Wednesday, February 23, 2011

More Old Times in Camden Town

There were a number of shops in Camden High Street that I remember for one reason or another. Not good reasons, most of them, not the right reasons, and probably not the right shops, but they are the ones I remember. I wish I had known then what I might want to remember now. I wish I had not forgotten.

There was Ryness, the stationer’s, where we sometimes bought supplies, though not very often, in my case. I think I preferred somewhere in or near Euston Station. I’d never heard of Ryness, and the real reason it sticks in the mind is that a friend of mine pronounced it in a memorable way. His /ai/ was an /oi/, and he had strange s’s, syllabic and palatal, a Shropshire thing, presumably.

The first time he said it I hadn’t even noticed there was a Ryness in the High Street, but I checked next time I passed. I probably went in once or twice. I’ve just looked it up, and it’s still there, except that it isn’t a stationer’s, it sells lighting appliances and associated things. I was confusing it with Rymans, which is odd because I have been in Rymans many times, and I look in to get their special notebooks when I'm in England, and I know it was called Rymans. All of which shows how reliable these reminiscences are likely to be.

There was a small baker’s, possibly called ‘The Little Baker’, which seems to ring a bell. If it is the same one, and I think it is, as it’s also where I remembered, and it is one of the survivors from back then, it is almost alone. The ones I actually remember are gone, and scanning the pictures at streetsensation jogs no memories. Not even the pubs are the same. The little bakery had fresh doughnuts, with just the right consistency and taste, and jam of just the right sweetness. I used to buy them regularly by the half dozen. They were dinner sometimes. It was easier that way.

This was a time when Spud-U-Like was the latest thing in fast food. At least it was food unlike what some of these junk joints turn out (I shan’t name them for legal reasons; insert your own pet hates here). It’s gone now, of course, though the company still exists and seems to be doing well. I didn’t go there much, scarcely at all in fact, despite my deep love of the humble spud in all its incarnations and presentations. Perhaps it’s the Irish blood, perhaps it’s just the way it is, but (many years from now, with a bit of luck) it is possible that the final, rambling sentences that fall from my pen before this blog is shut down for good due to the intellectual incapacity of your humble hedgehog, will be a paean to the potato.

However, returning to business. There was a bed shop called on a corner where the street dipped down abruptly, called ‘...and so to bed’, a name so horribly twee that I’ve never been able to expunge it from my mind. There is certainly no other reason I should remember it as, though I have nothing against beds, I am not inspired to write love-songs to them, and I never went in the shop. It’s long gone from that corner but, again, the company still exists and also seems to be buoyant. Ah well, into each life...

I was stopped late one night (Camden High Street is at its best late at night, or at least at its most atmospheric) by a young Japanese lad who was looking for a shop called Music Machine. We understood each other with some difficulty, but that was what he said and I had never heard of the place. Only now have I discovered that it's what the Camden Palace used to be called. The name changed before I got to Camden Town, and I didn't know.

The Palais is down by Mornington Crescent (which I was astounded to discover was a real place, shortly after I got to London, when I found myself in it), and is now called something else. Tuesday was gay night and they gave away free tickets to get people in, so that was when we dropped by. Music and beer, like a thousand other places. Nice façade, though.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Other Reservoir, and What You Can Find on the Way

The last two weeks or so have been cold and sunny. Sunday was not so cold and that meant the bikes could come out again and we could go and look at some water.

Water means the river, here, the reservoirs and lots of channels and minor tributaries that flow into them. Mrs Hickory wanted to see something new, so I took her on a route I discovered last year which follows a stream north to the larger of the nearby reservoirs, a wild place that looks and sounds like the Atlantic coast as soon as any wind gets up. The stream, especially the start, by the village of Peralvillo, is a favourite spot for birds. We stopped to watch herons of different kinds, cormorants, diving ducks in clashing colours, coots and moorfowl, and further up the stream in the taller trees, storks nests, and the birds, which have just come back from wintering in Africa, were circling overhead and swooping down to the grass for grain and worms.

The country is for wandering in and looking at, long enough to feel a part of it. We had lunch by one of the greener and more hidden banks of a stream, near the reservoir, and counted the paths we haven't yet taken, along the many rivulets, into the mountains, through the villages, and down to the lakes that are not so far away and are full of water now. Plenty of new things left to see, and the spring is only just beginning.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Text, Context and Hypertext, or In which I Ramble on about Something which might have been Interesting without Really Saying much in the End

To what extent, or in what ways, do embedded links in articles and writing on the internet in general, become part of the text, become part of the context, and influence the writer’s concept of the text he is producing?

It is understood that a text has a context, without which it has no meaning, and the knowledge of which allows the text to be properly understood. A text creates its own context, both by what it contains, and by the way in which it explicitly refers to what is outside it, and it also has a context which comes from its accidental relations to the world outside it, over which it has little or no control (where it appears, who reads it, what has been drawn to their attention that morning, how they react to the size and colour of the print, what cultural baggage their upbringing and interests have left them with).

Any number of factors contribute to the context, and therefore to the ways in which they contribute to the resulting interpretation of the text. Full analysis of even a very simple text in this way is probably impossible, but it keeps cultural theorists in a job, and is, when approached properly, an instructive, and to some extent a necessary exercise.

At the simplest level, awareness of the role of context means knowing your audience. Any writer, or anyone at all who attempts to communicate successfully, has to put himself in the position of the listener or reader and get some idea of how what he is saying will be received. At the absolutely basic level, of code and medium, everyone knows this; no one would try to communicate with someone who had a white stick and a Labrador purely by gesture,* and no one would attempt to use Swahili to order a cheese sandwich in Minsk.**

The problem a writer has is that he doesn’t know much about his audience. He is unlikely to have much of a clue about who they are, and still less about the cultural and personal contexts that they will bring to their reading. Yet some attempt must be made to encode meaning in a way that can be more or less understood at least by the general type of reader he expects to have, and the writer will make some attempt to control from within the text the influence of external contexts.

Commercial writers, such as journalists and popular novelists, are also trying to create a certain type of audience; to a degree, the people who read the text are not only known, but they are chosen, by the text itself. Academic writers are almost exclusively concerned with being understood unambiguously by other experts in the field; the communicative context of journal articles is well understood and the language reflects this. For a literary writer, the most important audience is himself.

So it is with journalists and bloggers that we need be concerned, those who communicate information and comment on areas of interest life for a potentially large and unpredictable audience. And the real question I want to ask is, is the content of other texts linked to by hypertext part of the context of the article? And if so, is this sufficiently considered by the people who write the articles?

Having asked the question, I now wonder what the point of it is, and how I can attempt to answer it. Does the writer assume that the reader will click the link, and therefore incorporate the linked text into the reader’s context for the article? Or is the writer imagining it to be background, to be read later if the reader is so inclined, unless the writer specifically tells the reader to click through? Is the writer including the link casually, because you do, without even reading it, perhaps, then immediately forgetting he’s done it? This leads to the possibility, not only of the reader interpreting the context in a completely different way from the writer, or having rather more information than the writer, which can happen in any communication, but to the more extreme case in which the writer hasn’t read what he cites as background (this is common in journalism, and sometimes happens in academia), but the reader has, because he has just been asked to, and so the reader knows that the writer is talking nonsense.

I have been thinking about this for several days, and the only conclusion I’ve reached is that I don’t know how to answer the question, beyond these basic remarks. I’ll post it anyway. It might be improved upon, by me or someone else.

*Although most people don’t stop using body language to accompany speech, even then, in the same way that we don’t keep our hands and faces still when we speak on the phone

**There is, however, a certain kind of Englishman who thinks that waiters have a peculiar ability to understand anything if it’s spoken loudly enough

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Origins of Language

To read theories of language development is to do a particular kind of anthropology. Imagine a village in some remote part of Borneo, and a total eclipse of the sun on a bright spring morning.

‘The sun is dead! The sun is dead!’ will shout the children and the more excitable women, whilst running about in panic.

‘The sun has been extinguished,’ the more earnest young men will report to the leaders, as calmly as possible, because at times you have to report to someone, even when they have just seen it for themselves.

‘It’ll be back. It always does,’ will opine someone’s grandmother with equanimity and the air of infinite sagacity that comes with knowing you’ll be dead before you can be proved wrong.

‘The Gods are angry, you must sacrifice and obey us,’ will say the priests, with slightly overtheatrical authority.

‘Listen to the priests, they know what to do,’ will proclaim the King, in the tone of one who will know what to do with the priests if anything goes wrong.

‘Gather round, children, and I’ll tell you where the sun has really gone,’ will say the only old man the young listen to, tapping the side of his nose, and mentally organizing stories about dragons and celestial fire.

And none of them in fact has the faintest idea of what is really happening.* The available information about the subject of language evolution is so limited, even by the standards of palaeoanthropology, that anything you say is as likely to be right as it is wrong, and is untestable by any normal scientific means.

Just to give a taste of how tricky this is, there are no clues in modern language as to how it developed. All known languages are equally complex, capable of expressing anything that anyone might want to say in them. There is no such thing as a primitive language, nothing that might permit us to study older, developmental stages.

Cognition doesn’t fossilize. We can measure the size of the brain by taking endocasts of skulls, but they don’t tell us much about its structure, and given that there are many animals with much larger brains than ours, size may not be as important as we tend to assume, even in the brains of our close relatives. The Neanderthals had slightly larger brains than we do, but it is not clear that they had greater cognitive ability, and the current assumption is that they didn’t. The detailed structure of the brain that allowed for levels of cognition capable of producing language might have evolved very recently.

The larynx and the hyoid can fossilize, but to say that a given hominid has a lowered larynx similar to ours, allowing greater voicing and control of sound produced, or that it has the bone that we have at the root of the tongue doesn’t mean that Homo neanderthalensis could do what we can do with it.

And the theories are mostly wild speculation, shots in the dark. A darkness the size of Wales, illuminated by half a dozen Zippos. At least we’ve got beyond the Heave Ho and the Bow Wow theories, which for some time were taken rather more seriously than their originators intended, partly, perhaps, because there wasn’t much else. Here and here are a couple of papers which summarize the state of play.

Nowadays you will hear of the attention triangle, universal grammar, the search for recursion encoded in the genome, and similar ideas. Observation of how children learn suggests the stimuli they are exposed to may be insufficient for them to identify how language works, and so it must be at least partly genetic. Others disagree, saying that the amount of information they are exposed to is far greater than is supposed, and is sufficient for the purpose.

Is language an entirely learned behaviour, a cultural artefact like art, humour or music, an accidental by-product of our high level of cognition, a spandrel? Would two babies brought up by a deaf-mute on a desert island develop a language and communicate through it? There is anecdotal evidence of children brought up in a group without any stimulus who did indeed develop communication systems. And similar anecdotal evidence suggests, on the other hand, that such a child on its own will not learn to speak, which further suggests that the mind wants to communicate with others, not with itself. But all of this is little more than speculation, and the experiments, though perfectly practicable, might meet some social resistance.

There is nothing in nature remotely comparable to human language. No other animal communicates with syntax. Chimpanzees have been taught to express their immediate desires by pointing or making signs, but they have a very limited range, no spontaneity and no ability to combine ideas or represent the abstract, nor any interest in doing so. Animal communication bears no discernible relation to ours, beyond the trivial fact that they are aware of each other’s existence. It tells us nothing about the nature or origin of speech.

Noam Chomsky’s answer to this problem was a Deus ex machine. (He does the same with politics, stating that the solution to the world’s problems is x, and ignoring reality altogether.) He decreed that there must exist a Language Acquisition Device in our brains**. However I process this idea, it refuses to become anything but a name for the problem it is supposed to solve.

So we know almost nothing about how language evolved, but it exists, and it is extraordinary, and we would very much like to know how it works and where we came from. It might take a while.

 *It’s like listening to journalists talking, or reading the comment columns in newspapers. Even now, with interesting things happening in Egypt, we get people writing about it from thousands of miles away who are simply inventing stories based on their own and their paper’s prejudices and what they can pick up from Al Jazeera and Twitter. Well, we can all do that, we don’t need them. There are one or two who claim to be in Cairo itself, but they’re talking to the protestors, and hearing only what each individual protestor thinks it’s about, which is not lacking in interest but it doesn’t tell us anything about the political and social situation and gives no clue as to where it all might lead.

**The WP article isn't very gfood but I can't link to the original paper or find a better descripotion of the concept.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

On the Purpose of Tax

‘If we start by assuming that we raise taxes to pay for certain services that are by their nature collective (vg the police) and to pay for certain things that some people are unable to provide for themselves (vg education, health), then we need to determine what those things cost and what is the most effective (and fair) way to raise that money...’ more or less how a thousand essays, articles, blog posts and academic conversations have started over the years, before going on (mostly) to get thoroughly confused about what they want and what it might cost and who should pay and what the effects would be. I’ve done it myself more than once.

The problem with this statement as a premise for argument is that ‘we’ are not the ones raising or spending tax, and those who do so are not assuming any such thing. From the point of view of those who set taxes the purpose of tax is to control the people.

I’ve never been certain whether more people use power to get money than use money to get power, but they are very closely linked, whatever the exact truth. By using the power they have acquired by some means or other, politicians, bureaucrats, tyrants and despots of all stripes will take as much of your money as they can get away with, they will tax anything that moves or that doesn’t, if possible in several different ways. Their first love is liquidity because it’s easiest to get their hands on, which is why income and trade are always taxed very highly- it’s nothing at all to do with equity, efficiency or justice- and their second passion is goods whose demand is inelastic to price change, which is why around 80% of what you pay for alcohol, cigarettes or petrol goes straight to the treasury. You thought it was about protecting our health and saving the planet? Well, it isn’t. These things are taxed so highly because we buy them anyway.

They tax us because they can, so we will have no illusions about who’s in charge. Rulers love to tax because they can stop other people from getting above themselves, becoming too powerful, and can punish anyone who looks like getting uppity (look at how death duties destroyed most of the great fortunes and estates during the early part of the 20th C, and the owners of them thought they were part of the ruling class). They love tax because it makes them wealthy, and it gives them money to pay their supporters, and, when necessary, their armies.

Some, like the bureaucrats who run the EU and the benighted left in general, love tax because they can use it to experiment with their social policy. Thus we hear a lot about unfair tax competition, that crazed notion that all taxes should be harmonized in case a part of one country’s economy should become more successful than that of another country. Utter lunacy, but this is how these people think.

Tax policy has nothing to do with raising the amount necessary for the provision of essential services and nothing, either, to do with real fairness. The thing to remember about politicians, at all times, is, they are not doing it for you.