What this blog is for and about

I also offer personally-tailored, individualized English conversation practice (including etiquette) and coaching in writing techniques. Finally, I edit texts such as magazines, business proposals, memorandums, emails so they are presented in English which does not embarrass you or your organization. For further details, please mail me at: language.etiquette@gmail.com

Remember: all pictures can be expanded to full page size by clicking on them.


25 December 2012

A Christmas feast for all lovers of books, language and the written word

From Vanity Fair: this image featured in its collection of the best pictures from the magazine this year. It is not of some inaccessible Oxford college, or of the stolovia at Downton Abbey, or even the language laboratory at the Higher Technical School in Khimki.
     It is, wait for it: the main reading room of the central branch of the New York Public Library, on Fifth Avenue. It is open to you, me and Joe Citizen, which is what real culture is all about: complete freedom of inquiry, thought and expression.
     Who needs Santa when the North Pole is all around you, its contents catalogued on the Dewy Decimal system? (well, er.... hem!)

Note, as with all pictures in this blog, you can click on it to expand to full screen

21 December 2012

“No podarki for Putin!”: two more words the upholder of the Constitution appears not to understand: “democracy” and “law”

Perhaps a more subtle riposte to the Magnistky Act would be for
President Putin to give Obama a ZiL for Christmas
A final note on yesterday’s presidential press conference, which was almost as long as one of Leonid Eyebrows Brezhnev’s speeches to the party faithful in the days when détente meant the Soviet President receiving another Cadillac from the American President.
     (On that subject, one wonders if “re-set” means the Russian President being humiliated by being forced to drive a BMW or Mercedes. As the Moscow Times reported yesterday, not even the pseudo-Cadillac recently offered by the ZiL factory seems to be good enough a man accustomed to world-standard luxury. How the mighty have fallen!)
     Getting back to the grubby present: the Moscow Times today reported the President’s response to the Isvestia question about authoritarianism slightly differently from the BBC (see yesterday’s post).
A reporter from Izvestia, widely regarded as one of the city’s most Kremlin-friendly dailies, accused Putin of building a totalitarian regime of personal power over the past 12 years. “Don’t you think that this hinders Russia’s development?” he asked.
     Putin rebuffed the question by saying his decision to heed the Constitution instead of changing it in 2008 and serving as prime minister for four years was ample proof that he was not authoritarian. “I consciously moved to a second post to guarantee the continuity of power,” he said, adding that “democracy is to observe the law.”
     Leaving aside the breathtaking, Nixonian arrogance of a President who is effectively saying he will obey the Constitution only as long as it suits him (see yesterday’s post), the statement that “democracy is to obey the law” needs to be noted. Even making every allowance for the shades of meaning lost in translation, it a complete travesty of language.
     Democracy is a system of government in which the people are ultimately in charge of those who rule them. Law is a system of rules by which society is supposed to operate and, in particular, to resolve conflicts without violence. The observance of rules has nothing whatsoever to do, either logically or factually, with the system of choosing rulers.
     If Mr Putin does not understand that law and democracy are completely different concepts, describing totally different things, which have no more in common than potatoes and wallpaper, then Russia is heading for an uncomfortable future. This is especially so as he appears to see no obligation to abide by the country’s Constitution, saying that he did so in 2008 not because he felt he had no choice, but because he personally took the “decision to”.
     In the modern world, a civilised country is more or less defined by saying that it is one in which the constitution is where law and democracy meet. Few countries are perfect in that (or any other) respect, but most people understand that definition and broadly accept it. If Russia is a bit of an outcast, as Putin is constantly saying it is, then perhaps part of the reason for that is the perception is that its President does not appear to understand the three key words of that definition as well as perhaps he might. 
     No wonder he has to buy his own automobiles. I can see just see Mr Obama sitting is his sweats, puffing and panting at the edge of the Executive Office Building basketball court, and saying to his Chief of Staff for the International Leader Christmas Present Procurement Program, who is sitting beside him in his shirt-sleeves, scribbling ostentatiously on a yellow legal pad: “No podarki for Putin.”

President Putin, Kamikaze pilots and the obligations of the logic of language

This man has accepted an obligation to die.
So what is the logic in the fact that he
appears to be wearing a life-jacket?
Does the act of tying a flag round your hat
destroy the capacity for logical thinking?
Many would say it does!
Further to the piece I wrote yesterday about a BBC report on President Putin’s marathon press conference on Thursday, the Moscow Times published several articles today about the same meeting. One of them reported the President discussing the Russian tiff (contemporary translation: “spat”; likely result: “bitch slap”—see post: 18 September) with the Republic of Georgia. The President seemed not to understand either the word “logic” or the word “obligation” since he used the two together in a way which offends the linguistic obligations of general logic:
The president also promised that Russia would lift the ban on importing Georgian wine and mineral water if doing so is required by WTO rules. The ban was introduced in 2006 amid a surge of political tension between Russia and Georgia.
     Since Georgia, which was blocking Russia’s accession to the trade organization, withdrew its objections, “we must be logical and fulfill our obligations,” he said in answer to a question from Georgian journalist David Akhvlediani about opening Russia’s market to the Georgian goods.
     You do not have to be “logical” to “fulfill obligations” since an obligation is a requirement to act imposed by private law (in this case, WTO law) or etiquette. However derived, an obligation generally implies reciprocity. It does not arise from the application of logic, which does not usually require reciprocity.
     If the house is on fire, it is logic that dictates that you go outside as soon as possible. You have no obligation to leave. Self-preservation is logical but it is not obligatory. Indeed sometimes the opposite is the case.
     An example of that might be the Japanese naval pilot in early 1945 who found himself in a Kamikaze squadron. He was under an “obligation” to crash his plane directly onto the flight-deck of an American aircraft carrier, thereby killing himself and destroying his plane, but without any realistic hope of imposing serious damage on a 30,000-ton armoured ship.
     There was no logic to such acts. They were done out of a sense of obligation which was so strong that it required the senseless sacrifice of a life and a plane. It would be like an artillery battery deciding to throw their gun at the enemy than to continue firing it.
     A civilised Western equivalent of the Kamikaze pilot might be the person who feels he has an obligation to finish all the food on his plate, since to waste food is to behave arrogantly in a world in which so many people are starving—or so his parents have told him since he was a boy. When the fire alarm sounds during dinner, he starts eating more quickly, but still not quickly enough. The flames are already licking the other end of the table and the flowers in the vase in the middle have wilted. But he still has three roast potatoes on his plate, two slices of lamb and a pile of peas, which always take time to eat politely.
     The Kamikaze diner is faced with a dilemma: does he behave logically and leave the house before the fire engulfs him, or does he respect the obligations of moral etiquette and express his respect for those in poverty by never getting up from the table while there is still food on his plate? Out of such situations are many profitable dramas and amusing comedies made.
     These Kamikaze examples may seem extreme, but they spring to mind because a friend of mine this morning paid me a handsome compliment on his blog on LiveJournal. He is a doctoral student of international naval policy and recent naval history. I feel an obligation to reciprocate. Anyone interested in the logic of maritime conflict and the obligations international naval co-operation should consult his blog (in Russian) at this link.

20 December 2012

Bye, bye Russia, hello Putinia!

A boy who turned out to have more power
than Harry Potter
President Putin does not appear to understand what the word “constitution” means. Alternatively he enjoys a level of power which surpasses that of the tsars, and verges on the magical. What is your reading of the quote below?
     A story on the BBC website today about his response to the Magnitsky Act in the United States ended with these three paragraphs:
A questioner from the Izvestiya newspaper asked him about his “authoritarian style”.
     Mr Putin denied that his system was authoritarian, saying that if that were the case he would have made changes to the constitution. He pointed out that he had taken on the role of prime minister after two presidential terms.
     “I cannot call this system authoritarian, I cannot agree with this,” he said. “If I considered a totalitarian or authoritarian system preferable, I would simply have changed the constitution, it was easy enough to do.”
     So, the situation is that the only reason we do not have a “totalitarian or authoritarian system” in Russia is because Mr Putin does not want one. If he did, he would, he says, simply change the Constitution.
     But a constitution is a basic law which exists in order that major changes cannot be made to the general governmental system by politicians without wide consultation and general, informed consent. So Russia appears not to have a constitution in the accepted meaning of the term. Therefore the country is, if not totalitarian or authoritarian, at least autocratic. The basic law is not the Constitution but Mr Putin’s ideas of what is “preferable”. The will of the Tsar is, once again, the only law. Even Harry Potter has Lord Voldemort to contend with. But Lord Vladimir Vladimirovich has nobody, not even the Russian electorate, to worry about!
     Bye, bye Russia, hello Putinia!

11 December 2012

Why won’t the English teach their scenario planners how to speak (or write)?

Sunter, Sunter on the veld!
Who’ll be getting all the geld?
(Note for Russians: “veld” is pronounced фелт and is the name for the type of countryside round Johannesburg. And “geld”, which is Afrikaans for “money”, is pronounced хелт)
I am writing a last piece about Mr Clem Sunter (see the two preceding posts) because his peculiar brand of linguistic voodoo is widely credited in otherwise intelligent business circles these days. But, from a language point of view, it seems to me to have a lot in common with astrology, which always gives the impression of saying something while usually saying nothing concrete, like the long-range weather forecast.
     If any reader can provide a better summary of this passage than my fair copy at the end, her or she will be invited to the next Glenfiddich tasting. Sunter writes about himself and his partner as follows (for the full document see this link), (the wording analysed is underlined):
In 2007, Clem Sunter’s new book, “Socrates and the Fox: A strategic dialogue”, co-authored with Chantel Ilbury, was released. By its very nature Socratic dialogue transforms the strategic conversation from the normal, dreary type of superficial analysis that companies go through nowadays to a full-blooded, back-to-basics debate. Clem and Chantell (sic) have developed a unique and independently crafted methodology which integrates scenario planning into the mainstream process of strategic planning and decision-making. Their version of the Socratic method has come about through rigorous application, re-evaluation and fine-tuning in the course of facilitating countless sessions with a diverse portfolio of companies throughout the world – from giant multinationals to family-run businesses.
Clem Sunter continues to be one of the country's favourite speakers ... his presentation style is both thought provoking and entertaining.

Taken in order in the text, here are some of the main points:
  • How is a five-year old book “new”?
  • What “strategic conversation” is being referred to? This sounds like something Tony Blair might have had scripted for him: empty but appealing. However, I want to know: what strategy; what conversation? There is no clue in the whole text.
  • Why do companies “nowadays” go through a “normal, dreary type of superficial analysis”? Was their analysis better in the past? Why is superficial analysis normal and dreary? Or does Sunter want to say that normal analysis is dreary and superficial? That’s pretty insulting to analysts other than himself, because:
  • The only alternative is said to be a “full-blooded, back-to-basics debate”.  This implies that if the analysis is not to be superficial it must be back-to-basics. Why? What is wrong with sophisticated analysis? That is what most of the developed world actually operates by. This sounds to me like saloon bar (or stoep talk) populism, offering easy-to-understand solutions to complex problems for those unsophisticated enough to pay money to hear them said with apparent authority.
  • How does “Socratic dialogue” change superficial analysis into back-to-basics debate? Or just transform analysis into debate? Those are two different processes.
  • And if Socrates is responsible for the change, why is Mr Sunter claiming credit? Because he applied Socrates? Is he the first to have done so (in 2,500 years)?
  • If a method is unique then it must have been crafted independently because anything repeatable is not unique. (see post 5 May)
  • Sunter has developed a method rather than a “methodology”, as he claims. That word means “the study of method”, rather as “hydrology” is the study of water or “anthropology” the study of, as it were, the “anthropos”. The word methodology is longer than method and sounds more learned to the unlearned, which is presumably why it is so often misused in this way.
  • And does anyone know what is really meant by integrating “scenario planning into the mainstream process of strategic planning”? And what is non-mainstream strategic planning?
  • “Has come about” should have been “has been developed” since it was a deliberate not an accidental process (one assumes, as Sunter is claiming credit for it).
  • And “rigorous application, re-evaluation and fine-tuning” should not all be applied together in this way. If you apply an approach, you are doing something completely different from, indeed arguably the opposite of, re-evaluating and fine-tuning it, which implies change rather than  application which implies no change.
  • Also, the way this sentence is written it could be read as giving the impression that Sunter and Ilbury think they have  been fine-tuning Socrates. I am sure the great Athenian would be chuffed to know that these two Jo’burgers have taken his thought forward in this unexpected way, but I am not sure if that is what the two “scenario planners” really intended to say.
  • Finally, in the last paragraph, it is illuminating that Sunter claims to have a “thought-provoking” “style”. A style can be entertaining, but thought-provoking? It is content that normally provokes thought, not style.

Here is my version of Mr Sunter’s piece:
In 2007, Clem Sunter and Chantel Ilbury published, “Socrates and the Fox: A Strategic Dialogue”. In their book they argue that the Socratic method can be applied to contemporary commercial analysis to make it more profound by grounding it in first principles. Since then, they have developed and refined their particular approach in the course of numerous strategic planning sessions in a wide range of companies, from giant multinationals to family-run businesses.
Clem Sunter continues to be one of the country’s favourite speakers as he combines thought-provoking content with an entertaining style.
I think that “covers all the bases”, as Mr Sunter might put it, and is clearer. It is certainly a lot shorter. Can any reader do better?