29 January 2010

It's never too late

The Observer, Sunday's version of The Guardian, generously provides us with a section devoted to articles from The New York Times, generally about two or three weeks after they appeared in NYC. Here's a guide to keeping the old synapses firing:


Adult Learning | Neuroscience

How to Train the Aging Brain

Illustration from istockphoto.com

GRAY MATTER Neurons make new connections during learning.

Published: December 29, 2009

I LOVE reading history, and the shelves in my living room are lined with fat, fact-filled books. There’s “The Hemingses of Monticello,” about the family of Thomas Jefferson’s slave mistress; there’s “House of Cards,” about the fall of Bear Stearns; there’s “Titan,” about John D. Rockefeller Sr.

Illustration from iphotostock.com

A really old brain — from a 19th-century textbook.

The problem is, as much as I’ve enjoyed these books, I don’t really remember reading any of them. Certainly I know the main points. But didn’t I, after underlining all those interesting parts, retain anything else? It’s maddening and, sorry to say, not all that unusual for a brain at middle age: I don’t just forget whole books, but movies I just saw, breakfasts I just ate, and the names, oh, the names are awful. Who are you?

Brains in middle age, which, with increased life spans, now stretches from the 40s to late 60s, also get more easily distracted. Start boiling water for pasta, go answer the doorbell and — whoosh — all thoughts of boiling water disappear. Indeed, aging brains, even in the middle years, fall into what’s called the default mode, during which the mind wanders off and begin daydreaming.

Given all this, the question arises, can an old brain learn, and then remember what it learns? Put another way, is this a brain that should be in school?

As it happens, yes. While it’s tempting to focus on the flaws in older brains, that inducement overlooks how capable they’ve become. Over the past several years, scientists have looked deeper into how brains age and confirmed that they continue to develop through and beyond middle age.

Many longheld views, including the one that 40 percent of brain cells are lost, have been overturned. What is stuffed into your head may not have vanished but has simply been squirreled away in the folds of your neurons.

One explanation for how this occurs comes from Deborah M. Burke, a professor of psychology at Pomona College in California. Dr. Burke has done research on “tots,” those tip-of-the-tongue times when you know something but can’t quite call it to mind. Dr. Burke’s research shows that such incidents increase in part because neural connections, which receive, process and transmit information, can weaken with disuse or age.

But she also finds that if you are primed with sounds that are close to those you’re trying to remember — say someone talks about cherry pits as you try to recall Brad Pitt’s name — suddenly the lost name will pop into mind. The similarity in sounds can jump-start a limp brain connection. (It also sometimes works to silently run through the alphabet until landing on the first letter of the wayward word.)

This association often happens automatically, and goes unnoticed. Not long ago I started reading “The Prize,” a history of the oil business. When I got to the part about Rockefeller’s early days as an oil refinery owner, I realized, hey, I already know this from having read “Titan.” The material was still in my head; it just needed a little prodding to emerge.

Recently, researchers have found even more positive news. The brain, as it traverses middle age, gets better at recognizing the central idea, the big picture. If kept in good shape, the brain can continue to build pathways that help its owner recognize patterns and, as a consequence, see significance and even solutions much faster than a young person can.

The trick is finding ways to keep brain connections in good condition and to grow more of them.

“The brain is plastic and continues to change, not in getting bigger but allowing for greater complexity and deeper understanding,” says Kathleen Taylor, a professor at St. Mary’s College of California, who has studied ways to teach adults effectively. “As adults we may not always learn quite as fast, but we are set up for this next developmental step.”

Educators say that, for adults, one way to nudge neurons in the right direction is to challenge the very assumptions they have worked so hard to accumulate while young. With a brain already full of well-connected pathways, adult learners should “jiggle their synapses a bit” by confronting thoughts that are contrary to their own, says Dr. Taylor, who is 66.

Teaching new facts should not be the focus of adult education, she says. Instead, continued brain development and a richer form of learning may require that you “bump up against people and ideas” that are different. In a history class, that might mean reading multiple viewpoints, and then prying open brain networks by reflecting on how what was learned has changed your view of the world.

“There’s a place for information,” Dr. Taylor says. “We need to know stuff. But we need to move beyond that and challenge our perception of the world. If you always hang around with those you agree with and read things that agree with what you already know, you’re not going to wrestle with your established brain connections.”

Such stretching is exactly what scientists say best keeps a brain in tune: get out of the comfort zone to push and nourish your brain. Do anything from learning a foreign language to taking a different route to work.

“As adults we have these well-trodden paths in our synapses,” Dr. Taylor says. “We have to crack the cognitive egg and scramble it up. And if you learn something this way, when you think of it again you’ll have an overlay of complexity you didn’t have before — and help your brain keep developing as well.”

Jack Mezirow, a professor emeritus at Columbia Teachers College, has proposed that adults learn best if presented with what he calls a “disorienting dilemma,” or something that “helps you critically reflect on the assumptions you’ve acquired.”

Dr. Mezirow developed this concept 30 years ago after he studied women who had gone back to school. The women took this bold step only after having many conversations that helped them “challenge their own ingrained perceptions of that time when women could not do what men could do.”

Such new discovery, Dr. Mezirow says, is the “essential thing in adult learning.”

“As adults we have all those brain pathways built up, and we need to look at our insights critically,” he says. “This is the best way for adults to learn. And if we do it, we can remain sharp.”

And so I wonder, was my cognitive egg scrambled by reading that book on Thomas Jefferson? Did I, by exploring the flaws in a man I admire, create a suitably disorienting dilemma? Have I, as a result, shaken up and fed a brain cell or two?

And perhaps it doesn’t matter that I can’t, at times, recall the given name of the slave with whom Jefferson had all those children. After all, I can Google a simple name.


Barbara Strauch is The Times’s health editor; her book “The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain” will be published in April.

New to me anyway

The word egosystem cropped up in today's Guardian. Resorting to Google as usual, I found out it's common enough to make an appearance in the online Urban Dictionary.

Even if this neologism is already a cliché, I foresee many other opportunities to use it. Here's the Lost in Showbiz context:

. . . we turn our thoughts to the fragile egosystem of musical theatre.

Perfect for a discussion of Elaine Paige and Susan Boyle. Or of various strutting US senators. Or of bankers justifying their bonuses at Davos. The list could go on and on.

27 January 2010

Confused by "polywassernames"?

A good article if, like me, you'd have a hard time explaining exactly what a hydrogenated fat is. The margarine vs butter war continues.


I can't believe it's not … healthy!

First butter was bad for you, then margarine. Now a new front has opened in the battle of the spreads, with fresh calls for trans fats to be banned. But will any of this really prevent heart disease?

A block of butter

The battle between the industrial fats and dairy industries has been going on for more than a century. Photograph: David Levene

The butter v margarine wars, so reminiscent of 1970s advertising, were back this week. A flurry of headlines about which type of fat is better for you announced their return, just as the Food Standards Agency (FSA) was trying to launch its carefully calibrated campaign to reduce our unhealthy level of saturated fat consumption.

Leading doctors, in the form of the respected Faculty of Public Health, called for a ban on trans fats to cut obesity and heart disease, for which read artificially hardened margarines and fats in biscuits, cakes, snacks, spreads and fast foods.

At the same time, a heart surgeon from University College London hospital (UCLH), Professor Shyam Kolvekar, called for a ban, not on trans fats in margarines and spreads, but on butter, to reduce the sort of artery damage he sees in victims of heart disease. The FSA called for a ban on neither, focusing instead on changing our milk and meat habits. Confused? You are meant to be.

The wars between the industrial fats and the dairy industries have been fought on and off for more than a century. Conflicting commercial interests have long determined what type of fat we absorb into our bodies, and made an art of co-opting the medical profession. They are as active as ever.

It was when watching an advert for polyunsaturated margarine in the late 1970s that the bizarre relationship we have with fat first struck me. The message seemed to be that not only did real men not eat quiche, they really ought to give up butter too.

"Stop, ought he to be eating Flora?" "The margarine for men." "Isn't it time to change your husband?" No doubt there were others for other brands, but Unilever's stuck in my mind. "What does Mum do? Polywassernames …"

The ads marked my first awareness that instead of being allowed the pleasure of eating foods such as butter that had been happily consumed for centuries, we were being encouraged to think of food as potentially dangerous. The official advice at the time was that we should substitute saturated fats and cholesterol in the diet with polyunsaturated fatty acids, and manufacturers such as Unilever were quick to find ways to help us.

Kolvekar's call for a butter ban this week turns out to have been timed to coincide with the FSA's campaign, by a PR agency called KTB, that also runs the account for two of Unilever's fat spreads: Flora pro.activ and Bertolli Light. The agency also runs what it calls a saturated fat information service, satfatnav.com, which is "brought to you by Unilever". In the KTB press release, the eminent heart surgeon is quoted giving calculations on the value of switching from saturated butter to fat spreads based on Flora.

I asked the FSA whether it thought the latest "ban butter" intervention was helpful. "The FSA does not agree with banning any food," it told us. Kolvekar was unavailable to discuss why he had made the call this week, but a UCLH spokeswoman said his views were personal ones that did not necessarily represent those of the NHS trust. She said there was no financial link either between Kolvekar or his company KK Media Services and Unilever but said KTB had paid a fee to the hospital for filming Kolvekar performing heart surgery as part of Unilever's campaign to highlight the dangers of eating too much saturated fat. Unilever confirmed that Kolvekar has never received payment for his regular support for Unilever's heart health campaigns. He does it because he passionately believes in it, they said.

The margarine and spreads industry has cultivated close links with the medical profession since the 1950s, when scientists sounded the first alarms about the epidemic of heart and circulatory disease in the west. By the 1960s these diseases had become big killers. Heart disease still causes about one in five deaths in men and one in six in women, even though rapid advances in treatments have brought the death rates down since the 1980s.

In the early days cholesterol in the diet was said to be part of the problem, though this notion has now been discounted. Raised blood cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease, but there is no direct correlation between cholesterol in the diet and levels of blood cholesterol.

Gradually the current consensus emerged: that it was too much saturated fat in the diet that raises blood cholesterol. Doctors were asked to work with the industrial fats industry to come up with polyunsaturated spreads that could be substituted for dairy products that were high in saturated fat. NHS dieticians were encouraged to recommend them.

Thanks to millions spent by the industry on advertising and sponsored public health education campaigns, margarine managed to put itself at the forefront of the fight against heart disease. That it did so was remarkable, since margarine had spent most of it brief life as a decidedly poor relation.

Originally developed by a French chemist in the late 19th century, margarine was a response to a call from the French government to invent a cheap, long-life butter substitute that could feed its armies on the march. When the Dutch took up the process they imported rendered animal fat from the notorious Chicago meatpacking yards. Organisation among workers helped raise wages and push up prices, stimulating the development of technology to take cheaper liquid vegetable oils and artificially harden them.

The physical properties of fats reflect their chemical properties. Polyunsaturated oils are usually liquid at room temperature. Saturated fats, on the other hand, are relatively solid. The process of hydrogenation allows manufacturer's to alter the molecular structure of oils to change their melting point. They can thus create different fats for different effects: chocolates with fats designed to melt at mouth temperature, or baking fats that are harder, to make croissants crisp.

Hydrogenation involves mixing vegetable oils with a metal catalyst and heating them to high temperatures. Hydrogen gas is then pumped through the hot oil in a high-pressure reactor. Fully hydrogenated fat is incredibly hard, like plastic beads, but the process can be stopped part-way when manufacturers want oils that are still soft but more stable, and it is this partial hydrogenation that creates trans fats (see panel).

Hydrogenation opened the way for a transformation in European fat consumption. The oils used varied depending on economic conditions. Vegetable oils from the colonies in Africa took their turn with the cotton seed oil that was a byproduct of the US cotton industry and even with whale oil.

The fight against heart disease gave a big boost to the margarine industry and the 1960s saw a rush of new products. Flora was launched in 1964 and advertised on TV in 1965. By 1970 Unilever had begun promoting its use direct to the medical profession, and through the 70s and 80s Flora built a following as the brand that was high in polyunsaturates and better for you.

There have always been sceptics of the fat = heart disease hypothesis. They point to the French paradox – that the French eat large quantities of butter, cream and meat but do not suffer high rates of heart disease. They also point out that many of the studies that have switched people to low-fat diets have not produced the expected decline in rates of disease.

But the great blow to the fat industry, built on claims around heart health, came in the 1990s.

Early in the decade, scientific evidence emerged suggesting that the trans fats produced by hydrogenation affected foetal and infant growth. Then in 1993 Professor Walter Willett, the principal investigator in the Harvard nurses study – on which much of the current advice for heart disease and cancer is based – published evidence that nurses in the study who ate significant amounts of trans fats were twice as likely to have a heart attack as those who consumed few trans fats. In 1997 he called hydrogenation "the biggest food processing disaster in US history". In 2004 he told an interviewer that the advice to switch from butter to vegetable oils hydrogenated into margarine had turned out to be "a disastrous mistake".

When hydrogenated, the polywassernames were seriously bad news. The official advice had in fact made things worse.

In Britain in 1993, an entrepreneur took out adverts for a "Whole Earth Superspread" made without hydrogenated fat, presenting consumers with "the facts that could save your life".

The entrepreneur was Craig Sams, a Californian who went on to chair the Soil Association and to launch Green & Black's organic chocolate. Hydrogenation of fats had never been allowed in certified organic foods. His advert said that trans fats from hydrogenation were the biggest single dietary hazard of our time.

Unilever, as manufacturer of Flora, complained to the Advertising Standards Authority. Sams lost and was told not to use his adverts again, not on the grounds that his information was inaccurate, for he had mounted a vigorous defence, pointing to the science, but on the grounds that the advert appealed to fear to sell its products. Sams was monitoring commercial rivals' products at this point, and said his tests found that Flora contained 21% hydrogenated fat at the beginning of his campaign for his new Superspread, but that even as Unilever was complaining about his ad, it was altering its flagship product. But for an uncomfortable period, Unilever found itself selling a product marketed as being good for your heart when it was heavy on trans fats now known to be bad for your heart.

I put the figures and the account Sams had given me to Unilever in 2006 and asked why it had continued to market margarine with trans fats as healthy, when the evidence had come out against them. Its director of external affairs Anne Heughan told me that Unilever's work with polyunsaturated fats had begun when doctors approached it in 1956 to come up with a product that would help in a practical way to achieve what scientists and public health policy makers wanted: for the population to cut its intake of saturated fat. It had thought, like everybody else, that it was doing the right thing. "As a responsible manufacturer we can only go with the evidence at the time. When Walter Willett's evidence in 1993 indicated that trans fatty acids were as bad as saturated fats we felt that the weight of evidence had moved and we set about removing them. It took about two years." Flora was free of partially hydrogenated fats by the end of 1994. Unilever changed its other brands slightly later. The company told me that before reformulation, its spreads contained an average of 19.3% trans fats. The average for Flora was 10%. By 2004 trans fats had been reduced to less than 0.5% in all its fat spreads.

Although Flora was not made with hydrogenated fat after 1994, a large number of other fat spreads were until very recently. When a researcher and I conducted a survey in 2005 of what was on sale in UK supermarkets and asked manufacturers what type of oil they used and how it was processed, Unilever was clearly ahead of the rest in removing hydrogenated fats. A decade after science confirmed the problem, parts of the industry were still dragging their feet, one of the reasons the Faculty of Public Health doctors have spoken out on trans fats this week.

The evidence for the role of saturated fats in cardiovascular disease is strong. WHO advice is still that they should be replaced with polyunsaturated fats. But looking back, what is remarkable about much of the advice is how subject to revision it has been. Not surprisingly, the public has become sceptical and retreated to natural products such as butter.

Butter and fat spreads between them make up just one-eighth of our total fat intake. In the UK, the biggest source of fats overall and of saturated fat in particular is meat, particularly highly processed meat products such as sausages and pies. Cereal products including biscuits, cakes and breads are the next biggest sources of fat, then milk products. Butter and fats spreads come after that, which begs the question why they became the frontline in the war on saturated fat in the first place. Potato snacks and crisps account for about the same amount of fat, and it is the shift to an overwhelmingly industrial fast-food diet that really needs to be addressed.

So why does Unilever continue to focus on promoting healthy spreads, the latest of which contain cholesterol-lowering ingredients?

"The brand has consistently and effectively campaigned on issues such as heart health and cholesterol awareness – for which we make absolutely no excuses," a spokesman said.

City analysts JP Morgan point out a further powerful commercial reason in their report on how the food industry is responding to the obesity crisis. According to their estimates, Flora pro.activ fat spread sells at a premium of more than 300% on standard products.

Eat Your Heart Out by Felicity Lawrence is published by Penguin

26 January 2010

Should have posted this yesterday

We totally lost track of the fact that Monday was 25 January. With weekend papers piled up as usual, I just got around to reading this piece today. Such a shame—we were at Bob & Janet's beautiful flat in Chelsea for dinner with Geoff & Nora last night. Michael should have fried up some haggis as he did for their Millennium New Year's celebration on the cusp of 2000.


It's Burns Night – sae let the Lord be thankit

Here's to a rare thing: a genuine popular festival with no commercial strings attached

A portrait of Scottish poet Robert Burns

Ian Jack's family - like so many others in Scotland – kept a portrait of Burns in the home. Photograph: Time Life Pictures/Getty

Not so long ago, when London taxi drivers still frowned at Scottish banknotes, haggis wasn't an easy food to find much farther south than Tyneside, and for most of the year this largely unregretted scarcity still prevails. Apart, that is, from the month of January, when over the past decade or so increasing numbers of the pale obese sausage – a sausage in need of a gym – have begun to appear in the windows of London butchers' shops as a reminder that the birth anniversary of Robert Burns is just around the corner. As a fresh retail opportunity, the Burns Supper is hardly up there with Halloween; 25 January is too close to Christmas and apart from haggis, and assuming there's left-over whisky in the cupboard, what's to be bought other than a turnip? The Burns Supper in England may be a rare example of a festival that has grown in popularity without the push of commerce.

They can be ghastly occasions. Helen Simpson brilliantly catches the atmosphere of too many of them in her story, Burns and the Bankers. A great crowd of kilted men and their unhappy wives gathers in the ballroom of a Park Lane hotel, where the Federation of Caledonian Bankers is to celebrate the bard. The haggis is addressed ("on and on it went, incomprehensible … and smug and ridiculous"), the Immortal Memory proposed, the Lassies toasted ("Oh what windbags the Scots are, thought Nicola … what blowhard old windbags they really are"). And the men drink too much whisky and get ever more pleased with themselves.

As a junior reporter on a Lanarkshire newspaper, I knew one or two evenings like that: the Cambuslang golf club in 1966, for example, followed the same pattern, though its supper obeyed tradition and included no women. I don't remember that the Immortal Memory, the eulogy, was to "Burns the golfer" but it would have been no surprise if the speaker had imagined a link between the poet and the game. A speech along the lines of "What Burns would have been like as a golfer" is by no means improbable, his characterisation being so famously malleable. Burns the ploughman, Burns the romantic lover, Burns the Freemason, Burns the Scottish nationalist, Burns the international socialist, Burns the rebel, Burns the loyalist, Burns the drinker: all these personalities have been promoted and contested. At school, the man who taught us English was a big Burns enthusiast and also, awkwardly, a member of the temperance society known as the Rechabites after a tribe of total abstainers in the Old Testament. "Boys," he would say, "I ask you, how could a poor man on £40 a year afford to be a drinker?"

The temptation here is to mock Burns Suppers as an example of what historian Hugh Trevor-Roper called "invented traditions", a ritual that like Druidism, clan tartans and eisteddfods is essentially a Victorian reimagining of the past. But the historical record demolishes that idea. The memorialisation of Burns began only a few years after his death in 1796. There were Burns Clubs in the west of Scotland by 1805, a mausoleum in Dumfries by 1817, a monument (the foundation stone was laid by James Boswell's son with "full Masonic honours") started at his birthplace in Alloway, Ayrshire, in 1820. As to Burns Suppers, the first was held at his old Alloway cottage in 1801 and for several years commemorated his July death as well as his January birth. From the beginning, speeches were made to the poet's "immortal memory" – many guests had known him – and haggis featured on the menu as well as sheep's head.

The cottage, which the Burns family quit long before, had been converted to an alehouse and soon began to attract literary pilgrims. Keats, visiting in 1818, wrote to a friend: "We went to the cottage and took some whiskey … The man at the cottage was a great bore with his anecdotes – I hate the rascal – his life consists in fuz, fuzzy, fuzziest – he drinks glasses five for the quarter and twelve for the hour, – he is a mahogany faced old jackass who knew Burns – he ought to be kicked for having spoken to him."

As an after-death cult, Burns's was almost instant, and like all successful cults it had objects and places that followers could visit and feel attached to. Apart from the cottage itself, a marvel of humility, there was the River Doon of Ye Banks and Braes and the Brig o' Doon and the kirkyard where Tam o' Shanter had come unstuck. Long before Shakespeare's birthplace was saved for the nation in 1847, after the showman PT Barnum had announced his intention to ship it to America, Burns worshippers had a geographical focus. Wordsworth readers had to wait 50 years after the writer's death until Dove Cottage was open to the public; Keats had been dead a century before his house in Hampstead became a museum; the last Brontë sister died in 1855, but only in 1928 did the Haworth parsonage fall into the hands of the Brontë Society.

As well as prefiguring (and outnumbering) the literary tourists of other writers, early Burnsians were far more fervent. Religiously, they sought relics – and not just the poet's inkbottles, doorknockers and snuffboxes, most of them as spurious as nails from the cross. At the various sites of his career, souvenir-hunters stripped away pieces of bushes and trees and kept them labelled in glass cabinets. Paper-knives were fashioned from old Burns skirting boards and egg-cups from old Burns rafters, or least from wood alleging that provenance. After souvenirs began to be mass-produced later in the 19th century, the range of Burns's iconography became overwhelming. It could be safely asserted that no other writer has been remembered by so many different objects – from cigarettes to teaspoons – in so many parts of the world. Australia has nine statues and the USA 16; Atlanta got a full-scale reproduction of his Alloway cottage in 1910.

This meant that he was phenomenally present in quite ordinary Scottish households. My own not untypical home contained, as well a comprehensive edition of the work, a rough copy of his Alexander Nasmyth portrait, a picture of a plough, and an embroidered motto wishing that some power would give us the gift to see ourselves as others see us. Other homes had busts, Tam o' Shanter jugs and models of "The Cottage". How? Why? Some people put it down to "the psychopathology of a stateless nation". Professor Rab Houston of St Andrews University argues that, at a time of great social change, Scottish readers found in the ruralism and romance of Burns "a symbol of an allegedly uncorrupted Scotland".

Equally, he was an original and wonderfully memorable and quotable poet. Not for nothing did Keats and Wordsworth come knocking at his memorials. Faced with the "mahogany faced old jackasses" who inhabit the drunker parties of the January carnival, we should take a leaf from Keats and remember good poems that in their liveliness and sympathy have made Burns the most genuinely popular of British poets.

For good measure, here's the Burns poem we're probably all most familiar with, if only as the source of Steinbeck's title Of Mice and Men. I'm including both the original and a version in standard English.


To A Mouse.
On turning her up in her nest with the plough, November 1785.

Burns original:

Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie,
O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty
Wi bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,
Wi' murdering pattle.

I'm truly sorry man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth born companion
An' fellow mortal!

I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen icker in a thrave
'S a sma' request;
I'll get a blessin wi' the lave,
An' never miss't.

Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!
It's silly wa's the win's are strewin!
An' naething, now, to big a new ane,
O' foggage green!
An' bleak December's win's ensuin,
Baith snell an' keen!

Thou saw the fields laid bare an' waste,
An' weary winter comin fast,
An' cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro' thy cell.

That wee bit heap o' leaves an' stibble,
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!
Now thou's turned out, for a' thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the winter's sleety dribble,
An' cranreuch cauld.

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!

Still thou are blest, compared wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!

Standard English translation:

Small, sleek, cowering, timorous beast,
O, what a panic is in your breast!
You need not start away so hasty
With hurrying scamper!
I would be loath to run and chase you,
With murdering plough-staff.

I'm truly sorry man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
And justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth born companion
And fellow mortal!

I doubt not, sometimes, but you may steal;
What then? Poor beast, you must live!
An odd ear in twenty-four sheaves
Is a small request;
I will get a blessing with what is left,
And never miss it.

Your small house, too, in ruin!
It's feeble walls the winds are scattering!
And nothing now, to build a new one,
Of coarse grass green!
And bleak December's winds coming,
Both bitter and keen!

You saw the fields laid bare and wasted,
And weary winter coming fast,
And cozy here, beneath the blast,
You thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel plough past
Out through your cell.

That small bit heap of leaves and stubble,
Has cost you many a weary nibble!
Now you are turned out, for all your trouble,
Without house or holding,
To endure the winter's sleety dribble,
And hoar-frost cold.

But Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leaves us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!

Still you are blest, compared with me!
The present only touches you:
But oh! I backward cast my eye,
On prospects dreary!
And forward, though I cannot see,
I guess and fear!

24 January 2010

Our grandkids should be glad it's Mandarin they'll need to study

Wonderful article from a December Economist on exactly how challenging languages can be.


Difficult languages
Tongue twisters

In search of the world’s hardest language

Illustration by W. Vasconcelos

A CERTAIN genre of books about English extols the language’s supposed difficulty and idiosyncrasy. “Crazy English”, by an American folk-linguist, Richard Lederer, asks “how is it that your nose can run and your feet can smell?”. Bill Bryson’s “Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way” says that “English is full of booby traps for the unwary foreigner…Imagine being a foreigner and having to learn that in English one tells a lie but the truth.”

Such books are usually harmless, if slightly fact-challenged. You tell “a” lie but “the” truth in many languages, partly because many lies exist but truth is rather more definite. It may be natural to think that your own tongue is complex and mysterious. But English is pretty simple: verbs hardly conjugate; nouns pluralise easily (just add “s”, mostly) and there are no genders to remember.

English-speakers appreciate this when they try to learn other languages. A Spanish verb has six present-tense forms, and six each in the preterite, imperfect, future, conditional, subjunctive and two different past subjunctives, for a total of 48 forms. German has three genders, seemingly so random that Mark Twain wondered why “a young lady has no sex, but a turnip has”. (Mädchen is neuter, whereas Steckrübe is feminine.)

English spelling may be the most idiosyncratic, although French gives it a run for the money with 13 ways to spell the sound “o”: o, ot, ots, os, ocs, au, aux, aud, auds, eau, eaux, ho and ö. “Ghoti,” as wordsmiths have noted, could be pronounced “fish”: gh as in “cough”, o as in “women” and ti as in “motion”. But spelling is ancillary to a language’s real complexity; English is a relatively simple language, absurdly spelled.

Perhaps the “hardest” language studied by many Anglophones is Latin. In it, all nouns are marked for case, an ending that tells what function the word has in a sentence (subject, direct object, possessive and so on). There are six cases, and five different patterns for declining verbs into them. This system, and its many exceptions, made for years of classroom torture for many children. But it also gives Latin a flexibility of word order. If the subject is marked as a subject with an ending, it need not come at the beginning of a sentence. This ability made many scholars of bygone days admire Latin’s majesty—and admire themselves for mastering it. Knowing Latin (and Greek, which presents similar problems) was long the sign of an educated person.

Yet are Latin and Greek truly hard? These two genetic cousins of English, in the Indo-European language family, are child’s play compared with some. Languages tend to get “harder” the farther one moves from English and its relatives. Assessing how languages are tricky for English-speakers gives a guide to how the world’s languages differ overall.

Even before learning a word, the foreigner is struck by how differently languages can sound. The uvular r’s of French and the fricative, glottal ch’s of German (and Scots) are essential to one’s imagination of these languages and their speakers. But sound systems get a lot more difficult than that. Vowels, for example, go far beyond a, e, i, o and u, and sometimes y. Those represent more than five or six sounds in English (consider the a’s in father, fate and fat.) And vowels of European languages vary more widely; think of the umlauted ones of German, or the nasal ones of French, Portuguese and Polish.

Yet much more exotic vowels exist, for example that carry tones: pitch that rises, falls, dips, stays low or high, and so on. Mandarin, the biggest language in the Chinese family, has four tones, so that what sounds just like “ma” in English has four distinct sounds, and meanings. That is relatively simple compared with other Chinese varieties. Cantonese has six tones, and Min Chinese dialects seven or eight. One tone can also affect neighbouring tones’ pronunciation through a series of complex rules.

Consonants are more complex. Some (p, t, k, m and n are common) appear in most languages, but consonants can come in a blizzard of varieties known as egressive (air coming from the nose or mouth), ingressive (air coming back in the nose and mouth), ejective (air expelled from the mouth while the breath is blocked by the glottis), pharyngealised (the pharynx constricted), palatised (the tongue raised toward the palate) and more. And languages with hard-to-pronounce consonants cluster in families. Languages in East Asia tend to have tonal vowels, those of the north-eastern Caucasus are known for consonantal complexity: Ubykh has 78 consonant sounds. Austronesian languages, by contrast, may have the simplest sounds of any language family.

Perhaps the most exotic sounds are clicks—technically “non-pulmonic” consonants that do not use the airstream from the lungs for their articulation. The best-known click languages are in southern Africa. Xhosa, widely spoken in South Africa, is known for its clicks. The first sound of the language’s name is similar to the click that English-speakers use to urge on a horse.

For sound complexity, one language stands out. !Xóõ, spoken by just a few thousand, mostly in Botswana, has a blistering array of unusual sounds. Its vowels include plain, pharyngealised, strident and breathy, and they carry four tones. It has five basic clicks and 17 accompanying ones. The leading expert on the !Xóõ, Tony Traill, developed a lump on his larynx from learning to make their sounds. Further research showed that adult !Xóõ-speakers had the same lump (children had not developed it yet).

Beyond sound comes the problem of grammar. On this score, some European languages are far harder than are, say, Latin or Greek. Latin’s six cases cower in comparison with Estonian’s 14, which include inessive, elative, adessive, abessive, and the system is riddled with irregularities and exceptions. Estonian’s cousins in the Finno-Ugric language group do much the same. Slavic languages force speakers, when talking about the past, to say whether an action was completed or not. Linguists call this “aspect”, and English has it too, for example in the distinction between “I go” and “I am going.” And to say “go” requires different Slavic verbs for going by foot, car, plane, boat or other conveyance. For Russians or Poles, the journey does matter more than the destination.

Beyond Europe things grow more complicated. Take gender. Twain’s joke about German gender shows that in most languages it often has little to do with physical sex. “Gender” is related to “genre”, and means merely a group of nouns lumped together for grammatical purposes. Linguists talk instead of “noun classes”, which may have to do with shape or size, or whether the noun is animate, but often rules are hard to see. George Lakoff, a linguist, memorably described a noun class of Dyirbal (spoken in north-eastern Australia) as including “women, fire and dangerous things”. To the extent that genders are idiosyncratic, they are hard to learn. Bora, spoken in Peru, has more than 350 of them.

Agglutinating languages—that pack many bits of meaning into single words—are a source of fascination for those who do not speak them. Linguists call a single unit of meaning, whether “tree” or “un-”, a morpheme, and some languages bind them together obligatorily. The English curiosity “antidisestablishmentarianism” has seven morphemes (“anti”, “dis”, “establish”, “-ment”, “-ari""-an” and “-ism”). This is unusual in English, whereas it is common in languages such as Turkish. Turks coin fanciful phrases such as “Çekoslovakyalilastiramadiklarimizdanmissiniz?”, meaning “Were you one of those people whom we could not make into a Czechoslovakian?” But Ilker Aytürk, a linguist, offers a real-life example: “Evlerindemisçesine rahattilar”. Assuming you have just had guests who made a mess, these two words mean “They were as carefree as if they were in their own house.”

Yes we (but not you) can

This proliferation of cases, genders and agglutination, however, represents a multiplication of phenomena that are known in European languages. A truly boggling language is one that requires English speakers to think about things they otherwise ignore entirely. Take “we”. In Kwaio, spoken in the Solomon Islands, “we” has two forms: “me and you” and “me and someone else (but not you)”. And Kwaio has not just singular and plural, but dual and paucal too. While English gets by with just “we”, Kwaio has “we two”, “we few” and “we many”. Each of these has two forms, one inclusive (“we including you”) and one exclusive. It is not hard to imagine social situations that would be more awkward if you were forced to make this distinction explicit.

Berik, a language of New Guinea, also requires words to encode information that no English speaker considers. Verbs have endings, often obligatory, that tell what time of day something happened; telbener means “[he] drinks in the evening”. Where verbs take objects, an ending will tell their size: kitobana means “gives three large objects to a man in the sunlight.” Some verb-endings even say where the action of the verb takes place relative to the speaker: gwerantena means “to place a large object in a low place nearby”. Chindali, a Bantu language, has a similar feature. One cannot say simply that something happened; the verb ending shows whether it happened just now, earlier today, yesterday or before yesterday. The future tense works in the same way.

A fierce debate exists in linguistics between those, such as Noam Chomsky, who think that all languages function roughly the same way in the brain and those who do not. The latter view was propounded by Benjamin Lee Whorf, an American linguist of the early 20th century, who argued that different languages condition or constrain the mind’s habits of thought.

German has three genders. Mark Twain wondered why “a young lady has no sex, but a turnip has”

Whorfianism has been criticised for years, but it has been making a comeback. Lera Boroditsky of Stanford University, for example, points to the Kuuk Thaayorre, aboriginals of northern Australia who have no words for “left” or “right”, using instead absolute directions such as “north” and “south-east” (as in “You have an ant on your south-west leg”). Ms Boroditsky says that any Kuuk Thaayorre child knows which way is south-east at any given time, whereas a roomful of Stanford professors, if asked to point south-east quickly, do little better than chance. The standard Kuuk Thayoorre greeting is “where are you going?”, with an answer being something like “north-north-east, in the middle distance.” Not knowing which direction is which, Ms Boroditsky notes, a Westerner could not get past “hello”. Universalists retort that such neo-Whorfians are finding trivial surface features of language: the claim that language truly constricts thinking is still not proven.

With all that in mind, which is the hardest language? On balance The Economist would go for Tuyuca, of the eastern Amazon. It has a sound system with simple consonants and a few nasal vowels, so is not as hard to speak as Ubykh or !Xóõ. Like Turkish, it is heavily agglutinating, so that one word, hóabãsiriga means “I do not know how to write.” Like Kwaio, it has two words for “we”, inclusive and exclusive. The noun classes (genders) in Tuyuca’s language family (including close relatives) have been estimated at between 50 and 140. Some are rare, such as “bark that does not cling closely to a tree”, which can be extended to things such as baggy trousers, or wet plywood that has begun to peel apart.

Most fascinating is a feature that would make any journalist tremble. Tuyuca requires verb-endings on statements to show how the speaker knows something. Diga ape-wi means that “the boy played soccer (I know because I saw him)”, while diga ape-hiyi means “the boy played soccer (I assume)”. English can provide such information, but for Tuyuca that is an obligatory ending on the verb. Evidential languages force speakers to think hard about how they learned what they say they know.

Linguists ask precisely how language works in the brain, and examples such as Tuyuca’s evidentiality are their raw material. More may be found, as only a few hundred of the world’s 6,000 languages have been extensively mapped, and new ways will appear for them to be difficult. Yet many are spoken by mere hundreds of people. Fewer than 1,000 people speak Tuyuca. Ubykh died in 1992. Half of today’s languages may be gone in a century. Linguists are racing to learn what they can before the forces of modernisation and globalisation quieten the strangest tongues.

11 January 2010

There are many roads. . . . Day 1

A jump back in time now to October and our trip with old friend Alan to the Auvergne. Alan was Michael's PhD supervisor, so I was able to hand over all navigational responsibilities to another map-oriented geologist. Bliss! He was far better than Valerie, our disembodied satnav voice. No more prissy "recalculating" declarations. "There are many roads" was Alan's gnomic, zen-like response to any query Michael had about whether we were headed the right direction. MW: "Should we have turned left back there?" AS: "There are many roads." I must remember this.

Our first stop on the route north from Laroque was the Millau Bridge. Michael and I fly over this regularly on our flights to Perpignan, but had only seen it close-up-and-personal via a documentary we watched in London. These two photos don't really do justice to the staggering engineering achievement that this bridge is, so here's a link to the first five minutes of a Megastructures video on its construction: http://www.veoh.com/browse/videos/category/educational/watch/v14204546cSZcBwFX

The visitor's center was excellent. Even the benches were a treat for geo-types.
Déjeuner sur (a little bit of) l'herbe in the parking lot

We were headed for the Auberge de Fondain outside the village of Laqueuille, which would be our base for the next four days. Since other posts will deal with our sightseeing and geologizing (minimal coverage of the latter, given that this is my blog not Michael's), I'll paste in all photos of the inn and our meals here.

The old house, lovingly restored by the mother-and-daughter team who run the business. Daughter's husband and grandchild live on the premises.

By night. The house was built in the 19th century by Antoine Roussel, who discovered the process of using mold on rye bread to make Laqueuille blue cheese.

We were never around during the day for un pique-nique, but the grounds were certainly inviting.

Ulysse, a calm and affectionate Bernese Mountain Dog (Bernois), was periodically in trouble for tracking in mud.

The dining room. I obviously took this photo since it's out of focus. Still, you can see that their claim of ambiance familiale is borne out.
Dining room detail.
Two snaps of Alan in the "snug," a Moroccan-themed retreat down steps from the dining room. Sophie, the daughter, is the cook and avid stenciller; her mother makes all drapes and cushions.

Meals were delicious and bountiful, very much cuisine traditionelle/cuisine bourgeoise/cuisine grand-mère, whatever you want to call high-quality home cooking. The appetizer our first night was a warm pork pâté with prunes.
Main course: Cantal-stuffed cabbage with sausages.

Dessert: pears in red wine.

Other high points.
Soupe l'ortie (nettle soup).

St. Nectaire quiche

We had three casseroles: coq au vin, beef rather than duck à l'orange, and pork with chesnuts and cêpes. I'm not sure which two I took pictures of.


Another homemade (like everything else) pâté, this time cold.

Crème brûlée.

Moelleux au chocolat.

We were also considerately provided with a full moon.

One of those quintessential French moments

We were putting our groceries into the car in the Argelès Carrefour parking lot the other day, when Michael happened to look across the road and spotted a shepherd with his dog and significant flock. Having stupidly missed the opportunity to photograph the vaches sauvages (wild cows) that had left mysterious droppings—we thought some equestrians had been passing by—at the top of our driveway, we got the camera right out.

If we ever manage to coincide, preferably from a safe distance, with the sanglier (wild boar) that has torn up our garden, we'll record that memorable moment, too. And someday I'll go through our old Picasa records to find the photo of the sheep that invaded our property one day when Kate was visiting. Their pellets carpeted the driveway. Eventually, I suppose, we'll become experts in dropping identification. My father wasn't impressed that we couldn't tell the difference between cow pats and deposits left by a horse.

10 January 2010

Bonne Année!

Surf and turf: the former for New Year's Eve, the latter for New Year's Day.

Salmon appetizer from the St Genis traiteur on rocket (or roquette)

King crab from Carrefour (a first: we've never seen this in Europe before) and langouste (spiny lobster) from the Caribbean via Picard

Myrna's cookies, filled with lemon cheese made from the citrons produced by our very own tree—cookie recipe at bottom of post (next time I'll make sure I have festive cutters: I got rid of them when we downsized since I didn't then have a recipe for cookies that were delicious and kept their shape)
Ready for midnight
Flugelhorn rendition of Auld Lang Syne—both our neighbors and my parents were treated to this
New Year's Day: osso buco with gremolata. Michael made this while I was talking on the phone with Cheri. Recipe again from Goldstein's The Mediterranean Kitchen

c/o Myrna

Glazed Butter Cookies

from Cook’s Illustrated Magazine,

from the PBS programme, America’s Test Kitchen

Makes 3 dozen cookies

2 1/2 cups all purpose flour

3/4 cup super fine sugar (process in Cuisinart if necessary)

1/4 tsp salt

8 oz (1 cup) butter

2 tsp vanilla

2 tbsp cream cheese

jam or lemon curd for filling

icing sugar to dust with

1. In food processor, mix flour, sugar and salt until combined.

2. Add butter one tbsp at a time and continue to process until mixture

looks crumbly and slightly wet.

3. Add vanilla and cream cheese and mix until dough just begins to form

large clumps.

4. Remove dough from food processor and knead for 2 or 3 turns to

form large cohesive mass.

5. Divide into 4 disks and wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 20 - 30


6. Roll into even 1/8 inch thickness between 2 sheets of parchment

paper. (Do not add more flour to the dough!) and cut into shapes. You

need 2 shapes for each cookie. Cut out part of top shape if you wish

so that the filling shows of just make a “sandwich” of the cookie


7. Repeat with 3 other disks of dough. Scraps may be patted together to

form larger disks as you work.

8. Bake at 375o F for 10 minutes until firm and lightly browned. Cool


9. Spread filling (jam, lemon curd) on bottom cookie and cover with top

cookie. Dust with icing sugar, using a small sieve. May be frozen for a

month. (I have left them in the freezer for longer than that and they

were still good.)

cjw: Since I was using lemon cheese, I substituted lemon juice for vanilla. Also discovered that while Carrefour doesn't stock Philadelphia cream cheese, fromage à tartiner nature is an excellent substitute.