Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘language’

Hum and buzz

Apparently there’s been low-frequency hum intermittently plaguing the residents of Windsor Ontario in recent years. It may be due to blast furnace operations on a nearby island. The report in the NY Times goes on to discuss similar complaints that have arisen at other locations. When the Taos tourism director describes her town’s troubles, which have since subsided, metaphorical noise collides with real noise:

“I have never heard the Taos hum, but I’ve heard stories of the Taos hum,” she said. “There’s not been a lot of buzz about it in the last few years.”

The EU OS

Twenty years ago I had a short visit from a college friend* who had just discovered the technical utopia. Completely enthralled. The Internet was going to upend all power relations, make all governments irrelevant, make censorship impossible. I was fascinated, but I did ask, How is The Internet going to clean the sewers?

But there was something else that intrigued me. He was very much on the nonscience side as a student, but he had just been learning some programming. And he had discovered something amazing: When your computer looks like it isn’t doing anything, it’s actually constantly active, checking whether any input has come. The user interface is a metaphorical desktop, inert and passive until you prod it, but beneath the surface a huge amount of complicated machinery is thrumming to generate this placid illusion.

I thought of this when reading The European Union: A Very Short Introduction. The European Union is complicated. For instance, in EU governance there is the European Council and the Council of the European Union, which are distinct, and neither one is the same as the Council of Europe (which is not part of the EU at all). There is a vast amount of work for lawyers, diplomats, economists, and various other specialists — “bureaucrats” in the common parlance — to give form and reality to certain comprehensible goals, the famous “four freedoms” — free movement of goods, capital, services, and labour. The four freedoms are the user interface of the EU, if you will, and the

There’s a lot of legacy code in the EU. In the absence of a further world war to flatten the institutions and allow a completely new constitution to be created, EU institutions had to be made backward compatible with existing nation states. There is a great deal of human work involved in carrying out these compatibility tasks. When people complain that the EU is “bureaucratic”, that’s more or less what they mean. And when they complain about “loss of sovereignty” what they mean is that their national operating system has been repurposed to run the EU code, so that some of the action of national parliaments has become senseless on its own terms.

Some people look at complicated but highly useful structures with a certain kind of awe. When these were social constructs, the people who advised treating them with care used to be called “conservatives”. The people who call themselves Conservative these days, faced with complicated structures that they can’t understand, feel only an irresistible urge to smash them.

* German has a word — Kommilitone — for exactly this relationship (fellow student), lacking in English. Because it’s awkward to say “former fellow student”.

Commands in German

Republican Party finance chairman and casino magnate Steve Wynn has been outed by the Wall Street Journal for systematically sexually abusing women on a Weinstein scale. But one of the creepier details of the story (from Kevin Drum’s quote, since the WSJ article is paywalled):

Some said that feeling was heightened at times by the presence in a confined office space of one or more of his German shepherds, trained to respond to commands in German.

I remember talking many years ago with a German colleague, who felt it was unreasonable that Germany still, after fifty years as a stable democracy, still was expected to be specially on guard against any hint of fascist or racist tendencies. I pointed out that, no matter what the Germans themselves may think, fascists and racists the world over look to Germany for inspiration. I don’t really want to think about what it means that the Jewish Wynn, leading ally of the white nationalist president, has been living out Nazi stormtrooper sexual fantasies.

(Just to be clear. I can’t see any signs in Wynn’s wikipedia entry that he otherwise has links to German culture or language. The article also says that Wynn’s original name was Weinberg. This isn’t a pattern I’m comfortable following up. It makes me think of a perverted form of the old Cold War era joke about a State Department conversation about plans for an upcoming cultural exchange. “The Soviets are sending over two Jewish violinists from Odessa. And in return, we’re sending them two of our Jewish violinists from Odessa.”)

Post-Brexit UK to maintain world-leading position as platitude exporter

From the Guardian:

I commented before about the strange role of clichés in British politics. Finding a use for the banalest of banalities counts in Westminster as the very essence of statesmanship. So now, the British position, after 18 months of intensive internal analysis of its policy and extensive diplomatic soundings on relations with Europe is — It takes two to tango.

Overt public blackmail?

Just when you thought you’d reached the bottom of the we’re-being-governed-by-toddlers-who-missed-a-nap slough of despond, they manage to surprise you again. This time, it’s the Chancellor of the Exchequer  Philip Hammond, who decided to punish the NHS (and, by proxy, the entire English public) for the brazenness of its chief, Simon Stevens. Stevens gave a speech two weeks ago, saying the NHS is on the verge of financial collapse, and since the one thing that’s clear about the result of the Brexit referendum is that the public likes the idea of giving £350 million a week more to the NHS, maybe the government should just go ahead and do that. Instead,

Philip Hammond backtracked on plans to give the NHS more money than it eventually got in the budget after reacting with “fury” to its boss Simon Stevens’s public demand for an extra £4bn next year.

Since I am always particularly intrigued by political semantics, I was struck by this line:

Hammond and Treasury officials felt that the NHS England chief executive’s move meant that the chancellor could not be seen to be acceding to what they saw as “overt public blackmail”

What I wonder is, is there such a thing as “overt public blackmail”? Blackmail is when you make secret demands, with the threat to publicly embarrass the target by revealing hidden information. It’s not even any kind of extortion, which would mean issuing threats to force someone into a desired course of action. The only threat Stevens made is that without more money the NHS faces collapse. Warning someone of the potential consequences of their actions is neither extortion nor blackmail. And saying, we agree with the analysis, but since we don’t want to look like we’re agreeing with you, we’re going to do the opposite, is something so stupid that I don’t think  there is a specific name for it. (Maybe the Piranha Brothers used that technique?)

Now, what would be blackmail? How about telling the head of an independent government agency in private talks that his agency and the whole population are being throttled for his presumptuous public speech, not needing to say explicitly that a deferential turn might prevent future punishment — well, I guess that’s extortion.

Maybe someone should give him a cookie?

True friends and False friends

This week’s Spiegel has a headline quote from Emmanuel Macron:

Ich bin nicht arrogant… Ich sage und tue was ich mag.

I don’t know whether everyone does this, but whenever I read a line translated from a language that I know well, I subliminally translate it back. Often you find, particularly in news reports, that lazy translators have used false — or at least dubious -cognates. For example, I vaguely remember a quote from an English source referring to a leader being irritated by protests getting translated into irritiert, which actually means confused.

In this case, my own subliminal process stumbled over the cognate tue, meaning “I do” in German — so Macron said “I say and do what I want”, but “I kill” in French. Which immediately mapped onto another language giving me a momentary flash of Oscar Wilde’s famous line from The Ballad of Reading Gaol:

Yet each man kills the things he loves

It would have been pretty interesting if Macron had actually quoted Wilde to say “Je tue ce que j’aime”.

As for the other part, it’s probably a pretty good bet that if you find yourself insisting “I’m not arrogant”, you’re probably pretty arrogant. Speaking of which, I recently came across these videos of Donald Trump actually (and apparently unironically) acting out the classic punchline of the guy who boasts about his exceptional humility:

In the second one he manages to innovate beyond the obvious comedy of boasting about humility, by going one step farther and ridiculing the interviewer for being too stupid to be able to appreciate his humility.

Intimate English

Der Spiegel posted a little quiz for people to test their colloquial English skills. Some of the questions strike me, as a native English speaker, as somewhat off. For instance, the first question is:

Sie kennen einen Geschäftspartner aus dem Privatleben und machen Ihre Kollegen darauf aufmerksam. Wie sagen Sie es – ohne unfreiwillig Gerüchte über Ihr Intimleben zu streuen? [You know a business associate from your private life, and want to mention this to a colleague. How do you say it — without unintentionally arousing scurrilous rumours about yourself.]

  • I know him privately.
  • I know him a bit better.
  • I know him personally.

The second one is obviously anglicised German. The third sounds like you’re saying, I’ve actually met him, rather than knowing him by reputation or having heard him give a talk. The first one sounds like something I might say, even if in reality I’d be more likely to say something slightly more specific about the context from which I know him: He’s my neighbour, I know him from the rabbit-breeding club, we do hang-gliding together, etc. But their favoured answer is #3, and about #1 they have this to say:

TMI – too much information. Da hätten Sie auch gleich ausplaudern können, dass Sie die Person schon mal nackt gesehen haben. Ihre achtlose Bemerkung klingt auf jeden Fall so, als wollten Sie ein wenig mit einem intimen Geheimnis prahlen. Doch das will niemand wissen. Jemanden privat zu kennen, bedeutet im Englischen, sie/ihn in einer vertraulichen Weise zu kennen, die in der Öffentlichkeit nichts zu suchen hat. Nur als Tipp: “Private parts” im Englischen sind die Geschlechtsteile. Sagen Sie deshalb “I know him personally”, und Sie werden garantiert nicht missverstanden.

You might as well have blurted out, that you’ve seen this person naked.* Your careless comment certainly sounds, in any case, as though you wanted to boast of an intimate secret. But no one wants to hear this. To know someone privately means, in English, to know him or her in a confidential way that has no place in public discussion. A tip: “Private parts” in English are the sex organs.

*Which, in a German context, actually doesn’t necessarily mean that you know him well, but only that you’ve been to the same beach, or possibly the naked swimming hours at the local pool.

It takes a thief

Speaking to her fellow Conservatives this week, a “contrite” Theresa May said

I got us into this mess, and I’m going to get us out.

Ummm… Is this a common hiring policy? Is there any circumstance under which you’re looking for someone to lead a project and you say, “How about Theresa? She fucked everything up last time. That makes her just the person to make it go well this time.” Because she has the best inside view of the faulty decision procedures that caused all the trouble, or something.

It’s a bromide that is usually applied to a situation where the “mess” demands some unpleasant and unglamourous labour or expense to clean up — e.g., you misplaced the envelope with the club’s collected membership dues, so you need to go find it, or work out a new fundraising scheme, or replace the money from your own pocket. No one wants to do it, but it’s your job because it’s your fault. Applying it to remaining prime minister is just bizarre.

But this is all part of the way British politics is less about the effective deployment of power than the effective deployment of clichés. Of which Theresa “Brexit means Brexit” May is an unchallenged master.

Overqualified

On the BBC website there was this article about increasing dissatisfaction among university students in the UK, as measured by their response to a survey question about whether their studies provided “good value for money”, and questions about their happiness and wellbeing. I was struck by this sentence:

Young women and gay students at university are particularly likely to feel unhappy.

Why “young women” and not simply “women”? I’m willing to bet that they are not basing this on a distinction in reported happiness between younger and older female students. Those who are gay are referred to simply as “students”. Most students are, in a general sense, young, but why is this emphasised for the women? Why are the women not referred to as students? I feel like there is some invidious stereotyping going on here, but I can’t quite put my finger on what is irritating me.

Exponential vernacular

Like most mathematicians, I think, I’m irritated by the way “grows exponentially” has come into common parlance as a synonym for “grows rapidly”; whereas exponential growth in mathematics may be fast or slow, depending on the current level of the quantity. This has even crossed into technical discussions, as when I heard a talk by a cancer expert who objected to standard claims that cancer mortality increases exponentially through adulthood — which it does — because the levels actually stay low through the 50s, and so only “increase exponentially” after that point.

Anyway, I was under the impression that the vernacular application of this mathematical concept was fairly recent. So I was intrigued to find the cognate concept of “growing geometric”  popping up in Evan Thomas’s Nixon biography, on the Watergate tapes. In the context of cancer. Used correctly! It’s quite a famous part of Watergate lore, where John Dean refers to Watergate as a “cancer… close to the presidency”.

We have a cancer — within — close to the presidency, that’s growing. It’s growing daily. It’s compounding, it grows geometrically now, because it’s compounding.

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