Thursday, 25 September 2014

In Our Time - more on Melvyn

 Might have to give IOT (In Our Time) more thought. It is an important programme and MB deserves a lot of praise, in my book, for what he does. But science and maths don't really work on radio - still, history next week. Thanks for trying.

So Desperate So

  Give credit to Melvyn Bragg - he tried. To kick off the new series of "In Our Time" (BBC Radio 4) he tackled "e" or "Euler's Number". And he had three women mathematicians on his panel. But it proved only one thing to me: you can't really do maths on radio. You need a black- or whiteboard at least.

 He bravely tried to pin them down as to what "the number represented by e" was. The more they tried to explain, the more they introduced new ideas, complexities and longer equations, which we couldn't follow on radio. To cover this, they used "So" more and more often, sounding more and more concerned, if not desperate, to get the idea across and to pretend to logical argument.

 But - aha! moment - what came out was that it is all a pretence. You have to pretend certain things for maths to work. 1/3 seems exact but you can't represent it in an exact decimal: 0.333 recurring for ever! Or any number to the power of zero is one - what? Not in the real world, but you need to pretend it is true for maths to work: remember Lewis Carroll's having to practise believing impossible things before breakfast, almost like his creed?

When I suggested at school that maths might be based on pretence, I got a clip round the ear and a detention. Bertrand Russel got awed praise and a university maths professor brought in for him as a private tutor!

 Still, well done Melvyn. You did your best.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Reading Allowed

  Reading and its university must be the venue for many conferences. If there was ever one for newsreaders, I think it should be there and could perhaps be called "Reading Aloud", or "Allowed" à la BBC R4's "Thinking Allowed". I put down the poor reading for sense, and particularly word stress, to reading aloud more or less being outlawed in schools.

Reading Geographies

  Just re-Reading my friend Michael Cullup's poetry collection, "Reading Geographies". It is excellent and should be more widely known. I hope, at the very least, that every library and bookshop in Berkshire will order copies. And then beyond, the world!

Monday, 22 September 2014

Reading Poetry Festival (well, what else?)

  My nicest English teacher at school had BA (Reading) after her name. Why haven't the others got that, too, I wondered? And I applied to go there - should have, probably - they had some good lecturers, I believe.

Recently on Twitter there have been a few jokes about it and about the Reading Poetry Festival. I thought of , affectionately, starting a hashtag #universityoflyingaboutalldaywithabook. Sounds good to me but could be taken the wrong way.

Sunday, 21 September 2014


  I was quite pleased with that new hashtag. But it was late at night, a dangerous time to tweet. Poets, and many artists, are notoriously severe critics of their peers, or their rivals, rather. Like batsmen in cricket, they usually want their teammates to be out, unless they are in a partnership with themselves at the time.

 So, I was commenting on the excoriating (that word is on promotional special offer this week) criticism on Twitter by poets of other poets. But be as coruscatingly witty as you like - I love it all, really.

#iCoruscati or #iCoruscanti - the public decide

  The Harry Hill solution would, of course, be "Fight!" But after our recent outburst of democracy (let's forget about some unruly scenes the next morning), the only way is a referendum. Which should it be? 'iCoruscanti' gets some of the idea of cognoscenti, an elite group of knowing people, but does 'iCoruscati' also suggest a nice Italian wine?

 I refer of course to the Twitterati (oh, that's where I got the idea) reaction to the Poet Laureate's Thistle poem.  I found it quite moving, if rather sentimental. But then I have, like a lot of people, mixed feelings and allegiances about the Scottish Independence vote, or #indyref.

 Or did I just find the "pilgrim Keats" lines moving? They seemed to me based on truth - Keats did make a sort of poetic pilgrimage to Burns' (Burns's?) cottage and then had to go home, very ill indeed. So, there seemed some truth there and beauty, too. Hence #TruthBeauty.

 But the Twitter reaction was very mixed, to put it mildly. A bit soppy but nice, with some very good bits, can't be bad for an official poem, can it? I wondered if the iPhone and Twitter make it difficult to be anything but clever and flip? Coruscatingly, sparklingly witty, perhaps but also sometimes unnecessarily flaying or excoriating? [Do these word still exist as separate, different things? Ed]

Monday, 15 September 2014

Transparency: a problem of our times

  I have posted previously about transparency and its problems. The excellent David Astle @dontattempt on Twitter asks 'Is a transparent an absent father?' Is transparency a problem of our Times - and other cryptics, I wondered?
(He is a crossword setter, which prompted my query.)

All an Illyism

  On my 'café crème for espresso' query, Lynne Murphy of the invaluable 'separatedbyacommonlanguage' blog / website tells me that it is definitely not an Americanism. Perhaps I should be careful not to attribute so many changes to US influence?

Following extensive research (or a quick look at Wiki), it now seems to me that the crème expression (ouch) was possibly from the early days of coffee-making machines and described the creamy or frothy appearance compared to that produced by previous methods. The phrase might have been more popular in Switzerland and, for a time, in Italy, perhaps in the 'crema' version. (But they call it espresso now, don't they, or just coffee?) And certainly in France it means more or less what the name suggests.

However, as the cafe in question was an Illy at Schiphol Airport this doesn't quite explain it. Illy is a long-established Italian company, although, as the name suggests, founded by a Romanian.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Past history

  When I get peevish about it, please remind me that some of my favourite writers use this expression. I'm reading "Master and Commander" for about the fourth time and find that early on, when Captain Aubrey is trying out his new command, the brig Sophie, he considers consulting her log to learn her "past history". This appears to be Patrick O'Brian's rather than Aubrey's phrase and I would like to change the paragraph slightly to make it seem like subtle characterisation: though JA was never less than a brilliant seaman, he was not always in total command of his words.

Lingeray, espresso and expertise

 In Holland recently we asked just for "two coffees", and got, as expected, two espressos. But on the bill it said "2 x café crème". I asked about it and the waitress told me "espresso is called that in French". I don't think so. I wondered if it might be another American usage and have asked the excellent @lynneguist* about it on Twitter. Also about AmE pronunciations of other French words: expertise and lingerie /-ay come to mind, for some reason.
*See also her blog "Separated by a Common Languge".