July 2010

Although the telephone, the burglar alarm, and the alarm clock are predicated on the Industrial Revolution, bells have been distracting our attention from the ordinary continuum of our lives for millennia. With the exception of Islam, every major religion uses bells in connection with worship, whether to call the faithful to prayer (the evening Angelus), at the elevation of the consecrated bread and wine during mass, or in celebratory peals as the newlyweds leave the church in a hail of mixed birdseed (formerly rice, but then someone figured out that it swelled up inside birds who ate it and killed them. Millet is recommended instead.)

Belling the cat refers to putting a collar on Kitty on which is hung a crotal; this type of bell is a dapped metal sphere with a slit in it and a pebble inside, and comes in a variety of sizes, the larger ones being used for sleighbells. Cowbells, on the other hand, are usually fabricated from sheet metal that is welded or brazed into a tapered rectangular solid open at the bottom with a clapper suspended inside. The semiotic function of all these would seem to be “Here comes an animal [so get out of the way].” The cowbell found a second career in the trap set of dance-band percussionists, not infrequently for humorous effect (compare the kettledrum glissando. Both featured prominently in the ragtime signature music for the Ernie Kovacs TV shows.)

We have all been thoroughly conditioned to respond to bells. From a church bell rung to signal the canonical hours and summoning worshipers to services, to the chime that marks the more finely calibrated time of a public clock (the word clock originally meant ‘bell,’ and is cognate with the glocken- of glockenspiel, a direct steal from German meaning ‘bell-play.)’ A homely example is the rural Swedish vällingklocka (‘gruel-bell’), a feature of every substantial farm from the early 1800s on whose sound was imitated “in a rich folklore of rhymes and ditties,” according to Jonas Frykman and Orvar Löfgren’s Culture Builders (Rutgers: 1987), whose “message was often a social protest about hard working conditions and bad food, ‘blue gruel and sour herring.'”

Of course, it is not only people whose behavior can be regulated and conditioned with the bell as stimulus, as the Russian physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov famously demonstrated with his salivating dogs. Still, to a far greater extent than our four-legged friends, we are suckers for the semiotics of sound, with a rich lore of poetry and song to show it. Poe’s “The Bells” is a triptych of our sociological associations with bells of three different metals; rounds such as “Great Tom is Cast” and “Maudit Sois-Tu, Carilloneur” play on the inescapable presence of local towers populated by bells and their ringers; and Dorothy Sayers built what is arguably her best murder mystery (The Nine Tailors) around a trope of change-ringing, set in a rural church in England’s fen country between the wars.

Art nicely illustrates life in Christina Kubisch’s Clocktower Project at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams in the old Sprague Electric Company factory building, whose two bells were once a pervasive feature of the town’s soundscape. By digitally recording the sounds the bells make when played with a variety of tools from hammers and brushes to her bare hands, and then coupling the tonal data-base to solar sensors mounted on the tower, Kubich works with a sound spectrum that varies according to the ambient natural light and functions as the input to an aleatory program that generates short “compositions” which are played through speakers on the tower throughout the day.

The striking of a bell in a regular rhythm exemplifies the parceling up of time even as it signifies it. A sundial creeps; water in a clepsydra trickles and sand in an hourglass quietly whooshes, and clocks tick, all pretty inconspicuously, but a chime is by definition meant to get your attention, from the village clock to your great-grandfather’s “repeater” pocket watch (at least before its miniature fusee chain broke). The trope of the striking clock is conspicuous in a number of pieces from the classical music repertory, such as the “Dance of the Hours” from Amilcare Ponchielli’s opera La Gioconda (immortalized in the Walt Disney film Fantasia‘s animated ballet-bouffe of alligators, ostriches, and hippos), the stroke of midnight that opens Camille Saint-Saëns’ tone poem Danse Macabre, and the morning bell that summons the demons back to hell at the end of the drunken peasant’s witch-sabbath dream in Modest Mussorgsky’s Sorochinsk Fair, a scene better known to Westerners in its orchestral arrangement (by Mussorgsky’s friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, of Scheherezade fame) as Night on Bald Mountain.

A didactic song from our earliest school days capitalized on the obvious fact that the larger bell the louder, and contrariwise. Its lyrics told of a king who, on hearing the bells at his coronation, engaged the smallest, not the largest, to play at his wedding because he “got a headache from the bong, bong, bong/But he loved the little bell that just went ding.” The analogy with loud vs. soft-spoken children seemed self-evident at the time: the former may be denied the gratification of their wishes by the big people that the quiet ones get. But as this runs contrary to most children’s experience (which runs instead to the proverb about squeaky wheels), it is perhaps no wonder that our teachers decided not to press the point through tiresome exegesis, but merely allowed the song to adhere to our memory like a cockleburr, where it has remained ever since.


New speakers of English may be perplexed at the fact that there are often two words for what appear to be the same thing (synonyms: rock/stone, snake/serpent), pairs of words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings (homonyms: capital/capitol, night/knight, rye/wry, reed/read, red/read), double meanings for words spelled and sometimes, though not always, pronounced the same (homographs: cleave/cleave, till/till, gloss/gloss, which are also homophones, and read/read, bass/bass, which are heterophones), differently-spelled derivatives from the same root, with related but diverging meanings (doublets: chief/chef, quean/quean), alternative spellings for the same word with the same meaning (allographs: gray/grey, judgment/judgement, draftsman/draughtsman)—especially between American and British English, which also offers such semantic cleft sticks (*allosemes?) as standard-English lift (U.S.: ‘ride in someone else’s car’; U.K.: ‘elevator’) and the more treacherous slang fanny (U.S.: ‘posterior’; U.K.: ‘vulva’).

In some instances these pairings can be explained by their having come into the language by different routes: Equus, horse, and caballus are classical Latin, Germanic, and vulgar Latin words, respectively, for the same animal and give us equitation (a fancy term for riding of the sort on which one is judged at a show), its literal translation horsing (usually in conjunction with around; compare horseplay), and via French, chivalry—the code of conduct originally expected of the cavalry (i.e. mounted troops of good socioeconomic standing: In Rome members of the order of equites had to be able to spend at least five thousand gold pieces a year and keep out of trouble.) Given England’s history of conquest first by Rome and then by the Normans, it may come as no surprise, then, that the twenty-five-cent words are often latinate while the nickel ones are Germanic: osculate/kiss, ecclesiastical/church, inebriated/drunk, perambulate/walk around, copulate/bonk (or boink).

The twenty-five-cent/five-cent distinction informs euphemism as well, particularly in the medical profession, whose news is often bad for the patient and relatives and seems to cry out for swaddling in a soft fleece of latinity: myocardial infarction/heart attack, terminal/ending in death, and so on, with which may be compared such folksier substitutions for the unsettling or the taboo as kick the bucket, buy the farm, and go paws up. Of course, a notorious trouble with euphemisms, especially those applied to persons whom the former label was thought to denigrate, is the way in which popular usage overtakes the kinder, gentler term and makes that pejorative, prompting a revisionist attempt at linguistic political correctness: feeble-minded/retarded/developmentally challenged, though the flip side is also known—a cretin was originally a Christian.

Calling the same thing by different names has an analog in what musicians call enharmonic notation, a corollary of the existence of both sharps and flats. (Historically, flats came first.) Thus C# on the piano is the same note as Db: the black key to the right of C natural and to the left of D natural. It is this ambiguity that allows an augmented triad such as G-B-Eb (to take an example from Wagner’s Parzifal) to straddle two harmonic keys at once, depending on which third (B-G or Eb-Cb, Cb being B natural by a different name) is heard as the core of the triad from which the third note is the deviation. (Not surprisingly, this particular triad gets a lot of play in the music for Klingsor’s castle, for, as David Lewin points out in a chapter on Wagner in his Studies in Music with Text [Oxford University Press, 2006], “Only by voyaging to and through the magic Cb/B castle, the seam that permits an interface with the other world, can Parsifal ultimately repatriate the miraculous,” allowing the cast, as Victor Borge said in connection with another opera, to get their money and go home.)

So do C# and Db constitute a distinction without a difference? One is reminded of the routine in which Elaine May sings the Gershwin Brothers’ “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” (“You like potato and I like potahto/You like tomato and I like tomahto,” etc.) failing to distinguish between the different pronunciations of the same words on which the lyric turns. Not so funny was the routine related in the Bible [Judges 12:4-6] involving different pronunciations of the word shibboleth. (Mod. Hebrew [šibolet/sibolet]). For the Gileadites, the initial sound was sh ([š]) while for the Ephraimites it was s ([s]). Suspected Ephraimites attempting to pass as Gileadites were asked to say the word as a test of their bona fides with dire consequences for failure. In more recent times (1937), an eerily similar test gave the “Parsley Massacre” its name, the victims this time being some 20,000-30,000 Haitians living on the border in the Dominican Republic who were tested on their ability to identify a sprig of parsley (Spanish perejil, Haitian Creole pèsi, Standard French persil) in Spanish.

But how about a difference without a distinction? For this, we turn to the Indian grammarian Panini (or, more properly, Pāṇini) who flourished in the fifth century BCE. The final statement in his monumental grammar of Sanskrit (the Aṣṭādhyāyī [‘The Eight Books’]) reads अ अ इति and is somewhat problematic to transliterate. Literally, it’s a a iti (‘a a thus’), but the sense is something like “For the whole of this treatise, I’ve been treating the difference between “short a” (अ) and “long a” (आ) as though it were simply one of duration ([a] vs. [a:]), but actually that was just a convenient fiction: “short a” is really schwa ([ə]).”

We chatted about the shortest song the other day Short Music and the music industry (which of course raises the question of what defines a song) and that got us thinking about other shortest stuff:

The Shortest concert – imagine various folks playing one note and taking a bow and the crowd going wild.  The rock duo the White Stripes reacted to preconcert hubbub about a free secret concert by planning the shortest concert, then announcing a one note free concert a few hours before the “real” paid event, and then fulfilling that concert by playing, reportedly, a single C sharp.  Loyal fans, who were in on the joke, were thrilled, and after viewing the video,  (below), one expects that no one asked for their money back.

The Shortest poem – much debate here, said by some to be Aram Saroyan’s poem “lighght” (that’s it),  raising the issue of what, exactly, defines a poem.  His poem uses some word play here – supposedly, “Lighght” is a doubling of the silent “gh” of the word light, drawings out the length of the word, in an attempt to create a sense of space. This all got Aram in a little hot water (or publicity) when he received $500 from the fledgling National Endowment for the Arts when the poem was anthologized in one of their publications.   Conservatives, such as Representative William Scherle and Senator Jesse Helms, objected at the per-word amount of the award, complaining that the word was not a real poem and was not even spelled correctly. For ones that don’t use made up words, a personal favorite makes a nice runner up:

Ode to a Goldfish
Oh Wet Pet.

The shortest theoretically possible Monopoly game – Scientists can weigh in on the shortest length of time (an attosecond) or distance (the Planck length), and I guess we’ll have to take their word for it.  Everyone, however, can take a position on the recent claim of the world’s shortest theoretically possible Monopoly game – assuming that all the dice rolls fall the right way, two folks, it is argued, could play a game that lasted twenty-one seconds – here’s how they argue it could go:

Player 1, Turn 1:

Roll: 6-6, Lands on: Electric Company
Action: None, Doubles therefore roll again

Roll: 6-6, Lands on: Illinois Avenue
Action: None, Doubles therefore roll again

Roll: 4-5, Lands on: Community Chest “Bank error in your favor, Collect $200″
Action: Collects $200 (now has $1700)

Player 2, Turn 1:

Roll: 2-2, Lands on: Income Tax
Action: Pay $200 (now has $1300), Doubles therefore rolls again

Roll: 5-6, Lands on: Pennsylvania Rail Road
Action: None

Player 1, Turn 2:

Roll: 2-2, Lands on: Park Place
Action: Purchase ($350, now has $1350), Doubles therefore rolls again

Roll: 1-1, Lands on: Boardwalk
Action: Purchase ($400, now has $950), Doubles therefore rolls again

Roll: 3-1, Lands on Baltic Avenue
Action: Collect $200 for passing GO (now has $1150), Purchase 3 houses for Boardwalk, 2 for Park Place ($1000, now has $150)

Player 2, Turn 2:

Roll: 3-4, Lands on: Chance, “Advance to Boardwalk”
Action: Advance to Boardwalk, Rent is $1400, only has $1300 = Bankrupt


They created a video simulation of the game and then the arguing started – both points of view, “there must be a shorter version” and “you’re understanding the rules incorrectly” were taken.  Most  of the detractors’ variants other came up with what strikes me as an attempt to arrive at the same place with slightly different approaches, the goal being to bankrupt one of the players in the shortest possible time.  For those among us who loathe the game, this might be something to hope for, but like the man who bowls a “300”, one could also feel a little cheated.

All this begs the question, – shortest, longest, “why do we care?”  The title Guinness World Records remains one of the most world’s most popular books (way below the Bible and Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book, but about the same as Twilight, 100 million copies) for a reason – we like extremes.  I’m guessing that we also like to have a accounting of what can be known; it gives us some stability in an otherwise confusing and unpredictable world full of the imponderable: “Could God microwave a burrito so hot that even He couldn’t eat it?” or  “Why is Justin Bieber so popular?”.

White Stripes One Note Show – St Johns Newfoundland

The Shortest Possible Game of Monopoly: 21 Seconds


Shortest Possible Game of Monopoly


It is perhaps not surprising that the ancient Greeks had a word for writing on walls (τοιχογραφία from τοῖχος ‘wall’ and γραφία ‘writing’) but apparently no word for writing on streets or sidewalks—no *‘οδογραφία (from ‘οδός ‘road’) or *πεζοδρομιογραφία (from much later Greek πεζοδρόμιο ‘sidewalk’ itself from Doric πέζα ‘foot’ and δρόμος ‘(race) course’). There are at least two reasons for these lexicographical lacunae: (1) the ancient Greek roads didn’t provide a suitable surface for writing and (2) why, before the invention of hopscotch, would anybody want to write on the ground when you could write on a wall without having to bend over?

Modern times have brought us both the necessary canvases—reasonably smoothly paved streets and sidewalks—and ample reason to write on them, not so much in the pursuit of individual artistic expression (though this is not unknown) but in the more mundane interests of public safety: Marks on the pavement can warn you of the location of the public utilities’ underground pipes and ducts, which is a good thing to know before you begin excavation for that new condo development or lawn sprinkler system.

The conventional term for these marks is mark-outs, a sampling of which at a local construction site is shown in figure 1:

four utilities

figure 1

Mark-outs are color-coded according to the conventions promulgated by the American Public Works Association and Dig Safe System, Inc.,“a free service, funded solely by its utility members to promote public safety and avoid costly underground utility damage,” which state law requires its public utilities such as gas, electric, cable TV, and regulated water companies to join. Dig Safe facilitates communication among the various utilities and construction companies to keep them from stepping on each other’s toes (or underground pipes and cables).

The contractor “premarks” the intended work area with white spray paint using a special spray can that works upside down and has a vertical nozzle and a long handled trigger, which allows the writer to work while standing:

Dig Safe mark-out

figure 2

Here, a construction company whose initials are JFW has announced its plan to dig after notifying Dig Safe. The notification covers fading gas and cable(?) company mark-outs from previous construction at the site. The MBTA has marked its electric line (for the trolley) after Dig Safe has given the go-ahead.

We know that the MBTA marking is for an electric line because it’s in red. Such markings typically contain additional information:

Electric company mark-outs

figure 3

The leftmost panel’s single arrow and letter E (which sometimes looks like a W or an M or an indecipherable squiggle, depending on the writer’s spraypaintsmanship) say that we’re dealing with a single electrical cable. The middle panel may be decoded as a diamond between parallel lines, signifying a multiple duct structure, and the rightmost H figure denotes multiple buried cables. These details are largely handed down via the oral tradition and are not usually documented.

The other standard color codes, besides red for electric, are pink for temporary survey markings; blue for potable water; green for sewers and drains; purple for reclaimed water, slurry and irrigation lines; orange for cable, communication, alarm, and signal lines; and yellow for gas, oil, and steam. In the case of the overloaded orange and yellow, the writer may include disambiguating information. For example, the yellow mark-out in figure 1 tells us that what’s underground is a two-inch (2”) steel (ST) gas line, while the one in figure 4 tells us that the gas company is National Grid and the pipe is cast iron (CI):

Gas company mark-out

figure 4

These same color codes are used in the little flags that go where spray paint cannot (or should not) go to mark underground pipes and cables

Mark-out flags

figure 5

and in the flagging tape and triangles that serve as surveyors’ reference marks:

Survey marker

figure 6

Special thanks to Edward Goldfrank for his substantial contributions to this posting.