March 22, 2017

In a previous post I alluded to the loss of N’Golo Kanté as a possible factor in Leicester City FC’s dismal performance in the season at that time (only five wins in 25 league games), in contrast with their winning the Premier League championship the previous season. This poor record led to the firing of the celebrated coach Claudio Ranieri, who previously had been widely praised for last year’s miracle finish.

But something funny has happened since. Under the management of the unheralded Craig Shakespeare, who had never been anything but an assistant manager (and, for one game, a caretaker manager), the club has won not only three straight League games, but overcame a first-leg loss to Sevilla to win on aggregate and advance to the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals, the only English team to do so.

I have long been skeptical of the value of “supermanagers” (be they sports coaches, company CEOs, city managers, police chiefs, school superintendents, or university presidents), typically hired by the institution’s governing board amid great fanfare and after a national or international search, and usually based on the candidate’s supposedly stellar performance at another institution.

The hiring of celebrity architects for public buildings falls into the same category.

What such individuals have in common is a talent for self-promotion (I have written about one such specimen here and here, and another one here).

And what I used to find surprising is the ease with which the boards fall for the spiel. After all, corporate and institutional boards, city councils and the like are supposed to be made up of smart people, who — one would think — could see past the bullshit, as glibly as it may be presented.

But I am no longer surprised. They are, I have found, not all that smart. Typically, they have attained their positions as a reward for  some success in life, and this success (often due to luck) has led them to believe that they are smart. So that they are, in fact, under the same self-aggrandizing illusion as the candidates that they interview for management positions.

That makes it hard to see past the self-promotion.


A misrule of stress

March 13, 2017

A few years ago I watched a BBC historical documentary about ancient York and I was startled to hear the cultured-sounding narrator (obviously an actor trained to sound cultured) pronounce the second name of the emperor Septimius Severus as though were “sever us” (/’sɛvərəs/), since every reference gives the pronunciation as /sə’vɪərəs/  (“severe us”). I wondered where that had come from.

I am a long-time participant in international folk-dancing, and among the dances I liked to do are many from the Republic of Macedonia, with names such as kostursko, nevestinsko and ovčepolsko oro. The boldface syllables are the ones that are stressed, since stress in Macedonian is very regular: in native words of three or more syllables, the stress is always proparoxytone, that is, on the antepenultimate syllable. And yet almost everyone in the folk dance community says these words as paroxytone, that is, stressed on the penultimate, as if they were Polish (another language with regular stress, but with a different rule); this includes people who learned these dances from the famous Macedonian dance teacher and musician Pece Atanasovski, whose name they usually say as Atanasovski.

English is a language with notoriously irregular stress. Not only is not obvious from the written form of a polysyllabic word where the stress might be, but often there are different stress patterns for the same word. Sometimes the stress is different when the word is a noun and a verb (such as protest); sometimes the difference is transatlantic (as in café or contribute, or names such as Bernard, Maurice, Barnett or Burrell); and sometimes there is simply no agreement for a given word, such as address, detail, insurance and many others.

But when it comes to Latin words — by which I mean words taken directly from Latin, with no change in spelling — there is an old rule that such words, even if pronounced in the traditional “Anglo-Latin” way (with letters read according to their usual English values — the way well-known Latin names, words and phrases are usually pronounced, as well as Latin terms in law, medicine and astronomy), the original Latin stress is preserved. There is a caveat here: there are words of Latin origin  that came into Middle English from Old or Middle French and in the evolution into modern English recovered their Latin spelling. Examples include senator and liquor, which in Middle English were senatour and licour, oxytone (stressed on the last syllable) as in French. U.S. English has a great many such words — favor, honor, vigor and the like — which in British English have kept their medieval -our ending. Such words, if they have more than two syllables, don’t necessarily follow the rule.

According to this rule, then, there is no excuse for Severus. But the rule seems to have given way, in recent times — I don’t know how recent — to another one, applied as a kind of default to foreign-looking words that are relatively unfamiliar, namely that words ending in a consonant are read as proparoxytone, and those ending in a vowel are paroxytone.

The first part of this rule (which should be called a misrule) explains not only Severus but also such common words as abdomen (Latin abdōmen) or acumen (Latin acūmen); Donald Trump was unfairly (for a change!) ridiculed for saying the latter in the traditional way (as I do). Beyond Latin, it explains the common proparoxytone (mis)pronunciations of such names as Esteban, Vladimir, Wallander, Marnez (as heard from British soccer announcers), Istanbul, Stalingrad; and Hanover is the standard English form of Hannover.

The second part of the rule explains the usual pronunciations of incognito and patina (not stamina, which in common enough use to have kept its traditional stress, as are such words as Africa and America), where, oddly enough, the stressed i sounds like “ee” (as though the words were Spanish or Italian) and not the usual “long i” sounds in Anglo-Latin words (such as vagina). People who told me about the movie Ex Machina usually pronounced the second word as “masheena”

It also explains the common English pronunciations of  paprika, basmati and a great many Italian place and personal names such as Pesaro, Brindisi, Stefano, Cesare, Pecora — all proparoxytone in Italian — and Podestà (oxytone). In the movie Big Night, in which the main characters were supposedly Italian immigrants, the word timpano was pronounced timpano. The Irish surname Costello is invariably pronounced Costello in America (to be sure, the most famous Americans with that name — Lou and Frank — were not Irish and were not originally named Costello). Sofia, the name of the capital of Bulgaria (Sofiya in Bulgarian) is usually pronounced like the name Sophia. And then there’s karaoke, usually pronounced like “carry-okie.” Not to mention Bacardí, pronounced Bacardi (even in its own commercials) despite the prominent acute accent on its labels.


There are some exceptions to both parts of the rule, which I have yet to explore fully. I will write about them when I have done so.





February 28, 2017

As soon as I entered the title I realized that it could be understood in several different ways, even if only relating to language. Without checking any dictionaries, I would posit that accent can mean one of the following:

1. Stress on a syllable.

2. A way of pronouncing a language, indicating (a) a regional variant or (b) the influence of a foreign language.

3. A diacritic mark on a vowel, which may indicate

(a) Syllabic stress, as in (i) Greek (in all words), (ii) Italian (on final syllable only), (iii) Spanish (only in words that don’t follow the default stress rule, (iv) Swedish (mainly in surnames)

(b) Vowel length, as in Czech and Slovak

(c) Vowel height (openness or closeness), as in French

(d) A combination of (a)(iii) and (c), as in Catalan and Portuguese

(e) Tone (as in Mandarin pinyin)

Here I mean to write only about 2(a), specifically with reference to the BBC series Line of Duty.

British writers of detective fiction often use fictitious locations, but when this happens they are usually within well-defined regions, such as Peter Robinson’s Eastvale (in Yorkshire), Ruth Rendell’s Kingsmarkham (in Sussex), or Caroline Graham’s Causton (in fictitious Midsomer, but within commuting distance of London). And in the television adaptations of these novels the characters – if they are local – speak with the appropriate regional accents, just as they do in series where the locations are real. It’s different, of course, when the location is London, because one expects to find people from all over the UK ending up there; practically every London-based show has its token Scot.

Line of Duty is anomalous. It takes place in a nameless big city that is clearly not London: no London landmarks are ever shown, and one of the characters is a Deputy Chief Constable, a rank that doesn’t exist in the Met. The first series (“season” in US parlance) was filmed in Birmingham, and though the subsequent ones were filmed in Belfast, there are some hints that the city is something like Birmingham (though no actual Birmingham locations are ever shown). For one thing, according to Wikipedia, “maps of Birmingham appear on walls, and telephone numbers use an 0121 area code.” For another, there are references to “East Midlands Police” as being a neighboring police area (in reality the East Midlands cover six counties with six police areas, though not exactly one per county), while Birmingham is in the West Midlands.

However, no one speaks with anything like a Birmingham accent (such as can be heard, for example, on WPC 56). Instead, it seems as if every actor speaks with their native accent: Adrian Dunbar (Hastings) — Northern Irish, Mark Bonnar (Dryden) and Allison McKenzie (Akers) —  Scottish, Vicky McClure (Fleming) — Nottinghamshire (which sounds quite a bit like Northern to a non-expert like me), Lennie James (Gates) – London, and so on. Most of the others speak with what to me sounds like a kind of neutral RP-like accents, including, strangely enough, Martin Compston (Arnott), who is a Scot and has spoken like one in other television appearances (for example in an episode of Death in Paradise). I don’t know why.

I have never been in Birmingham, so I don’t know if such a variety of accents is heard there in reality, but I have my doubts. It ain’t London.

Lowe’s clothes

February 12, 2017

As I’ve already written before, I am a soccer fan, and specifically a fan of the English Premier League. And since I watch their matches in the United States, I have also become a fan of the charming and knowledgeable English television host, Rebecca Lowe. She is usually accompanied by two retired English footballers, Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe — I think that “Rebecca and the Robbies” would be a great name for a pop-music group — though sometimes one of them is replaced by and American, Kyle Martino.

But, aside from enjoying the pleasant banter and commentary about soccer, I enjoy comparing the clothes that Rebecca Lowe wears with what she has worn on other occasions. She wears a variety of colors and styles that are invariably flattering, and I don’t recall ever seeing her wear the same outfit more than once. And I wonder: does she actually own all these dresses and/or  tops? (In this show only Rebecca’s upper body is shown.)

Anyway, here is a small sampling of Rebecca Lowe’s clothes.

More I squared

February 12, 2017

This a continuation of my musings about insurance incompetence, which I call I2. In the first post on the subject I discussed Social Security. This issue has by now been resolved; the undue (post-mortem) payments to my mother’s bank account have been deducted by the Treasury.

Now I come to my experiences with private insurers occasioned by my mother’s recent death. First, the health plan.

I phoned the healthcare-insurance carrier to inform them of her passing four days after it happened, and after a wait on hold for a reasonable length of time I reached a representative, who took my information and assured me that it would be taken care of. When I saw, a couple of days later, that her bank account was billed for a premium payment, I assumed that this was to cover the previous month, and gave the matter no further thought.

A month later, though, there was another premium deduction. By now it was January, and when I called again the wait on hold was an hour. When I finally reached someone to talk to, she seemed to know nothing of the cancellation, and said that she would put me on a brief hold to discuss the matter with someone. After twenty additional minutes I gave up.

I used my mother’s data to set up online access to her insurance account, and found that it was still active.

I phoned again a few days later — again, with a long wait — and this time reached someone who did see a record of my original call. This time I was told that a cancellation takes 30 business days to take effect. That, I calculated, would be some time in late January. When that date came around, I checked again, and again found “active.”

Another phone call, another long wait. This time I got apologies for an overly busy staff, and was asked to wait another couple of weeks.

I checked again today, and the account is still active. However, this is the time of the month when deductions have been taken, and so far there has not been one. Maybe there is hope for a refund at some point..

Note, also, a big difference: while the government giveth but is slow to take away, the private sector taketh away but is slow to give back.

Kanté / Conte

February 3, 2017

I don’t remember which soccer commentator it was who said, some time last summer — after Leicester City surprisingly won the Premier League championship while Chelsea, the previous year’s winner, finished in 10th place — that Leicester’s most valuable player was not the high-scoring Jamie Vardy (24 goals) or Riyad Mahrez (17 goals), but the newly signed N’Golo Kanté, with only one goal scored.  It was his tackles and interceptions that impressed observers.

And look what’s happening this season: Kanté is now playing for Chelsea, in first place by a large (perhaps insurmountable) margin, with Leicester currently wallowing in 16th. Speaks for itself, doesn’t it?

Except that the addition of Kanté isn’t the only big change for Chelsea. There is also his near-namesake (in English pronunciation) Antonio Conte, replacing as coach the controversial José Mourinho, about whom I wrote here and here, and who is now managing Manchester United with less-than-brilliant results.




I squared

February 3, 2017

A couple of years ago I published a post titled I, meaning not the subjective first-person singular pronoun but an abbreviation of “incompetence.” I focused on the California Department of Transportation, and mentioned in passing the CIA and FBI, where I interpreted the I in the abbreviations as just that.

My discussion in that post was based on observation, not personal experience. But since my mother died, two months ago, I have had the opportunity of experiencing institutional incompetence first-hand, and specifically with respect to institutions dealing with insurance of one kind or another. I’m therefore calling this post I2, for Insurance Incompetence.

There were three institutions that gave me this opportunity, one governmental and two private. The governmental one is, of course, the Social Security Administration (SSA), and this is the one I will discuss today.

On January 28 I received this letter, addressed to my mother:


Now, my mother died last December 3, and, since I was told by both her social worker and the funeral director that the mortuary would inform SSA of her death, I didn’t think that I needed to bother doing so, until, some time in early January, I noticed that a Social Security payment had been credited to her account. I immediately called SSA, and when I finally reached a representative, I was told that they had not been notified of her death, but that it would be registered right away. So, imagine my surprise at receiving the letter, sent about three weeks after that.

Since the letter gave me the direct line of Mrs. X, I called it as soon as I could. Of course I got her voicemail, and left a message to call me back (which the outgoing message promised to do “as soon as possible”). There was no callback, so I called again the next day, and this time I got her. When I identified myself there was no acknowledgment of my message, and, once again, I was told that there was no record of her death. Would I please fax a copy of her death certificate? After I did that I was assured that there would be no more payments, and that the surplus payment would be deducted by the Treasury.

Guess what? Today another payment appeared in my mother’s account.

Next time: private insurers.

Science fiction

January 9, 2017

Being a scientist, I have long been bothered by the use of “science fiction” to denote, in literature and film, improbable fantasies with no connection to science. If detective fiction (I dislike the term “mystery”) is about detective work, spy fiction is about espionage, historical fiction is about historical characters, why shouldn’t science fiction be about science — scientists and their work?

I have just finished reading a novel that’s a perfect example of what I mean, Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder (about which I posted a bit of ling-crit the other day). Most of the principal characters are scientists, and their work — in this case pharmacology and ethnobotany — is at the heart of the action. It’s fiction, of course — the drug that serves as the story’s MacGuffin is fictitious, as is the tribe in whose habitat it’s found — but it’s all plausible, with a fair amount of biomedical detail. While Ann Patchett did not study biology at university (as did, say, Diana Gabaldon and Barbara Kingsolver), she is married to a physician, a fact that I’m sure helped with the details.

If I come across another example of science fiction as I have redefined it here, I’ll write about it.

Patchett’s patchy Portuguese

January 6, 2017

It’s only in the last few years that I have expanded my reading of contemporary fiction beyond detective novels (and the occasional New Yorker  short story), thanks to a wonderful institution a few blocks from my house: the El Cerrito Recycling + Environmental Resource Center, and specifically its Exchange Zone, where thousands of used books can be found free for the taking. It was there that I discovered Barbara Kingsolver, Nick Hornby, Jonathan Franzen and their ilk — writers whose names I had heard of or read about, but not actually delved into. My latest such discovery is Ann Patchett, whose State of Wonder (2011) I am currently reading.

Despite the lovely writing – in free indirect style, entirely representing the protagonist, Marina Singh – I did not become absorbed in the book until Marina got to Manaus, in the Amazon region of Brazil. But then I was gripped by the vivid descriptions of the city’s air – beginning with “the musty wind of the tropical air-conditioning” at the airport —  and people.

And those of the people who are local and speak with one another do so in Portuguese. That’s where things get patchy, and I have to don my ling-crit mantle. The first sentence is, Negócio é negócio,.”  “business is business.” The second is, “Dr. Singh conhece o Dr. Swenson,” “Dr. Singh knows Dr. Swenson.”

I have long believed that writers should not use abbreviations, symbols or numerals in dialogue, only words as they are spoken. Initialisms or acronyms are okay,  if they are said as such, but the author needs to make it clear how they are said. I can make allowances for “Mr.” and “Mrs.”, because there is really only one way of saying them, but “Dr.” is read differently in different languages; in Portuguese it happns to be doutor.

But doutor, or o doutor with the definite article required when “doctor” is used as a title, is strictly masculine. And both Dr. Singh (the aforementioned Marina) and Dr. Swenson are women, so that of course they would be (a) doutora, or, if abbreviated, (a) Dra.

What seems to have happened is that Patchett used some kind of translation resource (electronic, written or personal) to translate “Dr. Singh knows Dr. Swenson” while neglecting to specify gender.

The rest of the Portuguese dialogue I have read so far seems similarly patched together.

Another linguistic weakness is one that Patchett seems to share with the late Ruth Rendell (I discussed it here) is the apparent belief that Indians necessarily speak Hindi. Marina, whose father is Indian, is reported to have, as a child, visited him in Calcutta, where she found herself swallowed up by a Hindi-speaking crowd. Hindi is in fact spoken in West Bengal — by about 7% of the population — but it’s hard to imagine a crowd in Calcutta speaking anything but Bengali.


December 25, 2016

About a decade ago I went on a binge of novel-writing, completing six books between 2005 and 2011. I did it for the sheer joy of challenging my creative imagination and experimenting with genres, and did not make any serious attempt at getting them published in the conventional way, since I didn’t relish the idea of having to deal with agents and editors. And so, when Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing became available, I jumped on it, especially enjoying the freedom that this platform gives me to revise my work at will. I have not done any promotion, and my sales have been less than modest, but, in all honesty, I didn’t do it for the money.

Of my six novels, three are free-standing. One is a historical novel about Manuel Godoy, inspired in part by the memoirs of the 19th-century Spanish writer Mesonero Romanos, Memrorias de un setentón (Memoirs of a his seventies), since I began writing the book as I was about to enter my seventies. The other two are more contemporary but also historical in the sense that they are set at a definite period in time, one in mid-eighties Hollywood and the other  (the only one written in the first person) in mid-twenty-oughts San Francisco.

The remaining three form a trilogy, with all the titles being single nouns ending in -ion, but they are quite different in form and style. The first tells a story of a man of my age whom I named Miki Wilner, like me a Polish Jew who was liberated at Bergen-Belsen, but otherwise having no resemblance to me; it is told, in alternating sections, over a twenty-day period in August of 1970 and a twenty-year period from 1950 to 1970 (a format I stole from the novel Blue by my friend Rosa Regàs). The other two are about his son and his daughter respectively. The latter is, essentially, a Bronx murder mystery, with a couple of NYPD detectives working with Betty Wilner. The former is a bildungsroman with a twist.

The twist is that Daniel Wilner, Miki’s Montreal-born son, goes on a quest to learn as much as he can about his father (who died when Daniel was two), and in the process finds out that his father was not who he had thought he was.

The coincidence alluded to in the title is that I recently saw two movies in which the protagonists undertake a search to find their fathers, and in each case learn that the father is not who they had thought. One was Incendies (2011), by the well-known Denis Villeneuve, who has lately become a big-time Hollywood director. The other was L’Origine des espèces (2016), by the first-timer Dominic Goyer. And both films are about French Canadians based in Montreal!

Of course, I saw both of them on an Air Canada flight to Montreal. But still…