All posts made in May. 2006:

I'm off to reboot8 in a moment. I'm speaking about Making Senses on Thursday morning; the programme overall looks tremendous. Now, I haven't been replying to email for, oh, a month or more but I'm at least ten times less impolite in person. So if you see me at the venue, or in the lobby of the transforming Autobot city that is Cab Inn (I'm staying at City), where I'll be doing last-minute prep on my slides, do come and say hullo.

Masochuticon #14, this Wednesday just gone, is mine: K. leans across the vastness of the table to slide the top POP back towards her, and I accidentally peek down her top. 'Um,' I say. You can read it now: Ghost dancing.

Borges' essay The Analytical Language of John Wilkins is the source of that mythical animal categorisation from an unknown (or fictional) Chinese encyclopaedia, the one that includes a division of those animals (n) that from a long way off look like flies.

But the essay is primarily about John Wilkins' invented language (Wilkins is an interesting character himself--in the 1600s he wrote a book about visiting the Moon, and proposed trade with any lunar beings that lived there). As Borges describes it: He divided the universe in forty categories or classes, these being further subdivided into differences, which was then subdivided into species. He assigned to each class a monosyllable of two letters; to each difference, a consonant; to each species, a vowel. For example: de, which means an element; deb, the first of the elements, fire; deba, a part of the element fire, a flame.

To my mind, this is the best bit of the essay. What are the other 39 classes? How did Wilkins decide? Unfortunately the Chinese encyclopaedia acts as an attention swerve and so the analytical language doesn't appear to have been written up online. As Tom S and I were discussing, this is much like those streets in cities that people never notice because there's something shiny just to the right. They're in plain sight but hidden by the psychogeography, and you need constrained walks and algorithms to discover them.

I went to the library and got a facsimile copy of the original 1668 edition of "Notes from An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language" by John Wilkins. The list of 40 classes is first given on page 23, as an outline, and each is written in uppercase:

All kinds of things and notions, to which names are to be assigned, may be distributed into such as are either more

  • General; namely those Universal notions, whether belonging more properly to
    • Things; called TRANSCENDENTAL
      • GENERAL. I
    • Words; DISCOURSE. IV
  • Special; denoting either
    • CREATOR. V
    • Creatures; namely such things as were either created or concreated by God, not excluding several of those notions, which are framed by the minds of men, considered either
      • Collectively; WORLD. VI
      • Distributively; according to several kinds of Beings. whether such as do belong to
        • Substance;
          • Inanimate; ELEMENT. VII
          • Animate; considered according to their several
            • Species; whether
              • Vegetative
                • Imperfect; as Minerals,
                  • STONE. VIII
                  • METAL. IX
                • Perfect; as Plant,
                  • HERB consid. accord. to the
                    • LEAF. X
                    • FLOWER. XI.
                    • SEED-VESSEL. XII
                  • SHRUB. XIII
                  • TREE. XIV
              • Sensitive;
                • EXANGUIOUS. XV
                • Sanguineous;
                  • FISH. XVI
                  • BIRD. XVII
                  • BEAST. XVIII
            • Parts;
              • PECULIAR. XIX
              • GENERAL. XX
        • Accident;
          • Quantity;
            • MAGNITUDE. XXI
            • SPACE. XXII
            • MEASURE. XXIII
          • Quality; whether
            • NATURAL POWER. XXIV
            • HABIT. XXV
            • MANNERS. XXVI
            • SICKNESS. XXVIII
          • Action
            • SPIRITUAL. XXIX
            • CORPOREAL. XXX
            • MOTION. XXXI
            • OPERATION. XXXII
          • Relation; whether more
            • Private
              • OECONOMICAL. XXXIII
              • POSSESSIONS. XXXIV
              • PROVISIONS. XXXV
            • Publick
              • JUDICIAL. XXXVII
              • MILITARY. XXXVIII
              • NAVAL. XXXIX
              • ECCLESIASTICAL. XL.

So there you go. The complete table of contents, as well as the mapping of these 40 genuses to syllables, can be found in my notes.

I'm making another trip to the library in a couple of days, as there's more I have on order. But I should be able to read one or two short sections from Wilkins' book, if anybody would like me to. Have a look at the Contents, drop me a mail if anything particularly catches your eye, and I'll make notes if time allows.

Mission: Impossible III was silly but enjoyable. At the centre of the plot is an item called the "rabbit's foot", and early in the movie we get this tremendous non-explanation of what it is, made only more excellent in its delivery by Simon Pegg:

Uh, it's all got to do with the 'rabbit's foot'.

(Cruise: The rabbit's foot?) Pegg: Well, I'm assuming it's a code word for something he's about to sell to an unspecified buyer--for 850 million dollars, by the way. Or maybe it's not it's not a code word. Maybe it's just a really, really expensive bunny appendage.

(Cruise: you have any idea what it is?) Pegg: It's interesting. I used to have this professor at Oxford, okay. Dr Wickham. He always seemed like... he was this massive fat guy, big huge guy, we always used to call him [laughs] you know, well, I won't tell you what we called him. He taught biomolecular kinetics and cellular dynamics, and he used to sort of scare the underclassman with this story about how the world would eventually be eviscerated by technology. You see, it was inevitable that a compound would be created that he referred to as the 'anti-god'. It was like an accelerated mutator, you know, a sort of, uh, an unstoppable force of destructive power. It would lay waste to everything, to buildings and parks and streets and children and ice-cream parlours, you know? So whenever I see a sort of rogue organisation, willing to spend this amount of money on a mystery tech, I always assume it's the anti-god. End of the world kind of stuff, you know. But no, I don't have any idea what it is. I was just speculating.


The printer cannot make his own press or his own paper. The making of printing presses and paper making are necessarily separate trades. But the hand press printer should make his own ink, as the painter should make his own paints. Ink is not a raw material. Oils and pigments are the raw material of ink; patience in grinding is the only virtue required in the craftsman. Of patience there is this to be said. To be patient is to suffer. By their fruits men know one another, but by their sufferings they know what they are. And suffering is not merely the endurance of physical or mental anguish, but of joy also. A rabbit caught in a trap may supposed to suffer physical anguish: but it suffers nothing else. The man crucified may be supposed to suffer physical & mental anguish, but he suffers also intense happiness and joy. The industrialist workman is often simply as a rabbit in a trap; the artist is often as a man nailed to a cross. In patience souls are possessed. No lower view of the matter will suffice. -- Eric Gill, An Essay on Typography (1931), p84.

This fierce commentary on production-line-style creation, the nature of craft and typography is as true as it has ever been. To give a better taste of the style, the paragraph above continues, But the question of colour must be considered. Even black can be made in a variety of tints ...

A deictic expression depends on the context of use, like saying "left" rather than "north" (that's a more-or-less thing). This is the most powerful word we have--it lets us express without naming, so long as we have a similar conception of what kind of things can be pointed at. (For example, we can discuss unseen landmarks because humans have a common understanding of what sort of features can be considered landmarks. This is informed by a landmark-recogniser in the brain and the world itself.) It's relative linking. But as it good as it is, we need absolute addresses too (see yesterday for an address typology). It's better still if we can switch between them:

Deictic signs are often useful--"you are here," "next bus in 10 minutes," "campground 200 yards ahead on the right"--but so too are less indexical representations ("4421 Hingston Avenue; 5.13 A.M. Wednesday, November 29, 1950"). That way lies external (derivative) representation, documents, and writing. Skill in using and creating signs involves appropriate combination. In particular, the problem with deictic signs in that the original difficult recurs: as soon as you drive off and become separated from the sign, it can no longer be immediate [...] As a result, complex cascades of registration, more and less deictic, are often useful, and sometimes essential. Thus you remember where the map is; the map "remembers" the directions to the lake. Or, more fully: you remember where the map is; the map "remembers" the directions to the road that runs by the lake; once there, effectively accessible (encounterable) road signs indicate the turnoff for the campground; at the campground addition (deictic) signs indicate exactly where to pitch your tent. And so on and so forth. -- Brian Cantwell Smith, On the Origin of Objects, p236.