Brian Micklethwait's Blog
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Most recent entries
- Matt Ridley on Epicurus and Lucretius
- Coloured lights in bottles outside the RFH
- Avian Friday
- New chairs
- Milo Yiannopoulos
- Four towers joined together by two bridges
- Peter Foster on Robert Owen
- Quota Bald Blokes and Big Ben
- Less heat and more light
- Antoine Clarke on herding drunk cats
- Antony Flew on the Terrors of Islam
- Bell end?
- Couple photoing their own shadows
- Standing on boxes to interview Irfan
- What is this iceStone device?
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6000 Miles from Civilisation
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Category archive: Language
Last night I did a posting at Samizdata about Milo Yiannopoulos.
Until today, when I dug him up on YouTube, I didn’t even know what nationality this guy is. American would have been my guess, but basically I didn’t know, although I did learn yesterday what he looks like. But for me he was basically a name, that I couldn’t spell.
Turns out he’s British. Very British. Who knew? Everybody except me, presumably. Blog and learn.
I asked for the opinions of Samizdata commentariat, and got some. I don’t know why, but I expected more variety in these responses, more doubts, more reservations. Actually, the Samizdata commentariat has, so far, been uniformly approving of this guy.
Now I’m listening to him babble away, and it turns out that, being a libertarian and an atheist, I’m “touchy” - meaning oversensitive about being criticised - times two. As a libertarian I’m obsessed with marijuana and with computer hacking. (Actually: No, times two.) As an atheist, well, it turns out I dress stupidly. (Yes. True.) He does love to wind people up, which he does by saying slightly untrue and quite funny things. He’s like that classic old Fleet Street type, the Opinionated Female Columnist, whose job is to overgeneralise in ways that are quite popular and pile up the readers, and to make the Outraged Classes really really outraged, and who eventually gets … old.
I’m starting to think he may soon be a bit of a has been. But, at least he now is.
I think the article that I linked to from Samizdata may have been a peak. It is truly brilliant.
What I do like is his interest in the tactics of how to spread ideas, how to win arguments, how to be able to make arguments despite the efforts of people who want nothing except to shut him up, by saying things that shut them up.
Rather as a politician, when sacked, pretends that he has resigned to spend more time with whatever is left of his family, when a cricketer gets the elbow from the national team, the selectors always now say stuff like this:
James Whitaker, the national selector, said: “Ian Bell has been an outstanding player for many years and undoubtedly still has plenty to offer England in the future. It was clearly a difficult decision but he has struggled for runs in recent series and we felt that it was the right time for him to take a break and spend time working on his game out of the spotlight.
Outstanding player. More to offer. Take a break. Work on his game. Out of the spotlight. And sometimes, it’s even true. After all, Compton and Ballance are both back. But the difference is age. Compton and Ballance are still quite young. Bell is at that age where he is either good now, or not. He doesn’t have a potential big decade to offer in the future, just one or two more years right now.
Bell’s problem is that he has always been the kind of player who can make a good team better, but he has never been the kind of player good enough to make a bad team good. And even when he was playing really well, which he did from time to time, you kind of didn’t notice. He was never a “game changer”, merely a pretty good player, who sometimes did really well, and sometimes not so well.
Talking of bellends, for several years now the comedians on the telly have been using this, to me, peculiar expression, to describe people they are not impressed by and are inclined to mock. But only now, wanting to add something to this posting, did I learn that the bellend is the head of the penis. Which presumably makes the bell … Blog and learn.
The modified cliché is a standard method to spice up writing. You take a too-much-repeated clutch of words, like a metaphor so stale that you hardly notice the metaphor any more, and you alter it or add something to it to bring things alive again. (Said Vinegar Joe Stillwell of Louis Mountbatten: “There’s less to that young man than meets the eye.” I still remember something Harry Phibbs wrote about how he was “eager to intrude upon private grief”.)
Something similar can be done with architecture, on a far more grand scale:
The individual bricks, so to speak, of this architectural pile are impeccably dull. Yet they are combined in a very dramatic way. Which makes the impeccable dullness that is thus still very visible all the more entertaining.
Modifying a cliché has particular architectural advantages, because it means that you already know how the cliché bits work, because that’s been done thousands of times already. (See this earlier posting.)
Of course, combining them in this new way could create all manner of problems of different sorts, so you still need to be careful. But, despite the dangers, I like this.
LATER: Van Beethoven.
... causing them to stay stuck inside my head for ever.
That’s it really. Provided something can get out of hand inside a head.
What I am talking about, in the event that you don’t already recognise the syndrome, is that you think of something to put on your blog, and start seeking out links, and you find highly pertinent links to add, but at the far end of them, you find further highly pertinent things to add to the original posting, until it ceases entirely from being the piece of fun that blogging ought mostly to be, and becomes a giant piece of homework that never gets done.
Earlier in the week, I journeyed under Trafalgar Square, in a pedestrian subway. The subway was adorned with history lessons, one of which was this one:
I did not know this, about what a Mews is. It’s not the kind of thing you ask. By which I mean: I never have. A Mews is a Mews. I have never questioned this. I accepted it. And then someone answers the question: Why is a Mews called that? Before I even realised I was ready to be told.
Click on the above picture, and get the darker and less artfully composed original.
A lot of my postings just now involve me showing you photos I took quite a while back, and this one is also one of those.
What happens is, I rootle through all my past photos, and then sometimes get an idea for a posting about a certain category of thing or human conduct or mode of transport or some such thing, and I start gathering photos to illustrate this, in a separate directory. I am careful to copy photos into the new directory, rather than just transfer them there. One of my rules is, keep all the photos you took on a certain day on a certain expedition all in one place. But, no harm in copying from those directories into other ones which are about particular things rather than particular trips or particular times.
However, what often then happens is that I forget about it all. So, the directory sits there, sometimes for years, and then years later I come across it again. This happened last night, when I encountered a collection of photographs, assembled in 2010, of photographers who were also holding guide books. I could tell that I had never used them in a blog posting, because when I do that, I always give photos different names.
Here are four of those photographers-holding-guide-books photos, all of which involve guide books with the word “Londres” on them:
Click to get the bigger pictures.
I’m guessing that both the French and the Hispanics spell London as Londres, with the French calling it Londr and the Hispanics calling it Lon Drez. But that’s only a gez.
And, yes (google google), I gezzed right:
Londres, the French, Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan and Filipino language name for London, capital of the United Kingdom and England
The guide book while photoing thing always appealed to me, not least because even then I was looking for ways to not photo people’s faces, and guide books often achieved that outcome for me very nicely. But the phenomenon is also interesting because, slowly, it is fading away. You do still see photographers flaunting guide books, but it is rarer now.
Instead, the smartphone is the new guidebook. And, of course, increasingly, the new camera, for people like those shown above. Makes perfect sense.
As for the lady above (in the picture bottom right) whose face I do here display (if you click), well, she was wearing a T-shirt saying, in London’s own language and therefore to attract the attention of Londoners like me: “believe me… i’m incredible”. Somehow I don’t think it was “incredulous”. Ergo, she was attracting attention with her own attention-attracting behaviour, ergo she was and is fair game for her face to go up, totally recognisably, (but nearly a decade later) on my blog.
Nearly a decade later because these photos were taken by me in 2006 and 2007.
Time today only for three rather antiquated Citroens.
First, a Citroen DS23, photoed by me in Lower Marsh this afternoon, 3.45 pm:
Second, a second Citroen DS23, photoed by me in the Kings Road this afternoon, 5.06 pm:
To see one of these beauties is a beautiful thing. To see two, within the space of less than two hours, is to be doubly blessed.
I know they were both DS23s because I also photoed where they both said they were DS23s, at the back.
And then, before the two hours were up, I also snapped this:
It just turned off the Kings Road, right in front of me.
Magnifique. J’aime Londres.
That last one reminds me that I also took this photo, earlier in the week, in Strutton Ground:
A form of transport that is even more antiquated than are the automobiles pictured above. See also: this.
By the way, I rather enjoyed it when I just image-googled automobile. All I was doing at first was checking the spelling.
Photoed by me this afternoon, in Victoria Street:
That’s right. You can drive straight at us pedestrians and we will always see you, because we look both ways. We pedestrians have eyes in the backs of our heads.
Many signs exhort people to be more vigilant, or else disaster will ensue. But here is a sign that says: relax. When it comes to cars in their vicinity, pedestrians are omniscient. There may seem to be a problem, with cars driving about, seeming to threaten pedestrians. But actually, no. No problemo.
Seriously? What this sign shows is that sometimes, just sometimes, exclamation marks have their uses, not just to enable you to shout in writing, but to say something different. Without punctuation, this sign is a bit ambiguous. It does the job, but maybe it could do that job better. To a pedant like me, it suggests that what merely should happen, is already happening. With punctuation, the sign could be made unambiguous.
Pedestrians! Look both ways!
Trouble is, that would set a precedent, for using shouty punctuation even when it is not needed to clarify meaning.
Certainly in London and I presume everywhere else in Britain, when you see lots of verbiage attached to the outside of a building site, it tends to be health and safety stuff, of the sort shown in this posting, which I did here in February 2011. (That was the very first posting I did with the category “Signs and notices” attached to it.)
In the summer of that same year, I was in France, where I took the picture that follows. But I never got around to displaying it here. Here it is now:
This is a sign that I saw adorning the outside of a French building site.
To me, it resembles nothing so much as the credits at the end of a movie. Every imaginable contributor to the building process is painstakingly listed. Click if you want to be able to read everything more clearly.
Although I am sure I might be persuaded otherwise (for instance by people with knowledge of the relative merits of the actual work that tends to be done in each country), I think the contrast is rather in France’s favour.
In France, everything that has been done, and by whom, is listed. Presumably it has been done in a manner to make the people who did it glad to have their names in, as it were, lights. In Britain, every imaginable thing that might go wrong is listed, in the form of an imprecation that people not do this. It’s the difference between being proud of what is being done, and being nothing but apologetic about it.
Right at the end, though, it does say: “chantier interdet au public, port du casque obligatoire”. This means (unless the internet has gravely deceived me): “access forbidden to the public, helmet obligatory”. So, a bit of health and safety nagging there. But that’s all there is.
In Britain, you also sometimes get a rather shorter list of the grander and more professional of the enterprises and people who are doing the job, but not nearly so much is made of this, compared to all the stuff about being ever so, ever so careful.
On September 19th 2004, Goddaughter 1 and I visited the inside of the top of the Gherkin, on that year’s London Architecture Open Day, or whatever they call it.
But my camera (a Canon A70) was not very good at doing views, and the best pictures I took were of, guess what, other photographers. And the most interesting other photographer was, I think, this one:
Proof (a) that selfies were being taken before the word itself had caught on, and proof (b) that I had already noticed.
I also like that the camera there looks seriously clunky and out of date. That’s because it was then seriously clunky and is now seriously out of date.
Yesterday I wrote here about the twenty-first century social obligation to use a mobile phone when meeting up with someone, because of the problems this solves and despite the problems this creates. Hence the need for me to take my mobile phone with me when going photowalkabout with G(od)D(aughter) 1.
But, on Saturday evening, the evening before GD1 and I went on our walk, I was very nearly deprived of my mobile phone, by which I mean deprived of the ability to make use of it.
What happened was that, while I was also out and about on Saturday evening, a baritone-singing student friend of mezzo-soprano-singing student G(od)D(aughter) 2, sought the help of GD2. His mobile had run out of puff and needed a recharge. GD2 uses an iPhone, but Baritone has an Android mobile, so Baritone could not use GD2’s recharger. What to do?
Between them they decided that I and my Android recharger might be the answer. I guess that GD2 then rang me on my immobile home number and discovered that I was out. Then, knowing my aversion and incompetence as a mobile phoner, and especially as a reliable receiver of incoming mobile messages, she did not not attempt to ring me on my mobile. Or, she did try my mobile and I did not answer.
For various reasons that I still don’t understand and which in any case do not now matter, Baritone ended up coming to my home, armed with GD2’s key to my home, and having made his entrance, he “borrowed” my mobile phone recharger.
I want to emphasise that the above quote marks are not sneer quotes. They are confusion quotes.
For, what exactly does it mean to “borrow” a mobile phone charger? What GD2 meant, when she assured Baritone that it would okay for him to “borrow” my phone charger, was that it would be okay for him to charge up his mobile phone, using my charger at my home. As indeed it would have been.
However, Baritone misunderstood this assurance to mean that it would be okay for him to “borrow” my charger, as in: take it away and make use it throughout Saturday evening, in other places besides mine. I don’t believe that Baritone would have done this without that assurance from GD2, as he understood it. After all, whereas charging up your mobile in situ is socially very okay, taking a charger away without permission is surely a twenty-first century social gaff of the first order. But, Baritone thought that he had permission to do this otherwise unacceptable thing. GD2 is adamant that she gave no such permission, but I believe that Baritone genuinely thought that this unusual procedure was, in the light of GD2’s assurance, okay. He made this clear in a written thankyou note he left on my desk.
And it normally would have been okay. Had I not been going on an expedition the following day with GD1, then the charger could have made its way back to my home some time on or around Sunday, and all would have been fine. But, for all the reasons that were explained in the previous posting, I needed that charger by quite early on Sunday morning at the latest.
So, despite GD2s protestations, I acquit Baritone of wrongdoing.
But then again, Baritone is a baritone. And baritones often behave very badly, quite often at the expense of notably virtuous mezzo-sopranos. So maybe I’m being too kind.
All was speedily corrected by GD2, who was rather insulted by the profuseness of my thanks when she brought my charger back at 8am on Sunday morning. Of course I got your charger back. (See what I mean about virtuous mezzo-sopranos.)
It was just as well that I did get it back. In addition to using my mobile for all that meeting up at the start of the day, I also used it for its map app, and to tell me how Surrey were doing against Gloucester. Very well, as it happened. Nothing like your sports team winning to keep you going when you are knackered.
However, I now understand better why people have cameras with mobile phones built into them. What with my bag and all, I was having constantly to choose between knowing where I was, and photoing it.
Surrey are on a bit of a roll just now. This evening they beat Gloucester again, in a T20 slog at the Oval. Surrey needed a mere six runs from the last four balls. So, how did they get them? The last four balls went: wicket, dot, dot, six. In English that’s: probable Surrey victory, possible Surrey victory, almost impossible Surrey victory, Surrey victory. I got that off my laptop, but I could have got it from my mobile, if I had been out and about. Provided it hadn’t run out of puff.
I love learning about two-man teams, and in Paul Johnson’s short, excellent biography of Mozart (see also this earlier bit) I have been learning more about just such a team, although a very temporary and unequal one:
In the meantime, Mozart had met his great partner, the Abate Lorenzo Da Ponte. The letter (May 7, 1783) in which he tells his father, “I have looked through at least a hundred libretti and more, but I have hardly found a single one with which I am satisfied,” also says he has met the new fashionable poet in Vienna, Da Ponte, who “has promised ... to write a new libretto for me.” The emperor had decided to abandon singspiel in 1783 and embrace Italian opera again, and he put Da Ponte in charge of the words. Da Ponte was a converted Jew, the son of a tanner, who had embraced Christianity in 1763. He had led a bohemian life, as a teacher, a priest, a lascivious escort of married women in the Venetian fashion, a friend of Casanova, expelled from Venice for sexual depravity, and thereafter making his living as a translator and writer in the theatrical world. He had an extraordinary gift for languages, rather like Mozart himself but on a much more comprehensive scale, and seemed to think multilingually.
Da Ponte wrote the librettos for three Mozart operas, The Marriage of Figaro (K. 492, presented May 1,1786), Don Giovanni (K. 527, October 29, 1787), and Cosi fan tutte (K. 588, January 26, 1790), and the collaboration between the two men must be accounted one of the most successful in the history of opera. By almost universal agreement, Figaro and Giovanni are Mozart’s two best operas, though a small minority argues that Cosi contains the best music and superb staging and that a first-class production can make it the best evening’s entertainment.
The two men worked successfuly together for two reasons. First, they both understood that creating an opera was collaboration and that composer and librettist both had to know when to give way; sometimes words must yield and sometimes notes. The truth is, of course, that Mozart was extremely adept at words as well as music, and often he took over as librettist, Da Ponte acquiescing. This raises the second point: Both men were good tempered, used to hard knocks, nasty words, and intense arguments. They had the admirable habit, essential to success in the theater, of drawing a firm line over a disagreement, once it was resolved, and moving on quickly to the next problem. Mozart’s good nature was absolutely genuine and went to the root of his being. He was incapable of real malice or the desire to wound (the one exception was the archbishop, and there, too, hatred was expressed in words rather than deeds). Da Ponte was a much more flawed creature. He was a fearful liar, to begin with, and his various volumes of memories are not to be trusted at all. His subsequent career after he left Vienna and went to New York, becoming a trader, a bookseller, a bankrupt, a poet, and other things, shows that his commitment to the stage and to music - drama, particularly - was not total.
Moreover, it is not clear that he recognized quality in opera. He thought the best composer he worked with was Vicente Martin y Soler, and he had the most fulsome praise for Antonio Salieri. The implication was that both were Mozart’s superiors as musicians. Both were more successful commercially at the time, and their operas were performed more frequently than Mozart’s - so were those of many other composers, at least eleven by my reckoning. But both were so inferior to Mozart by any conceivable artistic criteria as to cast doubt on Da Ponte’s musical understanding. And it is a significant fact that his three Mozart operas are the only ones whose libretto he wrote that have remained in the repertoire or that anyone has heard of today.
Hence the inescapable conclusion is that Mozart was the dominant figure in the collaboration. Da Ponte understood or learned from Mozart the need to keep the drama moving by varying the musical encounters and groupings, by altering the rhythms of vocal speech, and by switching the moods. He may even have understood the great discovery in the writing of opera that we owe to Mozart - the way in which character can be created, transformed, altered, and emphasized by entirely musical means taking possession of the sense of words. But the magic touch is always provided by Mozart as music dramatist.
Okay, this quote is from Chapter One, “A Universal Language?”, of The Story of English: How the English Language Conquered the World by Philip Gooden (pp. 11-12):
English is the closest the world has yet come to a universal language, at least in the sense that even those who cannot speak it - admittedly, the large majority of the world’s population - are likely to be familiar with the odd English expression. One term that is genuinely global as well as genuinely odd is OK (or O.K. or okay), originating in America in the 19th century. An astonishingly adaptable word, it works as almost any part of speech from noun to verb, adjective to adverb, though often just as a conversation-filler - ‘OK, what are we going to do now?’ Depending on the tone of voice, OK can convey anything from fervent agreement to basic accquiescence. It may be appropriate that such a truly universal term has no generally agreed source. Attempts to explain where it came from don’t so much show variety as a high degree of imaginative curiosity. So, OK is created from the initials of a deliberate misspelling, oll korreket, or from a campaign slogan for a would-be US president in the 1840s who was known as Old Kinderhook because he came from Kinderhook in New York State. Or it is a version of a word imported from Finland or Haiti, or possibly one borrowed from the Choctaw Indians. Or it is older than originally thought and derives from West African expressions like o-ke or waw-ke. Enough explanations, OK?
It is more important to me that I get to bed at a sensible hour than it is that I do some sensible blogging before getting to bed. So, another sign:
But this time, instead of them doing something a bit strange, it’s me doing something very silly.
Photographed by me in Walthamstow, yesterday.
Good night, and I’ll try to do better tomorrow.