A Tale of Two Professors

There is a science festival taking place where I live right now. I had tickets for two events. The first concerned cyber security and the various scams designed to part us from our money. The second was an introduction to viruses.

The professor occupying the cyber security slot had ninety minutes to cover the subject. He showed signs of knowing what he was talking about, including footage of himself addressing a parliamentary committee examining the subject, and further footage of Amber Rudd, who plainly hadn’t a clue. (For anyone outwith these shores, Ms Rudd is Her Brittanic Majesty’s Home Secretary.)

The trouble with the professor’s presentation was that he flitted like a butterfly from one blossom to another and so achieved a remarkable degree of incoherence. He also fancied himself as a stand-up comedian, which didn’t improve things at all. Despite his best efforts, I did pick up the odd nugget, such as how easily passwords can be cracked in these digital times and how quickly this can be done.

When I was younger than I am today, which wouldn’t be difficult, I was sometimes confronted by on-screen messages accusing me of having made a syntax error. Well, this particular professor is no stranger to syntax errors either, of the order ‘I had went.’ And despite having ninety minutes, he left no time for questions. Too bad. Given the chaotic nature of his talk there must have been many.

So I attended the second presentation with some anxiety, but it was everything the first was not. Professor Dorothy H Crawford was introducing us to viruses – in more ways than one as she was suffering from laryngitis at the time. The lecture was given in the old anatomy lecture theatre in the building which housed our vet school before the new one was built; hard wooden seating raked to a vertiginous degree but intimate withal.

She was coherent and lucid, with a wonderful command of clear expression.  Though having thirty minutes less than the cyber security expert, she left fifteen minutes for questions. These were many and she answered them equally clearly. Dorothy Crawford is the author of several books on this subject, including Viruses: A Very Short Introduction. I now have a copy of this book, which is excellent, expressed in the same clear language as the lecture. Having said that, many sections will repay repeated reading, as can happen with prose when hardly a word is wasted – doubtless a function of her remit to keep the book ‘very short’.

Below is a link to her Author Page.


In the old days, and maybe it still happens now, students were asked ‘to compare and contrast.’ This I have done.



Rules for Writers

Over the last few years I have come across several posts on this subject. Very often, the emphasis has been on what to avoid. For example, the aspiring writer should avoid adjectives, adverbs, verbs ending in ‘ing’ and the passive voice. My most recent discovery was that question marks should be also avoided – from which I inferred that questions should too. This post concerns one of these only, adjectives.

So adjectives should be used sparingly and, if at all, in a striking manmer. If a given adjective is only to be expected then replace it with something more arresting. This advice will certainly be beneficial to some. These papers first came into my hands a few weeks ago and this is how they began.

‘When the comets with their milky tails race in the inky dome of the sky and Aurora laces her silky skeins over the Ladder Hills, where the stags are roaring and the red grouse call ‘Go back’ warning of danger, just as they had in Jacobite times; when the Cambus Burn runs sweet and cold into ‘The Cardinal’s Pool’, it is hard to think that this peaceful, unpretentious old house sited in its own leafy water meadow, now guarded only by swallows, curlews and peewits, is the same as . . .’

And so it continues. Even allowing for the writer’s old-fashioned cast of mind, it won’t do. When I pointed this out the author admitted to a weakness for ‘purple prose’. At which point, just to keep the pot on the boil and with no serious intent, we take issue with the adjective ‘purple’.

But adjectives are necessary and desirable, Imagine writing a pen portrait of a person or a place with none at your disposal. And who has written pen portaits of this type? (Excuse the question mark.) Many writers have but, the one who stands out for me is Ivan Turgenev.

Clearly (I had to sneak in an adverb) there are many pen portraits in Sketches from a Hunter’s Notebook. Two of the most memorable are his description of lying on his back looking up at the sky through the trees, and his description of making his way through the countryside at night when he has lost his way. But both of these are long. The following combines description with the author’s satircal streak, something which got him into trouble with the authorities. (Yes, I know, I could have said ‘deep trouble’ but held back).

‘TikhonIvanovich willed his estate, as could have been expected, to his most honoured benefactor and magnanimous patron ‘Pantaley Yeremeich Chertopkhanov’. But it brought no great benefit to the most honoured benefactor because it was quickly sold by public auction – partly in order to cover the costs of a monument over the grave, a statue which Chertopkhanov (evidently his father’s blood still ran in his veins!) wanted to erect over the ashes of his friend. He ordered the statue, which should have been that of an angel in prayer, from Moscow, but the man recommended to him to commission it, aware that in the provinces there are few sculpture experts, sent instead of an angel a goddess Flora which had for many years decorated one of the overgrown suburban parks of Catherine the Great’s time. This statue, exceedingly elegant, certainly, in rococo style, with chubby little hands, fluffy curls, a garland of roses on her naked bosom and a noticeably curved waist, was obtained by the commissioner for nothing. So it is that to this very day there stands above TikhonIvanovich’s grave a mythological goddess with one foot graciously raised who looks with truly aristocratic disdain at the calves and sheep strolling round about her, those devoted visitors to our countrygraveyards.’

Turgenev’s most famous book is the novel Fathers and Sons. The translator of my edition has studied the orginal manuscripts and discovered how much trouble Turgenev took with adjectives.

‘Most of all, of course, the working autograph manuscript reveals the struggle of the author to establish and refine the detail. The ‘realism’ of the work can literally be sensed in the minute changes, the finessing process of introducing the right descriptive adjectives into depictions of landscape or clothing or facial appearance, whereas for the greater part the dialogue (except in some of the polemical passages) received far less revision and can therefore be supposed to have formed the voiced or dramatized structure of the fiction, its inner core, the characters themselves being often signalled by no more than initials.’  Richard Freeborn

There are many descriptions in this book.

‘Arkady looked round and saw a tall woman in a black dress who had stopped in the doorway of the ballroom. She stunned him by the dignity of her bearing. Her bare arms lay beautifully against her elegant waist and fine sprays of fuchsia drooped beautifully from her brilliant hair on to her sloping shoulders. Her bright eyes shone calmly and intelligently—calmly, it has to be said, and not pensively—from beneath her slightly pronounced white temples and her lips smiled a scarcely discernible smile. Her face shone with a kind of soft and alluring strength.’

So now we can visualise Anna Sergeevna Odintsova very well, but I hear the objection – you can’t get away with this sort of thing these days. And you probably can’t, which tells us something not only about the use of adjectives but also about ‘these days’.

To conclude, an instance of Turgenev pinning someone down in a few words.

‘His mother, from the Kolyazin family, known as Agathe before marriage but as Agafokleya Kuzminishna Kirsanov in her capacity as a general’s wife, belonged to the tribe of ‘matriarchal battleaxes’ and wore sumptuous bonnets and noisy silk dresses, was always the first in church to go up to kiss the cross, talked loudly and a great deal, permitted her children to kiss her hand each morning and gave them her blessing each night—in short, lived her life to her heart’s content.’

Author Bios

I have some trouble with these. They are usually in the third person, yet we know they have been written by the author. It feels a bit false to me, writing about yourself as if a third party is doing it,

Why is this a concern?  I’m putting the finishing touches to a crime novel and realized my previous bio wouldn’t do. I have drafted a new one in the first person. Can I get away with this, or is the word on the literary street that I should  convert to the third?

Just wondering.


I have traveled through Afghanistan, made bubble gum in Philadelphia and published poetry, some of it anthologized. Several years ago I turned to fiction, finding it a natural fit for a comic sense of life. I live with my wife in a old farmhouse gradually being surrounded by developers who take no account of the needs of wildlife. Since that includes me, I’ve turned to crime.

Coming back to the classics

I was tempted into doing this again by two imprints, both new to me, though no doubt they shouldn’t have been. One is Alma Classics, the other Hesperus Classics. In my case the classics I mean are Russian. When I was young, I read War and Peace and Crime and Punishment, but apart from that knew little of Russian literature. In the lean years since I have read quite a few classics, but none of them Russian. This was not a policy, just a thoughtless accident. The only exceptions I can think of are a two works by Gogol: Dead Souls, and The Government Inspector.

This changed a few weeks ago when I walked into my local bookshop and found myself looking at a large display of two imprints, Alma Classics and Hesperus Classics.

Blackwells 2 web

I snapped up six titles:

The Story of a Nobody, by Anton Chekhov, translated by Hugh Aplin  (Alma Classics)

The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov, translated by Hugh Aplin (Alma Classics)

The Tales of Belkin, by Alexander Pushkin, translated by Hugh Aplin (Hesperus Classics)

Two Princesses, by Vladimir Odoevsky, translated by Neil Cornwell (Hesperus Classics)

Oblomov, by Ivan Goncharov, translated by Stephen Pearl (Alma Classics)

Notes From The Underground, by Fyodor Dostoevsky (Translated by Kyril Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes)

All of these books come with what might be called a ‘scholarly apparatus’. But far from making them dry as dust, I have found these additional sections  very helpful. Typically, there is an introduction, notes, life and select bibliography. Some have photographs as well.

To take one book as an example, The Story of a Nobody is beautifully produced. At the front there is a generous selection of photographs and at the end, after the notes, a brief life of Chekhov with a guide to content in the margin. Before reading this book, I didn’t realise how brutally his father, a devout Christian, used to beat up his children. This is the same father who, hearing that the local Greek school had high academic standards, sent his children to it. Not a smart move since they couldn’t speak Greek. I was sad to see that a photograph of this man has survived. And here is Anton himself.

English: Chekhov

English: Chekhov (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The only thing I can’t comment on is the quality of translation. I have spent many an evening listening in dismay as three Russian teachers descended into heated argument over arcane aspects of Russian grammar. One of them, Harry Milne, had been awarded the Pushkin Medal, but even that didn’t save him when he ventured an opinion. The one thing they did agree on was that Russian is a difficult language. So I feel like awarding the Hart Medal (Oak Leaf and Bar) to Stephen Pearl. Translating Oblomov must have been an arduous task. (Pearl contributes a translator’s note to this edition.)

I came across both these classic series (Alma and Hesperus) in my local bookshop, Blackwells .Blackwells have branches in Oxford, Cambridge, London, Edinburgh, and many other places in the UK, usually where there are universities. The Edinburgh shop is on the South Bridge, very central, and its labyrinthine layout adds to the charm, though maybe not for the staff. They have taken the wise precaution of incorporating a Caffe Noir into the building, entered from the bookstore itself or directly from Infirmary Street.

Blackwells 1 web

Smart move. I like this shop a lot, and not just because it stocks my books.

My Titles Blackwells

Here are links to Alma, Hesperus and Blackwells, Edinburgh. In addition to their stores, Blackwells have an excellent website, and if you sign up tempting offers will appear in your inbox. Good reading!




Blackwells 5 webBlackwells 3 webBlackwells 4 web

Learning a second language (2)

So you have decided to learn a second language, either out of interest, because you need it to communicate with your new mail-order husband or wife, or to ward off dementia. What choices are open to you?

You could sign up for a class. If you do, it may well have a textbook. In the deep past these tended to be more formal than they are now, often moving from one point of grammar to the next as you progress through the chapters. In the more recent past the book may well have come with a CD containing dialogues, listening tests and the like. And nowadays the student might find that the textbook is entirely in the new language with not a word of English to be seen. You could call this the immersion approach, but there’s more to it than that. Instead of being a textbook in the new language aimed at English speakers, it is now a textbook aimed at speakers of any language. This broadens the market somewhat and brings a bigger smile to the authors and publishers.

Classes have advantages. There is the possibility of practising with fellow students and a schedule to keep – especially helpful to those who lack the discipline to study on their own. And the tutor may even be a native speaker. Even if she is not, the tutor should be able to adapt her teaching to the members of her class. But if you don’t go down that route, or there is no intermediate Tagalog class in your town, there are language packages of various types involving CDs, DVDs and interactive websites. How do these work?

It is known that when children come into the world they bring with them a capacity to learn language, but also that as the years pass this natural facility fades and is lost altogether. Adults can still learn a new language, of course, but not in the natural way a young child can. So what are we to make of this example of advertising? The approach to language teaching and learning used by a well-known company is based:

on the core beliefs that learning to speak a language should be a natural and instinctive process, and that interactive technology can activate the language immersion method powerfully for learners of any age.

This implies that an adult can learn a new language in the same way that a child can – the process is ‘natural and instinctive’ – and that well-designed software can make that possible. If the first belief is wrong it’s hard to see how the second can be right. The company may well believe it, but that doesn’t make it true.

It seems there are two main ways of approaching teaching a second language to an adult. At one end of the spectrum openly accounting for grammatical points as they arise, which seems to be old-fashioned now. At the other the use of the ‘immersion’ approach where no direct mention is made of grammar at all but the learner is expected to somehow soak it up or otherwise infer it.

How successful these approaches are will vary with the native ability of the learner but also with the language being learned. All languages tend to be subtle, but in different ways. Spanish seems easy at the outset, though maybe less so when you discover three years on that there are two forms of the imperfect subjunctive, while German may well seem daunting at the outset with all those pesky cases and endings. So many different words for ‘the’ when one would do! Where is this famous German efficiency?

There are many software packages out there, ranging from Rosetta Stone at the expensive end to free apps for your mobile phone or tablet. Given that the adult is no longer a child, how effective are they?

Rosetta Stone, from which the quotation was taken, offer a wide range of languages and one additional feature: you can talk to the software and it will tell you if you are pronouncing words and phrases correctly. I don’t entirely trust this feature. My only experience of Rosetta Stone is Swedish, and I couldn’t help but notice two things. Sometimes the software passed how I spoke even when I was unhappy with it myself. And sometimes it failed me. In most cases I couldn’t figure out why.  Given that I spent the last twenty years of my working life recording and editing words, I should have been able to. On two occasions at least, I got so fed up having my efforts rejected that I actually gave up with the words ‘Oh, for fuck’s sake!’ – at which point the software perked up and passed me on the spot. How can such things be? In a well-ordered world it shouldn’t pay to be rude!

I read a review by another user which also made this point. I shouldn’t mention it but for the fact that it often rejected his girlfriend’s pronunciation and she was Swedish.

In other respects the software works reasonably well, though every now and gain I find myself looking at a fresh screen and wondering what it expects me to do. What the package does not do, however, is tell you anything about Swedish grammar. So if, as an adult, you would like a structure, a grammatical frame of reference, too bad. You have to work it out for yourself.

At the other end of the scale there is Fabulo, a free app for learning Swedish on your tablet or phone. Fabulo have produced apps for several languages, but the only ones I have are for Swedish and German.

Referring only to the Swedish app, I am very impressed. As with Rosetta Stone, grammar is not included, but the user can infer certain grammatical points through the examples. In fact, the examples are plainly designed with this in mind and it is artfully done.


Another problem Swedish packages face is the fact that the Swedish alphabet contains three additional letters which do not appear on the standard keyboard – å,ä, and ö. So what do you do when typing an answer which contains one of these letters? With Fabulo you don’t have to think about it. You type a, a or o, and the special characters miraculously appear above them. (A similar problem occurs in German, which also uses umlauts and always capitalises nouns. Type the correct first letter of a noun and Fabulo supplies the capital.)

The course, for that’s what it is, consists of 47 categories such as ‘Family’, ‘Getting Around’, ‘Structures’, ‘Home electronics’, and a forty-eighth which puts you through your paces on all the other 47. It speaks to you but, unlike Rosetta Stone, you don’t speak to it. (Well you can if you like, but it won’t pay any attention.)

When you come right down to it, though, I feel that an adult learner benefits from some sort of framework or structure and I am not alone in feeling that. Wonderful though Fabulo is, I wouldn’t be getting quite so much out of it had I not had more than a sneak peek at Swedish grammar in the past.

Learning a second language (1)

[When you get older you know you have less time so you cut corners. In this case, the corner being cut is any attempt to follow up assertions with references. For the record, there are several articles on this subject in back-numbers of New Scientist, as there will be in several other journals.]

It seems to me that language is more essential for mental development than is sometimes recognised. For example, can concepts exist without language? We can see a dead body, if we are unlucky we can smell it too, but we cannot see death. Death is a concept. Without language it could not exist. This concept is not one likely to trouble the young child as she develops, but how about this one heard recently in a café? Sit nicely, Stephanie! What will young Stephanie make of that? Should she take the cake out of her ear?

If we compare the development of a child born deaf to one born blind we find that the deaf child develops more slowly as measured by the tests used in education. While the blind child will have certain limitations – colour words being an obvious example – he will otherwise pick up language in the normal way from his parents. This will not be the case with the deaf child who is born to hearing parents.

[A deaf child  born to deaf parents may well learn ASL or BSL which, though non-verbal, are clearly languages in their own right. The main disadvantage of this comes when dealing with the hearing, very few of whom have any knowledge these languages.]

And the hearing child can learn a second language, or a third. I have seen it suggested that this may cause confusion, but the evidence seems to indicate otherwise. If I could go back in time many years and choose to grow up in a bilingual household, that is what I would do. And not just because two languages are potentially more useful than one.

I would argue that the structures and vocabulary of a given language provide a frame of reference for understanding the world. The French speaker has one frame, the German speaker another. The bilingual person can try the picture out with one frame but replace it with another if she finds the world looks better on the wall. Or that the world appears to make better sense. And we take ourselves too seriously anyway: take away the frame and the world still exists.

Can being bi-lingual really change our perception? That well-known language scholar George W Bush certainly thought so when he astutely observed that the problem with the French was that they did not have a word for entrepreneur!

Or take this simple indication. Two groups of people were asked whether certain statements were grammatically correct or not. For example:

Apples grow on noses

People from both groups thought that this sentence was not grammatically correct, but fewer people in the bi-lingual group made this mistake. The fact that the sentence is nonsensical does not mean its grammar is wrong. (Think politicians.) With their experience of two grammars, bilinguals took more account of the structure of the sentence than their single-language counterparts.

There will no doubt be Inuit who have ninety-seven different words for snow. But leaving that to one side, here are some examples I have been faced with by others, three from German, one from Swedish.

I have heard it said that the German word ‘schadenfreude’ tells us something about the German character. In English we don’t have a word describing the joy we take in the misfortune of others but the Germans do. Fine, but while this may tell us a little about the German character it does not account for the Third Reich. After all, the same idea could be expressed in English using a phrase.

Which brings me to Adolf Hitler. My German teacher revealed to us, his long-suffering class, the secret of Hitler’s success. In German the custom is to put verbs at the end of the sentence. So when Hitler was addressing the massed ranks they had to listen all the way through each sentence because, if they didn’t, they wouldn’t know what the verb or verbs at the end referred to. German grammar assured him of an attentive audience. Is there any substance to this? I have no idea, and can see no way of putting it to the test.

On the off-chance a German reader chances on this post, here is a more positive example. In English we have the word ‘collapsible.’ This is not always a good quality in an object. Depending on where your arms are at the time, sitting in a deck chair when it collapses can be a painful experience. Our German friends, on the other hand, express the same concept from the other direction. For them the deck chair is zusammenlegbar – ‘put-togetherable’. Does that not indicate a better way of looking at it? Our German friends are so keen to put things together they keep making Volkswagens, Mercedes and BMWs.

Moving on to Swedish, perhaps my most provocative example. Look away if you are likely to be offended or, alternatively, switch off your set. In English we might say ‘The woman kissed her husband’, and listeners would be suffused with a warm glow at the thought. Nice woman. Friendly woman. Matrimony. Nothing to beat it it. The Swedes, however, realise that there might be a problem here. ‘The woman kissed her husband’ does not tell us whether she kissed her own husband or someone else’s. (For further compromising details, refer to volume three of my autobiography, I Married A Swedish Masseuse.)

So these cunning Swedes have two ways of expressing this:                                          Hon kysste sin man –  She kissed her husband (her own husband)                                 Hon kysste hennes man – She kissed her husband ((some other woman’s husband)

It is always good to be precise, don’t you think? For the avoidance of confusion.


Word of the Week 6 – Compensation

This post really concerns captains of industry and the like who place a high value on themselves and their achievements, or, if they don’t do it themselves, have remuneration committees of their colleagues do it for them. It has attributes of the diatribe or rant.

A normal person is paid. A normal person might work extra days covering for a colleague who is ill and be compensated for this with additional days off. But a CEO in banking or finance doesn’t get pay like the rest of us. When the ludicrous sums of money he receives are talked about, his ‘package’ (pay, share options, pension contributions from the company) is referred to as ‘compensation’. These two uses of ‘compensation’ are significantly different, the second case being a weasel word, giving the impression that ‘pay’ does not cover it for such high performing people. (And, yes, those would be the same high-performing people who caused the crash of 2008.)

Still on this subject, the word ‘earn’ is often used here. But if someone is given several million pounds a year (and even more millions in dollars) the most we can safely say is that the person in question is given this money. I have never seen any serious effort to demonstrate that all of the money involved is actually earned.

And then we have bonuses. Bonuses are said to be ‘earned’ when specified targets are met. How is this process managed? Warren Buffett described it once as follows. Those setting the target fire an arrow, walk up to where it has landed, draw a circle round it and say, ‘Look, we have hit the target!’

And lastly, while on this unsavoury subject, certain people in industry/finance have taken to using the adjective ‘metric’ as a noun. The first person I heard doing this was James Murdoch (son of Rupert) when he was being grilled in a public hearing by a committee of MPs. He obviously thought it sounded managerial.They might say something like, ‘By any metric our business is in better shape than it was this time last year.’ There is no stopping this, of course, but the word ‘measure’ still exists and I, for one, will continue to give it food and water.