Teddy Roosevelt tried to abolish ‘-ed’

English has plenty of perverse and rather unhelpful features. One of them is that British and American English have differing conventions as to proper spelling. It can therefore be rather unclear whether to use colour or color, cheque or check, arse or ass.

Io9 has an interesting article by Lauren Davis on how this divergence came about through the efforts of men like Benjamin Franklin and Noah Webster to create a system for spelling that promoted a single way of speaking across the new United States.

At the very end of the article she recounts what almost came to pass:

The gaps between American and British English could have yawned much wider if President Theodore Roosevelt’s order to reform American spelling had taken hold. Following the lead of the Simplified Spelling Board, Roosevelt ordered the Public Printer in 1906 to alter the spelling of 300 different words. The words included many words that ended in -ed, which would now end in -t—so that “mixed” became “mixt,” “pressed” became “prest,” “possessed” became “possest” and so on. And the “-ugh” was dropped for words like “although” (“altho”), “though” (“tho”), and “thorough” (“thoro”).

Members of the SSB included folks like Mark Twain, Melvil Dewey (of the Dewey Decimal system), dictionary editors, publishing magnate Henry Holt, and Supreme Court Justice David Josiah Brewer, but that pedigree was not enough to protect the 300-word list from ridicule. Critics had a field day with the list, concocting new and increasingly bizarre spellings in order to mock Roosevelt and the list. (And, naturally, a lot of fun was had with the spelling Roosevelt’s own name.) The president ended up retracting the order, and the printer returned to conventional American spelling. It’s proof that, while it can and does happen, spelling reform can be and extremely difficult thing to achieve.

Farewell Orange Wednesdays

So Orange Wednesdays is coming to an end. The rise of video on demand seems to have convinced EE to end the promotion that made going to the cinema somewhat less obscenely expensive is no longer good value for them.

This is obviously a shame but the best part of Orange Wednesdays finished a while ago. The adverts that initially advertised the promotion – sadly replaced by nonsense with Kevin Bacon when Orange became EE – were that rare kind of commercial that one actually enjoyed rather than endured.

Here are some of the best:

“So it comes round every Wednesday like clockwork…”

Trolling Darth Vader

The chatty hunter (ft. Patrick Swayze)

And the best one in which Steven Seagal blows up a golf course 

Joseph McCarthy never sat on the House Un-American Affairs Committee

Senat

Senator Joseph McCarthy

The ‘Red Scare’ of the Nineteen Fifties is one of the most resonant parts of American history. From the Crucible to Good Night and Good Luck it’s something that’s recurs in its culture.

The hunt for largely imagined communists is strongly associated with one institution and one man. The House Un-American Affairs Committee (HUAC) was notorious for dragging Hollywood figures before it and demanding they either implicate others or be blacklisted. The man is Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose claim to have a list of communists working in the State Department kicked the panic into overdrive and who gave the movement its other name “McCarthyism”.

I’d not realised until I heard a podcast on the Red Scare by Stuff You Missed in History Class that HUAC and McCarthy were largely separate. HUAC and McCarthy were both working in Congress but in different parts of it. HUAC was a committee of the House of Representatives while McCarthy was (of course) a Senator. Therefore, he would have been ineligible to sit on it.

He was instead chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Government Operations. This was generally a bland institution for investigating government waste and fraud. However, its mandate was broad enough that McCarthy could bend it to include hunting for communists. This he did. His campaign cost many people their jobs and  reputations, and pushed some to suicide. However, he overreached when he began insinuating that their were traitors in Eisenhower’s White House. He also came up against opposition from two indefatigable campaigners: journalist Edward Murrow and the US Army’s head counsel Joseph N. Welch who famously demanded of McCarthy “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” As a result, public opinion turned on McCarthy and in 1954 he was eventually censured by his Senate colleagues.

This is where the distinction between McCarthy and HUAC becomes important. The House committee did not stop when McCarthy fell. It’s prestige did take a big hit but HUAC carried on to subpoena potential subversives throughout the 1960s.

Update: In a comment on FB, my friend James King pointed out by way of addition that “HUAC’s predecessor, the Dies Committee, was active pre-war. This contradicts the comforting idea that McCarthyism was entirely a moment of madness after the fall of China, rather than reflecting something rather more fundamental.”

Politics will always disappoint you: get used to it!

Political campaigns have learned how to tailor their message to appeal to specific individuals yet once the votes are counted we all get the same government. This is a recipe for disappointment unless we as voters are realistic about this process.

Did this disappoint you?

 

The American political consultant Rick Riddler has an interesting article for Real Clear Politics. Essentially, he is worried about the ability of political campaigns to ‘micro-target’. This is essentially the  application of techniques from the world of commercial marketing to politics such that:

by matching a voter’s Internet cookies to an enriched voter file, a campaign professional can easily direct a specific online message about GMOs in baby food to a female who is 45 and sometimes—but not always—buys organic foods, has a household income over $70,000 a year, recently bought baby clothes, and lives in a specific area. This message is delivered as a pop-up or banner advertisement on only her computer, tablet, or smartphone.

Riddler worries that this may be fueling disenchantment with politics. He suggests campaigns may have moved from offering “a chicken in every pot” to “a chicken in your pot” to “a chicken in your pot – seasoned just the way you like.” Riddler suggests this creates a dangerous rift between campaigning and governing:

As campaigns now appeal to each voter’s specific issues, fears, wants, and desires through highly targeted messaging, they perpetuate the myth that, once in office, the candidate will do exactly what the individual voter wants. Yet there is no way that any candidate or party can deliver on such precise expectations once the election is over.

Unlike the commercial world, big data allows customized communication for the voter but not by the voter. It is precisely this distinction that causes a dissonance in voter expectations. On the one hand, they are able to customize their phone, their car, and their wardrobe, and—they are led to believe—their political candidates. But this last impression is a myth. Although they courted voters during election season on this basis, once in office elected officials in our binary political system have a far less expansive menu of options.

Do I follow the party leadership on this bill or not? Is this legislation good for my district or not? Should I vote yea on the president’s budget (and nominees) or nay?

These have always been the choices faced by politicians. The difference today is that elected officials have conditioned their constituents to expect differently. It is no surprise, then, that Americans are increasingly distrustful and disdainful of political candidates and parties—even the ones they voted for. Once the election is over, they no longer have the illusion that politics caters to their individual needs. Lacking control, many grow disenchanted and disengaged, sometimes asserting their individualism by voting for unlikely-to-win third party candidates. More often, they stay home, which was one unsung part of the 2014 midterm narrative.

Amplifying this disenchantment and creating a trap for voter expectations is the recent hyping of the political communications business itself. In tactics that have made a prophet of Marshall McLuhan, the tools of political communication have determined the message voters receive. Since 2008, campaign operatives have subordinated the substance of their candidates’ messaging to their means of communication—to the micro-targeting, Twitter feeds, Internet advertising buys, the size and the enhancements of campaign databases, and even the number of volunteer “boots on the ground” they put in the field. These practices leave voters confused: Are they voting for a slick campaign operation or a candidate with policy goals and values?

In other nations, where multiple political parties thrive under parliamentary systems (and strict laws prohibit personal data collection), there has been a rise of new political parties that may come closer to exactly reflecting an individual’s policy and ideological preferences. Given the limited ability for third parties to thrive in the American political system, such a development is unlikely to occur in the United States. Even if it did, we’d need as many political parties as there are smartphone apps to mollify the voters whom the Republicans and Democrats have so assiduously spoiled.

Europeans and others who live in countries with multi-party systems might think these points apply less to them. And indeed, having more parties will potentially give voters a party that is closer in views to their own. But there are limits to this process. As Riddler highlighted in his final paragraph an almost infinite number of parties would be necessary before we could all have a party which perfectly aligned with our views. And more importantly the fundamental point about government remains unchanged: you can have more parties but there will still only be one government. And in a multi-party system forming and running that single government is almost certainly going to demand agreement between parties. Creating more parties does not eliminate the need for compromise: it just means that those compromises are made between rather than within parties.

And if that sounds to you a lot like a defence of Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrats and the principle of going into coalition then that’s as it should be:

 

 

John Hurt’s characters die more regularly than Sean Bean’s

If you are fainthearted you might want to give this post a miss

So we all know Sean Bean is the guy who dies in every movie. There are even (NSFW) videos to prove it:

But Kyle Hill of Nerdist – in a post which rather dubiously is published in their science section – has done the maths and discovered their are actors who die on screen rather more often.

120514_KillBean_Chart2

I’d never have guessed that John Hurt would be the actor to die the most reguarly but then again he did feature in perhaps cinema’s most iconic death (NSFW):

The T-800 is now the most dated thing about the Terminator films

The notion of a humanoid robot assassin looks dated before it’s even possible.

So the trailer for Terminator: ‘Genisys’ has arrived.

It looks potentially entertaining and Emilia Clarke seems like a perfect replacement for Linda Hamilton. However, it doesn’t really address the fundamental question regarding this semi-reboot: what exactly it is supposed to be adding to the franchise.

One minor issue that I will be curious to see if the filmmakers attempt to address is that since the original films were made it has become apparent that if one wanted to design a machine which conducts assassinations it probably wouldn’t look like the T-800:

More Accurate

The only film I’ve seen so far that addresses how drones are changing warfare is the Bourne Legacy. Though like much of the rest of that film it does so badly. To try and prove that the CIA would still need genetically enhanced super-assassins when they have predator drones, there is a faintly ludicrous scene where Jeremy Renner’s Bourne stand-in character manages to shoot a drone down with a rifle.

Frankly, filmakers are going to have to do better than this. ‘Killer robots’ are becoming more prevalent and are moving from the sky to the ground. Because Terminator is a retro franchise – which has helpfully established in the past installments that only organic matter can be sent back in time –  it can probably get away with this. Films hoping to depict realistic battlefields of the near future will need to account for drones and the like. The Top Gun sequel will apparently see Tom Cruise’s character trying to prove the relevance of human pilots. Expect a lot more films to deal with similar themes.

Why I fell in love with Slovenia

This post is not native advertising for the Slovenian tourist board (honest).

Slovenia is a minnow of a nation. It is nestled between Italy, Croatia and Hungary and has a population of just two million. Its very existence is a novelty. Despite having a distinct language and culture, it’s generally been a province rather than a nation. It was first part of the Hapsburg Empire and then Yugoslavia, and only gained independence in 1991.

The former Yugoslav countries are some of my favourite in the world, so it was no surprise I liked Slovenia. But the extent to which I was charmed by it was a pleasant shock. It shares in many of the things that make the region so delightful but also has many unique virtues.

I spent 10 days travelling there this summer. I got a boat from Venice to the coastal town of Piran, which is itself rather Venice like itself, where I spent a day. Then I got the coach up to the capital Ljubljana  for a few days of visiting museums, galleries and churches. Finally, I went up into the mountains to walk and cycle by Lake Bohinj.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of the reasons I found it so appealing:

Cultural blending

The Balkans is to a large extent defined by its rich blend of cultural influences. This is true of Slovenia too but in a very different way. One doesn’t see Orthodox and Islamic civilization reaching into Europe that one does in places like Bosnia. Rather Slovenia represents a conflation of Catholic European traditions, principally those of its Italian neighbours and its one time Germanic rulers.

So as I mentioned above you can go to a town that looks an awful lot like a mini Venice.

10409725_10152308277671867_8038346061537710718_n

However, unlike the original it is a rather soothing place. You can visit its magnificent churches and fortifications without being bustled through to make room for a cruise liner full of tourists about to come in after you. In fact, I was able to spend about twenty minutes in the St George’s Parish Church and have it to myself for most of that time.

2014-09-21 11.19.33

Stunning scenery

 

Like its neighbours, it is also naturally gorgeous. Slovenia is where the Alps meet the Mediterranean.* And Slovenia reaps the benefits of both: spectacular mountains, valleys and lakes in the north turn into glorious coastline out to the west.

The great outdoors

All of which makes a pretty cool backdrop for hiking, cycling, kayaking, caving, climbing, rafting and paragliding. The beautiful Bled and Bohinj allow you to do all of these things and others while seeing views like this:

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Cool caves

Burger_PostojnskaJama

Before leaving the topic of Slovenia’s scenery, it’s worth making special mention of its impressive cave systems.

One of the highlights of my visit to the country was going down into Postojna cave. Talking about going into a cave might conjure up images of scrabbling through narrow passageways but these aren’t that kind of caves. They are huge. Large enough that getting around them requires travelling on a train. Some of the larger chambers could comfortably accommodate a house.

The weird and wonderful rock formations are truly remarkably and there’s something beguiling about the sense of discovering a hidden world.

The food

 

Venison goulash: sorry Bambi!

Venison goulash: sorry Bambi!

Slovenian food is far from the most sophisticated in the world, though if you want that they do have plenty of good Italian places, but it is hearty, unfussy and the portions are generous.

Ljubljana

Grad_Tivoli-Ljubljana

 

The capital city whose name I will probably never spell correctly has a lot to recommend it. While it has no knock out sights or attractions, there are plenty of little things to do and the atmosphere is great. It has a feeling somewhere between a historic university town like Oxford and a trendy city like Berlin. There are both lots of churches and museums, and sleek looking restaurants and bars with Mercedes parked in front of them.

It also benefits from having the great Tivoli Park, which after only a very few days in the city I’d grown rather attached to relaxing in.

People

Despite their warlike reputation, I’ve generally found people in the Balkans to be very friendly and hospitable. Slovenian’s are no exception.

At a more practical level, they speak good English. Notwithstanding my efforts to pick up Slovenian this proved rather useful.

The price and the lack of crowds

Even more practically, Slovenia offers a lot of what people look for in places like Italy and Switzerland but few people have yet realised that. As a result, it is cheaper and less crowded than those places.

To sum up

For such a small country Slovenia packs in a lot of reasons to visit.

 

*OK, technically the Adriatic but hey it’s the same body of water!