Booch News

In November 2018 I launched a new blog.

Booch News is the premier source for independent news about all aspects of the kombucha industry — the beverage that is taking the world by storm.

It offers an in-depth look into the kombucha industry,  discusses the latest trends, marketing techniques, news, profiles, and other topics related to kombucha.

I’ll still post occasional updates to Professionally Speaking, but most of my attention these days is on Booch News. Meanwhile, the 900+ posts and 100+ podcast interviews on this site will remain as an archive of useful information.

Misleading COVID-19 map

This map is an Edward Tufte-level poster child of the poor visual display of quantitative information.

MSNBC show it at least once a day.

At first glance it appears to show that Wyoming, Vermont, and Maine are *much* safer places than COVID-19 hotspots like California and Texas. Look! They have less than 1,000 cases … hardly surprising given that the population of WY of 578,000 vs. 39 million in CA.

Hasn’t anyone heard of percentages?

What’s more, the States with 500,000+ cases are counter-intuitively darker than the States with 1+ million. Adding final insult to injury, the title font with the confirmed case total is smaller than the total fatality number — yet this is a map of cases, not fatalities.

“The minimum we should hope for with any display technology is that it should do no harm.”― Edward Tufte, author The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

Dylan’s Lyrics: Written for the ears not the eyes

On a recent episode of the charming Start the Week BBC Radio 4 program we heard Frances Wilson, Salman Rushdie and Simon Armitage discuss the rehabilitation of DH Lawrence and the relationship between the writer and their work. In the closing minutes (approx 37:00) host Andrew Marr asks Armitage about an essay that claims Bob Dylan’s lyrics “don’t really hold up as great poetry, you have to listen to the songs in order to understand the interleaving of the music and the words….can you tell us what you think doesn’t work on the page? Is it repetition, is it sloppiness of the language, evasiveness?”

Armitage responds that in a poem “everything that happens in a poem has to happen within the text, in silence really…it has to be done with the alphabet.” Whereas songwriters can “write the lyric and even ‘la-la-la’ might sound very good if you put it to the right chord progression. It can be utterly transcendent if it’s working well with the music and if you’re wearing the right cowboy boots and if you’ve got the right voice.”

He reports taking Dylan lyrics into his poetry class where younger students (unfamiliar with the tune) might appreciate the poetic aspects, nevertheless see cheesy rhymes, repetition, tautology and other elements “that you can’t get away with on the printed page.”

Speechwriters as songwriters

In many ways Armitage is stating the obvious. Songs are created to be listened to, not read (as rewarding as a close reading of Dylan’s lyrics can be). As with great songs, so with great speeches.

Speechwriting authorities Nancy Duarte and Bob Lehrman drive home the message that speeches (like songs) need to be written for the ear not, (as are poems) for the eye.

Sparklines

Nancy Duarte’s seminal 2010 book Resonate focuses on visual storytelling. With the use of what she calls ‘sparklines’ she graphically illustrates the arc of a speech and maps the emotion and delivery by tracking the laughter and applause alongside the words (lyrics) of great speeches such as Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. It would be fascinating to apply a sparkline mapping audience reaction to live musical performances.

Political speechwriting

Political pundit and speechwriting professor Bob Lehrman (literally) wrote the book on speechwriting. In examining why persuasive speeches work, he lists the various forms of repetition (anaphora, epistrope, antimetabol, and climatic order) and forms of vivid language (simile and metaphor, understatement and irony) that work on the heartstrings, not just the head space, of the audience.

While these techniques can be employed by poets, they resonate differently when delivered by a compelling speaker.

In the beginning was the word

In claiming that “everything that happens in a poem has to happen within the text, in silence really” Armitage overlooks the pre-literate origins of poetry, when bards of old, the minstrels of Medieval times, recited epic poems which the tellers knew by heart. The literary techniques they used provided aide memoirs for themselves and for their listeners.

Writing in the New York Times, history professor Molly Worthen notes:

Since ancient times, humans have memorized and recited poetry. Before the invention of writing, the only way to possess a poem was to memorize it. Long after scrolls and folios supplemented our brains, court poets, priests and wandering bards recited poetry in order to entertain and connect with the divine.

Sorry, Simon, the origins of the poem are with the word, not the page.

Desolation Row

James Ensor, Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889

Dylan’s recording of Desolation Row was the longest track (at just over 11 minutes) on his 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited. While I can’t remember the first time I heard it, it’s been in my head for most of my adult life. It’s one of my defining anthems that, together with Roy Harper and Leonard Cohen’s songs, I love more for the lyrics than the melodies. It’s pure poetry set to music.

The Getty Museum owns the Ensor painting and paired it with Dylan’s song with it in the book The Superhuman Crew, noting

Ensor’s huge, vibrant, and startling canvas presents a scene filled with clowns, masked figures, and barely visible amid the swirling crowds the tiny figure of Christ on a donkey entering the city of Brussels. “Desolation Row,” from Dylan’s classic 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited, presents its own surreal portrait of modern life in strangely similar terms.

That “surreal portrait of modern life” becomes more appropriate with each passing year. As I listened again to the song I know so well, themes emerged. It is a song rooted in the time Dylan wrote when cracks were appearing in 50s America, and those with open eyes and ears witnessed the “chimes of freedom flashing.”

Dylan sings of the contrast between two world-views: those embracing emerging freedoms and the guardians of the old order. He paints this contrast in both stark black and white terms (Everybody’s shouting, “Which side are you on?!”)  as well as shades of grey.

There have been endless interpretations about the meaning of the lyrics.

This is my response to what I hear.

They’re selling postcards of the hanging, they’re painting the passports brown

The dystopian scene is set. Repression, autocracy, and violence rule in a time when hangings were public events. These might be images of lynching’s in the Deep South or scenes from The Handmaids Tale. What sort of society trades in picture postcards of the dead? One where individual identity is subject to a brown-out. Arguments about the color of passports were part of the Brexit debate that consumed Britain. Painting passports is something “they” do to restrict our liberty to travel and escape the dystopia. Internal passports restricted movement in apartheid-era South Africa, North Korea, and modern China.


The beauty parlor is filled with sailors, the circus is in town

Yet, the scene is not monochrome. There’s a rambunctiousness in a world where the sailors (presumably men) fill the beauty parlors, and the circus is in town. Dylan sets the scene in a port city–one he visits again in 1974 when he tells of a man who “Hunts her down by the waterfront docks where the sailors all come in” (Simple Twist of Fate from Blood on the Tracks). What would groups of sailors want in a beauty parlor? More than a haircut. Hello sailor! Perhaps some eye shadow, a waxing, or lip gloss? Anything to juice up their shore leave.

The opening two lines contrast repression with freedom, heralding an awakening sense of personal expression at the dawn of the ’60s. Soon enough, many would choose the option to dance beneath the diamond sky/With one hand waving free (Mr. Tambourine Man--recorded six months earlier.) Meanwhile, the representatives of the old order are on parade, like Shriners striding down Main Street in Anytown, USA.


Here comes the blind commissioner, they’ve got him in a trance

The first of the old order makes an entrance. I see the blind commissioner four rows back in the Ensor painting — the man with the handlebar mustache, center stage. An authority figure (perhaps the port commissioner?) who is both literally and metaphorically blind. Blind like Lady Justice holding her scales. Except “they” (the ones selling postcards of hangings and painting passports) have him in a trance. Hypnotized. In their power. Unable to function.


One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker, the other is in his pants

Not only blind and hypnotized but bound. Guided by the tight-rope walker from the circus, accomplished at balancing in his own way, just as Lady Justice balances her scales. He is leading the blind commissioner, who is all the while pleasuring himself with his free hand. While some might see his free hand resting innocently in a trouser pocket, the words “in his pants” always implied something far raunchier to me — long before Borat filmed the blind commissioner Rudy Giuliani in the hotel room with one hand in his pants.


And the riot squad they’re restless, they need somewhere to go

Three years before the Chicago police riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention and decades before the last US President stirred the restlessness of his own rioting squad and suggested somewhere they could go (down Pennsylvania Avenue and up the steps of the Capitol), Dylan has the measure of the inherent restlessness of the enforcement arm of the old order.


As Lady and I look out tonight, from Desolation Row

Meanwhile, above it all, the poet sits with his “Lady” looking out over the unfolding nighttime scene, not “on” but “from” Desolation Row. The home of the residents of the emerging zeitgeist. I see Desolation Row as the New York apartment Dylan writes about in Visions of Johanna:

Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?
We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it

They look out over the dystopian landscape of blind commissioners and riot squads, perched on an island of sanity, observing the crazy world.

Lady is the mythical companion of the Tramp in the Disney film of a decade earlier. Dylan as the Chaplinesque Everyman “Tramp” alongside a woman who might be slumming from the aristocracy in those timeless dystopian times.

Desolation Row might also be a knowing reference to California’s Cannery Row, described by Steinbeck as “a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.” The sardine industry had collapsed, in desolation, a decade before Dylan wrote his song. Cross-referenced with Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels, which declared, “Everything’ll be all right, desolation is desolation everywhere and desolation is all we got and desolation ain’t so bad.”

Cinderella, she seems so easy, “It takes one to know one,” she smiles
And puts her hands in her back pockets Bette Davis style

Alongside Lady, Cinderella is another Disney character, an archetype of emerging freedom. She is ignored by her establishment sisters, standing free, knowing the power of her sexuality. A woman who only “seems so easy” (as in easy to seduce, or perhaps at her ease?) acknowledging others (like Dylan?) who hold the same appeal. Insouciant, seductive, captivating. Someone who would have turned heads in the folk clubs of Greenwich Village.


And in comes Romeo, he’s moaning. “You Belong to Me I Believe”
And someone says, “You’re in the wrong place, my friend, you’d better leave.”

Cinderella’s anthesis arrives on the scene. Romeo sans Juliet, desperate to own whatever woman he can find. Down on his luck, off his game, and “moaning.” A visitor from the dark side. His inappropriate advances earning a rebuke–not only to put him in his place but to tell him, with the threatening tone of a nightclub bouncer or mobster’s bodyguard, that he needs to leave. The two lines of dialog tied together in rhyme are polar opposite in intention. Those who claim ownership (capitalists, The Man?) having no place in the communal world of Desolation Row.


And the only sound that’s left after the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up on Desolation Row
.

And so we come to the end of Act One. The sirens are silenced. The riot squad has done its worst. Chaos has reigned off-screen. We’re witness to the cleaning-up operations, with Cinders doing what her stepmother required — sweeping up the broken glass on the street. Indeed, it must be broken glass. After all, if it was just the

empty bottles, sandwich papers,
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights.

The Waste Land, Fire Sermon, lines 177-178

of Eliot’s Fire Sermon, we wouldn’t hear her at work.

Now the moon is almost hidden, the stars are beginning to hide

The night is growing darker, colder, older. Clouds are moving in.


The fortune-telling lady has even taken all her things inside

Another circus refugee has called it a night, signaling the transition from one part of the day to another. Her tarot cards, crystal ball, and tasseled gown are now inside whatever she calls home – gypsy caravan, tent, or tenement building. Minus the fortune teller, the future is an unknown.


All except for Cain and Abel and the hunchback of Notre Dame
/ Everybody is making love or else expecting rain

But wait, not everyone has quit the scene. Three more archetypes of the old order are introduced. The brothers from the Bible and Quasimodo –monsters in their own way–are the exception to others, engaged in the trivial and the profound. When is making love as trivial as expecting rain? Family members from my English childhood often commented on the weather. They rarely spoke about lovemaking. Depending on which group of people this describes the juxtaposition either challenges the romantic ideal of lovemaking as no more significant an option than commenting on the weather (“Do you want to make out or put on your Wellingtons? It’s all the same to me…”) or the hipsters are making love while the squares look to the cloudy sky. Dylan is unclear about which “everybody” it is — everybody in the apartment, everyone on the street, or the whole world? Shades of grey.


And the Good Samaritan, he’s dressing, he’s getting ready for the show
He’s going to the carnival tonight on Desolation Row

Again, a contrast. While the fratricidal boys in the Bible represent murder and martyrdom, the Good Samaritan signifies freedom, preparing for the evening’s entertainment (the night is young). Whether the “show” is something the circus is putting on or the carnival Ensor painted is unclear. However, Desolation Row seems like the fun side of town, more benign than the disorder in the debris-filled streets.

Ophelia, she’s ‘neath the window for her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday she already is an old maid
To her, death is quite romantic she wears an iron vest
Her profession’s her religion, her sin is her lifelessness
And though her eyes are fixed upon Noah’s great rainbow
She spends her time peeking into Desolation Row
.

Switching back to Shakespearean archetypes, Dylan notices Ophelia beneath the window (that Lady and he looks out of, standing where Romeo would have wooed his Juliet on her balcony). He’s empathetic, concerned, aware of the limitations playing out in her young life. A tragic career woman (her profession’s her religion), she is a lifeless “old maid” — one of Shakespeare’s ‘cold maids’ in Ophelia’s death scene:

There is a willow grows aslant a brook

That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream.

There with fantastic garlands did she come

Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,

That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,

But our cold maids do “dead men’s fingers” call them

Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 7

She’s fixated on her namesakes’ romantic death, armored against feelings of passion, or trapped like youthful Polio victims in an iron lung? Her goal cemented by Old Testament certainty:

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”

Genesis, 9-13

Ophelia is missing the mark, the juice having been squeezed out of her life, denying her true feelings, but trying to make a break, curious about what she’s missing. Despite being an uptight career girl, she can’t help “peeking into Desolation Row.

This echoes Dylan’s admonition in the opening track on the album (Like a Rolling Stone) to embrace our feelings, recognize our freedoms:

How does it feel, how does it feel?
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone

While there are those like Ophelia who sense the possibility of freedom and might be tempted to overcome their fears to experience it, other sad unfortunates have been destroyed by madness. Among them, as Ginsburg noted, “the best minds of my generation.” (Howl, 1956). What more impressive mind than Einstein?

Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood with his memories in a trunk
Passed this way an hour ago with his friend, a jealous monk

Archetypes nest like Matryoshka dolls. The father of relativity, whose theories upended the certainties of space and time itself, now disguised as the folk-hero of Sherwood Forest, robbing from the rich, giving to the poor, accompanied by Friar Tuck. There’s a nod to Einstein’s lot as a refugee, forced to stay in the United States in the 1930s to avoid Hitler’s Germany, who would have no doubt have a store of photographs and diaries from the Europe of his youth in a trunk.


Now he looked so immaculately frightful as he bummed a cigarette
And he went off sniffing drainpipes and reciting the alphabet

This heroic figure is down at heel, a hobo like those who rode the rails Dylan’s mentor Woody Guthrie sang about. As disheveled as he might be, he appears “immaculately frightful” (a state of dishabille that perfectly describes a street person I once saw in Paris, where a sense of fashion doesn’t desert those without the means to buy new clothes)—now compelled to neurotically sniff drainpipes and recite the alphabet—a far cry from authoring the Theory of Relativity.


You would not think to look at him, but he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin on Desolation Row
.

Just as you’d say about any down-and-out who was once a person of note, “you would not think to look at him, but…” he was once a banker, school principal, a respected member of the community, Nobel Laureate in Theoretical Physics. Or, in the case of a musician like Dylan, a violinist he shared the stage with before things took a turn for the worse.

Dr. Filth, he keeps his world inside of a leather cup
But all his sexless patients, they’re trying to blow it up

We now come to one of the central characters on the dark side of the street. Dr. Filth is a name straight out of a Marvel comic book. The leather cup could be an athletic support cup around his manhood that his “sexless patients” are trying to blow (pun intended?). Or it could be a leather liar’s dice cup sitting on a barroom counter that the patients want to dynamite. Anyone who needs to keep their world inside anything as small as a cup must have a paranoid need to keep it safe. Like memories in a trunk, they might well be keepsakes. Or patient records. I wonder what HIPPA regulations require? What insecurities drive this?


Now his nurse, some local loser, she’s in charge of the cyanide hole
And she also keeps the cards that read, “Have Mercy on His Soul.”

The doctor’s assistant is “some local loser”—more likely to be found working as a waitress in a greasy spoon or matinee movie theatre attendant than as a qualified nurse. She guards (and administers?) a toxic substance whose only use in emergency medical situations is to effect a rapid decrease in blood pressure.  She’s also representative of the local losers recruited to administer gas into the cyanide holes above the Nazi death camps’ shower stalls. Coupled with overseeing the cards that judges read from when pronouncing the death sentence, we are firmly in a dystopian hell realm.


They all play on the penny whistles, you can hear them blow
If you lean your head out far enough from Desolation Row.

These nightmare characters (Dr. Filth and the local loser employed as his poison dispensing, capital-punishment enabling nurse) create discordant noise blowing on penny whistles—discernable when you “lean your head out far enough” to catch the vague traces of the distant spinning wheels of sound.

Across the street they’ve nailed the curtains, they’re getting ready for the feast

Back in the low-rent district (Greenwich Village being affordable back then), neighbors nail curtains across their windows–cheap privacy for their nighttime feast.  Neighbors who also feature in Visions of Johanna:

Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough

Next, we meet the Paris opera house’s ghost, invited to the feast to berate Casanova, given form as a man of God, able to dispense judgment. Introduced in a line that hangs suspended in the song, held back for a beat.

The Phantom of the Opera in a perfect image of a priest

Casanova–an archetype of masculine power and a master of seduction is reduced to the level of an invalid needing to be spoon-fed assurances.


They are spoon feeding Casanova to get him to feel more assured
Then they’ll kill him with self-confidence after poisoning him with words

He’s destined to be sacrificed on the self-improvement altar of positive thinking, poisoned by the words of authors such as Norman Vincent Peale and Napoleon Hill.


And the Phantom’s shouting to skinny girls, “Get outta here if you don’t know.”
Casanova is just being punished for going to Desolation Row

The Phantom is reanimated, announcing that Casanova’s transgression is to have crossed over from the conventional world and embraced Desolation Row’s freedoms. His audience is the “skinny girls” who might welcome Casanova’s attention, but, like Romeo before them, have to leave. The stage is set: a group of girls, the Phantom and Casanova with his attendants. This echoes Deputy Duperret’s advice to Charlotte Corday in Peter Weiss’s 1963 play The Marat/Sade. Both women are ignorant of the politics of revenge and repression.

Dearest Charlotte you must return

Return to your friends the pious nuns

And live in prayer and contemplation

You cannot fight

The hard-faced enemies surrounding us.

The Marat/Sade, Act 1

Casanova, Jean-Paul Marat, the Marquis de Sade—three European libertines at odds with Middle America’s morality.

At midnight all the agents and the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone that knows more than they do

The dystopian frenzy is unleashed at the stroke of midnight. Scenes similar to those portrayed in The Handmaid’s Tale and lived by the victims of the Chilean dictators and Hitler’s brownshirts. Victims of a group of the Übermensch who accompany J. Edgar’s agents. The deplorables against the elites. The revenge of the conspiracy theorists against those with knowledge of the facts. Punishment Park a possibility.


Then they bring them to the factory where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders, and then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles by insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping to Desolation Row.

Conformity is enforced on the salt of the earth workers, whole-life policies for those with no life to live. Orwell’s’ 1984. Dictates from the mansions of the one percent keeping the workers from their freedom. A theme explored by John Lennon five years later:

As soon as you’re born, they make you feel small
By giving you no time instead of it all
‘Til the pain is so big you feel nothing at all

~~

When they’ve tortured and scared you for twenty-odd years
Then they expect you to pick a career
When you can’t really function, you’re so full of fear

~~

Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV
And you think you’re so clever and classless and free
But you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see
.

Working Class Hero, 1970.

The conclusion, but not the coda, is in the next six lines.

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune, the Titanic sails at dawn
Everybody’s shouting, “Which side are you on?!”

The emperor who fiddled while Rome burned sets sail on the doomed liner. The pretentions of the entitled end up at the bottom of the ocean. Division in the land – Red states and Blue, Proud Boys and Antifa, them and us. Is any of it more than rearranging the deckchairs?


And Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them and fishermen hold flowers
Between the windows of the sea where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much about Desolation Row.

Ivory tower intellectuals battle for supremacy while artists and artisans celebrate life in the wonderous watery reaches of this blue planet, an ocean of bliss, feeling without limitation, freed from analysis of current and future conflicts.

After an interlude on the harmonica, Dylan delivers a footnote, responding to a letter the mailman delivered.

Yes, I received your letter yesterday, about the time the doorknob broke
When you asked me how I was doing, was that some kind of joke
All these people that you mention, yes, I know them, they’re quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces and give them all another name
Right now, I can’t read too good, don’t send me no more letters no
Not unless you mail them from Desolation Row.

While the battle between the forces of good and evil rage, trite domesticity occupies others. He confesses that he sang about the people he knew, anonymized with archetypes and aliases. He admonishes his correspondent to stop sending trivial news. And only write if, and when, they have stepped out of their suburban cocoon.

Take a listen

If you’ve got this far in my endless screed about the song, you deserve a treat. Take a listen to Dylan as he sings the lines that so inspired me.

River, River

I wish I had a river so long
I would teach my feet to fly
I wish I had a river I could skate away on
I made my baby cry

‘River’, Joni Mitchell

Watching Robson Green walking coast-to-coast along Hadrian’s Wall (a journey I made in September 2019) I was struck by the incongruity of him spending an afternoon fly-fishing on the River North Tyne. It’s not that he obviously did not carry a set of waders and a fishing pole in his rucksack, it was the name of the river he waded into.

Something sounded so wrong. I’ve spent too long in the States.

Why River North Tyne and not North Tyne River? I had no problem with River Tyne, River Thames, or River Avon. It was the three words in that order that jarred.

Then, a sudden realization, American’s *always* put River after the name, the British before.

It sounds equally wrong to say River Mississippi, River Columbia, or River Sacramento as it does to say Thames River, Avon River, or Tyne River. Just not, to my ears, River North Tyne.

Likewise, who gets to decide when to call a watercourse The Mississppi, The Thames, or The North Tyne?

Then there’s Thamesside, Tyneside, and Humberside. But not Mississippiside, which just has one too many s’s in it.

The Banks are, however, agnostic to culture. The Banks of the Mississippi and the Banks of the Tyne both work–unlike the Royal Bank of Scotland which plainly didn’t.

Divided by a common language

Fortunately, smarter people than me have looked into why this is, even though it is, in the end, a mystery:

Once upon a time, river names in English usually included the word “of.” So instead of “River Jordan” (in modern British usage) or “Jordan River” (in American usage), you would have found “River of Jordan” (written something like “rywere of Iordane”).

Many of the Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citations for names of rivers, dating from the late 1300s, include “of.” Chaucer in 1395, for example, wrote of “the ryuer of Gysen.”

This practice of including “of” in river names, the OED says, wasn’t the only way of naming rivers, but it was “the predominant style before the late 17th cent.”

At that point, “of” began to drop out of river names, and British and American practices started to diverge.

In proper names, the word “river” commonly came first in Britain, but last in the American Colonies. In other words, most English speakers simply dropped “of,” but Americans reversed the word order as well.

While “river” has occasionally appeared at the end in British writing, this was “uncommon,” the OED says. Most of Oxford’s citations for “river” in last place are from the mid-1600s and after, and most are from North American sources.

As things now stand, the OED explains, the word “river” appears first “chiefly in British English referring to British rivers and certain other major, historically important rivers, as the Nile, Rhine, Ganges, etc.”

In North American usage, however, “river” comes at the end except sometimes in “certain other major, historically important rivers” like the ones mentioned above.

But we haven’t addressed the question “Why?” Why does usage differ in Britain and America? Why did the Colonists prefer “James River” and “Charles River” to the reverse?

We can’t answer that. But certainly, the style adopted by the Colonists wasn’t unknown in the mother country.

Source: Grammarphobia

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;

Ex Machina

Robin Wigglesworth highlights the effect of Artificial Intelligence on executive communications in an article in the Weekend FT (subscription required). A new form of “robo-surveillance” by trading algorithms is spurring executives to place a deeper focus on the spoken word.

Executives are coached to avoid saying certain phrases, such as “but” which could trigger stock sales by natural language processing (NLP) machines taught the intricacies of human speech. Using NLP, investment funds instantaneously scrape speeches, social media chatter and corporate earnings calls for clues.

Cat and mouse

The result is a cat and mouse game, where CEOs try to outwit the machines that can pick up a verbal clue that a human might not even realize is relevant.

A recent academic paper — How to Talk When a Machine Is Listening: Corporate Disclosure in the Age of AI — points out that companies are keen to show off their business in the best possible light.

…firms with high expected machine downloads manage textual sentiment and audio emotion in ways catered to machine and AI readers, such as by differentially avoiding words that are perceived as negative by computational algorithms as compared to those by human readers, and by exhibiting speech emotion favored by machine learning software processors.

The paper found that companies have tweaked the language of annual reports and how executives speak in public to avoid words that might trigger red flags for machines listening in.

These changes extend to the tone of voice executives use, in addition to the words they use. The paper notes:

Managers of firms with higher expected machine readership exhibit more positivity and excitement in their vocal tones, justifying the anecdotal evidence that managers increasingly seek professional coaching to improve their vocal performances along the quantifiable metrics.

Some companies’ investor relations departments are even running multiple draft versions of press releases and speeches through such algorithmic systems to see which scores the best.

In return, NLP powered algorithms are also continuously adjusted to reflect the increasing obfuscation of corporate executives, so it ends up being a never-ending game of fruitless linguistic acrobatics.

In this game, the machines have the upper hand. The algorithms can immediately adjust for a chief executive’s idiosyncratic styles.

A certain CEO might routinely use the word “challenging” and its absence would be more telling while one that never uses the word would be sending as powerful signal by doing so.

Body language

Machines are still unable to pick up non-verbal cues, such as a physical twitch ahead of an answer, but experts predict it’s only a matter of time before they can do this as well.

Where this will all end, and the impact it will have on speechwriters, presentation coaches, investor relations, and PR professionals is open to speculation.

Usually when machine and men collide, it’s the machines that have the upper hand.

Speechwriting in the Zoom era

Jeff Nussbaum and Kate Childs Graham, the 2020 Democratic convention speechwriters, have written a fascinating article in the Washington Post detailing how the ‘Zoom era’ has radically transformed political speechwriting.

While this probably won’t cause Bob Lehrman to tear up the guidance in his excellent book The Political Speechwriter’s Companion, it shows how the future of political rhetoric has been affected by the pandemic that required the prerecorded speakers at the convention to deliver speeches without a stage, an arena, or a live audience.

More is less

Nussbaum and Graham list the speechwriting techniques they used to script remarks for maximum impact, including:

  • Speaking at 150-170 words per minute vs. the 125 typical when speakers in front of a live audience pause for laughter or applause.
  • Cutting extraneous content to fit in tight 2 1/2 minute timeframes (the average length of a speech at this virtual convention).
  • Dropping the rhetorical techniques of “call-and-response” or “litany” (eg. ending each section with a phrase like “Yes, we can.”)
  • Delivering the headline message upfront, not burying the message in a lengthy speech.
  • Dealing with the loss of the lectern — as TED talks have. Absent that visual crutch bestowing authority on the speaker, the venue supplemented the message: Kasich at the crossroads; Jill Biden in the classroom she once taught in.
  • Invoking feelings via storytelling “As neuroscientist Antonio Damasio once put it, humans are feeling machines that think, not thinking machines that feel.” Hence the more memorable remarks were delivered by everyday people — the young man who stuttered, the lady whose father had believed Trump’s message on COVID-19 and died for his beliefs.

Michelle

Ironically, the one speech the professional writers did not script was the one many consider among the most powerful — delivered by Michelle Obama. The authors note:

She didn’t speak to 20 million television viewers: she spoke to one viewer in an intimate conversation that happened to take place 20 million times.

Recommended: Korean Romantic Dramas

These are unusual times. A challenge we all face as the minimize the spread of the coronavirus is how to stay healthy and sane in the growing regions of the world where we’ve been asked to stay indoors.

An antidote to the ‘self-isolation blues’ is to lose yourself in a good TV series. Apologies to anyone who has already found the genre of ‘K-Dramas’ but there’s a vast number of ‘Korean Romantic Dramas’ available on Netflix.

My wife and I have just discovered Something in the Rain which is a classic ‘boy meets girl’ chick-flick wrapped in bizarre scenes of drunken office workers singing karaoke; Tiger Mom’s who put Felicity Huffman & Lori Loughlin to shame; drunken girlfriends out on the town who just wanna have fun; creepy salarymen who predate #MeToo by about 1,000 years behaving badly; and a parade of fashionably dressed young people wearing winter coats that would be at home on the Upper West Side in Manhattan.

It segues into an awesome soundtrack (check it out on Spotify) featuring (I kid you not) two versions of ‘Stand by Your Man’ sung by past-French-President Nicolas Sarkozy’s wife Carla Bruni and a second by Tammy Wynette; first The Cats and then Bruce Willis’s version of ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’ (but not the quintessential one by The Deighton Family of their glorious Rolling Home album–in itself an antidote to isolation); and Daydream Believer by Mary Beth Maziarz.

But wait, there’s more! it’s educational. In every scene filmed in a car, there’s a dashboard camera attached to the rear-view mirror. Apparently “South Korean cars have them as a deterrent for scammers who throw themselves onto the windscreens of slow-moving cars in a bid to claim insurance money. … The vast majority of South Korean car owners use them — primarily for insurance purposes.” Who knew?

Highly recommended — it’s sure to warm your Seoul (geddit?)