A Nightingale sang…

A decade before Charles Joseph Minard famous chart that portrays the losses suffered by Napoleon’s army in the Russian campaign of 1812, which Edward Tufte claims was “probably the best statistical graphic ever drawn”, English nurse Florence Nightingale created a “rose diagram.”

In 1858 she published Notes on Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency, and Hospital Administration of the British Army. Founded Chiefly on the Experience of the Late War. Presented by Request to the Secretary of State for War. This work contained a color statistical graph. Her “Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army of the East” showed that epidemic disease, which was responsible for more British deaths in the course of the Crimean War than battlefield wounds, could be controlled by a variety of factors including nutrition, ventilation, and shelter. This was, believe it or not, denied by the medical establishment of the time.

Rose chart showing the causes of mortality in the Crimean War

Nightingale went on to develop other statistical graphics in her reports to Parliament, realizing this was the most effective way of bringing data to life.

Statistician Hugh Small explains how the ‘rose chart’ works:

The circle on the right has 12 sectors going clockwise representing the first 12 months of the war. The circle on the left is the second 12 months. The superimposed dark shapes show the monthly death rates. The diagram illustrates how the Sanitary Commission, sent out in the middle of the war, dramatically reduced the death rate. The length of the radial line in each month is proportional to the death rate, but both the text and the appearance imply that it is the shaded area that is proportional to the death rate, rather than the length of the radial lines. Florence recognized this error and inserted an erratum slip, but then replaced this diagram in later documents.

Indeed, the 19th Century was a time of great progress in data collection.  In 1837 the General Registry Office at Somerset House, led by William Farr who later helped Nightingale with her Crimean statistics, began to systematically record births, deaths, and marriages in the UK.  While census data had been collected every ten years since 1801, the 1841 census was the first to list the names of every individual. This gave researchers the opportunity to examine new cause and effect relationships using registration statistics.

Here’s another chart created by Nightingale:

Hugh Small comments on the ways in which this chart is designed for maximum emotional impact:

The title ‘Lines’ (in ornate script in the original) makes it sound like a poem, as in  Lines on the Death of Bismarck.  There are four pairs of bars, when actually the message is clear from one pair alone.  There seems to be a kind of repetition, as in a chorus.  This effect is increased by the words, repeated at the end of each line, English Men, English Soldiers … It sounds like a funeral march.  Second, the red bar for the soldiers would certainly make some people think of the  ‘Thin Red Line’ which had become famous in the Crimean War when a two-deep row of red-jacketed British infantrymen stopped a Russian heavy cavalry charge, something that was thought to be impossible.  The thin red lines on Nightingale’s chart represented these same heroic soldiers who were now dying unnecessarily because of bad hygiene in their barracks.

The variation of death rates due to differences in hygiene was very important to reformers like Nightingale because it showed that even the civilian death rate could probably also be improved by better hygiene. 

Her goal with these charts was not just to inform, but to change hearts and minds.

In our time

In recent weeks, a number of temporary field hospitals have sprung up across Britain for the treatment of COVID-19 patients. Named “Nightingale Hospitals,” they pay homage to the famous “lady of the lamp.” Florence Nightingale’s pioneering approach to sanitation changed the understanding of public health in Victorian Britain and laid the foundations for the profession of nursing as we know it.

In our time of “mask deniers” and people who doubt the safety of vaccinations, or even that the pandemic is “real” and not a “Plandemic“, we need the persuasive power of modern-day Nightingales more than ever.

Ring out, wild bells

An astounding reading of Tennyson’s poem ‘Ring out, wild bells’ by actress June Spencer (aka Peggy Woolley on BBC Radio’s The Archers) sent me to the words of this 19th century poem.

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
   The flying cloud, the frosty light:
   The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
   Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
   The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
   For those that here we see no more;
   Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
   And ancient forms of party strife;
   Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
   The faithless coldness of the times;
   Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
   The civic slander and the spite;
   Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
   Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
   Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
   The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
   Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

https://poets.org/poem/memoriam-ring-out-wild-bells

Perhaps every generation since this was first published in 1850 have found allusions to their own era. Certainly these were suitable words to mark the beginnings of 1919 an 1946, when many would have felt the “grief that saps the mind/For those that here we see no more” as two World Wars ended.

The relevance to the start of 2021, with hope for a better year to come, especially in the United States, seems clear:

  • As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on:

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
   For those that here we see no more;

  • As Democrats and Republicans stare across the aisles of Congress:

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
   And ancient forms of party strife;

  • As lines of cars snake for miles around food banks across the country:

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
 
  The faithless coldness of the times;

  • As Trump prepares to leave office:

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
   The civic slander and the spite;

  • As the vaccine becomes available:

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;

  • As Joe Biden and Kamala Harris prepare to take office:

Ring in the valiant man and free,
   The larger heart, the kindlier hand;

Garbage Language

Obfuscation is alive and well in the corporate world. Molly Young writes in New York Magazine about the ways the Millenial generation of white-collar workers replicate the communication patterns of the organization man and woman.

Silicon Valley

She reviews Anna Weiners’ memoir Uncanny Valley about life in San Francisco during the current tech bubble:

…the scent of moneyed Bay Area in the mid-2010s: kombucha, office dog, freshly unwrapped USB cable…the lofty ambitions of her company, its cushy amenities, the casual misogyny that surrounds her like a cloud of gnats.

Wiener describes watching her peers attend silent-meditation retreats, take LSD, discuss Stoicism, and practice Reiki at parties. She tries ecstatic dance, gulps nootropics, and accepts a “cautious, fully-clothed back massage” from her company’s in-house masseuse. She encounters a man who self-identifies as a Japanese raccoon dog.

Only, as they say, in San Francisco. Or is it? Her description of the language employed is universal:

People used a sort of nonlanguage, which was neither beautiful nor especially efficient: a mash-up of business-speak with athletic and wartime metaphors, inflated with self-importance. Calls to action; front lines and trenches; blitzscaling. Companies didn’t fail, they died.

Weiner’s term for this is garbage language. More accurate than jargon or buzzwords since it is produced mindlessly and stinks. She notes how these terms warp and impede language, and permeate “the ways we think of our jobs and shapes our identities as workers.”

Etymology

Down the years, Weiner notes, garbage language has taken different forms:

  • In the 1980s it smelled of Wall Street: leverage, stakeholder, value-add.
  • The rise of high-tech introduced computing and gaming metaphors: bandwidth, hack, the concept of double-clicking on something, of talking off-line.
  • In the 1990s Clayton Christensen introduced the term disruptive.
  • By the turn of the century, New Age terms arrived: lean-in, conscious choices.
  • Then there are aviation terms: holding-pattern, discussing something at the 30,000-foot level.

Further characteristics include:

…verbs and adjectives shoved into nounhood (ask, win, fail, refresh, regroup, creative, sync, touchbase), nouns shoved into verbhood (whiteboard, bucket), and a heap of nonwords that, through force of repetition, became wordlike (complexify, co-execute, replatform, shareability, directionality).

WeWork

Young takes the WeWork SEC prospectus to task for it’s “fidelity to incoherence” — a 200,000-word tomb that overflows with windy passages such as:

We are a community company committed to maximum global impact. Our mission is to elevate the world’s consciousness. We have built a worldwide platform that supports growth, shared experiences and true success.

Why CEOs speak like idiots

In a passage worth quoting at length, Young zeros in on the dilemma those in the C-Suite face:

Edith Wharton[wrote a] story where a character observes the constraints of speaking a foreign tongue: “Don’t you know how, in talking a foreign language, even fluently, one says half the time, not what one wants to, but what one can?” To put it another way: Do CEOs act like jerks because they are jerks, or because the language of management will create a jerk of anyone eventually? If garbage language is a form of self-marketing, then a CEO must find it especially tempting to conceal the unpleasant parts of his or her job — the necessary whip-cracking — in a pile of verbal fluff.

Author Jessica Helfand lists commonly abused words and phrases, which she claims younger workers cling to because they give the illusion of authority. She classifies them as:

  • Hyphenated Mash-ups (omni-channel, level-setting, business-critical),
  • Compound Phrases (email blast, integrated deck, pain point, deep dive), and
  • Conceptual Hybrids (“shooting” someone an email, “looping” someone in).

Delusion as an Asset

Young concludes by quoting Nietzsche’s On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense:

A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms — in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.

The German philosopher made the ironic suggestion that we drop all pretense at ‘functional’ speak and resort to poetry. Something, Young concludes, that would be less of a threat than the garbage spoken in the corporate world today, where:

The meaningful threat of garbage language — the reason it is not just annoying but malevolent — is that it confirms delusion as an asset in the workplace.

Fuck Me!

Marina HydeAs I’ve noted before, the UK’s Financial Times has none of the reticence of other publications such as the WSJ in employing good Anglo Saxon terms where appropriate. Unlike American publications, they will print the work ‘fuck’ in articles.

I see this is a word that’s also freely employed by The Guardian. In her May 31, 2019 opinion piece on the current British Brexit brouhaha, columnist Marina Hyde outdoes the FT in the unrestricted use of the word:

Across all candidates there is an absolute refusal to admit Brexit is a mass Tory sex game that’s gone badly wrong. See modernity’s Matt Hancock, who this week attempted to attack Boris Johnson with the words: “To the people who say ‘fuck business’, I say fuck fuck business.” Gut response to this is: life, no parole. But for those who believe Matt’s crime should be in some way understood, this grammatical construction is known as the “double fuckative”. Contrary to assumption, there are policy positions beyond it – for instance “fuck the fucker of fuck business”, and “fuck fucking the fucker of fuck business”. Don’t ask what they mean – just let them mist you like three fragrant sprays of Matt by Matt Hancock.

My response to such robust commentary in a ‘proper’ English newspaper: Fuck Me!

Hay, Hey, Hay!

Hay Fesitval SignIt’s over dozen years since I first profiled The King of Hay-on-Wye and then listed the Top 197 Tweets from the 2008 Hay Festival. I’ve finally made the pilgrimage to the little Welsh-border village where books are celebrated. While Richard Booth is no longer King, having sold his various properties and suffered serious health challenges, the village has thrived and the festival grown enormously from the first event in 1988 that attracted a few thousand, to the hundred-thousand plus who attend today.

Woodstock for the Mind

President Bill Clinton famously compared the festival to the seminal 60’s rock festival. Absent mud, drugs and nudity, Hay delivers a high to bibliophiles. The loos are clean, the food exquisite, the literature wide-ranging.

Over a three day period, I heard presentations from:

That, and a compelling hour of some of Britain’s finest actors reading Speeches That Changed the World — which I’ll review in a separate blog post.

Whites Only?

Hay Fesitval AudienceThe British do this kind of thing so well. However, I couldn’t help noticing that the festival appealed almost exclusively to a certain demographic — the educated Hampstead Thinkers lampooned by Private Eye were there in large numbers. Radical chic was everywhere. I doubt many voted for Brexit. Any mention of Trump elicited chortles. And it was, without doubt, the whitest audience I’ve seen in a long, long time. While there’s obviously no White’s Only policy, one did wonder where the authors of color and their audiences were.

In Praise of Hay

Town of Hay-on-WyeAway from the Festival crowds, the delightful village of Hay-on-Wye offered great food in a range of pubs and cafes, bookshops everywhere, and pleasant riverside walks. The weather was glorious. Since I slept in a yurt in a farmer’s field this made the experience tolerable.

How The Light Gets In

My one regret this visit is that I did not know about a companion festival held May 24-27 at Hay. The How The Light Gets In festival (named in honor of a Leonard Cohen lyric) is billed as the world’s largest philosophy and music festival. This might be to the Literature Festival what Burning Man is to Woodstock. For those who like their Hay with a nightly rave thrown in.

Hay Player

For anyone curious about the content of the Literature Festival, an annual subscription to the online Hay Player costs just £10.00 and allows you to play as much audio and film from past festivals as you like. Considering the average ticket for just one talk at the Festival is around a tenner, this is a great bargain.

Plus, you won’t need to sleep in a yurt.

Speaking of fascism: ‘Bigmouth’ exposes the use and misuse of rhetoric

BigmouthThe Chicago Tribune has reviewed the play ‘Bigmouth’ (created by the Antwerp, Belgium-based SKaGeN) currently on stage in Chicago. It’s a one-man tour de force by Belgian actor Valentijn Dhaenens who delivers extracts of political speeches from the time of the Greeks to the 21st century. Dhaenens speaks in English, German, Greek, Flemish, French, Italian and the unique patois of Ann Coulter.

He appears onstage behind a table configured with nine microphones, reciting a script composed of the words of the Grand Inquisitor, Nicola Sacco, Socrates, Joseph Goebbels, Gen. George S. Patton, Pericles, Baudouin of Belgium, Patrice Lumumba, Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Louis Farrakhan, Osama bin Laden, Frank Vanhecke, George W. Bush and, finally, Coulter.

The Tribune observes that

There is no greater tool in the promotion of hate, disarray, retribution, racism, disunity and fascism than lofty rhetoric. Most of the speakers, of course, did not promote such things, but some did… What makes this show so daring is how Dhaenens works to show you the similarity of rhetoric devices across ideologies or, to put that another way, how history teaches us that it is near impossible to separate good and evil people merely by listening to the words they choose to deliver. Why? Because, as Dhaenens shows us by pairing, say, Goebbels with Patton, the fascists long ago learned the soft-pedal tricks of rhetorical power.

The performance reveals how the tricks of rhetoric have remained unchanged since the dawn of language. They can be deployed both for good and bad purposes.

If you’d like to sample the show check out this interview with Dhaenens:

Cannon fodder

FT ExtractI’m continually amazed by the hidden gems buried in the pink pages of the Financial Times. Today’s edition has a fascinating article on the manner in which auto companies protect their fleets of new vehicles parked in the open at distribution centers in places at risk of hailstones.

It seems VW and Nissan have installed cannons which fire shockwaves into the air that can actually prevent the formation of damaging hail stones that might rain down on the new vehicles.

Unfortunately, the weather-altering technology has deprived local farmers of much-needed rain, causing droughts. The farmers are suing.

In the spirit of compromise (perhaps learned as a result of the unfortunate emissions scandal) VW are silencing the cannons and installing protective “anti-hail nets” above the cars.

Business Insider notes that the use of cannons to influence the weather goes back to the time of the Romans

Herodotus and Caesar made note of the fact that barbarian tribes tried to shoot arrows at oncoming storms. In parts of Europe, guns were used to shoot at storms, until Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa prohibited the practice in 1750 — apparently, it was a source of complaints by neighbors of the storm shooters, who were upset about the way the weather changed as a result.

If the technology is so effective, one wonders why Flanders was so darned wet when the guns of August split the air during the First World War.

Adult Entertainment

I’ve noted before that the Financial Times — the British equivalent of the Wall Street Journal — isn’t reticent about treating readers as adults and using four-letter words when appropriate.

The latest example from today’s edition is in a wonderful review of the Womad festival where they mention French singer Camille did a cover of the Dead Kennedy’s song “Too Drunk to Fuck”, and, yes, the title was printed in the British financial newspaper in full, not F*** as most newspapers would, leaving us to guess: Too Drunk to Feel? to Flow? to Fake?

Perhaps, as someone once told me, it’s because with a British accent even “Fuck” sounds profound.

FT Womad Review

Click picture to enlarge..

Anyway, here’s Camilla, clearly not too drunk to sing.

 

Book Review: The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America, by Robert Love

The Great Oom - CoverLong before Lululemon, Bikram Hot Yoga and the ubiquitous downward facing dog, yoga was being taught in small studios in San Francisco, New York and the Hudson River Valley. Just as Lululemon struggled to contain the reputational damage of the ‘sheer pants’ scandal and Bikram Choudhury became embroiled in lawsuits, the man who opened the first yoga studios in the nation back in the early 1900’s was a lightening rod for controversy.

The story of how yoga as we know it came to America is told in a fascinating and very readable book, The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America by Robert Love.

The man the tabloid press of the day branded ‘Oom the Omnipotent’ was born Perry Baker in small town Iowa in 1876. Before he was 20 he’d changed his name to Pierre Bernard, met an Indian mystic named Sylvais Hamati, and attained notoriety by subjecting himself to tongue and lip piercings (allowing his lip and nose to be sewn together!) while apparently feeling no pain in a self-induced trance.

Bernard became a serious student of Hatha yoga derived from Vedic and Sanskrit teachings at a time when most Americans were even more ignorant of religions other than bedrock Christianity than they are today. This was even more remarkable since British India regarded Hatha yoga, with its well-known asanas or postures, as declasse.

Bernard fully embraced the Tantrick (or Tantric) forms of practice that included sacramental sexual union: a massive reputational risk in the Puritanical climate of the 1900’s (or even the more tolerant 1970s, as other teachers were to discover). Despite, or perhaps because of, the success of his teaching in helping society ladies and the idle rich find purpose in life, he was pursued in court and hounded in the press.

Nyack YogaHe moved from San Francisco to Seattle, and eventually settled on the East Coast, first in Manhattan then in the rural Hudson River Valley village of Nyack, where he became a landowner and opened a country club offering members everything from daily yoga to enemas, circuses and all-night parties.

He counted several members of the Vanderbilt family among his patrons. Among his detractors were blue blood families convinced their daughters were being seduced by a charlatan. Charges ranged from indecency (holding classes where female students shed girdles and garters for something more free form, although a world away from Lululemon tights) through to running a white slavery operation (one of the pet fears of that age).

The man who Alan Watts — perhaps recognizing a kindred spirit — described as a “phenomenal rascal master” influenced the next generation of yoga teachers. These included Ida Rolf, the founder of ‘Rolfing’, and Bernard’s wife Blanche DeVris, who taught yoga to Anthony Quinn and Henry Fonda among others.

Bernard died in solitude in 1955, having made and lost multiple fortunes, created a private zoo, sponsored baseball teams, built the finest library of esoteric literature of the time, championed the study of Sanskrit, and much more.

Robert Love has written a fascinating, exceptionally well researched book. He notes:

…what intrigued Americans about Bernard was not merely the Oom notoriety and the flamboyant weirdness. It was the question of whether these trappings of wealth, his fantastic life — elephants, tigers, circuses, Vanderbilt heiresses, and everywhere the scent of sex — might actually be the result of an intense and authentic spiritual pursuit.”

It was, and is.

The Atomic Hobo Thinks the Unthinkable

Nuke posterFiona Sturges has a great weekly column in the Financial Times reviewing podcasts. This week she highlights The Atomic Hobo by British journalist, cold war specialist and self-confessed “nuke geek” Julie McDowall.

Julie has an engaging Scottish accent, which adds a degree of surrealism to the subject of her regular podcasts: the ways in which Britain and the US prepared for nuclear attack during the cold war. So far, themes have included the disposal of the dead (in Britain, councils stockpiled shrouds); how to keep survivors calm in the bunker (pills, mostly); food distribution; and the fate of family pets.

Certain speechwriters are employed to draft ‘red file’ talks that will be delivered in the aftermath of a nuclear attack. Thankfully, those statements have, so far, remained filed away.

To hear how the threat of nuclear war has influenced people to date, check out Julie’s great podcast.