Sinners in hell, stuck in a frozen river

Traffic in the lowest circle of Dante’s Inferno is at a standstill. The river Cocytus has turned to ice and holds the worst of sinners, the betrayers, in an array of tumbled postures, like debris picked up in a now-frozen flood. These souls (or “shades”) snarl and bite at one another, held forever in frustration and rage. The ice is like molten glass that has cooled and turned solid.

…l’ombre tutte eran coperte,
e trasparien come festuca in vetro.

…the shades were completely covered, visible
Through the ice like bits of straw trapped in glass. (34.11-12)

In Dante’s time, wet straw served as a layer of insulation for glass coming out of the furnace. Waste glass marred by flecks of straw was an everyday sight in the artisan’s workshop. The door of the furnace, stoked to temperatures well above the point where flames can even exist, must have been the scariest sight in town.

Translation by Mary Jo Bang (Bomb magazine, 112, Spring 2012), http://bombmagazine.org/article/6445/dante-s-inferno-canto-xxxiv

Photo: Il Libraio https://www.illibraio.it/socci-inferno-dante-610147/

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C’mon, it’s like a zipper!

– I-80 motorist to merging traffic

On a crowded freeway, when two lanes of traffic must narrow down to one, the cars may come together like the teeth of a zipper – two sides taking turns to open and fill spaces efficiently. The “teeth” are not like chomping teeth but like the teeth in the gears of a well-designed machine, such as a pocket watch.

But sometimes the traffic gets jammed, as zippers sometimes jam. Jamming occurs in traffic when some of the drivers see themselves as racehorses rather than gears, jockeying for position in a crowded field where one will come out ahead and the others…well, they’re losers. Clearly, putting racehorses together with gear teeth results in a mishmash, something like a log-jam, in which the benefits of competition and cooperation are both lost. It is bad to mix metaphors.

The word log-jam entered American speech by 1885 (or 1851), and registered in the national imagination as an image of colossal system breakdown by 1907, when the Springfield Weekly Republican reported that a legislative log-jam had at last been cleared in Congress. Traffic jam became a word around 1917. The zipper came to market in 1925 as a closure for boots, a quick and easy alternative to too many buttons.

Photo: Karl Stull

The system is totally rigged and broken.

– Donald Trump, October 22, 2016

The rigging of a sailing ship is fairly basic engineering, but it can get complicated. To hold a mast upright requires a system of adjustable ropes that pull with balanced force in different directions. Added masts and taller masts require more elaborate rigging, with rope tensions “in tune” throughout the system. In the early 1500s, a “weale and pompously rigged” ship was an admirable sight.

A hundred years later, landlubbers were using “rig” metaphorically. Just as a sloop or yawl was recognizable by its arrangement of sails, so a man’s “rig” referred to his character. A related expression, “I like the cut of your jib,” persisted into the 20th century.

By the early 1800s, “rigged” also described clever schemes to lure stock investors – with “made markets, rigged shares, paid puffs in the newspapers, and all the other scandals.” In this image, an insubstantial investment is made to stand up, as it were, by an array of clever supports.

The stock-market sense of rigging is an insult to seamanlike ingenuity. On the other hand, it is understandable that all expert systems look alike to an outsider – difficult, arbitrary, favoring those who know how to pull the strings. When candidate Trump said the US electoral system was rigged, he meant it was engineered to favor political insiders.

Then he won the election. We are forced to conclude: if the system was rigged, it must also have been broken, because the rigging didn’t work. Never before in history has a president been so right about so many things he knew so little about.

Note: Quotations are from “rig” entries in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Photo: USS Constitution in Boston harbor, by Seaman Matthew R. Fairchild; Wikipedia

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