Sunday, December 29, 2013

Déjà-vu All Over Again

Yogi Berra supposedly said, “Predictions are hard, especially about the future.” I say “supposedly” because he later cautioned, “I really didn't say everything I said. Then again, I might have said 'em, but you never know.” One prediction for the new year, now only a couple of days away, is easy though. 2014 is the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War 1, a disaster from which the world never entirely recovered. So, we will be treated in upcoming months to a slew of books, movies, and documentaries on the subject. It is all to the good that we should hear the timeless warnings inherent in the events of that year, though whether or not we also shall heed them is another question.

In 1913 global living standards maintained their decades-long rise, international trade reached new heights, and liberal democracy (mostly in the form of constitutional monarchies) continued to extend its reach. Though life still was very harsh for most of the world’s population, a slow evolution toward better and more enlightened times seemed inevitable. The world’s leaders by and large got along congenially. At the wedding of Princess Victoria Louise and Prince Ernst August of Cumberland, the collegiate (and related) Kaiser Wilhelm II, King George V, and Nicholas II rubbed elbows pleasantly; George wore a Prussian uniform and Wilhelm wore a British one. A year later they were at war, and no one seemed to know exactly why. A series of miscalculations had escalated a limited regional skirmish into a general war that nobody wanted.

The Economist noted in a leader the other day some ominous similarities between 2014 and 1914. The USA plays the role of the British Empire, a superpower on the wane. The rapidly expanding power of China parallels the earlier growth of Germany. Japan is France, and so on. (The magazine doesn’t cast the role of Austria. Iran? North Korea? Or is one of those Serbia? How does Russia fit?) No one is looking for a general conflict in 2014, but there are unresolved international issues (minor in the scheme of things, but important to those involved) regarding territory and other matters; miscalculation and escalation over them are real possibilities. The most serious parallel danger with 1914, the leader suggests, is complacency – a general failure to recognize the hazards that can accompany a misstep. One big advantage we have over our ancestors in 1914 is a historical record of their mistakes. One hopes this will be enough.

Not all conflicts are international ones, of course. Some are strictly personal – sometimes entirely internal. My own private 1914 was in the 1990s. My 1916 too. A little less complacency would have helped there as well. I think I’ve learned the appropriate lessons, though. Then again, I might not have learned 'em, but you never know.

Down Below (Stay Down Here Where You Belong), written by Irving Berlin in 1914: Tiny Tim’s rendition. (I posted this once in 2011, but, hey, the blog is about repeating history)

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Bosonic and Sillytonian, Dude

Native speakers of English have the linguistic equivalent of the financial advantage held by citizens of a nation with an international reserve currency (dollar, euro, pound, yen, Swiss franc and precious few others). Exchanges, verbal and commercial, are just easier for them when away from home. By the accidents of history, English has become the de facto global language. Chinese has more native speakers, but only modest global reach; Mandarin won’t get you far in Amsterdam or Dar es Salaam. Spanish also has more native speakers, but it is of limited use in Zurich, Lagos, or Singapore. People who speak English as a first language number between 375 million and 400 million, but the people who speak it as second language are the folks who give English its international punch. When you combine native and non-native speakers, they total well over a billion, if you are generous with proficiency standards, and they are spread around the world.

That’s not to say native speakers of English won’t be baffled sometimes by versions of English they encounter elsewhere. As an example, Bill Bryson in his book The Mother Tongue quotes his travel brochure from Urbino, Italy: “The integrity and thus the vitality of Urbino is no chance, but a conservation due the factors constituted in all probability by the approximate framework of the unity of the country, the difficulty od communications, the very concentric pattern of hill sistems or the remoteness from hi-ghly developed areas, the force of the original design proposed in its construction, with the means at the disposal of the new sciences of the Renaissance, as an ideal city even.”  We can sort-of see what the author of that sentence was getting at, but that is surely more to our credit than to his. In fairness, though, it is more competent than any stab of mine at Italian likely would be.

English infiltrates other languages, often to the annoyance of language purists. So (to cherry pick just a few) Germans have Teenagers, Romanians board a trolleybus, and French wear jeans. The Japanese prefer to alter English borrowings so they roll off the tongue more like native words, e.g. erebata (elevator), chiizu (cheese), nekutai (necktie), and sarada (salad). If it’s any comfort to those purists, English at least returns the favor by absorbing foreign vocabulary easily, such as tycoon and honcho from Japanese,bamboo from Dutch (actually from a Dutch mispronunciation of a Malay word), and yogurt from Turkish, to take a few random examples.

The size of the English vocabulary (excluding most chemical names and scientific designations, which would drive up the figure into millions) is often guesstimated at about 600,000, a number that grows by about 25,000 per decade. In truth, nobody really knows because there is no official body that decides what is and isn’t English. There is no equivalent to L'Académie française which holds the reins on French. The closest to a standard dictionary is the OED (Oxford English Dictionary), and the editors merely try to keep up with current vocabulary and usage rather than dictate what it should be.

The OED updates four times per year. This year’s December update added 500 words and modified 1000 definitions of existing entries. The list of new entries is remarkably tame this time, and is mercifully light (or should I say “lite,” which is in the OED) on the texting abbreviations of the sort added last year. A few samples:

Bureaucratese – The dense language of officialdom. (I’m surprised this wasn’t included years ago.)
Vacay – vacation. (Does this phonic curtailment irk you as much as me?)
Virtuecrat –  Someone, especially in authority, who preaches his or her own morals as a cultural imperative. (The person described is irksome, but I like the word.)
Badassery – The behavior, attitude, or actions of a badass (What else?)
Bosonic – Of or regarding bosons. (Though a particle physics term, this might catch on outside the lab if we use it slangily. Since forces are carried by bosons, I see some real possibilities for this, as in, “What you're saying is like totally bosonic, Dude!”)
Emoji – icons used in texting. (Borrowed from Japanese, the word is not etymologically related to “emoticon” but probably was picked up by English-speakers because it looks as though it is.)
Cramdown – a court ordered settlement, bankruptcy resolution, or reorganization, as in “cram down their throats.” (The OED doesn’t mention divorce settlements, but I suppose they would qualify.)
Sillytonian – a silly person (n.) or in the manner of a silly person (adj.). Though new to the OED, sillytonian is not a new word: it was popular in the 18th century. (Even a cursory glance around indicates that this word is ripe for revival.)

Are native English speakers so famously monoglot because they need to keep up with their own language?  I doubt it, because most of us don’t keep up with it. Laziness is a better explanation. We can get away with being functionally monolingual, so most of us are – if indeed we are even that. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, “The average reading level is at the 8th- to 9th-grade level” in the US and “one out of five read at the 5th-grade level and below.” These numbers haven’t budged in nearly two decades, and, despite large real increases in school budgets since the ‘70s, actually are worse than four decades ago. Maybe we need to outsource English.

Help may be on the way, though, thanks to teens’ passion for texting. According to a study conducted by City University in London, texting improves “phonological awareness and reading skill in children.” But then a University of Winnipeg study shows that teens who text 100 times or more per day (a pretty average number, strange as that sounds to older generations) are more likely to be shallow and unethical. Referencing Nicolas Carr (The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains) who hypothesized that heavy social media use is associated with cognitive and ethical superficiality, Dr Paul Trapnell of the University of Winnipeg said “The values and traits most closely associated with texting frequency are surprisingly consistent with Carr’s conjecture that new information and social media technologies may be displacing and discouraging reflective thought.” Damn, it’s always something.

Marianne Faithfull Broken English

Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Midwinter Day’s Stream

More snow has fallen since last week, but nothing unmanageable. There was a need to dig through the wall of snow (largely compacted into ice) stretched in front of my driveway by the street plows, of course, but that was to be expected. The roads have remained passable thanks to those same plows. Nonetheless, I’m glad to have my old 1998 GMC 4WD pick-up, if only to navigate my driveway. The driveway inclines upward from the road. It is not steep but it is long, so 2WD vehicles commonly lose traction about halfway up. This has advantages: I’m not as keen on random visitors as I once was.

I haven’t taken my new little Chevy (see November 7 blog) out in the snow at all. I probably should, just to see how it handles, but probably won’t. Nor will I be going out on horseback. In years past I would trail ride in the winter without a thought. Nowadays I’m likely to give it a thought – and go on thinking about it until Spring.

While the cold presently is a deterrent, in truth I have regretted having chosen to ride in the snow only once, and that was when I was all of 13 years old. Pocasset was generally a good-tempered horse (I don’t know why he was named after a town in Massachusetts), but every now and then he would do something odd. One snowy winter day he suddenly decided to gallop off at full speed. Many horses do this – typically for no discernible reason – and at age 13 I didn’t have the power or skill to stop. A runaway will tire eventually, and, if you can’t stop him, the trick is simply to hang on until then. On this occasion, however, he came rushing up to a stream. He didn’t like water, so he planted his hooves at the water’s edge. Obeying Newton’s First Law of Motion, I flew over his head and splashed down on my back in the middle of the icy stream. The water was just deep enough to soak my clothes and fill my boots. It was a very long, very chilly ride back to the stable. By luck rather than skill I still held the reins by one hand as I lay in the water, or it would have been a long chilly walk back.

At home while warming up after my unplanned bath, I heard my cat fussing at the back door. He was a long-hair (no special breed) and was soaked from the tip of his tail to the neck, so an enormous fluffy head topped a bedraggled skinny wet body. He had walked on the ice on the pond in the back yard and fallen through. I knew just how he felt.

Despite regrettable experiences on ski slopes and on ice, I’m not totally averse to hibernal sports even today, but I’m quite sure I won’t be joining the Polar Bear Club for midwinter swims. Pocasset dissuaded me long ago.

From the back door

I trust the Republican Guardsman didn’t splash in the Seine

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Tahiti on Ice

On Monday, the first substantial snow of the season fell in NJ. “Substantial” is a deliberately vague choice of adjectives. It was nothing like the 50 inches (127cm) that fell on the northeastern US in the Blizzard of 1888, a storm that killed 400 people, buried thousands of houses under drifts, shut down railroads, and sank 200 ships. It was nothing like the 34 inches (86cm) that fell on NJ in February 11, 1899, setting a state record for a single day (the snow of the Blizzard of ’88 fell over 2 days). It was not at all like the Super Bowl Blizzard of 1975 in the Midwestern US that killed 58 people and 100,000 farm animals. It wasn’t like “Snowmegeddon” that shut down the Northeast in February 2010 – DC, which usually gets off fairly lightly, piled up 32.4 inches (82.3cm) in that one. It wasn’t even like the freak October snowstorm of 2011 that caught most leaves in NJ, NY, and CT still on the trees, bringing them down on power lines and cutting off the electricity of millions. No, it was just an ordinary snowfall of a few inches. Because of accompanying icy conditions, however, the snow was enough to shut local schools for a day and to make driving treacherous until late afternoon. There are likely to be several more snowfalls just like it before Spring, and a there is a fair chance a few will be considerably bigger. Then again, we could have scarcely any snow at all this winter; in these parts one never knows.

With regard to storms as well as other life challenges, I try not to fight the big ones more than I have to. I have to shovel out the walks around my office, replace the mailbox by my driveway (it is a foregone conclusion that street snow plows will take out my mailbox once or twice each winter – yes it’s regulation height and distance), and check the furnaces, but otherwise I’m content indolently to sit out a snowstorm at home on the couch with a book or DVD.

I made an exception to my “don’t fight it” rule during the Blizzard of 1996, which over three days dropped 4 feet (1.2 meters) of snow on the Northeast. My future ex of the time was pretty adamant about getting from NYC to her home on the VA/NC border, so we drove relentlessly through the snow. The NJ Turnpike closed behind us shortly after we passed beyond it. We continued in near whiteout conditions on Route 13 on the Delmarva Peninsula. There were no other cars on the road because, we later learned, this road, too, was officially closed. As far as I could see, there was no road. I simply guessed that there must be one between the buildings and trees on each side, and apparently guessed correctly. (A few years later we had a similarly ill-considered drive into the face of Hurricane Floyd, but that is another story.) Had we begun the trip an hour later we never would have made it – the snow on the road simply would have been too deep. As it was, despite our steady southward progression out of the worst of the storm, it was a squeaker. This episode was just one of various exceptions I made to my general life rules in the late '90s – a symptom of the onset of “middle-age crazy,” I suppose. I since have returned to them and have no plans to joyride in the next blizzard.

Despite the relative mildness of Monday’s reminder that I do not live in the tropics, however, the event raised the question of why, in fact, I don’t live in the tropics. The question occurs to me every year at the first significant snowfall, and I have yet to come up with a good answer. Humans are, after all, tropical creatures who emerged from East Africa. The only snow our far ancestors ever saw was the distant cap of Mount Kilimanjaro. Yet, our great aunts and uncles marched into chilly climes at surprisingly early dates. 780,000-year-old flint artifacts have been uncovered at Happisburgh in East Anglia in the UK. Hardly a balmy spot for a winter vacation today, it was nippier then. What were the flint-knappers thinking? I imagine they were thinking the hunting, fishing, and watercress were good, even though their toes were chronically cold. Did they have second thoughts when the first snows of the year fell? I’m guessing they did.

Inertia plays a large part in all my decisions, and it surely plays the dominant part in this one. I have investments in my current location of both the financial and social sort, so pulling up stakes for the sake of warm toes thus far has seemed like too much trouble for the benefit. Homo antecessor, the presumed ancient inhabitants of Happisburgh, probably made much the same excuse. Nonetheless, each time I chip ice off the front steps, the appeal of Tahiti grows. One day, I may listen to the toes.

Simon and Garfunkel Hazy Shade of Winter

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Mash Clash: Final Derby Bout of the Season

My father used 12-07-41 as the combination to his combination-lock attaché case because he knew he’d never forget it. (I’ve since changed it.) It’s a small example of how much the date December 7 impinged on the consciousness of those who lived through World War 2. While still much better remembered than, say, the once unforgettable April 9 (Appomattox), the 7th no longer has such a reflexive association among the 96% of the population born after that date in 1941. Nonetheless, I was pleased to commemorate the day in my own way by attending a much more good-natured bout than the one that began in Hawaii 72 years ago.

Last night, December 7, was the last bout of the roller derby season in nearby Morristown. Hosted by the Jerzey Derby Brigade, "Wreck the Halls" was a mash-up, which is a match between two ad hoc teams: Red and Green, in this case, formed by skaters from the JDB and from other NJ and PA leagues. While mash-ups typically include above-average skaters, they haven’t had much chance to practice together, so individual skills increase in importance while team strategy diminishes – not vanishes, but diminishes.

In the first jam, both jammers were from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton: #81 VeroniKa Gettsburger for Green and #2 Elysium for Red (the pro forma “home” team). Green edged into an early lead, and it soon became evident that a depth of strong jammers was the reason. #911 Brass Muscles was effective at forcing her way through the pack, #8 Lil Mo Peep found and exploited holes, #17 Beast Witherspoon showed her experience, and #81 was simply outstanding. They were supported by energetic blocking by the rest of the team. Red also sported effective jammers, however, and the blocking was exceptional, notably by #VH1 LL Kill J who repeatedly slowed down #81 (no easy task) and #0hn0 Disaster Girl who did the same to #911. Blocking was rough and tumble on both sides, with Green #11 Bellakix taken down hard at one point, though she left the track on her own skates. The first half ended with a 131-77 lead for Green.

The lead was not insurmountable at the start of the second half, and Red, once again, was not without good jammers of its own. #1111 Pretty Kayotic was Red’s not-so-secret weapon who repeatedly put points on the board to keep the bout competitive. #2220 Jackie KenneDie could be very hard to stop, relative newcomer #99 Porcelain Brawl skated strongly against stiff blocking, and #3684 CaliforniKate added her experience to the mix. What Red really needed to close the point gap were a few well timed power jams (when the opposing jammer is in the penalty box) to exploit. Red didn’t get them – or at least not enough of them. Lil Mo Peep put the final points on the board for Green in the last jam. Final score was 265-149, victory to Green. MVPs were Beast Witherspoon for Green and Porcelain Brawl for Red.

So, derby season is over, but in the Spring when the baseballs start to fly the wheels will start to roll. I’ll be there to see them.

Scene from Kansas City Bomber (1972). It may be unfair to blame this movie for wrecking the original professional leagues, which (after 35 years) went out of business in 1973. After various false restarts, derby got traction again after 2000.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Be-Smurching Lindbergh

At the local cineplex last week, among the trailers preceding second Hunger Games film was one for the remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

[Digression: Yes, it bothers me too that a “trailer” can precede anything. 100 years ago the trailers did, in fact, trail, but theater owners learned that audiences wouldn’t stay around for them; so, by 1920 they were being run before the feature. Nonetheless, we have stuck stubbornly to the original word even though it has been inappropriate for 93 years. A similar stubborn adherence to tradition keeps sock sizes different from shoe sizes and the number of packaged hot dogs different from the number of packaged hot dog buns. (Sausages of any kind traditionally were sold by butchers in multiples of six or twelve, and rolls by bakers in multiples of eight or sixteen.)]

Anyway, Walter Mitty is a mild company drone who, in his own active imagination, is a swashbuckling hero. While the trailer ran, I wondered if Walter’s fantasies ever were invaded (as mine sometimes are) by unwanted mental images of his heroism ending in ruin or scandal. James Thurber, author of the short story on which the movie is based, might have had a similar thought, for he wrote another short story, The Greatest Man in the World, about a very flawed hero. Thurber, The New Yorker’s star essayist/cartoonist/short-story-writer in the 1930s, is not as much read these days as he once was, but he should be. His well-mannered satire and self-deprecating humor are refreshing in an age rife with shameless self-promotion. In the short story The Greatest Man in the World, Jack Smurch becomes a hero by making a solo flight around the world. Then, as now, Americans liked their heroes squeaky clean, so Smurch causes consternation. Smurch is so disreputable that his own mother, when interviewed after he took off from New York, says, “Ah, the hell with him. I hope he drowns.”

Lindbergh, of course, was the squeaky clean hero with whom Smurch was meant to contrast. Charles Lindbergh, contrary to common belief, was not the first to cross the Atlantic nonstop in a heavier-than-air aircraft. Two Brits named Jack Alcott and Arthur Brown did this in 1919 in a Vickers Vimy. Taking the shortest route, they flew from Newfoundland to Ireland, a distance of 1890 miles (3042km); they landed badly in a bog, but walked away safely. For some reason the feat didn’t attract much attention. Eyes instead were on the New York to Paris route, a distance of 3628 miles (5839km); numerous cash prizes were offered to the first aircrew to make it, notably a $25,000 prize ($325,000 in today’s dollars) offered by hotelier Raymond Orteig. By 1927, aircraft and engine technology was (just barely) up to the task, and in May of that year the 25-year-old Lindbergh pulled it off.

Lindbergh was not just unsullied, he was weirdly so. In 1927 he had no discernible vices and never even had been on a date. For the next decade he was wildly popular. Yet, he, too, had a fall. The reason was politics. When I was young (Charles died in 1974), I heard numerous people of the WW2 generation cuss him out as “that [expletive of choice] fascist.” Lindbergh was not a fascist. He was, however, an isolationist and a pacifist. A majority of Americans also were those things as late as 1941, but Lindbergh, unlike nearly everyone else, didn’t change his mind after December 7. Occasional anti-Semitic remarks in his past, never pretty, suddenly looked even uglier. (Example: “A few Jews add strength and character to a country. Too many create chaos.”) Nowadays, memories of his disrepute largely have faded, but there is a reason (besides shyness) he was so nearly invisible in the 29 years of his life after the war.

Strangely, we are still often surprised when heroes turn out to be mere humans. From the reaction to Lance Armstrong’s revelations, for example, you’d think he had betrayed each and every member of the public personally. More than a few supporters were genuinely surprised when Anthony Weiner (briefly a favorite in the race for mayor of NYC) had yet another sexting scandal. Some folks apparently really care whether or not Beyoncé lip-synced the national anthem.

I suppose it is human nature to mythologize great achievers. Fair enough, but perhaps we’d be less disappointed with them when they err if we regarded them from the start as the ancient Greeks did their mythological heroes: often forgetful, vengeful, violent or downright crazy. According to Kevin Dutton in his book The Wisdom of Psychopaths, after all, heroics are quite commonly part of the behavior of psychopaths. Heroics aren’t exclusive to them by any means, but even the best of us have our off moments. It may be the ultimate unfairness to expect otherwise.

No More Heroes by Slash