Computer

Every year a major dictionary will produce a list of words coined that year which have instantly attained currency. These words are often related to social, technological or political situations. Some will last; many will be forgotten in ten years, along with the circumstances of their usage.

Now think back to the 1650s and spare a thought for an editor when he, and it will be a he, read these words for the first time: holocaust, ambidextrous, literary, prairie, migrant, and computer. He would have needed explanatory notes to understand what they meant. Perhaps he thought to himself, “This buzzword is not an improvement and my printer is confused which is costing me more in print costs. And besides, computer is not very durable. It won’t last.”  Anyway, prairie is a French word, a meadow, so here it is English absorbing (stealing) words from elsewhere to fill a gap or augment choices.

Some of those words retain the initial meaning when Thomas Browne created them. Computer, though, has been transformed a lot. Even in the last 50 years computer signified something different to what we now refer to, and its definition then was of an electricity sub-station sized object. But those were the days when hardware was man’s work and software was written by women.

What is notable about Browne’s vocabulary is that he saw the need to make a word to describe and articulate his scientific work. He recognized a phenomenon for which no word then existed. This underlines what Pinker says about language and psychology: that language is not the limit of thought as a Viennese proclaimed. It is also more substantial than using an extant word for something resembling another object: cell, for instance.

Apart from giving us the vocabulary to do science and technology and engineering, Browne was a debunker. His Pseudodoxia Epidemica – superb title – refuted common errors and superstitions: “That there are different passages for Meat and Drink, the Meat or dry aliment descending by the one, the Drink or moistning vehicle by the other, is a popular Tenent in our daies…”

We could do with an updated version of this book and make it available to the lifestyle, health and pseudo-nutritionist experts.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Throwing

What is it like for people not to have the same sense of humor? Awkward and dull is the answer.

Sharing a sense of humor is like playing catch: in throwing a ball one person tosses it and the other is ‘supposed’ to throw it back, but some people don’t throw it back, they pocket the ball.

As a simile of transmission and connection it applies in other spheres too: business, music, drama, research, sciences and politics too, when, in the political case, an idea has to be shared between people.

In the last three days Theresa May, and her erstwhile advisers, might reflect on rules and connections, and the way her prospects are evolving, she is going to have plenty of time to contemplate what those links mean.

But in all likelihood, it will be the last thing on her mind although in the campaign propaganda it was revealed that she was very funny, not just moderately amusing, but very funny; this quality was relayed to tell people she was able to make connections, to throw the ball back.

The failure to follow the rules of humor is deeper than someone pocketing a ball: it is a deficit which the beholder does not recognize because they do not see such things. It’s akin to a gap, a complete absence, in some way. It is true of political parties, in their inability to understand their own types of deficiencies.

The analogy of throwing a ball game comes from Wittgenstein. He liked to interpret things, or illustrate arguments and questions, in the form of games and rules: the ‘supposed’ is critical, and like meaning generally, if another person doesn’t follow, or know the rules, it’s impossible to connect.

His own sense of humor, in English at least, was peculiar. He fixed on certain words and repeated them frequently, which gave him a release from logic and order, and a lot of laughter. He liked the adjective ‘bloody’ and would use it whenever he could and in every possible variant. A good thing he never tried to make a living as a gag writer.

Perhaps Theresa May will repeat ‘strong and stable’ and fall about laughing, if not now, then in a week or two.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Blanket

Imagine hearing the same words and phrases over and over again. These words are not the everyday phrases that grease social interaction, but claims, sanctions, or rebukes: liar, not legal, politicians’ abuse, another cover-up, not the principle on which this country was founded, and so much more, and worse, of that kind. Hearing these phrases again and again would engrave them on the mind.

These phrases are angry and defiant; verbal assertions of power, or rather the lack of power, which can only be corrected by calling out the political and legal and components of the corporate structure for their apparent malfeasance.

That is what listening to years of (virulent) talk back radio would be like. Uncontested opinions, assertions, the marginal and substituted instead of the verified, form a parallel but almost barely recognizable world.

Suggestion becomes reality, and over long periods, attitudes are molded and modified to the frequency of the message. It’s the essence of propaganda and PR and marketing.

In opposition to that language is a progressive group steeped in the merits of education, which sees itself as a bulwark to antediluvian opinions. Moreover it strives for change, in the ways language is used, and to that aim it compiles lists of books and phrases which are codified in terms of their potential harm.

Some of the books and authors on these lists form peculiar companions. Virginia Woolf was on one danger list and initially I couldn’t see why she had been thrown in with such an infamous crowd.

The reason she’d been listed is her novel, Mrs Dalloway, has a psychologically distressed veteran as a character.

Putting this book on a list is a prophylactic measure, yet that the event in the book which may cause anguish is fiction; in reality Woolf actually committed suicide. Reading her work will involve reading about her life, and her development as a writer, which is often the way books are taught, and that would make her biography a cause for harm.

When books like this are considered harmful, for whatever intention, there are hundreds of others which could also be added. The Index Librorum Prohibitorum is potentially huge.

When two diametrically opposed groups use language to make the world match their ideal it’s almost a secular reformation – counter-reformation struggle. Language folded, mashed, wrapped, rumpled, and enveloped like an infant’s comfort blanket.

Such distortions are thought to be historical, like the internecine battles of the Thirty Years War (without the defenestrations of Prague), not the present social reality. But it is now. Faulkner was right, the past is not even the past.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2017. All Rights Reserved.

 

1976

Mention the year 1976 to a British person and they will drift to fond memories of summer days filled with blazing sunshine and heat. For anyone who actually lived through those glorious weeks, it is spoken of in a different tone of voice, somehow younger and more vital.

Psychologists have other interpretations as to why that summer – apart from being statistically above the national average temperature – is so well remembered. Among several memory biases, fading affect bias may be one reason. Positivity effect too, occurs in older adults when they look back on their experience.

America was experiencing another type of euphoria in 1976, celebrating 200 years since the Declaration of Independence. Not being subject to aristocrats can lead to happiness in the sense of not being oppressed and Americans had a good time.

In France too, 1976 is a significant, though generally, overlooked year. It isn’t of the same order as 1870, when an army and emperor were defeated at Sedan. That downfall was later inscribed in the phrase, ‘N’en parlez jamais; pensez-y toujours!” a motto of pledged vengeance.

The 1976 event I am talking about is known, ominously, as The Judgement of Paris. Not quite like the Treaty of Westphalia, this judgement was a unanimous decision by eminent French wine critics that the American wines in their review were undrinkable, but they had, in fact, given the highest awards to those American wines and given the French wines the lowest scores. National honor bruised. Expertise tarnished.

This story is not about new world wine winning or so much winning, it expresses, rather, our fallibility, that our judgements are not entirely reliable. We live in an era, we are told, where no one trusts experts anymore, the so-called technocracy. The loss of trust is over several dimensions: the data itself, the statistical evaluations, the media and organizations which convey it, and, ultimately the potential benefits for special interests.

When well trained palates and brains cannot tell the difference between types and styles of wines from other parts of the world it suggests we may have a higher than realistic view of our own abilities. Maybe the Judgement of Paris was a 21-sigma event; maybe it occurs more often, but is not reported, in which case, it is not rare.

Fortunately French wine making did not cease, no vines were uprooted in panic and despair, wine critics learnt some humility, and the knowledge that American wine was very pleasant meant everyone adjusted their world view accordingly.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2017. All Rights Reserved.

 

Fog

A few days after Aprils Fool’s day is probably a good time to talk about facts. At least one British performer has learnt that David Attenborough isn’t doing a series on Grime. What a pity: Attenborough’s pre-war accent speaking the jargon of that genre would be a linguist delight.

There was a time when April Fools was a big event, it still gets some attention, but it hardly raises the same level of interest or sense of specialness; more of obligation for an organization to be appear amusing and then measure it as retweets through social analytics. Since online video sharing made visual tricks fast, and mash-ups easy, it’s April Fools any day.

But the April Fools type of fact-bending hardly vexes anyone. It shouldn’t. And gullible embarrassment doesn’t last forever.

No, this is about important things like real facts, the things we learnt in school: whether a thing is or is not; if it is invented, fabricated, distorted, or interpreted in such way as to be wrong.

The intensity over this subject has passed in the last few months, but it won’t disappear, not if some people can still use it, and it generates lots of invective; outrage being the default behavior of this era.

The ire is rarely based on a dissection, of an analysis, which digs deeply, it invariably flames on a few words or usage. The anger may not be over disputed interpretations, let alone facts at all, but rather, the speaker, or the writer.

A basic dichotomy, such as right/wrong, good/bad, honest/dishonest for intricate arguments, often with complex data, is not feasible or applicable. Yet, it is.

The world is the totality of facts, not of things. That comes from Wittgenstein, who then says, The facts in logical space are the world. The world divides into facts. Even from such a basis the arguments progresses to greater complexity much later in the book he states, The law of causality is not a law, but the form of a law. Abstruse indeed, and sufficient to confound the fundamental objections of anyone who adheres to statements being either right or wrong.

What is perceived and understood, even imagined in the context of someone’s experience by and interpreter is more important. To a degree, solipsism seems almost unavoidable, something Ayn Rand thought highly appealing. Not that it should be.

Nearly 60 years ago, a Times’ headline declared that fog had cut the continent off. It neatly encapsulates the relative perspective of interpretation. Perhaps David Attenborough can do a series on it.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2017. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

Revealed

One word exemplifies the current state of the news media: Revealed. It is the subhead used as a lede, as a hook. Revealed can tell someone how to make a billion dollars by 30; the tax affairs of the top 0.1%; the winning habits of entrepreneurs; the 5 steps to a perfect marriage, and, naturally enough, even happiness itself.

Revealed conveys an answer is available, which makes the article worth reading. Many Revealed articles are about improvement, or guidance, in some area of career or personal life. Revealed also retains its older usage: an event or thing that someone would prefer concealed.  In the prurient sense it has never gone out of use.

Revealed is a symptom of the universal reach of information. Relevance, determined by what interests the browsing reader, not what is relevant, is proclaimed in bold letters to assert its value, its significance.

It has come to this stage; it is not a genuine development, through economic and technological forces. The last decade has not been relaxed for news businesses. Declining value in the product, and in the journalist profession that makes it, which must now compete against software and people gossiping in forums, has eroded its self-esteem. Raiding social media to editorialize content, presented as a street poll of social attitudes, or another list of success/failure is well-known. Revealed is a declaration that all is not completely lost.

The news media business needed its own Revealed list in order to comprehend the political currents in the conniption of 2016 which blew up the political equilibrium of the last 30 years. Such a Revealed list would provide columnists with evidence which they were not accustomed to using.

While this phenomenon appears to be the product of recent technological and political forces it is not new. Nearly 80 years ago George Orwell identified examples of behavior and style in sections of the English media which are similar to anything seen in the last couple of years. The cause, the background, to what Orwell observed was the conflict between opposing ideologies: between fascism and democracy, between tradition, the church, and communism, which at the time forced people to choose sides. Today, its manifest in populism and the various forms of globalized incumbency, each with their own types of ethical accessories to distinguish their particular views.

In the closing paragraph of Homage to Catalonia, Orwell created a sweeping and vivid series of images, a montage of insular, contented, England, unaware of the Spanish war, which, through the book, he had revealed in all its gruesome and political horror.

The contrast he struck between his Revealed, in the carnage, manipulation and betrayal in Spain and the Revealed consumed in sleek, comfortable suburbs, of homely advice and salacious stories, is sure and definite. It is the difference between self-centered distraction and information.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Repetition

A long time ago I read some letters, and other documents, written in the 1920s by Sudeten Germans. Sudetenland is the German name for a region in the modern Czech Republic, comprising, Moravia, Bohemia and Silesia. After the First World War the Germans there were in a minority. Politically they were part of what was then Czechoslovakia. But they resented their status; it was not what they wanted because it reminded them of what they had lost: being part of Germany, with all the tangible and other emotive links that old bond represented.

I read one of those documents again last week but this time it was by a man in Oklahoma. It wasn’t identical, but it carried enough of the same tone, pleas and ideas, as to suggest a connection. In the essay the man outlines the views, the blunted aspirations and the resentments of people who have been ignored for a long time.  Behind his text was an imperative as to how things ought to be, none of it unreasonable, and all it impossible to realize which made it more desperate.

The connection between Sudetenland and Oklahoma is implied; there are, of course, many details and conditions that are not alike in anyway at all, but nevertheless, the shared sense of experience, of being discarded, rendered irrelevant, is clearly drawn between the two eras.

It is not very surprising that experiences should share commonalities and be articulated in the same way. There must be thousands and thousands of such links between different people over different time periods. That is the essence of The Hidden Bend.

It is the political dimension that makes such a comparison intriguing. Such thoughts are being uttered, besides Oklahoma, in Leeds, Marseille, Lecce, and elsewhere. Through his experiences the Oklahoma essayist makes it clear why political change was obligatory. To the best of my memory, the Sudeten Germans agitated for a border that suited their interests which led to political affiliations necessary to their aims.

It’s not a great leap of the imagination to draw parallels between these two cases into some form of portentous determinism. But no; Kierkegaard firmly shut the possibility of such an idea, and that type of facile inference has exclusive cogency on talk-back radio.

History doesn’t repeat but in nearly similar circumstances, people use familiar refrains to express grievance and self-pity, to claim righteous indignation and rebuke their enemies, to strain for what has gone, but which, in a phrase, can still be held, even in the mouth, and shared between people. It is self-fulfilling and justifies itself through its rancor. Reaction and retribution repeat.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2017. All Rights Reserved.

 

Bovril

With a new year it is inevitable that the passing of time sees us taking account of what has passed and what we plan to do in the future. Somehow this natural pause seems more focused with this new year.

The passing of many well-known musicians, actors, writers, and others besides, last year promotes looking back and reflection on what their work has meant. Time filters and changes our perceptions; of how we value the songs, the books and films we have known over the years.

With that in mind, bear a thought for someone who, in his day, was a consummate writer, of novels, poetry, and plays; who was wildly successful and popular; left a few phrases that have become part of speech; had a political career, and judging from his pictures, he was quite dashing too. Surely this person would be a vital part of literary life, even now.

It is not so: this fabulous writer is celebrated chiefly now, in the humorous Bulwer-Lytton contest which is founded on his infamous opening sentence: It was dark and stormy night – the rain fell in torrents….

Bulwer-Lytton has suffered this indignity for more than 30 years.

Just a little context: Wagner adapted his novel, Rienzi, into an opera and Wagner had quite good artistic judgement. Bulwer-Lytton left us the expressions: almighty dollar and the great unwashed. His other phrases and witticisms have been digitized on YouTube and like Oscar Wilde they hinge on inversion and paradox to achieve effect.

In 1871 he published an intriguing book called, The Coming Race, about superior beings, who call themselves the Vril-ya, and lived underground. They have a fluid called Vril, which is a source of energy and these beings use it at will.

The book impressed a manufacturer who realized the value of Bulwer-Lytton’s status to market a new product. He called the product Bovril. This is a sticky black meat extract which can be used for flavorings in cooking, or commonly in winter in England, as a drink diluted with hot water.

Now Bulwer-Lytton’s literary career is not a joke: it’s a syllable that nourishes people when they are cold and need a comfort drink.

It was dark and stormy night – the rain fell in torrents, there was thunder and lightning all around, but as Jessica sat down to her favorite Netflix series, she cradled a mug of Bovril in both hands, and sipping it, she felt warmed through.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2017. All Rights Reserved.