heart. The literary techniques they used provided aide memoirs for themselves and for their listeners.

Writing in the New York Times, history professor Molly Worthen notes:

Since ancient times, humans have memorized and recited poetry. Before the invention of writing, the only way to possess a poem was to memorize it. Long after scrolls and folios supplemented our brains, court poets, priests and wandering bards recited poetry in order to entertain and connect with the divine.

Sorry, Simon, the origins of the poem are with the word, not the page.

Desolation Row

James Ensor, Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889

Dylan’s recording of Desolation Row was the longest track (at just over 11 minutes) on his 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited. While I can’t remember the first time I heard it, it’s been in my head for most of my adult life. It’s one of my defining anthems that, together with Roy Harper and Leonard Cohen’s songs, I love more for the lyrics than the melodies. It’s pure poetry set to music.

The Getty Museum owns the Ensor painting and paired it with Dylan’s song with it in the book The Superhuman Crew, noting

Ensor’s huge, vibrant, and startling canvas presents a scene filled with clowns, masked figures, and barely visible amid the swirling crowds the tiny figure of Christ on a donkey entering the city of Brussels. “Desolation Row,” from Dylan’s classic 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited, presents its own surreal portrait of modern life in strangely similar terms.

That “surreal portrait of modern life” becomes more appropriate with each passing year. As I listened again to the song I know so well, themes emerged. It is a song rooted in the time Dylan wrote when cracks were appearing in 50s America, and those with open eyes and ears witnessed the “chimes of freedom flashing.”

Dylan sings of the contrast between two world-views: those embracing emerging freedoms and the guardians of the old order. He paints this contrast in both stark black and white terms (Everybody’s shouting, “Which side are you on?!”)  as well as shades of grey.

There have been endless interpretations about the meaning of the lyrics.

This is my response to what I hear.

They’re selling postcards of the hanging, they’re painting the passports brown

The dystopian scene is set. Repression, autocracy, and violence rule in a time when hangings were public events. These might be images of lynching’s in the Deep South or scenes from The Handmaids Tale. What sort of society trades in picture postcards of the dead? One where individual identity is subject to a brown-out. Arguments about the color of passports were part of the Brexit debate that consumed Britain. Painting passports is something “they” do to restrict our liberty to travel and escape the dystopia. Internal passports restricted movement in apartheid-era South Africa, North Korea, and modern China.


The beauty parlor is filled with sailors, the circus is in town

Yet, the scene is not monochrome. There’s a rambunctiousness in a world where the sailors (presumably men) fill the beauty parlors, and the circus is in town. Dylan sets the scene in a port city–one he visits again in 1974 when he tells of a man who “Hunts her down by the waterfront docks where the sailors all come in” (Simple Twist of Fate from Blood on the Tracks). What would groups of sailors want in a beauty parlor? More than a haircut. Hello sailor! Perhaps some eye shadow, a waxing, or lip gloss? Anything to juice up their shore leave.

The opening two lines contrast repression with freedom, heralding an awakening sense of personal expression at the dawn of the ’60s. Soon enough, many would choose the option to dance beneath the diamond sky/With one hand waving free (Mr. Tambourine Man--recorded six months earlier.) Meanwhile, the representatives of the old order are on parade, like Shriners striding down Main Street in Anytown, USA.


Here comes the blind commissioner, they’ve got him in a trance

The first of the old order makes an entrance. I see the blind commissioner four rows back in the Ensor painting — the man with the handlebar mustache, center stage. An authority figure (perhaps the port commissioner?) who is both literally and metaphorically blind. Blind like Lady Justice holding her scales. Except “they” (the ones selling postcards of hangings and painting passports) have him in a trance. Hypnotized. In their power. Unable to function.


One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker, the other is in his pants

Not only blind and hypnotized but bound. Guided by the tight-rope walker from the circus, accomplished at balancing in his own way, just as Lady Justice balances her scales. He is leading the blind commissioner, who is all the while pleasuring himself with his free hand. While some might see his free hand resting innocently in a trouser pocket, the words “in his pants” always implied something far raunchier to me — long before Borat filmed the blind commissioner Rudy Giuliani in the hotel room with one hand in his pants.


And the riot squad they’re restless, they need somewhere to go

Three years before the Chicago police riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention and decades before the last US President stirred the restlessness of his own rioting squad and suggested somewhere they could go (down Pennsylvania Avenue and up the steps of the Capitol), Dylan has the measure of the inherent restlessness of the enforcement arm of the old order.


As Lady and I look out tonight, from Desolation Row

Meanwhile, above it all, the poet sits with his “Lady” looking out over the unfolding nighttime scene, not “on” but “from” Desolation Row. The home of the residents of the emerging zeitgeist. I see Desolation Row as the New York apartment Dylan writes about in Visions of Johanna:

Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?
We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it

They look out over the dystopian landscape of blind commissioners and riot squads, perched on an island of sanity, observing the crazy world.

Lady is the mythical companion of the Tramp in the Disney film of a decade earlier. Dylan as the Chaplinesque Everyman “Tramp” alongside a woman who might be slumming from the aristocracy in those timeless dystopian times.

Desolation Row might also be a knowing reference to California’s Cannery Row, described by Steinbeck as “a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.” The sardine industry had collapsed, in desolation, a decade before Dylan wrote his song. Cross-referenced with Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels, which declared, “Everything’ll be all right, desolation is desolation everywhere and desolation is all we got and desolation ain’t so bad.”

Cinderella, she seems so easy, “It takes one to know one,” she smiles
And puts her hands in her back pockets Bette Davis style

Alongside Lady, Cinderella is another Disney character, an archetype of emerging freedom. She is ignored by her establishment sisters, standing free, knowing the power of her sexuality. A woman who only “seems so easy” (as in easy to seduce, or perhaps at her ease?) acknowledging others (like Dylan?) who hold the same appeal. Insouciant, seductive, captivating. Someone who would have turned heads in the folk clubs of Greenwich Village.


And in comes Romeo, he’s moaning. “You Belong to Me I Believe”
And someone says, “You’re in the wrong place, my friend, you’d better leave.”

Cinderella’s anthesis arrives on the scene. Romeo sans Juliet, desperate to own whatever woman he can find. Down on his luck, off his game, and “moaning.” A visitor from the dark side. His inappropriate advances earning a rebuke–not only to put him in his place but to tell him, with the threatening tone of a nightclub bouncer or mobster’s bodyguard, that he needs to leave. The two lines of dialog tied together in rhyme are polar opposite in intention. Those who claim ownership (capitalists, The Man?) having no place in the communal world of Desolation Row.


And the only sound that’s left after the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up on Desolation Row
.

And so we come to the end of Act One. The sirens are silenced. The riot squad has done its worst. Chaos has reigned off-screen. We’re witness to the cleaning-up operations, with Cinders doing what her stepmother required — sweeping up the broken glass on the street. Indeed, it must be broken glass. After all, if it was just the

empty bottles, sandwich papers,
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights.

The Waste Land, Fire Sermon, lines 177-178

of Eliot’s Fire Sermon, we wouldn’t hear her at work.

Now the moon is almost hidden, the stars are beginning to hide

The night is growing darker, colder, older. Clouds are moving in.


The fortune-telling lady has even taken all her things inside

Another circus refugee has called it a night, signaling the transition from one part of the day to another. Her tarot cards, crystal ball, and tasseled gown are now inside whatever she calls home – gypsy caravan, tent, or tenement building. Minus the fortune teller, the future is an unknown.


All except for Cain and Abel and the hunchback of Notre Dame
/ Everybody is making love or else expecting rain

But wait, not everyone has quit the scene. Three more archetypes of the old order are introduced. The brothers from the Bible and Quasimodo –monsters in their own way–are the exception to others, engaged in the trivial and the profound. When is making love as trivial as expecting rain? Family members from my English childhood often commented on the weather. They rarely spoke about lovemaking. Depending on which group of people this describes the juxtaposition either challenges the romantic ideal of lovemaking as no more significant an option than commenting on the weather (“Do you want to make out or put on your Wellingtons? It’s all the same to me…”) or the hipsters are making love while the squares look to the cloudy sky. Dylan is unclear about which “everybody” it is — everybody in the apartment, everyone on the street, or the whole world? Shades of grey.


And the Good Samaritan, he’s dressing, he’s getting ready for the show
He’s going to the carnival tonight on Desolation Row

Again, a contrast. While the fratricidal boys in the Bible represent murder and martyrdom, the Good Samaritan signifies freedom, preparing for the evening’s entertainment (the night is young). Whether the “show” is something the circus is putting on or the carnival Ensor painted is unclear. However, Desolation Row seems like the fun side of town, more benign than the disorder in the debris-filled streets.

Ophelia, she’s ‘neath the window for her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday she already is an old maid
To her, death is quite romantic she wears an iron vest
Her profession’s her religion, her sin is her lifelessness
And though her eyes are fixed upon Noah’s great rainbow
She spends her time peeking into Desolation Row
.

Switching back to Shakespearean archetypes, Dylan notices Ophelia beneath the window (that Lady and he looks out of, standing where Romeo would have wooed his Juliet on her balcony). He’s empathetic, concerned, aware of the limitations playing out in her young life. A tragic career woman (her profession’s her religion), she is a lifeless “old maid” — one of Shakespeare’s ‘cold maids’ in Ophelia’s death scene:

There is a willow grows aslant a brook

That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream.

There with fantastic garlands did she come

Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,

That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,

But our cold maids do “dead men’s fingers” call them

Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 7

She’s fixated on her namesakes’ romantic death, armored against feelings of passion, or trapped like youthful Polio victims in an iron lung? Her goal cemented by Old Testament certainty:

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”

Genesis, 9-13

Ophelia is missing the mark, the juice having been squeezed out of her life, denying her true feelings, but trying to make a break, curious about what she’s missing. Despite being an uptight career girl, she can’t help “peeking into Desolation Row.

This echoes Dylan’s admonition in the opening track on the album (Like a Rolling Stone) to embrace our feelings, recognize our freedoms:

How does it feel, how does it feel?
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone

While there are those like Ophelia who sense the possibility of freedom and might be tempted to overcome their fears to experience it, other sad unfortunates have been destroyed by madness. Among them, as Ginsburg noted, “the best minds of my generation.” (Howl, 1956). What more impressive mind than Einstein?

Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood with his memories in a trunk
Passed this way an hour ago with his friend, a jealous monk

Archetypes nest like Matryoshka dolls. The father of relativity, whose theories upended the certainties of space and time itself, now disguised as the folk-hero of Sherwood Forest, robbing from the rich, giving to the poor, accompanied by Friar Tuck. There’s a nod to Einstein’s lot as a refugee, forced to stay in the United States in the 1930s to avoid Hitler’s Germany, who would have no doubt have a store of photographs and diaries from the Europe of his youth in a trunk.


Now he looked so immaculately frightful as he bummed a cigarette
And he went off sniffing drainpipes and reciting the alphabet

This heroic figure is down at heel, a hobo like those who rode the rails Dylan’s mentor Woody Guthrie sang about. As disheveled as he might be, he appears “immaculately frightful” (a state of dishabille that perfectly describes a street person I once saw in Paris, where a sense of fashion doesn’t desert those without the means to buy new clothes)—now compelled to neurotically sniff drainpipes and recite the alphabet—a far cry from authoring the Theory of Relativity.


You would not think to look at him, but he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin on Desolation Row
.

Just as you’d say about any down-and-out who was once a person of note, “you would not think to look at him, but…” he was once a banker, school principal, a respected member of the community, Nobel Laureate in Theoretical Physics. Or, in the case of a musician like Dylan, a violinist he shared the stage with before things took a turn for the worse.

Dr. Filth, he keeps his world inside of a leather cup
But all his sexless patients, they’re trying to blow it up

We now come to one of the central characters on the dark side of the street. Dr. Filth is a name straight out of a Marvel comic book. The leather cup could be an athletic support cup around his manhood that his “sexless patients” are trying to blow (pun intended?). Or it could be a leather liar’s dice cup sitting on a barroom counter that the patients want to dynamite. Anyone who needs to keep their world inside anything as small as a cup must have a paranoid need to keep it safe. Like memories in a trunk, they might well be keepsakes. Or patient records. I wonder what HIPPA regulations require? What insecurities drive this?


Now his nurse, some local loser, she’s in charge of the cyanide hole
And she also keeps the cards that read, “Have Mercy on His Soul.”

The doctor’s assistant is “some local loser”—more likely to be found working as a waitress in a greasy spoon or matinee movie theatre attendant than as a qualified nurse. She guards (and administers?) a toxic substance whose only use in emergency medical situations is to effect a rapid decrease in blood pressure.  She’s also representative of the local losers recruited to administer gas into the cyanide holes above the Nazi death camps’ shower stalls. Coupled with overseeing the cards that judges read from when pronouncing the death sentence, we are firmly in a dystopian hell realm.


They all play on the penny whistles, you can hear them blow
If you lean your head out far enough from Desolation Row.

These nightmare characters (Dr. Filth and the local loser employed as his poison dispensing, capital-punishment enabling nurse) create discordant noise blowing on penny whistles—discernable when you “lean your head out far enough” to catch the vague traces of the distant spinning wheels of sound.

Across the street they’ve nailed the curtains, they’re getting ready for the feast

Back in the low-rent district (Greenwich Village being affordable back then), neighbors nail curtains across their windows–cheap privacy for their nighttime feast.  Neighbors who also feature in Visions of Johanna:

Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough

Next, we meet the Paris opera house’s ghost, invited to the feast to berate Casanova, given form as a man of God, able to dispense judgment. Introduced in a line that hangs suspended in the song, held back for a beat.

The Phantom of the Opera in a perfect image of a priest

Casanova–an archetype of masculine power and a master of seduction is reduced to the level of an invalid needing to be spoon-fed assurances.


They are spoon feeding Casanova to get him to feel more assured
Then they’ll kill him with self-confidence after poisoning him with words

He’s destined to be sacrificed on the self-improvement altar of positive thinking, poisoned by the words of authors such as Norman Vincent Peale and Napoleon Hill.


And the Phantom’s shouting to skinny girls, “Get outta here if you don’t know.”
Casanova is just being punished for going to Desolation Row

The Phantom is reanimated, announcing that Casanova’s transgression is to have crossed over from the conventional world and embraced Desolation Row’s freedoms. His audience is the “skinny girls” who might welcome Casanova’s attention, but, like Romeo before them, have to leave. The stage is set: a group of girls, the Phantom and Casanova with his attendants. This echoes Deputy Duperret’s advice to Charlotte Corday in Peter Weiss’s 1963 play The Marat/Sade. Both women are ignorant of the politics of revenge and repression.

Dearest Charlotte you must return

Return to your friends the pious nuns

And live in prayer and contemplation

You cannot fight

The hard-faced enemies surrounding us.

The Marat/Sade, Act 1

Casanova, Jean-Paul Marat, the Marquis de Sade—three European libertines at odds with Middle America’s morality.

At midnight all the agents and the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone that knows more than they do

The dystopian frenzy is unleashed at the stroke of midnight. Scenes similar to those portrayed in The Handmaid’s Tale and lived by the victims of the Chilean dictators and Hitler’s brownshirts. Victims of a group of the Übermensch who accompany J. Edgar’s agents. The deplorables against the elites. The revenge of the conspiracy theorists against those with knowledge of the facts. Punishment Park a possibility.


Then they bring them to the factory where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders, and then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles by insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping to Desolation Row.

Conformity is enforced on the salt of the earth workers, whole-life policies for those with no life to live. Orwell’s’ 1984. Dictates from the mansions of the one percent keeping the workers from their freedom. A theme explored by John Lennon five years later:

As soon as you’re born, they make you feel small
By giving you no time instead of it all
‘Til the pain is so big you feel nothing at all

~~

When they’ve tortured and scared you for twenty-odd years
Then they expect you to pick a career
When you can’t really function, you’re so full of fear

~~

Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV
And you think you’re so clever and classless and free
But you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see
.

Working Class Hero, 1970.

The conclusion, but not the coda, is in the next six lines.

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune, the Titanic sails at dawn
Everybody’s shouting, “Which side are you on?!”

The emperor who fiddled while Rome burned sets sail on the doomed liner. The pretentions of the entitled end up at the bottom of the ocean. Division in the land – Red states and Blue, Proud Boys and Antifa, them and us. Is any of it more than rearranging the deckchairs?


And Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them and fishermen hold flowers
Between the windows of the sea where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much about Desolation Row.

Ivory tower intellectuals battle for supremacy while artists and artisans celebrate life in the wonderous watery reaches of this blue planet, an ocean of bliss, feeling without limitation, freed from analysis of current and future conflicts.

After an interlude on the harmonica, Dylan delivers a footnote, responding to a letter the mailman delivered.

Yes, I received your letter yesterday, about the time the doorknob broke
When you asked me how I was doing, was that some kind of joke
All these people that you mention, yes, I know them, they’re quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces and give them all another name
Right now, I can’t read too good, don’t send me no more letters no
Not unless you mail them from Desolation Row.

While the battle between the forces of good and evil rage, trite domesticity occupies others. He confesses that he sang about the people he knew, anonymized with archetypes and aliases. He admonishes his correspondent to stop sending trivial news. And only write if, and when, they have stepped out of their suburban cocoon.

Take a listen

If you’ve got this far in my endless screed about the song, you deserve a treat. Take a listen to Dylan as he sings the lines that so inspired me.

River, River

I wish I had a river so long
I would teach my feet to fly
I wish I had a river I could skate away on
I made my baby cry

‘River’, Joni Mitchell

Watching Robson Green walking coast-to-coast along Hadrian’s Wall (a journey I made in September 2019) I was struck by the incongruity of him spending an afternoon fly-fishing on the River North Tyne. It’s not that he obviously did not carry a set of waders and a fishing pole in his rucksack, it was the name of the river he waded into.

Something sounded so wrong. I’ve spent too long in the States.

Why River North Tyne and not North Tyne River? I had no problem with River Tyne, River Thames, or River Avon. It was the three words in that order that jarred.

Then, a sudden realization, American’s *always* put River after the name, the British before.

It sounds equally wrong to say River Mississippi, River Columbia, or River Sacramento as it does to say Thames River, Avon River, or Tyne River. Just not, to my ears, River North Tyne.

Likewise, who gets to decide when to call a watercourse The Mississppi, The Thames, or The North Tyne?

Then there’s Thamesside, Tyneside, and Humberside. But not Mississippiside, which just has one too many s’s in it.

The Banks are, however, agnostic to culture. The Banks of the Mississippi and the Banks of the Tyne both work–unlike the Royal Bank of Scotland which plainly didn’t.

Divided by a common language

Fortunately, smarter people than me have looked into why this is, even though it is, in the end, a mystery:

Once upon a time, river names in English usually included the word “of.” So instead of “River Jordan” (in modern British usage) or “Jordan River” (in American usage), you would have found “River of Jordan” (written something like “rywere of Iordane”).

Many of the Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citations for names of rivers, dating from the late 1300s, include “of.” Chaucer in 1395, for example, wrote of “the ryuer of Gysen.”

This practice of including “of” in river names, the OED says, wasn’t the only way of naming rivers, but it was “the predominant style before the late 17th cent.”

At that point, “of” began to drop out of river names, and British and American practices started to diverge.

In proper names, the word “river” commonly came first in Britain, but last in the American Colonies. In other words, most English speakers simply dropped “of,” but Americans reversed the word order as well.

While “river” has occasionally appeared at the end in British writing, this was “uncommon,” the OED says. Most of Oxford’s citations for “river” in last place are from the mid-1600s and after, and most are from North American sources.

As things now stand, the OED explains, the word “river” appears first “chiefly in British English referring to British rivers and certain other major, historically important rivers, as the Nile, Rhine, Ganges, etc.”

In North American usage, however, “river” comes at the end except sometimes in “certain other major, historically important rivers” like the ones mentioned above.

But we haven’t addressed the question “Why?” Why does usage differ in Britain and America? Why did the Colonists prefer “James River” and “Charles River” to the reverse?

We can’t answer that. But certainly, the style adopted by the Colonists wasn’t unknown in the mother country.

Source: Grammarphobia

A Nightingale sang…

A decade before Charles Joseph Minard famous chart that portrays the losses suffered by Napoleon’s army in the Russian campaign of 1812, which Edward Tufte claims was “probably the best statistical graphic ever drawn”, English nurse Florence Nightingale created a “rose diagram.”

In 1858 she published Notes on Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency, and Hospital Administration of the British Army. Founded Chiefly on the Experience of the Late War. Presented by Request to the Secretary of State for War. This work contained a color statistical graph. Her “Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army of the East” showed that epidemic disease, which was responsible for more British deaths in the course of the Crimean War than battlefield wounds, could be controlled by a variety of factors including nutrition, ventilation, and shelter. This was, believe it or not, denied by the medical establishment of the time.

Rose chart showing the causes of mortality in the Crimean War

Nightingale went on to develop other statistical graphics in her reports to Parliament, realizing this was the most effective way of bringing data to life.

Statistician Hugh Small explains how the ‘rose chart’ works:

The circle on the right has 12 sectors going clockwise representing the first 12 months of the war. The circle on the left is the second 12 months. The superimposed dark shapes show the monthly death rates. The diagram illustrates how the Sanitary Commission, sent out in the middle of the war, dramatically reduced the death rate. The length of the radial line in each month is proportional to the death rate, but both the text and the appearance imply that it is the shaded area that is proportional to the death rate, rather than the length of the radial lines. Florence recognized this error and inserted an erratum slip, but then replaced this diagram in later documents.

Indeed, the 19th Century was a time of great progress in data collection.  In 1837 the General Registry Office at Somerset House, led by William Farr who later helped Nightingale with her Crimean statistics, began to systematically record births, deaths, and marriages in the UK.  While census data had been collected every ten years since 1801, the 1841 census was the first to list the names of every individual. This gave researchers the opportunity to examine new cause and effect relationships using registration statistics.

Here’s another chart created by Nightingale:

Hugh Small comments on the ways in which this chart is designed for maximum emotional impact:

The title ‘Lines’ (in ornate script in the original) makes it sound like a poem, as in  Lines on the Death of Bismarck.  There are four pairs of bars, when actually the message is clear from one pair alone.  There seems to be a kind of repetition, as in a chorus.  This effect is increased by the words, repeated at the end of each line, English Men, English Soldiers … It sounds like a funeral march.  Second, the red bar for the soldiers would certainly make some people think of the  ‘Thin Red Line’ which had become famous in the Crimean War when a two-deep row of red-jacketed British infantrymen stopped a Russian heavy cavalry charge, something that was thought to be impossible.  The thin red lines on Nightingale’s chart represented these same heroic soldiers who were now dying unnecessarily because of bad hygiene in their barracks.

The variation of death rates due to differences in hygiene was very important to reformers like Nightingale because it showed that even the civilian death rate could probably also be improved by better hygiene. 

Her goal with these charts was not just to inform, but to change hearts and minds.

In our time

In recent weeks, a number of temporary field hospitals have sprung up across Britain for the treatment of COVID-19 patients. Named “Nightingale Hospitals,” they pay homage to the famous “lady of the lamp.” Florence Nightingale’s pioneering approach to sanitation changed the understanding of public health in Victorian Britain and laid the foundations for the profession of nursing as we know it.

In our time of “mask deniers” and people who doubt the safety of vaccinations, or even that the pandemic is “real” and not a “Plandemic“, we need the persuasive power of modern-day Nightingales more than ever.

Ring out, wild bells

An astounding reading of Tennyson’s poem ‘Ring out, wild bells’ by actress June Spencer (aka Peggy Woolley on BBC Radio’s The Archers) sent me to the words of this 19th century poem.

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
   The flying cloud, the frosty light:
   The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
   Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
   The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
   For those that here we see no more;
   Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
   And ancient forms of party strife;
   Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
   The faithless coldness of the times;
   Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
   The civic slander and the spite;
   Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
   Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
   Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
   The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
   Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

https://poets.org/poem/memoriam-ring-out-wild-bells

Perhaps every generation since this was first published in 1850 have found allusions to their own era. Certainly these were suitable words to mark the beginnings of 1919 an 1946, when many would have felt the “grief that saps the mind/For those that here we see no more” as two World Wars ended.

The relevance to the start of 2021, with hope for a better year to come, especially in the United States, seems clear:

  • As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on:

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
   For those that here we see no more;

  • As Democrats and Republicans stare across the aisles of Congress:

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
   And ancient forms of party strife;

  • As lines of cars snake for miles around food banks across the country:

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
 
  The faithless coldness of the times;

  • As Trump prepares to leave office:

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
   The civic slander and the spite;

  • As the vaccine becomes available:

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;

  • As Joe Biden and Kamala Harris prepare to take office:

Ring in the valiant man and free,
   The larger heart, the kindlier hand;

Ex Machina

Robin Wigglesworth highlights the effect of Artificial Intelligence on executive communications in an article in the Weekend FT (subscription required). A new form of “robo-surveillance” by trading algorithms is spurring executives to place a deeper focus on the spoken word.

Executives are coached to avoid saying certain phrases, such as “but” which could trigger stock sales by natural language processing (NLP) machines taught the intricacies of human speech. Using NLP, investment funds instantaneously scrape speeches, social media chatter and corporate earnings calls for clues.

Cat and mouse

The result is a cat and mouse game, where CEOs try to outwit the machines that can pick up a verbal clue that a human might not even realize is relevant.

A recent academic paper — How to Talk When a Machine Is Listening: Corporate Disclosure in the Age of AI — points out that companies are keen to show off their business in the best possible light.

…firms with high expected machine downloads manage textual sentiment and audio emotion in ways catered to machine and AI readers, such as by differentially avoiding words that are perceived as negative by computational algorithms as compared to those by human readers, and by exhibiting speech emotion favored by machine learning software processors.

The paper found that companies have tweaked the language of annual reports and how executives speak in public to avoid words that might trigger red flags for machines listening in.

These changes extend to the tone of voice executives use, in addition to the words they use. The paper notes:

Managers of firms with higher expected machine readership exhibit more positivity and excitement in their vocal tones, justifying the anecdotal evidence that managers increasingly seek professional coaching to improve their vocal performances along the quantifiable metrics.

Some companies’ investor relations departments are even running multiple draft versions of press releases and speeches through such algorithmic systems to see which scores the best.

In return, NLP powered algorithms are also continuously adjusted to reflect the increasing obfuscation of corporate executives, so it ends up being a never-ending game of fruitless linguistic acrobatics.

In this game, the machines have the upper hand. The algorithms can immediately adjust for a chief executive’s idiosyncratic styles.

A certain CEO might routinely use the word “challenging” and its absence would be more telling while one that never uses the word would be sending as powerful signal by doing so.

Body language

Machines are still unable to pick up non-verbal cues, such as a physical twitch ahead of an answer, but experts predict it’s only a matter of time before they can do this as well.

Where this will all end, and the impact it will have on speechwriters, presentation coaches, investor relations, and PR professionals is open to speculation.

Usually when machine and men collide, it’s the machines that have the upper hand.