Thirty Days Hath September Bollocks

My mother was very fond of poetry and other “intellectual” pursuits. In fact, she was a good deal smarter than I am, but she did not have the advantages that I have had. In a fair world, she would be Professor Emeritus of Latin at Harvard. Instead, she’s just dead. But being smart doesn’t make you perfect. For example, she could always remember the number of days in the month by using the following rhyme from The Real Mother Goose Treasury (I think):

Thirty days hath September,
April, June and November;
February has twenty eight alone
All the rest have thirty-one
Except in Leap Year, that’s the time
When February’s Days are twenty-nine

With all due respect to my mother (which is substantial), this poem really sucks. It has never been of any use to me. In fact, when I started to write this article, I titled it, “Thirty Days Hath November.” So there you are. It could just as easily be:

Thirty days hath November,
April, June and September;

And the last four lines? Are they awkward or what? This is poetry even Shakespeare would be embarrassed by, and regular readers will know what high esteem I hold that bard in.

There have been other important women in my life, one of the most (if not the most) being the Grande Dame of NASA at Sonoma State University (yes, I know, she could have done better), Lynn Cominsky. I worked for Dr. Cominsky for two years, I published a paper with her (the paper I am proudest of except for my primary Master’s Degree paper which is often cited—without attribution!—and generally misunderstood), and she, more than anyone else taught me what it was to be a scientist. She is an amazing woman. If she were evil, she would be Phyllis Schlafly. But so far as I can tell (just lunch, really), she has not turned to the dark side.

At this point in my life when I spend more time talking to Latin scholars than physicists, the most important way that Dr. Cominsky has improved my life is that she taught me how to remember how many days there are in a given month! She didn’t invent it, I assume. But I have shown it to very many people over the last twenty years and no one has known it. And now, I am going to show you.

Make two fists and put them together as in the photograph below:

Days of the Month

All you have to do is count from the little-finger knuckle of either hand. The first knuckle is January, the space between the first and second knuckles is February, the second knuckle is March, and so on. This is printed on the photo above. The knuckles (that are higher than the inter-knuckle space) are all the 31-day months. The inter-knuckles are the 30-day months, except for February. February (the month in which I was born) is, of course, totally bizarre. Although I’m sure you know it in general, it is 28 days unless the year is divisible by 4. Except when it is also divisible by 100. Unless it is also divisible by 400. But don’t worry about that! You’ll be alerted by the news. The thing is that the months are up-down-up-down-up-down-up and then they repeat.

If you can’t remember that February is a mess, you probably don’t visit this website! As for Dr. Cominsky, she’s pretty weird herself.

Amongst Us, Among Them

Based upon the title of this article, regular readers of this site will most likely think that I am here to kill off “amongst.” Or maybe “among” if I am in one of those moods. But both assumptions are wrong. I think there is good reason to keep both words around—the same reason that we keep “a” and “an” around: euphony!

Let us start with where we should always start: Fowler’s Modern English Usage I actually use the Second Edition, edited, with typical controversy, by Ernest Gowers, who died a year after its publication in 1965. The original, all-Fowler all the time, First Edition was published in 1926 (7 years before he died). Unfortunately, I have never even see this original, despite the fact that it has been reprinted. It is now available in old-fashioned book form and 21st century electronic form for those interested. (Strangely, it is more expensive electronically.)

Fowler writes:

There is certainly no broad distinction either in meaning or in use between the two. The OED illustrates under amongst each of the separate senses assigned to among; it does, however, describe amongst as “less usual in the primary local sense than among, and, when so used, generally implying dispersion, intermixture, or shifting positions.” Such a distinction may be accepted on authority, but can hardly be made convincing by quotations even on the liberal scale of the OED. It is remarkable, at any rate, that one of the forms should not by this time have driven out the other.

That really is all that must be said. Under normal circumstances, I would just say we kick “amongst” out of our language and let that be that. “Amongst” has always sounded pretentious to me anyway. And if anyone wants to simplify their writing and speaking, they can simply forget that the word “amongst” ever existed—with much justification, I might add.

The problem is with how these two words combine with other words. In general, when either is followed by a word that begins with a vowel, “amongst” just sounds better. “We appreciate those amongst us” just sounds better than, “We appreciate those among us.” On the other side, “We hate the villains among them” sounds better than, “We hate the villains amongst them.” Try it out yourself. The difference is not as big as it is between “a” and “an,” but it is still there. Thus, it really does make sense to keep “amongst” around so that we can use it when we follow it with a vowel.

I must note, however, that there is something to be gained by using “among” when “amongst” is called for: crispness. Even though I found, “We appreciate those among us” jarring at first, on repetition, I find I like it more. Yes, it reads a little like advertising copy, but it also sounds a little like early Hemingway. It is nice—even comforting. What’s more, it is something that we could get used to very quickly.

For the time, I plan to use both approaches. In general, I will use “amongst” when it is followed by a vowel sound. But sometimes, I will use “among” in the same situation when I want a crisp, modern sound. Obviously, I am being very liberal on this matter—but it only goes so far. “We hate the villains amongst them” is always wrong. It sounds pretentious and dumb. So if there is ever a question of which to use, the answer is always “among.”

Important Update

I went to check out America’s own simulacrum of Fowler (Ha!), Bryan A. Garner in his Garner’s Modern American Usage. It has the following to say:

Most such forms ending in -st, such as whilst and amidst, are ARCHAISMS in AmE. Amongst is no exception: in AmE it is pretentious at best. E.g.: “Imagine a city where the electricity and water companies are owned by the local authorities and, thanks to progressive planning and construction, prices are amongst [read among] the lowest in the country.” Michael Dibdin, “Seattle Is the America Thatcher Ignored,” Seattle Times, 17 Jan. 1997, at B5. [Like he couldn’t have found a far shorter sentence to make this point? -FM]

Amongst is more common and more tolerable in BrE, where it doesn’t suggest affectation…

“More tolerable”?! What is this anti-English prat on about? Obviously, I take the side of Fowler—for two reasons. First, it’s Fowler. Second, it is just like Americans to hold on to old ways of doing things so as to seem cultured. At best, we can say that both the English and the Americans are trying to distance themselves from “amongst.” But I can’t leave the subject without noting that Garner does not discuss the euphonious aspects of the words. The king (Fowler) is dead; long live the king! (I hope to God it isn’t Garner!)

Politics: 18 November 2010

Juan Williams: Pure Liberal

In an interview with Howard Kurtz, Roger Ailes calls NPR, “the left wing of Nazism.” In this, I pretty much agree. This country is not Nazi, but it is highly fascistic, and I mean this literally—so think Mussolini, not Hitler. Political discourse in this country has been dragged so far right, that NRP is basically the liberal voice of fascist political discussion. Note that Ailes didn’t say that NPR was the left wing version of Nazism—just the left wing itself. This was no slip of the tongue. He knows well what he has helped this country become.

What I really want to talk about is Juan Williams though. I never get tired of talking about this shit-sack. Ailes said, that Williams was, “a pure liberal.” Now, I’m not sure what that means. It makes it sound like Roger Ailes used to pay Dungeons and Dragons. Maybe in his mind Williams is pure good and Sean Hannity is pure evil. Regardless, Williams is not liberal at all. From his reporting and commentary, he is right of center. Sure, on Faux News, he will come off as extremely liberal. That’s why Ailes hired him, not because, “I didn’t want him to have to call his wife and say we lost money.” Give me a fucking break! I do still listen to NPR from time to time and I am so glad that I will not have to hear Juan Williams pretending to be reasonable when he is spouting typically disproved conservative talking points.

Sound Familiar?

Have I been saying this for as long as I’ve been saying anything?

Politics: 16 November 2010

Casino Writ Large

I just watched part of Martin Scorsese’s Casino. There is a very famous scene in the movie where two card cheats are discovered. The casino management break one of the guys’ hand with a hammer and tell the other that he can leave with the hammer and the money or with neither. He picks neither. Ace—the casino owner—sees guys like this as the real problem he faces. But the fact of the matter is that these thieves are the little guys. This is also true of Lester Diamond, who Ace hates so much. As Jules says in Pulp Fiction, “You’re the weak.”

The main characters in Casino are horrible thieves and worse. But they are high up the food chain, so they’re okay. Steal fifty grand, get every bone in your hand broke with a hammer. Steal fifty million dollars, get a school named after you. It really comes down to Hitler’s idea (which he deals with in more depth in Mein Kampf) that people will “readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie.” And so it is in our society as a whole. Other than the occasional Bernie Madoff (funny name), big thieves make out just fine in America. So if you are going to be a thief, think big; don’t rob a bank; rob the Public Employees Pension Fund. You not only won’t be arrested, you’ll be a fucking hero!

More False Equivalence from Jon Stewart

On last night’s The Daily Show, Jon Stewart correctly pointed out the hypocrisy of Republicans claiming that Clinton was a compromiser and that Obama just won’t budge on any policy. But then he mocked Democrats who rightly point out that Reagan wasn’t so bad. Guess what, Mr. Stewart? Obama is more conservative than Clinton and Reagan is less conservative than the current Republican Party. So Democrats looking back fondly on Reagan makes sense: those were the good old days when even the most extreme Republicans were reasonable. Republicans looking back fondly on Clinton are doing it purely to score political points against Obama. It’s as simple as that.

Politics: 15 November 2010

Democratic Party Losses: The Real Lesson

I am reading all over the Internet that Obama lost the independent voters in this election and similar statements about how this election was some kind of mandate and that people’s opinions of Obama have changed. There are so many such articles that I’m not even going to provide any links. Here’s the thing: this isn’t true. This election was all about who voted. More independents voted Republican in 2010 than in 2008. This is not because independents are more conservative than they were; it is because the more liberal independents didn’t vote. Every bit of polling I’ve seen has shown the same thing: everyone voted the same way in 2010 as they did in 2008. What changed was who voted. Of people under 30 years old, 13 million who voted in 2008 did not vote in 2010. This and this alone is the reason that the Republicans did well in this election. This is also why Republicans always want to discourage people from voting: if voting were mandatory, Democrats would win landslide after landslide.

The lesson of this election is that conservatives vote no matter what; liberals, not so much. And that’s it.

Keith Olbermann Dissects the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity

Watch it; you’ll be cheering!

Politics: 14 November 2010

More on Chomsky

The brief clip I embedded yesterday came from a 2009 Commonwealth Club lecture that Noam Chomsky gave. He goes into the topic of the teabaggers a little more. Hearing this and having a night to think about it made me reconsider it. I think Chomsky is wrong. It is not that the teabaggers are pawns in this process: they have questions and the only answers come from Faux News. I believe it works the other way around. There are plenty of answers out there. If you want, you can find someone who will tell you anything you want. As we know, the teabaggers are (and always were) the most conservative members of the Republican Party. They not only want answers that tell them that America is perfect and that all our problems come from foreign people and ideas, they will only accept such answers.

If I just took the teabaggers are their word, I would agree with them. I believe strongly in the Constitution. I’ve read the Federalist Papers (they haven’t, of course) and I’ve read most of Thomas Paine (they haven’t, of course). And I would be willing to take the whole package. But they are not. For one thing, they don’t even understand the whole package. More important: they approach the Constitution the same way they approach the Bible. They cherry pick. What they really care about is American exceptionalism, which they understand to mean that the USA is the best country in the world and what it does internationally is always right. They are, in other words, nationalists; and they will only be happy with a nationalistic government.

Coming back to my father: I’ve noticed that he is always unhappy with his government. Whenever I complain about the Republicans, he will counter, “Do you think I like them?!” But then the Republicans will reconstitute themselves in the form of “Contract with America” or the “Tea Party Movement” and he’s right back on board. In two years, he will be unhappy with them too. Why? I think there are a number of reasons. First is that no party can return this country to the perfect, mythical past that he “remembers.” Second is that a Republican is a Republican is a Republican. The only thing that changes when the Republicans reconstitute themselves is the way they talk; they always believed the same thing: welfare for the rich, nothing for the poor. Third is that people elected to govern have to govern. The five-year-old in my dad wants the Republicans to shut the government down, but the adult still wants his Social Security check. And probably most important, he has a lot of vague bitterness about life and the Republicans use that to get elected: without ever explicitly saying it. Truly, the only thing that would make him happy is if the government started rounding up all of the people he doesn’t like. Doing this politically is pretty hard. But make no mistake, a big part of Republican dog-whistle politics is that they are going to “get the bastards” (whoever they might be). Of course, I’m not talking specifically about my father: I’m talking about a third of the nation.

None of the teabaggers see that when it comes to corporate welfare, the Republicans may talk a good game, but they are totally in favor of it. The Democrats are for it too, but they will make some changes that will improve the situation. The teabaggers (my father included) would rather vote for people who promise everything and deliver nothing (or worse) than people who promise a little and deliver a little.

My father would never accept the fact that it is the rich and not the poor who game the government and waste our tax dollars. He won’t believe it any more than he will believe in global warming. Facts don’t matter. And so Chomsky is wrong to think that if the teabaggers were just instructed in American international misdeeds and corporate welfare any but a tiny fraction would change their thinking. They wouldn’t. Faux News exists because people like my father exist. Yes, Faux makes it worse. But if it weren’t for the ready audience, Faux News would not exist.

Politics: 13 November 2010

Noam Chomsky and My Dad

I remember about twenty years ago, my dad—a radically conservative Faux News robot before there was a Faux News—watched an interview with Noam Chomsky. I was surprised that my father thought that Chomsky had the problems faced by the country totally pegged. It didn’t take long to learn that my father knew nothing of what Chomsky thought in terms of policy prescriptions. My father was and is a populist. But he is a populist he eagerly embraces the lies told him by the very people who oppress him.

In this recent interview, Chomsky talks about this. He might as well be talking about my father:

Politics: 11 November 2010

Veterans’ Day

It’s a Veterans’ Day. I don’t think so ill of the people in the army. But let’s be frank: joining the army is not the best thing you can do for your country. Most of our wars have been wars of choice. By holding up military service as a great thing, unjustified wars are easier for leaders to start. Dulce et decorum est propatria mori (It is sweet and decorous to die for the fatherland) is really not about getting people to die for their country—it is about getting people to kill for their country. Happy Veterans’ Day.

Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart was on the Rachel Maddow show tonight. They spent the whole episode on him. I don’t see why. He seems reasonable, but he is not well-reasoned. I’ve watched him over the last ten years and it seems he is doing his best to become the David Broder of his generation. Yes, he is still making sense upwards of 35% of the time. And his show is consistently funny. But give him another ten years—much less twenty—and he will be suggesting ideas as good as war with Iran as the way to get our economy going. Stewart’s defense of George W. Bush was simply disgusting. His basic argument seems to be that Bush is not a war criminal because Bush was an American politician.

Let me be clear: Jon Stewart is a problem who has little if anything to add to the political debate.

I Could Use an Extra Hour

It is time to set our clocks back. This brings to mind the helpful reminder, “Spring forward, Fall back.” According to Room Eight, this dates back to Walter Winchell, who in turn refers to the Los Angeles Times. I personally think that this phrase is up there with the great intellectual achievements of the twentieth century, like General Relativity.

I would do more research on the subject, but I am very tired. I am definitely looking forward to that extra hour of sleep and I see no point in putting it off.

Politics: 5 November 2010

The Know-Nothing Party

I was over at Fairness and Accuracy in Media (FAIR) where I was reminded of the long history angry right-wing populism. In particular, does anybody remember laughter the Know-Nothing Party?

Its members strongly opposed immigrants and followers of the Catholic Church. The majority of white Americans followed Protestant faiths. Many of these people feared Catholics because members of this faith followed the teachings of the Pope. The Know-Nothings feared that the Catholics were more loyal to the Pope than to the United States. More radical members of the Know-Nothing Party believed that the Catholics intended to take over the United States of America. The Catholics would then place the nation under the Pope’s rule. The Know-Nothing Party intended to prevent Catholics and immigrants from being elected to political offices. Its members also hoped to deny these people jobs in the private sector, arguing that the nation’s business owners needed to employ true Americans.

Does this sound familiar? Just substitute “Know-Nothing” with “Tea” and “Catholic” with “Muslim” and you’ve got it pegged. There’s more. Check out the link.

Keith Olbermann