Search This Blog

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Period pains

You know me to be an indefatigable champion of women's rights, often working until I drop for the good of the cause. I was naturally first to stand at Davos to lead the ovation that followed Emma Watson's speech on gender equality, and I felt a justifiable moment of pride at what I and my sisters had achieved since the early days of our movement. You will readily imagine, therefore, the deflation of my spirits upon catching 'Women's Hour'* on the Internet radio at my hotel...

Women's Hour has been such a shrine to petty ambitions for women, legitimising under-achievement, and lowering the expectations of an entire sex. Today, for example, a particular authoress, whom I will not name,  was described as 'very brave' for talking about the impact of periods on her writing. Ha. Before I had learned to shave I had already written a monograph on the use of the semi-colon, and by my late teens I was recognised as an authority on the use of periods of every sort. And yet I thought nothing of it, because I had been raised by enlightened foster parents, in an enlightened commune, with enlightened role models, and given to believe that I could and should aim for the highest levels of attainment. Had there been a 'Men's Hour' on the radio once a day, filling my mind with thoughts about which shade of tie was most appropriate for a business meeting, as if that was the supreme concern for my gender, no doubt I would not be the billionaire eminence grise and bloggeur you have come to love today.

If women are to fulfil their potential they must focus on lofty ambitions, and put aside the humdrum concerns with which they have occupied their minds. So let that be the end of it. Let that be the very last word we have to hear on Women's Hour about women's problems. Period.

*A long-running programme on the 'Radio 4' channel of the BBC- Ed.

Truth stranger than fiction

The Day After Tomorrow and Cloverfield we remember with a chuckle as recent successes of the comedy film genre- the humour in each anchored by the extreme implausibility of its plot. The 'just as if' we muttered as the flakes of snow began to fall in July, blossomed into a 'ha ha ha' when New York had become an icy white wilderness. Our sides we split as the Statue of Liberty lost her head to a giant iguana. And yet this morning, hearing the news on BBC radio, I caught the announcement that lizards and snow were battering New York. Unbelievable.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

The Church of England

It is a familiar dilemma. We visit one of the splendid cathedrals that grace the cities of England, a towering triumph of the masons' art. There can be no question of a fee to enter such a place of worship, but bills are bills, so there is a 'recommended donation' of so much per visitor to help with the fierce running costs. The undecided hand lingers in the pocket, fingering cash. Thousands we would gladly give to ensure the longevity of the majestic medieval monument, but we suspect that £9.50 of our tenner will be spent not  on the building itself but on some sinecure's salary. We are  reminded of the bickering at the synod, the hotel bills and first class rail fares for those attending the quarrelsome meetings, the whole burdensome apparatus of ecclesiastical administration. The fingers close resolutely on the crumpled note, and we pass into the building, our money still our own.

And the Church itself does little to dispel the image of a bloated bureaucracy. I overheard a guide say that Norwich cathedral had over a thousand bosses, as if it were something to be pleased about. On the bright side, it seems that, thanks in part to my interventions, the Church has at last started to unlink the shackles of sexism that have for so long prevented modernisation. The guide went on to say that among the bosses men and women were represented in almost equal number. No glass ceilings there then.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Pernicious Ambiguity at the BBC

This morning I received a letter from one of the presenters of 'Today', the morning news programme on the BBC's Radio 4 channel.  I will not stoop to name the presenter; let us refer to him as Mr H. It seems that he had been piqued by my reports on this website of the lamentable tendency of the 'Today' editors to summarise the news to the point that it becomes ambiguous, a criticism which Mr H dismisses as 'gratuitous pedantry'.

It will be clear to my readers that the attitude of Mr H typifies the state to which the BBC has sunk- out of touch, self-justifying, blind to the social consequences of its actions. Only this morning, in the very same hour during which Mr H's extraordinary denial came into my hands, I encountered a stark concrete example of the pernicious effects of the high-handed carelessness practiced by his editors. I received a call on my personal line from Becks, a tearful and distraught Becks. His story he told in a voice choked with emotion. It was Posh. Her problem was back. He was sure of it. What was he to do? He'd heard it himself, on the BBC. Women were using spice as a legal high. He'd checked the kitchen cupboards. They were full of the stuff. And she never cooks. Always eat ready meals. Turmeric, majoram, (sic), coriander, garam masala (I could tell he was reading from the labels as he spoke)- she must be mixing the stuff for added effect. After all they'd gone through with the coke. What would happen to the kids? Who would pick his wardrobe? ...There was plenty more of the same before I interrupted him to explain that his concerns were misplaced, and the result of yet another ambiguity in the BBC news. He thanked me in his own way. Brilliant. Magic. Fab. Great. And so on.

You will appreciate that as David's pathetic tale invoked pity in my heart, so did it fury, fury towards the careless complacent self-satisfied mediocrats at the BBC who had been the cause of his suffering. Another letter in THE STERNEST POSSIBLE TONES I would have to write to the BBC Board this evening.

Connoisseurs of literary humour the world over: Shouldn't that have been 'mediacrats' back there?

Self: No. I meant mediocrats, as in those practiced in performing the mediocre.

Connoisseurs of literary humour the world over: That's good. Thought you'd slipped up. Should have known better.

Self: Yes you should. Think twice next time.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

New words for old

I never thought that I, of all people, would ask it, but...  has linguistics become just a little esoteric?

Passing this morning the campus of my charitable research foundation, the EDSRF, I was taken by an impulse to call-in and see how the donations were being spent. Mostly the research endeavours underway at the old place had a determinedly commercial ethos. In the Jobs Quantum Computing Laboratory, where I brushed away a tear at the memory of Steve and his generous bequeathal, the team were thrilled to demonstrate the latest chips, and to let me know that IBM had placed a $500m order for the output of the first full production run. Similarly enterprising initiatives were in evidence in the DuPont Material Science Department, the Vladimir Putin Applied Economics wing, and the Donald Trump Institute of Realtorship.

In the Kim Jong-Un Linguistics Directorate I was introduced to Laurent something-or-other, one of the new PhD interns. The subject of his thesis was to be an inter-linguistic comparative analysis of the incidence of reificative modal transpositions arising from phonemic catachresis. Fair enough, you'd say- a logical development of van Thoring's work. Indeed,  there was a time when I would have been first to leap to the whiteboard to sketch visionary lines of approach, to outline an itinerary of round-the-world research visits, to brainstorm a list of high-net-worth individuals who might be counted upon to fund the work, and so on. But this morning I found myself pre-occupied by a more practical concern- what can we do to hasten the evolution of English?

For example, where there has been a commonplace combination of a verb and a noun there has been a tendency for one or the other to be dropped. Driving a car  has become driving. Catching fish has become fishing. Cooking food has become cooking. Sending a text has become texting. I'm sure you can think of countless  (no members of the aristocracy on this blog, please) examples. Yet if I want to tell you that I have been reading a book, I have to use those three words: reading, a, and book, when surely there should be just one verb to represent such a universal activity. Likewise with lighting a fire, watching a television programme, listening to a CD, several words are needed when there should be one  to serve the purpose. Doubtless in a few thousand years such burdensome usage will be considered archaisms, but can we afford to wait? Why not establish a movement now dedicated to the eradication of all forms of inefficiency in English? Why let our brightest liguisticians pursue the most nuanced and recondite abstractions, when they could be applying their energies and talents to improve the lot of a struggling humanity?

I suppose I am partly to blame. Having burned such a brilliant trail in fields such as Ivatan syntax, prosodic structure analysis, contact-induced change, not to overlook my development of the concepts of affix grammars and the Proto-Oceanic lexicon, can I be surprised if others choose to emulate the greatness that has so inspired them?

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Conquering El Capitan

White hot have been the Sushing 'phones since this morning's news of my crucial role in coaching  Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson through their glorious ascent of El Capitan, that 3000 foot wall of granite in the Sierra Nevada. We had intended my part in their triumph to remain secret, but an enterprising reporter tricked Tommy into lending one of the satellite 'phones we had used throught the climb for the boys to relay their concerns, and I my advice; and from there it was a simple matter to trace the logged calls to my Nassau address.

The boys were experienced and talented climbers, so there was little I could teach them about climbing per se, apart from some technical hints about the importance of the bidoit, how to approach an overhanging run-out, pressure-breathing techniques, the use of the no-hand rest, how to develop ninja feet, exercises to prepare for the mono, the importance of jibbing in a hueco, the dangers of gronking, the need to avoid greaseballs, the use of the overarm yarn-pinch, traversing in conditions of moins lesee, fulcral knee pinions, and... well, you can imagine the rest.

The focus of our work was motivation. We knew from our practice sessions on the cliffs of western Ireland, where I would lead the boys through some of the trickier ascents, that the greatest dangers to their goals lay not in the treacherous vertical planes of granite, but in the warmth of the sleeping bag, which could tempt a tired mortal to abandon the rigours of the climb and give way to ease and comfort. We had to find a way to ensure that the boys would be motivated to climb each day, regardless of the pains, the dangers, the psychological challenges. My solution was simple but effective- a remote-controlled device integrated within the boys' bivouac by which I was able to subject them to video recordings of Ed Balls and George Osborne spouting foolish misconceptions about fiscal policy- guaranteed to drive anyone up the wall.

Monday, 12 January 2015

The Explanatory Deficit

Since the establishment of the toothless BBC Trust, upon my work-worn shoulders has fallen the burden of policing standards of quality at the Beeb. You might consider the broadcaster to be falling horribly short of the Reithian ideal, self-serving, its current-affairs programmes riddled with cliché, inaccuracy, speculation, and bias, recycling the same jaded 'talent' from one presenter slot to the next. I readily concede those criticisms and more, but I have to tell you that the performance of the BBC would be even worse (types the words with prodding fingertips for added emphasis) were it not for my unceasing vigilance and my readiness to write letters of the sternest tone.

In this very blog I have reported examples of one of the cardinal vices of news programming on Radio 4, namely the practice of summarising a subject to the point at which the summary becomes essentially ambiguous. Alert readers will recall the report of the 'rotating' workers at the crippled Fukoshima nuclear plant (see 'Japanese in a Spin').

A comparable case arose on the Radio 4 news this morning, which announced that David Cameron had made tackling 'the deficit' his top priority. Which deficit might that be? The deficit of midwives, of hospital beds, of seats on trains, of prison space, of border police, of competent managers of government IT projects, of housing, of honesty among our politicians, of transport infrastructure, of engineering apprentices, of girls studying physics, of original and innovative programmes on the BBC, of anything decent to watch on telly notwithstanding 763 Freeview channels, of teachers, of grit for the roads, of water in summer, of parking spaces, of visionary charismatic leaders... we in Britain enjoy such a magnificent panoply of deficits, how is the listener meant to know which is the target of Mr Cameron's top priority?

Up the Sushing sleeves are about to be rolled for a suitably lambasting letter to be typed, and you would not want to be in Tony Hall's shoes or seat when that baby hits the in-tray.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

A Proper Charlie Hebdo

We all know the French will take to the streets at the drop of a chapeau. A gormless assistant at Tesco puts the wrong price on a French apple- ten minutes later Dieppe is blockaded. The front pages at the newsagent this morning, where I called to pick up the TLS, showed les bons citizens of Paris waving placards reading 'Je Suis Charlie'.  One gathers a campaign to legalise cocaine is underway; hardly front page news from that most liberal of cities. However, I am told its headline status is the result of an intention of David Cameron to join the protestors tomorrow. Political suicide? you ask. I have only one thing to say on the matter: let's hope so.

Friday, 9 January 2015

The Collected Wisdom of David Cameron

Fervent critical acclaim from all quarters greeted our publication this week of 'The Charisma Secrets of Ed Miliband', a major new work of political reference. To forestall any accusations of bias in these sensitive pre-election times we are now launching a handsome companion volume, 'The Collected Wisdom of David Cameron', 240pp in paperback, details given below. Expected imminently from the printers are the galley proofs of a third volume, 'The Unshakeable Principles of Nick Clegg', which ought to be available from all good bookshops a week next Thursday.

Look inside this book...

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

The Charisma Secrets of Ed Miliband

The latest title in our Modern Statesmanship series provides a comprehensive account of the charisma secrets of  Labour leader and would-be Prime Minister 'Ed Miliband'. With the election looming what could be a better time to buy ten copies or more as gifts for your friends, relatives and work colleagues.

Look inside this book...

Saturday, 3 January 2015

For Twitchers

Upon the news of its appearance there, I and a party of excited fellow-twitchers raced to the Seahaven nature reserve in the hope of glimpsing the extremely rare Fregata Aquila- the Ascension  Frigatebird. There we stood, bedecked with the best binoculars buckets of money could buy, pelted by the rain in the Channel gales until we were frozen to our cores. Then suddenly from behind a storm-lashed clump of reed it appeared- a majestic, haughty creature, robed in many-hued splendour.  A cry went up, and the battery of binoculars was swiftly trained in the direction of the beautiful bird. Alas our efforts were in vain, however, as we were all twitching so severely we could not hold our binoculars steady enough for a decent view. All that could be seen was a vague bird-like blur, dancing against the background of the reed beds. There remained nothing but to retire to a local hostelry to revive our sluggish circulations with a  drop of stimulant.

Subsequently some good did spring from the disappointment, as on the trip home I made preliminary sketches of a new device that might help twitchers everywhere, sketches that have at last led to the launch of the revolutionary 'Gynocular', pictured below:

This remarkable new invention will free twitchers from the effects of their tremors, allowing them to see stable images of their beloved birds. Two stylish and unobtrusive gyroscopes are attached near the objective lenses of the binoculars, carefully configured to rotate around mutually orthogonal axes, providing near-perfect stabilisation. The Gynoculars are available in two variants: the Standard, in which the gyroscopes are manually brought up to speed by pulling a string, and the Deluxe, in which the gyroscopes are accelerated by battery power. The Deluxe is particularly recommended for twitchers, since the gyros in the Standard version are a bugger to thread with shaky hands.
Twitchers will know a good thing when they see it (those years of bird-watching, after all), and will surely wish to click at once to my E-bay shop to take advantage of early-bird discounts now on offer.

Friday, 2 January 2015

The Theory of Everything

I confess I have been cruel in the pages of this blog in poking affectionate fun at my ex-pupil Stephen Hawking and his somewhat slow mental processes. But old habits die hard. Notoriously, I do not suffer fools at all well, so you will imagine how frustrating it was to me, some sixty years ago, to find myself appointed Stephen's private tutor by his anxious parents, who were naturally fearful lest Stephen grow to be an adult version of the dunce he had appeared throughout his unimpressive childhood. I did my best, as can be seen by his success, such as it is, but sows ears are sows ears. To think what he might have achieved, with my guidance, had he more natural ability.
To relieve the tedium and frustration of our lessons I often used to rib him on those many occasions upon which he failed to appreciate some point I was attempting to press upon him. The humour was largely one-sided I regret to say, as Stephen has no sense of humour whatsoever. I remember him once asking me to explain the chain of reasoning that had led me to develop the concepts of asymmetric boson exchange- the idea that paved the way to what became known as the Grand Unification Theory. Oh it was just a GUT feeling, I said. Characteristically he didn't get the joke, until it was explained to him. (Three times, I recall.)

Scott Grisham

Scott Grisham. US author of low-brow legal thrillers, often confused with John Turow. Novels include: 'The Formula' (2003),  'Presumed Indifferent' (1984).

Extract from 'The Formula'. Portly middle-aged Harry Rex Horgan- a fearless litigator with a brutal work-schedule, four brutal  ex-wives and a drink problem- is conducting a brutal cross of the defendant, a dignified elderly personage accused of libelling famous author Scott Grisham. The case is being heard under Mississippi state law by Judge Hiram Oldenshaw in the ceremonial court in Clanton, Kindle County...

Harry Rex nodded doubtfully at the defendant in the witness box. 'So, Professor, if I understand you correctly you are asking us to believe that in dismissing my client's books as...' Harry read from a paper in his hand...'"formulaic, over-padded, cliché-ridden junk that no self-respecting person should be seen dead reading", you are expressing a genuinely-held belief."


'And the we can take it, therefore, that you are not a fan of my client's work?'


Harry Rex paused for a moment, staring reflectively at the rich patina of the old oak panelling in the majestic courtroom. Every one of the jurors was watching him. The pause seemed entirely natural, as if  the burdened mind of a dedicated lawyer was struggling to divine the truth. But the pause, its timing and its duration, like the rest of the cross was the product of more than $1million of research and rehearsals. Before the trial had even started an abandoned warehouse near Clanton had been converted by a team of movie-set constructors into an exact facsimile of the court room. Proxy jurors had been hired and psychologically profiled. Actors had been made up to resemble the judge and the defendant. Every aspect of the trial had been thoroughly rehearsed again and again by the claimant's legal team. Even the pause Harry Rex was now making had been tried in several variants of duration, with the proxy jury asked to say which seemed the most convincing. Nothing was left unconsidered. The budget for the legal work was limitless, as at stake was something priceless- the ego of an author.
used to mimic the l had all bee duration and its He appeared to make a decision, and nodded at Pamela Swikowitz, his beautiful young paralegal. Swikowitz passed over a manila envelope from which Harry Rex extracted a glossy 9 by 7 of what seemed to be a luxuriously appointed bathroom. The area around the toilet appeared to be strewn with books. He held the photograph in front of him and addressed the defendant.

'Professor, do you recognise the subject of this photograph?'

The Professor shifted uneasily in the witness box. 'I do.'

'Would you please tell us what it shows?'

The Professor cleared his throat. 'It shows one of the bathrooms in my Central Park apartment.'

'One of the bathrooms?' Harry's eyebrows were raised, as was the incredulous tone of his voice. 'Is it just one of the bathrooms in that apartment?'

The Professor ignored the question and stared out across the crowded courtroom with a look of regal defiance.

'I have a deposition here from Matilda de Morta, a member of the domestic staff at your Central Park apartment. In it she states that the bathroom appearing in this photograph was you own personal bathroom, and I quote "reserved exclusively for the

Professor Lord Robert 'Ray' Winstone

English medical doctor, scientist, television presenter, politician and actor, famous for 'tough-guy' roles  ('Nil by Mouth', 'Scum', etc).

Coincidentally, I caught 'Ray' on Desert Island Discs this morning. It's amazing how Kirsty puts her guest at their ease, and gets them to lower their guard. Gone were the pompous, inflated tones we associate with Lord Winston's speeches in the Lords, and instead we heard the genuine, unadorned cockney patois of his childhood days in south London, where he combined and early interest in medicine with a love of amateur boxing. It cannot be a surprise to anyone that he has made such a fist of his medical career since.