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Oct 3 / Jonathan

One for Woody

Eric Von Schmidt played a concert at New College on 6 October 1967, three days after Woody Guthrie died. Eric promised “one for Woody”, and delivers here.

Audio MP3

It’s been 47 years. Celebrate “with a wet belly and a dry eye!”

May 15 / Jonathan

Edna Fish & Chips

Who is she
that looketh forth as the morning,
fair as the moon, clear as the sun,
and terrible as an army with banners?

Edna ran a fish & chips shop on Columbus in North Beach in the 60s and early 70s. It was a work of culinary art, and she knew it. A narrow storefront, as I recall, and perhaps 2,3,4 stools. I miss it, Edna, her fish, her chips, her art. I ate there, from time to time, oblivious.

(Song of Solomon 6:10, to save you the trouble. KJV. (I’m not, particularly, a big KJV fan. But here they’ve got it right, and everyone else, not.))

Edna

Edna

Nov 30 / Jonathan

Grammatical Chimeras

The chimera of myth consisted of the parts of three animals: lion, serpent and goat. By extension, a bio/genetic chimera is an animal composed of more than one genetic line (Wikipedia is there to help if you want to know more).

Let’s consider chimerism in grammar. In English, we usually inflect words to indicate number (the chimera devours, the chimeras devour), tense (the chimera devours/devoured), comparative & superlative (chimeras are scary/scarier/scariest), &c.

Inflections can be regular (devour/devoured) or not (eat/ate). But some irregular inflections move beyond mere irregularity.

Example 1: bad/worse/worst. Badder & baddest, now non-standard, were once the comparative & superlative of bad. But some while back, “worse”, the comparative of what is now German wirren, confused, was called into service as the comparative of “bad”. Similarly (but harder to trace), good/better/best.

Example 2: go/went/gone. “Went” was (and I suppose still is) the past tense (or, as the cool kids say, preterite) of “wend”. But long time since it was pressed into service as the preterite of “go”.

Example 3: You might object that my first two (or three, I suppose) examples are, being only two-part hybrids, don’t truly qualify as chimeras. So I’ll leave you with “to be”, a true chimera, being, in the words of the OED, “a union of the surviving inflexions of three originally distinct and independent verbs”.

You can’t do better here than to go directly to the OED. I’ll whet your appetite with the very beginning of its article “be”:

[An irregular and defective verb, the full conjugation of which in modern Eng. is effected by a union of the surviving inflexions of three originally distinct and independent verbs, viz. (1) the original Aryan substantive verb with stem es-, Skr. as-, 's-, Gr. ἐσ-, L. es-, 's-, OTeut. *es-, 's-; (2) the verb with stem wes-, Skr. vas- to remain, OTeut. wes-, Gothic wis-an to remain, stay, continue to be, OS., OE., OHG. wesan, OFris. wes-a, ON. ver-a; (3) the stem beu- Skr. bhū-, bhaw-, Gr. ϕυ-, L. fu-, OTeut. *beu-, beo-, OE. béo-n to become, come to be. Of the stem es-, OE. (like the oldest extant Teutonic) possessed only the present tenses, indicative and subjunctive (orig. optative), all the other parts being supplied from the stem wes-, pa. tense was, which, though still a distinct and complete vb. in Gothic, was in OE. only supplemental to es-, the two constituting the substantive verb am-was. Béon, be, was still in OE. a distinct verb (having all the present, but no past tenses) meaning to ‘become, come to be’, and thus often serving as a future tense to am-was. By the beginning of the 13th c., the infinitive and participle, imperative, and pres. subjunctive of am-was, became successively obsolete, the corresponding parts of be taking their place, so that the whole verb am-was-be is now commonly called from its infinitive, ‘the verb to be,’ although be is no part of the substantive verb originally, but only a later accretion replacing original parts now lost. In OE. the present indicative of am had two forms of the plural, (1) sind, sindon (= Goth. and Ger. sind, L. sunt, Skr. sánti) and earon, aron (= ON. eru), the latter confined to the Anglian dialects, where it was used side by side with sind, -un. Of these, sind, -on ceased to be used before 1250, its place being taken in southern Eng. by the corresponding inflexions of be. We, ye, they beth, ben, be, were the standard forms in southern and midl. Eng. for centuries; and even in the sing., be, beest, beth began to encroach on am, art, is, and are now the regular forms in southern dialect speech. Meanwhile aron, aren, arn, are, survived in the north, and gradually spread south, till early in 16th c. are made its appearance in standard Eng., where it was regularly used by Tindale. Be continued in concurrent use till the end of the century (see Shakespeare, and Bible of 1611), and still occurs as a poetic archaism, as well as in certain traditional expressions and familiar quotations of 16th c. origin, as ‘the powers that be.’ But the regular modern Eng. plural is are, which now tends to oust be even from the subjunctive. Southern and eastern dialect speech retains be both in singular and plural, as ‘I be a going,’ ‘we be ready.’]

More examples?

Update: a Language Log commenter pointed me to suppletion, qv.

Nov 30 / Jonathan

Fever Tree Ginger Beer

Consider this an unsolicited endorsement: Fever Tree Ginger Beer is the best. Ya gotta like ginger, but why else would you be drinking it? It comes, somewhat idiosyncratically, in 200ml & 500ml bottles. Suits me; the 200ml is a nice hit.

Aug 21 / Jonathan

Nicholson Baker, on Killing

Last week, in a letter to the NY Times.

To the Editor:

Re “Pick a Topic, Any Topic. He Did” (Books of The Times, Aug. 13):

Michiko Kakutani, in her review of my book of essays “The Way the World Works,” says of me: “He even seems to suggest some sort of moral equivalence between the Nazis and the Allies.” I certainly don’t suggest that, and as I’ve repeatedly said in public, I totally reject the notion of moral equivalence as a way of looking at World War II.

Each murder, whether in war or peace, is a separate wrong: one of the things we have to do to get ourselves moving in the right direction — away from retribution, vengeance, payback — is to stop bundling deaths together and weighing them on a giant scale.

NICHOLSON BAKER
South Berwick, Me., Aug. 13, 2012

Aug 13 / Jonathan

iPad Mini: idle conjecture

(You probably don’t care about this; move along…)

There’s some awfully specific rumor-mongering going on about a 7.85″ iPad (vs the current 9.7″ models). I’m all for it (an iPad Mini, that is), so why not join the rumorati?

I’m mildly skeptical of the 7.85″ number. The rationale appears to be that that’s what you get if you do a 1024×768 screen (same as iPad 1 & 2) with the pixel pitch of an iPhone 3GS. I suppose that 7.85″ is as good as any number in that range (though it seems just a tad large to me), but I don’t buy for a second the argument that there’s some major advantage to Apple in sticking with the legacy iPhone pixel pitch. The Mini will undoubtedly use much more modern screen technology, with a physical size driven by usability concerns.

The pixel pitch implied by 7.85″ (or implying 7.85″, as the case may be) is also, at 163, on the low side in a world of Retina displays. Another reason to shrink it a bit more, if we’re sticking with the same pixel count (seems very, very likely).

My guess: somewhat smaller than 7.85″, but at least a little different from Amazon’s and Google’s 7″ offerings. Let’s say 7.25-7.5″, OK?

4G/LTE vs 3G? Dunno. Don’t care. But let’s say so, for competitive reasons.

What I would like, though, is a telephone. Not because I have a lot of use for telephony, but rather because I don’t. I could see abandoning a phone entirely in favor of an iPad Mini with an Apple-design Bluetooth headset accessory, especially if it handled music well. Even with an iPhone and a wired headset I rarely hold the phone to my ear (hell, I rarely talk on the phone, period). And the ability to use Messages for SMS/MMS would be a nice side benefit.

Of course, this makes as much sense for a full-size iPad as a Mini. No problem; let’s do both.

And a new docking connector. Magnetic. Implying that we’re going to see at least a minor bump to the iPad 3 (new display technology too?), and, ho-hum, the iPhone 5.

(See, I told you not to read it. Don’t come crying to me.)

Afterthought: consider that a voice-capable iPad, Mini or no, needn’t be sold on the carrier-subsidized contract terms of an iPhone. Think of it as more like an unlocked iPhone, at unsubsidized iPad 3G prices. BYO SIM.

Jun 29 / Jonathan

NPR. Again.

Start with Dean Baker.

Will the ACA Hurt Employers: Morning Edition Says It Depends on How They Feel

Reporters at NPR have the time to look up the requirements of the Affordable Care Act and calculate their impact on employers. Its listeners do not. For that reason, it is incredibly irresponsible to simply report the views of one small business owner saying the bill will be a big burden and then another who says it will guarantee him and his wife insurance.

Morning Edition could have taken 30 second to give listeners an idea of the size of the burden that the ACA imposes. For firms that employ fewer than 50 workers, there are no requirements. Firms of 50 workers or more must either provide insurance or pay a penalty.

The size of penalty is $2,000 per worker, with the first 30 workers exempted. This means that if a company employs exactly 50 workers (as could be the case with the employer profiled), then the company would have to pay a $40,000 fine. If the average pay for a worker is $10 an hour (in other words, everyone gets close to the minimum wage), this fine would add 4 percent to the company’s wage bill. If the employer currently pays for some care (as the employer profiled claimed he did), he would be able to stop paying for the care, which would offset much or all of this cost.

By comparison, past minimum wage increases have been on the order of 15-20 percent. Extensive research has found that these increases in labor costs have had little or no impact on employment, meaning that firms have been able to absorb this additional expense without substantially changing their operations. This research suggests that the burden imposed by the ACA would have relatively little impact on business.

…but don’t stop there. Who was this “one small business owner”? Thanks to the internets, and SteveM at Balloon Juice, we have an answer: Just a Humble Tradesman, Trapped in a World He Never Made.

… So Joe Olivo isn’t just some random business owner—he’s dispatched by NFIB whenever there’s a need for someone to play a random small business owner on TV.

Thanks, NPR and NBC —you asked us to smell the grass, and you didn’t even notice it was Astroturf. Or you noticed, but you didn’t want us to.

Read it all. Reallly.

Jun 29 / Jonathan

Glad about SCOTUS & ACA? Thank Louis Brandeis.

John Fabian Witt at Balkinization

The Secret History of the Chief Justice’s Obamacare Decision

A Democratic Party president’s signature legislative victory is imperiled by an aging Supreme Court stocked by Republican appointees. Tricky constitutional law obstacles, including limits on the Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause, threaten to undo a vast federal insurance program designed to solve a pressing social crisis. But then one of the justices identifies an alternative way to rescue the constitutional basis for the legislation: Congress’s tax power, he concludes, offers the basis for upholding the legislation.

The scenario sounds like Chief Justice John Roberts and the Affordable Care Act known as Obamacare, which the Supreme Court upheld yesterday on the basis of the Congress’s taxing power. But it also matches perfectly the story of Justice Louis Brandeis, President Franklin Roosevelt, and the Social Security Act of 1935. And amidst all the coverage of yesterday’s decision, the crucial connection between Roberts and Brandeis has gone missing. Right out of law school, in 1979, the Chief Justice clerked for Henry Friendly, long thought of as one of the greatest judges of the twentieth century, perhaps the greatest federal judge (alongside Learned Hand) never to serve on the Supreme Court. Friendly, in turn, clerked for none other than Louis Brandeis. Brandeis’s broad view of the Congress’s taxing authority is readily apparent in Friendly’s widely respected taxation decisions. And now Brandeis’s influence is apparent in the most important opinion of Chief Justice Roberts’ tenure.

Apr 24 / Jonathan

How the banks stole Medicare

This one’s only been sitting around for a couple of weeks. But read it in the context of the Mark Blyth interview I recommended. Nothing like a sensible framework to clarify one’s thoughts.

Simon Johnson:

The world’s largest banks have been accused of many things in recent years, including taking excessive risk in the run-up to 2008, doing great damage to the American economy by blowing themselves up and then working hard to resist any sensible notions of financial reform.

All of this is true, but it misses what is likely to be the most profound negative impact of the banks’ behavior on most Americans. The banks’ actions led directly to an increase in government debt, which in turn has made the reduction of that debt by “cutting runaway spending” a centerpiece of the Republican presidential campaign to date.

As a result of this pressure, Medicare now stands on the brink of being eliminated as a viable form of social insurance. Yet the executives who lead these banks – and the politicians with whom they work closely – will not be held accountable this election season.

Apr 24 / Jonathan

Mark Blyth

NewImageI subscribe, via rss, to Christopher Lydon’s Radio Open Source. Truth is, I delete most of the interviews before listening, and I don’t get around to listening very often (as you’ll see in a moment). Lydon isn’t the greatest interviewer in the world, but he has great guests more often than most of these programs. So it is with Mark Blyth.

I just listened to an interview with Blyth from December 2010 (see? told you.), which I now see is the first of eight so far. Go thou and do likewise, is mostly what I have to say.

People want to say: look at those profligate governments, spending all that money. We’ve got to restore fiscal sanity. But it wasn’t fiscal insanity that got us here. It was private-sector leverage and the insanity of banking that brought us to this point. So the bankers put it on the state, and the state turned around it put it on the taxpayer. It’s the biggest bait-and-switch in human history.

Now to listen to the other seven.

Dec 17 / Jonathan

What Orwell overlooked

About making tea, that is. A year or so ago I posted George Orwell’s guide to brewing tea (by way of Hitchens, I notice; peace to his memory), and I’m compelled, on reflection and experience, to suggest that he missed perhaps the most important rule.

Make tea with good water.

Spend some time on the road, brewing tea in strange places, and you’ll find that from time to time your morning cup is nearly undrinkable, and that the only difference is the quality of the local water. What quality? I don’t really know. Search the web for tea scum and you’ll find a collection of theories, the predominant one implicating calcium carbonate, along with a suggestion to neutralize it with lemon.

So, I guess, carry a jug of good water with you, use it when the local water’s bad, and refill it when it’s good. Not, of course, if you have to get the jug past the TSA, but if you’re driving, you’ll find it makes a bigger difference than taking the teapot to the kettle.

Dec 2 / Jonathan

Eject!

EjectEject is a little dingus you can keep in your Mac’s Dock. Click it, and it’ll eject all disks except the startup disk, as well as an iPod if iTunes has one connected. It’s just a little AppleScript packaged as an application with a nice ejectish icon. Download this, unzip it, drag it to Applications, and then drag it into your Dock.

I use it to eject external drives (mainly my Time Machine drive) before I pack up my MacBook Pro to take it on the road.

(I could have sworn that I posted this before, but I can’t find it, so… )

Sep 11 / Jonathan

Against semantic markup

@siracusa tweeted this a little while ago

Hypercritical #33 correction: <em> and <strong> … not <b> and <i>. Apologies to @gruber and semantic markup sticklers.

(Hypercritical is a podcast he does with Dan Benjamin at 5×5.com; go listen, but there’s nothing in the podcast relevant to what follows here.)

The idea here is that the <b> & <i> tags (bold & italic) are typographical, or display, instructions, and as such should be left up to the page designer. We should supply semantic markup instead to give the designer enough information about what we want displayed that the italic or bold typeface can be chosen as appropriate. For our purposes, those tags are <em> and <strong>, short for “stress emphasis” and “strong importance”. <strong> can be nested to indicate stronger and stronger importance.

This kind of semantic markup is fine in its place, but HTML isn’t the place to enforce it. A sufficient reason is that HTML doesn’t have a rich enough set of tags to do the work. The APA Style Manual lists seven reasons to use italics:

  • Titles of books, periodicals, and microfilm publications
  • Genera, species and varieties
  • Introduction of a new, technical, or key term
  • Emphasis
  • A letter, word, or phrase referred to as such
  • Letters use as statistical symbols or algebraic variables
  • Anchors of a scale

Sure, “emphasis” is on the list…along with six others that HTML has no tag for. And that’s not an exhaustive list.

One of the WordPress themes I use oddly inverts the representation of em/strong from i/b to b/i. It must have seemed like a good idea to someone at some time, but the only way I could use it on my site was to “fix” the CSS, which fortunately I was in a position to do. The thing is, there’s nothing technically wrong with doing that: “emphasis” is nowhere defined as “italics”.

So (except for cases where you’ve already taken care of things via CSS and classes), if you want italics, go ahead and use <i>. Ditto <b> for bold. And don’t apologize for it.

And now for a slight digression. HTML5 adds a bunch of new “semantic tags”, like <header> and <section>. Notice that “semantics” ends up referring to at least two rather distinct categories. The new HTML5 tags describe document structure, a kind of containerization where the container names aren’t all “div”. But the kind of semantic reference we’re talking about in the above list-of-reasons-to-italicize have nothing to do with document structure; they have to do with the connection between the pieces of the document and the great outside world: movie names, species, name-vs-use.

I mention this as an introduction to an oldish essay by John Allsopp, Semantics in HTML5. It’s the kind of thing that’s just as well to keep in the back of your mind when you start creating The Semantic Web.

Oh, the title. I’m not against semantic markup. Really. Just against using em/strong as fancified ways of saying italic/bold and then calling it “semantic markup”.

Sep 1 / Jonathan

Time Machine is not version control

If your response to the title is, “Well, duh!”, you may stop reading here.

If you’re wondering, “What’s Time Machine?”, it’s OS X’s built-in automatic backup capability. You can pretend the title is “Periodic backup is not version control”.

If you’re wondering, “What’s version control?”, it’s a mechanism, formal or informal, that preserves copies of earlier versions of a document, with an eye to be able to undo changes if necessary, or at least go back and see the history of changes to a document. Programmers will think of version control systems like Git or Mercurial or Subversion. If you keep backup copies of your important Word documents at various stages in their life, that’s informal version control. OS X 10.7 (Lion) has a form of built-in version control for some applications.

Time Machine effectively backs up your entire system once an hour. If you mess up a document, it’s possible to go back to a previous version and restore it to its previous state. This capability makes Time Machine temptingly resemble version control. But treating it as such is hazardous (which is not to deny that it can be very handy, even a life saver, when it works). Why?

A secondary reason first. Time Machine does a backup every hour, but it doesn’t save all of those backups. It saves the hourly backups for the past 24 hours, daily backups for the past month, and weekly backups for everything older than a month. So it’s entirely likely that the versions of your document that Time Machine has available are not the ones you’re interested in.

The primary reason is this. A document’s previous versions are themselves documents, and potentially important ones. Important documents need to be backed up, which is to say that you need at least one redundant copy. But if you’re relying on the Time Machine copy (or any backup, for that matter), you have only one copy of the historical version of the document: the one on the backup disk. If that disk fails, you have no backup at all.

So keep using Time Machine as a safety net. But if the thought of all those old versions disappearing completely makes you nervous, start thinking about some other means of version control, one in which the old versions are backed up.

Aug 9 / Jonathan

iPhone & iPad vs hotel wifi

Not for the first time, I found myself at a hotel last weekend at which neither my iPhone nor iPad would connect to their wifi, while my MacBook Pro connected just fine. (Why did I have all that gear? I had a reason, not relevant here. Trust me.)

The details: both iDevices were running iOS 4.3.5. The hotel was a Best Western, and the network login page mentioned colubris.com. Colubris is in the network management business, and was acquired a while back by HP. When I’d try to connect, a login page would appear, and when I entered the username and password that worked on my MBP, I got a blank page in return, with no relevant recourse but a Cancel button.

(I’m told that this kind of authentication goes by the term captive portal.)

Anyway. If you find yourself in this situation and really must connect, here’s what worked for me. Go to your devices’s Settings app’s Wi-Fi page. Find the network you’re trying to connect to (in my case it was named SpeedLinks), and tap the blue detail disclosure button. There, along with some other stuff, you’ll see an Auto-Login switch. Turn it off.

Now connect again, and use Safari to browse to some website. You’ll be presented with the login page (which you may have to zoom bigger in order to complete), and this time the login should work.

Update (August 2012): iOS seems to be getting better at this kind of thing. With the current version (5.1.1), I haven’t seen this problem, even at sites that used to cause trouble (though I haven’t been back to the offending Best Western yet).

Jul 6 / Jonathan

Misconceptions about science

Not long ago (29 April) an article titled “AAAS Testing Web Site Probes Students’ Misconceptions About Science” appeared in Science. The website is assessment.aaas.org (free registration required). Science matter

It includes this graphic, with the caption, “The answer is D. Nearly 70% of students tested by Project 2061 answered correctly, but 17% chose answer A. By offering insight on students’ misconceptions, the new assessments Web site can help shape more effective teaching.”

Do you find this question as annoying as I do? I take D to say that all matter is atoms, which is plainly not the case.

The test-wise student will realize that it’s the answer they’re going for, of course, though a case can be made for A (read it like this: “Atoms are not [identical with] matter, but they are contained in [the the set of all] matter”).

Jun 30 / Jonathan

Introducing Nearest Contacts

Nearest ContactWell, two apps in one month. This one is Nearest Contacts, a travel-related app for iPhone and iPad.

Nearest Contacts delivers a list of your Address Book contacts, sorted by how near they are to you (or to some other point that you choose).

What’s it good for? First, when you’re on the road, it’s a quick reminder of which of your friends, family and colleagues are nearby. That’s handy.

But Nearest Contacts really shines when you use your Address Book to record your favorite restaurants, hotels, and other points of interest. If you’re like us, this kind of information, if it gets recorded at all, tends to be randomly distributed across notes, calendars and what-not. But your iPhone’s address book works great for this, having space for addresses, phone numbers, URLs, and your own notes.

So get in the habit of using your address book to remember your favorite sites, and then use Nearest Contacts to help you find them when you happen to be in the area.

Visit the App Store and snag a copy.

Jun 25 / Jonathan

Any day is a good day to start a journal

Any Day JournalThe aforementioned Any Day Journal (for iPhone) is now up to version 1.1, with a website and everything.

The changes are in the interest of making the user experience more efficient: fewer touches or other actions are needed to get the most common tasks done. I’m quite pleased with the improvements.

An example: in version 1.0, after adding a photo to the journal, you’d add a caption by tapping an Edit button at the top of the screen, then a “disclosure” button to the right of the photo, and finally tapping the text area of the resulting screen to bring up the keyboard.

In version 1.1, you simply touch the space to the right of the photo (which is where the caption appears) and start typing. That’s one touch instead of three, but the real difference is at once more subtle and more important: you directly touch the thing you want to change (the caption area) rather than touching a sequence of control buttons. That’s an essential aspect of the iPhone’s touch interface, and it’s not just fewer touches, but more intuitive ones.

Been thinking of starting a journal? Today is a good day for it.

Jun 8 / Jonathan

And now I are one

An iPhone app developer, that is. I’ve been working on an iPhone app for the last couple of months, as a way of learning Objective-C (the language of iPhone apps) and Cocoa Touch (the application framework). The app is Any Day Journal, a (surprise!) journaling app.

Try it; you’ll like it.

May 1 / Jonathan

Is NPR Unable to Get Access to Data on Health Care Costs?

I was fairly sure when I heard this piece on NPR that Dean Baker would get around to commenting on it. Sure enough.

Is NPR Unable to Get Access to Data on Health Care Costs?

It seems that NPR is unable to get access to data from the OECD or even the Center for Medicare and Medicaid services. If it were, it would not have so badly misinformed listeners about Medicare costs yesterday.

NPR told listeners that Medicare’s costs are unsustainable and that the reason is that patients do not see the cost of their treatment. Actually, private sector health care costs have risen as rapidly on an age-adjusted basis as Medicare. Furthermore, health care costs in the United States average more than twice as much per person as costs in countries like the United Kingdom and the Netherlands where patients see a much smaller share of their costs than they do under the Medicare system. If the United States paid the same amount per person for health care as these or any other wealthy country it would be looking at huge budget surpluses in the long-term, not deficits. 

The article also mentioned Representative Ryan’s plan without pointing out that the Congressional Budget Office’s projections show that it would hugely raise the cost of providing care to retirees. The CBO projections imply that the Ryan plan, which was passed by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives last month, would raise the cost of buying Medicare equivalent insurance policies by $34 trillion over Medicare’s 75-year planning period. This is almost 7 times the size of the projected Social Security shortfall.

In this context it is probably worth mentioning that the Republicans in Congress have targeted NPR for budget cuts.

via Beat the Press