A Little Learning Is An Expensive Thing

April 12, 2008

The origin and dispersal of language(s) is one of the most fascinating of those cultural beginnings that fascinate me.  It was no surprise, therefore, for me to thoroughly enjoy “The Land East of The Asterisk“, Wendy Doniger’s long review of M.L. West’s “Indoeuropean Poetry and Myth” which she calls “surely the definitive book on Indo-European language and religion.”

I was so intrigued that I actually went to Amazon to see how much I could get the book for.  $116!!  We have a great library system in Vancouver, but it is hard to expect them to keep every possible niche interest book.  So, absent access to a university library somehow, most of us are priced out of this knowledge.  We have to make do with mere glances, through reviews and citations.  Annoying at times.

Lists of Words

March 11, 2008

I have always loved writing, words, languages. It is one of the great joys of my life that the final chapter of my working life is as a professional writer. I remember with the clarity of the senile the day in 1960 I first discovered Roget’s Thesaurus. It was a moment of sheer ecstasy for a 10-year old boy with undiagnosed OCD and an over-developed love for words. Pages of words. Lists of words. Lists of words in clever categories. Words referring back to other words. I spent several months reading it from front to back. To hell with God, this was heaven.

This nostalgic torrent was unleashed through the agency of Jonathan Yardley’s review of Joshua Kendall’s biography of Peter Mark Roget. From the review I was fascinated to learn that the Thesaurus for Roget was a form of therapy for depression.

“As a boy, he stumbled upon a remarkable discovery — that compiling lists of words could provide solace, no matter what misfortunes might befall him. He was particularly fond of cataloguing the objects, both animate and inanimate, in his environment. As an adult, he kept returning to the classification of words and concepts. Immersion in the nuances of language could invariably both energize him and keep his persistent anxiety at bay.”

I’m sure I know exactly how he felt.


February 22, 2008

Kisses are such glorious business that it seems a shame, perhaps, to allow scientists to get their grubby hands into the entrails of such a wonderful experience. 

“Kissing,” said evolutionary psychologist Gordon G. Gallup of the University at Albany, State University of New York, last September in an interview with the BBC, “involves a very complicated exchange of information—olfactory information, tactile information and postural types of adjustments that may tap into underlying evolved and unconscious mechanisms that enable people to make determinations … about the degree to which they are genetically incompatible.”

… In the 1960s British zoologist and author Desmond Morris first proposed that kissing might have evolved from the practice in which primate mothers chewed food for their young and then fed them mouth-to-mouth, lips puckered. Chimpanzees feed in this manner, so our hominid ancestors probably did, too. Pressing outturned lips against lips may have then later developed as a way to comfort hungry children when food was scarce and, in time, to express love and affection in general.

So says (and so much more) a fascinating piece in Scientific American

Me?  I just like the taste and the texture and the smell and the cuddling that goes along with the kissing.  It would be a far less wonderful space my lover and I inhabit if we didn’t kiss so much.  That much I do know.

Whales, It Seems, Don’t Sleep Much

February 15, 2008

What is it that we don’t already know about whales? They have been the planet’s favourite cause for many years now. Well, it seems that they don’t need very much sleep; and the sleep they do get may only be in half their brain at any one time.

Sperm whales literally drift to sleep, but it’s a snooze like no other, according to a recent study that found whales perform slow, rhythmic dives as they slumber. Because these drift dives keep the whales in constant motion as they rest, scientists now think the seafaring mammals sleep with one side of their brain at a time. The two sides alternate until both are rested …

whale sleeping

The scientists observed two types of drift dives. The first, head-up drift dives, happen when a whale’s rear end slowly sinks into the water from a horizontal posture. During the second type, head-down, the whale descends slowly with its head directed toward the ocean floor. It travels downward about one or two body lengths in depth before flipping back upward toward the water’s surface. The researchers think the whale’s internal buoyancy causes this natural upward motion, similar to how a sinking apple eventually bobs back to the surface …

“Their bodies have found a way to cope, offering evidence that sleep isn’t necessary for development, and raising the question of whether humans and other mammals have untapped physiological potential for coping without sleep,” said Jerome Siegel, director of the Center for Sleep Research at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Interesting research, with more detail at Discovery News.


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