Has “belie” changed meanings?

I came across this comment in a history of movie popcorn (by way of The Dish):

Movie vendors, however, preferred yellow corn, which expanded more when it popped (creating more volume for less product) and had a yellowish tint that belied a coating of butter.

Now, it’s unusual for people to use words to mean their exact opposite, and I have a vague idea that I’ve seen this usage before — belie meaning not “contradict” or “conceal”, but more something like “dishonestly suggest”. If this is a trend in the word, it’s a fascinating slippage, because this inversion of the meaning — from concealing something true to proclaiming something that is false — is a bit of a double negation. In both cases, the subject is dishonest. In the usual sense of belie the object belied is true. In this new meaning — or maybe it’s just a thinko — the thing belied is false.

Interestingly, among the meanings included in the OED are single negations of what I consider the central meaning: Straightforwardly claiming (or demonstrating) something to be false, as in this 1893 citation from the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society:

The postulate of free will and moral responsibility assumed by the classical school is belied by physio-psychology.

East-west school gap in Germany

I’ll admit it. When I saw the Spiegel headline warning of an “alarming performance gap in maths and science between pupils in East and West”, I assumed this was just another one of those depressing reports on the economic failure of the poor Ossis. But no:

The East has the top pupils: Saxony and Thüringen lead in the national school comparison in maths and science. The losers are the city-states [Bremen, Hamburg, and Berlin] and North-Rhine Westfalia [the largest state, in the West]. Pupils there are as much as 2 years behind.

[Der Osten hat die Musterschüler: Sachsen und Thüringen führen beim bundesweiten Schulvergleich in Mathematik und Naturwissenschaften. Schlusslichter sind die Stadtstaaten und NRW. Dort liegen Schüler um bis zu zwei Jahre zurück.]

The five states comprising the former East Germany are the five leaders (out of 16) in biology, chemistry, and physics, and are among the top six on the mathematics test (with only Bavaria sneaking in to third place.

So, nearly 25 years after reunification, can it be that we’re seeing the continuing cultural effect of the positive Russian and East European influence on East German education, in particular their cultivation of and respect for mathematics?

Germany’s German-brain drain

Der Spiegel has just published an interview with Nobel-Prize winner Thomas Südhof, in which the editors express their dismay that the Göttingen-born and -educated Südhof has spent his entire professional career in the US, except for an apparently disastrous 2 years as director of a Max Planck Institute. He sounds apologetic, praising Göttingen and his supervisor, praising the research environment in Germany. He left only because

I think every scientist should spend some time abroad; a country should make this possible — but naturally should also try to get them back.

Hmm. “Try to get them back”? He also makes clear that he doesn’t even know if he has retained his German citizenship. The interview continues:

Spiegel: Many researchers leave for the US or England because they don’t like the conditions for scientists in Germany. What do you think?

Südhof: The research landscape in Germany is terrific. Many of my collaborators, very good people, have returned to Germany — happily. Germany has a lot to offer.

Spiegel: Why don’t you return?

Südhof: Professionally I’m probably too old. I’d like to keep doing research as long as I am able. In the US that’s possible. Otherwise I’d really love to return to Germany, if only so that my young children would learn the language.

He’s still seven or eight years away from normal retirement, and lots of exceptions are made, so this sounds like a polite excuse.

But I’m interested in this presumption that German scientists should want to return to Germany, and that Germany should be trying to lure them back. Germany isn’t Canada. It’s not as though German science is overrun with foreigners. The statistics I read a few years back were that about 94% of professors in German universities are German, and two thirds of the rest are from neighbouring German-speaking countries. My own experience has been that German universities are much less open to applications from foreign academics than British or Belgian or Dutch or French or Canadian ones. I don’t think the number of Germans at British universities is so much higher than the number of Britons at German universities because of “better research conditions”, and I think language is only a marginal issue.

Why is it that there is a constant outcry over the need to bring back a few more sufficiently teutonic academics from abroad? I suggest that they should be thinking about how German universities can make themselves more attractive to good researchers — not just a few star scientists who can run a Max Planck Institute — regardless of their nationality? I don’t have the impression that the UK goes into mourning when a British-born scientist working abroad wins a prize. And maybe, if German universities were less insular — and less prone to academic nepotism — more of the cosmopolitan sort of German scientists would be eager to build their careers there.

Free meals from the nanny state

One of the first things the Cameron-Clegg government did when it came into power in 2010 was to announce the revocation of child benefit from families where one earner earned above £42,000 p.a. (the threshold for the 40% marginal tax bracket). They’ve held to this — and the implicit penalty for single-income families — though they have sensibly replaced the sharp cutoff, which would have caused some people to actually lose money if they got a salary raise, by a more gradual cutoff between £50,000 and £60,000. This was superficially sensible — in times of austerity, why should wealthy parents be getting a government handout? — although most developed countries have some sort of tax credit for children, reflecting a sense that some of the cost of taking care of children should be seen as public costs. In the US this comes in the form of an income deduction, so that high-income parents who pay more tax also get a larger subsidy, so the old UK system was less biased toward subsidising wealthy parents. For that matter, the same is true of the credit for childcare expenses in the UK, which comes in the form of paying expenses with pretax income, effectively giving a larger subsidy to wealthier parents. This has been slightly modified, but it still favours the wealthy.

Anyway, so far so consistent. But now the government has announced that they want to spend more money on children, to provide free school lunches to all children up to age 7. (Poor children already get free lunches, and there is also free fruit for children up to age 7.) The rhetoric around it is the government claim that parents don’t know how to pack appropriately nutritious lunches for their children. So the government has taken away a subsidy that parents could have spent in any way the choose — including nutritious lunches — and replaced it with a subsidy to the companies that have not been very successful at convincing children to eat their lunches voluntarily. And this from the party that attacks Labour as the party of the “nanny state”. If I had a nanny who insisted they had better ideas than I of what my children should eat, I would fire them.

It’s not entirely the Conservatives’ fault. This seems to have been some sort of coalition bargain to gain Liberal Democrat support for their even more pointless priority of a tax subsidy for married couples (whether or not they have children).

German politics in one sentence

In the context of the ongoing coalition negotiations in Germany, Spiegel quoted Mike Mohring, the leader of the CDU (center-right, the party of Angela Merkel, with a near-majority of the Bundestag seats) in the state of Thüringen speaking in favour of a coalition with the Greens, the environmental party, that started out as an insurgent far-left party in the 70s, but is now a disciplined party of the intellectual left. (Hence the need for the Pirate Party to fill the gap in the political spectrum by focusing on more up-to-date issues (not that the environment is ever not an important issue, but the well-heeled environmentalism of today’s Greens can shade into NIMBYism). Sadly, the Pirates didn’t clear the hurdle to make it into the Bundestag this time.)

Anyway, Mohring summarised the move of the Greens toward their “realistic” (Realos, contrasted to the Fundis, the leftist fundamentalists) wing by saying

Ein Großteil der Wähler der Grünen ist fest im Bürgertum verwurzelt.

A large portion of the Green voters is securely rooted in the middle class.

“Middle class” is only a weak translation for the German Bürgertum, with its undertones of right-thinking and class struggle. And the Greens (or rather, their voters) have not only made it, they are even “rooted”. There’s enough condescension to power a whole revolution right there (except that the Greens and their voters are too middle-class to revolt).

On-street parking

Matthew Yglesias has given a pithy summary of the case against free on-street parking:

Obviously people who currently get to occupy valuable urban space with their private vehicles would like to keep that privilege. But by the same token, I’d love it for the city government to just give me a free car or stop charging me property tax. That doesn’t mean it would be a good idea. There may be an argument that 30 to 40 parking spaces for cars is a better use for a given piece of land than protected bicycle lanes, but “Waaaah, don’t affect my parking” is not a very persuasive argument. The streets are public spaces and they need to be used for public benefit, not just the benefit of whoever happens to own a car on the block.

This is even more of an issue here in Oxford, where people with private cars get to take up not only the streets, but also substantial portions of the already quite narrow sidewalks. (Yglesias was discussing the debate over installing a new bicycle lane in Washington DC. I’m not sure if it would be quite so contentious here, since — as I discussed here — drivers don’t hesitate to park in bicycle lanes, and so far as I can tell the enforcement is zero. See, for example, the photograph below, of a typical local cycle lane.) [Update 5 Oct, 2013: Not quite zero. I actually saw a car in the cycle lane with a fixed-penalty notice on the windscreen. So there.]

People clearly have ideas about things that by right and nature ought to be free. Perhaps because I don’t drive a car myself, I cannot imagine why parking spaces should be one of them, particularly not residents’ parking. To be sure, residents’ parking is not free here. It’s £50 a car — just enough to create a sense of entitlement among those who have paid for it, not enough to come anywhere close to covering the real costs of providing

It’s not at all clear why people have any more right to 6 square metres of public road to semi-permanently store their automobiles than I have to store my surplus books. I would not be permitted to set out a storage shed by the side of the road. (I suppose I could use an automobile as a storage facility — some people clearly do, at least in Berkeley — but I would at least need a driver’s license and a car that was sufficiently functional to be registered.)

Bicycle lane on Iffley Road
Bicycle lane on Iffley Road

Cool nerds

An interesting article by Carl Wilson (apparently the start of a month-long series) in Slate looks at the word “cool” in its past and current incarnations. It’s a lot more readable and to the point than jazz critic Ted Gioia’s fundamentally trivial book The Birth and Death of the Cool, but I found myself hung up on his comment

 You’d be unlikely to use other decades-old slang—groovy or rad or fly—to endorse any current cultural object, at least with a straight face, but somehow cool remains evergreen.

As it happens, I was just recently having a conversation about the word nerd. I have a very clear memory that when the ’50s nostalgia wave broke in the mid-1970s (so I was about 8 years old), I encountered the word in TV programs like Happy Days as an antiquated idiom. I had never heard anyone use the word, and I associated it with my parents’ childhoods. When I was a student the prevailing word for someone too bookish to be cool (such as myself) was weenie. As late as 1993, according to an OED citation, Scientific American felt the need to explain

 ‘Nerd’..is movie shorthand for scientists, engineers and assorted technical types who play chess, perhaps, or the violin.

And I remember encountering the word again in the self-righteous name of the Society of Nerds and Geeks (SONG), an undergraduate club that popped up at Harvard about 1989 (when I was a graduate student in mathematics). This was a self-conscious attempt to co-opt these words, which at the time were exclusively terms of abuse, along the lines of the way what was formerly the sexual invert community, or whatever, renamed itself gay, and later queer. Harvard mathematics graduate student Leonid Fridman, who advised the club, published an op-ed on Jan 11, 1990 in the NY Times arguing that the popular disdain for the brainy and bookish would put the US at a disadvantage in competing with its economic and military competitors. (Remember, this was still the Cold War.) The article concluded with this plea:

Until the words “nerd” and “geek” become terms of approbation and not derision, we do not stand a chance.

This dream has come to fulfilment more than could have been imagined in the linguistic sense, but my impression is that there has been little change in the effective social status of academically-inclined American youth. Fridman’s NY Times op-ed is mysteriously unfindable in the Times online archive, so I have copied the text below: Continue reading “Cool nerds”