Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Rights of Dumbledore

Ever since, about 6 years ago, when J K Rowling informed the world about the true nature of Dumbledore, I've had problems with his homosexuality. He's not gay. For me, he's simply not gay.

On a tangential conversation about Gay Pride with my housemate last night, we ended up heatedly discussing Dumbledore.

My argument goes: "I never got that from the character any of the times I read any of the books."

His argument goes: "But he must be, his creator wrote him that way."

And we reach a stalemate. There's not much further you can take an argument when all the evidence has been laid out and sequenced and both sides still believe their arguments are right.

For me Dumbledore's sexuality was not part of the story, and it never will be. But then, the stories began when I was still a child and were finished at the beginning of my adulthood when J K Rowling announced it. I read them in my formative years. Trying to surplant this new information would, for me, be akin to discussing the sexual politics of the Famous Five.

But what about all those people who hadn't reached the end? Did the world of Harry Potter become a richer place for them?

Yes! I'd say it did. All information makes the world of a story a richer place. It's all about internal and external context, as they'll tell you on any literature course.

Whatever my petty problems with Harry Potter characters may be, I have to give it to J K Rowling, it was a brave thing to retrospectively add something that could so radically change people's views. Dumbledore is argueably one of the most loved characters in popular fiction.

Whether or not people read his sexuality into the books, she has put a homosexual role model out into the world for all those people who have little or no contact with open homosexuals. And to top that, she has given the world a gay role model whose sexuality is irrelevant.

Intentional or not, I think that's a commendable thing to do in a world where homophobia is still a norm, and governing powers still submit to those irrational beliefs.

On the 29th of February this year St. Petersburg passed a law to prevent "public actions directed at the propaganda of sodomy, lesbianism, bisexuality and transgenderism among minors". On Friday, just 1 day before World Pride here in London, the Ukranian government is going to vote on legislature that will ban public discussion and publication of information about homosexuality and bisexuality.

LGBT communities are quite lucky in the UK that homophobia is generally frowned upon. That's not to say that homophobia is dead... far from it. But increasingly, homosexuality is becoming viewed as something unremarkable. It's a view that permits Gay Pride in London to be a celebration more than a protest; which is a marvellous thing when you consider that Slovakia's 2nd Pride and Bulagria's 1st Pride were only this year, and subject to counter marches and violent behaviour from extreme right-wing groups.

This Saturday is World Pride here in London, and I think this liberty is something worth celebrating with the world, if not for sexuality, then for the freedom of speech.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Linguistic Pedantry 5

Everyone seems to have thought of the same joke at once: The sequel to Prometheus will be a James Cameron film called Prometheuses. Being the humourless pedant that I am, I just want to point out that this is wrong!

It's not Prometheii either. And nor is it Promethepode, as some geniuses have pointed out.

Prometheus is a Greek word, not Latin, and if you really want to be pedantic about the plural, you should consult the chart:


So, 'to be called ****' would mean that Prometheus would be in the accusative plural, which makes it Prometheas.

Linguistic Pedantry 4

'I walk into an empty room
And suddenly my heart goes "boom"'

Perhaps I'm a bit of a snob, but this always struck me as really lazy lyric writing. Onomatopoeic (spell check?) sounds don't ring true in rhymes, to me anyway, because you can fall back on them whenever. It's like saying, 'I love driving my car, I like the way it takes me far.' Just shove whatever sound fits.

What do you think? I'm curious to hear what other people think about it.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Thus David spake, and what he said was disappointing

I went to Prometheus twice (coz I'm sad like that, deal with it) because there were many things I thought were worth appreciating about the film, even if the whole was flawed and the story populated by the most irrational desicisons to the point that when you leave the cinema there should be a bump on your forehead where you've been bashing it on the seat in front at how stupid these characters are. Yes, I went to see it twice, even with this view.

The film hinted at great minds tied together with second hand string, gum and shit. It was these hints at great minds that sent me the second time, not least because there was a big deal made of David being a linguist. Bugger all they made of that, except for one of the most interesting moments in the film. Oooh, the mystery, ooh the secrecy... what did David say to the freshly woken engineer that made him lose his rag?

Nothing much interesting it seems: link to the source of the quote below.
"These are the words that David said to the Engineer:

ida hmanâm aî kya namrrtuh zdêêtaha. gwhivah-pyorn-îttham sas daatrr kredah.

And what does it mean?

Literally it breaks down to:

this man (is) here because not-die he-desires. life_increase_wish to-him you-(can)-give he-believes."
And here there's a hint that much of the linguistics stuff was cut, which probably won't redeem the film, but it might have made it more interesting.

The Long Earth - Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

What an absolutely lovely book. I don't normally feel a need to talk politely about books, but really, this one was a pleasure to read.

It's grand, epic sci-fi, of the finest kind. There's not nary an alien warship, or Devilish consciousness to drive the plot. Just the unending curiosity that's so peculiar to human science. This is Jules Verne with a 21st Century outlook on science. It's two people on an exploration in the name of scientific discovery, with none of these peculiarly unconvincing external motives that writers nowadays seem to think a story needs to be interesting (think reigniting the dying sun with a nuclear bomb for one of the more ridiculous 'scientific' premises out there).

That's not to say there aren't cliches; There are cliches ten a penny. But these two authors are veterans (5 pages of other titles by the authors), and what's more, they complement each other perfectly and the cliches don't feel such. Baxter's scientific rigourousness and Pratchett's rational fantasy, Pratchett's charm and Baxter's directness, Baxter's serious prose and Pratchett's humour. The review on the Guardian website said this was more Baxter's work than Pratchett's. I thought that they wrote about equal amounts. Their different writing styles are fairly obvious. Pratchett likes labyrinthine sentences and doesn't like to use full-stops so much anymore. Baxter's sentences tend to be short and distinct and not very humorous. Perhaps more of the prose was Baxter's, but there are ideas and character's (the fascination with nuns, the talking drinks dispenser, Sally) that are so patently Pratchett that sometimes it felt more like someone else writing Pratchett's work for him.

Much like Pratchett's Nation, this is a celebration of life in all its multifarious (and occasionally multifactious) forms.

Serious Spoilers Review

Okay, so the first thing I want to talk about, and the thing that occurred to me most while reading this book, was how lovely is it the idea that wildlife is so friendly in worlds without humans? Obviously the wildlife is not friendly to each other, but when the humans arrive, they treat with curiosity the creatures they don't know or understand. I think this is probably the thing that makes this book so ultimately charming. These animals aren't present to serve narrative interest (well they are), they are here because that's what animals would do.

There were certain hints to the historical presence of elves (or is that elfs, these aren't Tolkein's elves) and trolls early on in the story that tie in nicely. Elves fear of iron being something that's woven directly into the rules of stepping.

Almost every biological and/or evolutionary and/or behaviourial description of the creatures in this book is a treat, especially so when it's turned around on the humans. It's nice to see humans lowered to the rank of animal, rather than self-placed on the self-made pedestal of uniquity. Having said that, the plot is driven mostly by Lobsang's desire to understand and his definition of that being almost exclusively the human trait.

The almost universal presence of elephants made me smile every time they were mentioned.

Change of topic: The nuns' almost all peversaive presence in Joshua's thoughts was a laugh, culminating in the only real laugh in the book: The scientific description of a nun given by First Person Singular.

Pratchett's other collusion for literature (Good Omens) also had a fascination with nuns, and I'd always assumed that was Neil Gaimen's doing, what with his obsession with Christianity and religious symbols. But after this book I'm thinking it's Pratchett's obessession, and I think this book makes it obviously clear.

They are a people so shrouded in symbolism that they appear as one, and yet it's not until you meet one that you can realise how bloody normal they are. He is also a man opposed to many aspects of organised religion, and yet the formation of the female monastic life has clearly produced undeniably good self- and societal- benefits. There's nothing like a bit of conflict of ideas to liven up the world.

In fact, this preoccupation with comparing appearance, humanity and life leads me to my only gripe about the book. Joshua has a contradictory character, supposedly anti-social, and yet almost anything but. You can write this off as another aspect of life: people are naturally contradictory, doing things differently to what they say. The writer's acknowledge this contradiction a few times, but to me it always felt like a back-track and edit situation rather than an intentional idea.

Still, minor gripe in an otherwise wonderful book by two authors who contrast in a most engaging way.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Storm of Swords - George R R Martin

Steel and Snow
Wow, this was long and boring. The only real things of significance were Jaime's growing relationship with Brienne, and the sudden change of wind with Lord Mormont's command. I'm sure these could have been shoe-horned into the second part of this book, and the excess dullage trimmed. Too much aimless wandering; I know this is the fall-out from a war that spread over a whole country, but if Mr Martin can knock a character out to avoid describing a battle, he could have done the same for the aimless wandering.

This is the weakness in this series, that rather than develop existing characters, Mr Martin would rather sideline them and introduce others. His love of history books shows in the endless list of names and ranks of people present in each scene.

Blood and Gold
(Spoilers ahead)

Wow, this was the first time this series has been as good as Game of Thrones. The conniving is not nearly as complex and interesting as it is in the first book, but it's where the characters and their differences really come to a head.

Throughout Steel and Snow I had an image of a man waking up every morning and trudging through another two thousand words with his coffee in hand. Through Blood and Gold I didn't imagine the writer once. The only time I noticed was when something jarring appeared in the middle of an intensive sequence, like, 'The stub of his ear was gone. That seemed to make him angry.' Of course it made him angry. But it shows Mr Martin having fun writing this.

Personally, I think this is the most entertaining of the books since GoT because Mr Martin seems to have had a realization that I've had from the very beginning: Catelyn's endearing passion and general fly-on-the-wall approach to family and politics is a frustrating and boring combination (don't get me wrong, I loved her character, but she was too frustrating), and Rob's chivalry and righteousness is not nearly as charming as it was with his father (on top of which his sudden marriage was fairly routine and tedious, an issue they have tried to deal with in the TV series). Let's kill them off!

On the other hand, the only character who's inaction was more frustrating than Catelyn's, starts to develop character, and has the most poignant moment in the entire series so far. I almost cried when she stepped out into the snow in the Eyrie and had to learn to play by herself for the first time in her life.

In other news, Tyrion's demonstrated his strengths when allowed play on the quarterdeck of politics, it's been time for him to fall and demonstrate his strengths when stuck at the bottom of the barrell. There was something about Oberyn's fight with the Mountain which made Oberyn's fall predictable; perhaps it was because Tyrion had already won against one judgement in a battle for honor. It would have been more surprising if he had won this way a second time. But Mr Martin seems to only play one move ahead of the reader. It's the wildcards like Arya's companionship with the Hound that makes this series so interesting.

I mourn for Joffrey, and after Catelyn's return, I almost hope that Joffrey does too. Out of all the Lannister's I find him compelling reading since he is so completely insane, and it's only in this book that his motivations for being so start to become clear. It would have been fascinating to watch him grow older and more insane.

Instead, we have Daenerys slow boiling. Give her a few more books and she'll be boiling over.

Time to move onto some other books before Feast for Crows. My colleague read the entire 6 books of Ice and Fire back to back. I think I would develop emotional problems if I did that.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

I've head rumours if improved spelling

I've heard rumours of unproven spelling on the youth of today because of the use I'd computers and autocorrects technology. Perhaps its true, the sling nay be improving, but the correct use of words could becone aisy art.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Absolutely meh

I know it's a monosyllabic sound, three phonemes, doesn't amount to much significance that two separate languages could produce an identitcal sound. But just take a moment to admire the irony that 'meh' has been reconstructed in Proto-Indo-European studies to mean 'absolutely not'.

'dhídhēmi-dh∂kjō tū sṇtējō Madonna moghō kanō?'


Byzantium - Judith Herrin

The subtitle for this book is 'The Surprising Life Of A Medieval Empire'. For me, the most surprising thing about it was how wordy it is, how rich in names and dates the text is, and yet so empty of scientific history. I felt as if Judith Herrin loves this topic more than anything else, in the same way stamp collectors love their stamps.

What I really wanted to know was how Byzantine people lived. What I got was massive generalizations about education, and social mobility skewed towards Judith Herrin's (as she admits) own attempts to reframe our view of Byzantine success.

What I wanted to know was the sort of mentality that controlled the palacial rulers. What I got were hints of court intrigues and an avalanche of names.

I really wanted a chapter on the female emporers, because it's quite incredible that a Christian empire surrounded by equally fanatic Abrahamic nations was ruled for periods by women. They got mentioned, and Judith Herrin clearly has a lot of respect for them, but like the rest of the book the focus was unstable. (edit: Judith Herrin has written a book about the female rulers of Byzantium. It's called Women In Purple.)

Anyway, enough of the moaning. What was good?


Let's start with the most quoted extract ever written about Byzantium. Judith Herrin uses it as an explanation for why Byzantine history has been bad-mouthed and forgotten. Personally, I don't buy that, because if this is the sort of reaction that Byzantine history stokes in people, then I'd be wanting to know more.
"Of that Byzantine empire, the universal verdict of history is that in consitutues, without a single exception, the most thoroughly base and despicable form that civilization has yet assumed. There has been no other enduring civilization so absolutely destitute of all forms and elements of greatness, and none to which the epithet 'mean' may be so empthatically applied... The history of the empire is a monotonous story of the intrigues of priests, eunuchs, and women, of poisonings, of conspiracies, of uniform ingratitude."
Byzantine history is surely all of these things. But then, so is Roman and Greek history... and that of the royal families of Europe, and Asia... in fact, the aristocracy have almost always behaved abysmally. So, this doesn't explain why so much of Byzantine history has been lost.

Or has it been lost? Has it been covered up?

The answer to both those questions is 'yes'. The fall of Byzantium is an embarrassment to Christiandom, since it was at the hands of Crusaders under encouragement and blessings from the Pope and the Doge who sacked Constantinople and started it's fall from power. These were the crusaders who were going to fight the Arabs and seize back Jerusalem. Except, they sacked Constantinople and didn't make it any further, preferring to occupy the city.

How can you justify that? You can't really, can you. Even more embarrassing is that 50 years later the Byzantine emporer managed to seize the city back, even though it was too late and too weakened to ever recover.

So what do you do? Label them heretics, barbarians, base creatures. Steal everything worthwhile and paint the rest black.

The Byzantines considered themselves Romans as well, right through to the end, and it's this same question that Judith Herrin is trying to answer about them: What did the Byzantines ever do for us?

Aside from some spectacular diplomacy and negotiation skills that managed to keep the Muslim advance out of Europe, they gave us the template for our modern law books, kept much of Greek philosophy alive, and greatly informed Mediterranean and Islamic art.

There's so much stress in this book on the Byzantines' acceptance of social mobility that the entire point of the book is bent around the idea. Education was a primary element of Byzantine culture (though she glosses over the issue of the working masses tending to be educated in religion), in fact, secular education was relatively common, with law, Greek philosophy and mathemetics being the most common subjects. Reading was paramount. And this education permitted a degree of social mobility that just didn't exist in many other medieval cultures.

The education and beaurocracy of the empire was so strong that when the crusaders sacked Constantinople, the individual cities, towns and states were able to carry on for another 200 odd years in the same vein without any central empirical leadership.

The three examples that are always given to exemplify the Byzantine's openness to social mobility are the emporers Basil II, Zoe, and Theodora. An Armenian slave and two women.

As popular history this book spends far too long on the petty squabbles of Western and Eastern Christianity (if only I had a pound for every time the argument about levened or unlevened bread was mentioned), and not enough time on the mob. This was a culture where the mob actually ruled. The emporers stayed empiric by pleasing the mob. There were grand games, and side-shows, everything the emporer did in public was propganda in spectacular proportions. Entertainment was so important to the masses that they accepted Emporer Justinian marrying a circus girl (Theodora).

A bit less about the artistic styles and petty Christian disputes and a bit more about the daily life of the standard person and this would have been a magnificent introduction to Byzantine history.

Thursday, June 7, 2012


I found this short story Ray Bradbury wrote for Weird Science's 2nd issue.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Linguistic Pedantry 3

My boyfriend successfully changed the subject from an increasingly awkward and frustrating conversation about when, where and whether either of us had seen our housemate.

"/ju:dɪdwɔ:t/?" he asked.

"/aɪsɔ:rɪmlɑ:stnaɪt/," I repeated.

"/ju:dɪdənthævtu:kʌthɪmʌp/" my boyfriend replied, pointedly enunciating every sound.

Useless Work versus Useless Toil - William Morris

I've read a few essays over the years about the benefits of a more idle society, the other most prominant essay being Bertrand Russell's In Praise Of Idleness. I really don't understand why these views aren't more appreciated; Are people really so used to the ethic of work that spending time with themselves doesn't seem attractive?

William Morris writes here that useless work is work forced on the masses by the capitalist self-interest of the non-working classes, and useless toil is the extra work forced on the working classes by the capitalist self-interest of the upper classes in the production of cheap and quickly deterioirating commodities. (He says this much more elegantly than me, but I paraphrase brutally).

In place of this system he proposes the upper classes give the working classes a bit of leeway in order to produce more long-lasting commodities, thus less labour is later spent on their production and is available for more demanding projects (such as social aid).

Fantastic food for thought, but does it still apply?

My first thought while reading this was that Bertrand Russell's In Praise Of Idleness is a clear companion piece, updated for a more modern application.

In Praise of Idleness - Bertrand Russell

Some (incomplete) thoughts, in no particular order:
  • Morris doesn't seem to believe in facts and figures, more about getting the idea out there. So, for the purposes of this post, I'm going to do the same.
  • Morris writes that the artistry in manufacture and the beauty of pride in production has been lost, and that personal ornamenation has to be commissioned nowadays. This is probably a lot more true in the west now than when Morris wrote it. In this age of mass-production commodities can't afford to be personalised. They slow the process down. So, 'What is this stuff we call art, then?' I can imagine Morris asking today. He certainly seems to believe that the quality of artistry is marked in its individuality. Which is strange for a man best remembered for his tiled flower prints. In this case he seems more pre-occupied with giving the working-classes furniture to be proud of, rather more than practical.

    A quote: "On the other hand, the ornamental part of modern life is already rotten to the core, and must be swept away before the new order is realised. There is nothing of it - there is nothing which could come of it that could satisfy the aspirations of men set free from the tyranny of commercialism."

    Through a variety of connected reasons this made me think of modern entertainment: magazines, radio, TV, film, internet, computer games. What do we in the west do with our idle time? Mostly these things. Why? Because we're too damn tired after 8-9 hours (possibly shift) work to be engaging with something intellectually. You can, if you want to, engage with this things intellectually (which is called geekery). But mostly it's junk, produced quickly, mechanically, for your passive entertainment.

  • A glimmer of hope, a sign that his dream of idleness could become a reality: Morris invokes the existence of machines and their potential to provide more idle time, and the fact that manufacturers use them to increase the need for more commodities.

    50 years later, on the verge of the first truly mechanised war, Russell points out that the machines don't just augment production, they can be fully automated. And yet, we're still no more idle than before.

    For sure, we now use these machines to mass produce pieces of art, that serve to unite entire countries under certain forms of propaganda. *cough* globalisation *cough*

  • The upper classes are like beggars, a burden on society for taking things for free. Lol. It's funny because it's true.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The State Of The Art - Iain M Banks

I have some mixed feelings about Banks novels. On the one hand, his stories are engaging, and raise all those questions you ask in adolescence and never stop asking: Is war acceptable? What is superiority?

There is something about his prose that I find quite brutal: perhaps it's the way he's exceptionally sparing in his descriptions. Sometimes this works marvellously in his favour. In the really short story, Odd Attachment, a love-sick life-form counts its luck during an alien invasion. It's touching, and hilarious, and very ironic, and it would just flat out not work if there were adjectives.

On the other hand, The State Of The Art, the novella that gives this collection it's name, was fairly tedious: Culture life-forms visit Earth and Banks just seems to make them reiterate all those tired cultural tropes that travellers have: the French are rude, India is dirty.

Banks worships his Culture. You can tell in the bland personalities he gives them, the vagueness that is brought to the details of their lifestyles. It's almost as if his idea of a perfect culture would crumble on closer inspection; so he doesn't.

Instead the characters discuss abstract concepts (social politics, goodshort stories and bad) in a remarkably tedious, Ayn Rand-way.

Boring is the word I'd use to describe this novella.

Banks' strength is in his short stories.

Linguistic Pedantry 2

We were doing a class on 'holiday breaks'. I was asking the students what they wanted to do for their summer break. Most of them were Spanish, and most of them were actually here already for their summer break.

"In summer," one student said, "I go back Barcelona... to Barcelona. There are lovely bitches."

"Beaches," I repeated, drawing out the /i:/ and motioning towards the stretched corners of my mouth.

"Yes, bitches," he agreed.

"Haha," I laughed awkwardly. My sense of humour is crass most of the time, but for some reason I get all prudish in front of a class. And I tried again: "Beeeeeeeches."

He frowned.

"Can you tell me what it is you like about Spanish beeeeeches?" I asked him.

He replied, "They wear less clothes than English bitches."

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Reading around

Written for the Foyles blog.

The contents of books are normally fantastic (even the badly written books), quite literally. Most books are designed to take you somewhere else. Even the most boring of academic books are trying to remove you to a different place.

Books are where new leaves are turned and budding interests can first be satisfied.

Often I see a book as its potential to be somewhere else, I forget it is first and foremost heavily reconstituted wood, bound with glue and thread, and jacketed in more wood.

Familiarity begats forgetfulness.

Then I pick up a box of books that tugs me forward with its weight, and I have to remind myself that the reason it's so heavy is that it is almost exclusively tree.

Which is not really a surprise; it's just one of those truths I take for granted and casually forget, like the lion on the two pence piece.

Just as time and exposure casually mask the nature of a book, so time and exposure mask the original usage of the word 'book'. It comes from the same place as 'beech', probably because when Old English was still being used people were still carving words in beech trees.

'Ben wære hér 2AD.'

Of course, before it's specialisation to mean a selection of bound papers in a cover, the word 'book' used to refer to any written document. The Tom, Dick, or Harry of written materials.

In many languages the word for 'leaf' is the same word for 'page' or 'paper'. 'Page' doesn't mean 'leaf' though ('paper' on the other hand is fairly obviously connected to 'papyrus'). No, 'page' made it's way into English via French/Latin from the Proto-Indo-European word 'pag-', 'to fix', as in 'join', not 'mend'. But the connection's still there in English, we still take a leaf out of someone else's book and read 'leaflets'.

Earlier I was browsing the science-fiction section, which is where all this interest in book related etymology started, trying to find another door-stop to lose myself in, when I found myself, as I'm wont to do, wondering where that word came from. Browse: I can think of many words that sound similar (brow, brown, peruse) and many phrasal synonyms (look through, check out, thumb through, &c.), but no synonym that means the same thing. Sometimes this feels quite rare in English with its numerous Latin/Germanic pairings.

And then a word like 'browse' comes along and deals with this issue by making the journey from Proto-Germanic, through French and into English.

Probably, it comes from the Proto-Germanic word 'brustjan', which meant 'to bud', and later from Old French 'brost' which is a word for a freshly sprung shoot (add -er and it becomes the verb 'to bud').

Which I think adds a rather pleasant dimension to the idea of 'leafing through' a book: Books are where new leaves are turned and budding interests can first be satisfied.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Problem Of Reading

I just finished reading 'One Soldier's War In Chechnya' by Babchenko on the weekend. It's equally mesmerizing and harrowing, and somehow more poignant when being read on the long bus journey to work. There were a couple of times I had to put the book down and take a breather. There were other times that it seemed to me that I was repressing horrors as I read them.

Do you ever get to the end of the page, or worse the chapter, and realise that precisely none of the words you've just read have registered? What's that about?

I was reading half a chapter, only for my awareness to kick in, and half a chapter of Babchenko's charming eloquence to disappear from memory. 'Frustrating' doesn't even begin to cover the number of times it seemed to happen during this book. And I couldn't begin to explain it; it wasn't through lack of interest, I can assure you.

So, I wagged my chin a bit, and chins wagged back, and it seems that everyone has this problem.

That's all good. I'm not alone. But, it's no answer either. So what's actually going on?

I went out of my way to understand.

The reading process is very mechanical. As words and sentences build up a world and a direction through which to take you, the procedures your eyes and brain go through are almost robotic.

In recording reader's eye movements researchers have been able to determine that the eye moves systematically across every word, alternating between letter recognition and faster scanning periods. It can spend between 100 to 450 milliseconds on letter recognition. The much faster scanning periods, at about 30 milliseconds a section, cover distances of about eight letters. About nine in ten of these faster sections are progressive, with the remaining one in ten jumping back in the text to material that's already been read.

Every adult who can competantly read does this, often irregardless of whether they comprehend what they are reading or not. This is because what you're actually doing is scanning a word or phrase, instantly recalling associations with the word or phrase, and storing it in your working memory, wherefrom it either seeps into your long-term memory or disappears in a puff of irrelevance.

Great stuff. So why did Babchenko's enthralling stories fail to enthrall my long-term memory so many times?

Your working memory is a marvelous thing. It enables information from various regions of the brain to be manipulated at the same time.

Observations have shown that the neurons that fire when you think about an object continue firing for a few seconds after you have finished observing the object. This is your working memory continuing to process the information, trying to decide the relevance of information in regards to whatever problem your working memory is trying to sort out.

Reading is a problem. There's so much to analyse: letters have to be translated into phonemes (which have their own relevance), letters have to be translated into words (which a lot of readers have to translate into sequences of phonemes) and instantly connoted, which have to be considered in whatever sequence they've been viewed in, and whether that sequence is a new or recognised string of words. After all of which your working memory then has to decide how it relates to to the narrative that preceded it.

This echo of firing neurons that carries on after the words have been read allows the brain to make associations and connections. As the ideas overlap, the brain is able to form new pathways between neural networks, and the sentence you have read is moved into your brain's long-term storage.

But, if your working memory is unable to make these ideas overlap, then you don't have much chance of remembering what you read.

So, while I was reading on the bus, my working memory was busy dealing with some other problem, and the act of reading is so mechanical that I didn't even realise that none of the words were settling.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Video killed the audiobook

Written for the Foyles blog.

I'm fairly ashamed to admit it as someone who makes a living from words printed on paper that I'd sooner watch a film or TV adaptation than read a lot of popular fiction. In some cases I find myself unaware of the fiction until I have seen the adaptation.

The most recent example is probably Game of Thrones, which I barely noticed in its written form, despite its enormous presence on the bookshelf. Until HBO plastered advertising for their version all across the internet. I had watched all of the BBC Jane Austen adaptations before reading a single word of Austen. And I'm deeply familiar with the David Lean's Great Expectations, whereas Dicken's novel is a vague memory. Three times I have tried to read Lord of the Rings, and three times I have given up at the same point half way through the third book; I can quote the films with the best of the fans.

I blame this entirely on the fact that I grew up without a TV. So when the screen entered into my life I found myself entirely entranced, like a rabbit in the glare of headlights. Only I was a rabbit who mixed my metaphors and quickly developed an addiction for it.

As a child I devoured books, but barely touched the literary classics. It took visualisations to push me in that direction.

While I did not devour the classical greats, I would still argue that the books I read were high ranking in the children's greats. Wolf, and The Demon Headmaster, by Gillian Cross. The Worlds of Chrestomanci, by Diana Wynne Jones. Just William, by Richmal Crompton. The Falcon's Malteser, by Anthony Horowitz. All books I would reccommend to children without a moments hesitation.

Better still than reading these books was listening to them. My taste for passive entertainment didn't begin with TV. That began with audiobooks. The Demon Headmaster read in the jolly tones of Judy Bennett was one of the first I discovered. I enjoyed her readings so much that I virtually stole the tapes from the library. It was only when I learned that you could copy from tape to tape that I did return them.

Better still than Judy Bennett was Martin Jarvis. He has one of the most soothing voices. Possibly the only soother voice is that bass tone that produces the shipping forecast. And his subtle, silky tones revealed all the satirical elements of Just William that I was far too young to gather by reading by myself.
There is something so much more informative about having the story read to you. Perhaps it is simply the other perspective which is so interesting. The children in The Demon Headmaster had always had adult voices in my head, but Judy Bennett made them sound like children. Martin Jarvis brought a regionality to the characters that an untravelled child like myself couldn't imagine.

Then the TV began and audiobooks disappeared from my life.

I've recently discovered audiobooks again, almost by accident. I read an Ayn Rand book, which turned out very much to not be my thing. Yet at the same time I found it fascinating, like the surgery scenes in Casualty. I couldn't bring myself to read more, but I wanted to know more. So I obtained an audiobook to listen to on my journies around London. I can't say I found it exciting, but it definitely added some colour to the walking.

Shortly after that I tried listening to a book I had wanted to read for some time but never quite got round to reading: Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything. Read by the author himself. That was certainly a novelty. The only time before that I had heard an author read their own work was at a book signing for Terry Deary's Horrible Histories.

Writers giving advice to writers always say that if you want to know your work is right, then read it aloud. If you can't read it aloud, then it needs fixing.

Listening to Bill Bryson's own reading was a thoroughly charming experience. His voice sounded exactly the way I had expected, the work flowed as smoothly as if he had ad-libbed the entire thing, and I found myself happily listening a second time to pick up on information I had missed the first time.

Likewise Tony Robinson's voice and Stephen Fry's voice are perfectly matched to the prose of Discworld and Harry Potter, so perfectly that it is difficult not to hear their voices as you read. Unlike Tony Blair's biography; having grown so used to hearing his voice deliver sharp, clipped, perfectly formed soundbites, it is a curiosity to hear him talk in full sentences.

First time authors are often told that they have to work hard to promote their own work. A publishing deal doesn't normally come with a reasonable advertising budget, and one thing that author's tend to do in self-promotion is go around bookshops and do readings from their works. Which strikes me as a humbling way to find someone's work. I have found two authors I greatly appreciate this way, Anneke Campbell and Catherine Johnson; their unassuming, gentle readings were quite captivating.

Unfortunately writers need to write, and cannot spend all their time hanging round in bookshops giving free readings. And that's what's great about audiobooks.

Monday, February 6, 2012


The Japanese have a word that we don't have in English. It is very specific in usage, and also fairly useful in a masculine stereotypical, misogynistic way. Bakku-shan: a woman who looks good from behind, but not from the front. The only problem with this word is that it's judgmentalism could be very useful if it was a bit more flexible so as to reflect more a more general judgement that everyone makes. What do girls say when they find themselves in the same situation but with reversed genders? What about if the behind of someone looks amazing, but the front isn't ugly, just so-so?

I'm not sure of the etymology of the word, or even what the individual coponents bakku and shan mean. But that's the beauty of taking words from other languages, the previous meanings aren't so important. I mean, what if we bend the word a little bit further to mean someone who is attractive on the outside, but not agreeable in the head? Or their beliefs? Have you ever had a hot Mormon come and try to convert you? A bakkushan Mormon. Or simply, someone attractive with a certain je ne sai quoi in whatever you consider the distasteful end of the spectrum?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


On the other hand, misappropriation (i.e. jokes) can increase the educational power of words. In Filthy English, Peter Silverton tells a story about his tutor trying to teach his class the functions of the hypothalmus in the brain. "It controls the four f's. Which are? Feeding, flight, fight, and... sexual behaviour." In this case the suggestion of a taboo word in a classroom makes it all the more memorable.

In biology, some of the easiest taxonomic classifications to remember are the ones that play on a common name or word. If I told you there was a genus of slime-mold beetle called Agathidium, I can imagine you would simply nod your head and agree, and promptly forget the word. But if I told you that there were species in this genus called bushi, cheneyi, rumsfeldi, and vaderi, named respectively after Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Darth Vader, I believe you would be more likely to remember them.

And Miller and Wheeler, the biologists responsible for Agathidium bushi, are far from the only ones who do this. The biologist Erwin called a genus of beetle Agra so that he had a whole order of puns to use: phobia, vation, cadabra. Marsh did the same with the genus braconid Heerz: lukenatcha, tooya...

Taxonomists who play with names like that may have been doing so with mischeivous intentions, but they inadvertently make the academic nature of their work more accessible to laymen. As Richard Fortey has pointed out, taxonomy by nature appeals to a certain sort of mind.

Misappropriation of words is all very amusing, a bit like the antiques restorer who adds dirty imagery into china paintings. You could call it innappropriate if you are very conservative about the correct use of language. But much more wonderful and amusing is when it happens by accident. Or when it is expropriated, so that the words of someone else (ancestors?) become seemingly meaningless names. Unlike finding two meanings for a word, you find two words with one meaning, like a little butter spread on too much bread.

There's a great name for this unnessesary use of extra words: it's called a pleonasm, which sounds to me like a steam-punk engine the belches out pointless strings of words. From the Latin 'pleonasmus', from the Greek 'pleíōn' meaning 'more', from the Indo-European 'pelǝ-' meaning 'full'. It seems that the meaning of this word over-flowed.

The name Rock of Gibralter refers specifically to (surprise, surprise) the giant rock in the middle of the peninsular known as Gibralter; but, what does Gibralter mean? The word is a heavily palatized form of the Arabic name for the island, Jabal Tariq. Tariq is a person, and Jabal is 'rock of'. If Tariq was still alive, perhaps he would be honoured to know the mountain has been named after him, twice!

But we all know that English speakers are particularly good at doing this. The first example that jumps to mind is the River Avon. Close on it's heels are the River Tyne, and the Humber Rivers in Canada. 'Avon', 'tyne' and 'humber' are all derived from proto-Celtic words for water flows.

If I were to tell you that an '-ey' on the end of word is an old Saxon suffix meaning 'island' would you be able to spot the redundant island names up north?

My personal favourite mountain names are the trio of mountains called Pinnacle Peak (Arizona), Mount Pinnacle (Virginia), and the beautifully understated Hill Mountain (Wales). Though redundant names for mountains and rivers seem to be fairly common (Loch Lochy, Laguna Lake, Lagos Lagoon, Pendle Hill, Summit Peak, Table Mesa), they are fairly understandable as original meanings become obscured in an evolving language.

Much more confusing is the continuous use of redundant phrases and collocations. Such as those redundant pairings in legal terminology that were left over from the the Norman conquest of Britain. It had been necessary for terms to be paired in French and English because not everyone spoke French. Then we find ourselves left with phrases such as 'aid and abet', and 'cease and desist'.

There's a list of them here that makes for fairly entertaining reading. When you consider that people qualify an acronym with a word from the acronym, it does make you wonder why bother using one word when two will double the quality.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A Game Theory of Thrones

Written for the Foyles blog.

(Note: I only talk about the premise of Game of Thrones. No spoilers here.)

I love the 'Brief Introduction To' series. Unsurprisingly it does exactly what it says on the tin. They don't take long to read, and you inevitably feel a lot smarter at the end. The last one I read was A Brief Introduction to Game Theory, which led onto some wider reading, and I decided to test what I learned in the geekiest way I could think of.

One of the most basic elements of game theory is that the result of a game is the pay-off. There are too many types of pay-off, and too many that are specific to individuals and individual circumstances to be listing them here. But the list of pay-offs are usually bracketed by the two extreme solutions, becoming King (literally or metaphorically) or becoming dead. This is called a zero-sum game. Chess is a zero-sum game. A zero-sum game is essentially a game that has a clear winner and a clear loser. It's called a zero-sum game because the value of loss and gain together is always zero. (In a chess example, one side wins (+1) and one side loses (-1), which added together gives you zero.)

In the case of Game of Thrones, becoming King usually entails being murdered. As Cersei Lannister proclaims: "When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground." Game theorists love diagrams, so here's a brief diagram:

The column represents one player, the row represents the other. It is clear from this diagram, the odds of winning don't seem to be great. As one of my friends so eloquently put it: "It takes a particular type of mentality to want to run a country, because you always lose. Even if you win, you lose." This is an open game, where the players have individual drives, the rules are not fixed, and the pay-off is not the same for all participants. The possible outcomes are not as simple as 1 and 0. For this we need to be able to name the pay-offs and quanitfy them.

So, it's clear from the offset that this is a game to the death. The two characters you may well presume are important in the prologue are dead and gone by the end of their warm-up chapter. Then in the first chapter Mr. Martin introduces us to the family who, for want of a better and pragmatically short description, are good: the father figure explains to his son the importance having to behead your enemies yourself in the name of honour and responsibility.

You may be asking yourself how a family that teaches the necessity for beheading can be 'good'? If you've read the book, maybe you're also very conscious of the fact that very little this family does is morally good. But they are okay, honestly... but only relatively. Locked in a pitch black and deep dungeon, the smallest glimmer of light seems bright. This book tries very hard to show us that good and bad are fantasies and redemption can only be seen in motive and success. Every character is playing their own game.Very Hobbesian so far.

There's Ned Stark, a man motivated by family values and powered by honour, and his wife, Catelyn Stark, a woman with disparate motivation and far too much drive. Both of them believe in reciprocation as the best method to get through life. Their idea of societal reciprocation is very feudal, so therefore fairly unethical, but the story is primarily one of the upper classes, so let's gloss over this point.

Let's take a moment to look at what the basic games are. There are three basic types of game: the zero-sum, the positive-sum, and the negative-sum, which respectively result in one winner and one loser, both sides winning, and both sides losing. There is a difference between the type of game being played, and the result of the game being played. You can play Monopoly with the intentions of winning, but end up finishing the game with no clear winner.

Ned tries to find the middle ground for every problem (positive-sum), while Catelyn spends a lot of time trying to right wrongs in the 'eye for an eye' fashion (negative-sum). However, you cannot simply judge someone on the game they play, that would be the same as judging Nigella Lawson on her cooking methods and not what came out the oven in the end. We have to look at the fact that between them they strike the metaphorical match that burns their world out of recognition, and that they bring about game-changing strategies in their initial refusal to play the titular game.

The problem with these two is that they are playing for emotional gain, while almost every other character is geared towards material gain. You can't play a game of chess while trying to make the other side agree to stick to their side of the board, can you? The aim of the game has been forced upon you. Which points to the most important characteristics of the rules in their world: honour and shame. And shows us why the Starks are the best in human life that their world has to offer, since their stakes are virtuously honourable and shameless.

The other central family, the Lannisters, on the other hand have such a huge, disjointed family with so many immoral twists and turns between them that their fight for honour is merely an indignant shield from a world of judgement. Their stakes in this game of thrones are actually higher because they have no common virtues with which to bind them and only supports of conspiracy holding them up. Triumphalism and resentment powered by shadenfreude. For the Lannisters, there are no self-imposed rules, only a direction towards success. They embody almost every relationship that characterises a zero-sum society: resentment, mistrust, envy, humiliation, shadenfreude, and lies.

Because the Lannisters are not a close-knit group who play the game in and amongst themselves, as much as against the other families, they are essentially playing a negative-sum game in the eyes of the Starks. They will never win as a family, only as individuals.

But how do you give value to their actions? While this is clearly a zero-sum game (in that there is only one crown, so only one winner), not everyone involved is playing with that as their desired pay-off. Lord and Lady Stark just want to settle down to the fire-side life in their winter castle.

There are two ways of measuring the pay-off (if you're interested in the lingo, the number given to pay-off is 'utility', and the two ways of measuring utility are 'ordinal' and 'cardinal'). The first is for games where the outcomes are ranked, rather than measured as in - the voting system of England is measured by first past the post. The second is for games where the ratio between results is important. For example, the alternate vote means that the proportion of representatives in parliament directly reflects the ratio of results.

Ed and Catelyn Stark don't want to play the zero-sum game; they have family values, so losing isn't an option. The best they can manage is the only option. Because everyone else is playing a zero-sum game we require the second way of measuring pay-off. The way this is usually pictured is with each players move being a lottery. The chances of success in each move are measured as a percentage, with the sum of all choices equal to 100%. This following is going to be a very basic way of looking at it, pretending that this is a game of one move and skipping past the equations and algorithms that economists use to figure this type of thing out:

Let's say the point of being a King is to gain possession of a pie, and possession of pie is equivalent to the amount of satisfaction in the games conclusion. If this is too silly and you need to visualize it as having a real value, imagine it as a huge golden pie. As King you can't hoard the pie, you need to reward others with pieces of pie. But to remain King you need to hold onto a majority of pie. So the King wins at least half.

Let's say the whole pie is split into 10 pieces. The King automatically gets 5 pieces. Lord and Lady Stark will require a King who gives them enough pie to chase their family dreams, and so their proportion of pie is dependent on how much everyone else receives. If a Lannister becomes King the remaining half pie will be consumed in internal family squabbles, along with a will and purpose to destroying their ideological enemies, the Stark family. Failing that, the Lannisters require a King who would give them at least 3 pieces of pie, therefore more satisfaction than the Starks. The Starks require a non-Lannister King who would permit them at least 2.5 pieces of pie, so that everyone is equally satisfied by the existence of this King.

Trying to picture a non-zero-sum game can be a bit of a headache, which is why people so often wish political descisions could be solved in a boxing ring, and wars fought by leaders on a paintball site. Unfortunately this is the sort of idealised vision of the world that relies on the idea that everyone is playing co-operatively, and one thing that Game of Thrones underlines so well, is that the game played for power is not fair and most certainly non-co-operative. Of course, a book about feudal lords and ladies arm-wrestling over territories might not be such entertaining reading.

An honour/shame society is by nature a zero-sum society, reducing, as it does, the pay-off to win (honour/1) and lose (shame/0), suggesting that while the proverb, "War is the sport of kings," may be true, for everyone else it's a matter of saving face.

Thursday, January 12, 2012


There is a wonderful little poem in Roald Dahl's Matilda. A little boy proves he has learned to spell a four syllable word by memorizing this poem. It goes: "Mrs. D, Mrs. I, Mrs. F. F. I., Mrs. C., Mrs. U., Mrs. L. T. Y." To which Mrs. Trunchball has the delightfully barbed response: "Why are all these women married?"

I've never forgotten this poem, from the moment I first read it. There is a certain genius in its simplicity and ability to teach, the way it uses the natural necessity to remember names and patterns. It is much easier to remember a word that has two meanings, as anyone who has learned a second language can confirm; It is much harder to memorize words in the beginning when you only know how to use each one in only one situation.

When you first start to learn a new language it is unavoidable that your usage is reduced to direct subsitution. For example, when I first set out on the learning Dutch boat, I learned straight away as many of the words we shared. Like Michel Thomas' French method, the best thing to do with a new language is see how much of it you have in common. I learned that the Dutch also use the word 'pen', 'computer', 'bank'. And one day I was listening to a Dutch song about the mundanity of life, when the singer says 'hangende op de bank', which I took to mean 'hanging on the bank'. What on Earth does that mean? I asked myself. Is it a euphemism for the sort of depressive emotions that bureaucracy causes?

The Dutch, I have since discovered, also call a sofa 'een bank'. Over time I also learned that 'een bad' is a bath, 'elk' is every, and 'een broodje aap' (a monkey sandwich) is an urban legend. False friends, like these first two examples, are the bane of every second language learner, and it is easy to misappropriate them. Idioms such as the third example can make language impenetrable, sometimes even to speakers of the same language, and it may seem surprising to know that this is partially intentional.

One of the prime purposes of language is the role it plays in social cohesion. Being the primary human tool, before the computer it was the only tool that permited such a neat and complex exchange of ideas. Because humans share a common set of drives there are a number of ideas that can be exchanged with relative ease using only physical language - such as gestures. But smaller groups (countries, towns) have their own, more complex, common ground, therefore their own understandings. Where an individual will appropriate a word for their own purposes, it's use can only be relevant if there are a group of people that have a similar interpretation of the word. Which is why vocabulary in industrialised areas tends to be larger: there are more intersecting social groups, which produces more linguistic appropriations.

An extreme example of this would be the slanguage, Polari. The reason I call it slanguage is because while it was slang and retained grammatical structures from the primary language of the speakers, it took on an almost specialist vocabulary. A form of slang developed by performers and later adopted by the queer community, it was a mish-mash of vocabulary from English, back-slang, rhyming slang, Italian, circus and theatre lingo, Gypsy and Yiddish.

But then, just as much as language can be used to draw communities closer, it can equally be used as for social exclusion. The development of slang being one such example; what better way to make a group exclusive than to misappropriate words. Can teenagers think of a more effective way to develop bonds with each other while blocking out adults than by developing their own slang? Is their any other reason that legal terminology is so arcane other than to keep the profession closed? What was the purpose of Polari in queer culture before its popularisation on the radio? Why is French Verlan so widely used?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


In the beginning was a word, and the word was 'pǝtḗ'. It meant father, and you can still see it in words like 'paternal', and 'pater noster'. These words entered English via French, which formed in French from the Latin 'pater'. Not much of a change for 2000 years. Another word that started it's journey in the same place is 'property', from the Latin 'propri', meaning 'one's own'. The connection between paternity and property is not immediately obvious, but someone, somewhere back in time must have thought that there must have been a worthwhile relationship between the two ideas because they both share the Indo-European root 'pǝtḗ'. It does not seem an appropriate connection in this day and age of political-correctness and gender equality. Why should property be of the father?

Talking of appropriate, composed of the elements 'ap-', 'propri', and '-ate', an appropriate example is needed: My behaviour at the dinner party was appropriate to my personality. And an example of my behaviour: Without much forethought, I appropriated my host's dialect to shameful comic effect. It is a pity that inappropriate does not sound right as a verb.

We have here a word that has a handful of meanings, none of which seem particularly related to it's original use of its root. It can mean 'suitable', or 'belonging to something', and as a verb, 'to take for oneself', with hints of thievery to boot.

I think that 'to appropriate' is one of the most accurate verbs we have for explaining the historical distribution of words. When a word moves from one language to another it is called a loan-word, which I believe gives the impression that the speakers offered it. And we know this is not really true. How often have you asked permission from someone to use that really useful word you just heard them use? More likely you'd say, "Great word. I'm gonna nick that off you." And more realistically you just go ahead and use it, building up your own understanding, your own uses. You give it your own context. You appropriate it. And this is exactly how the evolution of language works.

It's very difficult to completely impose a language on a population. The population will only ever take what is most useful to them. As the Normans discovered when they conquered England. Technically England then became a bilingual society, where French was the language of administration and English the language of day to day living. But the English clearly found uses for certain French words outside of admin. A prime example: you farm the English cows, calves, deer, hens, sheep and swine, but eat the French beef, veal, venison, poultry, mutton and pork. You give a French cordial welcome to virtual strangers, but a hearty English welcome to your friends. You admire the French language, but wonder at the English.

Roughly 30% of the English vocabulary comes from French, and a vast number of those words are even spelled the same way. It is one of the most useful tricks Michel Thomas has for learning French, in learning to pronounce this third of English in a French manner.

For sure, language is appropriated fittingly. But are words appropriated in an appropriate way?

This may at first sound like a bit of a silly question, however, if it is phrased once more, but in the negative, perhaps it will be a little more fun: Are words appropriated in an inappriopriate way? or, Are words inappropriated? After all, we are all aware of the existence of taboo words, even if some of us do deny them so much existence. And maybe this is just scratching the surface, since taboo words are not the only form of language that is considered wrong.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Withering Heights

Last night I paid £12.50 (£12.50!!) to go and see the most recent film adaptation of Wuthering Heights. While thinking that £12.50 was far too much to pay for something that offered so little in the way of enjoyment or useful lessons (the only lesson I walked away with was the usual one that style needs substance to be worthwhile), it did give me a lot to think about.
"TV frame, incongruous mise-en-scene, poor casting and dodgy racial politics - any one of these could sink a film, but all four together is a very tough sell. The biggest sin, however, is to take Wuthering Heights and imbue it with absolutely no passion at all. The moors look suitably wild, and there is a strong sense of mud, but beyond that there are few positives to take from this film." IMDB 
By the end of the film I found myself feeling particularly sorry for Catherine's brother, Hindley. Far from the usual framing of the story in which Heathcliff is seen to develop dangerous sociopathic/psychopathic tendencies in reaction to his mistreatment, he is already displaying them at the open of this film. Which, ignoring Hindley's use of racist slurs to beat him down, almost makes his treatment of Heathcliff excusable (in terms of plotting, not acceptable) in that his treatment would change the circumstances but likely make no difference on Heathcliff's behaviour towards others. And I think this undermines the self-fulfilling prophecy issue of hatred breeds hatred that made the original story so morally engaging. Which is also a neat way of side-stepping the racist issue. So, why use of a black Heathcliff if you are going to make it slip by without notice? (The awful acting and lack of character in all quarters might have helped there as well).

Linguistic Pedantry 1

This morning, one of my 'friends' on Facebook updated their status: "To faced lying whore!"

I've been thinking about the dynamics of this sentence since then and trying to make sense of what she meant.

We begin with a preposition, 'to', as in 'towards'. The past participle of 'to face' is now rendered as an adjective modifying the noun in the phrase. And the gerund 'lying' modifying it further. The problem with the adjectived 'faced' is that it does not have the same semantic values as 'to face'. To better make meaning of it the  verb requires the copula, and it becomes 'to be faced'. As a transitive verb it requires an object. If it took an indirect object the subject would be adjacent to something. But it is not indirect, so the subject must be in possession of a face.

The preposition and the exclamation mark on either side of the noun phrase are clear indications that this is intended as an imperative statement, and not a pejorative declaration, which it clearly would if she had meant to use 'to's homonym 'two'. We are being told to go to the reclining prostitute who is in possession of a face.

Which leaves me with just one question; Does she know any prostitutes who are unfortunate enough to not have a face?

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Nice And Accurate Prophecies Of Agnes Nutter

Happy New Year everybody! We made it, survived yet another year, and, boy, have we had a lot to survive from over the past year: worldwide economic collapse, revolution in the East, the nose-dive of the European currency, the axing of benefits and jobs, city-wide riots, and the end of the Harry Potter film-franchise.

Well, we have made it this far. But this year we have the epic, galactic alignment to survive next, the gravity of which will rip our planet to shreds.

What's that you say? Nonsense, you say?

Shame on you skeptics. How can you not see the evidence passed down in the annals of ancient wisdom?

Okay, maybe it is nonsense. The Mayans had absurd ideas about the history of time, just like every ancient culture. Their's may have been a fraction closer to the truth than others. They believed in cyclical time, the passing of ages, which doesn't seem too absurd in light of the way we divide Earth's history into named ages. According to the Mayans there were three ages before ours, each lasting about 5,125 years. In terms of time scale their ideas about the age of the world was not as realistic as the Hindu's, but miles closer than Ussher's prediction of 6,000 years ago, on Sunday, October 23rd, at 6pm (which was based on close analysis of biblical events). For the Mayans, ours is the fourth age, the age of the humans, and the calender they set for this age is due to run out in December 2012. Veritably the end of the world.

The Mayan calender was a Long Count calender, conveniently based upon their choice length of time for each age. Obviously their mathematics was limited by a certain number of euphemistic fingers on which to count. They counted a certain number of days, which became a certain number of months, which became a year. But they didn't stop there: a certain number of years became an age. Presumably a certain number of ages became a countable... something.

If they had just set a calender with infinite counting abilities, perhaps we would not have a handful of such loud akceptics declaring the end of the world. It's nothing more than an ancient form of the Millenium Bug. And the human race survived the millennium with the most modest of mishaps, relatively speaking. Then again, if it was not the Mayan's calender that formed the basis for the 2012 prediction, perhaps it would be something else.

I am quite looking forward to the end of the Mayan calender. It will mark the dawning of a new age, one that I feel has more spirituality, more cultural connotations attached to it than the turning of the second Julian millennium. As well as this, there is no better reason for pouring a nice glass of wine and throwing a dinner party in celebration of having survived the end of the world. Again.

I like to think that this is what Manuel The Great did when he took the bricks out of his window in 1174 to find that the world still there, and not nearly as hot as the solar flares from the sun were predicted to have made it.

It seems that this alignment of the celestial objects tearing the world to shreds is a prediction as old as heavenly geometry. The prediction that had Manuel The Great bricking up his palace windows was made by one John of Toledo who noticed the known planets would all be in the same sign at the same time. The logical conclusion he drew was that the power of this would cause the sun the bellow out fiery balls of death. Albert Porta made a similar observation and conclusion for December 17th 1919 when six planets lined up before the sun.

On a related note there is a perfectly wonderful word for planetary alignment. Sadly it only applies to three celestial bodies: Syzygy. One 'y' for each body.

Please allow me to take you on a brief tour of the history of the end of the world. It will by no means be a comprehensive exploration of poor predictions, more of a pre-amble through the ones I think are interesting.

A great many catastrophic dates seem to be nice round numbers. The year 500, the year 1000, the year 1500, and the year 2000. Nice round numbers stemming from the birth of Jesus Christ. For reasons I can't begin to fathom a nice round number is the perfect marker for the Second Coming. If the Second Coming fails, then the next good number will be 33 years later, the age of Christ when he died.

Christ's return at the dawn of the second millennium was overshadowed a little by the possible destruction of modern society at the hands of the Millennium Bug.

William Miller, a Baptist preacher, destroyed his reputation by predicting the end of the world to be October 22, 1844. He had raised so many hopes, that when people found they were still alive on October 23, the event became known as the Great Disappointment.

The Watchtower magazine has predicted a few dates for the Rapture in its time, including 1914, '15, '18, '20, '25, '41, '75, and '94. Now famously, Harold Camping predicted the Rapture on May 21 last year, followed by the Apocalypse six months later. Atheists celebrated, but sadly for him the four horsemen of the Apocalypse did not crash their parties.

And here lies the danger of believing in a literal Bible. The stories were clearly intended as instructive lessons than accurate historical texts. But this has never stopped scientists looking for scientific answers in it.

Bad predictions by bad science does not necessarily imply a bad scientist though. Not only did Isaac Newton, the giant whose shoulders on which more recent scientific giants have been standing, make a prediction that the world would end in the early 21st Century based on his own understanding of Biblical Chronology, but he had a similar theory to Ussher about the age of the Earth.

Newton's protégé at Cambridge University, one William Whiston, was a formidable mathematician, and like his mentor, a catastrophist and believer in a literal Bible. He saw Halley's comet in 1680 and 1682, along with most of the world, and understandably took it as a sign/precursor for inevitable doom. The recent understanding of comets' periodicity allowed for a certain minor hysteria relating to knowing precisely when the sign would return. Still, it was not quite a 'great' disappointment.

Less of a disappointment will probably be any of the horrible ends that current science is able to predict for us. Apophis could very well hit our planet square in the Atlantic Ocean. I'll let Neil DeGrasse Tyson explain that one:

There's robots, ice age, gamma rays, viruses, giant volcanoes, global warming, cyber-warfare, nan-technology, nuclear holocaust...

The frequency of predictions, and the readiness that they are lapped up with, about the end of the world suggests something sad to me, that perhaps people believe the world should end, or that it deserves to end. A series of unfortunate events followed by the only thing that the human race can call home going ka-blooey. It strikes me as a very defeatist thing to read in symbols, and maybe this is the reason Newton kept mum about his own prediction.

Or are they believed in so vehemently because the idea of an end without a bang is not an end with dignity. Personally I think T.S. Elliot's own prediction is more comforting (and more lyrical): "This is the way the world ends: Not with a bang but a whimper."