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Well OK. Quite clever I guess. You can slip some little books in there horizontally under your bottom too. But don’t put too many books into the chair bit or it’ll be hard to move.

From Thames & Hudson’s blog, Bookshelf, where they have lots of this sort of stuff.

Madeleines are made from eggs, butter, sugar, flour, vanilla and lemon. Here’s a recipe.



Marcel Proust has stuck them into our minds as the prototypical memory stimulator. Here’s how it works, as explained by Gordon M. Shepherd in Chapter 20 of his Neurogastronomy: How the brain creates flavor and why it matters, Columbia University Press 2012. I quote:

Activating Proust’s Brain

We start with the knowledge that the taste of a madeleine must be mostly due to its smell. The stimulus for Proust’s taste experience was therefore the odors emanating from the mixture of pastry crumbs soaked in tilleul, the aromatic lime-scented infusion made from linden blossoms. What, then, might these smells have been?

It is sometimes argued that Proust dithered over exactly what kind of biscuit it was that stimulated his reverie, but it really does not matter. A traditionally made madeleine, in addition to possessing odor molecules that arise from the butter and eggs, would include several types of “aroma essences.” Flavors of foods are enhanced by heating and dissolving in water, which increase the vapor pressure so that volatile molecules are released into the air or within the mouth. Thus, as children learn, a humble pastry gives off its aromas with greater effect when its crumbs are dissolved in hot liquid. The aromas in a madeleine would include vanilla and several types of related odor molecules in the lemon, such as citral and limonene, which belong to the terpenes, a family of essential oils secreted by plants. As described in chapter 4, they are highly volatile, consisting of 5 carbon atom units linked together in various shapes and with various reactive functional groups such as esters, alcohols, and acids. The other source of olfactory stimulation in Proust’s concoction was the tilleul, which contributed its own scent.

How do these molecules give rise to a smell perception? As we have seen, receptor molecules in the fine hairlike cilia lying in the mucus are stimulated by the smell molecules as they are inhaled into the nose (the orthonasal route), and also by the smell molecules released from within the mouth that rise into the nasal cavity from the back of the mouth (the retronasal route). It is by this latter route, after the narrator has taken the brew into his mouth, that the smell molecules are released and carried by the warm and humid air of his nasopharynx to his olfactory sensory cells.

The smell molecules, absorbed into the mucus, act on receptor molecules in the cilia membranes. These in turn initiate the cascade of microkicks from one signaling molecule to the next to change a membrane protein formed around a tiny channel that lets electric charges flow through it. This alters the electrical potential across the cell membrane, leading to the discharge of impulses in the cell that is conveyed through its long fiber (axon) to the first relay station in the brain.

The narrator’s mouthful of crumb-laden tea thus activates a range of receptors tuned to the different volatile components, leading to impulse discharges that carry the information to the brain. But in addition to activating impulses, the signaling cascade in the receptor cells also contains a number of pathways for controlling the sensitivity of the sensory response. Repeated stimulation brings about desensitization of the secondary messenger pathway. In Swann’s Way, Proust appears to be describing precisely this effect: “I drink a second mouthful, in which I find nothing more than in the first, then a third, which gives me rather less than the second. It is time to stop; the potion is losing its magic. It is plain that the truth I am seeking lies not in the cup but in myself. The drink has called it into being, but does not know it, and can only repeat indefinitely, with a progressive diminution of strength, the same message which I cannot interpret, though I hope at least to be able to call it forth again . . . I put down the cup and examine my mind.”

Desensitization of a secondary response is well known in the experimental literature and is often referred to as sensory adaptation. It is a very general phenomenon that occurs any time a given nerve cell or neural pathway is stimulated repeatedly. As discussed in chapter 8, the logic of this is that the nervous system is not constructed to register every sensory stimulus imposing on it, but only those that signal a sudden change from a former state. It is these that carry the most critical information, until a different stimulus occurs.

It seems clear that desensitization of the initial sensory mechanism takes place during Proust’s initial repeated attempts to conjure up the “truth.” However, a close reading of the text indicates that several other neural processes are likely also occurring. A second process is adaptation in the neural pathways that process the odor information to give rise to the odor perception; these would occur in the pathways of the brain flavor system. Adaptation may also occur in the pathways that link an odor perception per se to the systems underlying odor memory. Finally, there are systems related to the narrator’s vision of the “truth” — the systems involved in the storage of the visual memories and their retrieval. The fading of the “truth” may thus be due to multiple mechanisms of adaptation, in addition to the desensitization of the receptors. But to assess this further, we need to ask what is the nature of the odor perception elicited by the potion.

Impulses in the fibers from within the sensory neurons give rise to spatial patterns of activity within the first brain related station, the olfactory bulb. These patterns are the smell images of the information carried in the smell molecules (chapters 4-10), which are projected to the olfactory cortex where they form a content addressable memory of the smell object (chapter 11), and are sent from there to the orbitofrontal cortex (chapter 12) to be combined with other sensory and motor systems to form the perception of smell and flavor (chapters 13-18). 

It is this flavor image that was recognized by Proust’s brain, at first only indistinctly, as being part of a more complex memory that initially seemed beyond recall. The flavor image of the tea-soaked madeleine is thus metonymic for the complex multisensory image of the town of Combray.

Smell, Emotion, and Memory Recall

The direct access of the smell pathway to these forebrain mechanisms is essential for understanding the nature of Proust’s olfactory-evoked experience. We have indicated the cortical mechanisms involved in Proust’s cognitive, perceptual response (chapter 18). This direct olfactory connection to the forebrain provides insight into the heightened degree of the emotional state evoked by the odor stimuli, the strength of the voluntary search for the missing “truth,” and the overwhelming quality of the “involuntary” memory finally brought forth.

The emotions evoked by the madeleine are central to the whole theoretical edifice of the madeleine episode . . . Brain research can best provide insight into the question “Whence did it come?” We have explained how, from the olfactory cortex, the pathway for perception is directed towards the prefrontal neocortex. But the olfactory cortex also gives rise to multiple pathways that connect directly to the so-called limbic regions of the brain that are involved in the mediation of both memories and emotions.

The key structures include the hippocampus, a central organizing node for single-event “episodic” memories, and the amygdala, which, in parallel with the orbitofrontal cortex, is involved in stimulus reinforcement association learning. 

So now you know.


Why does the peer reviewer need a monument? Why in Moscow? Why outside the Higher School of Economics? Why carrying the inscriptions “Accept”, “Minor Changes”, “Major Changes”, “Revise and Resubmit”, “Reject”? The answer apparently — because it was there. (It being the block on the left.)

Nature has an account of the monument’s origin.

The picture shows Ivan Chirikov who came up with the plan and raised $2,500 to realize it. The concrete cube, which was perviously just in the way, has also been carved with the titles of 21 papers. These are papers written by the largest donors, who are thus immortalized in return for their generosity. Now they too* may cry “Si monumentum requiris, circumspice“. Of course, given the monument’s location, maybe this should be said in Russian. Fortunately Pushkin stands ready with his riff on Horace’s take on the topic:

Exegi monumentum

Я памятник себе воздвиг нерукотворный,
К нему не заростет народная тропа,
Вознесся выше он главою непокорной
        Александрийского столпа.
Нет, весь я не умру — душа в заветной лире
Мой прах переживет и тленья убежит —
И славен буду я, доколь в подлунном мире
        Жив будет хоть один пиит.
Слух обо мне пройдет по всей Руси великой,
И назовет меня всяк сущий в ней язык,
И гордый внук славян, и финн, и ныне дикой
        Тунгуз, и друг степей калмык.
И долго буду тем любезен я народу,
Что чувства добрые я лирой пробуждал,
Что в мой жестокой век восславил я Свободу
        И милость к падшим призывал.
Веленью божию, о муза, будь послушна,
Обиды не страшась, не требуя венца,
Хвалу и клевету приемли равнодушно,

        И не оспаривай глупца.

I’ve reared a monument not built by human hands.
The public path to it cannot be overgrown.
With insubmissive head far loftier it stands
               Than Alexander’s columned stone.
No, I shall not all die. My soul in hallowed berth
Of art shall brave decay and from my dust take wing,
And I shall be renowned whilst on this mortal earth
               Even one poet lives to sing.
Tidings of me shall spread through all the realm of Rus
And every tribe in Her shall name me as they speak:
The haughty western Pole, the east’s untamed Tungus,
               North Finns and the south steppe’s Kalmyk.
And long shall I a man dear to the people be
For how my lyre once quickened kindly sentiment,
I in a tyrant age who sang of liberty,
               And mercy toward fallen men.
To God and his commands pay Thou good heed, O Muse.
To praise and slander both be nonchalant and cool.
Demand no laureate’s wreath, think nothing of abuse,
               And never argue with a fool.

Translation by A. Z. Foreman at Poems Found in Translation.

Here’s Nabokov reading the poem in another translation.

Pushkin was of course paying tribute to Horace’s Exegi monumentum, which for good measure here follows with a translation from the site Lost in translation.

Horace, Ode 3.30.

Exegi monumentum aere perennnius
regalique situ pyramidum altius,
quod non imber edax, non Aquilo impotens
possit diruere aut innumerabilis
annorum series et fuga temporum.
Non omnis moriar multaque pars mei
vitabit Libitinam; usque ego postera
crescam laude recens. Dum Capitolium
scandet cum tacita virgine pontifex,
dicar, qua violens obstrepit Aufidus
et qua pauper aquae Daunus agrestium
regnavit populorum, ex humili potens,
princeps Aeolium carmen ad Italos
deduxisse modos. Sume superbiam
quaesitam meritis et mihi Delphica
lauro cinge volens, Melpomene, comam.
I have finished a monument more lasting than bronze
and higher than the royal structure of the pyramids,
which neither the destructive rain, nor wild Aquilo
is able to destroy, nor the countless
series of years and flight of ages.
I will not wholly die and a great part of me
will avoid Libitina; I will continuously arise
fresh with later praise. While a priest will climb
the Capitoline with a silent maiden,
I shall be spoken of where the violent Aufidus roars
and where Daunus, poor in water, ruled
a rural people, powerful from humble origin,
the first to have brought Aeolic song to
Italian meters. Accept the proud honor
obtained by your merits and with the Delphic
laural, Melpomene, gladly encircle my hair.

I guess we’ve strayed quite a long way from a concrete block abandoned in a Moscow park. Enough already.

* This is the inscription on Sir Christopher Wren’s monument in St Paul’s Cathedral.


Photo: Cambridge News

Cutting-edge as ever, the University of Cambridge has just announced the first LEGO Professor of Play in Education. The Cambridge News story was sent to us via Publishing Cambridge.

Professor Ramchandani looks like he’s ready to have fun.

Does this mean we should look for more translations into LEGO?

Well, of course, I’ll defend anyone’s right to form a new word. That’s how language evolves.

Unfortunately, although it looks convincing in this cunningly-made image which appropriately reached me on Twitter, Shakespeare didn’t create the word covfefe (he — or the compositor of the “bad Quarto” — wrote flattery, if you care) and I don’t think our President intended to create a new vocabulary item either, though he seems actually to have managed to do this. I believe that, as a proud non-reader, the President thought this was how you’d spell kerfuffle, a word he’d heard but of course never seen. He probably paused to see if there was anyone around who could confirm the spelling, and hit “Send” by mistake.

Surprisingly NPR used both words in one headline without drawing what to me is the obvious conclusion. The alternative explanation, that he was on his way to type “coverage” and got out of control has a certain plausibility especially as the f and g keys are next to one another.

The truly excitable will be thrilled to know that the word “covfefe” appears on page 392 of the “book” entitled naxjbfyu in the Library of Babel, shelf reference number:

But of course since the Library of Babel, as envisaged by Jorge Louis Borges and realized by Jonathan Basile, exists to contain every conceivable text ever written or ever writable in every possible combination of characters, it would have to be there wouldn’t it? Computers are happy to do this sort of thing as long as you feed them sufficient electrical power and cooling. News of this Library of Babel, clearly an important contribution to human and non-human library resources, was sent by Quartz. It’s easier to access the Library itself by this link reached via Google.

Atlas Obscura reports on a book tower designed by Matej Kren.

The Czechs seem to go in for this sort of thing: here’s their pavilion at Expo 2000 in Hanover, also designed by Kren.

“Gravity mixer”

Meanwhile donations of books are being solicited for the reconstruction of the Parthenon of Books in Kassel to commemorate the burning of some 2,000 books by the Nazis on May 19, 1933. See Universe in Universe for details.

El Partenón de libros was first created in Buenos Aires in 1983, using books which had been banned by the recently collapsed Argentinian military dictatorship.

Open Culture has a story with this Economist video of the artist talking about the structure.

(If you receive this via email and do not see a video here, please click on the heading of the blog post so you can view it in your browser.)

This somewhat ridiculous video is brought to us by The Digital Reader. It originates on The Hydraulic Press Channel at YouTube. Yes there apparently is a following for squeezing things with massive pressures. Strange passtime, but it is impressive how much damage a book exploding under pressure will do.


Here are the engraver’s tools:

  • A: Graver
  • B: Glass (normally either 3x or 10x power
  • C: Etching point

It’s hard to imagine such detailed work being carried out with no more than these simple tools.

History educating Youth






As the caption at The Grolier Club’s exhibition, Images of Value: The Artwork Behind US Security Engraving 1830s – 1980s, tells us “In the US tradition, human flesh work and drapery (clothing) are cut with a graver; everything else is etched — buildings, animals, scenery, trains, everything other than human figures and their clothing.” Just why, we are not told. I wonder if it had anything to do with preventing forgery — the human figure was said to be the hardest to forge.

The exhibition runs till 29 April at The Grolier Club, 47 East 60th Street, New York.

See also Engraving a halftone block, and Die sinker.

I can’t manage to make this larger. Their embed link seems not to mean anything to WordPress. You can read it at its source though: My poetic side.

I hadn’t realized you could repeat as poet laureate: I’d assumed it was a once-in-a-lifetime deal. Notable that almost all the names are familiar to today’s poetry readers.


But Christmas, or should I say the holiday season, is coming.