Archive for the ‘Media’ Category

When Harry met…

November 29, 2017

In all the media frenzy around the engagement between Harry Windsor and Meghan Markle, I have yet to see a reference to the recent movie King Charles III, in which a fictionalized Prince Harry falls in love with a black woman. The play that the film was based on was first produced in 2014, well before Harry met Meghan.

Looks like life imitating art, innit? To be sure, the woman in the play (Jessica Edwards) is working-class English black (and a republican to boot), while Meghan Markle is glamorous American blackish. And the fictionalized Harry gives up Jess in order to remain a royal, while the real one is going to marry Meghan. But still…

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Serendipity

October 24, 2017

I recently read a book that I should have read some forty years ago, when it first came out. And reading that book led to another, by the same author, which turned out to be among the most delightful novels I’ve ever read. And all because of serendipity.

A couple of months ago Mark Liberman published a post on Language Log about a book that had just appeared in English, The seventh function of language, by Laurent Binet. The book’s relevance to Language Log lay in its linguistics-laden contents and in its inclusion as characters of many real-life personalities in linguistics, semiology, literary criticism and related fields. Here’s the list cited by Mark Liberman:

Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Umberto Eco, Noam Chomsky, Louis Althusser, Paul de Man, Jean-François Lyotard, Judith Butler, Jacques Derrida, John Searle, Morris Zapp, Gayatri Spivak, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Julia Kristeva, Philippe Sollers, Jacques Lacan, Camille Paglia, and more.

I was familiar (if only from having seen them in print) with many of these names, but not Morris Zapp.

I was able to get the French original (published in 2015), La septième fonction du langage, from my university library. It turned out to be a fun read, and the first part, taking place in Paris and Bologna, seemed like historical fiction. While this term is not usually applied to books taking place in the recent past (here it’s around 1980), there is no reason why it shouldn’t: actual events (the death of Roland Barthes, the Bologna massacre) form the background, and fictionally treated actual persons mingle with fictitious ones — that’s what historical fiction is. But when the scene shifts to Ithaca, NY, things go haywire: Derrida and Searle die (the former lived till 2004, the latter is still with us), and the flamboyant Morris Zapp makes his appearance.

When I tried to find out about Morris Zapp, I discovered that he is a fictitious character created by David Lodge in his novel Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses. I looked this up on Wikipedia, and found out that one of the two campuses involved is modeled on UC Berkeley, the university where I taught for most of my adult like. My public library has nothing of David Lodge, and the one at UCB had it  only as part of a trilogy, which I duly checked out.

To say that the State University of Euphoria (also called Euphoric State) is “modeled” on Berkeley is an understatement. While the state of Euphoria is supposedly “a small but populous state… situated between Northern and Southern California” — that is, the greater Bay Area is imagined as a separate state — the site of the university, “Plotinus” is an obvious stand-in for Berkeley (both are named for philosophers), and is across the Bay from the “glittering, glamorous city of Esseph” (SF, get it?). The “right-wing Governor of the State” is (this is 1969) “Ronald Duck, a former movie-actor.” Berkeley’s Euclid and Shattuck Avenues become Plotinus’s Pythagoras Drive and Shamrock Avenue, while UC Berkeley’s Wheeler Hall is Euphoric State’s Dealer Hall. San Francisco’s North Beach is Esseph’s South Strand, and the Golden Gate Bridge is the Silver Span.

(To be continued)

 

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.

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.

Anthems

September 5, 2016

Salon has finally removed from its Voices column the obnoxiously titled seven-month old piece that I referred to in my last post. In its place is another piece by the same author, D. Watkins, with another long title: “Colin Kaepernick’s brave decision: An open letter to the 49ers quarterback.” The subtitle is apparently a quote from the letter, addressed to “Dear Brother Kaepernick”: “You will now be mentioned in the ranks with other courageous athletes like the late great Muhammad Ali …”

I have my own opinion about the self-proclaimed greatness of Muhammad Ali. (For one thing, I never understood why he chose for his name that of a 19th-century Albanian ruler of Egypt.) But I have no doubt that refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam War, with the attendant risk of prison, was an act of great courage

Kaepernick’s heroic act was remaining seated while the Star-Spangled Banner was played before the beginning of a football game. While standing for the playing of national anthems is a worldwide tradition, to my knowledge there is no law requiring it. The reactions to Kaepernick’s sitting have been entirely in the realm of public opinion, ranging from outraged condemnation to enthusiastic approval (as in Watkins’ case). The main consequence for Kaepernick personally has been a tidal wave of publicity; the jersey bearing his name and number was at first being burned on camera but is now among the best-selling in America. And while his lackluster performance last season led him to lose his starting position and be potentially up for sale, he now seems to have cemented his position with the 49ers, with its guaranteed $13 million a year good until 2020.

The singing of the national anthem at league games is a peculiarly American institution. Because the anthem is so difficult to sing by the public, it is usually performed by a soloist, typically by a pop singer in their own style, so that even those who have the vocal range and would like to sing along find it hard to do so. The tradition seems to have begun in baseball during World Was II, though there have been stories about the Chicago Cubs using it in the 1920s as a way of boosting attendance.

Elsewhere in the world the anthems are sung or played primarily at international events. In telecasts of international soccer matches it’s common to see the players singing their anthem with great enthusiasm (unless it’s an unsung one, like Spain’s Marcha Real). In those cases, I suppose, the failure to sing (or at least mouth) the anthem would be comparable to Kaepernick’s sitting. And I have noticed that two members of the German team, Mesut Özil and Sami Khedira, never sing the anthem. I don’t know why.

 

Lewandowski

June 30, 2016

The Lewandowskis have scored recently.

Corey , probably the better-known one in the USA, has scored a plum job with CNN, where his duties will apparently to comment on the Trump campaign, from which he was recently fired as manager.

Robert, arguably the more famous one outside the USA, scored a goal that gave Poland an early lead in the Euro 2016 quarterfinal against Portugal, as well as a penalty kick in the shootout, but one of his teammates had his kick blocked, so that Poland lost.

City

May 6, 2016

A few weeks ago I published a post titled “Cities,” and just the other day one titled “M Cities.” Here I go again, with “City.” And they have nothing to do with each other.

In the Unites States, on forms that require someone to fill in their address, the space for street address is almost invariably followed by “City, state, ZIP code.” There is one big exception: federal tax forms, in place of “City,” have “City, town or post office.” But state tax forms, at least in California and New York, have the usual “City.”

This has never been a problem for me. All the places where I have lived in the US have been cities, and in every one of them the name of the post office has been the same as the name of the city. So that there has never been any doubt about writing Los Angeles, New York, Berkeley, or El Cerrito.

But there are many possibilities where this might not be the case.

First of all, many Americans do not live in cities. They might live in incorporated municipalities that are not called “city” but town, township, borough or village — the federal “town” is, I suppose, a stand-in for any of these — or in unincorporated areas. The post office serving such an area may or may not have the same name as the corresponding locality; sometimes it is, in fact, that of a nearby city, possibly leading a correspondent to believe that the person lives in the city in question. A case in point is the unincorporated area of East Los Angeles, whose addresses are listed as Los Angeles.

Next, there is the case of large cities, such as New York and Los Angeles, that have annexed nearby localities which nevertheless have kept their postal names. In New York, only Manhattan addresses have New York, NY as the “city”; otherwise it’s Brooklyn, Bronx, Staten Island, or any of the various districts that make up Queens. In Los Angeles, the districts of the San Fernando Valley, the western area (West Los Angeles and Westwood) and the harbor area (San Pedro and Wilmington) have their own post offices. Addresses in Hollywood can be either “Hollywood” or “Los Angeles”, and the ZIP-code areas of the separate city of West Hollywood overlap with those of Los Angeles, leading to further confusion. I have often found in online searches for my mother’s house, located in Los Angeles, listed as being in West Hollywood because of a shared ZIP code. Similarly, when I lived in the Thousand Oaks district of Berkeley,  whose ZIP code is shared with the nearby village of Kensington (I call it a village, though the term isn’t used in California, since it’s a small unincorporated area with some limited self-government), I would sometimes get mail addressed to me as though I lived in Kensington. (One time this created confusion with a tax return: Kensington is in a different county from Berkeley and, since at the time the two counties had different locations for mailing tax returns, some clerk at the Internal Revenue Service confused ZIP codes with counties and informed me that I had sent my return to the wrong place.)

And then we have neighboring cities where an area of one city is served, for the convenience of the Postal Service, by a post office located in the other city. An example of this is half a mile from my house, where San Pablo Avenue divides El Cerrito on the east from Richmond on the west, but both sides of the avenue are served by the El Cerrito post office. There are thus businesses on the Richmond side that not only have an El Cerrito address but even put “El Cerrito” in their names; but they are not in El Cerrito.

Also, the eastern portion of the Berkeley campus of the University of California lies within the city of Oakland, but of course the university’s installations in that area, including the Lawrence Berkeley (sic!)  National Laboratory and the Lawrence Hall of Science, carry the university’s Berkeley address and are thought of by most people as being in Berkeley.

In the United Kingdom, the Royal Mail has created the concept of “post town” to cover all addresses, it being understood that the post town is not necessarily the same as the actual town (or city or borough or whatever) where the address is located. How about “postal city” to cover the same need in the US?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bernie’s Jewishness

March 9, 2016

At the Democratic presidential debate in Flint last Sunday, a woman in the audience was inexplicably called on by CNN to ask what I can only characterize as a stupid question: about the candidates’ relationship to God  — this in a country whose constitution specifies that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust.”

Bernie Sanders’ answer was all about moral principles, with no mention of Judaism. Perhaps as a followup, Anderson Cooper then asked Bernie about published reports that he had been reticent about his Jewishness. Bernie’s response was that he was proud of being Jewish, and it was framed entirely in terms of family and history, with no reference to God or religion.

I was very happy to conclude that Bernie is just like me in yet another respect (besides what I wrote about here): he is a Jew but not a Judaist (as I have discussed here). That I am an atheist, while Bernie seems to be some sort of deist who identifies God with morality, is not really relevant to this point.

The conflation of Jewishness (ethnicity) with Judaism (religion) is something I am sensitive about. It is very common in the West (where ethnic nationality is not generally recognized), not least among many Jews themselves. And so, while several media reports about the debate had misleading references to “Bernie’s Judaism,” there were at least two stories in right-wing Jewish media (here and here) with the headline “Bernie Sanders is not a Jew.” These media represent what my hero Uri Avnery calls the “national-religious” tendency, which is becoming ever more dominant in Israel, and which reminds me of the “national-Catholicism” (nacionalcatolicismo) of Franco’s Spain.

I have no problem with Israel being a Jewish state (though not, as Bibi Netanyahu would have it, a “Jewish nation-state,” as I discussed here). Israel’s neighbors are, after all, officially Arab states: they are all members of the Arab League, and two of them (Egypt and Syria) have “Arab Republic” as part of their official names, even though both countries have substantial non-Arab minorities. Just like Israel, they are not nation-states in the Western mold (in which nationality is essentially identical with citizenship), but national states (as are typical of east central and eastern Europe) with a dominant, ethnically defined, nation (for which the state is the homeland) and recognized national minorities. (I have written a number of essays on this subject,)

And so, back to Bernie: he is a Jew just like me, not as some national-religious fanatics would define it.