Friday, 27 April 2012

Last Tango in Morningside

Eavesdropping is a thoroughly worthwhile past-time--I commend it to you.  Try listening to the people across the aisle on the train.  Drop your napkin or spoon on the floor the next time you are in a coffee shop so you can lean over and have a good listen to your neighbours.  Take out your iPod earphones every now and again and listen to the conversation at the bus stop whilst you pretend to study the timetable.  

Earlier this week, while I was waiting for the number 23, a lady from nearby sheltered housing met an acquaintance at the bus stop and excitedly filled him in on the latest news.  It appeared that a couple who had recently rented a flat in the building, had done a midnight flit earlier in the week.  'Just up and gone,'  she said, 'with the dirty dishes still in the sink and not so much as a swill with the Domestos.'  However, it was not the slovenly housekeeping of this couple that caused the sensation, or even their sudden disappearance.  What made this news particularly scintillating was the fact that this pair were:  'no better than they should be.'  At this point voices were lowered.  Apparently, these two had no sooner moved into the sheltered housing than they were 'putting it about' in an entirely scandalous fashion--and not just with the singletons.  'They slept with anyone--married or not,' said the woman at the bus stop, pursing her lips so hard her mouth looked like a map of the Nile Delta (I can only assume no one tried to sleep with her...).  It sounds as if their enthusiasm and stamina was remarkable--for any age.

Personally, I find the idea of ancient Britons throwing their dentures into a bowl after dinner in a geriatric version of swinging immensely encouraging.  A fairly recent article in The Scotsman, headlined - 'Lifestyle key to staying sharp in old age',  explained that research carried out by Aberdeen and Edinburgh Universities found that though genetic factors have an influence, environmental factors play a much stronger part in how the brain ages.  Physical activity was listed as one of the key influences, along with 'occupations'.   The article did not specify what occupations, but clearly some of the residents in this particular establishment have their own interpretation.  

It would seem William Blake knew what he was talking about when he wrote:  'the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom'.  

Monday, 23 April 2012

Slippery customers

The other morning on the bus I heard one man say to another man (both of them too old for their Tintin haircuts but not old enough for their Inspector Gadget raincoats):  ‘I don’t think we can  grasp any further  outreach specific  inward-facing cyclical movement going least not at this point in time.’  Unfortunately, I did not catch the reply—I was preoccupied by the vision of a circle of  civil servants holding hands in a giant washing machine half-way through its spin cycle.  
I believe this to be a  example of  ‘weasel words’, which the ever helpful Wikipedia defines as:  "an informal term for equivocating words and phrases aimed at creating an impression that something specific and meaningful has been said, when in fact only a vague or ambiguous claim, or even a refutation has been communicated".  (Is it just me, or is this definition a bit weaselly as well?)
Mr Wikipedia goes on to say that  the expression (apparently) comes from "the egg-eating habits of weasels".  In this case, I think we could safely say the egg was well and truly sucked. 
There is a website dedicated to weasel words and even a book called:  'Watson's Dictionary of Weasel Words, Contemporary Cliches, Cant & Management Jargon'.  It doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, but at least you know where you are with a title like that.  In any case, weasel word is a lot easier to say than tervisigate, which means the same thing.  
It's not just a weasel world out there either, linguistically speaking.  As well as being weaselled, words may also be ‘skunked’--which is how lexicographer Bryan Garner describes words that are so commonly misused that people are convinced they are wrong when used correctly (as in confusing 'disinterested' with  'uninterested').  Jack Rosenthal, in the New York Times, called these words 'phantonyms', which is a great word, although it lacks that important extra layer of meaning implying that words that have been skunked are probably best avoided altogether.
It does seem a bit hard on small furry mammals, associating them with our growing inability to say what we mean or mean what we say, although there is personal precedent.  I remember my father and a boyhood friend reminiscing about being sent out to shoot squirrels for the pot, in the Ozarks during the great depression.  'I could never really have any warm feelings for squirrel,' my father's friend said.  'So my mother would give it some fancy name--fricasee  this or game the other-- as if that would help the taste.  Well, you could call it anything you wanted, as fancy as you liked, but that didn't stop it being squirrel pie.'  
Possibly outreach specific, inward-facing cyclical squirrel pie.
In a strange coincidence, a friend sent me an article about the 'war against wrongly used words' (so encouraging--I didn't even know there was a skirmish).   The good news is that the Associate Press Stylebook has just changed the rules for the use of the word hopefully, so it is no long restricted to meaning ‘in a hopeful manner, but can now mean ‘it is hoped’. 

  So I can say with complete impunity:  hopefully my father’s friend won’t have to eat any more squirrel pie.   I’m still not sure what we should do about the weasels...but if I were David Cameron's press secretary I'd stay away from Greggs.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Entirely cracked

Fracking.  Now there’s a word to conjure with.  Not a new portmanteau word meaning 'breaking into your brother's computer' (fraternal/hacking), or even a new expletive, as in: ‘that fracking so and so has just run over my dog’.  No, fracking is a new way to destroy the planet —something to do with using water to smash rock (underground, where it doesn’t matter because we can’t see it), in order to get at the natural gas.  There may be little side effects—like fracturing or irrevocably polluting aquifers (no problem, we here in Scotland will simply sell  our rainwater to the parched south--a convincing argument for independence if ever I've heard one) or really, really small earthquakes; harmless ones, which we are not to worry about because they will stop before they cause a really big earthquake (or so the reasoning goes—tell that to people living in Japan or New Zealand.  As someone who grew up in Southern California and woke up one morning to find my bed sailing majestically across my bedroom floor  and my street transformed into a Salvador Dali painting, I am having difficulty with the risk assessment on this—surely you will only know you should have stopped when you are already gone too far?).
Fracking is such a harmless sounding word; comical almost.  A splendid idea though-- portmanteau words.  Two dirty socks and a string vest thrown into a  French  bag become a stylish new thing called a ‘strocking’.  It seems particularly apposite, in this instance, that Lewis Carroll first wrote about 'portmanteau words' in ‘Through the Looking Glass’ with  Humpty Dumpty explaining to Alice those strange, scrambled egg words in Jabberwocky.  It is truly a strange sort of Wonderland where we think fracking is a good idea...although I suppose as a culture we do have a tradition of liquids exposing our fault lines. 
 I was riding the bus up the Easter Road when a gentleman boarded the bus who was so well fracked he slid off the bus seat on his first attempt to sit down.  He was deep in conversation on his mobile phone, earnestly trying to convince the woman at the other end that he was not intoxicated.  "No Doll, I’m not drunk.  How can you say that?  I've only had two halves of shandy; you couldnae say anyone could get blootered on that."  This proof was repeated several times, apparently unsuccessfully, so he went on.  "Why are you going on at me, Doll? Why are you saying I’m drunk when I’ve just been all romantic and bought you a pressie.  Not just one pressie--two  pressies!  I didnae just buy you one deodorant--no, I bought you two deodorants as a pressie.  Now, would a drunk man buy you two deodorants as a pressie?"
The phone call must have ended abruptly, because he held his phone away looking at it in astonishment, then appealed to us all to agree that his reasoning vis a vis the correlation between drunkenness, two deodorants and romance, was irrefutable. 
You could say he was suffering from logorrhoea: an excessive flow of words, especially when incoherent.  Another portmanteau  word?   I  leave it to your imagination where or to whom you might like to apply it, but I can think of a few frackers where one might wish to begin.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

You couldn't make it up

Rumpelstiltskin has been driving the bus this week.  At one point I felt sure he was going to ask a young woman who had lost her bus pass for her first born child in lieu of the fare.  He scowled and growled his way throughout the town, barging and bullying and blowing his horn.  I had no difficulty imagining him becoming so enraged that he would  'seize his own left foot and tear himself in two, (as the Brother Grimm had it in the 1857 edition of their tales). Getting on the bus each morning was like getting past a troll--I had to resist the urge to tell him there would be a bigger billy goat coming along shortly.  I smiled ingratiatingly, only to be met by a dead-eyed stare: it was like being driven by the un-dead.  He looked as if he was someone else's hair and moustache and with that and his Desperate Dan chin, I could only imagine he was actually a frog named Ronald, fallen under some evil enchantment and turned into Bruce Forsyth.  If anyone could find a toad for him to kiss, that would be a kindness.

It is not hard to see Edinburgh as a fairytale city, after all it has all the traditional requirements:  a castle, a dungeon, a palace, even a witches' well (at one time Edinburgh was evidently the witch-burning capital of Scotland--put that in  your pipe and smoke it, David Hume).  There is even an Edinburgh Dragon, though it is a overseas investment trust so probably doesn't breathe much in the way of fire, but I would be willing to bet it produces a lot of smoke.

All this is why I was not in the least surprised to see Snow White last week.  Though obviously not as young as she once was,  I recognised her by her long yellow skirt and the red  ribbon tied in a bow in her boot polish black hair with its landing strip of silver down the centre parting.  She was walking down the pavement bent almost double beneath the load of family-sized packets of loo roll on her back, like a Hebridean woman carrying a heavy creel of peats.  She had loo paper panniers on each hip as well--a post-ironic tribute to Cinderella's ball gown.

Snow White must have moved from her forest bungalow to Edinburgh when the Huntsman had a heart-attack from eating too much animal fat.  The enchanted forest wouldn't have been the same anyway, ever since the Forestry Commission cut down all the hardwood trees and replanted with plantations of Sitka Spruce as a tax shelter for her stepmother, the wicked 
Queen.  It can't be easy for Snow White, living in a flat on a fairy-tale pension with seven incontinent dwarves to look after.  We can only hope she is getting royalties from the two new films.  

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Getting knotted

Edinburgh is a city of statues and George Street easily lays claim to its fair share, with King George IV, William Pitt and Dr Chalmers all lined up for passing inspection.  It was only when sitting on the bus at a traffic light waiting to turn into St Andrew's Square that I paid any particular attention to the statue at the eastern end of George Street.  If you only glance at the statue of James Clerk-Maxwell you may easily miss the fact that it is not just another 19th century lump of bronze depicting some dead guy being well and truly dead...even if he is sitting on a hysterical horse. 

On closer inspection (and on a bus you are at just the right level and have the leisure to give a statue closer inspection), your attention is caught by the fact that there is nothing formal about this figure: he is utterly at ease, seated in a chair with his legs negligently crossed, a small dog tucked comfortably behind his calves.  His trousers are rather crumpled looking and he has some sort of round device in his hands which he seems to be regarding with gentle bemusement.  Best of all, if you look really closely you can see that his right shoelace has broken and he has done just what I do when the laces break on my walking boots--tied a knot in the lace and missed out an eyelet.  

It is, I think, the most essentially human statue in Edinburgh and I was surprised to discover that James Clerk-Maxwell was a physicist.  Nor was he any old physicist:  according to the carved panels on the side of the base he stands between Newton and Einstein; one of the three scientists who did most to change the world... and the only one who did not become a household name.  Yet he is the man who 'opened the way to quantum theory'--so without him arguably no quantum physics, quantum leaps,  or (James Bond film fans) quantum of solace (does anyone know what that actually means?).   Without his discovery that any colour can be produced from red, blue and green (forget what they told you in school about primary colours) there would be no colour printers.  Evidently his work in electromagnetism paved the way for all those gadgets we could not imagine surviving without now, like mobile phones and satellite televisions (but I am not going to hold this against him--who could have predicted James Murdoch?).  

And it gets better.  Sir Michael Atiyah, who was president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, was the moving force behind the statue.  Sir Michael is a mathematician who published a paper called:  'The Geometry and Physics of Knots', which sounds to me remarkably like a Alexander McCall Smith book title.  When I had a look at a transcript of a lecture Sir Michael gave by the same title I understood about one word in ten.  Nevertheless I was completely enchanted by a mathematician turning theory into knots-- generations of school children have done exactly the same thing.

 When Sir Michael talks about the problems of knots in closed strings, I see a metaphor for life.   You cannot help but warm to a man who talks about 'knottiness' at Royal Institute lectures, illustrating his point with drawings of 'the first seven orders of knottiness'.  If that is the pun I hope it is I would like to have Sir Michael's babies--although the best pun of all is contained in the statue itself:  the Atiyah-Stringer Theorem has helped to unravel string theory; thus the knotted shoelace...  

To paraphrase Rogers and Hammerstein:  there is nothin' that you've heard, that is anything like a nerd.  


Thursday, 5 April 2012

Desire, or something like it

Last week I took the bus into foreign territory, to the south side of town.  I was able to satisfy my requirement for chilli in all its forms and Tootsie Pops (I can't help it, it's on my DNA).  I also found the specialist tea shop, about which I have been hearing rumours.  We have turned into a coffee led culture, thanks largely to the Seattle-bred mermaid with the scary hair, but tea is regaining lost ground (and not just to a loony political party in America).  Who would fail to fall for the romance of a tea that is named for the camel trains that journeyed from Asia, along the borders of Russia and across Europe; a slight trace of smokiness added to the blend to call to mind starry nights around campfires in unfamiliar, romantic places?  
I spent a happy hour talking about tea and Edinburgh and tea in Edinburgh and curiously enough, tea and pandas.  (Not the April Fool spoof in Scotland on Sunday claiming that Edinburgh Zoo was employing a piper to aid the Brad and Angelina of the panda world in their faltering pursuit of romance).  This was an article about an enterprising gentleman in China (and surely an ideal candidate for ‘The Apprentice’), who is using panda poo to fertilise tea plants, making the world’s first ‘environmental panda tea’.   Mr An, wearing a panda suit to publicise his product, announced he will be selling the tea for £2,200, for 50 grams, which works out at about £130 a cup.  This must make this the world’s most expensive cup of tea, easily outdoing the £7,875 per pound coffee made from coffee berries eaten by civits—another dung related beverage.  
We may laugh at Mr An and the (forgive me) pandemonium surrounding his tea, but clearly there is a market, even in a recession, for highly priced comestibles (like the world's most expensive hamburger --yours for a mere £5,000).  
 In the 15th century 'broken' tulip bulbs, which were rare and slow to reproduce, became a highly desirable luxury item changing hands for staggering amounts of money.  Investors on the tulip market began to speculate, effectively betting on tulip futures--in the end no bulbs were actually changing hands and the market crashed (does this sound in any way familiar?)  Now we buy the most exotic tulips by the bagful.  Even tea, that most ubiquitous of drinks, used to be so expensive it was kept in locked caddies.  
It would appear that when it comes to the things we most desire, rarity is everything; which might explain the continuing excitement over the Edinburgh celebrity pandas.  Costing £365,000 a year to 'rent', Tian Tian and Yang Guang are both rare and prohibitively expensive.  More interestingly,  we have all been hysterically watching and waiting for them to take advantage of the once a year, 36 hour window of opportunity to mate—rarity value again, you see. 
I have just read on the BBC news site, that despite the specially constructed ‘love tunnel’, the soft lights, ginseng bubble bath and bamboo green satin sheets specially woven by imported silk-worms  (okay, I made that last bit up), the earth did not move for Tian Tian and Yang Guang.  And really, with all that attention I am not entirely surprised.  I expect all they really wanted was a nice cup of Russian Caravan tea.  It is good to see there are still some things money cannot buy.

Monday, 2 April 2012

The marshmallow index

This morning a woman of advanced years got on the bus with a daffodil tucked rakishly behind her ear.  It's a hard look to pull off and I don't know that she was entirely successful, but I completely understand her reluctance to let go of our glorious week of summer.  Who wouldn't feel defiant, nostalgic even, after a full week of going to work without any jacket, raincoat, boiler suit, wetsuit, drysuit, poncho, cagoul, or overcoat of any description? Those first warm days of the year always prompt a sort of restlessness, an intimation of limitless, yet undefined possibilities in a suddenly benign world.  As Mark Twain once said, "It's spring don't know what it is you DO want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!"

But today we returned to gunmetal skies and a northeast wind.  We should not be surprised--it is, after all, only the 2nd of April and people are still ski-ing in the Alps and shovelling snow in St Petersburg.  We know that April is the cruellest month, but that does not stop us wanting the impossible:  apparently for many of us a week of summer in March trumps any promise of spring.

The well-known Stanford marshmallow experiment was, if you like, an exercise in waiting for summer.  In 1972 a psychologist at Stanford conducted an experiment at the university nursery school in which children were left in an empty room for fifteen minutes with the treat of their choice (a cookie, a marshmallow or a pretzel).  The children were told they could eat the marshmallow straight away if they liked, but that if they could wait for 15 minutes without eating the marshmallow they would get a second one--just for waiting.  Personally, I think this experiment was statistically flawed--it would be much easier to wait for a pretzel than a marshmallow.  Nevertheless the  interesting thing is not that a minority gave in and ate the marshmallow immediately, or that one third deferred gratification long enough to get the second marshmallow (I would, of course, have simply mugged the researcher with the bag of marshmallows at the outset).  What was interesting about this experiment was that the ability to defer gratification turned out to be a pretty good indicator of future success.  The children who waited for their marshmallows  turned out to be 'more competent' adolescents and had higher SAT scores.  (As far as I can tell, it has not been recorded, but I think the child who waited for his pretzel turned out to be Bill Gates).

I suspect that we do not need economic analysts to explain why we are in our current economic crisis, or social commentators to explain the collapse of traditional communities and values:  it is all a simple case of too many of us wanting our marshmallows right now.

Thinking about it I realise I may have been wrong and the daffodil lady on the bus might have been simply deferring gratification.  She may not have been mourning the passing of our premature summer, but celebrating the promise of spring...not today, or even tomorrow, but maybe next week.  In the meantime, the forecast is for snow--she should have all the marshmallows she can eat.