Friday, December 02, 2011


So, I arrived in Berlin yesterday and made my way immediately to a rather special place: the Ritter Sport Bunte Schokowelt ('colourful choco-world'). What an amazing place. It's not very big, but there's a lovely exhibition where you can learn all about the history of Ritter Sport and how they are made. In the process, I finally found out what the 'Sport' is all about. Apparently, in 1932 chocolate bars were too long to fit into the recalcitrantly quadratic jacket pockets of football fans, so Clara Ritter suggested to her husband Alfred that they do something about this, and the Ritter Sport was born. (And in case you're inclined to dismiss this as just the kind of nonsense that I routinely make up, here's a link to prove it).

The best thing about the Schokowelt, however, is that you can CREATE YOUR OWN RITTER SPORT. And so I did!

Cherry & Mini Smarties: 10/10
Let's be honest: I would have given this one full marks even if it had tasted terrible. But even so I felt that this combination was inspired. The sour-sweet cherry pieces, a little chewy, contrast perfectly with the zippy crunch of the mini Smarties, all, of course, surrounded by creamy milk chocolate. Mmm. (There's also the option of white chocolate or half-dark chocolate.) Fortunately I had the prescience to order two of these, and will take the other one back to the UK with me - definitely something to look forward to. Ritter, you are a wonderful, wonderful company for giving me this opportunity. I won't forget this!

There was other awesome stuff, too. A polo-shirt, for instance, which I almost bought. Also more varieties than I knew existed: Olympia, chocolate mousse, all sorts of Bio varieties, and more. It was a toss-up between buying all of them and thinking of my health; in the end, I opted for only one, in addition to the variety I created myself.

Mixed Fine Nuts: 8.5/10
It's kind of difficult to distinguish between all the different types of nut (macadamia, cashew, almond) when they're encased in chocolate, but I've found that they get stuck in your teeth during the process, and then you can taste them individually. That warrants an extra half point over the excellent hazelnut varieties. That and it's the special limited-edition jubilee variety celebrating 100 years of Ritter (though not quite 70 years of Ritter Sport), so I was favourably inclined towards it.

As you can imagine, I'm a pretty happy bunny right now!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Li-fi (linguistic science fiction)? Embassytown, by China Miéville

A while back (actually a couple of decades), Geoffrey Pullum published a piece called 'Some lists of things about books'. You can find it in his essay collection The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax..., if you're interested. One of the lists includes Heffers, in Cambridge, as one of 'five bookstores where you can find a really serious stock of linguistics books. How things change. Nowadays, Heffers has one measly case of linguistics books, and it's hidden away quite cunningly, not to mention being populated mostly by Crystal, Pinker and Bryson. But I digress.

Another of the lists presented six science fiction books for linguists. Now it's never been clear to me that linguistics and fiction mix particularly well. Science fiction in particular has a bad rep with regard to linguistic accuracy. In Stargate SG1, for example, it's revealed that the reason the Ancient Egyptians spoke the language that they did was that they were visited by aliens who also spoke that language. Fine, so far, perhaps... but we're then led to assume that the Norse got their language from the grey-skinned Asgard aliens, and that the Romans learned Latin from the mysterious 'Ancients'. All these alien races are completely unrelated, of course. Enough to make a comparative linguist's brain overheat (though fortunately Asgard technology is capable of curing that). Worse still, almost all the myriad human societies they encounter on other worlds speak... English. I love SG1 dearly, but still.

Then Doctor Who and Star Trek cheat by employing a universal translator. (Oh hai computational linguists, could you build me one of those?) And even when alien races are given a foreign language to speak, assuming it isn't a code, or, worse, a cypher like Gnommish in the Artemis Fowl books (why would fairies speak an enciphered version of English?), it's usually constructed broadly as a human language, like the Na'vi language created for Avatar. (OMG ejectives!) In some ways, this is worse; it shows something of a lack of imagination, in any case. There are any number of ways that the different conceptual-intentional and sensorimotor systems of different alien life forms could be hooked up to one another. Why would they all behave like human languages?

In fairness, the works I'm criticizing really aren't science fiction in the purest sense of the term. They all fit much better into a category of 'space fantasy' or 'space adventure' that's far removed from the works of Wells, Clarke, Dick, Capek, Lem and the real pioneers of concept science fiction. Fun though the former may be, I'm always on the lookout for a work of the latter kind that takes language seriously. China Miéville's Embassytown may be such a book.

The Ariekei, or 'Hosts', have two mouths each, and can vocalize only using both simultaneously. More interestingly, their 'language' (known as 'Language') has no deixis, and they are unable to lie (and, by extension, to use metaphor; simile is a grey area). They are also incapable of comprehending Language unless it is spoken by an entity that they recognize as having a single mind, so two ordinary people can't fake it, nor can speech synthesis.

I'm not entirely convinced that all of Miéville's setup actually makes sense, especially the dénouement. But it's really refreshing to read someone who's actually attempted to play with the boundaries of what language is all about. More to the point, the book is a very enjoyable read. And it even has a linguist as a prominent character:
"I got almost all of it," Scile told me afterwards. He was very excited. "They shift tenses," he said. "When they mentioned the negotiations they - the Ariekei, I mean - were in present discontinuous, but then they shifted into the elided past-present. That's for, uh..." I knew what it was for, I assured him. He'd told me already. How could you not smile at him? I'd listened to him with affection, if not always with interest, over hundreds of hours. "Does it ever occur to you that this language is impossible, Avice?" he said. "Im, poss, ih, bul. They don't have polysemy. Words don't signify: they are their referents. How can they be sentient and not have symbolic language? ...
So yeah, go away and read this book. It may not be as page-turningly thrilling as Miéville's other work The City & The City, but it makes up for that with soaring imagination. And to my non-linguist friends: if I ever start going on like Scile, slap me upside the head and remind me of this.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The race to be king

The nominations are in, and it's official: there will be four candidates for the position of Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. They're illustrated above, in anticlockwise order from the top right. (No one can accuse me of being biased, hahahahaha.)

The establishment's choice is David, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, who I've discussed in a previous post. Mary Beard suggests that this nomination reflects 'relative meritocracy'; the implication is that this is because he's donated more than £82 million to the university. I don't quite understand this, I have to say. I'd love to be in a position to donate £83 million to the university and become the new Chancellor. Fact is, I don't have that kind of money. But I don't see why being rich (and hence able to donate vast sums of money while still living in a manor house) means that Sainsbury is the best man for the job. Sadly, to be rich, at least in this country, you usually have to either be born into it or step on the little people's toes. Neither, in my opinion, qualifies one to be the titular head of the world's best university.

A group of disaffected alumni (and me) have nominated actor, author and mountaineer Brian Blessed. There are various reasons to vote for him, some of which, again, I feel have been misunderstood. 'What happened to radical politics eh?' asks Mary Beard. Well, let's get one thing clear: voting for a supposedly apolitical choice over a radically political choice is a political decision in itself. And in my previous post I argued that Sainsbury would be a radically political choice simply by virtue of the message his election would send.

However, for those of you who want a more political choice, there's Michael Mansfield QC. A lawyer famous for representing the little guy in famous court cases, he's made no secret of his left-wing leanings. His nomination originates from some of the academics involved in the Cambridge Defend Education campaign. He welcomes the 'opportunity to defend the principles of Higher Education and critical thinking in particular, which have been steadily eroded by successive governments wedded to market forces'. I'm probably going to vote for him on that basis alone, since he fits the criteria laid out in my previous post perfectly: 'a public figure who's shown support for the general principles of the Defend Education campaign, and in particular opposes the marketization of higher education and research'.

Last but not least we have Abdul Arain, owner of Al Amin grocery store on Mill Road. A one-issue candidate, perhaps, since he's standing in protest at the plans for a new Sainsbury's in the vicinity. Still, I'll be clear that I'm in complete support of independent businesses in Cambridge, and welcome his candidacy on that basis alone. Also, his being elected would add plausibility to his website's claim that Al Amin is 'much more than simply a place to shop'. The Guardian has an interesting piece on his motives and support. Though I find it weird that he claims that 'Most people know me at Cambridge, both town and gown'. I for one had never heard of him before his nomination, and I suspect I'm not alone in that.

So the elections themselves will take place at the end of October, according to this Wikipedia article, by Single Transferable Vote. We'll have to rock up to the Senate House in person. Perhaps wearing gowns (lol). Hopefully there'll be no disgraceful electioneering on the part of the University administration this time, as there was with the ballot on Grace 1 of 23 February 2011, when the head of the English Faculty sent an email to all Faculty staff asserting, without any argument, that "a 'non placet' vote would institutionally be near suicidal".

Let the best man win! (Where best =/= richest...)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Choose the new Chancellor of the University of Cambridge!

This is an important one! If you have a Cambridge masters degree or higher, or know someone who does, be sure to read on.

According to an inconspicuous notice posted outside the Senate House, backed up by this link, Lord Sainsbury has been nominated to serve as the new Chancellor of the University of Cambridge (its honorary top man, in other words). Presumably this is because our beloved Prince Philip is getting on a bit, and it'd be embarrassing to have him die on the job. More interesting, however, is the following:

"This nomination is now before the University's Senate for approval. Fifty members of the Senate may nominate an alternative candidate."

What exactly is the Senate, then? When I looked into this I was surprised to find that it's us, or at least those of us in possession of the rather silly Cambridge MA or another masters degree or doctorate. Yes, that's right: if fifty of us can get together by 17th June to nominate an alternative candidate, there will, as I understand it, be an actual election to determine the new Chancellor.

Now obviously for practical purposes it doesn't matter a jot who's the Chancellor; it's not as if Prince Philip actually does anything in the role, despite the website's insistence that he has "important statutory duties". But the selection of billionaire David, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, sends a clear political message: by choosing a lifelong money-man and politician, who joined the family firm after failing to get the grades to become a scientist, the University would be aligning itself with government and industry, and with the 'new market', rather than with the interests of its constituents in education and academia. Through his Gatsby Charitable Foundation, Sainsbury (former chairman of Sainsbury's) has donated vast amounts of money to various causes. And he seems to be a nicer guy than his dictatorial cousin JD Sainsbury. But his appointment would be a statement to the effect that a culture of philanthropy, where the super-rich give to the poor, is a sustainable and appropriate model for higher education funding. It isn't. As Jeremy Prynne puts it (in the context of a slightly different cause),
All aspects considered, it seems to me now a critical moment to raise a voice, along with Oxford, against this constantly sliding and destructive tendency degrading a coherent policy for Higher Education; university funding cuts, massively increased student fees, major invasion of university self-government (admission policies, etc), together with the ever more proclaimed ‘market model’ for the whole sector. Are we also to end up with a new market-style Chancellor? These things are massively confused and massively wrong, and in default of any more intelligent and joined-up planning they are current government policy.
So an alternative candidate is needed, one who sends the opposite message. Moreover, it would be relatively easy to nominate such a candidate. The question is: who should it be? As I see it, it should be a public figure who's shown support for the general principles of the Defend Education campaign, and in particular opposes the marketization of higher education and research. Any ideas?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Ritter Sport ratings - the state of the art

New varieties. Even though I was in Germany for less than a day, I still managed to pick up four new flavours, all for the sake of you, my beloved readership. Brief notes this time.

Alpine Cream & Praline: 6.5/10
Another fairly unremarkable creamy variety, with a hint of crunchiness. It went down easily enough.

Bourbon & Vanilla: 7.5/10
As liqueur varieties go, this one is great - the vanilla is genuinely flavoursome and not too sweet.

Hazelnut & Almond Crumble: 6.5/10
Crunchier than the first one, but otherwise mostly indistinguishable. A bit too sweet, as I recall.

Corn Flakes & White Chocolate: 8.5/10
Really good! The extreme crunchiness works well for me, especially with the white chocolate which can otherwise be a bit cloying.

So for reference, the overall ratings at this stage are:

Rhubarb, strawberry and yoghurt: 9/10
Milk Chocolate: 9/10
Alpine Milk Chocolate: 9/10
Crunchy Biscuit (Knusperkeks): 9/10
Caramel & Nut: 9/10
Corn Flakes & White Chocolate: 7.5/10
Nougat: 8/10
Cappucino: 8/10
Hazelnut (milk chocolate): 8/10
Hazelnut (dark chocolate): 8/10
Fine Dark Chocolate (Edel-Bitter): 8/10
Rum, Raisin & Nut: 8/10
Orange & Marzipan: 8/10
Fruits of the Forest & Yoghurt: 7.5/10
Peach & Passionfruit: 7.5/10
Bourbon & Vanilla: 7.5/10
Marzipan: 7/10
Blood Orange: 7/10
Raisin & Nut: 7/10
Coconut Batida Liqueur Truffle: 7/10
Vanilla Liqueur Truffle: 7/10
Knusperflakes (Crunchy Flakes): 7/10
Stracciatella: 7/10
Vanilla Cookie: 7/10
Milk & White Chocolate: 6.5/10
Alpine Cream & Praline: 6.5/10
Hazelnut & Almond Crumble: 6.5/10
Sunny Crisp (sunflower seeds): 6/10
Espresso Crunch: 6/10
Half Dark Chocolate: 6/10
Marc de Champagne Truffle: 6/10
Amaretto Truffle: 6/10
Whole Peanut: 6/10
Hazelnut (white chocolate): 6/10
Raisin & Cashew: 6/10
Nut in Nougat Cream: 5.5/10
Dark chocolate with Creme a la chocolate mousse: 5/10
Jamaica Rum: 5/10
Kakaocreme (Cocoa cream?): 5/10
Peppermint: 5/10
Whole Almond: 4/10
Golden Peanut: 4/10
Yoghurt: 4/10
Lemon: 3/10
Egg Liqueur Truffle: 3/10
Coconut: 2/10
Diet Half Dark Chocolate: 1/10

Sunday, May 08, 2011

On the Big Society

My sole remaining grandparent is 89 years old. Her husband has been dead for nearly a decade. She's entirely blind in one eye and half-blind in the other, is unable to hear without a hearing-aid, has skin as thin as tissue paper, suffers from crippling arthritis and cannot walk unaided. She hasa special alarm buzzer to press if she falls, which happens frequently. Yet she's generous, and happy (helped by large quantities of morphine), and upstairs she's sharp as a tack.

For the last 8 or 9 years she's had regular visits from the social services to help her with various things, in particular the preparation of meals, since she's very shaky. Earlier this year she suffered a bad fall, dislocating her hip. For a few weeks they moved her from hospital to hospital, and for six weeks after that they helped her rehabilitate to life on her own again.

Now she's been told that they've reassessed her situation and determined that she doesn't need help from the social services, and that they therefore won't be supporting her at all any more. When this decision was questioned by one of my aunts, she was patronizingly told that my grandmother should try to look for some randomer in the village to look after her. Because of course looking after old people requires no skill or training at all.

There's more to it than her situation changing, of course; old people don't suddenly recover from arthritis and regain their hearing and sight. As far as I can tell, this development is a direct consequence of the Carers Strategy, a recent government initiative, which contains such gems of euphemistic Tory bullshittery as 'Our Big Society reforms will see public services opened to challenge'. More worrying in these documents is the complete lack of any distinction drawn between trained professional carers and those who have no training and carry out the role through necessity. But of course the Big Society is all about people with no training taking on roles at which they will epically fail.

Philip Pullman has put it better than I could with respect to the similar situation facing librarians: 'Does [the government] think the job of a librarian is so simple, so empty of content, that anyone can step up and do it for a thank-you and a cup of tea? Does he think that all a librarian does is to tidy the shelves?' Pullman is 100% right, and his point is an important one even if you don't personally care about libraries, if only to forestall the chilling reductio ad absurdum that our beloved coalition government is currently pursuing. To put it bluntly: few people are going to die because of a lack of trained librarians. With carers, on the other hand...

And soon the NHS is going to be 'liberated', as well. Apparently this new approach 'puts people in the driving seat' - what, as opposed to the monkeys/robots/nodding dogs/aliens/vampires/cheese graters that were there before? This isn't just empty rhetoric; it's empty rhetoric that will kill thousands of people. Please sign the petition to save the NHS if you haven't already.

As for me, I'm tired of trying to phrase my criticisms of this government's abhorrent disregard for society in a witty, urbane, disinterested way. FUCK YOU, David Cameron, you ignorant, slimy, self-satisfied rich kid. FUCK YOU, Conservatives. And to anyone who reads this and voted Tory in the last election: I hope you're fucking ashamed of yourself. You've helped to elect a government that's tearing down our society brick by brick, and putting our country on the road to self-disintegration.

Friday, April 01, 2011

I love my life as a Linguist (a gentle autobiographical sketch)

Got on the train from Derbyshire
Moooved down to a Cambridge home
Got a moustache and an ill-kept beard
Some research papers and a syntax tome
Marking work with a ballpoint pen
There is just one thing in my FLN
I like Merge
We all like Merge

Teaching Middle English for an insufficient fee
Acting like a prof although I have no PhD
I remember when the kids at school would laugh at me
Now I'm analysing their CP
woah o o...

I love my life as a Linguist
All my friends are Linguists too
Come with me let's be Linguists
Haven't you heard? Being a Linguist's cool
Being a Linguist's cool
Being a Linguist's cool
Being a Linguist's cool cool cooool

CorpusSearch app on my laptop
Running queries on Old Norse prose
Present the results at a workshop
Yawning faces in ordered rows
Coolest kids at the training day
Attendance list, look there's my name
I turned up
You didn't turn up

Never take a plastic bag, I always use my own
Plugging in my laptop at the library down the road
Say I'm getting funding but it's really pretty low
I'm the coolest guy you'll ever know
woah o o...

I love my life as a Linguist
All my friends are Linguists too
Come with me let's be Linguists
Haven't you heard? Being a Linguist's cool
Being a Linguist's cool
Being a Linguist's cool
Being a Linguist's cool cool cooool

Ale with pub ice cream
Cartography meets DM vP
Indeterminate theoretical preference
Something retro in my analysis

"Basically I'm a part-time webmaster; I also help design a magazine where all the articles are in different languages."

"I go to syntax pub nights."

"Er, yeah, I once stage-managed a Shakespeare play in a converted bread-oven in Switzerland?"

If that lot doesn't make me a dickhead (in the traditional sense of the word), I don't know what would. Apologies to TheGrandSpectacular, whose original version is superior in every way.