Wednesday, December 25, 2013
Which world changing person’s birth have you been celebrating today? On Christmas Day 1642 Isaac Newton was born. His work laid much of the foundation for our modern understanding of the universe by uncovering the force that keeps it together, and showing it’s the same as what makes an apple fall. He formulated what are known as Newton’s three Laws of Motion. He may have been the greatest scientist ever.
To divert you from the day’s excesses may I tempt you to Deborah Byrd’s Earth Sky blog where you'll find links to the laws of motion as well as Newton’s revelations about gravity.
But the most extraordinary revelation about Newton is this: that according to some, science wasn’t the biggest thing in his life. What was even more important to him was biblical textual criticism, in which he excelled, and his unitarian belief (no trinity) which he had to keep to himself, for fear of being expelled from Cambridge University. A couple of years ago I attend a fascinating lecture on this.
Thursday, December 5, 2013
Something I missed recently, but I'll include it here in case you missed it too: coinciding with the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address on 19th November, a retraction of an 1863 newspaper editorial dismissing the speech as “silly remarks”.
“We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall be no more repeated or thought of.” With these stinging words did the Patriot & Union of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania achieve infamy in the annals of journalism, by panning the presidential speech that lives as one of the most treasured orations in the English language.
Three weeks ago, the successor paper Patriot-News revisited this unkind judgement, suggesting that their predecessors were perhaps under the influence of partisanship, or of strong drink - whilst wittily observing that “the world will little note nor long remember” the paper's apology.
This is all good fun, but ahistorical, of which more below.
|Lincoln at Gettysburg (unknown date)|
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate - we can not consecrate - we can not hallow - this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us - that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion - that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain - that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom - and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Now to the question of how the Patriot & Union came to overlook history being made that day. It's worth reading “Living on the wrong side of history? The Harrisburg Patriot & Union's notorious 'review' of the Gettysburg Address” from Patriot-News website.
This deals with the issue historically, and discounts the playful suggestion that their 1863 predecessors were under the influence of strong drink. In the first place, the newspaper's own reporter described the President's speech in Gettysburg like this: "The President then arose and delivered the dedicatory address, which was brief and calculated to arouse deep feeling." But the crux is that the Patriot & Union supported the Democratic party, and was hostile to Lincoln, his conduct of the war, and his war aims. Moreover, the paper’s editors had been in put in jail for sedition a year before. So there was stuff going on.
As a final thought, I've often wondered if Lincoln really believed that the world would little note, nor long remember, what he said that day. He well knew he had crafted a masterpiece … surely he entertained the hope that the world would recognise this?
 This is the text most often reproduced. There are others, see Abraham Lincoln Online.
|Pristine log tables. Well-thumbed would be better.|
Suppose you need to multiply 263.4 by 351.2 you would nowadays use a calculator, but when I was at school in the 1960’s we used logarithms. Logs to their friends. In a book of log tables we would look up the log of 263.4 and the log of 361.2, add the two logs together, then look up the result in an antilog table, and bobs your uncle. Not as quick as a calculator but easier than multiplying. We each carried around a well-thumbed book of log tables, yet one thing we all failed to notice was that the pages for numbers beginning with 1 were more well-thumbed than pages for numbers beginning with 9. Or if we noticed we never asked ourselves why. But a character called Newcomb did, in 1881. For he it was that discovered Benford’s law and in the process proved Stigler’s law (Stigler’s law being that in science, laws are always named after the second person to discover them; and in this case the second person to discover the law was Benford.)
Benford's law states that in most lists of data, the first digits of the numbers follow a pattern of probability, where 1 is the commonest first digit, and 9 the least common. Take for example a list giving the heights of the tallest buildings. Almost one third of the buildings in the list will have a height whose leading digit is 1. Next most frequent in the leading position is the digit 2. And so on, till you come to 9 which is likely to be found as the leading digit in only 4.6 per cent of buildings.
Or rivers. Look at Wikipedia’s list of world rivers longer than 1000 km. You'll find a table giving length in km, length in miles, drainage area in km², and average discharge in m³/s. At my rough count, it contains five hundred numbers, of which only 18 start with a 9.
Benford's law also applies to financial data, a fact unknown to most fraudsters, who tend to suppose that the best way to insert phoney entries into a list of expenses or transactions, is to make up numbers at random, with as many starting with 9 as starting with 1. But Benford’s law soon finds them out. And the spooky thing is, it matters not whether the transactions are in pounds, euros or dollars.
|Exoplanet with two suns and an exomoon. But is it real?|
I've read the Wikipedia article on Benford’s law which purports to explain why this should be so, and I can't follow it as it involves high level maths. But no matter, all this is by way of working out how many exoplanets have been discovered.
I recently mentioned that the Kepler mission found over two thousand planets orbiting other stars. Now it's important to note that these haven't actually been seen in the usual sense of the word. They have been seen in strings of data, indicating very slight periodic dimmings in the brightness of a star. From this data scientists have inferred size of a planet, distance from the star, and other factors.
But inferences can be wrong. In some cases the data could perhaps result from another phenomenon entirely, and have nothing to do with a planet at all.
And according to this week’s New Scientist, that’s where Benford’s law comes in.
Thomas Hair at Florida Gulf Coast University wondered if Benford's law would hold true even beyond the solar system, and examined data from an online catalogue that lists 755 confirmed exoplanets and nearly 3500 planet candidates. Planet masses are given in multiples of Earth's or Jupiter's mass. He found that whichever of these two units is used, the figures closely fit Benford's law, making it highly likely the supposed planets really are out there. "The close fit with Benford's law gives a confirmation to experts' belief that most of the candidates are valid," he says.
I wish I still had my log tables so I could check that well-thumbed business for myself. I looked in vain on the web for an image of a used copy to put at the top of this post. For fun, I've spent the last half hour reminding myself how to use logs. If you too last used them in the 1960’s take a look.
Sunday, November 24, 2013
|Horse's rear hoof. |
It evolved from the middle toe.
Which brings me to folk tales about wolves.
“The Wolf and the Kids" is a tale popular throughout Europe and the Middle East. A nanny goat warns her kids not to open the door while she is out in the fields, but is overheard by a wolf. When she leaves, the wolf impersonates her and tricks the kids into letting it in, whereupon it devours them. Versions of this tale occur in collections of Aesop's fables, in which a goat kid avoids being eaten by heeding the mother's instruction not to open the door, or seeks further proof of the wolf's identity before turning him away.
The tale may be new to you, but you doubtless know by heart the tale of Little Red Riding Hood. She sets out for her grandmother’s house with a basket of goodies, but a big bad wolf finds out about her itinerary, gobbles up grandma and disguises itself to lure the little girl to her doom. "What big teeth you have!" Little Red Riding Hood remarks before the wolf devours her.
| Little Red Riding Hood at the |
door to Grandma's house.
Late 19th century trade card.
His article appeared in the open access journal PLOS ONE. If you can follow it all, you're a better man than I am, but luckily there’s a press release, and a very readable account from NBC News.
The best-known version of Little Red Riding Hood was published by the Brothers Grimm 200 years ago, based on a 17th-century story by the Frenchman Charles Perrault who distilled it from oral retellings in France, Austria and northern Italy. You'll find both on the University of Pittsburgh site along with six other related stories, which folklorists group together and classify as tales of type 333 in the Aarne-Thompson-Uther system.
Dr Tehrani traces the ancestry and development of Little Red Riding Hood by observing features such as: is the victim single or a group of siblings, goat or human, eaten in their own home or a relative’s. I found out a bit about classifying folktales when I researched the story of King Midas and his asses ears, a couple of years ago.
That's all I want to say about wolves, but I should have told you more about the lecture on convergent evolution. One of the first I ever attended in Cork, in December 2005, it was by the Cambridge Professor Simon Conway Morris and his talk explored the heretical suggestion that evolution has a destination, or even a destiny. He had recently published his book Life’s Solution – Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe, and argued that in the light of what we know about convergent evolution we should expect intelligent extraterrestrial life, if we ever come across it, to be strikingly similar to ourselves.
Monday, November 18, 2013
In my bones I feel that searching for extra-terrestrial intelligence is slightly loopy. Yet many leading scientists, especially at the SETI Institute, engage in the search and sustain their hopes that a sign of intelligent life will one day manifest itself. Radio signals are the usual target, but the lights of alien cities have also been canvassed.
The foregoing is only a digression, since I really wanted to talk about the prospects of finding any sort of life in the universe. An editorial in last week’s New Scientist suggested that if life is common in the universe, we will have found signs of it by the middle of the next decade, “a truly jaw-dropping discovery”.
This prediction of finding signs of life within 12 years or so is based on the NASA Kepler spacecraft’s hunt for habitable exoplanets. These are defined as rocky planets, roughly Earth-sized, orbiting other stars in the habitable zone where water is likely to be liquid. For three years (finishing last May when the camera malfunctioned) Kepler surveyed a tiny patch of the Milky Way. Even though using an inefficient detection method, it found over two thousand planets, a handful of which seem Earth-like.
Optimists, extrapolating these results to the whole sky, say it looks certain that our galaxy is home to billions of Earthlike planets. There are pessimists though. One posted a comment to the New Scientist website claiming Kepler has not found a single earth size planet in the habitable zone.
|Paul Davies: life on earth |
may have been a fluke
A few comments about New Scientist’s expectation of a truly jaw-dropping discovery. First, notice their caveat “if life is common in the universe”. Many argue that life is probably very rare in the universe. If so, most (perhaps all) of those billions of Earthlike planets could be completely sterile.
Paul Davies (a guru of mine) is fond of saying that fifty years ago scientists used to say life was very unlikely; and now the fashion is to say it's very likely … yet nothing has changed: we're just as ignorant now about what causes life to arise as ever we were. Here's a review of his 2010 book The Eerie Silence.
Next, if scientists succeed in analyzing a planet’s atmosphere and conclude “wow, life!” they won't, from that data alone, be able to tell intelligent life from microbes. But no matter, to me that would be jaw dropping enough. Of course you can be sure that the SETI radio antennae will immediately be trained on any such planet. That may be loopy but it has to be done.
Saturday, November 2, 2013
From a photographic exhibition depicting Nazi terror during my Berlin visit a couple of weeks ago . There were atrocity photos too, but the image that spooked me most was this ... …
The caption was : SS female auxiliaries (“SS Maids”) and SS men from Auschwitz concentration camp at the SS retreat Sola-Hütte 30 kilometers south of the camp in an idyllic mountain landscape, undated (probably July 22, 1944). At center is Karl Höcker, adjutant to camp commandant Richard Baer.
I look at the date, July 1944, and I ask myself: didn't these people see that in less than a year the war would be lost and they would be called to account? Well they weren't of course so maybe that’s not such a good question, but what would they say in later years when their children saw this photo? “I was just doing my job, it seemed important at the time”, I suppose. The banality of evil .
The American museum director who now curates this and similar photographs says they “vividly illustrate the contented world they enjoyed while overseeing a world of unimaginable suffering. They offer an important perspective on the psychology of those perpetrating genocide."
I see from Der Spiegel's website that the SS female auxiliaries photo came from an album belonging to Karl Höcker, who took the pictures as personal keepsakes. Prior to its liberation by the Allies, Höcker fled Auschwitz, and after the war worked for years in a bank, unrecognized. In 1963 he went to trial, claimed he “had no possibility in any way to influence the events”, was sentenced to seven years in prison, and was released after serving five. He died at the age of 88 in 2000.
The next photo is a bit fuzzy I'm afraid. It's just a snap I took as I went round the exhibition, and I haven't been able to find a better copy on the web.
The caption here is : SA men publicly humiliate Hermann Weidemann, a local council member from the SPD who had been taken into “protective custody”. Hofgeismar, May 2, 1933. Sitting on an ox with a cardboard sign hung round his neck, Weidemann was led through Hofgeismar by the SA in a pillory procession. The victim, a Social Democrat councillor in the town, was followed by a crowd of curious spectators.
I think that in mentioning the curious spectators the caption has it about right. There seems to be a party atmosphere. What would the two girls in the foreground tell their children 20 years later if this photo came to light? “I didn't understand politics, I was too young” … “My parents told me the Social Democrats were destroying Germany and had lost us the war in 1918, something had to be done” … “It seemed like a carnival, I didn't really know what was going on” … “Back then Hitler seemed to have the right idea but in the end he took it too far” … "Is that me? I'm ashamed ... " ??
By the way I see from Wikipedia that from 1933 and 1944 Weidemann was held in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, and for three years after the war, from 28 April 1945 to 1948, he was mayor of Hofgeismar, whose streets the Nazis had paraded him through on the ox (though the Wikipedia article fails to mention this event).
I'll close with my most disappointing Berlin photo. Hitler’s bunker. I imagined a conducted tour showing the bedrooms, the kitchen, Hitler’s office, the garage full of staff cars, all as in the 2004 film Downfall (if you haven't seen it you must). But it was not to be. This picture of me looking glum in a car park is as good as it got.
It seems that after the war the Soviets levelled the Chancellery buildings; though despite some attempts at demolition the underground complex remained largely undisturbed until the two halves of the city were reunited in 1989. During reconstruction of that area of Berlin, those sections of the old bunker complex that were excavated were for the most part destroyed. The site remained unmarked until 2006, when a small tourist information board was put up. Some of the corridors of the bunker still exist today, but are sealed off from the public. I wonder why this cavalier attitude to an important piece of archaeology? To prevent it becoming a neo-Nazi shrine perhaps?
 At the Topography of Terror – the present-day name for the site on which the most important institutions of the Nazi apparatus of terror and persecution were located between 1933 and 1945. The buildings are all gone, replaced by a modern exhibition hall.
 Banality of evil : the idea that evil occurs when ordinary individuals are put into corrupt situations that encourage their conformity. The phrase was coined by philosopher Hannah Arendt after witnessing the 1962 trial of high-ranking Nazi Adolf Eichmann who seemed, at least to Arendt, to be the most mundane of individuals whose evil acts were driven by the requirements of the state and orders from above.
Monday, October 28, 2013
Just back from Berlin where I couldn’t resist posing at the local metro station under a sign indicating the exit for Karl Marx Alley (boulevard really), Peace Street and The Street of the Paris Commune. Or what about the inscription on the back wall of this regrettably dark photo of the main staircase of Humboldt University:
Die Philosophen haben die Welt
nur verschieden interpretiert,
es kommt aber darauf an,
sie zu verändern
The building  stands on Bebelplatz, at the right of this panoramic view:-
On 10 May 1933, Bebelplatz made history in an inglorious manner. It was the site of the most notorious of the book burnings organized by the Nazis, in which important works of world literature were thrown into the flames. Karl Marx's Theses on Feuerbach first amongst them no doubt. The 20,000 volumes burnt included Heinrich and Thomas Mann, Erich Kästner, Stefan Zweig, Heinrich Heine, and Kurt Tucholsky. Don't worry I haven’t heard of some of them either but you get the idea. A monument to this outrage has been created in the square, consisting of a glass panel opening onto a white underground room with empty shelf space for (supposedly) all 20,000 volumes. A plaque bears an epigraph from an 1820 work by Heinrich Heine: Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen (That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they end burning people).
I say supposedly because my rough estimate of the shelf space was 6,000 volumes. My friend Vincent got a slightly higher figure but nowhere near 20,000.
The books all came from the university building with the Karl Marx inscription. Though the inscription wasn’t there then of course. And we are told the ignorant thugs who did this deed were mainly “students”. I feel sorry for the librarian. I visualise him being charged with the duty of identifying all the offending volumes, which doubtless included many rare first editions. My sympathy might be misplaced of course, maybe he was a Nazi and revelled in the work. But I imagine not. A rector with Nazi tendencies, Eugen Fischer, was appointed in 1933 but I haven’t discovered if he was yet in place at the time of the book burning.
I want to comment on all those old buildings you see in the panoramic view of the square. They are, from the left, the State Opera, St. Hedwig's Cathedral straight ahead and the Humboldt University building. Now I haven't found an image of Bebelplatz in 1945 but here’s a fairly typical image of Berlin in that year.
So what I puzzle over is, when I was in an old church, the Humboldt University, various 19th century museum buildings, what was I actually in? A repaired pre-war building? Or a modern replica? On a four day visit to Berlin I encountered a fair mix of modern buildings and old ones, but how old were the old ones really? 18th and 19th century? Or 1960’s? I came away without a feel for the answer to this question. I've plenty more to say about Berlin but I'll stop here for now.
 Now known so far as I can tell as the old law library
Friday, October 18, 2013
An abject surrender and betrayal by spineless establishment Republicans. That's how American talk radio and conservative bloggers are excoriating the bipartisan vote on Wednesday to reopen the government without defunding President Obama’s health care law, today’s New York Times tells us. Hooray! A widespread collapse in public support seems to have forced this humiliating retreat on the Republican leadership who are blaming the Tea Party for the whole fiasco. Will the Tea Party soon split from the Republicans I wonder?
|Federal workers protesting at the shut down|
By the way don't allow me to mislead you. I can bluff with the best, and I may have given the impression I understand the Affordable Care Act. I don't. All I know is that for poor people it's a whole lot better than what went before, because to get health care in America you need to be insured, and though you still do, the insurance is now affordable. That’s as much as I understand. I'll pass lightly on.
I got sidetracked from the government workers being forced to work without pay. In The Guardian on 12th October, Jeffrey David Cox, president of the federal workers union the AFGE, said nearly half his 670,000 members had been deemed essential workers and faced disciplinary action and the sack if they didn't turn up for their jobs despite not being paid. “Indentured servitude” he called it.
Blame George III
Now to the big question. How come the American constitution allows one party in Congress to shut the government down like this? Crazy or what? Well it's designed that way. The framers of the constitution were determined the president they were about to create wouldn’t become a tyrannical king like George III. A couple of weeks ago when pondering the Irish referendum to abolish the senate, I made some disobliging remarks about the parliamentary system in Ireland, where the parliament fails to hold the government to account, because through the party system the government dictates to the parliament, and not the other way round. It's so in Britain too, and so far as I know in any country whose constitution is modelled on the British system. The American Congress is a horse of a different colour. There as we’ve recently witnessed, the people’s representatives really can hold the government to account. Trouble is of course that millionaires can sway the people’s representatives, both directly, and by persuading voters to believe in things against their interests. Even so, though I despise the Republican shenanigans on this occasion, I have to applaud the fact it was possible.
Saturday, October 5, 2013
Two posters both urging a YES in yesterday's Irish referendum. 10/10 for the Socialist Party poster. 0/10 for the inaccurate, dishonest and populist poster put up by Fine Gael, the centre-right main government party.
The voters were asked to assent to a government proposal to abolish the upper house of the Irish parliament, Seanad Éireann. Although you can't argue with the Socialist Party case, I did. I voted no, and I'm glad about the result: YES 48.3%, NO 51.7%, on a miserable 40% turnout (nearly).
Just to be clear, none of the reasons for keeping the senate are strong and most are invalid. The Irish Seanad bears no resemblance whatever to the US senate (either in its composition or powers) and a very close resemblance to the House of Lords. So why keep it for heavens sake? I certainly don't support keeping the Seanad in its present form (no-one does) and I'm not even wedded to the idea that Ireland needs a 2-chamber parliament. A lot needs fixing in the Irish constitution. The Dáil is (like the House of Commons) a tool of the government of the day, the Seanad is almost powerless, local government has even less independence than in England, corruption is an issue.
Had the abolition proposal come to us as part of a reasoned plan to strengthen the parliament against the government, and to loosen the iron grip of centralisation, it would have had my support. But I objected to being thrown the “less politicians” bone to distract from austerity. This referendum was a stunt pulled by prime minister Enda Kenny and he got the result he deserved.
Thursday, October 3, 2013
The field behind our house: the tractors were there last week. We have plans. A wildflower meadow. A bit of lawn in the middle. A summer house. The photo with the sheep (of which more below) shows how lumpy the field used to be, most uncomfortable to walk on, with the risk of sprained ankles. So we paid for the field to be ploughed, harrowed, seeded and rolled, and now we’ve had plenty of rain and each morning look for first signs of the grass sprouting.
One could ask, indeed I do ask, why our field hasn’t become a wildflower meadow already. I neglected it for years, withstood insistent advice from farmers to spray the nettles, and had a donkey in it all summer. Too late, oh too late, I've read this advice from Plantlife on creating a wildflower meadow:
“Firstly, remove the top few inches of very fertile topsoil in late summer, perhaps making some raised beds for vegetables from it. This can be hard work but is essential, as wildflowers must have poor soil to thrive.”
That nettles grow prolifically, is a sign of fertility, I believe. So I guess my hopes will be frustrated. I do have one last throw of the dice though. Yellow rattle: a lovely annual “with a slightly sinister character”. Its roots tap into those of grasses, stealing their nutrients and suppressing their growth. This keeps them in check and many other meadow flowers benefit from the reduced grass growth. Must investigate where to get the seed.
A plug for Plantlife, an organisation I'm proud to belong to. It speaks up for and works to protect wild plants and fungi in Britain, campaigns on invasive plants, claims success in updating the law to include over 50 species that it is now an offence to plant or cause to grow in the wild, campaigns for a ban on sale of invasive plants, and owns a farm reserve in Kent with a 57 ha wildflower meadow.
Now a word about those sheep. The flock (I counted 23 of them) invaded our field in late July. For over a week they drifted in and out, visiting the fields of the surrounding farmers. Everyone knows whose land they came from, though I'm too polite to mention your name here! As it happens we didn't mind the sheep invading our little field; but still and all it was a bit of a liberty. And the adjoining farmers were NOT PLEASED. They resented the sheep eating their grass every bit as you would resent a neighbour walking into your house and plugging in an electric cable to power their tumbler drier from.
Tuesday, October 1, 2013
|Fota House near Cork|
|Emma Thompson as Elinor in Sense and Sensibility, 1995|
Another illusion gone: it turns out the famous portrait of Jane Austen may not be a very good likeness. “Hideously unlike” according to a niece. Actually it gets worse. The portrait we are all familiar with is a later copy of the one panned as hideously unlike.
|A copy from an original which was itself “hideously unlike”|
Sunday, September 29, 2013
"Comments can be bad for science" is a surprising statement from Popular Science, explaining why their website PopularScience.com, has shut comments off.
This magazine devoted to science and technology news was founded in 1872, and is “committed to fostering lively, intellectual debate as we are to spreading the word of science far and wide. ”
But they say the problem is that trolls and spambots have overwhelmed intellectual debate, and diminished their ability to spread the word of science. “It wasn't a decision we made lightly.” They claim research points to the depressing conclusion that ignorant and vituperative comments can skew popular perception of issues such as climate change. Full story here.
PopularScience.com is a site I like to keep an eye on. For example a recent article on How Do You Dispose Of Chemical Weapons?
|Syrian soldier in gas mask from PopularScience.com |
Wednesday, September 25, 2013
Who said : I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.
Dr Johnson? Churchill? Cicero? Mark Twain?
|Pascal said it, Churchill quoted it, Woodrow Wilson bettered it|
Je n'ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n'ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.
I have made this letter long because I don't have the leisure to make it shorter.
Dozens of other writers have expressed similar sentiments over the years, and several have had the saying attributed to them falsely. The Quote Investigator has it all if you want it. The best is Woodrow Wilson who died in 1924. He was asked by a member of his cabinet about the amount of time he spent preparing speeches :
"It depends. If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now."
I imagine Wilson was familiar with this exchange of telegrams between Mark Twain and his publisher:
NEED 2-PAGE SHORT STORY TWO DAYS, which got the answer: NO CAN DO 2 PAGES TWO DAYS. CAN DO 30 PAGES 2 DAYS. NEED 30 DAYS TO DO 2 PAGES.
As to Blaise Pascal, BBC Radio 4's In Our Time has just kicked off its new season with an episode on him. I've already listened to it twice. And for more on Pascal see Man, the feeblest thing in nature.
Pascal: Lettres Provinciales (1657) no 16. Source: Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.
Woodrow Wilson: Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations edited by Suzy Platt, 1989, page 624.
Mark Twain: Guardian
Saturday, September 21, 2013
|G.B. Shaw in 1909, |
five years after writing Major Barbara
Shaw called them “uncouth bacilli" and condemned them in the following terms:-
"The apostrophies [sic] in ain't, don't, haven't, etc., look so ugly that the most careful printing cannot make a page of colloquial dialogue as handsome as a page of classical dialogue. Besides, shan't should be sha"n't, if the wretched pedantry of indicating the elision is to be carried out. I have written aint, dont, havnt, shant, shouldnt and wont for twenty years with perfect impunity, using the apostrophe only where its omission would suggest another word: for example, hell for he'll. There is not the faintest reason for persisting in the ugly and silly trick of peppering pages with these uncouth bacilli. I also write thats, whats, lets, for the colloquial forms of that is, what is, let us; and I have not yet been prosecuted."
Now we'll look at a pivotal moment from Act II of Major Barbara, in the 1908 edition of Archibald Constable & Co, London. I've highlighted in green where he's left apostrophes out and in yellow where he's left them in. To my way of thinking it's a mess. Why some and not others? Shaw doesn't even appear to have followed his own rules. It's almost enough to make you join the Apostrophe Preservation Society.
BARBARA. Oh, youre too extravagant, papa. Bill offers twenty
pieces of silver. All you need offer is the other ten. That will
make the standard price to buy anybody who's for sale. I'm not;
and the Army's not. [To Bill] Youll never have another quiet
moment, Bill, until you come round to us. You cant stand out
against your salvation.
BILL ... Ive offered to pay. I can do no more.
Shaw didn't get everything right. When almost 89 years old he wrote a letter to The Times published on May 18, 1945, saying Irish premier de Valera was correct in calling on the German ambassador a few weeks earlier to present condolences on Hitler’s death. Shocking. Though technically de Valera was correct and Shaw was correct in saying he was correct. So maybe that’s not an example of Shaw being wrong after all. But the apostrophe business is, imho. Link to my previous disquisition on apostrophes.
Notes: The Shaw quote is from "Notes on the Clarendon Press Rules for Compositors and Readers." The Author, 1901, quoted in grammar.about.com
For an essay on the history of the apostrophe see the excellent Grammarphobia blog. It came into use in the 1500's, and the possessive apostrophe originally indicated a missing letter.
Thursday, September 19, 2013
Robert Emmet’s speech from the dock the night before his execution in 1803 is an icon in Irish nationalist historiography. In preparation for today, the 210th anniversary, I've done a bit of digging. It's the speech that concludes:-
I have but one request to ask at my departure from this world: it is the charity of its silence. Let no man write my epitaph: for as no man who knows my motives dare now vindicate them, let not prejudice or ignorance asperse them. Let them and me repose in obscurity and peace, and my tomb remain uninscribed, until other times, and other men, can do justice to my character. When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written. I have done.
This day last year I posted the full text. Yet soon after doing so, I began to entertain doubts. Is it genuine? What is the source? Has the speech that has come down to us - it extends to five pages - been "improved"? My suspicious mind had me to wondering if the whole thing is just a bit too good to be true.
After spending a good few hours in University College Cork’s Boole Library, I am somewhat reassured. It turns out that there are several versions of the speech, based on notes taken by Emmet’s friends present in court. No one version, even those taken in shorthand at the time, agrees exactly with another. The unforgettable final paragraph (quoted above) may be an exception to this; though the most recent account I've found ascribes it to just one note-taker. 
It seems we are indebted for the speech to Dr Richard Robert Madden (1798-1886) who published The United Irishmen, Their Lives and Times in seven volumes between 1842 and 1846. This has been described “an adulatory rather than a scholarly” account. But so far as I can tell historians agree that Dr Madden submitted all the versions of Emmet’s speech to trustworthy persons still alive, and we can be confident that the text that has come down to us contains the substance of the speech, and much of the actual language.
Dr. Madden says: No published report gives any adequate idea of the effect its delivery produced on the minds of his auditors. Emmet pronounced the speech in so loud a voice as to be distinctly heard at the outer doors of the court-house; and yet, though he spoke in a loud voice, there was nothing boisterous in its delivery, or forced or affected in his manner; his accents and cadence of voice, on the contrary, were exquisitely modulated. His action was very remarkable; its greater or lesser vehemence corresponded with the rise and fall of his voice. 
“The man is telling the truth”
The trial stretched over one long day, 19 Sept, from 9:30 in the morning till 10:30 at night. Not even a lunch break (huh? what about the judges & jury?) It would have taken longer had not Emmet instructed his lawyers to make no defence of his actions. Leon Ó Brion  tells us:
Whenever they wished to overthrow a witness he stopped them, saying, “Don’t, don’t, the man is telling the truth”. He would not even allow them to make the normal speech at the conclusion of the case for the Crown. “Don’t try to defend me”, he said “it's no use”.
Ó Broin strikes a skeptical note as to the veracity of the speech as we have it. Setting the scene for the speech from the dock, he says
Outside in the streets there was a great mass of people, a silent mass, but every single person was sympathetic to the prisoner. These were the people the government wanted to win over to its side. It was of them, also, that Emmet was thinking. He knew how important it was that he should pick and weigh his words carefully. But what he did not know was that neither enemies nor friends would give him the last word. The government improved on his uncomplimentary references to France, and his friends altered his ideas in other ways, with the result that it is not possible to be sure that we have his speech exactly as it was delivered. The various versions only agree as regards the peroration.
As to the government improving on his uncomplimentary references to France, see below; but I haven't found in what ways his ideas were altered by his friends.
Authorities feared an escape plot
Emmet started his speech at 10 pm, was very tired and asked for judgement to be delayed till the next day. His speech was supremely important to him; perhaps he wanted time to write it; certainly he will have wanted time to collect himself. But his request was denied. It's likely the authorities feared an escape plot. So, a remarkable performance at the end of a long day, in the knowledge that tomorrow he would almost certainly hang.
Tradition has it that the speech was extempore, but the historian Ruán O’Donnell doesn't go along with this. It was prepared he says; though to an extent Emmet did need to extemporise in response to frequent interruptions from chief justice Lord Norbury.
The accusations ringing in Emmet’s ears were that he was selfishly ambitious, had betrayed his country, was an emissary of France, and that he alone was responsible for all the blood that had been shed. [T]he speech profoundly stirred all those who heard it. It even moved [chief justice] Norbury, a callous, brutal man who was capable of jesting when consigning poor wretches to the gallows. Now, having sentenced Emmet to be hanged, drawn and quartered the next afternoon in Thomas Street, the scene of the insurrection, he was deeply touched by the tragedy of the situation and burst into tears. That was dramatic enough, God knows, but there was more to come. A group of young men moved over to the dock to bid the prisoner farewell – these were the Trinity students who wore the King’s uniform – and they had to answer later to the authorities for shaking hands with a condemned traitor. 
Unknown to Emmet at least one of his two lawyers (and according to some historians both of them) were actually Castle spies. This made no difference to the trial so far as I can see, as we have already seen that he instructed his counsel not to cross examine witnesses, or state any case. This was probably part of a secret commitment Emmet had made to Wickham, the Chief Secretary. Emmet would accept responsibility for the rising, and in exchange Wickham would suppress an intercepted letter to Emmet’s lover Sarah Curran. It seems that both Wickham and Emmet honoured this compact.
In a notorious incident at the end of the trial his lawyer MacNally, leaning over the rail of the dock, “Judas-like, kissed him on the cheek”. O’Donnell has it the other way round: “Before leaving the court Emmet embraced his duplicitous defender, MacNally, and kissed him on the forehead.” 
Three artists attended the trial to draw portraits. One was Henry Brocas who had been commissioned by the government anticipating a requirement for a suitable image for its propaganda. The prosecution wanted to make use of the trial to denigrate the whole revolutionary movement. Here's Brocas's famous print of the scene in court:
Someone in the government press office has added a speech bubble. You'll find images of this print sometimes with, and sometimes without, the bubble, which says: “If the FRENCH land in Ireland, Oh my Countrymen! meet them on the Shore with a Torch in one hand – a Sword in the other – receive them with the all the destruction of War - Immolate them in their Boats before our Native Soil should be polluted by a Foreign Foe”.
Now whilst Emmet did say something about opposing the French, what he actually said was: “Were the French to come as invaders or enemies, uninvited by the wishes of the people, I should oppose them to the utmost of my strength ...” and he goes on to deny that the French would have come as invaders or enemies. See page 4 of full text of speech.
That’s the extent of my digging on Robert Emmet’s trial and speech.
 Robert Emmet and the Rising of 1803, Ruán O’Donnell, Irish Academic press, 2003
 Library Ireland
 Leon Ó Brion The Unfortunate Mr Emmet (1958) Ch 27
 Ó Brion p 164
 O’Donnell p 159
Friday, September 13, 2013
This post is embarrassingly late but I suppose it's better than never. It was around 19th August that I learnt of an alarming series of episodes concerning The Guardian: the detention of the partner of Glenn Greenwald, the journalist publishing Edward Snowden's explosive documents on spying by the NSA and GCHQ; government agents sent to the paper's offices to destroy its computers; and prime minister David Cameron ordering a top aide to threaten the paper that it faced "serious consequences" if it continued reporting.
Today I've become tardily aware of the opportunity to sign an open letter of support for The Guardian and its journalists in withstanding all this pressure from the UK government. The letter was put together on 22 Aug by SumOfUs.
So I've belatedly signed the letter and suggest you do too. SumOfUs claims, correctly so far as I can see, that the UK government is trying to intimidate and shut down The Guardian's investigation into the NSA scandal. “For this to be happening in the UK is chilling” they say, and their letter aims “to show The Guardian, its journalists, and editor that they have public support for their vital work in revealing the true extent of mass spying programmes” and to demonstrate to the UK government and its intelligence agencies that “we will not allow our basic rights and freedoms to be curtailed.”
Here's where you can sign the letter.
The Guardian has established itself as a major force in global journalism, having broken stories on the Wikileaks diplomatic files, the UK phone hacking scandal, and now perhaps its most important scoop, revealing that every person’s phone, email and web history is tracked and stored by the NSA and Western intelligence agencies.
This link dated 19 August 2013 is Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger on David Miranda, schedule 7 and the danger that all reporters now face
SumOfUs by the way is something I had never heard of till today, maybe I ought to have.
Monday, September 9, 2013
I've been uncharacteristically quiet for a fortnight; not because I've nothing on my mind but because the one thing that is on my mind I can't work out what to say about, and that's Syria. I have plenty to say about the regrettable decline of strong verbs in English, whether it's good or bad we can live to 150, Jane Austen films, whether artificial intelligence is an illusion, the new pope and liberation theology … but it seems trivial to be writing about any of these when Syria is hanging over my head. And there's Egypt of course, a puzzle all of its own …
A military analyst interviewed in the Irish Examiner on 27th August says there's no doubt in his mind that a so-called surgical strike by the US to eliminate Assad’s chemical arsenal would lead to hundreds, at the least, of civilian casualties. That’s pretty typical I suppose of numerous other analyses we’ve all seen in the past three weeks. And really what this means is that I've been cudgelling my brains in vain … puzzling over a series of what-if’s which may be fine and necessary, but actually belong in a philosophy classroom ...
… if we can surely we should …
… but if we can't, if hardly matters whether we should or not …
I came across a piece in the New York Times by someone who’s been thrashing around in the same thicket as me. Rolad Sokol writing about the Antigone principle. Antigone’s brother had fought on the losing side in a civil war. Creon decreed him a traitor and no-one was allowed to bury him. Accused in the Sophocles play that burying her brother's mortal remains constitutes a crime against the state, Antigone defies Creon: “I never thought your laws had such force that they nullified the laws of heaven, which though unwritten, and not proclaimed, can boast a currency everlastingly valid; an origin beyond the birth of man.”
Sokol finishes: “In the case of Syria there exists moral agreement that the use of chemical weapons was an atrocity, and perhaps even that Syria committed it, but no consensus will be reached about who should be the 21st century Antigone who must go to Damascus, or what rites need be performed once she gets there.”
Before signing off, I'll just draw attention to a New Scientist editorial suggesting dropping medicines, not bombs. Sarin gas antidotes administered in the hours and days after a Sarin attack can save lives and reduce the chances of chronic symptoms in survivors, it claims. And leaflets advising people what to do during a Sarin attack could make a huge difference, too. Many people died in Damascus because they hid in basements, when they would have been safer on the top floors, since Sarin vapour is heavier than air.
Saturday, August 24, 2013
|The remains of a computer that held files leaked to the Guardian by Edward Snowden and destroyed while GCHQ officials looked on. Credit: Roger Tooth|
|Supporters of Egypt's former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (but who are they?) hold his posters and a poster of Army Chief Gen. el-Sissi, left, in front of the Cairo prison where Mubarak has been held, Thursday, Aug 22. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)|
A quiz question for Shakespeare buffs: which character speaks the line “If me no ifs and but me no buts”?
Had I to guess, I should have gone for Macbeth, but I would have been wrong. There's no such line. The nearest Shakespeare got to it was "Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle" in Richard II, and “Talk’st thou to me of ifs” in Richard III. I'm not the first though to suppose that “but me no buts” is found in Shakespeare. Bernard Levin wrongly included it in his 1983 tour de force on quoting Shakespeare; which must in turn have been read by fictional prime minister Jim Hacker who makes a fool of himself by committing the same error in the 1980’s BBC TV series Yes Prime Minister.
As to "If me no ifs", Elizabeth Gaskell used it in Wives and Daughters (1864). Whilst “but me no buts" first occurs in a 1709 play, and if we believe the script of Yes Prime Minister (which I'm not sure I do) was popularised by Sir Walter Scott in 1816. So far as I can tell however the line “If me no ifs and but me no buts” first appeared in this blog, so perhaps I've achieved a sort of immortality, and who knows I might one day make it to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.
You'll find citations for the foregoing on a separate page if you want them. But where did this frolic begin, you may ask? It was the grocer’s apostrophe. Or an accusation thereof. Pondering lab-made hamburgers recently, I said there were a couple of ifs that I didn't have space for: in a perfect world, if anyone would eat meat, and if there would be McDonalds. But I actually wrote if’s, and Albert queried this. He was too tactful to call it a grocer’s apostrophe but that’s what it amounted to. So here are my thoughts. When debating the if’s that arise from the eating of hamburgers, I reckon the apostrophe looks right. On the other hand in “If me no if’s and but me no but’s” the apostrophes intrude, and spoil the flow.
From here on it's all about apostrophes, so if that’s not your thing, I'm sorry. Are there rules? There's a website called englishforums.com where you'll find someone pronouncing in all solemnity that to write CD’s and DVD’s is incorrect, supporting this by the assertion that an apostrophe properly indicates an omitted letter. I haven't included a link as there will be numerous other places where you can find the same sort of stuff, and it's all poppycock. I've experimented with leaving the apostrophe out and decided I don't like it. I'm sticking to CD’s and 1980’s. If pressed I could devise a rule to justify this but I lack the energy. If you prefer CDs and 1980s that’s fine with me. No more to be said.
There are advocates of greater or lesser use of apostrophes. Here's an amusing and well-written overview: Should the Apostrophe Be Abolished? The Not-So-Great Apostrophe Debate.
Probably in 50 years time no-one will write CD’s. Nor indeed listen to them. Lynne Truss in her 2003 book Eats, Shoots & Leaves thinks that CDs and 1980s have already arrived in British English, CD’s and 1980’s surviving only in America. But she says if the abolitionists get their way entirely, they’ll regret it as soon as they discover they can't write “Goodbye to the Apostrophe: we're not missing you a bit”. By the way on the question of if’s, Truss claims there's a rule that the apostrophe indicates the plural of words, as in “Are there too many but's and and’s at the beginning of sentences these days?”. This shows you can invent a rule to justify any usage you happen to like.
Oho! I've just noticed I wrote in 50 years time. The authorities, Grammar-monster for example, think it should be in 50 years' time. But whilst I see the point of an apostrophe to indicate the possessive case in two days’ pay I don't in two days time. So even with me, it seems the process of abandoning apostrophes has begun …
And finally, what about the derivation of the expression “grocer's (or greengrocer's) apostrophe”? The best I can do is to quote the Wikipedia article on the apostrophe which gives the following tantalisingly incomplete information: “The term is believed to have been coined in the middle of the 20th century by a teacher of languages working in Liverpool, at a time when such mistakes were common in the handwritten signs and advertisements of greengrocers.”
Friday, August 16, 2013
These were my thoughts on 4th July when I heard about the Egyptian coup: The defenders of the Egyptian coup, and the defenders of Morsi are both wrong. Morsi’s attempt to impose dictatorship cost him legitimacy long ago. But the military coup will be even worse.
In my opinion, the revolutionary leaders who called for a military takeover, and supported the coup are the ones who made the mistake. The longer they continue to support the military the worse that mistake will become, because that continued association will taint them in the public eye with whatever the military does. When the military turns its attention from the Muslim Brotherhood, and begins arresting the secular left, how easy will it be for that secular left to mobilize the people in their own defense?
|Image in today's Guardian: Egyptian families bury their dead. Credit: Rex Features/APA|
Read too Tawakkol Karman writing in last Friday’s Guardian (9 August): Egypt's coup has crushed all the freedoms won in the revolution. She says she supported the opposition to President Morsi until the military takeover, which all supporters of human rights should reject.
This morning I've just heard an appalling interview with a representative of Egypt’s National Salvation Front (didn't catch the name) justifying Wednesday morning’s killings when armed police broke up the Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins. He justified his support for the police action by allegations that inside their two camps the Muslim Brotherhood were committing torture on their political opponents. These are detailed in a rightwing website called FrontPage. I'm not suggesting it's not true; for this we must wait and see.
Monday, August 12, 2013
The Financial Times has seen the future, and it works! Today's edition has Chinese cargo ship sets sail for Arctic short-cut on its front page. The 19,000-tonne Yong Sheng is attempting the first ever commercial transit of the Northeast Passage. The vessel set sail on August 8 from Dalian, a port in north-eastern China, bound for Rotterdam. But whereas the traditional route is through the Suez Canal and Mediterranean (red in the diagramme) the vessel will take the blue route via the Bering Strait and across the top of Russia. This is known as the Northern Sea Route.
And it could shave as much as 15 days off the voyage. $$$$ !!!!
“Changing climate opens a short-cut that promises to reduce shipping times between China and Europe” is how the FT characterises this development. “But analysts caution” continues the FT in downbeat mood “that it will be years before the route, which is only passable for a few months, is commercially viable let alone a rival to the Suez Canal, which handled more than 17,000 ships in 2012.”
The other big “economic prospect for the polar region” according to the FT is oil exploration. But this is progressing at a slower pace than the opening up of the Northern Sea Route.
Such is the language in which the FT frames evidence of the unfolding of a disaster unparalleled in human history.
For more links on this theme see my earler post A result! Ships to sail over North Pole by mid-century.