Friday, 27 January 2017

Misguided missiles

The Trident test débàcle ...
(it didn't  fail, incidentally, although many commentators who should know better keep saying it did; its outcome was suboptimal but the test worked [although part of what it was testing didn't])
Find a bigger original of this,and many more images, at the NASA site.
...reminded me of the time in the early-mid '90s when, along with many other concerned citizens I wrote to Al Gore in a vain attempt to throw a spanner in the astrolabe,  as it were. Since its arrival in July 2004, the Cassini space probe has been making  enormous contributions to our understanding of Saturn and its rings. For the nearly four centuries between Galileo's observation (and mis-identification) of Saturn‘s rings in 1610 (he thought their appearance was caused by the motion of two moons), not much was added to our knowledge of the rings – what they are, what they do, what they're made of, how they were formed.... But this knowledge came at a price – not that the price was actually incurred (apart from the obvious cost of simply undertaking this extraordinary voyage). The potential cost, not actually paid, was took the form of a risk

At the time of Galileo's death in Tuscany in 1642,  there lived, a few hundred miles to the north-west in the Duchy of Savoy, the 17½ yr-old Giovanni Domenico Cassini (whose father was in fact Tuscan). Giovanni, according to Wikipedia, was
... the first to make successful measurements of longitude by the method suggested by Galileo, using eclipses of the galilean satellites as a clock.
And it was presumably this link (not his father's birthplace – that was one of mine) that led the Caltech engineers who conceived of the 10 years+ mission to observe the rings of Saturn from Saturn orbit, andto dubbed the mission Cassini.

My reason for writing to the Vice President more than twenty years ago was the inconvenient truth that the Cassini spacecraft, to perform its gravity-assisted (slingshot) bypass of the Earth involved a craft carrying 72 lb of plutonium nearly colliding with the Earth. The closer it got, the greater the 'gravity assist', so the engineers could be expected to under-estimate the risk. Cassini was falling through space, and the Earth was saying Here, here, oh please sir, hit ME. Cassini came tantalisingly close to the Earth before whizzing past. But the Earth kept on begging to be hit. This is when the slingshot effect kicked in  – the potential nuclear device turned round and had another go. (The risk would be clear to any schoolboy [or schoolgirl if they played, though in my experience at a co-educational primary school they didn't] who has played conkers in the pre-Health & Safety era and had the tethered missile loop back and give them a clip round the ear.)

NASA engineers said the risk was tiny, but many other scientists claimed the probability numbers were dubious. This gives a taste:
"Give me a break. They're making these numbers up," says Michio Kaku, a professor of nuclear physics at the City University of New York, adding that by his calculations of NASA's own accident scenario, some 200,000 people could die if Cassini crashed in an urban area. "This is a science experiment, and we are the guinea pigs."

More here
Whatever the numbers, the risk was small. But the risk was there. And compare Cassini's  Earth-tickling  gravitational assist with the more recent Trident failure (involving, after all, US engineering in both cases): that missile took an unplanned right-turn somewhere over the Atlantic and had to be destroyed to prevent it crashing on the US mainland. If the Cassini vehicle had made a similar unplanned detour during its periterranean jaunt (there may be a proper word for that, but I reckon it's less effort to just make one up) future palaeontologists might have found an anthropocene/Trumpocene boundary (I know Trump missed by nearly 20 years, but in geological dates, who cares? [Besides,  I think we can safely leave it to him to merit the eponym....])

But what of Trident? There is some merit in this view:

My own view (which I may have voiced before, though not in this blog, I think) is that, given the realities of the nuclear winter, it's more desirable to be vaporized by the first strike than to survive. So, given the ridiculousness of deterrence based on Mutually Assured Destruction, it's MUCH cheaper to build a massive nuclear device (big enough to  wipe out the entire population), instal it in the centre of our own country, and not spend anything at all on a delivery system. In response to a nuclear threat, threaten to self-destruct – that'll teach 'em. :-)

Duty calls.



Eppur si muove. But Plus ça change plus c'est la même chose.  In the seventeenth century the Vatican tried to suppress scientific understanding of the facts. It didn't work in the long run, though it caused a certain amount of discomfort before the Vatican's alternative facts were recognized for the hooey that they were. In the twenty-first, the Trump administration is trying a similar trick; and it will fail, eventually, in the same way. But it will cause a lot of discomfort before going down fighting.

Update: 2017,01.28.16:20 – A few typo fixes, rewordings in bold, and esprit d‘escalier in maroon.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Snowflakes and avalanches

In my days of thinly-disguised fascism I used to defend Latin in schools (which I still believe would be a good idea, by the way) by saying 'If what you think is a thought can't be expressed in Latin, it's not a thought.' I admit that this was a bit priggish, and it implied that logicality was a particular characteristic of Latin – a pretty silly implication. It's a not uncommon one, though – it rears its insidious head with respect to various languages; I've heard it said not only of Latin, but of French, of German... even of English.

But it hides a general truth about translation – that in order to translate meaningfully you have to grasp a text's meaning...
One of my few forays into  the realm of professional  translation (by which I mean I got paid for it, as opposed to having any professional training or standards or ethics or any of that good stuff) involved an article about aneurysms and arterio-venous fistulae, and I spent more time in a medical library than in a more general library with a technical Portuguese dictionary in front of me (this was in the mid-'70s, and the association of libraries with computers was yet to be made).

....(in a language possibly uniquely adapted to one area of interest), which makes it harder to translate into a language that is not similarly endowed. So it can be tempting to overlook or even ignore bits of sense

The translatability of Donald Trump's ravings has been in the news of late, in a way that I find unsurprising at best, and at worst  a non-issue flagged up by self-regarding elitists. Of course he's hard to translate; so was – to cite a more UK-based politician – John (now Lord) Prescott, of whom Simon Hoggart famously wrote
'Every time Prescott opens his mouth, it's like someone has flipped open his head and stuck in an egg whisk.'
Come to that, many politicians and off-the-cuff public speakers speak nonsense. Speaking nonsense is something that happens more and more in an increasingly unreflective world dominated by rolling news and its inevitable bastard offspring fake news (alias LIES).

On the subject of the Trump campaign, the word snowflake, used as an insult to the liberal intelligentsia (and anyone else with two brain-cells to rub together), easily disturbed and slipping 'in a moment out of life' has recently become popular. It is analogous to the rather more traditional 'hot-house plant'.

But the thing about snowflakes is that when they mount up and reach a tipping-point (or, more relevantly, a sliding-point) they start an avalanche. And that point is, we are told by 38 degrees – though I'm not sure it's as simple as that – the name of what Wikipedia calls
a British not-for-profit political-activism organisation. It describes itself as "progressive" and claims to "campaign for fairness, defend rights, promote peace, preserve the planet and deepen democracy in the UK".[2] In October 2013, it was reported to claim 1.9 million UK members.[3][needs update]
It goes on
38 Degrees takes its name from the critical angle at which the incidence of a human-triggered avalanche is greatest [THAT sounds more like it, though they give as a reference the same simplistic wording as the 38 degrees website gives

the angle at which snowflakes come together to form an avalanche – together we're unstoppable

] Ah well, their hearts are  in the right place. I'm keeping my head down for the next four years – the Trump era (British English /i:rǝ/, and in American English – not without irony – /ɛrǝ/). See you on the other side, Gaia volente.

PS And here's a clue:
  • Invalid given wrong sort of IUD is like a cup-cake (10)

Monday, 16 January 2017

Trumpery and Popery

Just  imagine: Trump  meeting Pope Francis; the personification of being in denial meets the personification of self-denial. What I wouldn't give to be a fly in the ointment during that conversation...

But there are two metaphors where the vocabularies of rampant, bullying, exploitative, self-regarding capitalism on  the one hand and the papacy (though probably not Pope Francis in one case) on  the other intersect. The one where the present occupant of the shoes of the fisherman is presumably blameless is nepotism


Many readers of this blog won't need telling that the word is derived from the Latin nepos -otis (= "nephew"), or – in the simpler, more direct Vulgar Latin notation (explained elsewhere in this blog, passim) NEPOTE(M). Where the papacy comes in is that in the bad old days of monastic shenanigans the nephew-word (whatever it was, certainly not "Italian", which didn't exist at the time; something Italic [or come to think of it, given the context, maybe they just used Latin]) was used as an (impious, not to say impish) euphemism for what the strait-laced OED [secondary source, I'm afraid] calls "the natural son" of the Pope; born the wrong side of the chasuble, as it were.

In fact this Etymonline excerpt shows that the word was not specific to one particular relation:
nephew (n.)
c. 1300, from Old French neveu (Old North French nevu) "grandson, descendant," from nepotem (nominative nepos) "sister's son, grandson, descendant, grandchild," and in a general sense, "male descendant other than son" (source also of Sanskrit napat "grandson, descendant;" Old Persian napat- "grandson;" Old Lithuanian nepuotis "grandson;" Dutch  neef; German Neffe "nephew;" Old Irish nia, genitive niath "son of a sister," Welsh nei)....
In that respect, come to think of it, it is reminiscent of cousin in Shakespeare's day: Falstaff, as I remember, was wont to address Prince Hal as "cuz". Old English nefa, which Etymonline says persisted into the 16c, could mean "nephew, stepson, grandson, second cousin"; almost any male blood relative – so it doesn't quite work for Trump's son-in-law [not that I'm a sufferer from  the Etymological Fallacy].


The simplest and most self-evident explanation of this word is that it is an amalgam of words for bridge and make; the maker of a bridge between us miserable offenders and Heaven. There have been suggestions that there has been an element  of folk etymology in the derivation, and that something either Umbrian or Etruscan was involved; I'm satisfied, though , with bridge-builder, as was the Northumbrian monk who used the word brycgwyrcende "bridge-maker". (If you screw your eyes up you can just about see work in the middle of that calque – linguist's jargon for a loan-translation).
To form a calque the receiving language borrows the format that the donor language uses to construct a typically two-part compound, but not the word itself. It translates each element of the compound using a native word: for example Latin omni- + potens, Old English æl- + mihtig (whence our almighty), Spanish todo- + poderoso. [Incidentally, that bunch of examples isn't supposed to suggests a series of any kind; its just a bunch of examples.]

Incidentally, it's /kælk/, not /kɔ:k/ or /kɔl:k/;  I'm not sure I've ever heard it said, though – it's that sort of word.
Oops  – left a bit out. See update.


So [and that is a subordinating conjunction, if that sort of thing bothers you] these two metaphors make a (fairly tenuous, admittedly) link  between the sublime and the ridiculous. Time's wingéd chariot, though...


PS Here's a clue:

Re-recording makes Midge Ure a really legendary creator. – (8)

Updat: 2017.01.17.11:45  – Added PPS

Sorry  – I missed out a bit of the argument: what links Trump to pontifex? Given a pontiff,  together with a belief in his infallibility, you get an action verb: pontificate  – to say what must be true, on the highest authority.  In a way familiar to students of language ...
<digression theme="semantic somersaults">
(here I mentioned the link between glamour and grammar, as discussed by David Crystal in The Story of English in 100 Words. You can read Crystal's discussion for yourself, but I would go a bit further; as I said in that post:
...This is the root of the word glamour, which came to refer to charm or attractiveness in the early twentieth century. Crystal doesn't say so, but it seems likely to me that Hollywood had something to do with it. The progression from wizardry to smoke & mirrors to magic lantern shows to movies strikes me as a fairly likely one.
... the meaning flipped. From being a Good Thing (telling the truth, unquestionably) it became a Bad Thing (shooting your mouth off on subjects you have a shaky grasp of and expecting to be believed unquestioningly). Trumpery? You make the link.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

The world is just an oblate spheroid

In the year of my birth, the 17-year-old Alan Bennett went to Der Rosenkavalier at Leeds Grand Opera House. At the time he was under the innocent misapprehension that the young man had "just stopped by for tea and toast"; (I think those were his words in the televised selection  from his Diaries). He had no idea of what was going on behind the curtain during the overture. I was told many years ago by a then young lady called Joy (who blushed with a giggle that suggested  "Isn't Strauss awful?" as she said that the horns in the overture were "representative of the act of love"). I'd say they were about as subtle as the train going into the tunnel in the last scene of North by North West, while the young lovers in the sleeping car are studiously observing the Hays Rules. Con fu*co, knowha'Imean?

The television programme was loosely based on an edition of Private Passions, notable (to my hyper-sensitive – not to say anal – ear) for Michael Berkeley's mis-quoting of the words he had just heard (from The Dream of Gerontius): "Softly and gently, dearly ransom’d soul". He said "dear departed soul".  Come to think of it, it may not be a misquote but a quotation from elsewhere in the text, made to sound like a misquote because of the editing. He surely can’t be that cloth-eared? (Though, come to rethink of it, the angel, in the Celestial Arrivals Lounge, surely wouldn't have addressed Gerontius as departed ; he'd only just got there, for Heaven's sake.)

The collocation “departed soul” is a pretty strong one; and the syllable-count and stress pattern are right (hence my subject line – the words you're looking for are "great big onion"). But it makes dear define soul, whereas in the original – by John Henry Newman  – dearly modifies ransomed.
<autobiographical_note type="hair-splitting">
A lot of ransoming goes on in Christianity. In the second line of the version of “O come O come Emmanuel” that I learned at my mother’s knee (which was never far from Aunty Katy’s, genuflecting away like billy-o,...
(a coincidentally – I didn't know until I checked the spelling – but strangely appropriate word,  given one of the possible derivations of the word; as The Phrase Finder says,
...Alternatively, the derivation is said to be from Joseph Billio, the zealous 17th/18th century Puritan preacher. Billio preached at the United Reformed Church in Market Hill, Maldon, Essex, in and around 1696. He was an enthusiastic 'hellfire and damnation' preacher and, given his name and reputation, ought to be a serious contender as the source of the phrase. They are certainly convinced in Maldon, and it must be true - they have a plaque to prove it. 
                    But, as I was saying, genuflecting....)
                    </digression> only knees can [that’s one for the etymologists]) was And ransom captive  Israel. In the C of E-preferred version I have sung since then, the words of that line are Redeem thy captive Israel. Wha...? Israel's not Emmanuel's captive  – not guilty, yer 'Onner  –  it's Pharaoh's. Israel was (in the 15th-century, when the carol surfaced in France) a metaphor for Christendom, and in the word's of Elgar's angel, the ransom (the price paid for redemption) was dear (in the expensive sense): the soul may be dear to some people, but the point is that it was dearly ransomed.
The programme was worth watching, though. In the view of the Guardian critic, it was the best of the Christmas TV:

The whole review's  here; "best Christmas TV", though, isn't the warmest of accolades (a word discussed here:
When a knight was welcomed to the ...knightate? ...he was given a big hug; his liege lord wrapped his arms around his neck (think of our 'collar'). He embraced him, to use another physical metaphor, which I haven't time to pursue.

And so we come to accolade, quite appropriate in this week of Nobel prizes. Those Swedish grandees are echoing that welcoming embrace...