An Academic Car Crash?

An Academic Car Crash?

Photo by Marina Carresi

The other day I received an email whose title was, “The Academia Community Just[1] Hit a Big Milestone!”. The headline[2] was referring to the fact that the Academia.edu social-networking site[3] now has more than 50 million members. While[4] I celebrate the fact that “Facebook for Faculty[5][6] has more members than California or Spain has citizens, I was taken aback[7] by the headline. For me a milestone[8] is a physical thing. I dug one up[9] in my parents’ garden when I was young (see photo). Sure[10] I accept that it can be used metaphorically to mean an important marker[11] or a significant figure[12] but it is still a living metaphor[13] in that I associate the expression ‘to reach/pass a milestone’ with the image of someone walking past a milestone on a road in the English countryside. For instance[14], a milestone figures large[15] in the pantomime[16] Dick Whittington (see image). So, the mixed metaphor[17] ‘to hit[18] a milestone’ sounds comical: I imagine someone crashing his car into a stone next to the road. If “the Academic Community just1 hit a big milestone”, their car was probably a write-off[19]!

However, there are no milestones in the USA, so ‘a milestone’ there is just[20] an important marker11, a significant figure12 or an impressive number. If you have been trying to achieve[21] such a milestone, it no doubt makes sense to say “to hit a milestone”, just as[22] you hit a target[23]. In other words “to reach/pass/(hit) a milestone” in US English is a dead metaphor[24]. Interestingly, there are a very similar number of Google hits for “reach a milestone” and “hit a milestone” but the latter[25] is about 3% more popular. So it looks like I’ll just[26] have to get used to[27] it.

[1] just – (in this case) very recently, (literally) a moment ago

[2] headlinetitle to a news story

[3] social-networking sitewebsite for interacting socially (e.g. Facebook)

[4] while – (in this case) although

[5] faculty – university teachers, academics

[6] I thought I’d invented this epithet for Academia.edu but I’ve just discovered that people were using it back in 2010!

[7] to be taken aback – be surprised

[8] milestone – (literally) stone next to a road on which the distance to a town is written

[9] to dig sth. up (dig-dug-dug) – uncover sth., excavate sth.

[10] sure – (in this case) of course

[11] markerindicator, signal

[12] figure – (in this case) number

[13] living metaphorfigurative expression that can only be understood in reference to the original connotation

[14] for instance – for example

[15] to figure large – be prominent, be important

[16] pantomimetype of theatrical comedy performed at Christmas

[17] mixed metaphortwo expressions that have been confused, (in this case) ‘reach a milestone’ and ‘hit a target’23

[18] to hit (hit-hit-hit) – (possibly) have a collision with

[19] write-offvehicle that is so badly damaged that it cannot be repaired

[20] just – (in this case) only

[21] to achieve – attain, reach, get to

[22] just as – in the same way that

[23] to hit a target (hit-hit-hit) – achieve an objective, attain a goal

[24] dead metaphorfigurative expression that can be understood without knowing the original connotation

[25] the latter – the last mentioned, (in this case) the expression “to hit a milestone”

[26] just – (in this case) simply

[27] to get used to (get-got-got) – become accustomed to

Corpus Christi Controversies

Corpus Christi Controversies

On the news this week I saw people arguing[1] over seating[2] on the route that the Corpus Christi procession was going to take through Toledo. I wonder[3] how many of them know the origins, controversies and evolution of this tradition.

For the first 12 centuries of Christianity there was a disagreement among[4] theological linguists at the heart[5] of the Catholic Church. The problem is that Hebrew[6] expresses metaphors and statements of fact[7] in exactly the same way (you distinguish between the two using the context). Under normal circumstances this is easy. If I say “It was so hot that we were melting[8]” (or even “It was so hot that we were literally melting” as many native speakers would illogically say!) you know it’s a metaphor. However, religion is a context in which miracles do happen[9], so when Christ said, “This is my body… this is my blood[10]” he might have been talking metaphorically or literally.

The debate was finally put to rest[11] in the Catholic Church in 1264 when transubstantiation[12] was declared to be dogma. Incidentally, one of the big differences between Catholics and most Protestants is that Protestantism thinks that Christ was being metaphorical; most Protestants reject transubstantiation.

Paradoxically, just when[13] greater importance was being given to the Eucharist, the laity[14] weren’t allowed[15] to receive the body of Christ at Mass[16]. But because the Church insisted that the host[17] was literally the body of Christ, the congregation[18] felt that simply seeing the Elevation of the Host would be good[19] for their souls[20]. Gradually, in towns and cities across Europe people began running from church to church in order to see the elevation of the host as often as possible. This boisterous[21] behaviour[22] was, of course, antithetical to[23] the spirit of the Eucharist. To prevent[24] it, the Papacy decided in 1317 to establish the Feast[25] of Corpus Christi in which the Host would be paraded around[26] towns and cities for all to see as much as they wanted. Nobody was going to race[27] from church to church each Sunday to glimpse[28] the Host if he or she could gaze[29] on the Holy Wafer once a year during the procession. It worked[30] – except that now their descendants fight over seats for the best view!

[1] to argue – (false friend) disagree

[2] seating – seats, where to sit

[3] to wonderask oneself

[4] among – amongst, (in this case) between

[5] heart – (in this case) centre

[6] Hebrew – the traditional language of Jewish people, the original language of the Bible

[7] statement of fact – idea that is believed to be literally true

[8] to melt – (of solids) become liquid

[9] do happen – (emphatic) occur

[10] bloodred liquid found in veins and arteries

[11] to put sth. to rest (put-put-put) – settle, decide

[12] transubstantiation – the (supposed) conversion of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ during the Eucharist

[13] just when – at exactly the time that

[14] the laityordinary Christians who are not members of the clergy

[15] to be allowed – be permitted

[16] Mass – a celebration of the Eucharist

[17] the host – the bread consecrated in the Eucharist

[18] the congregation – assembly of ordinary people in church

[19] good – (in this case) beneficial

[20] one’s soul – one’s eternal spirit

[21] boisterous – undisciplined, tumultuous

[22] behaviourconduct

[23] antithetical to – incompatible with

[24] to prevent – stop

[25] feast – (in this case) annual religious celebration

[26] to parade sth. aroundtake sth. in procession through

[27] to race – run

[28] to glimpsesee for an instant

[29] to gazelook for a long time (in devotion)

[30] to workfunction, be successful

Shoring Up[1] London Bridge

Shoring Up[1] London Bridge

Photo: London Bridge by Robert Dimov

[1]

Mrs Thatcher once infamously said, “There is no such thing as society”. She was wrong and one of the reasons she was wrong was literature. Much of literature, like religion, tells us how to behave[2], especially in extreme circumstances. Works like Beowulf and Spenser’s The Faerie Queene are essentially conduct books[3]. In this sense literature is propaganda from the past for the future. However, unlike[4] religion, literature is flexible and naturally inclusive.

In his Nobel acceptance speech this week Bob Dylan mused[5], “I had principles and sensibilities and an informed view of the world. And I had had that for a while. Learned it all in grammar school[6]. Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Tale of Two Cities, all the rest – typical grammar-school reading that gave you a way of looking at life, an understanding of human nature, and a standard to measure things by[7]. I took all that with me when I started composing lyrics[8]. And the themes from those books worked their way into[9] many of my songs, either knowingly[10] or unintentionally.”

A similar process occurred when the band Oasis took the name of the greatest British play of the 1950s, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956) and transformed it in the title and refrain for their song Don’t Look Back in Anger (1995). Over the last fortnight[11] that refrain[12] has been used by Mancunians[13] both to console and to define their reaction of “love conquers hate” in the wake of[14] the terrorist attack in Manchester.

Many would baulk against[15] the idea that a mere pop song could be considered literature. More would be affronted[16] by the idea that literature – let alone[17] pop lyrics7 – could compete with religion. But the greatest British poet of the 20th Century, T.S. Eliot, described literature as “Fragments… shored[18] against my ruins”. In other words bits of legends, stories, plays and poems are what we use to console ourselves in times of need – be they Cervantes, Charles Dickens or John Osborne.

That famous quote comes from Eliot’s cento[19] at the end of his greatest poem, The Wasteland (‘What the Thunder[20] Said’, ll. 426-31) [1922], which ends:

Shall I at least set my lands in order[21]?

London Bridge is falling down[22] falling down falling down[23]

Poi s’acose nel foco che gli affina[24]

Quando fiam uti chelidon[25]O swallow[26] swallow[27]

Le Prince d’Aquitaine a la tour abolie[28]

These fragments I have shored18 against my ruins.

Why then Ile fit you[29]. Hieronymo’s mad againe.

Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.[30]

Shantih[31] Shanith Shantih.

London Bridge is not falling down22, thanks to the robust mix of multicultural voices and the literature we have shored18 against our ruins.

[1] to shore up – reinforce, fortify, strengthen

[2] to behave – act, conduct oneself

[3] conduct bookguide to social norms

[4] unlike – in contrast to

[5] to muse – (in this case) write thoughtfully

[6] grammar school – (US English) elementary school

[7] to measure things by – to evaluate experience

[8] lyrics – the words to a song

[9] worked their way into – be inserted in a subtle way

[10] knowingly – intentionally

[11] fortnight – two weeks

[12] refrainline that is frequently repeated in a song

[13] Mancunian – sb. from Manchester

[14] in the wake offollowing, after

[15] to baulk against – resist, not accept

[16] to affront – offend, insult

[17] let alone – much less

[18] shored – accumulated, a. up to support a building, b. (of a catch of fish) brought ashore

[19] centoliterary text created from lines/fragments by other authors

[20] thunderloud noise generated by a storm (= tempest)

[21] shall I set my lands in order – will I reorganize my kingdom appropriately?

[22] to fall down (fall-fell-fallen) – collapse

[23] a line from a famous nursery rhyme (= traditional children’s song) that probably has its origin in the ritual of human sacrifice in blessing new buildings

[24] “(remember later on my pain). He hid himself in the fire which refines them” from Dante’s Inferno

[25] from The Virgil of Venus (anonymous) “When shall I be like the swallow?” (i.e. able to sing and fly away/escape). The refrain of the poem promises love to all.

[26] swallow – (Hirundinidae) very fast migratory insectivorous songbird

[27] “O swallow swallow” comes either from The Princess by Tennyson or Itylus (= Philomel) by Swinburne

[28] “The Prince of Aquitaine in the ruined tower” from The Disinherited (El Desdichado) (1865) by Gérard de Nerval (1808-55)

[29] Why then Ile (= I’ll) fit you – I’ll give you exactly that. The line is from Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy: Hieronymo’s Mad Againe (c.1589). Hieronymo is asked to produce a court play. Superficially, he says he will do it, but he is really saying that he will use theatre to trap the murderers of his son.

[30] Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata – give, show compassion, and control yourself; from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, a sacred Indian (Hindu and Buddhist) text

[31] Shantih – (the Sanskrit conclusion to an Upanishad) peace, amen, shalom, As-Salaam-Alaikum

Five-O

Five-O

Having survived half a century it would be nice to say that I’ve acquired some deep wisdom[1] that I can pass on[2] to people. But the truth is that having spent 17 years writing articles whose remit[3] was that they had to be interesting enough for people to want to read them in a foreign language, I feel rather[4] emptied of knowledge. I understood the world, albeit[5] naïvely[6], better at 20 than I do at 50. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; if it weren’t so, there would be no room[7] for awe[8] or laughter[9].

Yesterday I counted the books I’ve read over the last 14 years for my literature classes: 182. Sure[10], many of them are not that[11] long but it’s still an awful lot of information that has gone in (and mostly come out) of my brain. This all leads[12] me to a verse from James’ song Five-O[13]:

I’ve been looking for truth at the cost of living,
I’ve been afraid of what’s before mine eyes.
Every answer found begs[14] another question;
The further you go, the less you know
The less I know.

So much for the introspection; there’s no point in writing a blog to satisfy your own whimsy[15] because nobody will read it. So, I offer you a bit of Japanese wisdom1. The diagram should be pretty[16] self-explanatory. May you find your Ikigai – I’m still looking.

[1] wisdomknowledge derived from experience, sagacity, insight

[2] to pass on – convey, transmit

[3] remitspecified purpose

[4] rathersomewhat, surprisingly

[5] albeiteven though

[6] naïvely – ingenuously, innocently

[7] room – (in this case) possibility

[8] awewonder, astonishment

[9] laughterlaughing, hilarity, humour

[10] sure – (in this case) admittedly

[11] that – (in this case) so, very

[12] to lead (lead-led-led) – take, guide

[13] Five-O – 50

[14] to beg – (in this case) provoke, elicit

[15] whimsy – whim, caprice

[16] prettyreasonably

History and our Worldview

History and our Worldview

Photo by Jeppestown

If I were to describe to you a scene in which a democratically elected head of state and his brother were set upon[1] by a mob[2], tortured, mutilated and murdered, which country do you think these events might have happened[3] in? I suspect that your answer would not be Holland. But that is precisely what happened when a crowd[4] of supporters[5] of William of Orange – future king of England – attacked Johan de Witt and his brother Cornelis in The Hague in 1672. Members of the mob2 even ate the Witt brothers’ livers[6] in a cannibalistic frenzy[7].

Over the years I have come across[8] isolated examples of extreme behaviour[9] that have shocked and contradicted my worldview. It is relatively easy to explain away[10] Crusaders roasting[11] and eating Muslim babies because that happened an awful long time ago. The fact that the English settlers[12] propagated the practice of scalping[13] across North America is also surprising for anyone brought up[14] on westerns[15]. But still, several centuries separate us from such primitive barbarism.

One of the most sickening[16] of the many shocking aspects of the AIDS crisis in Africa is the “virgin cleansing myth”. Popular superstition suggests that one way of curing AIDS is to have sex with a virgin. The consequence of this outlandish[17] notion is that thousands of children have been raped[18]. At one point almost a third of the population of South Africa reportedly believed in ‘the virgin cure’, though progress has been made in dispelling[19] the nefarious[20] myth. It’s a hideous[21] idea but I’d always seen the virgin cleansing myth reported in the media as propagated by traditional healers[22]; as a local cultural problem it would seem difficult to solve from outside the culture.

Then, to my horror I discovered, after a minimal amount[23] of research[24] that the virgin cleansing myth is not native to Africa but in fact emerged in 16th-century Europe. Worse still, it gained prominence[25] in Victorian England where sex with a virgin was believed to cure STDs[26]; in the second half of the 19th Century Britain suffered an epidemic of syphilis and gonorrhea. Far from being[27] a ‘primitive’ local belief, this atrocious idea was exported to southern Africa by the British Empire. I wonder[28] why they never mention these things in history class at school or on the BBC.

[1] to set upon sb. (set-set-set) – physically attack sb.

[2] mobviolent tumult, angry multitude

[3] to happen – occur

[4] crowdmultitude, tumult

[5] supporterfollower

[6] liver – hepatic organ

[7] frenzy – hysteria

[8] to come across (come-came-come) – encounter

[9] behaviourconduct

[10] to explain awayfind excuses for

[11] to roastcook over a fire

[12] settlercolonist

[13] scalpingcutting the hair and skin off the top of an enemy’s head

[14] to bring up (bring-brought-brought) – rear, raise

[15] westerncowboy movie

[16] sickening – repulsive

[17] outlandishludicrous, bizarre

[18] to rapesexually assault

[19] to dispel – eliminate

[20] nefariousevil, criminal

[21] hideous – (in this case) awful, repulsive

[22] traditional healerwitch doctor, sb. who supposedly cures illnesses using nonWestern medicine

[23] amountquantity

[24] research – investigation

[25] to gain prominence – become important

[26] STDssexually transmitted diseases

[27] far from being – it was the opposite of

[28] to wonderask oneself

The Singularity

The Singularity

More and more these days you hear about the coming singularity (expected 2040?) when machines will surpass us in intelligence. Shortly afterwards, we are told, the machines will enslave[1] us. Well, I don’t know about you, but I already feel enslaved. I come home from shopping and begin to carefully load[2] my perishables[3] into the fridge, after what seems like 20 seconds an alarm goes off; the only way to stop it is if I shut the fridge and wait until it decides that sufficient time has passed for me to gain access to it again. So I shut the fridge and open the freezer for my frozen goods[4]. But just then the washing machine finishes and starts to bleat[5]; either I go and turn it off or every 15 seconds it will complain[6] with an ear-piercing[7] “bleep, bleep, bleep”. So, I shut the freezer – thus[8] denying me access to[9] that appliance[10] for a couple of minutes, and turn of the washing machine. Just as well that by the time I come back the fridge has condescended to open again! I don’t drive but I understand that the same sort of stressful experience takes place[11] inside a vehicle if you don’t do what it wants.

My wife has a theory: she says it all started with tamagotchis. 20 years ago the New World Order (or whoever) started to train us to be subservient[12] to machines. The message of the “egg-watches” was simple: this creature will die if you don’t answer to its demands. As machines get cleverer expect more alarms, more mechanical admonitions[13], more stress. I caught myself apologizing to the freezer the other day! They say a war between humans and machines is coming; I say we’ve already lost.

[1] to enslavemake slaves of, condemn sb. to servitude

[2] to load – fill

[3] perishablesfood that can decompose quickly

[4] goodsproducts, (in this case) food

[5] to bleat – protest (like a sheep)

[6] to complain – protest

[7] earpiercing – loud, cacophonic

[8] thus – as a result

[9] to deny sb. access tonot let sb. into

[10] appliance – device, gadget

[11] to take place (take-took-taken) – occur

[12] to be subservient – be submissive, be obedient

[13] admonitionreprimand

Future-Proof Jobs

Future-Proof Jobs

US Navy photo by John F. Williams

Over recent weeks I’ve seen a couple of[1] articles about the jobs that it will be most difficult to automate[2] and therefore destroy. I’m a little bit sceptical about these lists. One had primary-school teacher high up[3] the list while, at the same time, we are told that 25% of university classes will be online in just[4] three years’ time. My (thankfully limited) experience of small children suggests that handing[5] them an iPad is the best way to get them to quietly concentrate on something. A soft robot with an imbedded[6] screen[7] that could stop them climbing out of the windows would seem to have many advantages over a primary-school teacher. Yes, I am suggesting that a Teletubby will replace Miss Pritchett in the foreseeable[8] future.

Another list had lawyers and doctors at the top. But surely all medical knowledge and all legal knowledge could be available in an app if not now then very soon. Medicine is just[9] matching[10] symptoms to diseases[11]; the legal profession is just remembering precedents that could be relevant to a specific case. OK, I’m exaggerating a little but both diagnostic medicine[12] and law are memory-based professions and those are precisely the ones most threatened by[13] modern technology.

Really future-proof professions are those that require a bit of creativity, a bit of social skills[14] and a lot of precision motor coordination manipulating non-standardized objects. Over the last fortnight[15] I have seen a state-of-the-art[16] robotic chef (in Korea) and a cutting-edge[17] robotic bartender[18] (at the Google conference[19] in San Francisco). They were both crap[20]. The incredibly slow automaton cook[21] got more food on the floor than in the salad bowl, while the android barman took three minutes to pour[22] a pint of beer. Whatever the experts say, for my money[23] the best future-proof jobs right now are those preparing food and drinks.

One final – more serious – comment about the future of work: the complaisant[24] often say that new jobs always emerge when technology replaces obsolete ones (e.g. when farm machinery replaced agricultural labour). However, this is the same fallacy as dismissing[25] anthropomorphic climate change because the earth’s climate has always changed. The problem isn’t evolution; it’s the speed of the change. If species don’t have time to adapt, then there’s mass extinction. If the labour market doesn’t have time to adapt, there’s mass unemployment. We read that, “65 per cent of primary-school kids[26] will have job types that don’t yet exist.” That’s putting a very positive spin[27] on the fact that two-thirds of today’s jobs won’t exist in 15 years’ time; it may just9 mean that over half the workforce will be out of work[28].

[1] a couple ofseveral

[2] to automate – replace with a machine

[3] high upnear the top of

[4] just – (in this case) only

[5] to hand – give

[6] imbedded – that is an integral part of sth.

[7] screen – the part of a computer or a TV where the images appear

[8] foreseeable – predictable, near

[9] just – (in this case) only, simply

[10] to match A to Bmarry A with B, pair up A with B

[11] diseaseillness, sickness

[12] I’m not referring to surgeons and dentists, whose jobs are very safe

[13] threatened by – in danger from

[14] skillstalent, ability

[15] fortnight – two weeks

[16] state-of-the-artultra-modern, cutting-edge

[17] cutting-edgeultra-modern, state-of-the-art

[18] bartenderbarman or barmaid, sb. who serves drinks

[19] conference – (false friend) convention

[20] crap – (informal) useless, very inefficient

[21] cook – chef

[22] to pour – (in this case) serve

[23] for my money – in my opinion

[24] the complaisantpeople who accept what they are told without protest

[25] to dismiss – ignore

[26] kidschildren

[27] spin – interpretation

[28] out of work – unemployed