Archive for the ‘Personal’ Category

Three notes on “anti”

October 18, 2017

1. Just as I had expected, when antifa suddenly hit the world of the media, it was (and still is) almost invariably heard as anTEEfa, in accordance with what I have already written about  (here, here, here and here) as the default rule (which I called a “misrule”) for stress in unfamiliar words, namely, that in words that in the syllable the stress goes on the penultimate. In fact, this phenomenon was discussed on Language Log, in a post by Mark Liberman, who noted that “there’s strong pressure to apply penultimate stress to vowel-final borrowed or constructed words in English, as in ‘Tiramisu‘ or ‘Samarra‘ or ‘NATO’.” Only commenters who knew the origin of the term — an abbreviation of Antifaschisten in 70s-80s Germany — argued for an antepenultimate stress, as in German.

I should say that it isn’t only in borrowed or constructed words that this misrule (in its more general form, as I have discussed) is followed, but more generally in words that one encounters in writing before hearing them spoken; ‘awry’ is a famous example (which I first learned about in Richard Llewellyn’s 1939 novel How Green Was My Valley). In my posts I have also discussed some exceptions to the rule, to which I would like to add another: it doesn’t necessarily apply to vowel-final words of more than two syllables if the vowel is represented by y (if only one consonant stands between it and the preceding vowel); here the preference is for antepenultimate stress, by analogy with hundreds of such words in English (bravery, variety, melody etc.).

2. The antifa phenomenon, and the generally hateful counterprotests by various self-styled leftist entities to demonstrations by what they perceive as hate  groups (though Patriot Prayer, for one, hardly seems to fit the description), made me think of calling them “anti-hate hate” by analogy with what was once called “anti-missile missile” (now it’s “anti-ballistic missile”). And it reminded me of Tom Lehrer’s introduction, over 50 years ago,  to his song National Brotherhood Week, in which he said, “there are people in this world who do not love their fellow human beings, and I hate people like that.”

3. The correct grouping of components (if there are more than two) in compound words and phrases often presents difficulties in English. These are partially alleviated by hyphenation, but people are often negligent in using it, and it doesn’t always work. For instance: what do you call some who opposes Muslim extremists? An anti-Muslim extremist? (That is, if you use bracketing, an anti-[Muslim extremist].) But that would read the same as someone who is an extreme anti-Muslim (that is, an [anti-Muslim] extremist). And so the British writer Maajid Nawaz, who was once himself a radical Islamist but has turned into an opponent of Islamic extremism, has found himself branded an “anti-Muslim extremist” by none other than the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), alongside the likes of Pamela Geller and Frank Gaffney, as recently reported in Salon.


Thoughts about Italian

October 7, 2017

When I’m asked about the languages that I know, I usually include Italian among them, since I can speak it, understand it (even the stilted language of opera) and read it without much difficulty (I’m not so sure about writing it). But unlike the other languages in which I consider myself fluent — English (my primary language), Polish (my first language), German (my primary language in the past), Hebrew (ditto), Yiddish, French, Spanish and Catalan — I have never lived in an Italian-speaking environment. I have been in Italy many times over the past six decades, but never longer than a few weeks at a time, and my communications with Italian colleagues and students has been in English. So I’m not quite so sure of expressing myself correctly in Italian as in the other languages. I’m not always sure where the stress in a word is, or whether a given e or o is closed or open, or if an intervocalic s is [z] or [s]. But I’ve discovered that in Italy these things vary with region, and my when-in-doubt default seems to coincide, for some reason, with the Milanese variant (that includes using the perfect tense instead of the simple past, as in French).

I have recently been think about some qualities of Italian. Not its esthetic qualities (“Italian is a musical language”) or even linguistic ones, but its relationship to other languages,

Italian is, on the one hand, quite welcoming to foreign loanwords, usually with not change of spelling or any other attempt to italianize them: computer, würstel, Bohème… Acronyms are borrowed as well: for AIDS and NATO Italian has Aids and Nato (usually only the first letter is capitalized in Italian) where French, Spanish and Portuguese have SIDA and OTAN. And when originally Italian words are modified by alloglots to express another meaning, Italian accepts the modifications by respelling: the Italian casino (‘brothel’), modified by the French (with the accent on the last syllable) to mean ‘gambling establishment’, became casinò; and getto (‘casting’), which in its Venetian form geto came to mean ‘foundry’ and to designate a neighborhood in Venice around a foundry, became ghetto when this neighborhood was settled by German Jews who pronounced the g hard rather than soft.

On the other hand, some words common to a great many languages have no Italian counterparts: ‘hotel’ is albergo (though hotel names usually include the word Hotel); ‘football’ (soccer) is calcio (though American football is football americano). And the old habit of converting foreign forenames to one’s own language (as in ‘Ferdinand’ for Fernando) is alive in Italian; thus the British queen is Elisabetta and her husband is Filippo, as is the king of Spain. And French characters in Italian operas have names like Alfredo, Violetta, Rodolfo, or Marcello.

All languages, of course, have quirks, one can even say personalities, beyond vocabulary, phonetics and grammar, and getting to know them is part of learning a language.

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.

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.


Dreamtown Berkeley

March 30, 2017

The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station in downtown Berkeley is called — get ready for it — Downtown Berkeley. Until the mid-1990s, however, it was called just Berkeley, and this is still what the signs on the platform say. Not that it matters very much, since the signs can hardly be seen from the train anyway, and passengers must depend for orientation on the (not always very clear) announcements by the drivers. These give sometimes the old, sometimes the new name of the station.

But it is not BART that I mean to write about. It’s my dreams.

My dreams often involve travel, or some other kind of displacement, but the locales and means of travel are invariably surreal — they may involve train or car travel that begins in America and ends in Europe, or air travel between Berkeley and San Francisco. And the “Berkeley” of my dreams is nothing at all like the real Berkeley, any more than my “New York” or “Barcelona” is like its actual self. In my dreams I frequently experience enormous difficulties in getting to the airport and end up missing flights (usually just before waking up). I also often forget where I parked my car (something that happens in real life too).

My dreamtown Berkeley — where I still live in my dreams, despite having moved to El Cerrito nine years ago — is more like a European city, and rather than being part of a compact conurbation it is a separate place with streets leading into rural outskirts.

I was therefore intrigued, when I recently Isabel Allende’s latest novel, The Japanese Lover, by the focus of its action being a ficticious place called Lark House that is located on the outskirts of Berkeley (at least in the Spanish original, en las afueras de Berkeley — the reference is omitted in the English edition). Moreover, “[t]he property adjoined the bay”; in the real Berkeley there are no private properties adjoining the bay. And the Lark House neighborhood has its own square (plaza del barrio in the original) with a police station and a Starbucks.

Isabel Allende is known as one of the writers associated with the “magical realism” school. Perhaps my dreamtown Berkeley belongs there.

Incidentally, I have yet to read Allende’s El cuaderno de Maya (Maya’s Notebook), which, as I understand, also has Berkeley as one of its locales. Maybe I can find some more of my dreamtown there.




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…


September 9, 2016

Bollywood, as is well known, is a portmanteau of Bombay and Hollywood.

But since Bombay (based on the Hindi form of the city’s name) is now officially Mumbai (the Gujarati and Marathi name), it’s surprising that the Gujarati Narendra Modi, who governs India as a semi-dictator, hasn’t decreed that Bollywood be changed to Mulliwood.

I am joking. There is no reason why changes in official toponymy should necessarily affect common usage. Cats are still Persian, Siamese or Burmese, not Iranian, Thai or Myanmarese. And my favorite tea, from Sri Lanka, is still called Ceylon tea.

Except at Peet’s Coffee and Tea. And that’s my fault.

Many years ago, when Peet’s was just a little neighborhood shop in Berkeley, I noticed in its window displays of Sulawesi coffee and Ceylon tea. I went inside and said to Mr. Peet, who was not busy at the time, “If you call Celebes coffee Sulawesi, shouldn’t you call Ceylon tea Sri Lanka?”

“You are right,” he said. And the next day the display was changed.

Except that I was joking.


August 27, 2016

I have, for a long time, found myself immune to the appeal of actresses and/or comediennes who happen to be half-Jewish blondes.

I think it’s because of the way they try to be both sexy and funny, but somehow the sexy and funny aspects of their personas seem to come from different places (the  blond and the Jewish, respectively?), so that (to me)  they fail to come through as real women.

By contrast, a half-Jewish brunette like Julia Louis-Dreyfus manages to be sexy in a funny way and funny in a sexy way; she is who she is (just like an all-Jewish brunette such as Sarah Silverman, or, for that matter, an all-Jewish blonde like Natasha Lyonne).

Now, another half-Jewish brunette, Lena Dunham, doesn’t manage to be either, but I’m not sure she means to.

Truth from a Polish Jew

August 10, 2016

I have just read a book titled Leap for Life by Rut Wermuth Burak, published in 2010 and subtitled A Story of Survival and Reunion. It’s the first memoir by a Polish Jew who lived through World War II in Nazi-occupied Europe that has struck me as truthful.

Actually, the book that I read was the Polish original, published in 2002, titled Spotkałam Ludzi (“I met people”) and subtitled (in Polish) “A story about a tragic beginning aend an extraordinary ending.” The author is presented as Ruta Wermuth; not only is her married name absent from the title page but it’s referred to only by its initial in the book, for some reason unknown to me.

I have already written about the tendency of my fellow Polish Jews to overdramatize, if not fictionalize, their experiences during World War II; well-known examples include Jerzy Kosiński, Luba Tryszynska (“the Angel of Bergen-Belsen”), Solomon Perel (“Europa, Europa”) and Herman Rosenblat {“An Angel at the Fence”). I have also found this tendency in personal accounts by acquaintances. Perhaps they took their inspiration from the originator of the genre, Elie Wiesel, whose hugely successful Night trilogy was later admitted by him to be semi-fictional.

But Rut(a) Wermuth, unlike the people cited above, did not write her memoir for a Western audience; the English version seems to have been an afterthought encouraged by her brother’s non-Polish-speaking family in England. Instead, she wrote it for her fellow Poles. (I have long maintained that Polish Jew does not equal Pole, but she chose to become a Pole by marrying one, living in Poland and hiding her Jewishness until late in life.) And not only do Poles know a little more about the reality of World War II in Eastern Europe than Westerners do, but they are likely to judge any such account by a Jew critically if not suspiciously.

Not only is the book (in my view) truthful but it’s fascinating and deeply moving. I recommend it.