My two cents’ worth

August 9, 2017

Before the Great Recession hit, in 2008, I dabbled in the stock market. Not very successfully: I though I had scored a coup when I sold Netflix in 2007 after a 15% gain (my stock would have appreciated forty-fold if I still had it). But I thought I would try — nearly everyone did.

Once I realized that the financial advisers to whom I had been paying a fee, win or lose, did not provide any more wisdom than tossing a coin, I decided to do my investing online, and I opened an account at Charles Schwab. When I got rid of the stock I had held (mostly at a loss) I opened what was billed as a “high-yield” savings account. The label stuck to the account as the yield dropped. Meanwhile I noticed that there were online banks paying considerably higher interest. So I closed my Schwab accounts, or thought that I had.

It turned out that, at the time I closed the accounts, there was some accrued interest that had not yet been paid into the account. The amount? $0.02. Yes, two cents. And I received a check for that amount.

I didn’t bother depositing the check but kept it around as a novelty. I didn’t think it would matter.

But matter it did. Since the check had not been cashed in 180 days, I received a letter telling me that it had expired, and, in a separate envelope, another check.


In the interest of not wasting paper and ink, I will deposit this one.

GOT and me

August 9, 2017

Not a day seems to go by without some news item about the phenomenon known as Game of Thrones, whether it’s about its plot, its fans, its cast members, or a comparison of some person with one of its characters.

I don’t watch GOT. I did, briefly, during the first season, because I had access to HBO as part of a temporary subscription package (my real interest was in a show airing on Showtime at the time, The Borgias). But I lost interest when I realized that I had been watching it under a misapprehension.

This had happened before, as I have written: In 2001 I watched 24, falsely believing to be a Canadian satire on American paranoia in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

As to Game of Thrones, it seemed to be that it was historical fiction set in Britain around the 6th century, when Anglo-Saxons and Britons coexisted. I based this belief on settings clearly reminiscent of the early Middle Ages, with no apparent signs of Christianity, and on the mix of Germanic-sounding and Celtic-sounding names. There were also references to seven kingdoms (the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy?), the northern wall (Hadrian’s?) and the wild people of the north (Scots and Picts?).

But I was lost once the Dothraki showed up. It gradually struck me that what I was watching was unmitigated fantasy. I like fantasy, if it’s rigorous (I’ll explain that some other time), but this was not. And so I let the subscription lapse once The Borgias was finished. And even when I renewed it, twice, for the second and third, HBO did not tempt me.

Sagan and Peloton

July 16, 2017

The peloton at this year’s Tour de France isn’t quite the same without Peter Sagan in it. That is, as the TV commentators would say it, the peloton (PELLah-tawn) without Sagan (suh-GAHN). (Contador goes along with peloton.)

Carl Sagan, of course, was Sagan (SAY-gun), but he was American, and everyone knows that this isn’t how a foreigner’s name would be pronounced. Never mind that in Slovak it’s Sagan (SAH-gahn); in standard Slovak, as in Czech, all words are stressed on the first syllable. The same is true of Hungarian, but of course Gabor (Hungarian bor) is pronounced Gabor.

Peloton follows the “misrule” that I wrote about recently. Its two parts are well illustrated by news reports associated with the Donald Trump Jr. scandal: the two names Agalarov and Veselnitskaya are usually heard as Agalarov and Veselnitskaya.

Sagan represents another part of it, which I had not included before:  two-syllable words ending in a consonant whose pronunciation is not generally known tend to be stressed on the last syllable, unless the ending is that generally associated with first-syllable stress, such as  a single –s, -er, -en, -in, -man or -son.

I’m preparing a list of examples, which I will comment on shortly.

Jerry Nelson

July 16, 2017

Last week I had the sad pleasure of participating in Nelsonfest, a symposium celebrating the many achievements of Jerry Nelson in observational astronomy, especially the Ten-Meter Telescopes at the Keck Observatory, to which I made a small contribution (well, actually two).

It was a pleasure because it was gratifying to meet many people for whom, as for me, working with Jerry was a stimulating, edifying and enjoyable experience. It was sad because Jerry had died about a month earlier, and so what had been meant as a series of technical presentations became mingled with reminiscences.

Jerry was one of those fortunate few who conceived a radical idea and then were able to carry it to full fruition, overcoming intellectual opposition, financial uncertainty and technical challenges. He did so by convincing people with the sheer force of his ideas. There was no ego at play.

Unlike many famous technological innovators who advance their plans by force of personality, depending on their subordinates for most of the details but taking credit for their work (the likes of Gustave Eiffel, David Sarnoff or Steve Jobs), the ideas for the Ten-Meter Telescope were Jerry’s, but he was, if anything, overly generous in giving credit to his collaborators, starting with the key notion of the segmented mirror produced by means of stressed-mirror polishing, for which I derived the formal theory. (It may not be generally known that the Eiffel Tower was not designed by Eiffel but by two engineers and an architect working for his company, whose patent rights he bought out.)

Jerry was sui generis, and his like may not be found again, especially in this age of pygmies masquerading as tech giants.


Grand Tour

July 8, 2017

I wasn’t planning to write about the goings-on of this year Tour de France, only a note about its geography. But I feel compelled to make a few comments after the events of the last few days.

Yesterday’s photo finish in stage 7 was resolved in favor of Marcel Kittel over Edvald Boasson Hagen on the basis of, we are told, the superior camera technology (shooting at 10,000 frames per second) available to the judges. Okay, I’ll take their word for it.

But Tuesday’s decision in stage 4, disqualifying Peter Sagan for supposedly elbowing Mark Cavendish, was based on the same videos that everyone else saw, and as far as I can tell the cycling world — riders and fans — agrees that no such elbowing took place. The videos — from front, back and above — have been shown over and over, and the obvious conclusion is that if anyone did anything dangerous it was Cavendish. Only the mainstream media (AP, BBC, Reuters and their ilk) follow their usual habit accepting the verdict of a judicial authority as fact, and so they write simply that Sagan elbowed Cavendish. But this is not like a criminal case in which one writes “alleged” before conviction but drops it after.

The judges’ decision has left aourg bad taste reminiscent of Bush v. Gore.

Back to what I was going to write about.

That fateful stage 4 wended, it so happens, through the territory of what once had been the Duchy of Lorraine. The previous stage (which Sagan won) did so through what is still the Grand Duchy (Grand Duché, Großherzogtum) of Luxembourg.

What makes Luxembourg “grand”?

Before about 1800 there was only one grand duchy in the West, that of Tuscany, resulting from the expansion of the Duchy of Florence under the Medici. But Napoleon, in 1806, made several of the German states allied with him into grand duchies, and the Congress of Vienna (1815) made even more, Luxembourg being among them. Before that, except for the twenty years (1795–1815) of being annexed to France, it had been a just plain duchy within the Holy Roman Empire, like Lorraine, but without its own dukes: the title was held, after 1477, by Habsburg kings or emperors, together with the rest of the Low Countries.

Oddly enough, when Luxembourg was just a duchy, it was much grander (plus grand, größer) — by a factor of more then four! — than the present grand duchy. It was elevated from an originally German (Franconian) county to duchy in the 14th century when it absorbed some adjacent counties, some of them in the neighboring Walloon country,  and from that time on French became the preferred language of government. This remained the case even after the Walloon part was split off (the last of Luxembourg’s partitions) and given to newly formed Belgium in 1839; that part, in fact, included a  the region of Arlon, the provincial capital, where at the time the ut spoken language was Germanic (Luxembourgish), though by now it’s mostly French.

But officially little Luxembourg (the luxem part was originally lucilin, which both means and is cognate to ‘little’) is still grand.

The Duchy of Lorraine was larger than Luxembourg even at its largest, but it never got a chance to became a grand duchy: it was absorbed into the kingdom of France in 1761. But at least it is now a part of the French region called Grand Est.

Multiple Houses of Cards

June 30, 2017

I have only recently been struck by the extent to which multiple has taken over as a favored synonym of many, numerous and several. The typical dictionary definition of multiple  as an adjective is “consisting of, having, or involving several or many individuals, parts, etc.”; only a few give it as a synonym of many, but among these few is the OED, which gives citations going back to 1642. So it isn’t as recent as I thought. It is not, however, entirely a recency illusion on my part; a glance at Google Ngrams shows a conspicuous rise in the use of multiple in the course of the 20th century, while many, numerous and several  have declined or remained flat.

While I don’t use it much myself, I like the way multiple covers many and several, and, since the boundary between these two is vague and subjective, it comes in handy when the number is in this fuzzy zone. In what I am going to discuss the number if four, and the items are the different versions of House of Cards.


In the beginning was the novel by Michael Dobbs, published in 1989, and in the end the American TV series, begun in 2013 and recently renewed for a fifth season. In between came the British TV miniseries (1990) and a revised version of the novel (2013).

As with many phenomena of popular culture, I am a latecomer to this one as well. A few years ago I saw reruns of a few episodes of the BBC series; as far as I can remember, I was somewhat intrigued, but not enough to make a point of watching the whole thing. It is only this year that, since several (multiple?)  of our friends and acquaintances have mentioned it, we decided to watch the American series from the beginning. At the same time I set out to read both versions of the book.

Before comparing them, let me refer to Michael Dobbs’ afterword to the revised version, where, among other things, he tells us of the book’s genesis. He seems to have begun writing it a few weeks after the June 11, 1987, general election in the United Kingdom, in which Margaret Thatcher was returned to the prime ministership for a third consecutive term. Dobbs, who had been her chief of staff, was told by the Deputy Prime Minister that “[t]here’s a woman who will never fight another election.” While the prediction proved true, it was not until November of 1990 that her party forced her out of office. Dobbs, however, imagined that would happen sooner, and he put the plot of his novel in what John Le Carré (in A Small town in Germany) calls the “recent future”, most likely 1992, which is when the next general election would be due (and in fact did take place), though the correspondence of dates and days of the week is that of 1993 — probably a mistake by Dobbs, who admits to having finished three bottles of wine before beginning to write.

In the book, then, instead of the real John Major having completed a year and a half in office before winning the election (though by a reduced margin), the fictional Henry Collingridge has had four years, and also wins reelection, by an even smaller margin. In Dobbs’ imagination, then, Margaret Thatcher must have resigned in 1988. And while the book wasn’t published till 1989, and the BBC series was shot in 1990, the plot’s implied dating didn’t change. It’s an interesting coincidence (or was it?) that Thatcher’s resignation happened just as the BBC series was airing.

The afterword also tells us that the prospect of the American series starring Kevin Spacey was, for Dobbs, an “opportunity of reworking the  novel — no great changes, no one who read the original will think it a different book, but the narrative is a little tighter, the characters more colorful, and the dialogue perhaps crisper.”

The differences in narrative, characters and dialogue between the original and the revision are, to me, that in the latter they are those characteristic of scripted television, while in the former they are more like those involving real people. Indeed, in many respects the revision reads like a novelization of the BBC series, which was written by Andrew Davies, a man with vast experience in screenwriting but, unlike Michael Dobbs, none in politics or journalism; it so happens that the primary protagonists of both novel and series are a politician (Francis Urquhart) and a journalist (the beautiful young Mattie Storin).

One recurring feature of both the British and the American TV series is the stream of Richard-the-Third-ish asides to the camera by Francis Urquhart/Underwood, which I have found annoyingly gratuitous. They are not to be found in the original, but the rewrite incorporates them in the form of epigraphs at the beginning of each short chapter (the original is not divided into chapters) and an epilogue at the end.

And I cannot understand how Michael Dobbs can claim the change in the character and the story of Mattie Storin is not a “great change”. Both versions start with a section describing Mattie’s waking. In the original there is an explicit reference to her experience of “sex as a single girl”;  the revision replaces this by a remembrance of  resisting  the advances of a “creep”. The original section ends as she “thr[ows] back the duvet and clamber[s] out of bed”; the revision adds to this the discovery that her underwear drawer is bare and  a search for a pair of knickers.

In both versions Mattie gets into trouble with her editor, Greville Preston, but develops a working relationship with the deputy editor, John Krajewski. In the original this relationship leads to a passionate affair; in the revision she has one with Francis Urquhart instead.

In the original it is in the course of a discussion with John that she figures out the foul means (including murder) that FU has employed in his drive for the primer ministership, and she confronts him about his misdeeds in a climactic meeting on the  roof of Parliament. He cynically admits them, believing that it would be a matter of her word against his, but after she tells him that she has recorded their talk he throws himself off the roof.

In the revision Mattie is still in the throes of her crush on Francis when she meets him on the roof, and it is only from something he says that she solves the mystery. And after his confession he throws her, not himself, off the roof, and goes on to become prime minister. This, of course, retrospectively paves the way for the two sequels that Dobbs wrote as novels and Davies as TV series.

A small but telling difference is in the name of the newspaper that Mattie works: in the original it’s the real Daily Telegraph; in the revision (and the TV series) it’s the fictitious Chronicle, in the time-honored tradition of TV shows.

Another small but not particularly telling one: Urquhart’s wife, originally Miranda, gets the cartoonish name Mortima in the revision. In both version she is largely conspicuous by her absence, unlike television’s Elizabeth, who plays a prominent part.

Next: some comments about the Netflix series.

Addendum to “Google Maps and stress”

June 20, 2017

In asserting that “vowel-final words with a single consonant between the final and penultimate vowels, but a doubled one or a cluster between the penultimate and antepenultimate, are more likely to have the stress on the antepenultimate,” I made an over-hasty generalization. It is clear that when the word has an ending that’s perceived as characteristically Italian (e.g. ina/i/o, ona/i/o, ola/i/o, ara/i/o) or Spanish (e.g. ito/a, azo/a) then this ending will be stressed, on the penultimate, regardless of any preceding consonant cluster: Martina/i/o, Portola (Spanish Portolá), and so on.


June 3, 2017

I never got around to seeing the movie Elle when it was released last year. Though I have long been a big fan of Isabelle Huppert, and usually try to see everything she is in, for some reason I missed Elle. It isn’t the first time I missed seeing a movie I had meant to see. But then I have usually made up for it by seeing it in a revival or on video, sooner or later.

But something made me want to see it sooner rather than later. It so happened that on some recent flights on Air France I got to see a couple of movies with an actress named Virginie Efira, hitherto unknown to me, and I was quite impressed by how skillfully she managed to move between the serious and comical aspects of her characters, unhampered by her spectacular looks. When I found out that she had a supporting role in Elle, I became eager to see it soon.

It turned that I was not the only one. The Contra Costa County Library has 15 copies of the DVD, and not only are they all checked out, but I placed a hold a month ago and I am still in 54th position in the queue.

While waiting, I checked out (from another library) the novel that the film is based on, Oh… by Philippe Djian, about whom I have written before. (Hence the title of this post.) I was, of course, curious about  the character named Rebecca, played by the new object of my fandom.

To my surprise, Rebecca makes only the briefest of appearances, and is described by the narrator-protagonist as an mousy (by implication) little redhead. Well, Virginie Efira is a spectacular-looking (as I said) tall blonde. (In the films that I saw she did not display her assets as prodigiously as she does in her publicity shots, except in one comic turn in Victoria.) The screenwriter must, then, have expanded the part to accommodate Virginie Efira’s commanding presence.

I am getting curiouser and curiouser.


Google Maps and stress

May 29, 2017

To continue where I left off: Mapsy’s reading of northern Italian place-names and street names, beginning at Malpensa airport, was unremarkable until we got to Bergamo, which I heard as “Bergamo”. At first I thought of this as confirmation of the “misrule” that I recently wrote about, namely that the tendency of English-speakers is to stress unfamiliar vowel-final words on the penultimate syllable. But on second thought it didn’t seem right: I don’t think most Americans would say “Bergamo”. If anything, the opposite might be true, as in the case of Guernica (the Spanish spelling of the Basque place-name Gernika), which I mostly hear as Gernika. Most English-speakers I hear stress such names as Attica, Ankara, Serpico correctly, while angina (traditionally /ænˈʤaɪnə/) is often heard as /’ænʤənə/.

The extended misrule, then, seems to be that vowel-final words with a single consonant between the final and penultimate vowels, but a doubled one or a cluster between the penultimate and antepenultimate, are more likely to have the stress on the antepenultimate. Mapsy’s Bergamo, then, would seem to be an anomaly, as is the usual American (but not British) pronunciation of paprika, and the timpano that was heard in the move Big Night.  But then the usual pronunciation of Capri as Capri is another anomaly.

Traveling with Google, again

May 7, 2017

I spent the month of April traveling in Europe with my wife, as usual with the help of Google Maps. I was pleased to discover that GM now locates Prague in Czechia, something that I have long been advocating as the informal name of the country officially called the Czech Republic, the same as Slovakia instead of Slovak Republic, France instead of French Republic, and so on. I was also pleased to find out that, unlike two years ago, GM now knows that the RER B line in Paris runs not only south but also north, and is the direct way to get from Gare du Nord to Charles de Gaulle Airport. GM doesn’t seem to know the buses in Paris yet, but give it time. Everywhere else, it has them down, and the vaporetti in Venice as well.

When it comes to giving time estimates, though, GM is hampered by its seemingly two-dimensional vision of the world. That is, it disregards the fact that in navigating through multimodal stations (or even entering or leaving simple ones) one often has to move vertically by several levels on stairs, escalators and elevators, all of which take time which GM does not calculate.  The same applies, in GM’s  time estimates for walking, to waiting at stoplights. I have usually found driving times, on the other hand, to be surprisingly accurate.

But my main topic is the spoken turn-by-turn navigation that I have been increasingly relying on for driving and walking in unfamiliar locations. I call the disembodies female voice GPSy (pronounced like gypsy) or Mapsy.

In using GPSy locally in the Bay Area, my wife and I have sometimes at chuckled at some of her quirky pronunciations, such as, when referring to San Rafael, saying the second part as a three-syllable word (like the name Raphael) rather than the two-syllable version (/rəˈfɛl/) that is common here.

But, on a trip to Quebec last year, I discovered a lot more. The revelation came when a street in Quebec City called 1re rue (Première rue) was called “one-ree roo”.  It became obvious that Mapsy reads foreign names — by design, I am sure — as an American unfamiliar with the local language would read them.

I understand from Wikipedia that Mapsy’s voice is electronic. How it is generated — let alone how it’s programmed to read place-names, especially foreign ones — is a mystery to me Maybe Mark Liberman knows.

But I intend to use Mapsy’s pronunciation to explore more ramifications of what I have called the “misrule” of stress. In my next post, probably.