For the Love of Prepositions Part 9a: games with ge-, y- a-, chaos and nothing

Although language change is heavily influenced by historical and political factors over time, we should not underestimate the extent to which the forms linguistic features take are determined by play.

Infants acquire their first language largely by playing with its sounds and shapes, its vocabulary items and their relation to the real world. Arguably, adult second-language learners should learn the same way, although this may not be practicable in a world in which there is not much time available to spend protracted periods just ‘messing around’.

The other main influence on language change is laziness. No-one wants to play a boring complex game. But no-one wants to play a boring simple one either and will tend to introduce complicating elements to liven things up.

Mainstream linguists lazily tend to boil down this complex interplay of playfulness, laziness and historical determination to mere arbitrariness. This, however, tends to blanch all the meaningfulness and fun out of language, reducing it to a bare skeleton of reductionist syntactic structures, supposedly related to intracranial synapses and the stern commandments of evolutionary biology and, as a result, overlooking the role that historical and cultural diversity and other idiosyncratic creative features have to play.

My fondness for prepositions is fuelled by the way that these little words, while apparently complying with their assumed arbitrary subservient status, are forever impishly defying the assumed arbitrary authority into whose service they are pressed, marshalled or cajoled.

Sometimes they are reduced to ghosts. But even that does not deprive them of a certain revenant power.

Take ge-. Every German speaker knows that ge- has a clear function in the established grammar of the Teutonic language. It indicates the past participle of a verb. Some might, albeit unconsciously, connect this with the ancient meaning of ge- as ‘together’. The idea of the perfective aspect in Old Germanic is connected with the idea of putting things together, tying things up, finishing things off and cutting off loose ends, to create the perfect Hegelian synthesis (Gestalt), in which the real truly does conform to a noble but potentially dangerous ideal.

English and other more peripheral Germanic languages started losing this ge- prefix quite early. Old English was already reducing it to y- and this process was accelerated by a constant influx of Danes on Viking long-ships, who were inclined to drop it altogether.

Y- persists as a badge of erudition and connection with tradition in Middle English and even later as an affectation, by now hopelessly confused with the a- prefix, which came, by happenstance, to have exactly the same pronunciation, and perform a merely decorative, at best metrical, function, with a soupçon of the original sense of ge- thrown in.

The times they are a-changing.

Nowadays, a- seems more laughably pretentious than ominously portentous and ge- irrevocably consigned to the garbage bin of linguistic history.
And yet, the ghosts, as ghosts do, have a way of not wanting to stay put in the ground.

“Game” is a word that is certainly on the rise, be it as a form of virtual entertainment that mimics physical sports for the couch-bound obese or as a euphemism for the gambling industry that is the sleazy sibling of presumably nobler financial transactions on which the whole world economy now depends.
“Game” is also used to refer to near-extinct species of wildlife corralled onto reserves as easy target practice for aspirant demagogues, the entitled and the super-rich.

It is also used as an adjective to imply willingness to enter into the team spirit, with an undertone of necessary humiliation. A whole ‘Game for a Laugh’ style of candid camera TV reality comedy shows have based themselves on this premise of the group humiliating an individual and the humiliated victim being expected to endure the further humiliation of publicly accepting this treatment in good grace. The process is so effective that North Korean dictators have recently used it as cover for surreptitiously assassinating their enemies in plain sight.

It is all just a game.

The English word game derives from Old German ‘ge-Mann’, meaning a group of men together and by extension the kind of things that a group of men tend to get up to together: getting pissed, pissing around, picking fights, plotting and conspiring against one another, harassing women, trashing the environment, and claiming that the resulting chaos reflects the natural order of things. Fair game, if not fair play.

Ge- is thus, through this seemingly benign word, in a disturbing manner, muscling its way back into the English language.


For the Love of Prepositions Part 8 …but

In Part 7 of this series of posts on prepositions, I noted that ‘and’ often has a more prepositional than conjunctive flavor in modern English, outlined its nobler etymological pedigree and speculated as to the reasons for its fall from grace.

‘But’ has arguably fallen even further. Its etymological ancestor combines no less than three separate antique prepositions ‘by’ ‘out’ and ‘on’.

Clearly, like ‘and’, it was originally used as a grand contrastive flourish at the beginning of a phrase, like ‘however’ or ‘nevertheless’ nowadays. And, like ‘and,’ its use in this position should certainly not be chastised. I have always been particularly fond of the peculiarly Australian positioning of the word at the end of a sentence, with rising intonation (of course)—a colloquialism clearly derived from ancient usage that may itself already be outdated by now. Similar to the use of ‘not’, in ‘not-type’ jokes, this adds a degree of smirking tongue-in-cheek suspense to an otherwise banal statement.

“But” can still be sharp as stiletto, when it chooses to be so.

I end this post with a question.

What is the difference between the following two phrases?
1. a bold but rash move
2. a bold, albeit rash, move

Both clearly mark a contrast between the two adjectives used by the speaker/writer to judge the move. But, which is the stronger contrast and what exactly is the nature of the difference between the two, if any? Which adjective (if any) outweighs the other across this fulcrum of ‘buts.’


Tell me, boy! what you get from our girl
& free yourself from her handcuffs & chains!

After all, we don’t expect the errand boy to turn up empty-handed, do we?
& a slave always tells a truer tale with the thumb-screws on.

So, spill the beans, boy! Reel it off right from the start!
I’m all ears. & don’t try to fob me off
with some lovey-dovey shit sob story you think I want to hear.

Have you seen her yet in a state with her hair-do all undone?
How much water fall from her eye?
Have you seen her, boy! smash her compact across the bedsit wall
& kick her locked bauble-box away under the bed
& wear nothing but that same frumpy grey top over her tits day after day?

Say how her dirty black hands ain’t got no gold drippin’ from ‘ em no mo’.
How her place got an atmosphere you need an ice-pick to get through,
with her little sistas all a-gettin’ at ya all day
to tell you what got into her and what you done to make her that way.

Does she do nothin’ all day but watch crap on TV
& fill the ashtray with un-lipsticked Malboro stubs
& Hershey wrappers and tear-drenched Kleenex screwed up in little balls?

Does she jerk up and cry out in her sleep
to pick up an old bone she has to pick with me? Sleepsaying:

“You man enough, to keep your oath, lover boy?
Your word your bloody bond, boy! your ball and chain?
Perjury put you away a long stretch, boy!
You gonna do me like he dumped me, lawyer boy!
Like trash in the can, like a tramp
wi’ no place I would ever wanna call home.
He happy seein’ me like my soul
rot on death row? He think me happy you doin’ me
one, doin’ me over, doin’ me in with your manhood
& your fists like he do, far better than you, lover boy!?

“Some other bitch hook him sure and not with her cool looks
& sweet winnin’ mamma ways, no. I’m tellin’ you, lawyer boy,
she drug him, sonny, with her big wet, furry, black Santa Claus,
with her gramma’s herbs & her brother’s cheap shit-hot crack
& a ragged poppet crucified on twigs in the woods
& smeared with ooze of punctured toad
& viper-bite to draw-draw the love-juice from his flabby bones
& chicken-feathers found round a grave glued to his zombie heart
& a scrap of a shroud round his undead head
& she torched the poppet of him on a doll’s house funeral pyre
so he go up in smoke and love.

“Get it down, lawyer boy! expert witness to my dreams?
‘Cos if you don’t, I’ll have my way with the both of you,
when it all goes on to appeal. I’ll get my sweet revenge
with both of you, writhing at my painted toes like snakes or worms.
There’s still some black-assed widow a-weaving her web in your empty beds,
lover-boys! & you can have Venus and Serena
in there at the same time, honeys; I still got you
in my crosswire, lover boys!”

& when you got it down, boy, come a-runnin’
& bring the goods to Daddy, like some mista
kicked you up the ass to get you a-movin’ boy!
Cryin’ your testimony like a baby,
paid for by nights with her. Admit it, boy!
She ain’t cheatin’ on me with a toy like you;
she’s just a-playin’ with you to hot me up. On your oath, boy!
Tell her I’ll be checkin’ into rehab
& a-keeping ma prick clean for a spell
& she’ll be back.

‘cos, boy!, if I get to make up & make out
after this little Civil War,
I’m your Abraham Lincoln, boy!
& you better sure thank me & God & the Constitution
& your fucking lucky stars & stripes
for setting your black ass free.

Propertius III.v

Love and those of us who like fucking love peace;

and I, for my part, am happy enough with a favor

won in a virtual spat from a chatroom dominatrix.

I’ve not got one thousand nodding donkeys

pumping crude from the fat of the land in East Texas;

I’m not interested in snapping up Liz Taylor’s

cast-off diamond necklaces; and you won’t find me

done up like a ponce in Armani or Pierre Cardin.

But that is not to say that I am ready to slap on a flak-jacket

and go kick the ass off the axis of evil for the good of good old Uncle Sam.

Some foreign egg-head’s at the back of all the ills in the world,

I know. But he’ll end up with 2,000 volts, courtesy of

Enron and the Federal government, thumping through his liver

on a prison hospital bed one day for sure. So, I don’t care.

What are brains worth when they’re fried, mister? The only way

is the righteousness of the born-again dumb-assed soul. God bless!


Now, the anchor with the blond bob and the tits on CBS

says it’s getting rough in the sandstorms out there

but we’ve got the bastards on the run, of course,

and superiority in the air and technological stealth

and smart bombs and sensitivity to collateral damage

and depleted-Uranium-tipped tomahawks

and an overwhelming sense of right will always prevail.

But I say, after a beer or three, on the sofa

that you can have or have yourself a gilded bathtap

from a Presidential palace in Baghdad,

but you can’t take it with you, can you,

if you end up some skeleton in uniform

with your bare dumb ass sticking out of a dune.

The bones and the stinking sun-dried flesh

of homeboys and aspirant blue-eyed all-American superheroes

get ground up all the same by the eroding desert winds and mixed

with those of the Fedayeen.

Howard Hughes, Adolf Hitler, Marilyn and JFK

wind up in the same sorry shipwrecked boat

as the rest of us, once they’re dead.

That’s why I prefer heavy metal music

and working out my adrenalin in the crush

of a Kiss concert and, while I’m still young,

dedicating myself to Stolichnaya and Peter Stuyvesant

and long-necked Buds and long hair

and head-banging and amphetamines

and a fuck for the groupies who didn’t get lucky that night.

Till I’m too old and bald for that sort of thing.

Then I’ll mellow out and enrol

on a night-school course as a mature student

and study astronomy, and weather science or law.

Because I’ve always wondered why the moon

rises and falls and grows fat or thin by the month,

and how we used gravity to visit it

and why twisters come from time to time

to trash trailer homes and why there is always clouds and rain

over our holy land and why God paints a rainbow

through the sky when sun shines through purple haze

and why the tops of the pines sigh and shake in the wind

in National Parks and why, lying stoned on your back

all night on Summer Camp, the Plough goes round and round

the Northern Star and never dips into the lake and why the Seven Sisters

stick so shiningly and close together like Motown sistas

and why the sea doesn’t fly off into space

like an Apollo rocket

and why seasons and moods come and go.

And in Church I’ll learn of the hell

Where whores are broken on wheels,

and evil Nazi doctors are chained to crags

and operated on, without anesthesia,

and the unfairly wealthy are forced

to endure an eternal thirst

to the sound of Evian water dripping out of reach;

and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

are constantly a-sowing a pandemic of AIDs, rattle-snake bites,

bipolar disorders, anorexia, smoking, obesity and diabetes

over that shady, inescapable place

guarded by Rottweilers and sharks.

But I’ll know, because by then I will be an educated person

and wise through age, that all of this is merely a necessary

illusion for the dim-witted and the blessed,

who, of course, can’t handle the grim reality of cremation,

oblivion and death.

When I die what will remain of me

will be simply this simple life that I have led, am leading

and will lead.

And I leave it you who

like crew-cuts and guns and the stars and stripes

close to your breast

to do the very worthy job of National Defense.


For the Love of Prepositions (Part 7) And…

Someone once asked me whether ‘and’ is a preposition or a conjunction. I thought this was an odd question at the time but, with the wisdom of experience and age, I have come to wonder whether there might indeed be some doubt as to the classification of this little functional word.

In recent years, I have been lumping all conjunctions, prepositions and referential words (like ‘it’, ‘this’, ‘who’, ‘that’ etc.) together and just calling them all ‘link-words’. They all do more or less the same kind of job and, although it is a humble one, it is vitally important. Consider the heavy lifting the word ‘it’ does (twice) in my last sentence. These lexical manual laborers account for around 25% of all written text in English and far outnumber verbs.

“And” is used in two distinct but obviously related ways. First to join two noun phrases or qualifiers (adjectives and the like) together (‘apples and pears’, ‘red and white stripes’); and, secondly, to indicate that one action follows or is accompanied by another (‘she closed the door and left’). In the case of the first of these uses, it behaves in a manner similar to the category of words described as ‘prepositions’ in the traditional nomenclature. However, when linking two phrases, it fits more comfortably into the ‘conjunctions’ category.

The hybrid nature of ‘and’ goes way back. Etymologically, it is a fusion of a variant of the very ancient ‘en/in’ preposition/prefix and the spatially referential word ‘da’=’there’. Literally, therefore, it originally meant ‘in there’ or ‘thereupon’ and was a far fancier formulation than it appears to be now, shorn even of its vowel and final consonantal cluster in ‘fish ‘n’ chips’ and ‘rock ‘n’ roll’. This etymology also shows that its original usage tended to be conjunctive rather than merely additive.

Being used simply to link nouns and adjectives into a chain was a big step down in the world for once haughty ‘and’. And its fall from grace has been so steep that some modern-day prescriptivist grammarians would forbid its use at the start of a sentence, even though (or perhaps because) this was its main and much nobler function in pre-Norman Anglo-Saxon England.

Propertius III iv

[I am becoming increasingly aware that various phases of my poetic production over the years are nearing completion (or at least exhaustion). Earlier this year, I published ‘final versions’ of 64 and Sonnets on Autism and, over the next few days or weeks I shall be publishing the ‘final versions’ of my series of Propertius ‘translations,’ along with one more light-hearted translation of an Ovid poem, making eight in total.

This week, I re-read all of Propertius’s oeuvre and concluded that I have already produced versions of all the poems that are at all amenable to my own peculiar treatment. The others are great poems also, but I am interested only in working on those in which the over-riding theme of love and sex overtly overlaps with politics.

The first of these poems, which I publish today, was originally written in 2003. Unlike most of my work, it is an explicitly political piece, protesting George W. Bush’s war in Iraq. Like many of Propertius’s poems, it is written ironically in the voice of someone who purports to support the war. Sadly, it still seems very fresh in these Trumpian times, fourteen years later.

All of these poems contain vulgar language and opinions (not my own) that may upset some people. Reader discretion is advised.]

George the Third is at war again in the filthy, rich middle

of the world to the east. Aircraft carriers

have carved up the seven already dirtied seas. Our Dear

First American Citizen is worthy of great deeds,

planning to unfurl the flag of freedom over the ends of the Earth,

bringing rivers that breastfed the first civilized

peoples and the first dictatorships

under the sway and yoke of the mid-west way of life.

Shi’a cedes to chapel and hypocrisy.


State-of-the-art fighters and frigates are sent out

and armed men in harm’s way

do their daily duty as drilled.

And the fact that I am even able to write this poem

is already testimony to the freedom we will win

for others and the vengeance we will do

the Manhattan dead.


Do your bit, boys, for our history books!

And—by the stern Puritan Lord of the Torah,

and by our mother Mary of candles and limpid eyes—

I pray I see, before I burn myself out,

the oil flowing back along the highways of righteousness

into our limousines and SUVs;

proven weapons programs laid to rest

by wild captives

broken in by interrogation;

and fanatics in turbans and skirts put away

forever in the penitentiary system,

or simply put to death; old allies

making the right noises of obedience

as we march them up to press-conferences

in the Rose Garden after tea to atone.


And I’ll be there to watch and applaud,

with a girl’s breasts resting against me,

as we read  the names of the dead off

the black stones and the names of the cities overthrown

from the sofa on CNN.


For we know

that the most important right bequeathed us

by the Founding Fathers, and the movie starlets

and the heroes of war, is the right to fuck.


The oil-wealth goes (rightly) to those

who wheedled and fought for it. And we, in turn,

get the right to pop-corn and a pair of tits,

and to line the Sacred Way from White House

to Congress, and to sing the praises

(we the bigoted and the obese)

of our leaders and our heroes,

and happy (under the comfort of a heavy police presence)

laud our holy way of life.


For the Love of Prepositions Part 6–On ‘on’

“On” is an overlooked preposition. It does so much linguistic housework for us, but we tend (if we are native speakers) just to watch it working as onlookers and take its work for granted, or (if we are language learners) to be infuriated by its seemingly arbitrary distribution compared to ‘at’ and ‘in.’

‘On’ is belittled from the outset by grammar books that present it in hackneyed ‘the book is on the table’ type phrases, suggesting that it is just about something resting passively on top of something else, depending lazily on gravity the way drug addicts depend on drugs. But, if my cat is ‘on television’, it means that my Facebook pictures of her have gone viral and she has appeared regularly in one of the more light-hearted segments of the Nine o’clock News. If she is ‘on the television’, on the other hand, she is just slumbering on top of an old-fashioned television apparatus, enjoying its warmth. Cats must hate flat-screen TVs.

Humble little housekeeper of a word that it is, ‘on’ still has a certain arrogance about it. It is always ‘on top of things’, ‘on to things’, ‘on the way somewhere’: a resourceful upwardly-mobile little word. “On’ always arrives ‘on time’, neither too early nor too late. It is always ‘on message’, always ‘on the job;’ it just goes ‘on and on’.

Catalonia, Scotland and Kurdistan

All nation-states are oppressive artificial constructs, but some are far more oppressive and artificial than others.

In the relatively short history of the nation-state-based world system, few artificially engineered national units have been more oppressive than those of Spain, the United Kingdom and Iraq. Despite recasting themselves in recent years as liberal democracies, these supposed nations are still at root brutal ethnocentric hegemonies. Scratch the surface and you get a nasty response, as was plain for everyone to see in the ugly events that unfurled in otherwise super-civilized Spain last weekend.

Spain was never meant to be unified. The Greeks, Carthaginians and later Romans and Vandals wisely colonized only the Southern part of the peninsula and this geopolitically savvy foreign policy was continued by the Muslim régimes that ruled southern Spain well into the middle ages.

The so-called unification of Spain was an event of great cruelty and brutality, involving ethnic cleansing on a grand scale, mini-genocides and the imposition of a system of cultural engineering based on inquisition and torture. You could be arrested in the Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella for eating aubergines.

This unholy legacy persisted on the peninsula well into the 20th century, with the focus of opposition to the centralized Catholic authoritarian state shifting from traditionally multi-faith Andalusia to nascent socialist and Republican movements in Catalonia and the Basque Region. These regions were subsequently brutalized by the Franco régime. Guernica has become, thanks to Pablo Picasso, a by-word for man’s inhumanity to man, but few remember that it was chosen as a target because it lay within the ‘troublesome’ Basque Region.

Franco’s régime persisted, unlike those of Hitler and Mussolini, down until the mid-1970s. Philip K. Dick’s fantasy alternative history, in which Germany and Japan win the Second World War, was very much the reality in Spain. You could be arrested for reading Lorca; the beautiful and culturally enriching Basque and Catalan languages were discouraged or banned.

Since then, Spain has attempted to reconstitute itself, somewhat clumsily, as a quasi-Federal state organized around an artificially restored national monarchy. Tensions, however, remain. While the Basque Country has become the rust belt of the peninsula, Barcelona and its environs has flourished and regained much of its former glory, while the rest of Spain languishes under the aftermath of a government-induced debt crisis. Catalonia has its own local cultural heroes, quite distinct from those of Spain—Gaudí, Miró, Tapiès. The skills of the Barcelona football team—the unofficial Catalonian national team—are greatly admired around the world and, unlike most other successful international football teams, Barcelona FC is owned, not by a Russian oligarch or Thai businessman, but by its fans.
Scotland and England have a long history of being bickering neighbors. Scotland, being smaller, less populous, and colder, has generally come out worse in the long series of conflicts. Nevertheless, there have been periods during which Scottish culture and science and government have been far in advance of that of England or what would later become the UK. Scotland was a resilient pioneer of Protestant reform and religious tolerance, while England’s Bloody Mary was sending clerics to the stake. In the 18th century, the intellectual Enlightenment took root in Scotland far sooner and more deep-rootedly than it did in its sister-nation. Adam Smith, David Hume and James Watt were all Scots. Scottish technocrats, however, have been routinely excluded from power and relegated to the engine-room (like ‘Scottie’ in Star Trek), both during the British Empire and in subsequent London-centered regimes. Look what happened to Gordon Brown when he was elevated from the ‘engine room’ of the Treasury to the ‘bridge’ of the Premiership. Scots have recently come into the ascendant again—upholding basic Scandinavian-style human rights, tolerance and social justice against English elitism and neoliberalism and affirming their commitment to the ideal of European Union, while England languishes in nostalgia for a more illiberal, militaristic, mercantilist age.
The history of Kurdistan is perhaps less well known, perhaps because these people have never enjoyed the comforts of their own nation-state. The Kurds are the largest ethnically and linguistically homogeneous group in the world not to have a nation-state of their own. This is a huge gash of injustice that vitiates and destabilizes the whole Middle East and threatens the wider world.

Always culturally and linguistically distinct from other parts of the region, Kurdistan has historically been overwhelmed by more powerful surrounding nations and empires. Vied over by the Persian Safavids and Ottoman Turks in the early modern period, after the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the peoples of this region were first promised independence by the Treaty of Sèvres. The Allies soon, however, reneged on this deal, bullied by Atatürk’s growing nationalist movement in Turkey and preferring to incorporate the rest of the Kurdish population into their own recently created artificial imperial ‘protectorates’ of Syria (overseen by France) and Iraq (overseen by the UK).

Despite the brutal politics of the region, this arrangement has persisted more or less intact to this day. Kurds in Turkey have been routinely excluded from power and denied the use of their native language. In Iraq, they were brutalized by Saddam Hussein, before being corralled into a US-protected, but not independent, zone, in the aftermath of the First Gulf War. Up to and including the recent referendum, appeals for Kurdish independence have been met with deaf ears or outright hostility by surrounding nations and global powers alike. Kurdistan’s only ‘friend’ in the region is Israel, a nation with which it shares a somewhat similar history and projected destiny.

In the recent conflicts in Iraq and Syria, the Kurdish Peshmerga has been instrumental in putting down the vicious religious bigotry of the so-called Islamic State uprising. Different from almost every other nation in the region, Kurdistan promotes genuine democracy, egalitarian social policy, religious and ethnic tolerance, gender equality, and the true values of Islam. It is a baffling miscarriage of international justice that the soi-disant liberal ‘international community’ has consistently refused to support the Kurdish cause.
In a famous essay, Tom Nairn described nationalism as being Janus-faced. There is a good kind of nationalism, looking forwards towards the future, promoting freedom for oppressed peoples and cultures, without fear of sharing this future with other cultures and peoples different from their own. On the other hand, there is the bad face of nationalism, which looks backwards towards imperialism and intolerance and forges nation-states as empires writ small and attempts to impose hegemony over cultural diversity.

This subjacent ideological divide, more emotionally powerful than the struggles between capitalism and communism, liberalism and authoritarianism, has always been the defining ideological conflict of the modern age and it is one that recent events in Catalonia, Scotland, Kurdistan and elsewhere suggest is coming to a head. Let us hope and pray that it does so in a manner that is more liberating and inspirational than marred by tragedy and violence.

Markov Chains

I recently tried watching a movie on YouTube with the automatic subtitles feature turned on. The result was hilarious. “Good bye!” was routinely transcribed as “Good behind!” And the exercise confirmed my belief/prejudice that there is no such thing as ‘artificial intelligence’. All intelligence is natural and all living creatures possess it in equal and abundant measure. All computers by contrast are obstinately dumb.

The frustration of watching a film with computer-generated subtitles also provides some solace for language learners who struggle with listening skills. Complex algorithms developed by the boffins at Google suck at this much worse than you do!

I subsequently went online and did a little research into how the coddled techies at Google come up with these ‘speech recognition’ algorithms and I discovered that they use something called Markov chains. So I had to Google that too, fully aware that, by the very act of doing so, I might be entering into a perilous feedback-loop sample bias.

Not being a techie person myself, I spent my first evening of research reading up about Prof. Markov himself and wondering at 1) how Markov originally discovered this mathematical truth by examining patterns of alliteration in classic Russian literature; 2) how this late 19th century entitled nerd and his protégés somehow all managed to escape Stalin’s purges; and 3) how this arcane marvel of Soviet mathematical discovery somehow made its way across the Atlantic (or the Arctic) to become a mainstay of modern-day Western informatics.

Day 2 of my research into Markov chains, I started watching a series of lectures on them that were easy enough for me to understand. On YouTube of course—but with the subtitles firmly in the off setting.

Three days later, I feel I have a fairly good grasp of the basics of what Markov chains are, although I am still puzzled and highly skeptical as to how they relate to speech recognition algorithms.

Markov chains concern chains of probability over time. In classical probability theory, each event is independent of the other, so that, however many times you toss a coin, the probability of it coming up heads or tails (providing the coin is not doctored) is more or less 50% either way.

In Markov chains, however, each iteration of an event changes the probability of the next in a predictable way. So, rather than each toss of the coin being independent of the others, throwing heads once, for example, increases the likelihood of throwing heads again on the next throw. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that throwing heads on one throw makes throwing heads on the next throw 10 percentage points more likely. So the probability of throwing heads the next time is 60%, while the probability of either result after throwing tails remains the same. So, the probability of throwing heads followed by heads is 0.6, that of heads followed by tails 0.4, while the odds of throwing heads or tails after throwing tails remains 0.5 either way. [Ideally, I would insert a matrix here, but I haven’t been able to work out how to do matrices on WordPress, so you’ll just have to imagine that, if you can.]

Supposing that the first toss was 50:50 (actually it doesn’t matter what the initial odds are), the odds on the second toss will be 0.3 for heads to heads, 0.2 for heads to tails, 0.25 for tails to heads and 0.25 for tails to tails. [Again, this looks nicer or at least neater in matrix form.]

Adding up the probabilities for heads and tails on the second throw, we get 0.55 for heads and 0.45 for tails. The probability of throwing heads, unsurprisingly, has gone up.

But what will happen, if we repeat this process over and over again? Intuition seems to tell us that heads will become increasingly more likely. But intuition is a bad guide in mathematics, just as mathematics is a bad guide in real life.
In fact, if we repeat the process just 20 times, the probability of either outcome stabilizes and thereafter remains the same ad infinitum. You will get heads 5 times out of 9 and tails 4 times out of nine. That is the magic of Markov chains…

We can go further and other patterns emerge. If we increase the likelihood of a throw of heads generating a subsequent identical throw steadily from 0 to 1 by increments of 0.1, while holding the probability of tails to tails steady at fifty-fifty, we get the following sequence of steady end-state probabilities for each scenario, as we approach an infinite number of chained subsequent throws: {5/15, 5/14, 5/13 ,5/12 ,5/11 ,5/10 ,5/9 ,5/8 ,5/7 ,5/6 ,5/5}. The pattern is clear.

We can even project the Markov chain for this series backwards and forwards into ‘imaginary’ realms of probability, in which odds can be negative (i.e. less than zero) or more than 100%, and we get the following graph, which looks like some kind of logo or religious symbol.

Markov logo

I never cease to be enchanted by the beauty of mathematics, but it is a cold and cruel beauty and, if we are not wary, it is wont to entrap us forever, Circe-like, on its fantasy island and turn us into dumb beasts.

Markov chains have taken us off on a flight of fancy. Most of the positions on this beautifully symmetrical graph do not and cannot exist. It is very doubtful, to say the least, whether the simple Markov assumption that one state directly determines the state of the next, without taking into account previous states, is at all valid for anything approaching real life.

Besides, numbers do not even exist in real life. They are just a figment of our imagination.

But, “Hey!” I hear you collectively saying. Didn’t mathematics enable us to build pyramids and develop the internal combustion engine and send men (but not women) to the moon? Yes it did. But these things—pyramidal monuments, motor cars and space rockets—are in themselves embodiments of abstractions and, if we look into the social history that engendered them, we will find that they depended for their invention on some very human, very emotional, (usually very masculine) and ultimately very perverse will or whim.

Note to self and others: Markov chains, for all their cold enchanting beauty, will never replace the messy, flawed, ambiguous process of two or more people sitting down and listening to one another. Turn off your Markov-chain-based prostheses; listen imperfectly to the imperfect churning chaos of the real human world, not the Siren song.

“Poorsplaining” and “True Education”

A recent newcomer to the ever-growing English lexicon is the word ‘mansplain’—a verb that refers to the act of a man over-explaining something (usually something quite obvious) to a woman, as if she were stupid. There is a funny scene in the US comedy series Silicon Valley in which a male character mansplains mansplaining itself.

Joking and political correctness apart, I think this term makes a useful contribution to the English language and sheds light on an oppressive behavior pattern (going far beyond gender disparities) that has hitherto tended to be overlooked.

I will coin the term ‘poorsplaining’ for this broader phenomenon, since it is invariably used as a discursive mechanism by which a powerful group seeks to entrench the disempowerment of a less privileged group, under the guise of apparently enlightening them. It is a way of explaining things (poorly) to the poor in a way designed to keep them poor.

“Poorsplaining” has in fact become the main mode of conveyance of political and supposedly educational discourse in the modern age.
This has come about for understandable reasons based on generally good intentions. But good intentions alone, as the old cliché goes, can all too easily go awry.

In the not so distant past, political and intellectual élites draped themselves in a deliberately arcane and impenetrable mode of discourse designed to shore up their power base and deny anyone without privileged access to it any say in the debate. There is a scene in the James Ivory film adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day in which a group of politicians are debating enfranchisement. One of them proceeds to ask the butler a question about economic and foreign policy, couching it in obscure terms. The butler is both stumped by the form in which the question is posed and too deferent to offer any point of view of his own. The politician takes this as proving his point regarding the need to disenfranchise the working classes.

Using language to make things unnecessarily difficult to understand is obviously oppressive. But the opposite—making complex matters apparently easy to understand—can be equally oppressive and much more deviously so. It has the advantage, from the point of view of the elites, of being a much subtler, less intrusive, seemingly more inclusive approach.

In the 1970s, future UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher stood atop a soap box brandishing a bag of groceries and attempted to poorsplain to the British populace how macroeconomics is in fact no different from managing the family budget. No economist would agree that this analogy is at all apt, although some might cynically argue that it is a useful necessary illusion to ensure that the rich are granted tax cuts while the poor are kept in their place. The ideological legerdemain was especially effective in so far as it was delivered by a woman—a woman who, true to her traditional stereotype, was doing her household chores and keeping things in simple terms.

Fast forward to 2016. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are campaigning frantically at Town Hall meetings and rallies in an effort to be elected to the most powerful political position in the world.

I am rarely impressed by politicians (especially when they are in campaigning mode) and these two were, by and large, no exception. But I saw something at a Town Hall meeting with Hillary Clinton that truly impressed me. A member of the audience asked the Democratic Party candidate a very specific question about difficulties she was having with her family healthcare insurance policy. Politicians usually take such prompts as an opportunity to appear caring, while spouting platitudes and set-pieces in response. Clinton did something very different. She asked the member of the audience to give her more details about her situation and proceeded to advise her on a face-to-face basis on the healthcare insurance options available to her. This impressed me but obviously did not make very ‘good television’. As the confused guest and the moderator tried to steer her back towards more comfortable platitudes, Clinton did something unprecedented, noble, yet perhaps politically fatal. She said, “It’s more complicated than that.”

Meanwhile, across the country, Donald Trump was haranguing rallies with a brutal simplistic discourse, putting everything in the most absurdly simplistic and monosyllabic terms and not responding to any negative feedback or input whatsoever, except aggressively.

Trump is savvy, but not sensitive, intelligent or knowledgeable. Most people are more like him than like Hillary and he exploits that to the hilt. Clinton had recently handed Trump a gift when she described his supporters as an “irredeemable basket of deplorables.” Trump seized on this as an unguarded undemocratic display of condescension (which in fact it was). But he did something else far more significant. He explained to his audience what the word “irredeemable” means. “That means you can’t change,” he added, whenever he quoted the phrase.

Clinton later went back on what she had said, but in a statistically pernickety manner, arguing that she had only meant that some (not all) of Trump’s supporters were ‘deplorable’. She did not elaborate on her use of the term ‘irredeemable’.

This is in many ways the very opposite of the Thatcher campaign in 1979. Eyes roll as Hillary “womansplains” boring details to potential voters, while supporters cheer and roar as Trump from his podium of male privilege ‘poorsplains’ (condescendingly and poorly) complex economic and foreign policy issues and the meaning of English words.

Both politicians now find themselves hoisted by the petard of their own rhetorical and gender-influenced strategies. Trump struggles to provide a more thorough explanation of ill-thought-out macho policies that he had previously poorsplained the populace into believing in. Clinton’s recent well-thought-out memoir on the reasons for her defeat runs perilously close to the risk of being characterized as gender-stereotypical whingeing.

There is obviously much more to be said about this highly nuanced ongoing political controversy than I can possibly go into here. So, I shall turn instead to the pernicious influence of what I have dubbed ‘poorsplaining’ in the education system.

Charles Dickens’s Hard Times begins with a parody of a schoolmaster giving a lesson to underprivileged children. The class is discussing not Latin verbs or engineering or government economic policy, but interior decorating—more specifically the type of wallpaper with which it is appropriate to paper a sitting room. A girl pipes up that she would like the room to be papered with a pattern involving horses, because she likes horses. She is duly berated by the teacher, who insists that it is ‘more rational’ to use a flower pattern or geometrical abstraction.

This is probably not the part of Hard Times that readers incline to remember. But it is, I think, significant that Dickens chooses to begin his dour tale of Victorian injustice and social exclusion with a classroom scene and mocks the kind of education that is (excuse the irresistible pun) furnished by the teacher.

The passage is even more striking in that it presages a modern era in which TV shows and advertisements purportedly educate the populace as to the more refined fashions, while eschewing provision of basic information on civics and economics, still less mathematics or engineering. A culture in which knowing how to properly paper a wall is more important than the ability to build one or the knowledge of how to use your rights to get the government or your landlord to build one for you.

It is but a short skip from Dickens to the more dumbed down form of schooling to which I was subject, whereby art lessons supposedly involved promoting ‘free expression’ and avoiding the imposition of culturally-determined ideals. There were, of course, limits to this. But they were arbitrary rather than sensible ones. I remember an art class when I was six years old in which we were encouraged to experiment with free abstraction and use of color and I produced a painting that involved a series or orange boxes set against a purple background. Rothko style. The teacher, who was probably only doing this sort of exercise out of government-imposed edict anyway, castigated me on the grounds that purple and orange are not colors that ‘go together’. Ever since then, “purple and orange” have been my preferred color scheme, as they are, interestingly, in some of the more subversive comic book art that eschews primary colors. As a result of this arbitrarily imposed authority, within an arbitrarily imposed liberal context, I became arbitrarily rebellious.

There is a scene in Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (a film loosely based on the events surrounding the real-life Columbine High School massacre) in which the students are sat down and dutifully, if a little unenthusiastically, being taught about tolerance and difference. This scene occurs shortly before the shooting begins. Elephant is obviously based on a very real and very shocking act of extreme and seemingly senseless violence, but a similar theme is addressed in Lindsay Anderson’s 1960s film If…, in which the graphically presented revolutionary violence is confined to fantasy and set against a backdrop of the very real violence, abuse and ideological indoctrination of the normalized everyday life of an English ‘public’ (i.e. expensive private) school.

Both films involve a scene in which the headmaster/director is shot dead. In Anderson’s film, he is strutting arrogantly around in robes and perfunctorily gunned down from a distance by a rooftop sniper. In Elephant, he is confronted by his killer in the corridor and pleads for mercy. But the fate of the headmaster (the ultimate symbol of the school ethos as a whole)—one ridiculously authoritarian, the other ridiculously liberal—is the same and equally mercilessly meted out.

Here the Trump and Clinton communications strategies are reversed, ideologically speaking. The conservative authoritarian private school mansplains arcane and meaningless doctrines and rituals for young minds, while the modern liberal US public school preaches diversity and tolerance and dumbs down the curriculum in an effort to be ‘inclusive.’ Both, however, like the 2016 US presidential election campaign, succeed only in fostering a climate of alienation and heighten the potential for outbursts of senseless violence.

As a teacher and a learner myself, I am well aware that learning is never easy and it is patronizing, disingenuous and ultimately unfair to pretend that it is or can be made to be so. Learning should be difficult, but it should not be difficult because of understandable resistance to arbitrarily imposed norms or obfuscating language, but because of the inherent obscurity, ambiguity and complexity of the subject matter, of the world itself. This is where the true source of fascination with learning lies and it is precisely this innate thirst for complex nuanced knowledge that is stifled by authoritarian and liberal schools and politicians alike from an early age.

Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society was first published in the early 1970s but is more relevant than ever today. At the very start of this book, Illich notes an overlap between the language of education and the language of war. Nixon, for example, vows to “teach the Viet Cong a lesson”… by bombing them. In another chapter, Illich imagines a future world in which learners are connected to and learn through one another in ‘virtual learning communities’ by way of some, at that time, still unimaginable future technology, thereby dispensing with the need for the unavoidably oppressive infrastructure of schools.

Such technology and such virtual networks of course now exist in multitudes and, although they are still used less for good than for ill, there is increasingly no need for mansplaining or poorsplaining. All learners have always obviously been quite capable of exploring the nuances and complexities of the world for themselves. Now they are also fully equipped to do so. Illich’s futuristic utopian pedagogical world may yet be more than a mere pipe dream. For the sake of all of us and the fate of the world, let us strive to make it real,