29 December 2010

Burst Pipes

It has been a very hard winter in norn iron, or as the BBC has it, Northern Ireland. Temperatures sank to - 18.7°C — about 0°F — and stayed below zero for weeks.
It’s thawing now, and the BBC News and Radio 4’s Today programme constantly tell us that the pipes are bursting because of the thaw. There are major problems, not only with burst pipes in private houses and businesses, but also with the mains. There is now a drought in many areas, with the mains shut off. People are advised to go to various depots to collect bottled water, or water from a tanker. Some people have had no water from before Christmas, and this misery is expected to continue for several days.
Well, the effects of burst pipes are certainly due to the thaw. But pipes do not burst because of the thaw.
This should be obvious to anyone who has ever had a drink with ice in it; the ice floats. And not because you can see the air bubbles — posh bars will serve your gin and tonic with ice made from degassed water, yet the ice still floats.
If you make ice cubes, the amount or mass of ice must be the same as the mass of water you put in. Ice floats because its density is less than that of water. And it’s density is less…because…it must be bigger.
Most substances expand as the get warmer, and contract as they cool. Water is an exception, and you will vaguely recall the ‘anomalous behaviour of water at 4°C’. (Or if you want to be pedantic, 3.95°C). 
Above 4°C, water expands as it gets warmer, and below 4°C it also expands. This doesn’t matter much, unless the water freezes. The lower the temperature, the more the ice expands, and the power of this expansion is impressive, enough to burst pipes. And, if you didn’t put anti-freeze in your car’s radiator, the block and radiator will burst. 
So, pipes burst during the freeze, but as the water is frozen solid as ice, there is nothing to see. Only when the ice melts, are the bursts evident, when the water can flow again.
So, BBC, it’s not the thaw that causes the bursts, it just makes them evident.

PS. The Guardian web site is just as bad: Large numbers of homes in Northern Ireland are likely to be without water for days to come, the national provider said, after a thaw in icy conditions caused pipes to burst.

25 November 2010

Education or training?

What is a university education for? And is it education or training?
The training bit is straightforward: specific instruction in what you are going to work at.
In the old days of (higher) education, you would have started with the trivium of grammar, logic or dialectic and rhetoric — the art of public speaking. Dialectic was a discussion between two people — we would call this argument nowadays, argument in the sense of constructing a position and defending it. These were thought of as easy subjects — hence our ‘trivial’ — studied at the equivalent of a sixth-form college.
At university, a liberal arts course comprised the quadrivium of music, astronomy, arithmetic and geometry. It’s all in Plato.
After this you would be thought of as ‘educated’. You were not ‘trained’ for any trade of profession, that could come later. But think of the lectures or presentations you have attended. How many of the teachers went beyond ‘have Powerpoint, will travel’ and could teach you something, could get a significant message across in their allotted time? Probably, if your experience was like mine, not all that many. A modern course in rhetoric and dialectic would teach them how to teach — and would teach you how to question the teacher.
Many subjects that used to be thought of as ‘training’ now require a university degree. Nursing, for instance, used to be a ‘vocation’ yet now requires a degree. Medicine has been training for centuries, yet is a university subject.
There’s a real tendency for subjects which require significant learning to now require university degrees. Somehow, having a degree is seen as ‘better’, more ‘educated’. Is this really what an education is? Anyone in the real world knows just how much skill there is in many trades, a skill that isn’t learnt from books, or presentations. Ever tried plastering a wall by eye?
I’d suggest rather that a university education should be just that — thinking, a ‘liberal arts’ degree course, if you like. An education that provides a mind capable of later training for a specific employment, (almost) no matter what the choice of course. You can keep some of the more technical, ‘training’ courses if you wish, but recognise them for what they are — preparatory training, and therefore limited. It would be preferable to preface these with a couple of years of liberal arts — education before training.
An education provides a prepared and critical mind, through study of courses that may or may not have an immediately apparent relevance. That’s only the formal part of the curriculum. The informal part is about growing up, finding yourself, socialisation, and drinking. And sex.

Disclaimer: I do have degrees in medicine and medical science. But I also have a BA from the Open University (and an MBA from them as well). I know now what I missed. 

The students are revolting

I didn’t intend to write about politics here, but the students’ protests on 24 November in London and elsewhere made me reconsider.
But first a couple of disclaimers. When I went to university, the course fees were paid, and we all got a grant — the size of which was ‘means tested’. This was in the salad days of the baby boomers, free education, a job more or less for life, and a guaranteed pension. And secondly, my daughter went to Trinity College, Dublin only a few years ago. Her fees were paid — by a funding organisation in N Ireland. I did have to pay part of her fees — €8 for the Students’ Union. She however had a student loan. Her education now means that she is either under-qualified for jobs in economics (her course of study) or under-experienced for almost anything else. She’s now the manageress of a coffee bar — which sounds impressive, but it’s only because she is the longest employed barista. She has to think of doing a master’s degree to get anywhere in her speciality — a form of ‘grade inflation’.
I really don’t see how any government can consider raising the school leaving age to 18, and pay for the tuition, and then say that higher education must be paid for. Many of the kids will be living away from home — as they should — and as parents have paid for their living costs while they were at school, I don’t have a problem with a parental contribution to living costs at university. But I do have a big problem with the course fees, now potentially up to £9000 per annum. The government may well say that these don’t have to be repaid until the student earns more than £21000 or whatever the figure is. But I thought that one of the ideas behind university education was to get a well-paid job, not to work for the minimum wage. So, unless people disappear or emigrate, I’d expect most of them to have to repay for years. And repay while they are trying to get a mortgage, and trying to pay for a decent pension, and paying for the ‘deficit’.
It sticks in my craw that the Liberal Democrats whose proposals for free university education were laudable made a total volte-face as soon as they entered government. It’s a peculiarity of politics in N Ireland that there are no candidates from the big three ‘mainland’ parties here that I could vote for.
Yes, I’m in the generation that ‘never had it so good’ and I’m embarrassed by what is now happening. And very saddened.

17 November 2010

**** and [redacted]

I thought it rather curious just how coy some newspapers, online and actually printed on paper, and television reports were about the ‘Twitter Joke Trial’. The original offending tweet was:
"Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!"
The original tweet contains two words which I would have thought are nowadays considered to be very mild swear words — ‘crap’ and ‘shit’, yet many reports excised the first, and replaced the second with ’s***’ or similar, or even [it]. One I saw had ‘Crap’ in full, and also ’s***’ which I thought was very strange.
Why should be seem to be in need of this protection? You might say, in case children are watching, and perhaps there is some sense in that, though children will learn such words soon enough. They might come across words during their early Bible study, such as ‘fornication’ and ‘adultery’ in their complete forms, and might well want to know what these might mean. It’s unlikely that they would be satisfied with ‘being very naughty’ as an explanation for very long. By protecting children, are we not really indicating our inability to communicate openly with them; our problem, not theirs?
And the rest of us? It’s not as if we don’t know the words. We may or may not use them in everyday speech, but that is our choice. We know what they mean; if we didn’t know what they meant, it’s highly unlikely that we would be offended. How could we be offended by something if we don’t know what it is?
So, we still need to be protected? Are we really so sensitive that we cannot bear the sight of such words?
It may be a myth, it may be true, but it is said that there is a spinster’s grave somewhere, with this inscribed on the headstone: 
I haven’t missed as much as you think. 
So your maiden aunt may be more worldly wise than you thought. And how would you explain the inscription to a small child?

13 November 2010

Being reasonable

Who is the reasonable person these days? Who should we benchmark? The Clapham omnibus may still run, and there may well be elderly couples who search Twitter before setting out on a journey to the airport from where they will fly to a foreign holiday destination. Of course, this couple will realise that if their journey to the airport is by car, it will be by far the riskiest part of their journey, won’t they? 
I used this car journey example when trying to explain to patients about the risks of any operation. The riskiest part by far, I told them, was the journey to and from the hospital. Mostly, they had not though about risk in these terms, or perhaps not thought much otherwise about risk. Any activity carries some risk, sometimes quantifiable, sometimes not. And while the risk of any activity happening might be low, the consequences might be severe. You might well think that your chance of surviving a plane crash is poor, yet you have a very good chance of surviving — and to increase this chance, sit well back in the plane, not up front in first class.
Those of us who are not experts often have a skewed view of risk, and most of us are not experts in many fields. We may invoke the concept of the reasonable person (who used to be a man in the days before political correctness), yet we don’t know what this person might know.
Further, the legal reasonable person seems to be a fiction, a concept designed to help the thinking and arguing process. And what a reasonable person thinks is considered to be reasonable, a wonderful if circular argument.
Well, we might say that a reasonable person is ‘normal’ for the circumstances. And in a way this is correct; experts are compared not to the man in the street, but to their peers. If the expert has acted in a way that these peers consider reasonable, then he or she is being reasonable.
It’s more difficult to say what the normal person is in a more general context. You only have to read the newspapers to see the segregation of types of people by age and sex and buying power. Are you generation X or Y, or are you a metrosexual, for example? If you aren’t, then can you be called reasonable? Are any of these classifications ‘normal’?
Are you of normal intelligence, or are you, like the children in Lake Woebegone, of above average intelligence? By definition, normal intelligence is the mean of all intelligences, and is rated at 100 on the scoring system. University students are about 15 points or more above this; are they they ‘normal’ or ‘reasonable’, and should they be comparators? How was your IQ scored? Were you tested using questions based on your ethnic and other backgrounds? The inability to understand the differing ‘intelligences’ lead to the indigenous populations of countries conquered in the days of colonisation being regarded as ‘backward’, for the differing skills needed for survival were outside the mental frameworks of the conquerors.
You probably want to be thought of as reasonable, neither an anarchist not a total reactionary. Someone who might not take everything they heard or saw at face value, but someone who could be a bit sceptical, a bit ‘canny’. And most of us are probably ‘reasonable’ and think of ourselves as being vaguely progressive. Unfortunately, there is a flaw in this, as described by George Bernard Shaw, who wrote:
The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
So, do you really want to be reasonable?


I used to enjoy doing the cryptic crossword in The Times when I was younger. These days, I’ve moved via The Independent to The Guardian, and don’t try the cryptic crosswords now.
I found that I had to get ‘into the head’ of the crossword compiler to be able to understand the code that the clues were written in. Really good solvers can tell which of a panel of compliers has set todays crossword. I found that a good classical education was necessary to understand the clues, perhaps what you get at an English public school. There are rules and conventions for a well-constructed crossword. One old saw is ‘I must say what I mean, yet not mean what I say’. Or, perhaps it’s the other way round. There is a statement within which there are coded clues to a word. If the punning is more outrageous than usual, the clue often ends with an exclamation mark (!), as a sort of warning to the potential solver.  While you might think that setting and solving crosswords is an innocuous past-time, there was a distinct fear in June 1944 that because The Daily Telegraph crosswords contained many of the code words used in the D-Day invasions, the crossword was being used for sending coded messages. Omaha, Utah, Overlord and others appeared as solutions. It was only a coincidence — but officers from MI5 did go to interview the setter.
Printing conventions try to replicate the emotions and emphases of speech, and from an early stage printers introduced marks to indicate how a phrase or sentence was to be interpreted and expressed. If it was a question, there would be a question mark (?); if there was to be emphasis, there would be an exclamation mark (!); and semi-colons, a relatively late arrival, indicated a slight pause, longer than a comma, but not as long as a colon. They are indications of how a passage should be read out loud, for when printing first came, reading aloud was normal; silent reading came later. Before the introduction of paragraphs to indicate a change in the train of thought, the pilcrow (¶) was used in the uninterrupted text, and the indentation of the first line of the new paragraph, as here, is no more than another convention.
 Twitter (twitter.com) is a newcomer to social networking media, though has an extensive following. Messages cannot be more than 140 characters, a limit set by the expected use of short message mobile phone texts as the method of choice for sending posts. From what I’ve seen, many of the messages are more like craic, banter in a pub. The Twitter character limit means that messages must be short and snappy, and it’s common enough to add ? and ! to them, often several at a time, such as !?!?, to indicate questioning surprise.
One of these tweets brought its author before the courts in England. Paul Chambers, tweeting as @pauljchambers, was trying to get a plane from the airport at Doncaster to Belfast, but the airport was closed because of snow. No doubt, it was ‘the wrong kind of snow’, the sort that brings all public transport in the UK to a complete standstill. He tweeted:
"Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!"
Now, the tweet seems to say that Paul is going to blow up the airport (though there is no mention of a bomb). The tweet was not directed at anyone in particular, though all of his followers on Twitter would see it, and being on the public tweet line, could be found by anyone who chose to search. On Twitter, adding an @ before someone’s twitter name indicates that the message is primarily for them. Not here, there was no specific recipient, it was a shout in the Twittersphere.
Look more closely. There is an exclamation after ‘crap’ at the start, serving to emphasise the swear. Paul is annoyed about something, and the swear should alert the reader that what follows should explain it; the reader will have already seen that more text follows ‘Crap!’ and will be seeking this explanation.
Then the factual ‘Robin Hood airport is closed’. This sentence has a full stop at the end of it. There is no direct connection between this sentence and the next, no ‘and’ or ‘or else’ or similar, although the word ‘airport’ is in the second. They are two separate sentences. There has been at least one case before the English Courts where the presence of an ‘and’ (or maybe it was an ‘and/or’) determined the outcome. Common law can be very particular about words. Here, Paul’s annoyance announced in the initial ‘Crap!’ is explained.
Then, there is the curious phrase ‘You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together’. Curious, firstly, because of the time allowed for somebody or something (not exactly specified) to get their ‘shit’ together. How long might a ‘week and a bit’ be? And secondly, this is not addressed to any particular person, though the ‘you’ could refer back to Robin Hood Airport: it need not, and the connection is made in the mind of the reader. It’s an expression of a hope or expectation that something would be done, the ‘something’ being the unwritten ‘get rid of the snow and get the planes flying again’. ‘Shit’ here does not literally mean excrement, but is a common modernism for ‘act’. 'Shit' might also refer to illegal drugs; unlikely, but not impossible. Analytical deconstruction can be taken a bit far.
And finally, ‘otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!’ Note that there are two exclamation marks at the end of this phrase; not a single exclamation, but two marks, an indication that what the words say are not to be taken literally; they do not mean what they say. This is annoyance and frustration being vented in a rather puerile way as a joke.  And it is ’the airport’ and not, say, ‘your airport’ which if intended for a specific recipient it would be. Yet I would suspect that this phrase has been taken as the basis of the ‘menace’ or threat, referring back to Robin Hood Airport as the presumptive recipient.
So, would you consider that the last sentence should be considered on its own, or as part of the totality of the tweet? By itself, and without any exclamation marks, and sent to a named person or authority, it could be seen as so being. Well, think of ’I’ll kill him’. Is this a threat, a menace? Hardly, if it follows ‘If Paul’s late for tea’.  Paul is not really, literally going to get killed even if he is late for tea, though he might get a flea in his ear (and, of course, not a literal flea). There are many similar examples, where the threat or menace is imaginary, a hyperbole.
The tweet followed a series of private tweets or ‘direct messages’ — tweets which only the recipient can read — in which he apparently expressed his frustration; I have not seen them. The context of these tweets might further illuminate the intended nature of the ‘offending tweet’. 
This tweet has been dissected in the English Courts, and found guilty of ‘menace’ or of being ‘menacing’. Or rather, Paul has been brought before the Court as the author, and convicted of sending a ‘menace’. (The prosecution was brought under a section of the law originally designed to protect the sensibilities of telephone exchange operators — at the time of the original Act, they would all have been female. The tweet was never felt by any of those investigating to be in any way a credible terrorist threat.)
Now, ‘menace’ may well have a strict legal definition, and what it means before the Courts may well not be the meaning that the man in the street takes from it: and I am not legally trained.  Lower courts are bound by precedent, that requirement to apply what has been decided before by a higher authority in circumstances which may be dissimilar, that is their hands are tied (but of course, they are neither bound nor tied in any literal way). Would the reasonable man in the street think this was a real (terrorist) threat, a literal ‘menace’? 
The initial imprecation, and a couple of final exclamation marks change the intention entirely; Paul does not mean what he says.

08 November 2010

Rome and the tides

There’s another snippet in the Guardian booklet about the Roman world. “To the Romans, Britain was an exotic, terrifyingly remote prospect, across an alien sea with unpredictable tides”.
My guide to the tides around the Channel show them to be predictable, though there is a large tidal range west from Calais. Of course, the regularity of the tides there was unknown to the Romans.
The Mediterranean is almost completely landlocked, only open to the Atlantic at the narrow Pillars of Hercules. The Mediterranean is almost tideless. No wonder that the tides in the Channel scared the Romans.

Ulysses and the Sirens

The Guardian, with the Observer have a series of small booklets this week about the Ancient World. They are produced in collaboration with the British Museum
Today’s is about Rome and the Roman World. On the last pages are pictures of key artefacts from the British Museum. The last picture is of a wall painting from Pompeii, a seascape. It’s “the scene where Ulysses and his crew block their ears as they sail past the Sirens, lest the song lure them to destruction”. The reproduction is so small that this detail can’t be seen.
Ulysses was usually described as ‘wily’, and was the only person to have heard the song of the Sirens and lived. He blocked up the ears of his sailors with wax, to make them deaf, and had himself bound to the mast, so they he could hear but not be seduced. His sailors couldn’t hear any orders of his to sail to the Sirens.

Rabbit or Coney?

There’s a scene in one of the early episodes of Sex and the City where Miranda introduces Charlotte to a new, improved and essential article of feminine well-being. Such appliances have been around for a surprisingly long time, they were mechanised and electrified over a century ago. Previously, there was medical treatment available, though the physician had to do things manually. The new electrical appliances were labour saving, saved medical fees and didn’t need an appointment. Physicians approved the manual method for the treatment for female disorders, collectively labelled as hysteria. Hysteria derives from hystéra, the womb or uterus. Charlotte’s new accessory was named from a resemblance to a coney’s auricles: it was The Rabbit.
Rabbit has taken over completely from coney, which apart from heraldry and in law, remains only in the collective memory in place names. There’s a Coney Island in New York, and several in N Ireland. Why should a perfectly serviceable, unremarkable word have so completely disappeared?
There is a clue, perhaps, in an entry from Pepys’s diary. Pepys, in the course of his social duties, was interrupted by Mrs Pepys. She, he wrote:
“coming up suddenly, did find me imbracing the girl con my hand sub su coats; and endeed I was with my main in her cunny. I was at a wonderful loss upon it and the girl also”
Didn’t stop Pepys from further chasing Ms Willet, though.
Back to the mysterious disappearing coney (or cony). You and I probably pronounce this as ‘cone - ee’. Previously, it was pronounced to rhyme with bunny. Bunny is probably rhyming slang for coney. There were no rabbits in Britain until the Norman invasion, and no Old English word for them. But there were coneys in the Bible, and as Lessons were read aloud on Sundays, the clergy were unhappy with the usual pronunciation of coney because of its association with the other cunny. The Oxford English Dictionary rather coyly indicates that “the desire to avoid certain vulgar associations with the word in the cunny form, may have contributed to the preference for a different pronunciation in reading the Scriptures”. Also, it seems coney was gradually replaced by rabbit, seen or rather heard as altogether more wholesome.
Would Charlotte have been more pleased with a rabbit or a coney?

Pepys and the de Gaulle Stone

If you like rugged, sparse scenery, try Connemara in Co Galway. Reading a guide on a short visit, I found that General de Gaulle had visited many years before, and that there was a statue of him in a village to commemorate this. Almost inevitably, this was re-named the ‘de Gaulle Stone’, and there are several others elsewhere in Ireland.
An amusing pun, and I’d almost forgotten it until I came across a passing reference to Samuel Pepys’s operation for a gallbladder stone in another book. Pepys certainly had a stone in a bladder, and started his diary after recovering from the operation; he may have had gallstones, but he certainly did not have an operation for gallstones.
Gallstones form in a diseased gall bladder. This sits just below the liver in the upper right hand side of the belly. Gallstones are ubiquitous today, and for example, around half a million gall bladders are removed each year in the United States. Gall stones have been found in Egyptian mummies. It’s pointless to remove the gallstones, and leave the gall bladder — you just grow more gallstones.
The first recorded operations for gallstones and the removal of the gall bladder — a cholecystectomy — were in the latter part of the 19th century. Not before. For this operation a large incision in the belly was necessary, and if the surgical shock of such a procedure, without anaesthesia, wouldn’t have killed Samuel, he would surely succumbed to peritonitis soon afterwards. Now you may say that Caesarean Sections were common enough, so that Pepys could well have had a cholecystectomy, another major abdominal operation. Wrong. The original Caesareans were done on dead women in a desperate attempt to save the unborn child, and the mythology records Julius to have been so delivered. Today, almost all women who have a C-section are alive.
So, we can be entirely certain that Pepys did not have an operation for gallstones. What stone did he have?
He might have had a kidney stone, or one that had passed into the ureter en route to the outside, and if he did, again he wouldn’t have had an operation for it.
He did have a stone in his bladder, the other bladder, the urinary bladder. And he underwent a lithotomy, the operation of ‘cutting for stone’, a very ancient procedure. There’s a reference to in in the Hippocratic Oath. If you are squeamish, I’d suggest you skip the next paragraph or two.
For a lithotomy, the patient had to be suitably prepared, with strong liquor and restraints, and be put into the lithotomy position; lying flat, the hips were flexed to about 90 degrees, as were the knees — the 90-90 position. The barber-surgeon was between the outspread legs. Using a broadish, flat knife the surgeon plunged the knife into the perineum, about half way between the anus and the scrotum. The incision was described as being on the left of the midline, implying that the surgeon was right-handed. The knife was carried upwards and forwards in a relatively avascular or bloodless plane between the rectum and the prostate and so into the bladder. Using his fingers, the surgeon removed the stone. This operation, in skilled hands, took less time to perform than it takes me to describe. As operations of the time went, it would have been one of the more frequently performed ones.
Despite the creation of this artificial passage between the bladder and the outside, the operation seems to have been generally successful, and the opening closed spontaneously. A lithotomy operation does not enter the peritoneal cavity.
There is one long-term complication of lithotomy, though. It didn’t always happen, but at least for Pepys the suggestion has been made that he ‘suffered’ from it — though for him, it would have been rather serendipitous. The seminal vesicles lie in the path of the knife, and were often damaged. The patient is sterilised, a vasectomy by another name.
A bladder stone, but not a gallbladder stone. And an unexpected bonus for Pepys.

06 November 2010

Woolly thinking

“Your thinking is woolly,” my headmaster told me in my final year at primary school. Even at the time, it annoyed me, and I told him I didn’t think it was. I should say that I remained on very friendly terms with him until his death many years later.
He may not have known then, but in retrospect, his comment was accurate. Well, almost accurate. It wasn’t my thinking that was woolly, it was the expression of my thinking that was garbled. Nowadays, I’d get sent for assessment to see if I had ‘special needs’.
Something similar happened to my daughter in the middle of her final examinations at University. One of her tutors told her that her marks in the examinations were not as good as would have been expected from her course work. He asked, “Are you dyslexic?” She didn’t know, but was advised to be tested. She did have a short test which, unsurprisingly, suggested that she was indeed dyslexic.
Now, I’ve never been tested, and there doesn’t seem much point in it now, other than a certain satisfaction in proving myself right, but I strongly suspect that I am also dyslexic.
You may well associate dyslexia with difficulties in spelling, and this can certainly be a presentation. There is another form, or perhaps it’s part of a spectrum, which is much more difficult.
I can have absolutely crystal-clear thoughts in my head, yet when I come to write them, the result is quite mangled. Connections that I’ve mentally made simply don’t appear on paper, often because I’ve left something vital out. And usually I simply don’t recognise this. When I re-read, I seem to fill in the missing bits automatically, so it makes sense to me.
It also happens in conversation. Mostly, I can keep up with the flow, but now and again I go off somewhere, say something totally inappropriate and upset or annoy my audience. I really don’t mean to, though.
I have found some ways to help myself, though it would have been much more useful if I’d known about them years ago. And I don’t mean the pleading for extra time in the examinations.
Putting thoughts down as mind maps is the most useful technique I’ve found. I don’t go for all the visual effects and pictures, it’s enough for me just to put words down, and move them around and create linkages. There are lots of computer programs available now, I use Mindjet’s Mind Manager, largely because it was said to be the best when I started. I like the ability to create linked maps, so that when something gets too big, I can simply link it to another map, and carry on from there. My maps often have connections all over, links to all sorts of concepts and ideas. This is the sort of thing I end up with, though it may well horrify mapping purists:Rome2.jpg
Such mind maps are also very useful when it comes to recalling a topic; I can generally recall a map pretty accurately, and do a quick re-draw, and use this as the schematic if, say, I’m answering an examination question.
A second, much less used tool is a program like Microsoft’s Visio. This is for making diagrams, flow charts, fishbones and so on. Perhaps it’s the effort involved in getting it all into the computer, but I do find that I can use this to construct a logical flow pattern for my thoughts.
This might well mean that I have a visual memory, I remember more in pictures than in words, even if the pictures are diagrams of nets of words.
So, if something you read here doesn’t make sense, now you know why. Dyslexia is not a feeble excuse, it’s for real.

05 November 2010

The fons et origo

It all started when I read a short on-line story. The setting was a silversmith’s in London some years ago. Introducing the heroine as a university drop-out, the author used the word ‘semester’ which I didn’t think was quite right — ‘term’ seemed more appropriate, as ‘semesters’ had not then appeared in university calendars in the UK. Further on in the story,  I came across the hero saying ‘flatware’ when referring to silver knives, forks and spoons. I just could not imagine this bluff northerner using this word, even if it might be technically correct. Now, I did know what flatware meant, for I’d come across the word a year or two before — an on-line candid photograph of a couple of girls balancing ‘flatware’ on their noses; one of those things that teenagers do, and proud fathers snap and post. The meaning was fairly obvious from the context, though I did have to check. Of course, I did have to check.
Well, I thought that ‘flatware’ was a north americanism, and that an english hero — hero in the sense of a protagonist — would have said ‘cutlery’, and suggested this to the author via the social network site Twitter. I was only trying to be helpful, well, that’s what I thought. So I got a reply about the origin of ‘cutlery’, referencing ‘cutlass’. I should have remembered that cutlers made knives, so that ‘cutlery’ in a pure sense might only refer to them. And of course, while knives have been used for eating for ever so long, forks are a much more modern invention. 
Soon afterwards, the author sent me a link to a paper by Umberto Eco, which she had recently read. Eco described ‘Model’ and ‘Empirical’ readers, and she had recognised my type. I had been ‘outed’ as an ‘Empirical’ Reader.
Eco’s paper was pretty hard going for me, and I wobbled at the bit about ‘Piercean semiosis’, though I later remembered that I had actually heard of this. Eco described a scene in one of his novels, and how he had marked out his hero’s steps street by street. A reader seemed to have researched this, in Eco’s supposition, by checking all the local papers of the time (though, in reality, they might have been at the scene) and pointed out a discrepancy. Eco’s book was a novel, an illusion, yet the reader found their perception disturbed by the inaccuracy. A failure of verisimilitude for that reader.
To go off at a tangent for a moment — there will be quite a few tangential moments — I also find this forgetting of things, of information that I should have known quite fascinating. And not just my memory lapses, for I think there is also a collective loss of knowledge about a lot of quite commonplace things. And yet, most of us do actually know most of the answers to the questions that we should ask, though often we don’t ask, we just pass by. Finding the connections that lead to the answers can be challenging. I will explore some of these themes in another blog.
To return to being an Empirical Reader. I have acted as a Critical Reader in the past, though it’s far better to offer a critique than be merely critical. The more I thought about being an Empirical Reader, the more the idea appealed. I wrote up a draft of this blog as an introduction, and asked my correspondent for her view, as it did relate back to her. She replied:
Hi Korhomme,

Couple of things - acting as the empirical reader here :p

I read Eco's "The Author and his Interpreters" a while ago, and the whole passage about the reader who was very disappointed that Eco left out the bit about the fire on the corner struck me as interesting. In all fairness, you are certainly not THAT kind of an empirical reader, but there are people who have a problem accepting 'storyspace and storytime'. Most readers seem to be able to accept that 'Foucault's Pendulum' is set in a fictional Paris, on a fictional 23rd of June, 1984, in the same way that Orwell's 1984 is set in a fictional year. Few people would consider 1984 not worth reading because Orwell 'got it so wrong' but some might. Are there only dystopian futures, but no dystopian pasts or presents in fiction?

If you remember, you critiqued another story of mine some time ago, and in that case you found things that also spoiled the story for you. Some I agreed with and some I did not. As in this case, I think your semester/term point is absolutely spot on and I disagree with your flatware/cutlery point because, as someone who actually worked in a silversmith, I know that forks and spoons are cleaned in a completely different way from knives, which are more delicate, can be blunted and, having lead-filled handles, can be easily split and damaged. Flatware IS the proper term. Had I used the term 'cutlery' to refer to spoons and forks, I'm quite sure someone just like you would have critiqued me on it. (http://www.silver-collector.com/topic127.html) […]

Congratulations on your new blog.

She commented further on a part of the draft which I have excised, but will present in an expanded form later. 
And I’ll be more circumspect in future when it comes to offering comments to authors, particularly mega-intelligent female ones. Perhaps.

The story that started this off, Pleasure’s Apprentice is here. Caution is advised, as it’s NSFW. You can find more of the author’s thoughts on Eco on her site.
Eco’s paper, The Author and his Interpreters, is here.