Friday, 26 September 2014

headline news

With the advent of online editions of national newspapers, the art of writing succinct headlines appears to be in decline. Thirty years ago, Britain’s Sun newspaper employed subeditors whose only function was to write the headlines for which the paper became famous, but it may be that a different allocation of labour brought about by the online revolution now makes this a less efficient use of resources.

The rules for writing headlines are simple: never use a long word if a shorter word is available; and if a word can be cut out without affecting the meaning, then it should be cut. Obviously, any ill-judged application of the second rule has the potential to create ambiguity, but it is the first rule, and what it tells us about the lexicon available to the headline writers, that is the more interesting, particularly given that the shorter word that is used may not match the meaning of the longer word precisely.

In the language of headlines, any type of embargo, exclusion, injunction, interdiction, prevention, prohibition or proscription becomes a ban; any constraint, containment, demarcation, limitation or restriction becomes a cap; any abatement, contraction, curtailment, decrement, devaluation, downgrade, diminution, discount or shrinkage becomes a cut; any kind of accommodation, accord, agreement, bargain, compromise, concession, settlement, transaction or understanding becomes a deal; any kind of disparity, distinction, divergence, inconsistency or incongruity becomes a gap; any type of appointment, assignment, calling, career, employment, enterprise, occupation, profession, undertaking or vocation becomes a job; and any altercation, antagonism, argument, controversy, difference of opinion, disagreement, squabble or vendetta becomes a row. It will be seen at once that the short word isn’t always quite the right word, but that doesn’t seem to matter to the headline writers, whose aim is to have their creations set in the largest possible type.

Adjectives are not favoured by headline writers, although something that might be described as colossal, enormous, gargantuan, gigantic, humongous, immense or massive in other circumstances will be described as merely big, or possibly huge, in a newspaper headline. At the same time, anything that is abominable, defective, deleterious, dreadful, horrendous, horrible, imperfect, substandard, terrible, unacceptable or unsatisfactory would simply be bad.

There is another aspect to the writing of headlines, much favoured by Britain’s redtops, and that is the use of word play, including puns, rhymes, alliteration and assonance. Cultural references are also common—even the BBC, on its website, isn’t immune to this kind of headline. Although many such headlines are teeth-grindingly awful, I’ll conclude with two famous headlines from the Sun’s sports pages.

In 2000, Inverness Caledonian Thistle (affectionately known as ‘Cally’ by the team’s supporters) defeated Celtic, one of the powerhouses of Scottish football, 3–1 in a Scottish FA Cup match. Celtic were playing on their home ground, and Inverness were two leagues below Celtic in the Scottish football hierarchy. The Sun’s report on the match carried the following headline:
I’d always remembered this headline as ‘…CELTIC WERE ATROCIOUS’, but it seems to have been plagiarized from a Liverpool Echo headline from the 1970s, when Liverpool forward Ian Callaghan produced a man-of-the-match performance to defeat Queen’s Park Rangers. The headline in that case read ‘SUPER CALLY GOES BALLISTIC QPR ATROCIOUS’. Although I’ve suggested plagiarism, the use of ‘are’ instead of ‘were’ to report on something that happened in the past points to another possible explanation: that it was a kind of homage to the earlier headline.

While I would expect most Sun readers to pick up on the Mary Poppins reference, I’m not sure that those same readers would be sufficiently familiar with pre-imperial Roman history to understand the following headline, which appeared above the report on an FA Cup match between Leicester City and Wycombe Wanderers in 2001. Leicester were the home team, but Wycombe, a team that played its league football three divisions below Leicester, won 2–1.
Whether the historical reference was understood or not, it seems that Wycombe’s fans have since appropriated the phrase to describe every victory away from home.

Friday, 19 September 2014

humour in religion

One characteristic that I don’t associate with religious fervour is a sense of humour. You only have to recall the fury generated in the Muslim world by cartoons allegedly poking fun at the prophet Muhammad that were produced by a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, in 2005 to realize that for Muslims, depicting their prophet in any way other than complete reverence is blasphemous, although I would concede that the cartoons in question were not particularly funny.

However, you would have to search long and hard to find anything funny in the Bible, so I conclude that Christians share with Muslims a revulsion at the very idea of not taking their respective religions seriously. Nevertheless, I know of one passage in the Bible that had my son Siegfried in hysterics when I read it aloud to him many years ago (he was 12 or 13 years old at the time).

Chapter 19 of the book of Genesis relates how God conveys to Abraham his intention to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of the licentious lifestyles of their inhabitants. Abraham queries whether this is such a good idea. The conversation that results may not match the incisive wordplay of Abbott and Costello’s ‘who’s on first’ routine or the Two Ronnies’ ‘fork handles’ sketch, but it does feature the same kind of incongruity that characterizes Monty Python’s ‘dead parrot’ sketch, in this case the very idea of a puny, insignificant human who has the temerity to tell God that he’s wrong.

The passage below is based on the Authorized Version of the Bible, but when listening to someone reading it aloud, it is impossible to tell the difference between ‘He’ and ‘he’, so I’ve replaced these pronouns by ‘God’ or ‘the Lord’ in the former case and by ‘Abraham’ in the latter. Do bear in mind that if you plan to read it to someone, any comedic effect will be lost if you stick with the usual po-faced solemnity with which any reading from the Bible is usually treated. Comic timing is essential.

23 And Abraham drew near and said, “Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked?
24 “Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city; wilt thou also destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous that are therein? 
25 “That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked; and that the righteous should be as the wicked; that be far from thee! Shall not the judge of all the Earth do right?” 
26 And the Lord said, “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes.” 
27 Then Abraham answered and said, “Behold now, I have taken upon myself, which am but dust and ashes, to speak unto the Lord: 
28 “Peradventure there shall lack five of the fifty righteous; wilt thou destroy all the city for the lack of five?”And the Lord said, “If I find there forty and five, I will not destroy it.” 
29 And Abraham spake unto God yet again and said, “Peradventure there shall be only forty found there?” And God said, “I will not do it for forty’s sake.” 
30 And Abraham said unto God, “Let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak: peradventure there shall be thirty found there?” And the Lord said, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.” 
31 And Abraham said, “Behold now, I have taken it upon myself to speak to the Lord: peradventure there shall only twenty be found there?” And the Lord said, “I will not destroy it for twenty’s sake.” 
32 Then Abraham said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak but this once more: peradventure a mere ten should be found there?” And God said, “I will not destroy it for ten’s sake.” 
33 And the Lord went his way, as soon as he had finished communing with Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.
One can assume that, for the purposes of the biblical narrative, the required ten righteous persons were not forthcoming, so God destroyed the cities anyway, although I should add that there is no indisputable archaeological evidence for the existence of the two cities in the first place, let alone for the ‘fire and brimstone’ that God allegedly used to destroy them.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

the democratization of knowledge

If you want to find out about something, the internet is a good place to start. And if you are a regular user of search engines, you will probably have noticed that any relevant Wikipedia articles will appear at or near the top of your search results. This observation automatically leads me to question the accuracy of this ubiquitous online encyclopaedia, because I’m not convinced that its operating principles are sound.

A few days ago, Paula and I were walking across fields on the outskirts of town when we saw a massive halo around the sun. I’ve always known this relatively rare atmospheric phenomenon as a ‘sunbow’, but because I thought I might want to post photos, I decided to verify that this was the correct terminology to use. The Wikipedia article was highly dubious on the subject:

It forms no more than one-quarter of a circle….

Wikipedia, 28th August 2014.
The following photo, taken by Paula, shows an almost complete circle (the contrast has been boosted to highlight the halo), while on the next photo I used the chimneys of the house opposite ours to block out the sun. Part of the sunbow is thus obscured, but the photo nevertheless shows more than a quarter of a circle.

In addition to this demonstrably false assertion, the article also contains this statement:
…it arises from refraction of sunlight through horizontally-oriented ice crystals….
ibidem, 28th August 2014.
Other online dictionaries also refer to ‘refraction’, but I’ve always understood this phenomenon to be the result of diffraction, or scattering of light by ice crystals, rather than the bending that results when light passes from one medium into another (from air to a raindrop in the case of a rainbow). I could be wrong, of course, but here are three other examples of what I believe are false statements in Wikipedia articles.

When I wrote A Wet Day in Buttermere three years ago, I looked at the Wikipedia entry on the subject, which stated that the name ‘Buttermere’ derives from the Old English for ‘lake by a dairy pasture’. Now, however, two origins of the name are given. The second of these explanations is that the lake (and adjoining village) is named after Jarl Boethar, a quasi-mythical Norse chieftain whose chief claim to fame is that he engineered the most comprehensive military defeat suffered by the Normans on English soil.

However, Wikipedia cites an ‘expert on the subject, who ‘suggests that the personal name interpretation is incorrect’ without explaining why. On the other hand, there are many other sources that support this second interpretation, so I consider the Wikipedia article to be subjective, which is not what one wants to read in an encyclopaedia.

Dr Crippen
Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen was hanged in 1910 for the murder of his wife; his name was a byword for horror when I was growing up in the 1950s, when his wax effigy was one of the main attractions in Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors. Most of the Wikipedia article seems to me to be authentic, but the following paragraph is not:
A theory which was first propounded by Edward Marshall Hall was that Crippen was using hyoscine on his wife as a depressant or anaphrodisiac, but accidentally gave her an overdose and then panicked when she died. It is said that Hall declined to lead Crippen's defence because another theory was to be propounded.
ibidem, 28th August 2014.
According to Marshall Hall, a biography by Nina Warner Hooke and Gil Thomas and published by Arthur Barker Ltd in 1966, the theory suggested by Wikipedia was indeed first propounded by Sir Edward Marshall Hall, coming originally from the biography of Hall written by Edward Majoribanks, a barrister friend, shortly after Hall’s death in 1927.

However, the Hooke/Thomas biography cites the testimony of Edgar Bowker, who was Hall’s senior clerk at the time of the Crippen case. What happened was this: Arthur Newton, Crippen’s solicitor, brought the brief to Hall’s chambers while Hall was on vacation; Bowker’s first duty was to discuss the fee; Newton was engaged in negotiations with a national newspaper, which would provide the money needed for Crippen’s defence, but that money was not yet available; Bowker refused the brief on behalf of his employer because taking on such a high-profile case without the certainty of payment would not have been of benefit to a barrister who was already at the peak of his profession (see Murder Most Foul).

I first read about the archaeological site at Glozel, near Vichy in central France, soon after ceramic artefacts from the site had been subjected to testing by a newly invented method for dating ancient pottery—thermoluminescence (TL)—in the mid-1970s. The site had been discovered in the 1920s, but half a century later it is widely regarded by archaeologists as fraudulent, like Piltdown Man. Wikipedia’s introduction to the subject includes the following sentence:
Initially, many experts argued in favor of a hoax, but advanced testing from later decades confirmed that many of the Glozel artifacts were most likely of genuine antiquity.
ibidem, 28th August 2014.
Note the use of the word ‘confirmed’, which implies certainty, yet you would be hard-pressed to find a reputable archaeologist who thought that the Glozel artefacts were genuine. So what is happening here?

This site, with its huge quantities of pots, inscribed clay tablets and bone carvings, was discovered by an uneducated farming family on whose land it was located. However, it soon came to the attention of a local doctor and amateur archaeologist, Antonin Morlet, who told the family that they stood to make a lot of money. Morlet confidently identified many of the artefacts as palaeolithic or neolithic, but if this interpretation is correct, then the ‘writing’ on the clay tablets, which remains undeciphered to this day, would be the oldest writing in the world. This, of course, chimes perfectly with notions of French nationalism.

After several years of controversy and legal wrangling, the saga disappeared below the horizon until 1974, when a group of Danish physicists decided to use a newly invented technique to date some of the pots from Glozel. The clay minerals (kaolinite, gibbsite, etc.) used to make pottery contain minute quantities of uranium, which emits beta particles (electrons) as it decays. These electrons become trapped in the crystal lattice, but when a pot is fired, the extreme heat drives off these electrons, thus resetting the pot’s internal clock to zero. However, the radioactive decay continues, and TL works by counting the number of electrons in a pottery sample, which is in effect a proxy for the amount of time that has elapsed since the pot was fired.

Wikipedia clearly has no doubts about the efficacy of the technique:
Thermoluminescence dating of Glozel pottery in 1974 confirmed that the pottery was not produced recently.
ibidem, 28th August 2014.
I would be the first to state that archaeology is not a science, but it is not crackpottery. It is a rigorous academic discipline, and the consensus among its practitioners is that the Glozel site is not merely implausible; it is impossible. The soil at the site is thin, and it is on quite a steep slope, so there would have been a considerable throughflow of water during the centuries when the artefacts were alleged to have lain undiscovered in that soil, which militates against the surprising fact that most of the many pots found on the site were intact.

It is evident that Wikipedia’s editors have shown blind faith in science, but if the TL dates (600 BC to AD 100) are accurate, whole areas of theoretical archaeology would need to be thrown out. Yet none of the pottery matches anything from the Celtic and Gallo-Roman periods in France found at other sites (these are the periods covered by the TL dates). However, the following comment from the inventor of TL, written in 1975, is relevant here:
The Glozel tablets must have a message either for the archaeologists or for the TL-dating specialists, and, having been in business for only seven years, it behoves the latter to peer anxiously, in case the message is for them.
*  *  *
I believe that the fundamental concept behind Wikipedia is flawed. Allowing anyone to edit an article on the site might seem democratic, and there are ‘editors’ who check all changes, but the problem is that just because 99 percent of people believe something to be true doesn’t make it so. After all, large numbers of people believe that the Japanese have a form of ritual suicide that they call hari kari. They don’t.