Saturday, February 6, 2016

Money is like muck, not good unless it be spread

This aphorism is attributed to King James I of England / VI of Scotland.  The attribution may be false but it's contained in a collection described as a “Royal Chain of Golden Sentences” published in 1650 (25 years after James’s death). This was during the English civil war, which may be significant.

Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626)
The true originator may be the English philosopher and scientist Francis Bacon who in 1625 wrote a piece discussing statecraft titled “Of Seditions and Troubles”.

Above all things, good Policie is to be used, that the Treasure and Moneyes, in a State, be not gathered into few Hands. For otherwise, a State may have a great Stock, and yet starve. And Money is like Muck, not good except it be spread. This is done, chiefly, by suppressing, or at the least, keeping a strait Hand, upon the Devouring Trades of Usurie, Ingrossing, great Pasturages, and the like.

In the same year Bacon attributed a similar saying to a Mr. Bettenham, including the pleasing image of money stinking when kept in a heap instead of being spread. [1]

Mr. Bettenham vsed to say; That Riches were like Mucke: When it lay, vpon an heape, it gaue but a stench, and ill odour; but when it was spread vpon the ground, then it was cause of much fruit.

All this you can find in the Quote Investigator.

It started with someone writing in to ask for the origin of a saying of the British entrepreneur Richard Branson who used the image of money stinking when it's in a pile on his website: “If you let money pile up, it starts to stink. But if you spread it around then it can do a lot of good.”  

Francis Bacon by the bye was the first to make the cogent observation that the modern world was distinguished from the ancient one by the three key inventions of gunpowder, printing, and the magnetic compass. All of which, unbeknownst to him, came from China, a fact unearthed by Joseph Needham in the 20th century, see my essay The day I met a famous man.

My closing thought is to wonder if the Levellers used Bacon's saying that money stinks in a pile in their pamphlets, and if the attribution to James I (by a royalist, clearly) was intended to draw the sting out of it. Pure speculation on my part, I've googled in vain to find any connection. 

A pamphlet by Gerard Winstanley printed in 1649

[1] “Apophthegmes New and Old” (1625) (apophthegme being French for aphorism).

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Hey! You with the stained sink!

This one’s about TV adverts and grammar.

There's plenty to irritate in TV adverts and I'll mention one irritation in particular, presumptuous injunctions such as “Organize that messy closet” or “Get rid of those unsightly stains in your sink.”  Where the copy writer pretends to be on such familiar terms with you that they have peered into your home.  Why they do it, and why it irritates, is easy enough to see; but exactly how do they do it?

A tidy closet, or should I say wardrobe

It's the word “that” and its plural, “those”, the grammatical name for which is demonstrative adjectives.  In the foregoing slogans “that” and “those” modify a noun, in effect pointing at it; thereby indicating, from amongst all the possible closets and sinks, which one (or ones) the speaker is referring to - yours.

A stained sink - or it was when the photo was taken, but please be assured, not now!

Putting advertising aside for a minute, let me take this sentence spoken by a normal person: “Sam misses that dog.”

Or this:  “These sneakers belong to Janet.”

The demonstrative adjectives demonstrate which dog Sam misses, which sneakers belong to Janet.  “That” and “these” refer to nouns that actually exist—dog, sneakers.  The speaker and the audience both take for granted that the dog and sneakers indicated are known and exist.

Now back to the advertising slogans, with an anonymous voice telling you to “organize that messy closet” or “get rid of those unsightly stains”. The voice isn’t pointing to an actual condition in your house - but instead is presupposing its existence and treating it as a fact.  It seems linguists have a name for this, and  the slogans are examples of “presupposition.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language says, “The information contained in a presupposition is backgrounded, taken for granted, presented as something that is not currently at issue.”  In the cases in point,  the presupposed information is that you have a messy closet and a sink with unsightly stains.

In a study entitled “Presupposition, Persuasion and Mag Food Advertising” (2012), Tamara Bouso uses the example “Do you expect to fit into that beach bikini in the New Year?”  This sales pitch presupposes not only that the consumer has such a bikini but that she’s probably too fat to wear it.

In this way, demonstrative adjectives are employed to create a false sense of familiarity, of intimacy with the consumer. It's a forced intimacy that can strike listeners as intrusive or annoying, but whether it's more intrusive and annoying to those with tidy closets and spotless sinks, or messy closets and stained sinks, is hard to say.

Two names have been proposed by linguists for demonstrative adjectives used in this presumptuous way: “affective demonstratives” and  “emotive demonstratives.”  “Emotive” because such terms convey a sense that both speaker and listener share some relevant knowledge or emotion about the referent of the demonstrative—that is, the closet or sink it points to.  And “affective” to imply an emotional element—in this case familiarity and a shared experience of a closet or a sink.

How do I know all this?  Well yesterday I didn't, but today I've read my daily email from the Grammarphobia Blog and it's all there, with links and references. I've used the word closet because they do, it's an American blog.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Younger or youngest? Can Jane Austen err?

By indirections we find directions out.  I'll start with an alleged mistake in the second sentence of Jane Austen’s Emma.  Here we read that Emma “was the youngest of the two daughters of a most affectionate, indulgent father”, and it's the word “youngest” that gave rise to a difference of opinion. To set the scene, it was last November, and we were at lunch before a lecture in Dublin hosted by the Jane Austen society to mark the novel’s bi-centenary.  Professor Darryl Jones of Trinity College thought that Emma is a landmark in the history of the English novel, being the first designed to be read more than once.  It only makes sense on the second or third time of reading, he said, as all the questions Emma gets spectacularly wrong, we do too, the first time.  The most complex of Jane Austen’s novels and one of most complex novels in English.

Chapter 10 of Persuasion in the Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts Digital Edition  curated by Prof Kathryn Sutherland

But back to lunch, and Emma being the youngest of two daughters. Someone asserted that Austen was in error here, as you can be the younger of two but not the youngest of two.  And indeed I've subsequently seen numerous posts on websites supporting this ruling.

The first thing to say about this point of view is that it assumes the existence of a Big Book Of English Grammar where such rules are written down.  As I've lived 66 years without encountering such a book, I think I can plausibly suggest there isn't one.

I did however in the heat of debate make an ill-considered statement, which was that Jane Austen can't be wrong, and if she wrote the youngest of two then youngest of two is okay. Reflecting on this later I decided I ought to investigate whether Jane Austen actually took care of such matters; whether "youngest" is what she actually wrote; would she leave a decision about younger/youngest to the printer, and how carefully did she proof-read?  I was travelling down a blind alley of course, because these questions matter not one jot.  What's important is that the text of Emma is what it is, however many hands are responsible; not whether Jane Austen herself was interested in grammar.

William Gifford

Actually my blind alley was not entirely blind, for it led to me some new nuggets of knowledge. One of these is that Jane Austen did have an editor, William Gifford, who took great pains with grammar and punctuation.  Indeed in 2010 a brouhaha erupted over a claim that his influence on the final text was such that Jane Austen’s style can't really be said to be her own.  All this was attributed to Oxford Professor Kathryn Sutherland who had assembled Jane Austen’s extant manuscripts, though in fact the professor’s remarks seem to have been distorted. Be that as it may, we can be sure that the said Gifford wouldn't allow anything untoward to slip past him, and in the novel’s second sentence of all places.  

Prof Kathryn Sutherland and Jane Austen. The Kathryn Sutherland image is (so far as I know) a good likeness, whereas the Jane Austen one is not

The Kathryn Sutherland controversy makes some fascinating reading, or fascinating to me at any rate, and I have a fellow Jane Austen society member to thank for drawing it to my attention. You could start with this blog by linguist professor Geoffrey K. Pullum. Writing in October 2010 when the spat over Austen's alleged failings in style and grammar was still fresh,  he says he has seen no examples to back these claims up.

Dubious basis

Another nugget that came my way following my “Jane Austen can't be wrong” outburst: it seems that from about 1750 to about 1850 creating new rules of English grammar became a favourite passtime, and a prohibition on the “youngest of two” was being suggested around the time that Jane Austen was writing.  There's plenty on this in the excellent grammarphobia blog which I've newly discovered.   Here they reproduce the conclusion of Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage on the matter:-

    “The rule requiring the comparative has a dubious basis in theory and no basis in practice, and it serves no useful communicative purpose. Because it does have a fair number of devoted adherents, however, you may well want to follow it in your most dignified or elevated writing.”

The blog authors Pat O’Conner & Stewart Kellerman were kind enough to email me with some additional comments on Jane Austen’s use of “youngest”, and they say that whilst there are differences of opinion here,  it’s probable that Jane Austen  was unaware of any “rule” banning a superlative with only two members; indeed many popular grammar prohibitions emerged only in the latter half of the 18th century and the early part of the 19th, so it’s not fair to call an author “incorrect” for ignoring a convention that was not yet firmly established in common usage at the time she was writing.

As I've already indicated, I'm reluctant to use the word “incorrect” at all, moreover I can adduce plenty of evidence against there being, even today, any firmly established convention that you can't be the youngest of two.

Finally, I nearly wrote "the authoritative" Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, but then I would stand accused of inconsistency, as I've already suggested that no-one is entitled to lay down rules. And that’s true, but Merriam-Webster is authoritative in this sense, that they have exhaustively investigated English usage, and if you want to know what’s been written and by whom, Merriam-Webster is a good place to look. Maybe all of this leaves you thinking that some of the things that interest me are very dull indeed, in which case I salute you for getting this far.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Jane Austen and a shop in Devon

This happened when I was about 10, which would make the year 1959. We were driving home through Devon after visiting my English grandmother in a nursing home in Teignmouth (my father’s mother that is, an explanation I wouldn't need to give were I writing in Swedish).  Passing through a town my mother caught sight of a shop sign and called out to my father to stop and go back because the name on the shopfront was Household. I glimpsed it fleetingly, it looked a substantial affair. No, it was just a household stores said my father. My mother insisted she was sure Household was the proprietor’s actual name, and with so rare a surname it must be some sort of relation, we ought to call and say hello. But my father drove stolidly on refusing to turn back and investigate. Later my mother explained to me the reason for this strange behaviour: my father would be ashamed to be related to anyone engaged in trade.  But it looked like a big shop I protested. No matter, this was the way he had been brought up; my granny, my mother told me, was a snob. We had a small car and a small rented flat in Brighton, and what made me ashamed was that the stuffing was coming out of the arms of the sofa.

Title page of Emma, published
200 years ago this month
(though it says 1816, hmm)
The memory came to me because I'm working on the question of Jane Austen and snobbery. I've promised to lead off a discussion on this topic in a small book group we have in Cork - the Cork Friends of Jane Austen that’s what we call ourselves.  Several prominent snobs feature in Jane Austen’s works. Emma, Darcy, Sir Walter Elliott are names that spring to mind, and the snobbery theme is a staple of Jane Austen criticism. For example in a famous 1957 essay the critic Lionel Trilling wrote of Emma: “Her self-love leads her to be a self-deceiver. She can be unkind. She is a dreadful snob.”  One occasion of her snobbery - and this takes us back to the shop in Devon - is when a family by the name of Cole give a large evening party, an enterprise Emma treats with disdain.  "Nothing should tempt her to go”; the Coles were "of low origin, in trade, and only moderately genteel  …  they ought to be taught that it was not for them to arrange the terms on which the superior families would visit them".  

I must make it clear my mother didn't blame my father for his attitudes, she accepted it was part of his upbringing and couldn’t be changed. And I suppose I must extend the same charity to my grandmother, who grew up part of the landed gentry; my mother grew up in the north of Sweden, the daughter of an engine driver.  I also need to add something about the state of the sofa.  This was due to my parents spending far more than they could afford on my expensive schooling. For better or worse that’s made me what I am, so it's not my place to complain about the stuffing.  

I'll finish on a puzzle. It occurs to me to ask whether and how Jane Austen and her contemporaries talked about snobbery, since according to my understanding, the word was not yet in use.   Did they have another word for it? I don't think they did. I can't help wondering if there's something anachronistic going on when we talk of Jane Austen and snobbery.  It's something I should like to explore, if only I knew where to begin.  I hope to have an answer by the first Tuesday of February.

Note : The Trilling essay is “Emma and the legend of Jane Austen” in Beyond Culture, 1965. The Emma quotation is from ch 25.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The glory is departed

Boarzell School in Sussex where Mr Dumbreck taught me English in 1961

I had a terrific English teacher when I was 12 called Mr Dumbreck and were he here today he would strike a big red pencil through that word “terrific”, on the grounds of being a cliché, and furthermore terrific means inducing terror. Another rule for our English compositions was that no sentence was to begin either with the word “it” or the word “suddenly”.

I want to tell you about my swotty boy moment. One day the word “hectic” cropped up and Mr Dumbreck asked us for examples of how it might be used. Up I piped with “yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red”, a line from Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”, which we had recently been reading in class. Mr Dumbreck heaped praise on me for quoting both correctly and appositely, and even after all these years the memory calls up a glow of satisfaction. Lindsay by the bye tells me that at her school quoting Shelley wasn't considered comme il faut, and would quite likely have earnt me a whack on the back of the head with a pencil box.

Mr Dumbreck and the Fifth Form room. The events related here took place in the Sixth Form room next door, but no photo is available.  
All photos courtesy of Michael Salmony

Whenever I think of Mr Dumbreck the phrase “Ichabod, the glory is departed” comes to mind. It's an essay he read to us about a hat box festooned with luggage labels. You have to be as old as I am to remember what this meant. The hat box is sent away for a lock repair and when it comes back it's been steam cleaned, and the lovingly preserved collection of labels has vanished. I've gone looking for this essay, which turns out to be by Max Beerbohm, and after fifty-four years I've just read it again. I see the title is simply “Ichabod”, the phrase “the glory is departed” occuring only at the very end. I imagine Mr Dumbreck read us this verse from the Old Testament: “And she named the child Ichabod, saying, The glory is departed from Israel: because the ark of God was taken, and because of her father in law and her husband.” He was a brilliant teacher. He taught us art too. We weren't allowed erasers, and had to ask to borrow his bungy. This was occasionally permitted but normally he would claim to have lost it.

It's hard to say why I've started reminiscing about Mr Dumbreck. My age you will say. But I think I can trace it back four years when I read PD James's Death Comes to Pemberley and was startled to come across this sentence: “Suddenly Mrs Reynolds was with them.” Proof that PD James had not attended Mr Dumbreck’s lessons, and considering that she was writing a Jane Austen sequel, very bad; for Austen, though she used the word “suddenly” about 50 times in her novels, never once began a sentence with it. I know this because I have a computer. Mr Dumbreck knew it in his bones.

Finally, in a couple of hours we in Cork Astronomy Club will celebrate the centennial of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which prompts me to ponder the relativity of time. From leaving Boarzell in 1961, to 1972 the year my mother died and I moved to York, was 11 years, and appears to me like half a lifetime. From leaving York to now is nearly 11 years, and it seems like yesterday.

Note : For a read-out of every sentence in which Jane Austen used the word “suddenly”, all you need is this website and about eight seconds of your time. The Biblical quotation is 1 Samuel 4:21 in King James version.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Flags, Paris, ISIS - a few thoughts

This post is far from a considered essay I'm afraid, more a stream of consciousness. I'll start with French and Irish tricoleurs on a rain soaked street in Cork this afternoon.  And an image going the rounds on Facebook of the Malian flag, where French flags have sprung up adorning many users’ pages. These flags have been called forth by an ISIS atrocity in Paris ten days ago, on 13th November, which has dominated the international news. Unlike a similar one in Mali on the 21st, which gave rise to no flags on Facebook.  Bombings in Beirut on 12 November, likewise attracted little coverage.

The Guardian’s readers editor, reflecting today on his own paper’s recent opinion pages, made an arresting point about when is the right time to express certain views: “The idea that these horrific attacks have causes and that one of those causes may be the west’s policies is something that in the immediate aftermath might inspire anger. Three days later, it’s a point of view that should be heard.” 

He also responded to a complaint that when the Paris story first broke on Friday 13th, the Guardian website didn't immediately open it for comments. This was because there were very few moderators available and, regrettably, a considerable number of people wanted to leave Islamophobic comments, alongside the many others who wanted to engage in legitimate debate.

If it's Islamophobia you want, look no further than today’s Sun, a tabloid with the highest circulation in the UK. 

Demolished in The Guardian
by Miqdaad Versi for being  irresponsible, dangerous and grossly misleading. As many commentators have pointed out, the Sun story is precisely what ISIS in their black and white world want.

An interview on RTÉ radio made a big impression on me, if I have time later I'll find the link. A French senator, from the socialist party I infer, defended  the French response to the Paris attack, namely to step up bombing of ISIS positions. She also welcomed a UN security council resolution backing “all necessary measures” to prevent and suppress ISIS terrorist acts on territory under its control.

So far, all according to script. Until at the very end, when the radio presenter asked her about the upcoming French elections, and would the Front National be making gains? Then we got her authentic voice: “I'm scared, I'm really scared” she said, of the right wing backlash that might arise from these attacks.

I see that I confidently asserted just now that I know what ISIS wants, and it occurs to me that I actually know no such thing. I've read  “7 things I learned reading every issue of ISIS's magazine” by one Robert Evans on a website called Cracked. Now I know nothing of Evans nor his website, but find I'm reduced to trawling around the internet for any scraps of insight I can gather, and this just may be worth a read. ISIS it seems has a glossy magazine that Evans has studied at length.  Amongst other things,  the primary target of their hatred is not the United States,  France or Russia; the one "enemy" they devote more time to ranting against than anyone else is the "apostate Muslims", who form the vast majority of their victims. I suppose we knew that already, but in the last week it's all been hidden by events in Paris.

Most propaganda makes enemies appear ugly and brutal, whilst portraying one's own side as shining and blameless, says Evans. But the Islamic State does not do this. And “their fawning ads about various jihadis don't show only happy pictures ... they almost always include a picture of the man's corpse.”

President Holland reacted immediately to the Paris outrages by announcing a new bombing campaign.  Isn't this just revenge, and demeaning to France? Treading in the footsteps of George W Bush and Tony Blair and their war on terror.  You can't make war on an idea, only on a state. ISIS likes to call itself a state and now they’ve all declared war on it, so it is one.  The war ISIS wants, according to Scott Atran on the New York Review of Books website.

Atran's article also touches on a question that bothers me and probably you, the horrific, seemingly senseless, violence that ISIS followers engage in.  But to them it's a deeply purposeful part of an exalted campaign of purification through sacrificial killing and self-immolation.  This finding is based, he says, on interviews with youth in Western cities as well as with captured ISIS fighters in the Middle East.

Or is this all wrong, and are they deranged and pathetic?

When it became known ten days ago that the Islamic State militant known as "Jihadi John" had been killed by a US drone, the mother of American journalist James Foley, who was beheaded last year in Syria, said she felt no solace in the killing.  "It saddens me that here in America we're celebrating the killing of this deranged, pathetic young man," Diane Foley says in an ABC video. "Jim would have been devastated with the whole thing. He was a peacemaker. He wanted to know how we could figure out why all this was happening."

Just disjointed thoughts really, and not up to my usual standard, but I hope you find some of the links useful. I'll finish with one more, from the Guardian website again, yesterday. Why do Islamist groups in particular seem so much more sadistic, even evil, asks Kenan Malik. Amongst his answers he suggest that over the past few decades anti-imperialist traditions based on Marxism and other leftwing perspectives have unravelled, leaving political rage against the West nothing but nihilistic, barbaric forms.

As a postscript here are two more links that have been
recommended to me by Dave and Stevey

(1) This article, and its part 2, covers the history of ISIS.  Huffington Post: “You can't understand ISIS if you don't know the history of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia”

The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths, but a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, amongst them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse.

Friday, November 6, 2015

A Dyson sphere, my eye!

The central dot in this image represents a star surrounded by a Dyson ring of solar power collectors, 100 million miles out from a star. Many rings would make a Dyson sphere. Loopy!!
Image via Wikipedia.
When it comes to extraterrestrial life and space colonisation by humans my intuitive response is, this is fantasy stuff, and not worth a second glance.

I'm thinking in particular of the notion that star KIC 8462852 may sport a Dyson sphere. And what, pray, is one of those?  Oh yes, it's a hypothesized artificial structure surrounding a star. A structure the size, say, of Earth’s orbit around the sun, consisting of a shell of solar collectors. The idea being that with this model, all (or at least a significant amount) of a star’s energy would hit a receiving surface where it can be used. The physicist Freeman Dyson speculated that such structures would be necessary for the long-term survival of a technological civilization due to its escalating energy needs.

But madness or not serious scientists looking at the data from the recently discovered KIC 8462852 think it's behaving so strangely, that this Dyson sphere conjecture is worth exploring.  Jason Wright, an astronomer from Penn State University, is quoted in The Guardian  “Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build.”

Even as “the very last hypothesis” this is surely loopy!  … and yet ... as a mere bystander,
who am I to say, no this cannot be?

When I need an image for a space colony I invariably seem to revert to this representation from the Mars One website

Space colonies aren't quite so far out and yet I struggle to take them seriously too. Dr Cameron Smith is someone who’s caught my eye. An archaeologist at Portland State University, he has arresting views on how space-born descendants of explorers would evolve culturally and genetically.  His theme is the biological and cultural dimensions of human space colonisation. 

This will be a process of adaptive evolution, and he thinks evolutionary studies can help plan for its success. He proposes to found a new science that he calls exo-anthropology. He envisages different models of space colonization:-

•    Terrestrially-tethered colonies
•    Independent colonies on other solar system bodies
•    Independent colonies aboard 'closed-system' spacecraft

I recommend listening to an hour-long audio file of a teleconference held last year with scientists from NASA and the University of Texas.  There are slides to accompany his talk, and you can find them on this page. (Look for a pptx file.)

Space colonisation will be a natural continuation of 4 million years of adaptation, he believes.  Against our nature?  No … ever since the human dispersal out of Africa, we’ve always found new places to live. Why would that stop with the atmosphere, he asks?  Plenty of technical reasons maybe, but no reason against space colonisation either philosophically, or evolutionarily. Humans have always perceived new environments and then gone on to colonise them.

All except Antarctica that is. There are some scientific stations,  but where are the colonies, where are the children, huh?  There's the flaw is his scheme surely.  Mars is many times less hospitable than Antarctica.

He says we require a science of extraterrestrial adaptation. It will be an evolutionary transition on a par with our ancestors coming down from the trees.  Humanity has long considered colonising space, and at present we're at the exploration stage, thinking of individuals and how they could survive on Mars. But  as an anthropologist he thinks of groups. Biocultural evolution, co-evolution of genes and culture, that’s what anthropologists study.  Up to now the anthropologists have looked at the present and the past. Cameron Smith wants them to turn their attention to the future.

Dr Cameron Smith, exo-anthropologist
He cites the example of high-altitude societies in the Andes and Tibet. Here genetic mutations allow more efficient blood oxygenation. There's cultural adaptation too, for example in the Andes mothers move down to lower altitude before giving birth. Maybe on Mars there will be a need to give birth in 1g gravity, so, by analogy with practice in the Andes, mothers perhaps will ascend to an orbital station with artificial gravity.

We can expect both beneficial and deleterious mutations to arise off-Earth he says.  Evolution will be driven by selection pressures arising from the different  gas composition, lower atmospheric pressure, and lesser gravity.  All these factors will differ from the Earth conditions that have shaped human embryo development for millions of years.  On Mars we'll see the return of natural selection, big time.   There will be an increase in infant mortality, he sees no way round this.

The Q&A session following his talk is worth listening to as well. A Mars colony would be physically fragile at first, and highly susceptible to sabotage by any of its members who went awry.  A whole new approach to mental illness will be called for.

If a one-hour audio file is too much to digest, Dr Smith also gave a 10-minute talk for SETI Big Picture Science, called “And to space we return”.