(Roughly) Daily

“I like coffee because it gives me the illusion that I might be awake”*…

It’s Monday morning, an occasion to contemplate the favored fuel of the workday. Here, a late 18th century treatise..

How did coffee become so popular in the Middle East, turning the Yemeni port city of Mokha into a global marketplace of beans for nearly three centuries? Benjamin Moseley, eighteenth-century physician and early anti-vaxxer, offers an origin story for coffee culture in the expanded fifth edition of his Treatise Concerning the Properties and Effects of Coffee (1792). Noting that the account is a “ludicrous tale”, he nevertheless reproduces it in full. One night a Yemeni goat herder found his flock restless. They would not sleep, but “jumped and frisked about as if they had been infatuated”. The herder summons a religious official from the local mosque, who notices that the goats had foraged on “shrubs and berries [that] had always been considered among the wild and useless productions of the earth”. Intrigued, the holy man goes home and steeps himself a cup, which he “supped off hot”. Soon he too “began to dance and frisk about as the goats had done”. After the jitters wane, the man’s thoughts turn back to God, and he realizes that this concoction would “be an excellent thing to keep the Dervishes awake, when their duty obliged them to pray after dinner”. The experiment was an “utmost success” and soon the drink spread through every nearby nation and “among all the religious of the East.”

Moseley was the eighteenth-century precursor to today’s third-wave connoisseur. He had strong opinions on roasting that might still hold water — “the closer it is confined at the time of roasting, and till used, the better will its volatile pungency, flavour, and virtues, be preserved” — and high standards of taste: following François Bernier, he relates that only two people in 1650s Cairo were capable of making a proper brew. As a practicing physician, Moseley’s interest in coffee was mostly medical and, although these debates still continue, he had little time for the uncaffeinated. In a terribly-aged analogy, he compares coffee alarmists to those who raise “declamations against mercury” and “nonsense against tobacco” — equally bunk. Some of the proclaimed benefits of coffee are familiar. It combats “lethargy, catarrh, and all disorders of the head”. It “accelerates the process of digestion”, affects “the gastric powers”, and “diffuses a genial warmth that cherishes the animal spirits, and takes away the listlessness and languor”. It also helps hangovers: that “disorderly condition brought on by drinking bad fermented liquors, and new rum, to excess”. Other benefits are perhaps less well-known today. If bedridden with “bloody flux” or dysentery, drink four cups of hot coffee and cover yourself with heavy bed clothes — you will soon be cured through perspiration; for messengers commuting long distances, “the alternate effects of opium and coffee” can sooth “their tedious journies”. Aside from a caution to pregnant women and those with serious illnesses, the only negative account of coffee in this hundred-page treatise comes from a person Moseley met in Leyden: he “seldom drank much coffee, or continued the use of it for several days successively, without having a hæmorrhage from the nose.”

When the first edition of Moseley’s treatise appeared in the 1780s, Europe’s urbanites had been hooked on coffee for more than a century. London’s original coffee house opened in 1652; the French, who “knew nothing of it until 1645”, could enjoy a public café in Marseilles come 1671. As Matthew Green details, these were intoxicating spaces where strangers mingled and discussed news, politics, scholarship, and everything in between…

[Indeed, the London Stock Exchange was born in Jonathan’s Coffee House (later, Garraway’s coffee house), as stock trading was not allowed in the Royal Exchange. Until the LSE went fully electronic, the clerks who carried orders and papers to and from brokers were still called “waiters,” the title by which they are still known at Lloyds of London, which had a similar genesis.]

A 1792 appreciation: “A Treatise Concerning the Properties and Effects of Coffee,” from @PublicDomainRev. Read the Treatise at the Internet Archive (@internetarchive).

On a more modern note: “Nope, coffee won’t give you extra energy. It’ll just borrow a bit that you’ll pay for later.”

(Image above: source)

* Lewis Black

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As we contemplate the cuppa, we might spare a thought for Prospero Alpini; he died on this date in 1617. A Venetian physician and botanist, he wrote several botanical treatises, many based on his travels in the Middle East, which covered exotic plants of economic and medicinal value. Because his description of coffee and banana plants are considered the oldest in European literature, he is said to have introduced them to the continent. (He was also the first to artificially fertilize date palms.) 

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 6, 2023 at 1:00 am

“You shouldn’t rely on what you believe to be true. You might be mistaken. Everything can be questioned, everything doubted. The best option, then, is to keep an open mind.”*…

The ancient Sceptics– often called Pyrrhonists after Pyrrho, the ancient Greek master Sceptic who lived in the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE– used doubt as a way of investigating the world. As Mahdi Ranaee explains, later thinkers undermined even that possibility…

Ask any philosopher what scepticism is, and you will receive as many different answers as people you’ve asked. Some of them take it to be showing that we cannot have any knowledge – of, say, the external world – and some of them take it to be even more radical in showing that we cannot have any reasonable beliefs. In the interests of getting a handle on the varieties of scepticism, one can locate four different milestones of sceptical thought in the history of Western philosophy. These four milestones start with the least threatening of them, Pyrrhonian skepticism, and continue by Cartesian and Kantian scepticisms to the Wittgensteinian moment in which even our intention to act is put in question…

Fascinating: “Known unknowables,” in @aeonmag.

* Pyrrho (as paraphrased by Nigel Warburton)

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As we question questioning, we might spare a thought for a not-so-sceptical thinker, Thomas Carlyle; he died on this date in 1881.  A Victorian polymath, he was an accomplished philosopher, satirical writer, essayist, translator, historian, mathematician, and teacher.  While he was an enormously popular lecturer in his time, and his contributions to mathematics earned him eponymous fame (the Carlyle circle), he may be best remembered as a historian (and champion of the “Great Man” theory of history)… and as the coiner of phrases like “the dismal science” (to describe economics).

While not adhering to any formal religion, Carlyle asserted the importance of belief and developed his own philosophy of religion. He preached “Natural Supernaturalism,” the idea that all things are “Clothes” which at once reveal and conceal the divine, that “a mystic bond of brotherhood makes all men one,” and that duty, work and silence are essential. He attacked utilitarianism as mere atheism and egoism; instead taking a medievalist tack, postulating the Great Man theory, a philosophy of history which argues that history is shaped by exceptional individuals. (Indeed his thinking, which extended to a critique of democracy and an argument for “Heroarchy (Government of Heroes),” was appropriated and perverted by Nazi thinkers in Germany.

Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution, a three volume work that assured his fame as a historian, was finished in 1836 but not published until 1837 because John Stuart Mill’s maid mistook the manuscript of Volume One for kindling.  The setback prompted Carlyle to compare himself to a man who has nearly killed himself accomplishing zero.”  But he re-wrote the first volume from scratch.

“A well-written Life is almost as rare as a well-spent one.”   – Thomas Carlyle

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 5, 2023 at 1:00 am

“Don’t be DIABOLICAL! Do not destroy the interest that your friends may have in this movie. Do not tell them what you have seen.”*…

From Dayten Rose, a brief history of the spoiler alert…

Serialized fiction emerged in the middle of the 19th century, in which writers could publish whole novels in weekly installments. Suddenly writers could string their audience along to a thrilling conclusion. They didn’t even need to have answers to the questions they were asking.

Wilkie Collins published his 1859 mystery The Woman in White over ten months in his friend Charles Dickens’ periodical. In a scene familiar to anyone who followed Breaking Bad as it aired, the sensation around Collins’ serial was such that at least one treasury chancellor cleared his social calendar to catch up.

When Collins finished the story and prepared for its release as a finished three-volume set, it occurred to him that anyone could come along and ruin the suspense. Namely, he worried about critics. What if they gave away the ending? What if, in failing to tell the whole story, they made him look bad?

He wrote to reviewers in the preface of the set asking to keep plot details to a minimum. Literary historian James Aaron Green identifies at least one reviewer who listened, writing:

“[we hope] there is no objection to an occasional hint, a dark allusion … to this mystery of mysteries, the [plot of] the Woman in White.”

Or, to detranslate from the magniloquent prolixity of Victorian prose: “Spoiler alert.”…

Preserving suspense: “███████ Alert,” from @DaytenRose in @readtedium, the wonderful newsletter by @ShortFormErnie.

* Promo blurb for the 1955 psychological thriller Les Diabolique

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As we keep a secret, we might send chilling birthday greetings to George Romero; he was born on this date in 1940. A  filmmaker, writer, editor and actor who worked broadly in movies and television, he is best remembered for his Night of the Living Dead series of films about an imagined zombie apocalypse, which began with the 1968 film of the same name. Though he wasn’t the first creator of a Zombie film (see, e.g., I Walked with a Zombie), he is widely considered the “Father of the Zombie Film.”

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 4, 2023 at 1:00 am

“The commonplace is miraculous if rightly seen”*…

… and used. Consider, for example, this affecting example of literary collage from Jez Burrows

The valley was enclosed by rugged peaks, security fencing and annihilative firepower—a state secret. Nothing for miles around. They sat opposite one another they sat in the shade of a tree.

“Repeat the words after me: A fish is an animal.”

“A fish is an animal.”

“A cow is an animal.”

“A cow is an animal.”

“We go to the zoo to see the animals.”

“We go to the zoo to see the animals.” She nodded in affirmation.

“Very good.”

“Very good.” She looked up with an absent smile and burst out laughing. Its mouth snapped into a tight, straight line and there was a fraught silence. Her body tensed up.

“I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to insult you!” She leaned forward to take its hand and a cross-current of electricity seemed to flow between them. She felt guilty now, and a little uneasy. She looked at it warily, this naive, simple creature, with its straightforward and friendly eyes so eager to believe appearances—a shimmering evanescent bubble of cycloid scales and yellow fur agleam in the sun. Circuitry that Karen could not begin to comprehend. Since Parker’s research did not pan out too well, now she was the linchpin of the experiment. Her voice wobbled dangerously, but she brought it under control.

“I’m really sorry if I hurt your feelings.”

To her astonishment, it smiled and emitted a sound like laughter. She felt an inward sense of relief.

“I want an apple.”

“When you ask for something you should say, ‘Please.’”

“Please give me an apple.” It rolled the word around its mouth. She smiled distantly.

“I’ll think about it, amigo.”

Collins COBUILD Primary Learner’s Dictionary
Collins English Dictionary
Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary
My First Dictionary
New Oxford American Dictionary
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language

More very short stories composed of example sentences from dictionaries: “Dictionary Stories” from @jezburrows.

Apposite: Austin Kleon‘s newspaper blackout poetry. For example…

(Image at top: source)

* Charles Simic

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As we juxtapose, we might send carefully constructed birthday greetings to Gertrude Stein; she was born on this date in 1874. An American ex-pat in Paris, Stein was an author, poet, and memoirist (The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas). But she is probably best remembered as the host of a Paris salon where the leading figures of modernism in literature and art– including Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson, and Henri Matisse– regularly met.

Hemingway described her role as both a host and a mentor to a generation of artists in in A Moveable Feast. The Mother of Us All was the title of a Virgil Thomson opera for which Stein wrote the libretto.  While the subject of the opera, Susan B. Anthony, certainly deserves the epithet, so, many have observed, did its author.

Stein in 1935 (photograph by Carl Van Vechten) source

Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 3, 2023 at 1:00 am

“Off to violin-land, where all is sweetness and delicacy and harmony”*…

Elly Fishman, with the story of a master craftsman…

It’s a few minutes past 10 in the morning, and John Becker stands just inside the door to his company’s office in the Fine Arts Building downtown. He wears a black workman’s apron, which he fits to his body by wrapping the ties around his torso twice. With his shoulders slightly hunched, he quietly observes the almost surreal scene unfolding before him.

A few feet away, Joshua Bell and James Ehnes, two of the most prominent solo violinists on the planet, hover over an Arts and Crafts–style wood table. Normally, Bell, a former child prodigy known for his virtuosic, animated playing, and Ehnes, a musician’s musician celebrated for his technical prowess, would be the superstars in the room. Both have won multiple Grammy Awards, and between the two of them, they have performed in nearly every major concert hall and with all the best orchestras in the world. But here, in Becker’s studio inside his office, another icon takes center stage.

“I’m really nervous and excited,” says Bell, his hands stuffed in his pockets. “It’s like meeting my wife again after two months. I’m a little overwhelmed.”

“Oh yeah, I understand the feeling,” Ehnes chimes in, his tone nearly giddy. His eyes are set on an object perched on a gray cloth that covers the tabletop. “I’ve never seen this violin before. It’s incredible. It’s so beautiful.” He pauses as though to take in every contour. The spruce wood — a swirl of orange and red hues — glows under the morning light. “It’s stunning.”

The violin in question belongs to Bell. The 310-year-old instrument, which Bell has said is worth as much as $15 million, is among the roughly 650 made by the renowned 18th-century Italian craftsman Antonio Stradivari that survive today. Bell left it with Becker for repairs, and over the past two months, the master luthier applied protective polish to preserve the original varnish, removed the top to make internal repairs, and handcrafted several cleats to reinforce tiny cracks in the wood. Bell has flown in from New York to retrieve the violin, which has been his concert instrument since 2001, before he departs on a tour of South America and Italy.

Ehnes plans to leave his own Strad with Becker for more minor repairs — a bridge adjustment, a varnish touchup, a new sound post — which will take only a day. The Canadian has made this essential stop before heading to concerts in South Korea and Japan.

Becker turns to Bell and asks if he wants to give the violin a try. It may look beautiful thanks to the fresh polish, but after 213 hours of painstaking work, the true test is how it feels and sounds…

He’s trusted to repair some of the world’s most fabled — and expensive — instruments. How does John Becker manage to unlock the sound of a Stradivarius? “The Violin Doctor,” from @Elly33 in @ChicagoMag.

* Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

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As we treasure timbre and tone, we might send sonorous birthday greetings to Fritz Kreisler; he was born on this date in 1875. A composer and violin virtuoso, he one of the most noted violin masters of his day, and is regarded as one of the greatest violinists of all time, known for his sweet tone and expressive phrasing– instantly recognizable as his.

Kreisler owned several extraordinary violins made by luthiers Antonio StradivariPietro GuarneriGiuseppe Guarneri, and Carlo Bergonzi, most of which eventually came to be known by his name (e.g., “Kriesler’s Stradivarius”). He also owned a Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume violin of 1860, which he often used as his second violin.

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