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Shocking, shocking! that there were amongst all those stuffy, straight-laced, repressive, Victorian prudes, a few wags who knew a thing or two:

The secret of Gilbert’s success can be summed up in the quote on his memorial on the Embankment: “His foe was folly and his weapon wit.” For the Victorian audience, Gilbert and Sullivan’s works were ideal, respectable entertainment. Yet running through Gilbert’s libretti is a suggestion of a something else. In Trial by Jury, where the Plaintiff is suing for breach of promise of marriage, her Counsel sings: “To marry two at once is burglaree”. The legal definition of burglary, as a qualified barrister like Gilbert would have known, is “unlawful entry”. The trio from The Yeomen of the Guard, where the disguised Colonel Fairfax is teaching Jack Point how to woo, includes the lines: “He must learn that the thrill of a touch/ May mean little, or nothing, or much;/ It’s an instrument rare,/ To be handled with care,/ And ought to be treated as such.”

I can’t help feeling that, here and elsewhere, Gilbert knew exactly what he was saying. “Where is Mrs Gilbert?” he once asked at the Savoy Theatre. “She’s round behind,” came the reply. “I know,” said Gilbert, “but where is she?” A member of the audience, seeing him standing in the foyer after one performance, mistook the dramatist for a commissionaire and brusquely ordered him to call him a cab. “Certainly,” said Gilbert, “you’re a four-wheeler.” “What!” exclaimed the man. “Well,” said Gilbert, “I certainly wouldn’t call you hansom.”

Um, I can’t help feeling that there were plenty of audience members who knew exactly what he was saying, too.  Cutting up wasn’t invented in 1968, contrary to the prevailing wisdom.  Prior ages were simply better at being witty and discrete about it.

As I happened to finally get around to firing up the port-swiller grill this past weekend, my roving eye fell on this piece from CNN: Five most common grilling mistakes.

Most of it is sensible, indeed, fairly obvious stuff.  But one passage discussing the application of barbeque sauce made me do a double-take:

Always use the BBQ sauce towards the end of grilling, during the last 10 to 20 minutes, as BBQ sauces often have high sugar content, some more than others, and will burn off before your meat is done.

Last 10 to 20 minutes”?  I seriously doubt if my grillings ever last even that long, in toto.

It is a long-standing tradition, handed down to self from the Old Gentleman, that there is only one way to grill a steak.  First, get your meat cut at about two inches in thickness.  Next, crank up your grill to blast-furnace strength. (I’m glad to see that the author of this piece is a charcoal man.)  Then, toss your steaks on for maybe a couple minutes per side.

Result? Blackened on the outside, still quivering on the inside.  Authentic Neanderthal cuisine.  Delicious.  Aaaaand having to keep preventing your steak from trying to escape from your plate adds solid entertainment value to the meal.

Regular port-swillers may be wondering what became of my effort to swot up the history of Confederate raiding along the Maine coast?  Well, the answer is that I found myself forced to abandon the enterprise, owing to the terrible writing that I mentioned in my prior post on the topic.  The final straw was a consistent misspelling of Fort Sumter, with an extraneous “p” inserted into its midst.  (This on top of a summary of Grant’s Virginia campaign of 1864 that started at the Wilderness and jumped directly to the trenches ’round Petersburg, bypassing such minor scraps as Spotsylvania Court House, the North Anna and Cold Harbor.)  I reasoned that, given how substantively obscure and arcane the book is, the author had better be on his very best stylistic behavior if he expects me to read it.  And if the author isn’t going to care about something like this, why should I?

I hate giving up, but life is just too short.

Now, children, gather round and observe how silly Uncle Robbo’s thought processes work:

In order to get the taste of bad history out of my mouth, I decided to read some good history.  To this end, my hand fell on my copy of the complete works of Tacitus, which I proceeded to read right the way through, covering his Annals, his Histories, his Agricola, his treatise on the tribes of Germany and his dialogue on Oratory. If anybody engages me in a conversation on the four emperors of 69 A.D. at my next drinks party, I’ll be able to dazzle ‘em.

Having finished up on Tacitus over the weekend, I was faced with the question of where to go next.  Perhaps it’s because of the name “Annals” and because I had just been reading of the Ancient World, that I was suddenly seized with the idea of revisiting James McPhee’s Annals of the Former World.  Having finished the first chapter of the book, for the next fifteen minutes or so I will now be able to give a basic geological description of the Basin and Range Province of the western United States, that rapidly expanding and thinning region that will eventually be the pathway by which the Pacific Ocean breaks in and turns California into an island.  Here’s a neat trick:  At several points in the story, McPhee describes stops at various highway cuttings along I-80 – Golconda Mountain in Nevada, the Palisades in New Jersey, etc.  Now, with the wonder of Google Earth, one can actually find the spots oneself and, with the street-view function, get a picture of what he’s talking about.

I don’t know why I find the topic of the history of Earth’s geology so fascinating.  (Certain smarty-pants might say that I seem to find every subject fascinating.  This isn’t completely true: I certainly have no interest in math, for example.)  Part of it is the shiver induced by contemplating the gargantuan time-scales involved.  Part of it is being able to look at a topographical map and see first-hand the evidence of the various forces in action.  As an exercise in perspective,  it all makes one think a bit, it does.  Plus, all the descriptions of plate tectonics, glacial activity, faults, calderas and the like just simply raise a boyish coo-el response in me.

Yes, it all may sound pretty shallow, sometimes coming perilously close to Cliff Clavin depth, but then I’ve never claimed to be an intellectual.   And anyway, I would argue that there’s a certain kind of mental pointillism to my approach to casual reading, especially in areas like history (including natural history).  Enough flitting about from topic to topic and one begins to see larger pictures and patterns emerge.  And that is probably what I enjoy the most.

Recently, it occurred to ol’ Robbo that I am guilty of renting about the same thirty-odd movies from Netflix over and over again.  Therefore, I decided to branch out and sample a few current flix that I had never seen before, just by way of mounting an affirmative defense against charges of stick-in-the-mudism.  Because summah is upon us, I deliberately chose lighter fare.  My thumbnail thoughts (and, for the benefit of the Mothe, short synopses) on said movies:

Red – Bruce Willis as a retired CIA rock star who suddenly finds himself the subject of a hit order put out (for reasons never quite clear to me) by the Vice President.  Willis teams up with some of the Old Gang, together with a hot young thing to put the kybosh on the Veep and his Agency goons.  Not a bad flick, although I’m fairly certain one viewing was enough.  It was fun to see Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich and Helen Mirren doing their git-off’n-my-lawn-ya-young-punks routine.

Iron Man II –  Robert Downey Jr. returns as the 21st Century Tin Woodsman to continue battling bad guys (both foreigners bent on revenge and eeeeeevil corporate dorks bent on soaking Uncle) while at the same time staving off his own impending death due to his power pack.   Meh.  I thought the first movie was all right, but this one seemed a lot more, well, confused about what it was trying to say.  And how is it that these Iron Man suits seem to be so easy to put together?  You’d think any kid could knock one up in his garage out of  the water-heater, the family p.c. and the microwave.   I have to say that I thought the Russian bad guy was magnificent – he looked like he was right off the Steppes and could give the Mongol Hordes a pointer or two.

Date Night – Steve Carrell and Tina Fey as stolid, boring suburban couple who go to Manhattan for said date night and,  in a plot device stolen directly from North By Northwest, get mistaken by some crooked cops at a fancy restaurant for denizens of the underworld who stole a flashdrive from a mob boss, which drive the crooked cops want pronto.  Thrills, chases, detective work and middle-aged suburban family wisecracks ensue, with the whole thing winding up, alas, in a strip-club, where it turns out that the flashdrive contains pron pictures involving the City DA who (of course) has a public image as Mr. Clean.   Eh.  I like Carrell and Fey, and also Mark Wolberg (who looks like he’s wearing a Stretch Armstrong suit here).  I also liked a few of the one-liners and action bits.  But I still much prefer Cary Grant and Eve Marie Saint chasing about the face of Mt. Rushmore.

Prince of Persia –  An adventure story from way-back-when involving said Prince, a delicious princess, desert armies, a magical dagger and palace intrigue.  (Oh, how you’ve fallen Ben Kingsley!)  I think I actually enjoyed this film more than any of the others in this list, simply because it delivered exactly what it promised – mindless action.  (I understand it’s based on some video game, so there you go.)  The only criticism that comes to mind is the fact that Jake Gyllenhaal is positively the least Persian-looking actor one can possibly think of,  resembling more a Crusader who got lost on the way to Joppa.

So there you have it.  Now that I have done my duty viz the horizon-broadening, I shall now return to my regular cycle of the likes of John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Alec Guinness, because in the end it’s quite true that they don’t make ‘em like they used to.

Ol’ Robbo is currently listening to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, the “Eroica”.  It occurs to me that, in composing this piece, ol’ Ludvig Van was engaged in an exercise of something along the lines of musickal bullying.

“Ja! I push der limits of der musickalish proprietygevunlthousstruhnt.  Und vat ist ju goink to do about it? You und vat army?” 

I can appreciate Beethoven, but I could never love him.

I don’t know why the radio deejay keeps saying it’s “warm” outside today.  The fact of the matter is that it’s bloody hot, especially if you have to wear a tie. Summah is icumen, indeed.

However, after cursing the heat and humidity good and proper,  I stopped in at the local coffee shop and got my first iced latte of the season.  And as its cold, soothing influence spread throughout my person,  Diane’s quote of Philippians 4:8 in the comments to a post below (“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”) came wafting back into my brain.

Is it wrong to think of a coffee drink as pure, lovely, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise in the way that Paul means?  I don’t believe so.

A nice article from the Beeb this morning that gently corrects the modern misunderstanding of King Canute and the tide:

[W]as the legendary Viking leader and 11th Century King of England so deluded to really assume he had the powers to turn back the tide?

Almost certainly not. While the histories of the time are unreliable, it seems probable that King Canute was not a madman who thought he could control the tide.

The first written account of the Canute episode was in Historia Anglorum (The History of the English People) by chronicler Henry of Huntingdon, who lived within 60 years of the death of Canute (1035 AD).

According to the story, the king had his chair carried down to the shore and ordered the waves not to break upon his land.

When his orders were ignored, he pronounced: “Let all the world know that the power of kings is empty and worthless and there is no King worthy of the name save Him by whose will heaven and earth and sea obey eternal laws,” (Historia Anglorum, ed D E Greenway).

Canute set out to demonstrate that the waves would hit him, just like everybody else, says Professor Simon Keynes of the department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at the University of Cambridge.

But most modern-day analogies of Canute turn history on its head.

“They are mostly misused in order to illustrate something being swamped like King Canute.

“It is often used about politicians who consider themselves so powerful they can stop the tide of something, such as rising wages – as arrogant as King Canute,” says Prof Keynes, who says he used to collect examples from the newspapers of those so-called Canute moments.

“Everyone always gets it wrong. The latest debate is a nice example of how legend becomes distorted when it is told and retold,” says Prof Keynes. “Every now and then someone points out that the reference is wrong, but commentators continue to do it and historians such as myself wince.”

Indeed, although trying to fight against the modern usage would be like, um, trying to stop the tide.

Ah, well.  Fellow port-swillers will just have to content themselves with a look of knowing smugness the next time they hear somebody get it wrong.

This reminds me of another famous story about a ruler and the waves.  It is popularly assumed that the Emperor Caligula was mad as a hatter, mostly because the historian Suetonius, who is the primary source for the period, was an inveterate gossip-monger who collected every libel and rumor on which he could lay his hands.  One of the stories about Caligula is that after becoming convinced that he was Jove incarnate, he marched the Legions to the English Channel, there to wage war against his brother god, Neptune.  The legend goes that he had his troops line up in battle order on the beach, march out into the surf and cast their spears, and later that he had them collect sea-shells as the spoils of war.

Well, nobody really knows what happened or why, but back in high school I heard an interesting theory from a classicks prof at the University of Texas who was absolutely convinced that Caligula was not crazy.  (The prof, a tall, rangy Brit, looked a little mad himself, frankly.)  He posited that Caligula had been contemplating an invasion of Britain, but that his army, terrified of the idea of crossing the Channel to land on an unknown shore full of scary natives, threatened to mutiny if he went forward with the plan.  Caligula, knowing he couldn’t force the issue, then staged the mock battle with the water in order to shame his troops.

I always thought that explanation every bit as plausible as the more popular version of events, but of course it wouldn’t fit in so well with the historickal caricature.

Oddly, this song has not been far from my thoughts ever since we brought the Odyssey home.  Go figure.

Roger Kimball notes that the higher education tide is starting to turn:

The current, and the money, is beginning to flow the other way. Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, has read the tea leaves,  seen the pattern in the carpet, and felt the shifting winds of change.  Here’s the relevant headline form The Chronicle of So-Called Higher Education:

 Thiel Fellowship Pays 24 Talented Students $100,000 Not to Attend College

The most important data point is not the 100,000 smackeroos but the word “talented.”

Mr. Thiel is not interested in providing furloughs for the mediocre, the uninspired, the weary, or the time-servers.  He wants to nab tomorrow’s Steve Jobs, the Bill Gates  of 2020, the up-and-coming Peter Thiel who requires not “diversity training” and lessons in how Shakespeare was a colonialist but an atmosphere that encourages real engagement with real-life problems. “The fellowship seeks to help winners develop their ideas more quickly than they would at a traditional university,” the Chronicle reports, adding that “Its broader aim goes beyond helping the 24 winners, by raising big questions about the state of higher education.”

Good. Goooooood.  Raise those questions.

At this point, I am still assuming that, like their aged parents before them, the gels will all go to college and grad school, that they will pick up a liberal arts degree as undergrads – which I believe to be a good in itself so long as it is a quality degree- and then prepare for a profession of some sort.  But of course, these days demand for slots is too fierce and tuition is just too damned high.  Movements like this one will, I hope, apply some corrective market pressures to the situation by, in effect, giving higher ed some serious competition.

It’s another five years before the eldest gel is off.  Hopefully, higher ed will have gone through some meaningful reform by then.

Indeed.  Somebody pour me a pan-galactic gargle blaster.

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