Wednesday, June 29, 2011


Until last week, I thought I knew what libel was. I thought it was it was when you told a lie about a public figure, or in other ways defamed their character. And perhaps that is it what it means today. But I've been reading a fascinating book during the slow moments at work called The Influencing Machine. It's by Brooke Gladstone, who is an NPR managing editor and media analyst. If it actually was a novel, I'd call it a graphic novel, but since it's, well, analysis, I'm a bit at a loss what to call it. Gladstone herself seems to be okay with calling it a comic.

Anyway, one of the things she attempts to depict in comic form is the creation of and history of the free press, and how often and for what reasons it falls from those ideals. It's a fun and engaging way to learn a little history.

Gladstone talks about how the advent of printing (and her thesis is, with the advent of all new media technologies) the resultant freer speech of the populace was not always greeted with enthusiasm one might expect from royalty. Printers could be ruined by the charge of seditious libel for printing criticism of the government. Gladstone says, "And the truth is no defence. Legal doctrine holds that 'the greater the truth, the greater the libel'--the greater the threat to divine right."
So what is libel, if it is not falsification? Is it just an attack on someone's good name--even if the attack is based on truth? And if not, when did that change?


Libel involves first and foremost publication. It's when something that you say in writing, print, signs or pictures damages someone's reputation. ('Slander' is when this damaging thing is spoken.) But it's interesting to see that, just as Brooke Gladstone reports, in the earlier versions of defamation, saying that you were only speaking the truth wasn't much of a defense. According to what I've gleaned from Wikipedia, there was originally almost as strong a taboo against making public, insulting true statements as there was against making public, insulting false ones. It's something about the shouting something out loud that makes it libel, and perhaps our current ideas of inflammatory speech touches upon this.  Apparently in English Common Law, the issue with libel is more in the realm of breaching the peace than the actual or imagined harm done to the defamed.

I'm not sure how matters stand in actual practice in England today. But in the U.S., to prove that someone has libelled you, you must first prove that the statement is false, next that the statement has actually caused harm, and finally that the statement was inadequately researched before being made. Anybody can be libelled. But when it comes to celebrities, it must also be proved that there was actually some intent to cause harm.

I got the basic etymology from the Online Etymology Dictionary, but leave it to Anatoly Liberman to make it more interesting. As the dictionary does, he traces 'libel' back to libellus, the diminutive of liber, or book. As he tells it, when it first made it's way into the English language, via French, at the end of the fourteenth century, it was still straightforward and meant  a little book or pamphlet. Liberman goes on:

The rest is a classic example of a process called in works on historical semantics the deterioration of meaning. The OED traces every step of the downfall. “Little book” → “a formal document, a written declaration or statement” → “the document of the plaintiff containing his allegations and instituting a suit” → “a leaflet assailing or defaming someone’s character” → “any published statement damaging to the character of a person” → “any false or defamatory statement” (the last stage had been reached by the beginning of the 17th century).     

Here's the rest of his article on The Long Arm of Calumny.

Thursday, June 23, 2011


I don't think this caught on.

Behind the scenes here at Confessions of Ignorance, I've been uncharacteristically fumbling a bit for a topic. There are tons of topics, of course, but none of them has felt 'hot', or hot enough to spend a lot of time on here. However, I'll make up for it now by making two confessions of ignorance. The first is that, until a couple of days ago, I had never heard of Whitey Bulger, gangster, terrorizer, and alleged murderer of Boston. Which of course makes it rather hard to celebrate with the same glee as others his capture yesterday. All the same, I have seen quite a bit of news about him in the past twenty-four hours, and besides being captured in the town of my birth, Santa Monica, California, my sister now lives in the town just north, and could easily have passed Bulger and his girlfriend on the Third Street Promenade or countless other places.

Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica

Anyway, that little bit of ignorance may well have cost her, or even me ( since I've been known to visit) two million dollars.

Well, never mind, I'm sure I can make it up by writing this blog somehow.

The second bit of ignorance, though, is a bit more shocking. As the bio of Bulger was divulged the term 'racketeering' came up a couple of times. I know of course that racketeering is a crime and one those that gangsters get imprisoned for, but realized that I don't actually know what the activity consists of. Running a racket is running some kind of illegal scheme, but is it anything more precise than that?


Okay, essentially, a racket is an illegal business. We've all heard of a protection racket, in which money is extorted from businesses to protect them, when the real villain they are being protected from are the gangsters behind the racket themeselves. There is also the numbers racket, which is an illegal lottery, and since it seems to have been an Italian phenomena in poorer neighborhoods from at least 1520, I'm wondering if the numbers racket proceeds the other kinds of rackets as a term, especially since it had a system in place where runners ran money and betting slips back and forth between betting parlors and the headquarters, known as a numbers bank. Just an idle guess on my part, though.

The term racketeering, however, has a specific date of origin. This was in June, 1927, when Gordon Hostetter of the Employer's Association of Greater Chicago used it to describe not the local mafia, but the local trade unions. An article in the Journal of Urban history by Andrew Cohen says that Gordon was an anti-union activist and wanted to imply and association between "bootleggers like Al Capone" and the trade unions. The unions eventually were able to fight back against this image, and convince the public that they were the victims of extortion,  not its perpetrators. But this picture of unions continued to shape the legal status of collective action.

Hmm. This is all beginning to sound very familiar. Very recently, somehow...

This is not Whitey Bulger.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

blogger help

This is more by the way of a public service announcement than a true confession of ignorance. A lot of problems seem to be arising with blogger lately, and one I've heard a lot is the inability to sign in, or to comment, etc. If this is something that's happening to you, it might help to uncheck the 'stay signed in' option when you come to that crossroads. (One way to to get to it, since even that isn't easy, is to go to the comments part of your own or someone else's blog and try to comment, which will take you to the sign in place.) Paradoxically, once you've unchecked the box, you will then stay signed in. You will have to sign in again only when you have actually left Google by, say closing all your windows or logging off or whatever. This is a lot better than having to try to sign in every time you want to say anything. I would doubt that this is an actual solution but I have since read other people offering it, so give it a shot.

Thursday, June 16, 2011


Well, hopefully this will be a short one. To me, 'ramshackle' means put together with no thought or plan, not cohesive, and definitely not up to code. I may turn out to be wrong about that, but even if  I'm right, I'd really like to know where such a great word comes from. Let's find out.


The free dictionary has it as "so poorly constructed or kept up that disintegration is likely." Pretty much my thoughts. But here's what's interesting. 'Ramshackle' is actually a back-formation, which, in case you don't know (as I didn't until taking up this blog) is when you create a new word by analogy from an already existing word, falsely assuming that that is its source. For example:

"Stripping the in- from inchoate is known as back-formation, the same process that has given us words like peeve (from peevish), surveil (from surveillance) and enthuse (from enthusiasm). There’s a long linguistic tradition of removing parts of words that look like prefixes and suffixes to come up with 'roots' that weren’t there to begin with."

(Ben Zimmer, "Choate." The New York Times, Jan. 3, 2010)
So in case you thought 'ramshackle' had anything to do with rams or shackles, well, it doesn't. 'Ramshackle' is a back-formation of 'ramshackled'  which is an alteration of 'ranshackle', which in turn comes from 'ransackle'.
Starting to sound familiar? The original word is 'ransack', which comes from Old Norse rannsaka 'to pillage', but more literally to search (saka) the house (rann). I'm going to take the original meaning of 'ramshackle', then, to mean--what a house looks like after it has been pillaged...
 I've been slacking a bit on thinking outside the box with these so let's end with a little video from a little group called

Sunday, June 12, 2011


It's been a busy graduation weekend in my neck of the woods, which of course happens annually in a university town, and this year my oldest nephew graduated from high school and my close friends' son just graduated today from our old stomping grounds, UC Santa Cruz. It had been awhile since I'd actually attended a ceremony, but I did get up to my nephew's and although I thought it was more for him, I think in a way it was more for me. These kind of events place you in time, I think. It was pretty cool to see diversity represented as a reality in the student population, and to hear the student speakers add words in a variety of other languages in tribute to their parents. And I heard there small jazz group give the best rendition of 'The Star-Spangled Banner' that I have ever heard. Brought it to life again.

So I know what graduation is. But the more I thought about the word, the less I understood about why it had come to be the label for this symbolic event. Surely it has a relation to 'gradual'. And grade? I guess you could say high school's end is approached 'gradually', but it seems like 'culmination' or some other word connoting achievement would be more in order.

Oh, well. It's been a long week. Let's find out.


So basically we have two different kinds of graduation among our definitions. We have the kind that is related to the ceremony of giving or recieving a diploma or degree, and we have the kind that is about measurement on a scale that increases by regular amounts, also called degrees. I would have guessed that making any kind of equation between these two different types of degrees would have been a bad analogy, but apparently they are quite related. According to the online Etymology dictionary, the term had a special significance in alchemy, which in the early 15th century meant 'tempering  or refining something to a certain degree'. It was at this time that the 'action of giving or receiving a degree' came into usage. Though I was unable to come up with a true etymology, it does seem as though the graduation  ceremony as we think of it today has that sense of refining or tempering a person to a different degree than when they started rather than being so much about the gradual process that proceeded it.

Be that as it may, the interesting thing to me is that both 'graduate' and 'degree', and for that matter 'gradual' and 'grade' all link back to the Latin gradus, or 'step, pace, walk'. This links them to such words as 'congress' and 'progress', and back to that theoretical precursor language, Proto-Indo-European, with ' *ghredh-, which  leads us to the Lithuanian gridiju "to go, wander," Old Church Slavonic gredo "to come," and old  Irish in-greinn "he pursues."

So many steps, so little time!

Congratulations to you, Evan and Charlie, and to all your cohorts. The following Gaelic blessing may be a bit of a cliche by now, but in this context it seems singularly apt.

May the road rise up to meet you.

May the wind be always at your back.

May the sun shine warm upon your face;

the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,

may God hold you in the palm of His hand.

And to both of you, well done.


Sunday, June 5, 2011


Remember a couple of weeks ago when I said I wasn't going to do any guest request posts on particle physics? You don't? Then, uh, never mind. Actually, I don't even know what particle physics really is. I'm assuming it's the physics of subatomic particles, but this might be an inadequate description.

I do know that physics, and quantum physics in particular, has been every blessed place I turn lately, and I'm guessing it's high time to nail this sucker down. Except as it's all about indeterminacy, that's probably the one thing you actually can't do. We'll see.

But don't worry. This time around, I'm only looking at the actual word 'quantum'. With maybe a few random thoughts.

So, what exactly is 'quantum'? Here's my very sketchy idea of it. Quantum physics is the physics based on the data that comes from being able to study matter at the subatomic level. It 'overrides' the theories of classical physics, and is pretty wild stuff. But why 'quantum'?  I think quantum refers to a subatomic called a quanta. I also think its etymology may be Latin. Okay, enough of this humiliation. Let's find out the truth.


Okay, I'm relieved that quantum is actually a plural noun from quanta, yet chagrined that I failed to discern the underlying relationship to 'quantity'. A 'quanta' is the smallest possible discrete unit of any physical property. It comes from the Latin quantum, "how much" or "amount". Around 1610, it came to mean "one's share or portion" in English. It was recoined for modern usage by Max Planck in 1900, when he sought to account for the way iron changes color when heated, which is not accounted for in classical physics.  He explained this by positing that radiation existed in discrete units rather than continuous waves, just as matter does.

Obviously, none of this is new stuff, even if I am just getting around to it. There is a surprisingly entertaining and coherent article from a 1930s edition of Scientific American that I stumbled across in my researches. Interestingly enough, the current issue has as its cover story "Living in a Quantum World". Which leads back to my recent interest. As this recent issue has it, we are used to thinking that quantum mechanics applies mainly to the subatomic world--i.e., one which, in our daily life, we need not particularly concern ourselves. Classical physics works well enough. But apparently  most physicists now concur that there is no gap between the subatomic world and the day to day one--it's only that they're finally able to see the effect on a larger scale as well.

I am not really of a scientific bent, so of course my real interest comes through literature. We've been doing a little Finnegans Wake reading group here in Santa Cruz, and more and more its become apparent to us that the at the time relatively new understanding of quantum physics influenced Joyce in writing the book. In fact, as I just learned in the beginning of a paper written by Andrzej Duzsenko on Joyce and quantum physics, its clear that Joyce, who wrote the Wake between 1923 and 1939 was highly influenced by this revolution in scientific thought, as were many other  artists of the time.

Nevertheless, my sense is that it is only now that real understanding of the implications of this new model are truly beginning to work their way through our collective consciousness. Or am I just behind? Maybe all the rest of you switch frequently from the mindset of classical physics and the mindset of quantum physics. If so, please enlighten me how it's working out for you. And if you've tried any quantum jumping, let me know that too. Just don't send them any money on my account.

Or from my account either.

Oh, the blog plug. Let's do a fast one for Brian O'Rourke , who has been a bit out of blog land of late, due to new fatherhood, but who seems to be returning a bit, a habit I hope to encourage. Brian is one of those freewheeling blogs where I've learned a bit about everything from beer pong to great movies, but right now he's doing one of his hallmark features called "Promote Whatever You Want". I suppose there are some restrictions, like not promoting, say, napalm, but the only real rule is that you can't promote him. On the blog. So technically, I'm not cheating.