Category Archives: Language

To Pet or not ToPet

“Hoist by your own petard” is a curious phrase meaning something like “falling into your own trap” or even “what goes around comes around”.

I have long known what the phrase meant but I misunderstood its literal meaning; I thought the phrase had it’s origins in ancient naval vocabulary and I assumed that a petard was something like a pennant such that some hapless ‘Jack Tar’ might sometimes have got himself all tangled up in rigging while trying to raise a signal flag in rough weather.

Not so; it turns out that a petard (un pétard)is a french word meaning a small hat-shaped explosive device used to blow a hole in a wall or blast open a door. These days the word usually means firecracker or the noise made by a firecracker.

The French have a verb péter which means “to fart” and a noun “pet” meaning the fart itself. During a scatalogical flight of fancy, I wondered if the French “péter” and “pet” were descended from pétard or perhaps the small French explosive device was named for a natural bodily function.

I can reveal to you now that the small explosive device is indeed named for a French fart. The next time you see Hamlet and you here the oft quoted phrase: “For ’tis the sport to have the engine[e]r / Hoist with his own petar[d].”, you can smile quietly to yourself as you picture some villain, on being undone by their own schemes, disappearing in a cloud of self generated excretia.

Continuing in a scatalogical vein, did you know that a common synonym for fart is trump? Now! Was there ever a more worthy candidate for being hoist by his own petard.

Get Back in your box Eric. OK!

Catch 22: Loyalty Oaths

catch22

This is an excerpt from Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel “Catch 22”.

Catch 22 is probably my favorite novel of all time, I have bought it at least 5 times and read it many times more than that. Catch 22 is one of those rare books that you can open at any page and just start reading, it really doesn’t matter where you start so long as you read it all.

This is a an excerpt in which Heller satirizes the American passion for exaggerated public displays of patriotism. Heller is often subtle, but not here. He  lampoons ideological purity and faux patriotism with sledge hammer blows of unmitigated derision. He laughs openly at those sad people who gather reassurance from being surrounded by identical little clones.

The book was written half a century ago but never was a line more relevant to today’s fact free political discourse than: “You never heard him denying it until we began accusing him, did you?”

Read on and enjoy this excerpt from one of the greatest satirical novels ever written.

QUOTE

When fellow administrative officers expressed astonishment at Colonel Cathcart’s choice of Major Major, Captain Black muttered that there was something funny going on; when they speculated on the political value of Major Major’s resemblance to Henry Fonda, Captain Black asserted that Major Major really was Henry Fonda; and when they remarked that Major Major was somewhat odd, Captain Black announced that he was a Communist.

“They’re taking over everything,” he declared rebelliously. “Well, you fellows can stand around and let them if you want to, but I’m not going to. I’m going to do something about it. From now on I’m going to make every son of a bitch who comes to my intelligence tent sign a loyalty oath. And I’m not going to let that bastard Major Major sign one even if he wants to.”

Almost overnight the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade was in full flower, and Captain Black was enraptured to discover himself spearheading it. He had really hit on something. All the enlisted men and officers on combat duty had to sign a loyalty oath to get their map cases from the intelligence tent, a second loyalty oath to receive their flak suits and parachutes from the parachute tent, a third loyalty oath for Lieutenant Balkington, the motor vehicle officer, to be allowed to ride from the squadron to the airfield in one of the trucks. Every time they turned around there was another loyalty oath to be signed. They signed a loyalty oath to get their pay from the finance officer, to obtain their PX supplies, to have their hair cut by the Italian barbers. To Captain Black, every officer who supported his Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade was a competitor, and he planned and plotted twenty-four hours a day to keep one step ahead. He would stand second to none in his devotion to country. When other officers had followed his urging and introduced loyalty oaths of their own, he went them one better by making every son of a bitch who came to his intelligence tent sign two loyalty oaths, then three, then four; then he introduced the pledge of allegiance, and after that “The Star-Spangled Banner,” one chorus, two choruses, three choruses, four choruses. Each time Captain Black forged ahead of his competitors, he swung upon them scornfully for their failure to follow his example. Each time they followed his example, he retreated with concern and racked his brain for some new stratagem that would enable him to turn upon them scornfully again.

Without realizing how it had come about, the combat men in the squadron discovered themselves dominated by the administrators appointed to serve them. They were bullied, insulted, harassed and shoved about all day long by one after the other. When they voiced objection, Captain Black replied that people who were loyal would not mind signing all the loyalty oaths they had to. To anyone who questioned the effectiveness of the loyalty oaths, he replied that people who really did owe allegiance to their country would be proud to pledge it as often as he forced them to. And to anyone who questioned the morality, he replied that “The Star-Spangled Banner” was the greatest piece of music ever composed. The more loyalty oaths a person signed, the more loyal he was; to Captain Black it was as simple as that, and he had Corporal Kolodny sign hundreds with his name each day so that he could always prove he was more loyal than anyone else.

“The important thing is to keep them pledging,” he explained to his cohorts. “It doesn’t matter whether they mean it or not. That’s why they make little kids pledge allegiance even before they know what ‘pledge’ and ‘allegiance’ means.”

To Captain Piltchard and Captain Wren, the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade was a glorious pain in the ass, since it complicated their task of organizing the crews for each combat mission. Men were tied up all over the squadron signing, pledging and singing, and the missions took hours longer to get under way. Effective emergency action became impossible, but Captain Piltchard and Captain Wren were both too timid to raise any outcry against Captain Black, who scrupulously enforced each day the doctrine of “Continual Reaffirmation” that he had originated, a doctrine designed to trap all those men who had become disloyal since the last time they had signed a loyalty oath the day before. It was Captain Black who came with advice to Captain Piltchard and Captain Wren as they pitched about in their bewildering predicament. He came with a delegation and advised them bluntly to m ake each man sign a loyalty oath before allowing him to fly on a combat mission.

“Of course, it’s up to you,” Captain Black pointed out. “Nobody’s trying to pressure you. But everyone else is making them sign loyalty oaths, and it’s going to look mighty funny to the F.B.I. if you two are the only ones who don’t care enough about your country to make them sign loyalty oaths, too. If you want to get a bad reputation, that’s nobody’s business but your own. All we’re trying to do is help.”

Milo was not convinced and absolutely refused to deprive Major Major of food, even if Major Major was a Communist, which Milo secretly doubted. Milo was by nature opposed to any innovation that threatened to disrupt the normal course of affairs. Milo took a firm moral stand and absolutely refused to participate in the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade until Captain Black called upon him with his delegation and requested him to.

“National defense is everybody’s job,” Captain Black replied to Milo’s objection. “And this whole program is voluntary, Milo – don’t forget that. The men don’t have to sign Piltchard and Wren’s loyalty oath if they don’t want to. But we need you to starve them to death if they don’t. It’s just like Catch-22. Don’t you get it? You’re not against Catch-22, are you?”

Doc Daneeka was adamant.

“What makes you so sure Major Major is a Communist?”

You never heard him denying it until we began accusing him, did you? And you don’t see him signing any of our loyalty oaths.”

“You aren’t letting him sign any.”

“Of course not,” Captain Black explained. “That would defeat the whole purpose of our crusade. Look, you don’t have to play ball with us if you don’t want to. But what’s the point of the rest of us working so hard if you’re going to give Major Major medical attention the minute Milo begins starving him to death? I just wonder what they’re going to think up at Group about the man who’s undermining our whole security program. They’ll probably transfer you to the Pacific.”

Doc Daneeka surrendered swiftly. “I’ll go tell Gus and Wes to do whatever you want them to.”

Up at Group, Colonel Cathcart had already begun wondering what was going on.

“It’s that idiot Black off on a patriotism binge,” Colonel Korn reported with a smile. “I think you’d better play ball with him for a while, since you’re the one who promoted Major Major to squadron commander.”

“That was your idea,” Colonel Cathcart accused him petulantly. “I never should have let you talk me into it.”

“And a very good idea it was, too,” retorted Colonel Korn, “since it eliminated that superfluous major that’s been giving you such an awful black eye as an administrator. Don’t worry, this will probably run its course soon. The best thing to do now is send Captain Black a letter of total support and hope he drops dead before he does too much damage.” Colonel Korn was struck with a whimsical thought. “I wonder! You don’t suppose that imbecile will try to turn Major Major out of his trailer, do you?”

“The next thing we’ve got to do is turn that bastard Major Major out of his trailer,” Captain Black decided. “I’d like to turn his wife and kids out into the woods, too. But we can’t. He has no wife and kids. So we’ll just have to make do with what we have and turn him out. Who’s in charge of the tents?”

“He is.”

“You see?” cried Captain Black. “They’re taking over everything! Well, I’m not going to stand for it. I’ll take this matter right to Major —— de Coverley himself if I have to. I’ll have Milo speak to him about it the minute he gets back from Rome.”

Captain Black had boundless faith in the wisdom, power and justice of Major —— de Coverley, even though he had never spoken to him before and still found himself without the courage to do so. He deputized Milo to speak to Major —— de Coverley for him and stormed out impatiently as he waited for the tall executive officer to return. Along with everyone else in the squadron, he lived in profound awe and reverence of the majestic, white-haired major with the craggy face and Jehovan bearing, who came back from Rome finally with an inuured eye inside a new celluloid eye patch and smashed his whole Glorious Crusade to bits with a single stroke.

Milo carefully said nothing when Major —— de Coverley stepped into the mess hall with his fierce and austere dignity the day he returned and found his way blocked by a wall of officers waiting in line to sign loyalty oaths. At the far end of the food counter, a group of men who had arrived earlier were pledging allegiance to the flag, with trays of food balanced in one hand, in order to be allowed to take seats at the table. Already at the tables, a group that had arrived still earlier was singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in order that they might use the salt and pepper and ketchup there. The hubub began to subside slowly as Major —— de Coverley paused in the doorway with a frown of puzzled disapproval, as though viewing something bizarre. He started forward in a straight line, and the wall of officers before him parted like the Red Sea. Glancing neither left nor right, he strode indomitably up to the steam counter and, in a clear, full-bodied voice that was gruff with age and resonant with ancient eminence and authority, said:

“Gimme eat.”

Instead of eat, Corporal Snark gave Major —— de Coverley a loyalty oath to sign. Major —— de Coverley swept it away with mighty displeasure the moment he recognized what it was, his good eye flaring up blindingly with fiery disdain and his enormous old corrugated face darkening in mountainous wrath.

“Gimme eat, I said,” he ordered loudly in harsh tones that rumbled ominously through the silent tent like claps of distant thunder.

Corporal Snark turned pale and began to tremble. He glanced toward Milo pleadingly for guidance. For several terrible seconds there was not a sound. Then Milo nodded.

“Give him eat,” he said.

Corporal Snark began giving Major —— de Coverley eat. Major —— de Coverley turned from the counter with his tray full and came to a stop. His eyes fell on the groups of other officers gazing at him in mute appeal, and, with righteous belligerence, he roared:

“Give everybody eat!”

“Give everybody eat!” Milo echoed with joyful relief, and the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade came to an end.

UNQUOTE

Foot notes:

The novel was published in hardback in 1961 to mixed reviews, with the Chicago Sun-Times calling it “the best American novel in years”, while other critics derided it as “disorganized, unreadable, and crass”. It sold only 30,000 hardback copies in the United States in its first year of publication.

Reaction was very different in the UK, where, within one week of its publication, the novel was number one on the bestseller lists. After its release in paperback in October 1962, however, Catch-22caught the imaginations of many baby boomers, who identified with the novel’s anti-war sentiments.The book went on to sell 10 million copies in the United States.

The novel’s title became a standard term in English and other languages for a dilemma with no easy way out. Now considered a classic, the book was listed at number 7 on Modern Library’s list of the top 100 novels of the century. The United States Air Force Academy uses the novel to “help prospective officers recognize the dehumanizing aspects of bureaucracy.”

The movie rights to the novel were purchased in 1962, and, combined with his royalties, made Heller a millionaire. The film, which was directed by Mike Nichols and starred Alan Arkin, Jon Voight and Orson Welles, was not released until 1970.

Post-truth

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

New Zealand’s recent earthquakes being caused by seismic boats reminded me of similar nonsense from forty years ago.

“Six 1000 m high towers monitor dynamite explosions as Giant seismic ship drills on the Great Barrier Reef”.

So ran the headline in a Queensland newspaper back in the late seventies. I was the Party Manager of the cited giant seismic ship apparently wreaking such cavalier havoc on the barrier reef. The giant seismic boat in question was the GSI operated M/V Eugene McDermott, I’m not sure that McD’s 150 foot length qualified it as a giant of the seas but I do know for an absolute certainty that it conducted no surveys on the Barrier reef. All of us know that seismic boats do not do anything so crass as to drill for oil, and marine seismic exploration had long spurbed the use of dynamite.

What about 1000 m towers monitoring none existant dynamite explosions? the 1975 CN Tower in Toronto at 553 m held the record back then and wasn’t surpassed in height for 30 years when the 829.8 m Burj Khalifa was built in Dubai. Our Argo navigation system did use 100 foot towers however.

We docked in Cairns a few days after the story was published and a reporter came aboard with a request to interview me. Now talking to the press was frowned upon by GSI but I just couldn’t resist it. I asked the gentleman from the press if he would like to see our drilling equipmnt he appeared to be delighted at the prospect. I took him to the gunshack and showed him our drill press sitting on the work bench. I advised him that this was the biggest drill on board, I further advised him that if he didn’t fuck off immediately he would be thrown overboard and so off he fucked.

The Oxford English Dictionary has recently named “post-truth” the 2016 international word of the year after its usage spiked around the Brexit vote and the US election. Lies, bullshit and lazy reporting have sadly been a staple of the press for a long long time.

Subhan Allah

GodBusCombo

The words ‘Subhan Allah’ mean ‘Glory to God’in in Arabic.

Why would Christians object to ‘Glory to God’ slogans? Isn’t that part of the Christian thing ?

Do Christians think there are two invisible chaps in the sky called Allah and God or just one supernatural being called all sorts of things?  Click here for 2808 forgotten gods.
Perhaps they object to Arabic, how about gloire à Dieu or gloria a Dios.

All religion is nothing more than someone’s opinion supported solely by a belief that their particular invisible guy agrees with them.

I doubt that London transport would object to a Christian slogan any more than they objected to an accurate statistical statement also shown in the accompanying image.

London Transport’s advertising policy is entirely mercenary, if you pay for the space you get to say what you want.
If you want to say ‘My god has 10% more truth than your god’ you can. There is no requirement for truth on buses any more than in any other advertising media.

One final point.
The church once tried to ban the Life of Bryan and like the book said “as ye sow, so shall ye reap”, or to put it another way: “Screw you too”.

Refugee

Stranger in a Strange Land

It came as a shock when I discovered that I was no longer English, or at least not as English as I imagined myself to be. There was no great earth shattering revelation, I just realized one day that the zeitgeist of “Englishness” had moved on without me.

The revelation could hardly have been more banal. During one of my infrequent visits back to England during the eighties, my Mum announced that she was popping out to Azda. I asked innocently what’s Azda? This was like asking what’s Coles in Australia or what’s Walmart or Sears in America. Simply asking the question marked me as “other”. I had become a stranger in my own land.

The first time I visited the USA I was still very much the Englishman, so English in fact that I had difficulty finding a postbox because I was naively looking for something painted red.

Mailbox02

I soon discovered that not only are postboxes not painted red in America, they are not even called post boxes.

Decades later, after spending years in the USA, I found that I could still make the sort of mistake that would bring a deep cover soviet agent to the attention of the FBI.

While moving into my house in Houston, I asked my new neighbor “where is the nearest mailbox?”. You see I had the vocabulary down pat by this time, I knew that mailbox was American for Postbox, I understood that the orientation of ones pecker is not to be remarked on in mixed company while the word fanny is perfectly alright on the American side of the Atlantic but definitely not OK in the UK.

Years of living and working in Texas had made me more or less bi-lingual but had failed to alert me to the bi-directional nature of American mailboxes. This ignorance marked me as other and definitely “not from around here” and caused my neighbor to wonder what sort of ignoramus had just moved in next door.

An English letterbox is usually cut into the front door of the house and is strictly a one way device allowing the Postman to fulfill his duty by dropping the morning post inside the house. Australian mail boxes, like their American counterparts, require their owners to venture outside, no matter what the weather, in order to retrieve their letters.

Mailbox01

Now here’s the thing, the mailbox at the end of an American driveway comes supplied with a cute little flag mounted on its side. I discovered from my Texas neighbor that an American mailbox is bi-directional, he told me that you can put out going letters in the mailbox and that by raising that cute little flag your friendly mailman will pick up your letters and deliver them to the Post Office. Brilliant! I mean how clever is that ?

If not ignorance of a local supermarket chain or unfamiliarity with the character of your own mailbox, something will always give you away. No matter how well you speak the lingo, no matter how long you live in a place you can never be a native.

No matter how much we love our adopted countries, we foreigners still crave the company of our own cultural and linguistic tribe from time to time. Whether it’s an English style pub, a Texas barbecue a church or a mosque, everyone needs a break from being a stranger in a strange land.

Happy Birthday Bill

On this day, 23 April 1616 the worlds greatest writer died.
His name is William Shakespeare and he is immortal.

His plays are regularly performed around the world in virtually every language of the world. Shakespeare tells us timeless stories on universal themes, he writes about us.

West side story is Shakespeare, Ran is Shakespeare even “The Lion King” has Hamlet at its heart.

Today is also Shakespeare’s birthday, he was born on 23 April 1564.

So here is a birthday tribute from Peter Sellers, performing a song by The Beatles in a parody of Laurence Olivier’s portrayal of Shakespeare’s Richard III.

Happy Birthday Bill.

Labels

Feeling a tad peckish, I opened a can labeled “mulligatawny soup”, applied some basic thermodynamics and ate the soup. The label on the can was really useful, it said the can contained mulligatawny soup and so it did.

Labels are great for simple things like soup, but less so for more complicated things like smart phones for instance. I use my smart phone for several hours every day but only rarely to make telephone calls. My beloved S4 is sometimes: an mp3 player, a book reader, a movie viewer, an alarm clock, a calendar and a nifty GPS navigation system. So what is it really ?

Labels really don’t work that well for people either because not only are people more complicated than soup cans, they are more complicated even than smart phones.

Here are a few labels that apply to me: liberal, conservative, libertarian, authoritarian, capitalist, socialist, christian, atheist, agnostic, funny, boring, pedantic, serious, repetitive, cavalier, religious, irreligious, blasphemer, heretic, apostate, rationalist, racist, humanist, literate, illiterate, smart, stupid, educated, ignorant, humble, snobbish, proud, cowardly, brave, sexist, homophobic, pro gay rights, pro feminism, bigoted, naive, gullible, altruistic, kind, thoughtless, caring, inconsiderate, generous, repetitive, selfish and cruel. Those are just the labels that I concede as appropriate and applicable to me at certain times and in certain places.

Capitalist because competition inherent in a free market leads to innovation and efficient production. Socialist because the market is not always the best arbiter of value and I prefer not to be accosted by beggars nor do I like my rivers to burn, nor my lakes to die nor my one and only planet to be killed by indifference, greed or stupidity.

Libertarian because I hate rules and restrictions and I value freedom. Authoritarian because I accept that some rules and their enforcement promote better football games, more useful and efficient markets and driving is a whole lot safer if everyone drives on the same side of the road. Even Adam Smith’s invisible hand sometimes needs a visible hand to keep the bastards honest.

Liberal because ideas and their free expression matter, conservative because change is not necessarily progress.

Atheist because I don’t think there is or ever has been a god except in the imagination. Agnostic because it is impossible to be absolutely certain of anything.

Christian because I was baptized and have the photo to prove it. Religious because at one time I believed in Jesus and Irreligious because reading the bible, other holy books, science and world history cured me of uncritical belief a long time ago.

Homophobic because I once joined others in taunting a kid who was different and perhaps helped to drive him to suicide. His name was Timothy.

Pro gay rights because I once joined others in taunting a kid who was different and perhaps helped to drive him to suicide. His name was Timothy.

Sexist because I sometimes think women are really strange.
Pro feminist because I think that women are really great.

Racist because I once assumed that Brits were naturally superior to everyone else. A bunch of smart people with different accents, differently shaped eyes and different skin tones cured me of that particular stupidity.

Literate because I can read and write English, illiterate because I can’t read or write Chinese, Japanese, Sanskrit, Hebrew, Cyrillic or any writing system other than my own.

You can call me anything you like I suppose but you should recognize that any particular label is as likely to mislead as to inform and may say more about you than it says of me.

So what label best fits this walking mass of confusion and contradictions ? I don’t know but my name is Eric and the mulligatawny soup was delicious.

Cognitive Dissonance

“All lies and jest, still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest”. So wrote Paul Simon in 1968 in the song “The Boxer”. I always liked that line, I never really knew why I liked it but it stuck with me and rang true long before I heard the terms “confirmation theory”, “cognitive dissonance” or “just world hypothesis”.

Paul Simon is a great poet of our time, and like all great poets he manages to encapsulate a great human truth in a single line of prose.
And that brings me to Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson whose brilliant book; “Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me) explains how and why we justify foolish beliefs, bad Decisions and hurtful acts.

I heartily recommend “Mistakes Were Made” to anyone interested in how the brain works and where our ideas come from. What follows is the book description from Amazon.

Why do people dodge responsibility when things go wrong? Why the parade of public figures unable to own up when they make mistakes? Why the endless marital quarrels over who is right? Why can we see hypocrisy in others but not in ourselves? Are we all liars? Or do we really believe the stories we tell?

Renowned social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson take a compelling look into how the brain is wired for self-justification. When we make mistakes, we must calm the cognitive dissonance that jars our feelings of self-worth. And so we create fictions that absolve us of responsibility, restoring our belief that we are smart, moral, and right – a belief that often keeps us on a course that is dumb, immoral, and wrong.

Backed by years of research and delivered in lively, energetic prose, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) offers a fascinating explanation of self-deception – how it works, the harm it can cause, and how we can overcome it.

Dogma

The noun “dogma” was introduced into English around 1600 from the Latin “dogma” which meant “philosophical tenet” and was itself nicked from the Greek “dogmatos” meaning opinion or tenet. Dogma literally meant “that which one thinks is true.”

The modern meaning of dogma has evolved to mean “a principle or set of principles laid down by some authority as incontrovertibly true”.

The Greek origin of the word dogma reminds English speakers that currently established principals and doctrines were once simply thoughts and opinions, of ordinary people more or less like us, which gradually gained acceptance into the universal consciousness of society.

Nothing is incontrovertibly true and everything is open to discussion. Even Something seemingly written in stone was written by someone and that someone was likely imperfect and fallible.

God

Definitions

According to Me

In  monotheistic religions, the creator and ruler of the universe and source of all moral authority; the supreme being.

In  polytheistic religions, a superhuman being or spirit worshiped as having power over nature or human fortunes; a deity.

[Click here] for a list of 2808 gods once worshiped, killed for and died for but now largely forgotten.

According to Miriam Webster

 

  1. capitalized :  the supreme or ultimate reality: as

 

a :  the Being perfect in power, wisdom, and goodness who is worshiped as creator and ruler of the universe

b Christian Science :  the incorporeal divine Principle ruling over all as eternal Spirit :  infinite Mind

2.  a being or object believed to have more than natural attributes and powers and to require human worship; specifically :  one controlling a particular aspect or part of reality

3.   a person or thing of supreme value

 

4.  a powerful ruler