Tuesday, 20 February 2018

The law of accumulating returns

Agonists and antagonists – things have an evil anti-thing;
<ipa_joke origin="tweeted once, but never caught on">
Jim Al-Kalili's anti-person would would be "Midge Acid-id". Midge/Jim isn't an obvious pair, but /mɪʤ/ versus /ʤɪm/ looks a lot better.
This site explains "the expanding sphere of radio signals traveling outward from the earth":
As depicted in the beginning of the movie ‘Contact’, the earth has an expanding ‘bubble’ of man-made radio signals expanding outward at the speed of light. The first of these early radio transmissions were short range experiments that used simple clicks and interrupts to show transmission of information in the 1890s. In 1900, Reginald Fessenden made the first — though incredibly weak — voice transmission over the airwaves. The next year saw a step up in power as Guglielmo Marconi made the first ever transatlantic radio broadcast.

This means that at 110 light-years away from earth — the edge of a radio ‘sphere’ which contains many star systems — our very first radio broadcasts are beginning to arrive. At 74 light-years away, television signals are being introduced. Star systems at a distance of 50 light-years are now entering the ‘Twilight Zone’.
But hold on to that Twilight.  "Rage against the dimming of the light" – the Lichterdãmmerung. That site goes on:
As radio signals leave earth, they propagate out in a wave form. Just like dropping a stone in a lake, the waves diffuse or “spread out” over distance thanks to the exponentially larger area they must encompass. The area can be calculated by multiplying length times width which is why we measure it in square units – square centimeters, square miles, etc. This means that the further away from the source, the more square units of area a signal has to ‘illuminate’.
inverse square law
Another way to think of it, is that the strength of a radio signal will be only 1/4 as great once you are twice the distance from the source. At ten times the distance, the strength of the signal would only be one hundredth as great.

Because of this inverse square law, all of our terrestrial radio signals become indistinguishable from background noise at around a few light-years from earth.
Of course, the Inverse Square Law works in both directions The Cosmic Microwave Background radiation didn't start life as, say, I Love Lucy, but by the time it reaches us it doesn't have a very high signal-to-noise ratio; my guess is that it's 0, as near as dammit.
The cosmic microwave background (CMB) is thought to be leftover radiation from the Big Bang, or the time when the universe began. As the theory goes, when the universe was born it underwent a rapid inflation and expansion. (The universe is still expanding today, and accelerating for unknown reasons). The CMB represents the heat left over from the Big Bang.


An image of the cosmic microwave background radiation, taken by the European Space Agency (ESA)'s Planck satellite in 2013, shows the small variations across the sky
Credit: ESA/Planck Collaboration
That space.com account goes on:
... the CMB was first found by accident. In 1965, two researchers with Bell Telephone Laboratories (Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson) were creating a radio receiver, and were puzzled by the noise it was picking up. They soon realized the noise came uniformly from all over the sky. At the same time, a team at Princeton University (led by Robert Dicke) was trying to find the CMB. Dicke's team got wind of the Bell experiment and realized the CMB had been found.

Both teams quickly published papers in the Astrophysical Journal in 1965, with Penzias and Wilson talking about what they saw, and Dicke's team explaining what it means in the context of the universe. (Later, Penzias and Wilson both received the 1978 Nobel Prize in physics).
A year after the Nobel Prize was awarded, I also found something by accident, and it has a strangely metaphorical relevance (to signals being broadcast rather than those received).
I was on holiday in the Pelopponese,  in the then only slightly developed fishing village of Tolo. (For some reason Wikipedia says "in Katharevousa known as Tolon [Τολόν]" – as though that purifying semi-artificial language were unique in using case-endings.
I suppose that "semi- artificial" may raise a few hackles. Do put me straight if I have wronged the Wikipedi-scribe.
The village is on a tiny coastal strip. There were no big hotels at the time, and the roof of the sea-front taverna I was staying in had views  in one direction of the Aegean and in the other of the range of mountains (or rather, hills –  but quite rugged ones) that constituted that Pelopponesian finger.

Early one morning, before even the squid-basher had started his daily tenderizing tattoo, I walked up the hill to try to make sense of Homer's "rosy-fingered dawn"; of course, in order to see the sunrise I had to get away from sea-level.

At the top of the hill I was indeed surprised, but in a bad way. Beyond the skyline (tourist-line, perhaps) was a tip – thousands of binbags and plastic bottles, the waste-matter of a few years' tourism (as tourism was a relatively new import at the time). I touched on this plastic time-bomb here.)

(I never did get to the bottom of that "rosy-fingered" thing.).
Like that careless and improvident excretion of rubbish out of sight. our growing sphere of spent radio signals is a sign of our disruptive presence. And if we are really to take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints we need to find a way of catching our radio-frequency detritus before it makes more of a mess. Perhaps Elon Musk could take a break from wantonly adding to space pollution (see where that roadster is here if you must) and turn his mind to the problem of making money somehow by clearing up after 20th and 21st century technology's messes.

 PS And here are a few clues:
  • Lack of viciousness characteristic of  this sort of apprentice.(6)
  • Solitary predatrix's loss of second ring underlines her lack of team-mates. (10)
  • Getting the better of, with redoubled energy, is source of shock. (8)

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

A participle is not a particle

Play. That‘s what it means:  

Press this to make the thing play

Similarly, Pause:

Press this to make the thing pause.

That's the way  it's been since the dawn of ti... technology (the 20th-century sort, that is: specifically, audio equipment). But globalization has undermined these comfortable certainties.

I have an MP3 player, characterized by the typical uselessness of its user "manual" (which is at least stapled together in the form of a book, better than the many self-styled "manuals" I've had to grapple with – often just a single sheet of A4). Like many bits of technical wizardry, it seems to have been generated by engineers who felt that their brainchild needed no written support.
Many an engineer thinks this, mutatis mutandis. I remember a conversation I had  with a Software Engineer more than 30 years ago, shortly after I started work with the Digital Equipment Corporation as a Technical Editor. He was trying to work out just what Technical Writers did (at the time I was at one remove from that, but if he could only get to grips with what Writers did he could then see what I did).  I  said things about making information clear and consistent and with repetition only when appropriate, and he raised an eyebrow and said "What, like the comments we put in our code?"

Self-documenting software has long been the Holy Grail of Software  Engineers, but the final and most insuperable obstacle is the ego of the creator:  My stuff is self-evidently Good.
But this MP3 player had more than the lack of documentation to overcome; and  it wasn't just the infelicity of  the  "translation". Its problem is incorporated into the GUI ...
That's Graphic User Interface. Most of us see them  regularly on the screens of PCs, laptops, tablets, and smartphones. The engineer who designed it may well not have known he (she? – I wonder whether female engineers are as rare in China [that's where it's from] as they are in the West) was using one at all. But the device has functions, and controlling those functions involves manipulating icons. So there's a GUI.

Which brings us to those particles (mentioned in my subject-line). Chinese has a funny way with verbs. It doesn't inflect  them. But it achieves a fully nuanced set of what I can only metaphorically describe as "verb forms" (more accurately, syntactical constructs that give context to verbal ideas). And one of the syntactical devices Chinese languages use is particles. So whereas most Western languages have participles, Chinese doesn't. Particle is a near-miss, orthographically, but unrelated.

So there's no one-word translation of Playing or of Paused – which, confusingly, are what those "universal" music-playing symbols mean on my MP3 player: the little right-pointing triangle means Playing (that is, the precise opposite* of Play), and the middle-less "H" means Paused (again, the precise opposite* of what it seems to promise). And it's specifically (usually, impossibly) a one-word translation that a user of a second language wants.

"One-word translation" – so often a mythical beast, but still believed in by so many.


PS: A couple more clues:
  • Vegan embracing angry (upset) one of less extreme practise (10)
  • The end of a tournament to waste away (7)

Update: 2018.02.13.16:10 – Added footnote.

*This phrase is open to misinterpretation. Playing is not  the opposite of Play in the same  way that black is the opposite of white, or true is the opposite of false. In this context I just mean Making it start as the opposite of  Making it pause.

Friday, 2 February 2018

Pedigree collapse

The other day my eye was caught by a BBC report:

Boris Johnson 'is descendant' of mummified Basel woman

more  here

Well GOLLY, I thought. A while ago More or Less dealt with a similar issue; in fact, the event was  so Earth-shattering that Google will find it with the string Dyer Edward III.  1,560,000 hits. The Great Relatedness to Edward II Factoid leaves our Danny having to "take a moment" while the stupendousness (banality?) of the discovery sinks in. (Not quite banality – but what was extraordinary was not that he was a descendant:[after all, most people of English heritage are] but that his heritage could be documented.)

So when I heard about  the good woman of Basel's mummy I was underwhelmed. Huh, I scoffed, aren't we all descended from her? Well no; I had failed to consider the difference between the two cases: two or three centuries on the one hand, as opposed to  six or seven  – to give the Factors-of-2 magic its chance.

I was not the only sceptic. Stephen Fry tweeted:

But his tweet was met by a flurry of corrections (rebuttwals?): GNEURR Mr Smartypants Fry <eye-roll>, haven't you heard of pedigree collapse?

Nor had I. Fortunately, last week's More or Less explained (about 18 minutes in). Taking advantage, I guess, of  Stephen Fry's presence in Wogan House (or wherever) mentioned in this tweet...

... Tim Harford recorded a request from the genial polymath (from about 20'20") and went on to explain.

In his extreme case, if a man marries his sister they share a single maternal great grandmother (not four, as unrelated people have). Of course, very few of Edward III's descendants went in for this degree of inbreeding, but the general case is clear: the closer the consanguinity, the fewer the maternal great grandparents. This pedigree shows how 1st cousins marrying share only three maternal great grandparents.

When 1st Cousins M and F Marry

This reminds me of the issue of pedigree's pedigree ... Hmm... [See PPS]
But I'm missing this week's More or Less.


PS: A couple of clues:
  • I will do it again (despite this key skills deficit). (10)
  • Do they turn up trousers before droning on?. (8)
Update: 2018.02.05.12:30 – Added PPS on pedigree's pedigree

PPS  – As prefigured in my last digression., I've been looking into the derivation of pedigree. The version I was told 40+ years ago, and still favoured by many authorities (including the OED and Etymonline – but not having the wholesale  support of some current scholars ...
<example_scepticism source="Anatoly Liberman">
This offering from the OUPblog asks Does the current etymology of pedigree [pied de grue] have a leg to stand on?
... ) is pied de grue. As Etymonline says
pedigree (n.)
early 15c., "genealogical table or chart," from Anglo-French pe de gru, a variant of Old French pied de gru "foot of a crane," from Latin pedem accusative of pes "foot" (from PIE root *ped- "foot") + gruem
According to this derivation, the pun with  degree (in the sense of descent) was a happy accident of Middle English.

To quote that OUPblog again
In 1895 Charles Sweet, the brother of the famous Henry Sweet, and Round put forward the same explanation: according to them, the mark used in old pedigrees had the shape of a so-called broad arrow, that is, a vertical short line and two curved ones radiating from a common center, like three toes of a crane’s foot, with an allusion to the branching out of the descendants from the paternal stock.
So the jury's still out.

What we do know is that English crane and French  grue are related. Etymonline's entry for crane says:
Old English cran "large wading bird," common Germanic (cognates: Old Saxon krano, Old High German krano, German Kranich...from PIE *gere-no-, suffixed form of root *gere- (2) "to cry hoarsely," also the name of the crane (cognates: Greek geranos, Latin grus, Welsh garan, Lithuanian garnys "heron, stork"). Thus the name is perhaps an echo of its cry in ancient ears...
But what bothers me is this statememt from  the same entry:
Metaphoric use for "machine with a long arm" is first attested late 13c. (a sense also in equivalent words in German and Greek)...
And in French of course .  Scholars who question the crane's foot derivation of pedigree seem to be very concerned about the vowel: Isn't degree a more likely root for pedigree, preserving the /i:/ of degree? They seem to overlook the fact that the tongue positions for English /i:/ and French /y/ are very similar (if not  identical –  many a language teacher uses this device for teaching /y/: Get ready to whistle and try to say /i:/); the main difference is in the lip-rounding.

OK, crane and grue are related. But if the first attested version of the lifting machine  dates from the 13th century, who thought of the metaphor first? Or is this a case of "convergent etymology".  Either an English builder thought
Pierre has named this machine after a bird that stands on one leg. That‘s a good idea. I‘ll do the same. Right, this hitherto unnamed device, which he calls une grue will henceforth be a crane
Or a French builder thought
Les Rozbifs ont donné à cette machine le nom d‘un oiseau qui se tient d‘une seule jambe. Formidable. Je ferai également. D‘accord: d‘ici en avant ce truc sans nomme, nommé outre-manche a crane sera une grue.
Well, no, that‘s silly. It‘s hard to imagine how people felt about language in the 13th century, when French, Latin, and English vied for... no, even that is an over-simplification. There was no "vying";  people just used whatever communication mode was suitable. And on a 13-century building site, with rulers setting impossible deadlines...
"I want a cathedral here in two years".  
"But sire, there  are not enough stone-masons in all Anglia."  
"Then get some from Francia. Two years I said.")
...the linguistic picture would have been very fluid.


Wednesday, 24 January 2018

But nobody says potahto, Missouri update

In the 2018 Oscar nominations, the presenter (an African-American woman) used the schwa ending (often transcribed as "-uh" by the IPA-challenged). My ears pricked up, because ever since a Letter From America I heard about 30 years ago I had believed Alastair Cooke's shibboleth,
He said that both were right in different contexts, The state was one (either /ɪ/ or /ə/ in the last syllable) and the river was the other (either /ə/ or /ɪ/). I thought the nominations would clear this up.
As a 2012 article in the New York Times says:
In 1907, a resolution introduced in the state House to establish the “only true pronunciation as that received by the native Indians” — a third way, Mih-SOO-rih — failed by voice vote[:]
1907 NYT report of failed vote
"S" in the two syllables in which it occurs"...? Two syllables? Did the word syllable mean something different in the American English  of  1907? [Aha, maybe it‘s a matter of syllabification: "Mis/sou/ri". Anyway....]
But my choice of the word shibboleth was intentional. As the Collins Dictionary says

The original shibboleth was a test word, used for separating Them (the chaff) from Us (the wheat). That Gileadite name for wheat was a pre-Christian version of Beg pardon, I'm soiling the doilies. But in this case there is no Them and no Us. Judging from the many discussions found by Google (more than 2 million – I haven't checked every one, but I think I've got the gist), the difference is mainly geographic. As that NYT article says,
Some believe it started as an east-west split, with St. Louis favoring “ee” and Kansas City “uh.” Popular belief holds that the southern half of the state is “Missourah,” with Highway 70 serving as a sort of Mason-Dixon line, and still others contend that “Missouree” is city, “Missouruh” is country.
Given this geographic/cultural split, there's a tendency for one speaker (often in a single speech event) to use both. And, given this alternation, there's a tendency for the chatterati to try to justify both on esoteric grounds of usage (as Alastair Cooke did – angels and pinheads spring to mind).

But next time that nominations presenter spoke, she flipped and used /ɪ/ or maybe even /i:/. Before the change there was some off-mic hilarity between her and her (Caucasian) fellow-presenter. Perhaps, as the schwa pronunciation had been favoured by President Obama, she had decided to use the version preferred by the wh.... no, that doesn't work. Many white folks unashamedly (indeed proudly) use the schwa pronunciation. I suspect that in Trump's America the down-home version is going to enjoy a renaissance. Anyway, having flipped; she reverted to the schwa.

Anyway, I am none the wiser about this pronunciation. The conclusion seems to be Different strokes for different folks, [and quite often for the SAME folks too].


PS A couple more clues:
  • Uncle Boris turning somersaults to make TV mogul. (10)
  • In a way, kudos to University Challenge. (6)

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

A nagging doubt

A recent edition of Tales from the stave  that dealt with the Delius piece on On hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring reminded me of a possible musical influence I have long wondered about.  It not only addressed this nagging doubt, but also advanced the idea of a much more likely influence – not from folk music to art music composer, but from composer to composer. The story did however start with folk music; Delius was at the end of the chain though.

The influence I mistakenly suspected was from an American folk song to Delius. Many years ago, when my ability to read music was even more hesitant than it is now, I found the score of Goodbye old paint in a collection  of American folk songs. It wasn't a melody I knew, but the book provided chord symbols and I eventually worked out A tune that fitted the harmonies. But my grasp of the actual notes petered out after the first phrase

When I later heard the Delius piece I thought  AHA. While Delius was living in Florida he must have been exposed to Goodbye Old Paint.

But the BBC has now disabused me of this. The Delius piece was not an original idea (although I've never been a stickler for originality – as I've said often enough in this blog,  here for example); he got it from Edvard Grieg who he was with in Leipzig in 1887:

Delius playing cards with Edvard and Nina Grieg; see more details here.
Grieg's source was the Norwegian folk song In Ola valley, which he included in a collection of piano transcriptions in 1896. But as that radio programme made clear, the atmosphere of the piece was very different. The story behind In Ola Valley is rather Scandi Noir
In Ola Valley
In Ola Lake
There Eli lost her boy.
They searched in the valley
They rung in the lake
But Eli never found her boy. 

The ending of the verb in the penultimate line isn't very clear in the radio recording, But why I heard /rʌŋ/ rather than /rʌn/ (both fairly improbable at first hearing) was the context: the falling third – Delius's eponymous cuckoo – is supposed to evoke the tolling of a bell (both as a tool in the search and prefiguring the ultimate [presumed] death of the lost child).

So the American folk song quite probably (if my hunch is right)  migrated to America in the folk-memory of Norwegian settlers. It's not a direct ancestor of the Delius piece, but a shared ancestor. Delius's inspiration was a borrowing from (or possibly hommage to Grieg [it was published shortly after his death]). But in either case it shows Delius to be, as one of the contributors says. "not just a kind of melancholy folklorist ... but ...much more as Elgar said 'a poet in sound'".  [That Elgar quote would no doubt be marked 'needs citation' by Wikipedia, but the Beeb's good enough for me.]


PS and a couple of clues:
  • Questionable Tory claim about NHS giving trouble and strife a shiner. (4, 2, 5, 5)
  • Brief affair about one aspect of office life. (6)
Update: 2018.02.07.12:25 – Added PPS.


Friday, 5 January 2018

No "the" please

from Handel's autograph score
Like Pagliacci, Messiah frequently gets an undeserved definite article (although perhaps that undeserved is coming it a bit strong, for people who believe there was only one). Handel's, though, as his original title page showed, has none:

My choir's next offering will be this old favourite – which, like many choir members, I have sung many times before.

At last night's first rehearsal I noticed that my score was adorned with paperclips that marked the last performance's cuts. I couldn't, for a moment, recall the last time I had sung it. But this programme fell out.

And this brought to mind the strange experience of singing with a present-day chapel choir member on either side (as we old growlers were interspersed with Real Singers – who had graduated from choir schools, where the custom had been to admit to having made a mistake by "raising your hand, boy" [so that the choir master would know, and know as a result that that mistake would not be repeated]). So whenever they made a slip (usually one that I wouldn't have noticed anyway) they had this Pavlovian twitch of the arm.

<aha status="interesting but unproven">
The presence or absence of a definite article may, I have just thought, be the root of an affectation  that I have noticed among music lovers. It's Pagliacci, but Il Trovatore.  So rather than risk getting it wrong, they refer to the latter as Trovatore [tout sec – or should that be tutto secco?]
If lasts night's rehearsal was anything to go by, our Messiah should be well worth a night out on 24 March 2018:
Full detais of the concert here


Tuesday, 2 January 2018


Now the dust has begun to settle on another Christmas-tide [and oh yes, I'm not talking about a generic ecumenical Seasonal Festivities – after all it's Christmas Carols that have got the juices flowing]) I am writing again partly prompted by a question I've been asked about io as in io-io-io.

I  have written several times about carols and their opaque lyrics; I awarded a FOGgie to "Hinds o'er the pearly dewy lawn early" here (where I explain:

...the FOGgies are annual awards for outstandingly bad writing. The idea for the name derives from Robert Gunning's FOG index, although these awards don't restrict themselves only to obstacles to readability measured by that index.

) And elsewhere I wrote about those children crowned all in white, who wait around at the end of Adeste fidelis (or Hokum, all ye faithful as it's more commonly known). [That one's quite fun, I think, TISIAS; so much so that I tried to rekindle the flame here (failing, I think, although this snippet leaps out as fairly quotable:
To summarize [the "where like stars" verse] , the souls of the righteous, wearing haloes (in the manner of well-dressed saints everywhere, especially in Heaven) are positioned all around Himself, ready to jump to attention.

But Ding dong merrily on high has hitherto escaped my exegetical pen.

The first thing that strikes me is its structure – which is pretty neat. The first verse is about something happening in Heaven. The second verse draws a conclusion (E'en so) about what should, as a result, happen down here: let steeple bells be swungen. And the third verse goes into specifics, specifying what should happen at Prime...
I know, I know, this isn't a majority view. Still, it's what I think: Pray you Prime is a command about singing a particular office. An early editor, and ignoramus – a benighted heathen no doubt, who was not conversant with the format <utterance_word>+<office_name>, as in  for example "say Mass" – stuck a meaning-wrenching comma after you, making prime a ([n] improbable, it seems to me) verb.
... and at Matins; and then at the evetime song. In between. the praising etc. goes on, presumably.

But why sing io? There are people who sing /ɑɪ.əʊ/ (which led my correspondent to suspect a connection with Io). But the Oxford Book of Carols is insistent (to the extent of a footnote) that the pronunciation is "ee-oh"  (they don't trust readers with IPA symbols, but they must mean /i:.əʊ/).

Some years ago this question was raised in this forum,  As usual, comments should be weighed in the balance and some will be found wanting;  but they are fairly brief and not very numerous. There are many, often conflicting views:  
  1. "i-o" is a corruption of the Latin "in excelsis Deo"
  2. I-o is a contraction or corruption of "ideo," Latin for "therefore." The implied thought is "ideo... gloria in excelsis deo,".
  3. "io" is a Latin interjection (usually an exclamation of joy)
I imagine the truth is a mixture of the last two. (The first sounds to me like the distinctive blend of fanatically Christian sanctimoniousness and inventive improbability so familiar to survivors of a God-fearing education.) But monks in a scriptorium fought off RSI by abbreviating anything they could; and the pre-existing Latin interjection gave them an off-the-shelf solution.

So "io io io – hoorah" for the New Year.

  • Spooner‘s review of The Navy Lark: "acts without thinking". (6, 4, 3, 3)
  • And not herons either – je ne regrette rien (2. 7)
Update 2018. – Typo fix (peary => pearly) and fixed link.

Update 2018. –  Added PS