Non-Fiction

Oxford English Dictionary Adds New Entries: Chuddies, Jibbons and Fantoosh

22 March 2019

From The Guardian:

English speakers from around the world have flocked to help the Oxford English Dictionary expand its coverage of regional vocabulary, with a new update including suggestions such as jibbons, chuddies and sitooterie.

The dictionary launched its Words Where You Are appeal to the public last year to mark the 90th anniversary of the completion of its first edition. The regional vocabulary suggestions which have poured in from readers ever since span the globe, from the Welsh English term for spring onions, “jibbons”, to the name for the regional dialect heard in New Orleans, “Yat”, which is derived from the greeting: “Where y’at?”

The public appeal also yielded a host of Scots terms, from “bidie-in”, which the OED defines as “a person who lives with his or her partner in a non-marital relationship”, and which it says was first recorded in 1916, to “bigsie”. Meaning “having an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance”, bigsie’s first recorded use was in 1881, when the Aberdeen Weekly Journal told the story of a tailor who was known locally as a “gey bigsie kin’ o’ bodie”. The Scottish word “fantoosh” has a similar meaning – dating from the 1920s, it is used to describe anything showy or flashy, often disparagingly. The OED points to a 1936 article in Scots Magazine: “Ony sensible body wad be only too pleased if I washed their windows for naething, but jist because ye think yersel’ fantoosh, I’m no’ guid enough.”

The word “sitooterie” is another Scottish term to make the cut in the OED’s latest update, with editors Jane Johnson and Kate Wild saying that there is “something just generally pleasing about the word”. Meaning “a place in which to sit out”, it dates to at least the 1920s.

A host of Scottish insults were also submitted by members of the public, from “bam”, defined as a foolish, annoying, or obnoxious person, as in the pronunciation from Aberdeen: “Awa ye ham, Yer mither’s a bam”, to “geggie”. Meaning mouth, geggie is frequently used in “shut your geggie”, said the OED, which found the earliest evidence of its use in William Miller’s 1985 short story Andy’s Trial: “‘Good fur you, wee Andy!’ shouted his grandmother. The judge looked over his specs. ‘Mah dear wumman,’ he said patiently, ‘will ye kindly shut yer geggie?’”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

PG admits to loving new words and phrases, especially when they’re old.

Why Brexit Might Hit British Academic Publishers Hardest

20 March 2019

From Publishers Weekly:

Scholarly research has always been a global affair, which is why, explained a panel of stakeholders at the London Book Fair on Tuesday, Brexit may hit the U.K. scholarly publishing community hardest of all.

“Brexit will rewrite rules governing partnerships with European colleagues,” noted Copyright Clearance Center’s Christopher Kenneally, who moderated the discussion. “If the nature and even the timing of Brexit remain unclear, one may still confidently predict that Brexit will mean important changes for the U.K.’s scholarly publishing industry.”

. . . .

“I think at the moment the most significant consequence comes purely from the currency exchange,” said Outsell’s Hugh Logue, noting that the prospect of leaving the E.U. has hit the pound hard, something acutely felt by academic researchers, whose funding is fixed. “When they are buying equipment or other consumables, those are already 20% more expensive.” And that has a “knock on effect” for scholarly publishers, he said, because when trimming costs, scholarly publications are often the first cut.

. . . .

Meanwhile, Logue said he has also heard “anecdotally” of British lead scientists being dropped from projects because “the likelihood of getting renewed funding is diminished.” Further, the issue of immigration looms as one of the biggest challenges of Brexit, he said, adding that around one-in-six researchers in the U.K. comes from outside the country.

. . . .

“I actually think at this stage it’s a psychological thing,” observed Tim Britton, formerly of Springer Nature. “Would you move your family here? Would you build a house here?” Britton wondered. “If I was coming out of Berlin having just finished my post-doc, would I come to London? Absolutely not.”

Britton said that the “psychological effect” on researchers, “which is impossible to measure” could potentially have a far bigger impact than any of the actual policies Brexit may eventually settle on, making it harder for U.K. institutions, including publishers, to recruit and retain the best talent.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

 

Amazon Pulls Two Books Claiming “Cures” for Autism

14 March 2019

From Book Riot:

 Amazon removed two books claiming to provide “cures” for autism on Tuesday. Both books were written several years ago and together had hundreds of reviews. A day earlier, Wired published a report on dangerous pseudoscientific titles for sale on Amazon, which included two of the books that were later removed. The book Healing the Symptoms Known as Autism contained the instruction that autistic children bathe in and drink chlorine dioxide, a very strong bleach used in industrial water treatment. The other book, Fight Autism and Win, supported giving children an antidote for mercury poisoning, a treatment known as chelation, which can cause potentially fatal kidney damage. Chelation is a response to the thoroughly debunked theory that vaccines cause autism. Earlier this month, the New York Times covered (another) recently-published study that confirmed that there is no link between the measles vaccine and autism.

Link to the rest at Book Riot

The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books

10 March 2019

From The Wall Street Journal:

It is difficult to imagine a figure more famous than Christopher Columbus, whose Atlantic voyages changed the course of history. Far less familiar is the story of his son, the great librarian Hernando, who has long lived in his father’s shadow. In the superb biography “The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books,” Edward Wilson-Lee, who teaches English literature at Cambridge, throws light on Hernando’s astounding accomplishments, giving us a man no less boldly visionary than his father but with a “genius for ordering.”

Hernando was a “natural son,” born out of wedlock—a precarious position for an heir, though Columbus would eventually name him, along with his brother Diego, mis hijos legítimos, legitimate sons. As a boy in the Spanish courts of the crown prince and Queen Isabella, Hernando showed promise as a list-maker extraordinaire with an eagerly organizational mind, making catalogs, encyclopedias, inventories and logbooks. He was already investigating methods whereby he later “tamed a wilderness of miscellaneity through the magic of lists,” Mr. Wilson-Lee writes, adopting “the tools used by bankers and employing their accounting techniques.”

Existing libraries, such as the Vatican’s, acquired only weighty works in Greek and Latin. Hernando’s compulsion to collect “gloriously failed to exclude things most people thought unimportant.” His universal vision encompassed prints (not generally collected at the time), music and books in many languages on every topic. Chaldean and Arabic works shared shelves with German and French ones in a library “open to all books in all subjects from within Christendom and without,” as Hernando envisioned a library that would be “universal in a sense never before imagined.”

. . . .

Hernando mimicked his father’s journeys as he restlessly crisscrossed Renaissance Europe in pursuit of ever more books. On a single visit to Venice, he acquired no fewer than 1,637 titles, leaving instructions for them to be shipped back to Spain while he continued on his book-buying spree north of the Alps. Only upon return home did he learn that the books he had bought in Venice were resting at the bottom of the Bay of Naples. Though the books were lost, their titles remained. Hernando, determined to find all of them again, dubbed the vanished trove his “catalogue of shipwrecked books.”

Why was Hernando’s library important? He understood, as no one else did at the time, that a library cannot exist in “one perfect state” but is a “growing, organic thing,” “a form of the world in miniature,” as Mr. Wilson-Lee puts it. He tried and abandoned a number of methods of organizing his astonishing collections before creating a set of hieroglyphs, or “biblioglyphs,” that harnessed geometric forms to express everything from a book’s size to an author’s use of a pseudonym. His “Book of Epitomes” was an effort to distill the contents of each volume, making the library more easily searchable. He also began work on a “Book of Materials,” in which he intended to further illuminate the library’s contents, explaining that “a single thing might be referred to in many different ways.” With these aids, Mr. Wilson-Lee suggests, “Hernando had created a search engine.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal


How Amazon’s Algorithms Curated a Dystopian Bookstore

8 March 2019

From Wired:

Among the best-selling books in Amazon’s Epidemiology category are several anti-vaccine tomes. One has a confident-looking doctor on the cover, but the author doesn’t have an MD—a quick Google search reveals that he’s a medical journalist with the “ThinkTwice Global Vaccine Institute.” Scrolling through a simple keyword search for “vaccine” in Amazon’s top-level Books section reveals anti-vax literature prominently marked as “#1 Best Seller” in categories ranging from Emergency Pediatrics to History of Medicine to Chemistry. The first pro-vaccine book appears 12th in the list. Bluntly named “Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel’s Autism,” it’s the only pro-vaccine book on the first page of search results. Its author, the pediatrician Peter Hotez, a professor in the Departments of Pediatrics and Molecular Virology & Microbiology at the Baylor College of Medicine , has tweeted numerous times about the amount of abuse and Amazon review brigading that he’s had to fight since it was released.

Over in Amazon’s Oncology category, a book with a Best Seller label suggests juice as an alternative to chemotherapy. For the term “cancer” overall, coordinated review brigading appears to have ensured that “The Truth About Cancer,” a hodgepodge of claims about, among other things, government conspiracies, enjoys 1,684 reviews and front-page placement. A whopping 96 percent of the reviews are 5 stars—a measure that many Amazon customers use as a proxy for quality. However, a glance at Reviewmeta, a site that aims to help customers assess whether reviews are legitimate, suggests that over 1,000 may be suspicious in terms of time frame, language, and reviewer behavior.

Once relegated to tabloids and web forums, health misinformation and conspiracies have found a new megaphone in the curation engines that power massive platforms like Amazon, Facebook, and Google. Search, trending, and recommendation algorithms can be gamed to make fringe ideas appear mainstream. This is compounded by an asymmetry of passion that leads truther communities to create prolific amounts of content, resulting in a greater amount available for algorithms to serve up … and, it seems, resulting in real-world consequences.

. . . .

Over the past decade or so, we’ve become increasingly reliant on algorithmic curation. In an era of content glut, search results and ranked feeds shape everything from the articles we read and products we buy to the doctors or restaurants we choose. Recommendation engines influence new interests and social group formation. Trending algorithms show us what other people are paying attention to; they have the power to drive social conversations and, occasionally, social movements.

Curation algorithms are largely amoral. They’re engineered to show us things we are statistically likely to want to see, content that people similar to us have found engaging—even if it’s stuff that’s factually unreliable or potentially harmful. On social networks, these algorithms are optimized primarily to drive engagement. On Amazon, they’re intended to drive purchases. Amazon has several varieties of recommendation engine on each product page: “Customers also shopped for” suggestions are distinct from “customers who bought this item also bought”. There are “sponsored” products, which are essentially ads. And there’s “frequently bought together,” a feature that links products across categories (often very useful, occasionally somewhat disturbing). If you manage to leave the platform without purchasing anything, an email may follow a day later suggesting even more products.

Amazon shapes many of our consumption habits. It influences what millions of people buy, watch, read, and listen to each day. It’s the internet’s de facto product search engine—and because of the hundreds of millions of dollars that flow through the site daily, the incentive to game that search engine is high. Making it to the first page of results for a given product can be incredibly lucrative.

Unfortunately, many curation algorithms can be gamed in predictable ways, particularly when popularity is a key input. On Amazon, this often takes the form of dubious accounts coordinating to leave convincing positive (or negative) reviews. Sometimes sellers outright buy or otherwise incentivize review fraud; that’s a violation of Amazon’s terms of service, but enforcement is lax. Sometimes, as with the anti-vax movement and some alternative-health communities, large groups of true believers coordinate to catapult their preferred content into the first page of search results. (Amazon disputes this characterization and says they carefully police reviews.)

Amazon reviews appear to figure prominently in the company’s ranking algorithms. (The company will not confirm this.) Customers consider the number of stars and volume of reviews when deciding which products to buy; they’re seen as a proxy for quality. High ratings can lead to inadvertent free promotion: Amazon’s Prime Streaming video platform launched with a splash page that prominently featured Vaxxed, Andrew Wakefield’s movie devoted to the conspiracy theory that vaccines cause autism.

Perhaps compounding the problem, Amazon allows content creators to select their own categories and keywords.

. . . .

With a product base as large as Amazon’s, it’s probably a challenge for the company to undertake any kind of review process. This is likely why quackery shows up in classified as “Oncology” or “Chemistry.” It’s a small reminder that Amazon isn’t exactly a bookstore or library.

Link to the rest at Wired

Perhaps PG is mistaken, but his take on contemporary society in the US is that there are a great many people who are anxious to silence those with whom they disagree.

It appears to him that, other than a few types of content that are clearly illegal, that “violate laws or copyright, trademark, privacy, publicity, or other rights” plus pornography, Amazon is content to allow its audience the right to decide what it would and would not like to read.

The Top-Secret Feminist History of Tea Rooms

7 March 2019

From JSTOR Daily:

When you hear the words “tea room,” it’s likely that you immediately think of a Victorian-inspired establishment best suited to special occasions, a place for women in pearls. If you’d lived at the turn of the 20th century in Scotland, or the early 1900s in America, however, it’s likely that you would have a different picture entirely.

If you could travel back to Glasgow in 1878, you’d be just in time to have a bite to eat at Kate Cranston’s newly opened Crown Tea Rooms. Cranston’s brother, Stuart, was a tea retailer who had the brilliant idea of putting up a few tables and chairs and serving tea and light refreshments in his shop three years before the first tea rooms opened. The idea of a place to have a light lunch, alcohol free, caught on in the height of the temperance movement. Cranston’s tea rooms (four in all) became just a few of the new trend, mostly catering light meals to businessmen, well before tea rooms began popping up in department stores and near suburbs. These tea rooms were largely focused on female diners.

. . . .

In America, women were not only ideal tea room consumers, nearly all tea rooms were owned by women. It started small, with mostly middle class women opening up a room in their home or setting up tables in their garden and offering tea and light meals. This phenomenon wasn’t unique to the U.S.: British women served scones, cakes, and tea as a way to make extra money, too. Unlike many occupations, feeding people and presiding as hostesses were accepted ways for women to enter the workforce, since these tasks felt a lot like what they’d been doing all along, without pay.

The historian Jan Whitaker sets the scene in the introduction to her book Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn: A Social History of the Tea Room Craze in America:

Picture a woman in South Sudbury, Massachusetts, putting down her spoon and bowl and taking off her apron as she hears an approaching car. She opens the front door of her Cape Cod cottage and greets her guests, a group of four youngish Bostonians out for a Sunday spin. After driving exactly twenty-two miles from Boston’s Copley Square on this July day, they are not only hungry, but hot and thirsty, too. They sit down at one of the small tables in her converted living room, scanning the room for antiques and hooked rugs (as they always do when they are in the country)…

They then consult the neatly hand-lettered little menu. Creamed chicken on toast. Nut and jelly sandwich. Pear and ginger salad. Iced tea (or iced coffee), Lemonade, and Grape Juice. A simple scene, yet one that captured the imagination of the American woman as few could. In magazine after magazine, stories about tea rooms like this one created an immense wave of interest in readers who longed to “run a tea room of their very own.”

Link to the rest at JSTOR Daily


Dice Roll: the Phantom Gambler

5 March 2019

From The Paris Review:

On September 24th, 1980, a man wearing cowboy boots and carrying two brown suitcases entered Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas. One suitcase held $777,000 in cash; the other was empty. After converting the money into chips, the man approached a craps table on the casino floor and put everything on the backline. This meant he was betting against the woman rolling the dice. If she lost, he’d double his money. If she won, he’d lose everything. Scarcely aware of the amount riding on her dice, the woman rolled three times: 6, 9, 7.

“Pay the backline,” said the dealer. And just like that, the man won over $1.5 million. He calmly filled the empty suitcase with his winnings, exited Binion’s into the desert afternoon, and drove off. It was the largest amount ever bet on a dice roll in America.

“Mystery Man Wins Fortune,” the Los Angeles Times reported. No one knew the identity of the fair-haired young Texan who’d just made history, and so he became known as the “Phantom Gambler.” “He was cool,” said Jack Binion, president of the Horseshoe. “He really had a lot of gamble in him.” But it would be years before the phantom would be seen in Vegas again.

. . . .

There’s a particular romance to all-or-nothing gamblers. They lend themselves easily to myth. Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades wagered the division of the world on a game of dice. In the second book of the Mahabharata, the ancient Indian epic, the king Yudhishthira is tempted into a dice game in which he wagers his kingdom, his army, and his slaves, along with the freedom of his brothers, his wife, and himself—and loses. Is it better to have rolled and lost than never to have rolled at all? As Nietzsche asks in Thus Spake Zarathustra: “A throw failed you. But you dice-throwers, what does it matter?” To roll the dice is to submit to chance. The grander the wager, the starker the confrontation with the mysteries of fate at the core of the cosmos.

Nearly four years later, on March 24th, 1984, the Phantom Gambler returned to the Horseshoe. This time, his suitcase contained $538,000. Again, he put it all on the backline. And again, the red dice rolled across the baize.

Casinos like to control just how quickly gamblers can ruin themselves. The conventional wisdom is that a slow drain is superior to the sudden flush. The house wants you to lose just enough that you’ll come back and lose again tomorrow. Casinos therefore limit the amount you’re able to bet on a single game—usually no more than $10,000. The table limit protects the house’s interest—if the gambler happens to win, it isn’t always easy to come up with that much cash—while restraining those recklessly seeking the ecstasy of Zarathustra, like moths to the flame.

But not Binion’s. At the Horseshoe Casino, none of the usual limits applied. Away from the touristic Vegas Strip, in the downtown area called Glitter Gulch, the Horseshoe was known as a gambler’s gambling joint. Its regular customers, said one dealer, were all “tough monkeys and weirdos” with names like Silent Harry, Texas Dolly, and the Kid. There was a hotel, but no luxury suites, no spa, no swimming pool. The dealers wore blue jeans. “We got a little joint and a big bankroll,” said the founder Benny Binion, “and all them others got a big joint and a little bankroll.” The “sky’s the limit” policy was one of the Horseshoe’s signatures. And to prove the house was good for it, Binion encased a million bucks in an enormous plastic horseshoe and put it on permanent display, as if it were extraneous.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review
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BENNY BINION AND HIS DAUGHTER IN FRONT OF THE PLASTIC HORSESHOE.

When the Robot Gets an Office

3 March 2019
Comments Off on When the Robot Gets an Office

From The Wall Street Journal:

 The great wave of globalization is ebbing, or so it seems. Trade barriers are going up, ocean shipping is slower and less reliable than it was two decades ago, and manufacturers and retailers are keeping more inventory just in case their supply chains can’t deliver. But while the loss of factory jobs to foreign competition may have abated, a new threat to employment may loom. If Richard Baldwin is right, globalization will soon go after white-collar jobs with a vengeance.

Mr. Baldwin, a professor at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, is among the leading scholars of international trade. In his 2016 book “The Great Convergence,” he showed how the transfer of advanced technologies to poor countries made the current episode of globalization particularly harmful to industrial workers in rich countries, and he called for new social policies to address the problem. Now, in “The Globotics Upheaval,” he moves in a new direction, considering how the spread of robotics and artificial intelligence will affect the international distribution of labor. He argues that these fast-changing technologies will expose relatively well-paid jobs to foreign competition. As this occurs, people who have until now enjoyed mainly benefits from globalization will experience its costs first hand. “We need to stop asking whether the economic impact is due mostly to globalization or mostly to automation,” Mr. Baldwin writes. “Globalization and robotics are now Siamese twins—driven by the same technology and at the same pace.”

. . . .

Remote work, for example, has been around for years, but many organizations struggle to make it seamless. Now, however, advanced telepresence systems can give people at different locations the sense of being in the same conference room. Telepresence robots attempt to overcome the psychological effects of separation by personifying remote workers: It turns out that if you converse through a robot that rolls up to your colleague’s desk and displays your live video image on its screen, both you and your co-worker are likely to be more engaged than if you are exchanging phone calls or instant messages. This is all well and good. But as Mr. Baldwin points out, once an organization has become accustomed to people working remotely, it makes economic sense to move that work to a country where workers with similar skills earn less. New technologies such as telepresence systems will accelerate this trend.

Similarly, many organizations have outsourced tasks to freelancers, who are paid only when needed and demand no fringe benefits. Once an employer has figured out how to use domestic freelance workers effectively, it can engage lower-cost foreign freelancers just as easily. Several online services have sprung up to expedite such transactions. These services enable firms to announce their needs, evaluate interested candidates, and agree to an hourly rate with an accountant or an editor half a world away.

. . . .

Enter artificial intelligence, which over the past two or three years has vastly improved the quality of written translation and enabled computers to “understand” and “speak” like a native. Very soon, workers in far-flung locations will be able to write in one language and have their missive delivered promptly in another, and to participate in a meeting with real-time interpretation that expresses their thoughts in the vernacular of colleagues at the home office. “With machine translation being so good, and getting better so fast,” Mr. Baldwin writes, “the billion who speak English will soon find themselves in much more direct competition with the other six billion who don’t.”

. . . .

A virtual assistant, endowed with artificial intelligence, will take on parts of the work we do now, leaving us to do only the parts that white-collar robots—the “globots” alluded to in the book’s title—can’t handle. That means that your office will stay open but with significantly fewer people needed to do the work. “It will only be after five to ten years that we’ll realize that globots have totally and irrevocably disarranged our workplaces and communities,” Mr. Baldwin says.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal


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