Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Fervently hoping for Remain

Well, 24 hours from now the count will be on. I've sent in my postal vote to Remain in the EU, having voted against in the 1975 referendum

At that time I viewed the Common Market as it then was as a club for capitalists, and though the argument can still be made, now is neither the time nor the place to rehearse it. I hope that when I come to look over these words in a year’s time,  I shall find my predictions null and void: but if it's a vote for Leave, I fear not just God Save the Queen being sung in the streets - which I shall be mercifully spared - but a resurgence of fascism both in Britain and across Europe.

Staying in the EU was always going to be a hard sell to those of us on the left according to Billy Bragg writing a few days ago on Facebook.

The treatment of Greece and the threat of TTIP suggest that the European Union is little more than a neo-liberal cartel. He quotes Jeremy Corbyn being merely “7.5 out of 10” in favour of remaining within the EU. [1]

A turning point?

And he refers to the Jo Cox murder last Thursday as a turning point.

Is he right to do so? Not widely known before she died, and certainly not to me, this young Labour MP seems to have been murdered in the name of 'Independence for Britain'. She had a passionate belief in the European Union as standing for international cooperation, and had engaged in international humanitarian work in Darfur, Syria and Afghanistan, advocating for the UN-initiated, but dormant, concept of a Responsibility to Protect.

Since her death, says Billy Bragg, none of us on the left can be in any doubt who will be emboldened by a victory for Leave.  Viewed from over here in Ireland, my comment is this was never in doubt, with or without that murder, but no matter. The referendum is a battle for the soul of our country, says Bragg. If we win, we will have to work hard to address the genuine problems that mass immigration causes. We will need to build schools, hospitals and union membership. We will need to give a voice to the forgotten and the marginalised so that they can have some control over their lives and communities. And we will need to reform the EU to make it more about people and less about profits.

Addressing fellow socialists who are tempted to vote Leave, he says that if we do, none of this will be possible. If the libertarians triumph, what's left of our welfare state will be sold to the highest bidder and our workplaces – already the most deregulated in Europe - will be stripped of their meagre protections. The Tory Party will be reborn as shiny suited free market zealots. At the same time the forces of division will be emboldened and anyone doesn't fit in with their warped idea of who does and who doesn't belong will have a life of misery. But if Remain wins, then we will have momentum and the chance to utilise it while the Tories tear themselves apart over Europe.

Everything Bragg says is true, I've no doubt about it. At the end of his article, someone comments that if it was a choice between Weimar and the Third Reich, we would be campaigning for Weimar without hesitation, and I have the feeling there's some parallel to what's happening now.

[1] George Monbiot made a similar argument in the Guardian on 10 February 2016: "I’m starting to hate the EU. But I will vote to stay in."

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

In time of war

The image is a directory of post offices printed by the Reichspostministerium in Berlin in July 1944.  It contains information on how to properly address mail with the correct postal code.  I'm intrigued that at the height of the Second World War they would do such thing.  Only ten months to go before Hitler’s suicide. The book contains a map of all the postal districts in the Grossdeutch Reich, at a time when some of these districts, in the Baltic states, were already in Soviet hands. [1] 

And here's another puzzle.  Postcodes were introduced in Germany on July 25, 1941. This was a world first. Unless you count the London postal districts (NW1 etc) introduced by Rowland Hill in 1856. 

Though on reflection I suppose you could say that the German postcodes contributed indirectly to the war effort by making postal workers more productive, thereby releasing some of them for war work.

Let’s accept that.  But how would you justify choosing 1944 to bring out a new edition of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary?  You could, I suppose, argue that it made civil servants more productive when they were writing memos, though the case is far fetched.  The Shorter Oxford consists of two big tomes, hardly a work to be consulted when you're in a hurry.  So it can only be a matter of pure scholarship, and hats off for that. Were German universities doing the same sort of thing in 1944 I wonder? I've browsed through the German dictionaries at University College Cork and on the web, and the best I could come up with is the Duden spelling and style dictionary published in 1941. It's the official spelling rules in the German Reich and Switzerland, published by the Bibliographisches Institut Leipzig.  

Second World War dictionaries. My Shorter Oxford was not actually printed during the war but the Duden was.

I mention the 1944 edition of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary because it's the one I have on my shelf. It's a 1962 reprint bought second hand in Bristol in 1967.  I took it down recently to see if the word access is listed as a verb, or only as a noun. As I expected it's listed as a noun only. An example from about 1530 is given “At our access to the pope’s presence” (access here meaning entrance).

From this I infer that in 1944 you couldn’t access something, though today you can. 

Nor in 1944 could you highlight the fact that access used only to be a noun, as the word highlight doesn't occur in the main listing, only in the addenda added in 1956.  I have more to say in this subject but first I need to get my ducks in a row.  An expression I've only ever used once before and I vowed never again, but I've broken my vow.

I started with the postal directory issued by the German post office in 1944, and I'll finish with a couple of postage stamps in my collection issued in April 1945, showing that the post office continued doing what it does to the bitter end.  

The stamps shown above were the final issue by the Reichspost, issued on April 21, 1945. They were commemorative stamps, celebrating the assumption of power by the Nazis, the date being the 12th anniversary of that event.  The stamps were placed on sale in Berlin only, for a few days before the fall of the city to the Soviet Army.

The stamp on the left features a Storm Trooper / Military Police Officer (SA).   The stamp on the right features an Elite Storm Trooper (SS).  Here are some other rather fine stamps issued by the Reichspost earlier that year.:

The grey stamp at the left was issued on January 6, 1945 to commemorate the 600th anniversary of municipal l
aw in Oldenburg. Wow! The pink one was issued in February 1945 to commemorate the proclamation of the Volkssturm (People's Militia) in East Prussia to fight the Russians.

But back to those final stamps. They were delivered on April 21 to six Berlin post offices only. Four of the six post offices seem to have been abandoned on or before the day the stamps were issued, the fifth post office closed on April 25, and the last Berlin post office closed on April 28. The city was overrun on May 2.  It seems that none of these post offices were accepting or delivering mail during this period.  Moreover stamp collectors have been unable to find any authenticated franked copies of these final stamps.  Some apparently franked copies do exist, but philatelists believe they were not used for postage, but are manufactured souvenirs, for sale to occupying troops and personnel after the capitulation. [2]

[1] For more on the post office directory with maps, see USM Books
[2] Source for postage stamp information: Stamp Collecting World

Monday, May 16, 2016

Yellow is not yellow

Image from
The word “long” isn't long, but the word “short” is short.  And riddle me this: “multisyllabic” is multisyllabic, and "pentasyllabic" is pentasyllabic, but “unisyllabic” isn't unisyllabic. On the other hand, “word” really is a word, “noun” really is a noun, and “unhyphenated” really is unhyphenated.  This all began with the verb “to verb”.   Some people critique verbing and would like to elbow it out of the language. I'll blog about that another day; for now let me just  highlight that “to verb” is an instance of itself, like “word” and “noun” - and noticing this, I began to wonder what other examples exist, and is there a name for a word describing itself. 

It turns out there is.   Words that describe themselves are called “autological,” sometimes “homological”.  [1]

Autological words I've already used are “multisyllabic”, "pentasyllabic", “unhyphenated”, “word”, “noun”, and “to verb”.  All those words are instances of themselves.  As I suppose is “mellifluous”.

“Yellow” is not yellow

Most words are heterological, that is to say their meanings don’t apply to them.  “Long” is heterological because, as I noted at the top,  it's not a long word.  Likewise, the word “yellow” is not actually yellow, nor is the word “square” a square. [2]

Autological words seem to have a devoted fan base, and you’ll find lots of websites devoted to them.  Indulge me while I mention a few more:   “erudite” is erudite, “obfuscatory” (designedly unintelligible) is obfuscatory,  and “recherché”  (rare, exotic, or obscure) is recherché.  “Terse” is terse, “twee” (impossibly cute) is twee, “prefixed” is prefixed,  “adjectival” is adjectival, "pronounceable" is pronounceable.  All of these I've found elsewhere, but one I've come up with myself is “noun phrase” which (if I remember my school grammar correctly) is a noun phrase.

I won't weary you with any more.  Henry Segerman  collects them. He has a list of clearly autological words, and a separate list of more doubtful cases.  “Meaningful” is a doubtful case. Yes it has meaning, but is that enough?  Surely to be meaningful you need an above average amount of it (which I don't think “meaningful” has).  Judging from the internet evidence, coming up with autological words is meaningful to many people.


I'll end on a couple of curiosities. “Hellenic” is Hellenic, “English” is English, and “Afrikaans” is Afrikaans. But we must beware of being too quick to suggest others in this category.  Is “Hebraic” Hebraic? “Swedish” certainly isn’t Swedish; nor is “German” German or “Dutch” Dutch, see the following table.  Very few  languages call themselves what English calls them.  Afrikaans and Portuguese are rare exceptions.   As are Indian languages - so far as I know, “Hindi”, “Urdu” and “Gujarati” are respectively Hindi, Urdu and Gujarati. 

My last curiosity is this: does "heterological" describe itself?  If so, it’s autological, because that’s what autological words do, they describe themselves.  But wait!  If "heterological" is autological, then it doesn't describe itself.  Which makes it heterological; so it actually does describe itself, meaning it's autological. Welcome to the Grelling-Nelson Paradox.  The link is to a Wikipedia article which I don't entirely follow. For example it casts doubt on whether “autological” is autological, which to my mind is indisputable.

Finally a thank you to Pat O’Conner & Stewart Kellerman of the grammarphobia blog.  It's to them I turned when I first noticed that “to verb” and “word” are instances of themselves, and I wanted to know if there were other examples of this phenomenon, and is there a name for it. They sent a full reply from which most of the foregoing, and the notes below, are culled.


[1] The adjective “autological” originally had to do with self-knowledge when it first entered English in the 18th century. It came from the rare 17th-century noun “autology” (self-knowledge or the study of oneself), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But a new meaning emerged in the early 20th century, the OED says, when “autological” was used to describe a word, especially an adjective, “having or representing the property it denotes.”

The dictionary’s earliest recorded use of the word is from a paper by F. P. Ramsey published in 1926 in Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society: “Let us call adjectives whose meanings are predicates of them, like ‘short,’ autological; others heterological.”

[2] See article by the linguist Arika Okrent : I've used several of her examples.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Born to lie

Can I get away with this?
No one wants to be called a liar. Or worse, to be caught lying. Yet lying is something we all do, often without even realizing it. This paradox of the human condition is explored in an episode of Ideas, a weekly radio programme by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.  

Called Born to lie, and broadcast on January 13th, it looks at our instinct to lie, why we do it, how we teach children to do the same (yes we do though we kid ourselves the opposite is true) and why it can sometimes be a good thing.

The highlight for me was a recording of an experiment with a three year old child. I laughed out loud and had to put down a bag of logs I was carrying. It's a guessing game.  On the table is a toy animal which Cormac (the child) can't see, as he has to face the wall. A researcher (Sarah) tells him to guess what it is from the sound it makes, and as it quacks, Cormac correctly guesses it’s a duck.   Same procedure with a toy dog. Next up is bear. But at this juncture Sarah unexpectedly finds she has to interrupt the game. “Oh! You know what? I forgot something in the other room that I need. I'll put the toy on the table with the sound playing but don’t turn around and peek.  I'll be back in a minute.”  The sound plays: it's a tune having no association whatever with teddy bears.  Door closes. Cormac, satisfied he's alone in the room, peeks at the bear. Sarah the researcher returns with a blanket. She drapes it over the bear and Cormac is now allowed to turn round and guess what the toy is.  “A bear” he says.  “Wow, how clever, you didn't peek did you?” “No”. “How did you know it was a bear” “I just knew”.

Paul Kennedy host of Ideas
on CBC radio
Apparently it's a standard experiment in psychology, used to assess whether a child has reached the developmental milestone of pulling off a lie.  The test is to see if the child will volunteer the fact that he cheated or not.  There's also a white lie experiment. As a reward for taking part on the game, Cormac is given boring bar of plain white soap, and the test is does he pretend to like it.  (The presenter claims he does, though it didn't sound that way to me.)

Kang Lee of University of Toronto says: "If you discover your two-year old is telling a lie, instead of being alarmed, you should celebrate! Your child has arrived at an important stage of his or her life."  At two years of age about a third of children will lie to cover up a transgression. At three, about half. At four, about 80%. After five its almost 100%.

David Livingstone Smith, philosophy professor at the University of New England, says we have a collective investment in dishonesty. “A measure of dishonesty isn't optional. It's necessary. "   A contrary point of view is held by the Radical Honesty movement, founded by Brad Blanton, a psychotherapist.  You should always say just what you think even when this is uncomfortable. "I recommend you hurt peoples'  feelings and offend people. And then stick with them."  Unconvincing.  But a brilliant piece of radio.

I can't recommend Ideas too highly.  Here's the page for past episodes.  And here are a few of my favourites:-

Talking Philosophy: War and Peace. War is bad - but does this mean that peace at any price will do? Philosophers grapple with the nature, rules, and challenges of war and peace. November 2015, in two parts.

The Myth of the Secular is a 7-part series originally broadcast in 2012. The theme is that the old map of the religious and the secular no longer fits the territory, and we hear from theologians, anthropologists, sociologists and political philosophers. Does the mid 20th century orthodoxy of the withering away of religion need to be replaced? What about the Marxist idea that religion is a compensatory activity that the powerless resort to when politics doesn't work?  Is the very concept of “religion” a western category that never fully applied to non-Christian religions?

Global Justice - protecting human rights in a world of conflict. Global Justice is rooted in the aspiration to make the world a better place; but who decides what justice really is? And what happens when “universal” human values collide with interests? December 2015, in two parts.

By the way, there's a problem with the search function on the Ideas webpage. It's problematic using Firefox but it works well with Chrome or Internet Explorer. I imagine this applies to the whole CBC website.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Changing day length in Luleå

Spring soon.  Evenings stretching out apace, wasn’t really dark tonight till seven. Though here in County Cork we're in the wrong time zone. This means that sun-wise, it would be truer to say it got dark about a quarter past six. 

I now want to say something about the stretching of the days in Luleå during my recent stay there. In Cork the shortest day is 7 hours 46 minutes, and the longest 16 hours 43 minutes: hence between midwinter and midsummer the sun has almost 9 hours to chase. In Luleå, it's nearly 20 hours; consequently the stretching of the days is more rapid, and I was hoping to be able to observe this effect over the course of the seven days I was there. But I was disappointed, and if you bear with me I shall explore the reasons for this.

My visit was from 18th to 25th February, during which time the days lengthened by 49 minutes. I know this from tables available at

Over those seven days, sunrise moved 26 minutes earlier, and sunset 24 minutes later. That adds up to a 49 minute increase (due to rounding). This is almost double the difference in Cork, where during the same week sunrise got 14 minutes earlier and sunset 12 minutes later. You can see all this in the table next to the map.

Location map for Luleå, and sunrise/sunset table for Luleå and Cork. Minutes are rounded.

To put it another way, when I arrived in Luleå, the day was 1 hour 20 minutes shorter than in Cork, and when I left, it was 1 hour 6 minutes shorter.  Today it was a mere 24 minutes shorter. Come the 21st March (just to remind you) the days in Cork and Luleå will be the same length, namely 12 hours, indeed the same all over the globe. [1]

I said I was disappointed. I actually noticed no change while in Luleå, no stretching of the mornings or evenings. This was partly because for several days skies were overcast.  But only partly. On reflection I realise that two factors work against each other.  The further from the equator, the shallower the sun’s trajectory in the sky. This makes sunrise and sunset more gradual, extending the period of twilight; and it means that during the northern spring, even though the daily increment in sunlight becomes greater as you travel north, the stretching of the days becomes harder to mark.

I cast my mind back to Trinidad where I spent a year in 1968. In the tropics the sun never rises and sets far from 6 o’clock.  A typical sunset conversation would go: “You noticed the sun’s setting much later now?” ... “Yes, tonight it was 7 minutes past. A few weeks ago it was 4 minutes past.”

Here is a table comparing Luleå, Cork and Trinidad for the week in question. It shows that where the daily increment in daylight is greater, twilight is also longer.  [2]

The paradoxical consequence is that in Trinidad, even a tiny difference in day length can be more noticeable over a short period of time than a very significant increase over the same period in Luleå.

I have a set of three diagrammes which may help to illustrate this. They apply to the winter solstice, 21st December, and show sunrise, sunset and the sun’s altitude at midday, comparing the cases of Luleå (midday sun altitude 1°), Cork (15°) and Trinidad (56°).

Daylength table

I'll now mention an anomaly I can't get to grips with.  This arises from studying the daylength tables in preparation for writing this blog post.

In the spring, as the sun sets further and further north each day, the daily increment in day length ought to peak around the equinox (21st March), and after that gradually lessen. From equinox to midsummer, though the days continue to get longer, the increment from one day to the next becomes less and less marked. When midsummer arrives, the day to day increase is zero; the sun no longer sets further north but stands still and then starts to set further south; so that after 21st June (the solstice) the day length begins to decrease again.

Why is it called the solstice? A digression

Solstice is a bad word. It means sun stands still in Latin - but who knows or cares for Latin? In Swedish it's
solstånd (sun-stand) and in German Sonnenwende (sun-turn). Much better.

Thus in Cork, the daily increment in day length peaks in mid March at 4 minutes 1 second, and begins to decline after the 27th.  During April the daily increment slows, so that at the end of that month the daily increment is down at 3 minutes 35 seconds.  The decline in the daily increment continues during May, down to under 2 minutes. By 12th June it's down to 54 seconds.  All that is good and just as it ought to be.

But the day length table for Luleå tells a strange tale.

Throughout February the daily difference is just over 7 minutes - oddly 4 seconds longer at the beginning of February that at the end.  For most of March - when you would expect the daily day length increment to be at its maximum – it dips just under 7 minutes. Then, throughout April, when the daily increment ought to be slowing,  it again tops 7 minutes.  The daily difference is 7 minutes 22 seconds on 30th April and continues to rise, peaking, extraordinarily, in the second half of May, at 7 minutes 40 seconds.  And it doesn't dip under 7 minutes till 9th June. Weird!  I must find out why this is, something to do with the Earth wobbling on its axis or being a funny shape I suppose.


[1]  In most of the tables I've looked at, it's actually 18th March when the day length hits 12 hours.  The leap day on 29th February distorts the picture of course, but even adjusting for that, you get the 19th March. I don't know why this is.  And what about the two Poles I ask myself?  I haven't found any table for them.  My understanding is that they have only one day and one night, sunrise at the North Pole on 21st March and sunset on 21st September. South Pole vice versa. So is “12 hours all over the globe” correct or not?

[2]  About twilight. I've used civil twilight: the limit of which is defined by the sun's centre being 6° below the horizon. Solar illumination is insufficient, even under clear weather conditions, for terrestrial objects to be clearly distinguished, and artificial light is needed to carry on most outdoor activities. There are actually three definitions of twilight, the other two being nautical twilight and astronomical twilight, but civil twilight is most relevant for my purposes today.

Friday, March 4, 2016

A winter diary from Luleå

I pose in the town centre beside two ice sculptures. And cars heedless of an icy road.
A few notes I made whilst in Luleå for a week with two of my mother’s sisters, Kerstin and Barbro. Normally I come in summer, this was my first winter visit for many years.

Thursday 18 Feb

Clear sky but not very cold, only -3°. A couple of weeks ago was -20°. Snow heaped by the roadside.  As there's been a recent fall, it's all white. In late winter the roadside snowheaps tend to get very grubby, I remember this from being here in 1967, age 18. The roadway, I was surprised to see, consisted largely of compacted snow. On the way from the airport my cousin made some tight turns at a fair old speed, which on our tyres in Ireland would have been catastrophic, but here their winter tyres can cope with ease. Inspected them later, small studs which looked insignificant to me but they certainly do the job.

Walked into town with Barbro. Today's temperature -4.9°.  My boots are good and comfy, and the ice grips work well.  To the Culture House to use the wifi.    Couldn’t get it to work, thought it was stupidity on my part, but it turns out the system had been changed the previous night. The three staff went into a huddle to figure it out for me. 

Anxious about walking home in the dark in a dark coat, but Barbro says it doesn't matter, you show up against the snow. She remarked that the other day when it had been somewhat colder, she feared a packet of spinach leaves in her rucksack would freeze and be spoilt before she got home.

Luleå's Culture House. And a Semla bun.
A digression about Semla buns

A semla is a wheat flour bun, flavoured with cardamom and filled with almond paste and whipped cream, a bit rich for my taste.  They start eating them the first Sunday in Lent. A heathen tradition if ever I saw one, as Lent (fastan in Swedish) is meant to be a time of fasting and self denial. 

These buns are blamed for a royal demise. King Adolf Frederick of Sweden died of digestion problems on February 12, 1771 after consuming a meal consisting of lobster, caviar, sauerkraut, smoked herring and champagne, topped off by fourteen helpings of semla.

The tradition is rooted in fettisdag (Shrove Tuesday, or Fat Tuesday) when, like pancakes in England, the buns were eaten at a last celebratory feast before the Christian fasting period of Lent. At first, a semla was simply a bun eaten soaked in hot milk (known as hetvägg, ughh!).

At some point Swedes grew tired of the strict observance of Lent, added cream and almond paste and started eating semla every Tuesday between Shrove Tuesday and Easter.  The foregoing is partly what I was told and partly what I looked up, with some unresolved inconsistencies between the two.

Friday 19 Feb

Kerstin told me a sad tale that occurred in the 1930’s. It concerned a family who lived in a distant part of Sweden, he being a train conductor and she a school teacher. For several summers they looked after Kerstin and her brother Gösta, an arrangement which started so far as I can tell when Kerstin was 4 and Gösta 8.

They had several children who had died as babies, but did have one surviving daughter, much older than Gösta & Kerstin, who became pregnant out of wedlock, and on account of social ostracism, she and her boyfriend killed themselves in a wilderness area. Kerstin, age 4 at the time, witnessed the mother’s grief when she was told of this. At the time Kerstin was bemused, it was only later in life that she realised what all this was about. There are several details of this story I didn't follow. One such detail is how they died: poisoning themselves with sulphur from matches and starvation were both mentioned. Barbro knows the story in outline only, can't add anything.

Kerstin indignant about the cruelty of neighbours whose job it is to help not to condemn. An immoral morality she says. But the neighbours are afraid too of course, that's how they get you.  I can't help remarking that it's a pity the same spirit of rebellion that leads to cream buns in Lent wasn't exercised in this case as well. There is of course a larger question of whether the church leads or follows popular morality.

Drinking Earl Grey tea. It's actually rather good as long as you leave the tea bag in a nice long time.

A Systembolag (pic from the internet). And the Luleå-Kiruna railway.
Sat 20 Feb

This afternoon walked to town on my own. My errand was to the Systembolag for wine and brännvin (snaps). -4.9° again and the wind in my face, which Barbro was concerned about when I came back, but was in fact no problem to me. Whilst my boots grip perfectly on the ice, I'm not so at ease in town where the main pavements are completely clear, or in shops, and I actually prefer walking in the roadway where there's snow and ice for the studs to grip on. The tie-on ice grips which I brought with me are called brådar, and Barbro approves them, says they are just the thing.

Cycling past a snow heap in the town centre, note the heated pavement in foreground. And a postman on a moped.
Found out how the pavements in the main shopping street are so clear of snow. They are heated. Is this ecological I wonder? Still surprised that in general the Swedes are content for both roadways and footpaths to remain covered in snow and ice. People cycle and we saw a postman on a moped.

The Systembolag displays a sign saying they will not serve anyone under 20, nor anyone who appears under the influence, nor anyone who is suspected of making purchases for another person who is in either of the foregoing categories. "This is important to us, our prime motive is not profit but restricting alcohol problems."  I should explain that the Systembolag is a state-run chain of off-licenses and is the only place you can buy alcohol stronger than medium-strength beer.  I had to buy a white wine suitable for salmon with a lemon sauce. Barbro told me to ask the staff for advice, which I did, she says they go on courses for this sort of thing, and like to be asked to demonstrate their skill.

This puts me in mind of a story that I think my cousin Tolle told me. In the 1930’s the Systemet had an even more severe protocol. Alcohol was rationed and everyone had a ration book called a motbok. Tolle's father Calle and Albert (my granddad) were brothers-in-law and both engine drivers on the Kiruna-Luleå route. Calle asked Albert to get him some bottles during his break in Luleå, and lent Albert his ration book. There was nothing inherently wrong with this proceeding, the only problem being that Albert noticed Calle’s motbok was invalid as he had forgotten to sign it. Albert was in Luleå and Calle 200 miles away in Kiruna, so there was nothing for it but to forge Calle's signature. Here the problem began, for when he presented the motbok, the cashier went to fetch the manager, and Albert had to go into the office to answer the question "whose signature is this?".  It turns out that Calle had remembered his oversight and had rung ahead to the Luleå Systembolag in order to explain!  Quick thinking was called for. "That damned idiot!" expostulated Albert, "He can't remember from one minute to the next what he's been doing, of course this is his signature!"

Tonight Barbro and I stayed up late writing our dairies. Interruptions from time to time, the latest about religion.  I told her how when I was in Trinidad in 1968 I made it my mission to investigate which of the three religions there, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, was true, and at the year's end I concluded none was.

Barbro has given me tomorrow's weather forecast. There will be a blizzard and the wind will be 15 m/sec. Not enough to be called a storm but still strong. Surprisingly, they have no dedicated word for blizzard, they just use snöstorm. But it's interesting that wind speed is sufficiently important to be measured in meters per second, and also that they concern themselves with tenths of a degree. Kerstin's thermometer has measured -4.9° for a couple of days now. I thought it was broken, but apparently it's not unusual for the temperature to remain constant over a 24-hour period, day and night.

Here English is extremely clumpy. Where I have to say "over a 24-hour period, day and night " in Swedish I would simply say "för ett dygn", or if emphasis was needed "för ett helt dygn".

Sunday 21 Feb

Last night there was neither blizzard nor snowstorm but there is about an inch of fresh snow, kramsnö Barbro called it, and demonstrated that you can squeeze it into a snowball. This means you must go carefully, as it sticks to the ice grips under your boots making them ineffective. We saw some boys having a snowball fight. Here it's called a snowball war, snöbollskrig.

A Spanish Ido-comrade called Pilar sent Kerstin a nice grey blouse for her birthday. Kerstin thanked Pilar, writing in Ido of course. Ido is a harmless eccentricity that Albert was keen on, and has infected several members of the Åkerlund family.

Cycles outside Kerstin's flat. And walking on the frozen harbour.
Three cycles left out all winter in a rack outside Kerstin's window have given rise to comments on how some people are so careless of their possessions. Covered in snow almost to the tops of the wheels. Took photos of them on my first and last day to be used as a snowfall meter.

Monday 22 Feb

Tonight Barbro and I discussed the refugee problem. In Barbro's view this consists in the fact that Swedish people ought to be more welcoming. There have been instances of refugee centres being attacked and attempts to burn them down. There is one in Sundsvall near her, a disused school. They are given Swedish ready meals.  What sort of idea do these refugees get of Swedish food, she asked, when they have to make do with ready meals here, whilst having such fantastic food in their homelands. She told how the refugees delivered leaflets in the locality inviting the Swedes to the centre for a meal, and a marvellous meal it was too, the only downside was all the Swedes were sitting together, there wasn't enough mixing.

There's a magazine here with a piece on an initiative called the Invitation Department.  It's about inviting a refugee into your home for dinner. Members of Barbro's family participate in the scheme. Subsequently found a New York Times article on this.

Tuesday 23 Feb

At breakfast Kerstin looked up bible quotations. The question of a serving woman's son came up and this led us to the Epistle to the Galatians amongst other places. English bible, Swedish bible and bible dictionary all on the breakfast table.

Brilliant sun on the snow this morning and I walked into town, leaving Kerstin & Barbro to follow in the special taxi. We are to meet Tolle and have lunch at the Culture House. The restaurant gives a marvellous view over the frozen harbour, a distant prospect of people walking and skiing on it, and a tractor ploughing the path and ejecting snow through a chute. Like a combine harvester ejecting grain. Apparently there's an 8-km walk to an island with a restaurant on it. I don't mean the island is 8 km out to sea, it's just that you have to walk around a headland to get to it. A superb lunch praised by all, with huge thanks expressed to Eileen, and regrets that she wasn't there. 

The Culture House is an excellent institution: library, art gallery, theatre, restaurant, café, tourist information, and spacious open areas, in two of which lunchtime piano recitals were in progress.

Later asked Tolle about längre än mig as opposed to längre än jag, exactly equivalent to "taller than me" or "taller than I". At first he gave a convoluted grammatical justification for the "taller than I" option (just like Kerstin & Barbro). But when I told him I wanted to speak Swedish like a person and not like a schoolmistress, he admitted that many people said längre än mig, and so does he from time to time, and there is nothing wrong with it. Later when I brought the subject up, Kerstin & Barbro admitted that it is in common use, including amongst educated people, which they decry.

Tolle talked of his UN tour in Cyprus where he had the temporary rank of Second Lieutenant in charge of a platoon. Repeated the story of how in 1940 his father had thrown all the German cigarettes, about four or five packets, in the stove, when Tolle, age about 11, had done errands for German soldiers travelling on Swedish trains. "Never again bring any more German stuff into this house."  On the Norwegian-Swedish border in the vicinity of the railway line linking Kiruna to Narvik, there was a forbidden zone 400 metres wide with Swedish and German soldiers stationed opposite each other, and Tolle went skiing there with some friends. The Swedish soldiers waved and Tolle and his companions waved back. When the soldiers shot in the air, the skiers grasped the situation, and later had a big telling off from the police. Gave me the recipe for gravad lax, though this may not be popular at home. Discussed the two Swedish words for large rivers: flod and älv. The word flod is only used for a large river outside Scandinavia, and the word älv is only used for a large river within Scandinavia. Looked in several dictionaries. One suggested that flod is for tidal rivers. This sounds implausible to me, and in any event Norwegian rivers are tidal, which seems to kibosh it.

Learnt a brilliant saying but it doesn't work in English. The translation would be "Everyone else is busy thinking about themselves, I'm the only one thinking about me." The Swedish has a zing to it that I can't reproduce: Alla tänkar på sig, det är bara jag som tänkar på mig.

By the harbour: a remarkably silly dog, and a snow castle.
Wednesday 24 Feb

My last day in Luleå. Down to the quay in brilliant sunshine. A snow castle with kids playing. A dog owner throwing snowballs for the dog to chase after searching for snowballs in the snow, what a silly dog. Many people coming and going on the ice, some skiing, some skating, most walking, so decided to join them. Surprised how many people bare-headed even though between -7° and -5.5°.

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).