Saturday, 17 November 2012

Our Lingua Franca Has A Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi

I saw this wonderful picture on the net, and it rang so true.

The original image said "loose grammar", but one of the comments on the site where I found it suggested "loose lexemes", so I made the necessary modification. Now it's accurate, but incomprehensible :-(.

So what IS a lexeme? According to SIL (formerly the Summer Institute of Linguistics), a lexeme is "the minimal unit of language that has a semantic interpretation and embodies a distinct cultural concept".

And armed with that knowledge, when we look again at that picture, we realise that it describes exactly what English has taken from other languages, and why this has served to enrich rather than destroy its own character. A language that acquires the power to describe virtually anything, pragmatically lifting lexemes to accurately describe cultural concepts it has no native words for, becomes universally useful, like a Swiss army knife (there, that's another lexeme). The British empire might have imposed English on the four corners of the globe, but if the language itself had no staying power of its own, it would have swiftly retreated with the disappearance of that empire. The fact that English is still around in the world, stronger than ever, says something about the character of a language that is not above mugging others for their loose lexemes.

Many years ago, when I was a student, I was having dinner with a friend and his father who was visiting. The senior man went off on a bit of a rant about English in India. "Indian languages have been corrupted by English", he fumed.

I felt I had to disagree, and did so politely, "Or enriched, depending on which way you look at it..."

"No", he said firmly, "it's not enrichment, it's corruption."

I didn't know the word "lexeme" back then, or I might have been able to impress him a bit. Or perhaps not.

My own father had quite the opposite opinion. He was a linguist who entered his profession by choice, because of his love of languages. He could read and understand 6 Indian languages and 6 foreign ones, apart from English. And though I can hardly call myself a linguist, I guess I've inherited some of that curiosity and love for language that he had.

Just last week, I found myself explaining to my son that the English word "ambrosia" (a food or drink of the (Greek) gods that confers immortality) is related to the Sanskrit word "amṛt", commonly spelt either "amrit" or "amrut" (a nectar that gave the (Hindu) gods their immortality).

The gods and the demons (the bad guys always have wicked moustaches to help us identify them) wait to be served amṛt. (Of course, the demons get cheated out of having any, and only the gods end up having it. History is written by victors, so now you know why the gods always win. Just sayin'.)

It's easy, once it's pointed out, to see the connection between "ambrosia" and "amṛt". But here's where it gets interesting.

The word "amṛt" is actually a compound word "a-mṛt", because "mṛt" or "mṛtyu" means "death" (which corresponds to mort in Latin), and "a-mṛt" is literally the opposite of death, or im-mort-ality. No one reading the original definition of ambrosia ("a food or drink of the gods that confers immortality") would immediately make the connection from "ambrosia" to the word "immortality" and realise that they're essentially the same word. The lexeme that English pilfered from Sanskrit just cloned itself in the same sentence, and nobody saw that happening! It's sitting right there under our very noses, just like the hidden white arrow in the FedEx logo.

Oh, those sneaky ad-men and their subliminal suggestions to go right!

It's amazing just how many words from other languages have found their way into English and are now strutting around in suits and top hats. Actually, that should just be jeans and T-shirts, because English is no longer the language of the British empire. It belongs to all of us as our working language, which is what the term "lingua franca" means anyway.

And we start using words from our own languages as English words, often even pronouncing them as English words, and no one seems to mind a bit. It's cultural Stockholm syndrome (an English lexeme that others can use).

Stockholm syndrome - "Everyone say 'Anglophilia', or it's au revoir, mademoiselle."
"You're so cool."

I personally find it amazing that the tech industry casually uses the Sanskrit words "guru", "nirvana" and "mantra", while "karma" and "avatar" need no translation at all. Guy Kawasaki, in a talk to Indian IT professionals in Silicon Valley, advised them to adopt a mantra for themselves with the quip, "You guys are Indians, you know what a mantra is".

Don't look now, but someone is stealing your loose lexemes

So the moral of the story is, go get those loose lexemes, from any language careless enough to leave them lying around. One of them could be the mot juste that you're looking for.

Even the linguistically pure French have taken the lesson to heart, it would seem.

...or they might ruin le weekend for you

Sunday, 11 November 2012

"If I Were Not A Man Of Honour, I Could Almost Be A Rat"

A chain of thoughts runs through my head whenever I read of another eminent man's downfall through avoidable indiscretion. Let me put it down in writing this time.

The most infamous such episode in the last decade was the fall of much-revered management guru Jack Welch, former Chairman and CEO of General Electric. A seasoned executive and a married man, he nevertheless betrayed poor judgement (if nothing else) when he began an affair with his biographer Suzy Wetlaufer, a journalist with the Harvard Business Review. That affair covered no one with glory. Wetlaufer's professional reputation lay in tatters by her failing to disclose her conflict of interest in time, and HBR's editors showed equally easy principles by turning a blind eye to what they knew was happening, since continued access to a titan of industry mattered more to them. And of course, Jack Welch's reputation as a wise leader never recovered.

Clearly, there was a 30th secret that Jack had yet to learn

His mistake cost him $180 million when his wife divorced him. That's the kind of loss Welch would have fired his execs for at GE, so readers of his book could justifiably ask for a refund.

Of course, the trick in these circles is to brazen it out as if nothing happened. Jack Welch continues to pretend to be a management and leadership guru.

Old motto: If life hands you a lemon, make lemonade.
New motto: If you end up with egg on your face, make an omelette.

Last week, CIA chief David Petraeus resigned under very similar circumstances. Petraeus had been married 37 years, but he too admitted to having an affair with his biographer, journalist Paula Broadwell.

David Petraeus with Paula Broadwell - war isn't the only thing too serious to be left to the generals

What is it with powerful men and their women biographers, or women in general?

Anyone remember the scene from "Love, Actually" where Karen (Emma Thompson) confronts her husband Harry (Alan Rickman) over the necklace she knew he had bought but which she finally didn't get for Christmas? She then knew it had gone to his secretary, and the ambiguity around that gift is nicely captured:

Would you wait around to find out if it's just a necklace, or if it's sex and a necklace, or if, worst of all, it's a necklace and love? Would you stay, knowing life would always be a little bit worse? Or would you cut and run?

And indeed, there is nothing Harry can say except

Oh, God. I am so in the wrong. The classic fool!

I'm reminded of Gail Sheehy's 1974 book "Passages" and her description of a phase in life she calls "Catch-30" (but just as easily applied to powerful men at any age). The thirties are the age when a married couple tends to switch roles and the power equation shifts in favour of the woman. Lots of men can't handle that very well.

Enter a third figure, who can offer the man a convenient lift out of his knot: The Testimonial Woman. Since the transition from the Twenties to the Thirties is often characterised by first infidelities, she is not hard to find.  She is behind the secretary's desk, in the junior copywriter pool, in the casting call line-up, in the next lab coat. The root of the word "testimonial" is "testis" (plural "testes"). In olden times, cupping the sexual parts of a man by another man in greeting was a "testimonial to manhood" and the basis for the original handshake. The Testimonial Woman offers the same service - she fortifies his masculinity.

The wife bears witness to the embryo he was. Even if she doesn't confront him, he looks into those memory-bank eyes and recalls his faults, failures, fears. The new woman - student, secretary or one connected to his enterprise - offers a testimonial to what he has become. She sees him as having always been this person (emphasis mine). She is generally younger, subordinate but promising. He may be able to take the part of teacher. Then she can become more and more like him, further affirming him as admirable and worth emulating.

We can see shades of this in the Petraeus-Broadwell relationship:

"A few months into my research, General Petraeus, who was then leading Central Command, invited me to go for a run with him and his team along the Potomac River during one of his visits to Washington," [Broadwell] wrote.

"I figured I could interview him while we ran."

The keen runner said she wanted to test him to see if he could keep up with her as she interviewed him.

"Instead it became a test for me,' she said.

"As we talked during the run from the Pentagon to the Washington Monument and back, Petraeus progressively increased the pace until the talk turned to heavy breathing and we reached a six-minute-per-mile pace. It was a signature Petraeus move."

Ultimately, Petraeus's move, signature or not, turned out to be a bad one. Can one say 'dishonourable discharge'?

Gen. Petraeus with his wife and children in happier times [Fans of Nominative Determinism will note that his surname sounds like "betray us", and that Jack Welch's surname means "to go back on an obligation"]

I can't help contrasting this general with one of my boyhood heroes, the German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. Rommel was one of the earliest exponents of Blitzkrieg - pioneered by Heinz Guderian ("Schnell Heinz") - and he became a larger-than-life hero in Germany after the fall of France. He suddenly began to receive the gushing adulation of thousands of women. According to David Wallechinsky (and this is entirely from memory since I can't trace the original quote, but it is burned into my memory), Rommel is reported to have confessed to one of his close friends, "You know, some of these women are so beautiful, if I were not a man of honour, I could almost be a rat." Wallechinsky goes on to say, "But it was all talk. Rommel remained faithful to his wife until he died."

[Gregory Benford and Martin Greenberg take that quote and have Rommel say it in quite a different context in their alternate history series "What Might Have Been"]

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel - The Desert Fox was no rat

Why are some of our heroes true warrior-saints and others just small men in big positions?

I don't believe we should approach this question in a moralising way. It's not about stricter morality, for two reasons.

One is that enforcement of any kind doesn't work. We've seen what forced celibacy has done to the reputation of the Catholic church in terms of sexual behaviour of priests. And quite a lot of us would object to the Islamists' solution of covering up women and segregating the sexes from each other as a way of ensuring a "moral" society.

The second and more basic reason is that I object to the conflation of the term "morality" with any kind of sexual behaviour. I believe morality is about truthfulness, honesty, courage and refraining from harming others. Sexual behaviour is sexual behaviour. By itself, it's morally neutral. Where the two intersect is when sexual behaviour makes one dishonest. After all, there is no infidelity, by definition, in "open marriages", because there are no curbs on either partner's sexual freedom and hence no expectations to belie.

But for the vast majority of us who are not celibate, do not live in a segregated society yet are not comfortable with open marriages, what is the solution? Temptation lies at every step, both for men and for women, and if we think affairs like those of Jack Welch and David Petraeus are undesirable, perhaps the only solution is the one recommended by credit risk managers - restrict all exposures to under 10%.

To explain, credit risk is the risk that a debtor will fail to pay back a loan, and sometimes this failure can deprive an organisation of funds to a degree that its own survival is threatened. One way of managing credit risk is to ensure that no single debtor owes more than 10% of the total debt owed to the organisation. Then the failure of any single debtor to repay their loan will not affect the organisation very much.

In similar fashion, if we find that we are spending more than 10% of our time with a member of our preferred sex (other than our partner), then we're overexposed in risk terms and should cut that back and spend more time with others.

We can't all be warrior-saints or philosopher-kings, so some such practical measures are required.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Water, Water, Everywhere

I found this really good "infographic" on the net. Click on it to expand.

The diagram refers to a coming crisis of drinking water for a large part of the world's population, but paradoxically, this picture gives me a lot of hope - because it shows that we're nowhere near the end of our potential supply of water! We're currently able to access 1% of the world's supply of freshwater, which in turn is just 2.5% of all the water in the world. There's plenty more where what we have today came from.

Technology is all that stands in the way of our being able to tap into the remainder, and there are a zillion technological ways to skin this cat. One simple idea that has been around for decades is desalination. Economics is the only practical barrier to desalination, and a large part of this is the cost of energy per unit of water processed. Again and again, it comes back to energy. Now, I believe the world is on the cusp of an energy revolution, so with cheap and plentiful energy, many more things will become possible. Safe drinking water for all will be just one of them.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Why I'm Gratified By The Result Of The US Elections

So Obama has won re-election with 332 electoral college votes, beating even my prediction of 320.

As the meme goes, not bad.

I'm very happy about the result, but it may surprise many to know that it has nothing to do with Obama himself. In fact, Obama as President has been deeply disappointing to me.

He was supposed to have rolled back the Bush-era assaults on civil rights. He did nothing of the kind, and even gleefully extended them. He didn't close down Guantanamo Bay. The US government continues to be Big Brother under an Obama administration. It's the Obama administration that is going after Julian Assange so stealthily and vengefully. As Gerry Caplan says, "[...] the list of areas where the president already betrayed so many hopes is long and disheartening -- justice, drones, torture, police brutality, inequality, prisons, African Americans, poverty, education, Africa, gun control, war on drugs, whistleblowing, climate change, the Middle East." So what was all the idealism of 2008 about? ("You can't intrude into our private lives like this!" "Yes, we can!")

What I'm really happy about is the defeat of the party I like to call the Retaliban Party. A more mediaeval bunch of crazies I've never seen. Just like their counterparts in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the American Taliban are anti-liberal, anti-women, homophobic, anti-science, creationist gun-loving bigots who take their holy book literally and hate anyone unlike themselves. And since the US isn't made up exclusively of rich, old, white, straight men, they got the sharp rebuke they deserved.

I'm alarmed about the increasing reports of misogyny from around the world, and I do hope the increase is only in the reporting. It's even worse when one of the supposedly most advanced countries in the world exhibits such behaviour. We've seen a fair amount of it during the just-concluded campaign season in the US.

In all the excitement over the presidential election, it's easy to overlook the results of the congressional elections. Here too, my cup runneth over. My two favourite crazies, former senators Todd Akin of Missouri and Richard Mourdock of Indiana, both Republicans (what else?), got the boot as well.

Todd Akin believes women's bodies have the ability to "shut down" unwanted pregnancies in cases of what he called "legitimate rape"

Richard Mourdock believes that pregnancies, even as a result of rape, were "intended by God"

Well, the American political system clearly has the ability to shut out legitimate idiots, and they would have to agree that this result too must have been intended by God.

[Update 08/11/2012: I also realised that an Obama victory is likely to have more durable effects on American society. And this is through the appointment of Supreme Court justices. In Obama's first term, he replaced liberal-leaning David Souter with another liberal, Sonia Sotomayor, in effect merely retaining the status quo and preventing a lurch to the right. In his second term, he has the opportunity to actively move the court to the left by replacing one or more retiring conservative judges with liberal ones. The effect could last decades.]

A couple of months ago I predicted the Republicans would lose this Presidential election and never win one again until they changed themselves drastically. I guess that view is now partially vindicated. 2016 will tell if the rest of it plays out as I think it will.

It isn't a day of just gloating for me, though. I must say I deeply appreciate one aspect of both Presidential candidates. It's that both Obama and Romney are good family men, deeply devoted to their wives and children. Throughout the campaign, however ugly it got, there was nary a suggestion of improper sexual behaviour about either of the men. After the unsavoury exposés of Bill Clinton, John Edwards, Newt Gingrich and many other presidents and presidential candidates, it was a relief to be considering two wholesome men for a change.

I really like this photo of the Obamas, taken after the result was known.

"No ma'am, he's not an Ay-rab. He's a decent family man" - John McCain, 2008

Well, he's that all right. At the very least, Americans (and the world) have a good role model in the First Family.