Skip to content
Apr 1 / Jonathan

The vocabulary of toy ads

Wow. Arnold Zwicky.

The vocabulary of toy ads

A link from Paul Armstrong on Facebook to this exploratory investigation of words used in tv commercials for boys’ toys and girls’ toys aimed at 6-8-year-olds, using the resources of Wordle…

Mar 30 / Jonathan

Abouttime

Via HuffPost:

The Associated Press decided to remove the hyphen from “e-mail” in its Stylebook—the bible for many media outlets—on Friday.

The AP announced the changes at the annual conference of the American Copy Editors Society in Phoenix. The use of “e-mail” was seen as a relic of an earlier age, when the Internet was new to most people and the idea of “electronic mail” was confusing.

The change mimicked a similar one that the AP put in place in 2010, when it decided that “Web site” could now be called “website.”

The AP also announced that it is changing “cell phone” and “smart phone” to “cellphone” and “smartphone.”

The organization also announced the move on Twitter, writing, “language evolves.”

The changes go into effect on Saturday. Copy editors, take note.

Jan 7 / Jonathan

Orwell on tea: 11 golden rules

This indirectly via Christopher Hitchens. Somewhat idiosyncratic, as any good guide to teamaking must be; you won’t go badly wrong following Orwell’s advice.

A Nice Cup of Tea

By George Orwell

Evening Standard, 12 January 1946.

If you look up ‘tea’ in the first cookery book that comes to hand you will probably find that it is unmentioned; or at most you will find a few lines of sketchy instructions which give no ruling on several of the most important points.

This is curious, not only because tea is one of the main stays of civilization in this country, as well as in Eire, Australia and New Zealand, but because the best manner of making it is the subject of violent disputes.

When I look through my own recipe for the perfect cup of tea, I find no fewer than eleven outstanding points. On perhaps two of them there would be pretty general agreement, but at least four others are acutely controversial. Here are my own eleven rules, every one of which I regard as golden:

  • First of all, one should use Indian or Ceylonese tea. China tea has virtues which are not to be despised nowadays — it is economical, and one can drink it without milk — but there is not much stimulation in it. One does not feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it. Anyone who has used that comforting phrase ‘a nice cup of tea’ invariably means Indian tea.
  • Secondly, tea should be made in small quantities — that is, in a teapot. Tea out of an urn is always tasteless, while army tea, made in a cauldron, tastes of grease and whitewash. The teapot should be made of china or earthenware. Silver or Britanniaware teapots produce inferior tea and enamel pots are worse; though curiously enough a pewter teapot (a rarity nowadays) is not so bad.
  • Thirdly, the pot should be warmed beforehand. This is better done by placing it on the hob than by the usual method of swilling it out with hot water.
  • Fourthly, the tea should be strong. For a pot holding a quart, if you are going to fill it nearly to the brim, six heaped teaspoons would be about right. In a time of rationing, this is not an idea that can be realized on every day of the week, but I maintain that one strong cup of tea is better than twenty weak ones. All true tea lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes — a fact which is recognized in the extra ration issued to old-age pensioners.
  • Fifthly, the tea should be put straight into the pot. No strainers, muslin bags or other devices to imprison the tea. In some countries teapots are fitted with little dangling baskets under the spout to catch the stray leaves, which are supposed to be harmful. Actually one can swallow tea-leaves in considerable quantities without ill effect, and if the tea is not loose in the pot it never infuses properly.
  • Sixthly, one should take the teapot to the kettle and not the other way about. The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours. Some people add that one should only use water that has been freshly brought to the boil, but I have never noticed that it makes any difference.
  • Seventhly, after making the tea, one should stir it, or better, give the pot a good shake, afterwards allowing the leaves to settle.
  • Eighthly, one should drink out of a good breakfast cup — that is, the cylindrical type of cup, not the flat, shallow type. The breakfast cup holds more, and with the other kind one’s tea is always half cold before one has well started on it.
  • Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.
  • Tenthly, one should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject. The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.
  • Lastly, tea — unless one is drinking it in the Russian style — should be drunk without sugar. I know very well that I am in a minority here. But still, how can you call yourself a true tealover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt. Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you are no longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you could make a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water.

    Some people would answer that they don’t like tea in itself, that they only drink it in order to be warmed and stimulated, and they need sugar to take the taste away. To those misguided people I would say: Try drinking tea without sugar for, say, a fortnight and it is very unlikely that you will ever want to ruin your tea by sweetening it again.

These are not the only controversial points to arise in connexion with tea drinking, but they are sufficient to show how subtilized the whole business has become. There is also the mysterious social etiquette surrounding the teapot (why is it considered vulgar to drink out of your saucer, for instance?) and much might be written about the subsidiary uses of tealeaves, such as telling fortunes, predicting the arrival of visitors, feeding rabbits, healing burns and sweeping the carpet. It is worth paying attention to such details as warming the pot and using water that is really boiling, so as to make quite sure of wringing out of one’s ration the twenty good, strong cups of that two ounces, properly handled, ought to represent.

(taken from The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Volume 3, 1943-45, Penguin ISBN, 0-14-00-3153-7)

Dec 24 / Jonathan

Mark Twain on autobiography, memory

Mark Liberman quoted these two passages from Mark Twain’s autobiography last month. Twain’s writing, especially in this mood, inspires in me a pang of fondness that finds an echo in my response to some of Vonnegut. Not so strange, I guess.

From Mark Twain’s autobiography

Like half of the U.S., I’ve been reading the first volume of Mark Twain’s recently-published autobiography. I’m sure that there’s some sociolinguistics in it somewhere, but for now you’ll have to be content with this rumination about discourse structure, which I present to you just in case you’re in the half that hasn’t bought the book yet:

Finally, in Florence in 1904, I hit upon the right way to do an Autobiography: start it at no particular time of your life; talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment; drop it the moment its interest threatens to pale, and turn your talk upon the new and more interesting thing that has intruded itself into your mind meantime.

Also, make the narrative a combined Diary and Autobiography. In this way you have the vivid things of the present to make a contrast with memories of like things in the past, and these contrasts have a charm which is all their own. No talent is required to make a combined Diary and Autobiography interesting.

And so, I have found the right plan. It makes my labor amusement — mere amusement, play, pastime, and wholly effortless. It is the first time in history that the right plan has been hit upon.

This is also the right plan for successful blogging, in my experience.

OK, one more quotation:

For many years I believed that I remembered helping my grandfather drink his whisky toddy when I was six weeks old, but I do not tell about that any more, now; I am grown old, and my memory is not as active as it used to be. When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not; but my faculties are decaying, now, and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the latter. It is sad to go to pieces like this, but we all have to do it.

Dec 6 / Jonathan

Tax cuts in perspective

The tax-cut extension for incomes over $250K would cost $60 billion a year. Is that a lot? Here’s David Leonhardt’s list of alternatives.

  • As much deficit reduction as the elimination of earmarks, President Obama’s proposed federal pay freeze, a 10 percent cut in the federal work force and a 50 percent cut in foreign aid — combined.
  • A tripling of federal funding for medical research.
  • Universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, with relatively small class sizes.
  • A much larger troop surge in Afghanistan, raising spending by 60 percent from current levels.
  • A national infrastructure program to repair and upgrade roads, bridges, mass transit, water systems and levees.
  • A 15 percent cut in corporate taxes.
  • Twice as much money for clean-energy research as suggested by a recent bipartisan plan.
  • Free college, including room and board, for about half of all full-time students, at both four- and two-year colleges.
  • A $500 tax cut for all households.
Nov 30 / Jonathan

Americans Want to Live in Sweden

James Kwak.

Americans Want to Live in Sweden

The chart below is from a short paper by Michael Norton and Dan Ariely (author of Predictably Irrational) (hat tip Huffington Post). The top line is the actual U.S.wealth distribution. The second is what Americans think the wealth distribution is. The bottom line is what Americans think the wealth distribution should be.

US wealth distribution
Nov 12 / Jonathan

The Hijacked Commission

More on the “National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform”, this time from Paul Krugman.

The Hijacked Commission

… Actually, though, what the co-chairmen are proposing is a mixture of tax cuts and tax increases — tax cuts for the wealthy, tax increases for the middle class. They suggest eliminating tax breaks that, whatever you think of them, matter a lot to middle-class Americans — the deductibility of health benefits and mortgage interest — and using much of the revenue gained thereby, not to reduce the deficit, but to allow sharp reductions in both the top marginal tax rate and in the corporate tax rate.

It will take time to crunch the numbers here, but this proposal clearly represents a major transfer of income upward, from the middle class to a small minority of wealthy Americans. And what does any of this have to do with deficit reduction?

… Still, can’t we say that for all its flaws, the Bowles-Simpson proposal is a serious effort to tackle the nation’s long-run fiscal problem? No, we can’t.

It’s true that the PowerPoint contains nice-looking charts showing deficits falling and debt levels stabilizing. But it becomes clear, once you spend a little time trying to figure out what’s going on, that the main driver of those pretty charts is the assumption that the rate of growth in health-care costs will slow dramatically. And how is this to be achieved? By “establishing a process to regularly evaluate cost growth” and taking “additional steps as needed.” What does that mean? I have no idea.

It’s no mystery what has happened on the deficit commission: as so often happens in modern Washington, a process meant to deal with real problems has been hijacked on behalf of an ideological agenda. Under the guise of facing our fiscal problems, Mr. Bowles and Mr. Simpson are trying to smuggle in the same old, same old — tax cuts for the rich and erosion of the social safety net.

Can anything be salvaged from this wreck? I doubt it. The deficit commission should be told to fold its tents and go away.

Nov 12 / Jonathan

Erskine Bowles, Morgan Stanley, and the Deficit Commission

Dean Baker.

Erskine Bowles, Morgan Stanley, and the Deficit Commission

The deficit report put out by the commission’s co-chairs, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, had one striking omission. It does not includes plans for a Wall Street speculation tax or any other tax on the financial industry.

This omission is striking because the co-chairs made a big point of saying that they looked everywhere to save money and/or raise revenue. As Senator Simpson said: “We have harpooned every whale in the ocean — and some minnows.” Wall Street is one whale that appears to have dodged the harpoon.

This omission is made more striking by the fact that at least one member of the commission, Andy Stern, has long been an advocate of such taxes. Presumably he raised this issue in the commission meetings and the co-chairs chose to ignore him.

The co-chairs apparently also chose to ignore the I.M.F.. Noting the waste and extraordinary economic rents in the sector, the I.M.F. has explicitly recommended a substantial increase in taxes on the financial industry. It is even more striking that the co-chairs apparently never considered a speculation tax since Wall Street’s reckless greed is at the center of the current economic crisis.

In this context, it is worth noting that one of the co-chairs, Erskine Bowles, is literally on Wall Street’s payroll. He earned $335,000 last year for his role as a member of Morgan Stanley’s (one of the bailed out banks) board of directors. Morgan Stanley would likely see a large hit to its profits from a financial speculation tax.

It would have been appropriate for the reporters covering the report to ask about a financial speculation tax. It would also be appropriate to explore the connection between Mr. Bowles role as a Morgan Stanley director and the absence of any financial taxes in this far-reaching report.

via Beat the Press

Nov 1 / Jonathan

How much math do we really need?

G.V. Ramanathan, professor emeritus of mathematics, statistics and computer science at the University of Illinois at Chicago:

How much math do we really need?

… How much math do you really need in everyday life? Ask yourself that — and also the next 10 people you meet, say, your plumber, your lawyer, your grocer, your mechanic, your physician or even a math teacher.

Unlike literature, history, politics and music, math has little relevance to everyday life. That courses such as “Quantitative Reasoning” improve critical thinking is an unsubstantiated myth. All the mathematics one needs in real life can be learned in early years without much fuss. Most adults have no contact with math at work, nor do they curl up with an algebra book for relaxation. …

Oct 31 / Jonathan

True Grit, reloaded

I shiver with antici…pation.

TRUE GRIT The brothers Joel and Ethan Coen offer an alternate reading of the Charles Portis novel that was filmed by Henry Hathaway in 1969. Jeff Bridges steps into the role that won John Wayne his Oscar, as a broken-down United States Marshal hired by a plucky 14-year-old (Hailee Steinfeld) to avenge the murder of her father. With Matt Damon, Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper.

Oct 25 / Jonathan

Matter’s possibilities

William JamesWilliam James’ third son, Herman, died of whooping cough at the age of 18 months. Some 22 years later, James wrote in Pragmatism (he was 65):

To anyone who has ever looked on the face of a dead child or parent, the mere fact that matter could have taken for a time that precious form, ought to make matter sacred for ever after. It makes no difference what the principle of life may be, material or immaterial, matter at any rate co-operates, lends itself to all life’s purposes. That beloved incarnation was among matter’s possibilities.

Oct 22 / Jonathan

The Washington Post STILL Has Not Noticed the $8 Trillion Housing Bubble

Let’s say it one more time, shall we? Not that it’ll do any good…

The Washington Post Still Has Not Noticed the $8 Trillion Housing Bubble

News apparently takes a long time to reach downtown Washington, D.C. That is the only conclusion that Washington Post readers can have after seeing the paper attribute the economic downturn to: “the ways the subprime mortgage crisis that began in 2007 would ripple through the economy.”

Of course the downturn was not due to subprime mortgage crisis, it was due to the collapse of a housing bubble. Residential construction would not have been cut by more than 50 percent if the issue was just the subprime crisis. It fell by 50 percent because the bubble led to enormous overbuilding of housing.

Similarly the saving rate has risen by more than 6 percentage points, leading to falloff in annual consumption of more than $600 billion. This is not the result of the subprime crisis. This is the result of the loss of $6 trillion in housing bubble wealth, along with the loss of $6 trillion in stock market wealth which was supported by housing bubble driven growth.

The subprime crisis was a triggering event. Had there not been an enormous housing bubble in the process of bursting the subprime crisis would have had little macroeconomic consequence. This news may at some point reach the Post. 

Dean Baker

Oct 22 / Jonathan

Do human rights exist?

You know it’s true.

Do human rights exist?

The essential point about human rights is that there is no evidence whatsoever that they actually exist. …

Andrew Brown

Oct 22 / Jonathan

Americans Want to Live in Sweden

James Kwak.

Americans Want to Live in Sweden

The chart below is from a short paper by Michael Norton and Dan Ariely (author of Predictably Irrational) (hat tip Huffington Post). The top line is the actual U.S.wealth distribution. The second is what Americans think the wealth distribution is. The bottom line is what Americans think the wealth distribution should be.

US wealth distribution
Oct 20 / Jonathan

William James: A religious man for our times

I call your attention to the introductory post for a new series in the Guardian’s “How to believe” feature: William James, part 1: A religious man for our times ; I look forward to the future posts.

William James bioI also wanted to mention a relatively recent (2006) biography, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism. I picked up a hardcover copy from a bargain table in Minneapolis a year ago, and have been working my way through it ever since. It’s a reflection on my reading habits, not the quality of the writing, that a year later I’m only halfway through.

It’s by Robert Richardson, who won the 2007 Bancroft Prize for his work.

According to the Bancroft jury, William James is simultaneously an intellectual biography, and a biography tout court, of the James family, including William James’s father, Henry James, Sr., and his brother Henry.” The book “is a virtual intellectual genealogy of American liberalism and, indeed, of American intellectual life in general, through and beyond the twentieth century…the story Richardson tells is engaging, his research deep, his writing graceful and appealing.”

No argument from me. I’d put it at the top of the heap, along with Ray Monk’s most excellent Wittgenstein bio.

Oct 19 / Jonathan

George Orwell anticipates the Obama presidency

“The unspeakable depression of lighting the fires every morning with papers of a year ago, and getting glimpses of optimistic headlines as they go up in smoke.”

—Orwell’s diary entry, 19 October 1940

Oct 10 / Jonathan

Solving iPad/iPhone Wi-Fi dropouts

If you’re wondering what this post is about, you should probably just skip it.

Last week I was reconfiguring my home network, mainly to get better signal distribution and to enable Apple’s guest network facility. As part of the reconfiguration, I added a WPA2 password to the previously unsecured main network (we’re talking a recent dual-band AirPort Extreme here).

When I was done, everything was working fine, except that while both my iPad (iOS 3.2.2) and iPhone 4 (iOS 4.1) would connect OK, after a minute or three they’d drop off the network, and fail to reconnect. If I reconnected manually, sometimes I’d have to reenter the password, sometimes not. Disabling WPA2 (so no password) made everything work.

I googled up several proposed solutions, but they weren’t applicable, or didn’t help. Eventually, though, I found the iPhone solution: in the Settings app, under Wi-Fi, display the details for the current network and press the “Forget this Network” button. Reestablish the connection, and all is well.

On my iPad, though, there was no “Forget this Network” button. Instead, there was a slide switch labelled “Auto-Join” that was turned off. I could turn it on, but the setting never stuck; it was always off when I returned to the page. This, it turns out, was a hot clue, but I didn’t know enough to recognize it.

Some more googling, and I found a suggestion to go to the General tab of the Settings app, and thence to the Reset page and click “Reset Network Settings”. After that, back on the Settings Wi-Fi tab network details, the Auto-Join switch had disappeared, replaced by the same “Forget this Network” button I saw on the iPhone.

I reestablished the connection, and it’s been fine ever since.

Clearly there’s some kind of problem associated with one of the firmware upgrades from 3.2 to 3.2.1 to 3.2.2. My suggestion, even if you’re not seeing my symptom, is to make sure you’ve got a “Forget this Network” button rather than an “Auto-Join” switch, and if you don’t, reset your network settings. It’s a minor pain, since you’ll have to reenter Wi-Fi network settings, but it likely will prevent future problems. (It has no apparent effect on the AT&T network connection; at least I didn’t have to do anything special; it just kept working.)

One more note, only tangentially related. The Wi-Fi signal strength indicator on a MacBook Pro shows full strength even with rather weak signals. I used iStumbler, along with option-clicking on the Wi-Fi fan icon, to see the actual signal strength. Getting a stronger signal solved another problem I was having—random, infrequent loss of Wi-Fi connection on one of our MBPs, the one farthest from the base station.

Sep 28 / Jonathan

Today another copy of The New York Review of Books arrived…

I’ve recommended David Kaiser before, right? And you haven’t been reading him, have you?

Today another copy of The New York Review of Books arrived,

… The biggest casualty of this crisis will probably be our faith in our democracy. This morning’s New York Times leads with a story on fraud in the Afghan legislative elections and quotes one American official as saying, “It’s not necessarily the pro-Karzai bloc that has done so well, it’s that the Parliament will be more dependent on big power brokers. He added that “they would be more likely to make deals with Mr. Karzai that did not necessarily serve the Afghan people.” I find it hard to believe that I could have been the only reader to notice how well his comment seemed to describe the situation right here at home. …

It’s not too late.

Sep 27 / Jonathan

What do James, Yakov and Santiago have in common?

A nice bit of background on “James”, from Johnson:

What do James, Yakov and Santiago have in common?

THIS is à propos of nothing, but I’ve always wondered why English-speakers call a certain Christian saint “James”, while he is called “Santiago” in Spanish. That led to some scraping around on Wikipedia, which always reminds me that linguists must love editing there; the articles are usually shockingly good.  Anyway, the story is quite a whirl. Ready?

The original name is Hebrew’s Ya’aqov, the same as the Old Testament patriarch known in English as Jacob. Jesus’s brother “James” had that same name, which is given as Iakobos in the Greek of the Gospels. From these two, you can see where Russian and other Slavic languages get Yakov, German gets Jacobus and so forth. The French Jacques is no longer a stretch.  And Santiago?  Well, it's just Sant Iago, Saint Iago(v).

James, then, is still an outlier. Where did that "m" come from?  Apparently the late Latin Iacobos turned into a Iacomos. First, the “o” became nasalised (like the French vowel in bon), which made that “b” become “m-like”. Iacobos -> Iacombus. Then the “b” was “simplified” out of existence, leaving Iacomus, and on to James. (How the J that most Europeans pronounce as a "y" sound became our "dzh" sound is a story for another day.)  Cousins with an "m" are the Irish Seamus and the Scottish Hamish.

Johnson: answering questions you never asked.

Sep 24 / Jonathan

The deficit made simple

The Incidental Economist:

How many wrongs make a right?

… If there is one thing I would love for all Americans to have in mind when evaluating politicians’ pronouncements about what we have done or should do with respect to government health spending it is this graph of projected federal revenue and spending as a percent of GDP, from the CBO:

spend-rev