Recent blog entries for marnanel

One of my favourite ESOL stories

"What does 'great with child' mean?"
"But the sentence is 'Mr Smith is great with children.'"

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Syndicated 2015-10-09 09:06:28 from Monument

"Do you think religion has a part to play?"

I was sleeping in, but the doorbell woke me up. Two bright-eyed enthusiastic girls in their late teens were standing outside. One of them did all the talking.

She: Hello! I'm ___ and my friend here is called ___. We're doing a survey. Would you like to take part?
Me: (blearily) Go on.
She: Do you think morality is declining in our society?
Me: No.
(her friend writes it down)
She: Can you explain why?
Me: I don't have any reason to believe that previous ages behaved any more morally than we do. And if morality does seem to be declining, it may be because of increased visibility and better reporting.
(her friend is scribbling frantically)
She: Right. And what do you think could improve the morality of society?
Me (thinking slowly, still half-asleep): Well... there are many reasons for unethical behaviour, but it seems to me that much of it is due to lack of ability to choose otherwise. If your family's hungry, you're more likely to steal to feed them. And even when things improve, this turns into a habit of behaviour. So we need to reduce social inequality.
She: More freedom for people?
Me: Yeah-- freedom means you have more choices.
She: Thanks. And finally, do you think religion has a part to play in increasing morality in society?
Me (suspicions confirmed): Yes, because in order to play a part in society you have to be aware of your context within it... the big picture, and religion is often a good way to learn to think on that scale. Of course you can get that in other ways, as well-- it's not restricted to people of faith.
She: Thank you. Er, did we wake you up?
Me: Yes, but it's okay. It's not often people get me out of bed to discuss ethical philosophy.
She: This has been very philosophical. Here's a card with some more questions-- we'll be back next week to talk about what you think about those. Is the house next door number ___?

Good luck to them. If they're going house-to-house in Salford asking questions about ethics, I hope to God they stay safe.

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Syndicated 2015-10-06 15:12:51 (Updated 2015-10-06 15:13:24) from Monument


Every new word makes someone complain. Here’s how “humbug” was received in the 1750s.

There is a word very much in vogue with the people of taste and fashion, which though it has not even the ‘penumbra’ of a meaning, yet makes up the sum total of the wit, sense and judgement of the aforesaid people of taste and fashion! I will venture to affirm that this ‘Humbug’ is neither an English word, nor a derivative from any other language. It is indeed a blackguard sound, made use of by most people of distinction! It is a fine make-weight in conversation, and some great men deceive themselves so egregiously as to think they mean something by it! – “The Student; or the Oxford and Cambridge monthly miscellany”, 1750

…odious, horrible, detestable, shocking, Humbug. This last new-coined expression, which is only to be found in the nonsensical vocabulary, sounds absurd and disagreeable, whenever it is pronounced. – “The Connoisseur”, 1754, issue 14

Our pretenders to wit is not still more barbarous. When they talk of Humbug, &c. they seem to be jabbering in the uncouth dialect of the Huns. – “The Connoisseur”, 1754, issue 42

[image: “Mint humbugs” by Ka Faraq Gatri. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0] This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.

Syndicated 2015-09-23 20:28:03 (Updated 2015-09-23 20:31:13) from Monument

Anarchism compared to vegetarianism

Something I said at a party at the vicarage last night:

People ask why I'm an anarchist. The reasons are a bit like my reasons for being a vegetarian. I believe this would be a better world if we gave up eating meat-- and that humanity can't survive unless we do. Once, perhaps, our civilisation was at a stage where eating meat is necessary, but we've shown we've got beyond that now. But now and then, in a world where most people still have to eat meat, I might agree to eat meat too for the short term-- with caution that it doesn't become the long term. It's easy for the best to be the enemy of good.

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Syndicated 2015-08-17 12:50:48 from Monument

Boycotting the Stonewall movie

Homophobia seems to me as if the straight people are crammed into a small and dimly-lit circular compound, holding on to all the power and hating the queer people outside full of colours and sunshine. Most of us want to break the wall down, stop the hatred, let the power flood out and the colours flood in. But some say the answer is for everyone outside to run away from the sunshine and climb into the courtyard too.

For years before the Stonewall riots, queer people had held peaceful protests asking to be respected in the same way that straight people are respected. Nobody listened. Then the riot happened, queer people fought back, not assimilated and not ashamed. And the wall began to break.

But the wall-climbers haven’t gone away. We’ve often seen LGBT associations forget trans folk in their hurry to climb over the wall into respectability. And this film is selling a lie. The rioters weren’t the acceptable face of gay culture. They weren’t even trying to be.

They lived on the outside.

So do we.

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Syndicated 2015-08-06 17:03:41 from Monument

Privation of good

I've always heard that the idea of "privation of good" was something Augustine came up with. (Summary: evil is not a thing in itself, but only the absence of good-- like how darkness is the absence of light.) But 300 years earlier, Epictetus was saying:

"As a mark is not set up for the sake of missing the aim, so neither does the nature of evil exist in the world." (Enchiridion, 27)

Isn't that the same idea?

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Syndicated 2015-08-01 09:47:02 from Monument

Corbyn and electability

I don't give a damn whether Labour is electable under Corbyn-- the next election's too far off to worry about. What I *do* care about is having an effective Opposition, and that's something I'm certain he can provide. Six PM's questions a week, the chance to choose who's on the front benches, and a guaranteed place in almost every political TV show-- given a year or two, he'll move the Overton window enough that today's estimations of who's electable will be irrelevant.

I don't believe for a moment that Labour can't gain power with Corbyn as leader-- we can't know, because there hasn't been a Labour Party that was much distinguishable from the Tories since the nineties.

No, I don't think Corbyn is the second coming of Marx. I don't think the Labour party is going to do a great deal of good for ordinary people any time soon. I don't believe electoral politics will deliver enough change to fix the system. But I do believe that the parliamentary Labour Party can do more good in the world than they're doing right now.

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Syndicated 2015-07-31 17:33:55 from Monument

Information Bona Highway

HORNE: Well, you might have noticed that round-the-horne dot com is looking a bit drab these days. So I decided to hire a website consultant, and the first one I tried was called "Information Bona Highway".

(FX: shop bell)

JULIAN: Oh, hello! I'm Julian and this is my friend Sandy.
HORNE: I need some help with my website. I found you online...
SANDY: He's been googling us, Jules.
JULIAN: We get so much trade that way, Mr Horne.
HORNE: Do you have much experience in site design?
JULIAN: Oh, we've been at it for years. Back with Geocities and Myspace.
SANDY: Yes. Everyone wanted a bit of Myspace. They were positively queueing up for my top eight.
JULIAN: Tom-- you remember Tom? He was my top.
HORNE: I want my site to look a little less...
SANDY: Nineties?
JULIAN: Passé. That's your actual French.
HORNE: Yes. Would you be available to update it?
SANDY: Oh, you'll be wanting my help, Mr Horne. I'm positively a tiger of web design.
JULIAN: A tiger in the stylesheets.
SANDY: I do everything that's handled by the client. Everything responsive. If you want a nice double-column layout, I'm your man.
JULIAN: He just tweaks his padding-bottom and we're away.
HORNE: I see. Are you both client-side?
JULIAN: No, I concentrate on the back end. Django, mainly.
SANDY: Django! His Python is a sight to behold.
HORNE: Can I run it on Windows?
JULIAN: Oh, no, I swear by Debian.
SANDY: Swears by it.
JULIAN: Nothing else manages my packages so well.
HORNE: And it's more secure, I take it?
SANDY: Well, I must be frank, Mr Horne. Julian's never been much of a dab hand at intrusion detection.
JULIAN: Traitor!
SANDY: Well, it's true.
JULIAN: I can guarantee, guarantee that someone will be probing my ports this evening.
SANDY: Will you excuse us, Mr Horne? I really must go and check his log.

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Syndicated 2015-07-24 15:30:11 from Monument

Gentle Readers: boil it to a brilliant blue

Gentle Readers
a newsletter made for sharing
volume 4, number 2
6th July 2015: boil it to a brilliant blue
What I’ve been up to

Surprisingly little, actually, though I did go to a rather interesting conference, about the meaning of love, at a housing co-op in Manchester.

A picture

Mar. Thou'rt a scholar; speak to it, Horatio.
Hor. Well, who knew... I mean, what are the chances you'd ask me that just after my college's "Speaking To Ghosts 101" course was oversubscribed? I mean I tried to get a place on it, but it's, like, the most popular course in the whole university, isn't it? Duh.

A poem of mine
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said...
I couldn't comprehend his speech;
he spoke a tongue I didn't understand.
It might have meant “a statue's on a beach”...
at least, he let me see vacation snaps
and there was quite a lot of sand about
and one old statue, African perhaps,
or Indian, I'm in a bit of doubt.)
   So anyway, I saw the statue's face:
   its nose was crinkled, like a lord who sniffs.
   And then there was some writing on the base;
   I couldn't read it. It was hieroglyphs.
It all seems kind of strange, and far away,
but must have had some meaning in its day.
Something wonderful

The end of the rainbow-- it was in Salford all along

I'm pretty sure you were taught the order of the colours of the rainbow-- maybe with "Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain", or perhaps with someone named "Roy G. Biv". Either way, the standard colour sequence is red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. The obvious question is: what on earth is indigo?

The sequence we all learned is taken from a book called Opticks, written by Isaac Newton in 1704. In this book he sets out his discoveries about the way light breaks up as it passes through a prism. Newton was a rather superstitious person, and he believed that the number seven is really important, so it seemed good to have seven colours. Here's the diagram he drew.

The colour Newton calls "blue" comes immediately after green. So it's a greenish blue-- what we might now call cyan, or turquoise. Indigo, then, must be blue-- and in fact it's the name of a dye with a deep and brilliant blue colour.

Blue has always been a difficult colour to produce. The Ancient Egyptians knew the art of making things blue, but with the fall of the Roman Empire their technology was lost. In the Middle Ages blue was so rare that it was worn only by the very rich. One of a very few places you could get blue dye was from the indigo plant, Indigofera tinctoria, a kind of bean. You take the plant's leaves, soak them in water, and wait for them to ferment. Then you drain off the water and mix the residue with a strong alkali, such as lye. Heaven knows how they discovered this.

The indigo plant comes from India, as you may have guessed from the name. By the eighteenth century it was also grown in other hot parts of the world, such as Mexico and the southern United States. Predictably those who farmed the plants and extracted the dye were soon slaves; there was a major non-violent revolt in Bengal in March 1859, which was severely suppressed.

Must indigo be grown? Can it be produced in a lab instead? Yes, it can: Adolf von Baeyer discovered how, which won him the 1905 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. These days almost all indigo dye produced is artificial, and most of it goes on dyeing denim jeans.

The indigo plant can only grow in hot climates. But there's another plant with similar properties, which grows even in Britain: a kind of cabbage called woad (Isatis tinctoria). There is a story that the Picts used to dye their bodies with woad, and strip naked to scare invaders. It's probably untrue, and based on a misreading of Caesar's Commentarii de Bello Gallico. Which is a shame, because there aren't many things more likely to make you run away than naked blue people smelling of rotten leaves.

Something from someone else

WOAD SONG (to the tune of "Men of Harlech")
by William Hope-Jones

What's the good of wearing braces,
Vests, and pants, and boots with laces?
Spats, or hats you buy in places
Down the Brompton Road?
What's the use of shirts of cotton,
Studs that always get forgotten?
Such affairs are simply rotten:
Better far is woad.

Woad's the stuff to show men.
Woad to scare your foemen:
Boil it to a brilliant hue
And rub it on your back and your ab-do-men.
Ancient Briton never hit on
Anything as good as woad to fit on
Neck, or knees, or where you sit on!
Tailors, you be blowed.

Romans came across the Channel
All wrapped up in tin and flannel:
Half a pint of woad per man'll
Dress us more than these.
Saxons, you can waste your stitches
Building beds for bugs in breeches:
We have woad to clothe us, which is
Not a nest for fleas.

Romans, keep your armours!
Saxons, your pyjamas!
Hairy coats were meant for goats,
Gorillas, yaks, retriever dogs, and llamas.
Tramp up Snowdon with your woad on,
Never mind if you get rained or snowed on.
Never want a button sewed on.
Go, the Ancient B's.


Gentle Readers is published on Mondays and Thursdays, and I want you to share it. The archives are at, and so is a form to get on the mailing list. If you have anything to say or reply, or you want to be added or removed from the mailing list, I’m at and I’d love to hear from you. The newsletter is reader-supported; please pledge something if you can afford to, and please don't if you can't. ISSN 2057-052X. Love and peace to you all.

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Syndicated 2015-07-07 00:06:43 from Monument


Sometimes I like throwing puns into a discussion without marking them as such, and seeing whether anyone notices. I'm at a conference thing, and they're doing massages for the people there. I had one, and afterwards the massage person said, "Sorry to cut it short, but I have three more people to go in the next twenty minutes. I didn't realise I'd be so busy!" I said, "Well, everyone wants to feel kneaded." They agreed, and I smiled, and went on my way.

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Syndicated 2015-07-04 13:51:57 from Monument

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