Sunday, 3 December 2017

Changeling Children and Poisoned Milk

Each night, I read Michael Rosen's 'We're Going on a Bear Hunt' aloud to my son, Finn Jr. It's one of the few children's books that meet his exacting standards. I no longer need the book to prompt the words as I can quote each verse verbatim, which is good because I get to look at Helen Oxenbury's whimsical illustrations.

In anticipation of a future where night time stories have a little more psychological depth, I have begun to research Faerie stories. These are the stories of the otherworld that mirrors our own and is peopled by immortal creatures who look human, but envy our youth and promise and our ability to change. The stories are told from the mountainous Himalayas to the craggy coasts of Ireland. Ancient versions of the myths are recorded on clay tablets in Sumerian (the written language common to Babylon and Nineveh in the 3rd Millennium BCE). Modern versions can be found in the writings of Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman and Susanna Clark. As with all folklore, there is no urtext and the stories vary by time and location. But all inform our common humanity. 

Take the story of Lilitu - alluded to in poems associated with the Gilgamesh cycle and later appearing as the succubus Lilith in Jewish mythology - this Babylonian Faerie lives in the otherworld and cannot raise children of her own because of her venomous breastmilk. She longs for a child and so steals into the world of humans at night and suckles human infants. Those babies that are suckled by Lilitu take their fill of poisoned milk at night, refuse to suckle at their mother's breast by day and inevitably die. 

You can see how this works as a supernatural explanation of high infant mortality - a death rate that was most likely due to the crowded conditions and poor sanitation in your average Mesopotamian city. Blame the elves not the city governors. Although there is an underlying theme of demonisation of the childless woman. 

The myth of the 'Changeling' is another story that features heavily in Faerie folklore. Here a human child is swapped for an immortal Faerie that has been enchanted to look like the stolen baby. The Faeries raise the child in the otherworld. The parents lose out on the youth and promise that a new life represents.

If you are concerned that your baby might be a Changeling, the traditional way to prove it is to boil water in an eggshell. Human babies cannot speak, but changelings can. The Changeling child will be so intrigued by your peculiar eggshell water boiling actions that he will ask what you are doing. The dark side of all this is that Changelings could be abandoned in the forest. The myth may hint at a darker reality of infanticide in times of famine and the stories humans tell themselves to justify
their most evil actions.

As interesting as all this research has proved, I don't think I'm going to be reading Finn Jr any of these stories anytime soon. For the time being, I think we'll stick with hunting bears.

" shiny wet nose, two big furry ears..."

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Things My Son Knows That I Don't

For part of my degree in linguistics, I had to do a course in phonetics. The phonetics professor, Ken, was a friendly chap with a good sense of humour. For two hours a week, he had to stand at the front of a class full of linguistics undergraduates sounding a selection of the 600 or so linguistic noises that are used in human languages. We had to write down the symbol and description of the sound he was making. This went on for a whole term. His wife died the year I studied with him, but he kept coming in: chanting his noises while we students frantically tried to listen for whether this particular non-velar alveolar fricative was voiced or unvoiced.

I've been thinking about Ken a lot in the last few weeks as I listen to my son, Finn Jr, produce a variety of pre-linguistic sounds - he's particularly good at uvular rolls.

There's a particular fact about first language acquisition that most linguists take for granted, but other parents look at you like you're mad if you mention it: every child is born knowing all the possible human linguistic sounds, but they forget the ones that they don't hear used around them. My four-and-a-half-month-old son currently has knowledge of all 600 or so phonemes - just like my old phonetics professor! But, over the next year, he will forget all but the 40 or so that are used in English.

The international phonetic alphabet. These symbols can be combined to transcribe the phonetics of any language.

You also probably think that I am barking mad - ascribing such knowledge to a babe in arms who can't sit up without the aid of a Bumbo - so here's a brief rundown of the argument.

Parents have insufficient knowledge to teach a baby how to make linguistic sounds. (This is the point where other parents of babies can get a bit offended).

The average parent may say "[m],[m]" to their child and be ecstatic when the infant says "mama" back. But at what point did the parent pass on knowledge of when to open and close the velum and whether or not to sound the vocal cords? The complexity of the child's linguistic behaviour is far beyond the ability of the parent to impart.   

I spent a term of my University education trying to learn the human linguistic sounds and I only just about managed to master the consonants (except the clicks) and I never learned to tell the difference between a rounded unvoiced vowel and an unrounded unvoiced vowel without looking at the shape of the lips. And I was being taught by an expert, remember. 

Despite how tricky the whole subject of phonetics is to learn: any baby can learn any language. That is to say, if you kidnapped Finn Jr (please don't, his mother would kill me) and had him raised by a Japanese-speaking or Swahili-speaking family: he would grow up speaking that language.

The nativist claim that infants are born with the knowledge of all phonemes and forget the ones that they don't hear is less fantastical than the belief that parents are somehow able to pass on knowledge that they don't possess.

But you try bringing up Ockham's Razor with the other mums and dads at messy play... 

Finn Jr voicing some of the 600 linguistic sounds he knows.


Saturday, 16 September 2017

Shelf Indulgence

Soon after we moved, I decided to put up some bookshelves in our new house. I spent a pleasant afternoon sanding and painting some second-hand shelving units, nailing them to the walls and smugly posting pictures of them on social media.

Eagle-eyed readers will spot Deborah the Giraffe subtly placed where I don't have to look at her from my spot on  the sofa

(If you're nosy enough to have zoomed in, you are probably wondering why the Myths and Legends of the British Isles isn't next to Lady Gregory's Irish Myths and Legends. Truth is: the shelving project is a work in progress and I haven't bothered sorting them all properly yet.)

It was a lovely sunny day, so we took Finn Jr out for a walk. I bought myself a bottle of wine that I planned to drink as a well-deserved reward for the hour of DIY that I had put in. 

Upon our return, I discovered that every single electrical socket in the house had mysteriously stopped working. Because of the subtle foreshadowing ("...nailing...walls...") that I included in the introductory paragraph, you may guess where this is leading but, at the time, this was a total mystery. 

Charlie questioned whether my putting up of pictures and shelves could be the root of the problem, but I explained that I had carefully examined the region and convinced myself that any wiring was running in some trunking that I had spotted to the right of where I wanted to position my shelves. You can see it for yourself in the picture above (next to Deborah the Giraffe).

We had the problem examined, first by my pal Raul and then by an electrician. Everyone was stumped. The electrician couldn't work out why there was a fault on two neutral circuits and was getting ready to rewire the entire house. In passing, I mentioned Charlie's theory that my DIY efforts might be responsible. There was a moment of stunned silence as Raul and the electrician tried to work out why I hadn't brought this up earlier. I explained about my observation that the wire went into some trunking. 

Turns out a fuse box has more than one wire coming out of it. If you're ever planning to put up some shelves. Remember: there are loads of wires buried in the wall - especially directly above the fuse box. By a million to one chance, I had nailed directly through two different neutral wires on the same circuit.

To fix the problem, the electrician had to remove floorboards in the upper floor of the house. And that's how we discovered that we've got asbestos in the ceiling...

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Parental Leave

Full-time salaried work is the hallmark of a badly organised society. If society were better organised, there would be zero unemployment and a lot more holidays. I love a bit of paid time off and the arrival of my first-born son was rewarded by the UK government with a blissful work-free fortnight. 

I'd heard that that neonates slept for like 18 hours a day, so thought I'd use my parental leave to catch up on a bit of reading. What I'd failed to realise was that I would be spending those 18 hours panicking about whether or not this small human that I had suddenly assumed joint responsibility for was still breathing. A month in and I'm a bit more casual. I can update this blog from the sofa while he is on the floor asleep on a cushion*. The breathing checks are now every thirty seconds or so rather than constant like in the early days.

Rudyard Kipling says in the first of the Jungle Books that "...there is nothing so unlucky as to compliment children to their faces." I'm not sure about unlucky, but it is unsettling when people say in the same breath how cute a baby is and then how much he looks like his father (he's ginger and has my snub nose, the hair on his forehead is growing in - mine is going the other way). 

Perhaps I had the Kipling maxim somewhere in my subconscious when I mentioned to Charlie that I thought Finn Jr (alias - before anyone accuses me of unimaginatively naming my son after my blog which is named after my imaginary childhood friend) looks a bit like a Slitheen - the ludicrous farting aliens that appeared in the first couple of seasons of the relaunched Dr Who. This is now on my list of things that with hindsight I wish I hadn't mentioned. 

Here's a selfie I took in the hospital just after Finn Jr was born. We had to go into the surgery for the final stages of labour. They gave me my own set of scrubs. They are labelled 'dad' just in case anyone noticed my calm air of competence and mistook me for a consultant anaesthetist or something.  I'm sure you'd all rather see cute baby pics than me in my scrubs - but it feels slightly unethical to use these precious images just to garner a few extra hits on my blog.

Baby's waking up now. Next week: Why Kant's "On Education" should be required reading for all new parents.

*Please don't fill the comments section with chastisement about the cushion thing. It is a specially designed baby-safe cushion. 

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Not Hume's Problem: 10 Words I've Learned in the Last 9 Months

My wife and I have been manufacturing a human. To be honest, she is doing most of the hard work. I've been busying myself reading the instruction manuals. Here are some of the new words that I have learned:

  • Fundal (adj.) Relating to the fundus.
  • Fundus (n.) Height upwards round the belly. [Out of curiosity, as this is not a service provided by my tailor, I used the paper tape measure provided for fundal height measurements to measure upwards around my own belly - the result was 'taller' than I wanted to admit, so I pulled the tape measure tighter and it snapped and after that Charlie said I wasn't allowed to look at her maternity folder unless she was in the room.]
  • Induction (n.) In this obliquely technical usage, 'induction' is a way of encouraging a small human who has got used to his current surroundings to make his way into surroundings that will take considerably longer to get used to. [Like me, you probably immediately think of 18th Century Scottish philosopher David Hume when you see this word. But, in the topsy-turvy world of midwifery, 'induction' has nothing to do with the problem of inferring that "instances of which we have no experience resemble those of which we have had experience." (as Hume memorably put it.)]
  • Mucus Plug (n.) Like a normal plug - this plug stops waters from draining away, but it is made of mucus.
  • Multigravid (adj.) (Trans. from L. - author's own) Having experienced more than one heaviness (c.f. primagravid).
  • Occipito Anterior/Occipito Posterior (adj.) These Harry Potter spells make a muggle's head face the other way.
  • Primagravid (adj.) (Trans. from L. - author's own) Of or pertaining to the first heaviness (c.f. multigravid).
  • Show (n.) External manifestation of the mucus plug.
  • Sweep (n.) Intimate procedure that (uncharacteristically tactless) midwives have named after a glove puppet.
Bedside Reading

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Manifestos Manifest

Regular readers will know that I recently quit bartending and now I improve the quality of writing in little read corners of the internet for a living. As research for one of these projects, I read the Labour and Conservative manifesto proposals on Energy Policy. Anyhow, the article as I would have liked it to have gone out went unpublished - but reason will not be silenced! Here's what I found out.

Conservative Party Energy Policy

  • Cheaper Energy Bills for Homes and Businesses (p.22). That sounds good, doesn't it. My energy bills are expensive, how are they going to do it? The Tories are promising to put infrastructure in place to help large businesses improve their energy efficiency. Quite how giving large amounts of money to big business is going to reduce my energy bills is not further explained. 
  • A Diverse Energy Mix (p.22f). This section makes it clear that a Conservative government post-Brexit would form policy based on supply not generation. No mention of the fact that we can currently buy tariff-free energy from the EU or what their negotiating position on this will be. They say that they will stick to global commitments on Climate Change, but then go on to support...
  • Shale Gas Extraction (P.23). Don't let the language fool you. It is impossible to extract gas from shale without hydraulic fracturing. this is an explicit promise to allow fracking. Earth-tremor-causing, water-poisoning, mountain-eroding fracking. The Conservative Party propose to bribe communities with a proposed Shale Wealth Fund - this proposal includes a provision to pay individuals (read: landowners) and communities to allow fracking in their village. If global temperature rises are to be kept below 2 degrees, the majority of oil and gas deposits must be left in the ground.

Labour Party Energy Policy

(n.b. The pages aren't numbered on the online version of the manifesto - the relevant page is Sustainable Energy at the end of the section Creating an Economy that Works for All.)

  • Three Principles. Ensuring security of energy supply, reducing costs for consumers, transitioning to a low carbon economy
  • Cheaper Energy Prices for Homes and Businesses. Heard this one before. But here the plan is the opposite of the Tories' plan 'A' of handing taxpayer's money over to big business and hoping nobody notices. The Labour Party propose a cap on the price businesses can charge for energy and the setting up of locally-accountable, publicly-owned rivals to the big energy companies. Infrastructure will be put in place to assist with the insulation of 4 million homes - interest free loans for homeowners upgrading their insulation and rewards for landlords who improve the insulation in their tenanted properties. 
  • Ban Fracking. The Labour Party plan to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels in line with recommendations from the Committee on Climate Change. As you'd expect - fracking is opposed as part of this commitment.
There's significantly more on energy policy in the Labour Party Manifesto than the Conservative Manifesto. I've covered the entire Tory energy policy and restricted myself to showing how Labour differ on these points. That's letting the Tories set the agenda, I suppose - but what can I say? I'm lazy. Perhaps you can cover other areas (not just energy policy) on your blogs and between us we can build up a picture of where the parties stand on key issues? 

To keep things light, here's a picture of a statuette of Apollo that I found in a charity shop and Charlie told me was an unsuitable gift for friends who were hosting us for dinner (we got them a potted helleborus instead).

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Let's All Vote for More Paid Time Off

One of the benefits of my recent career change is that I now get Bank Holidays - paid time off. Workers getting paid time off is an unusual phenomenon. Bank Holidays and holiday pay and sick pay and maternity leave are rights that workers have fought and campaigned hard to win for themselves. 

Anyone working in the hospitality sector knows not to take these rights for granted. In large swathes of the sector, sick pay is non-existent - you either come to work sick or you don't get paid; maternity benefits seldom exceed minimum government requirements - anecdotally, they are sometimes ignored altogether; those on zero-hours contracts do not accrue holiday. Bank Holidays are irrelevant to hospitality workers.

For most of my working life, Bank Holidays meant nothing to me. In the very earliest days of my bartending career, the pub I worked in paid time-and-a-half on Bank Holidays - most pubs did, because it was recognised that you were working when everyone else was off. The industry bosses eventually reasoned that it was stupid to pay extra for a quiet shift (Bank Holiday Mondays are notoriously quiet because everyone has overspent at the weekend). The un-unionised bartending workforce was powerless to fight back. The custom seemed to disappear sometime around the turn of the Century.

The Labour Party has announced plans for four more bank holidays. This is entirely consistent with the Labour Party's historical agenda to improve conditions for working people. More time off makes people healthier, happier and more productive when they get back to work. They get a chance to rest and spend time with their friends and family and generally do more of the things that people tend to regret not doing more of on their deathbed.

We are an exceptionally wealthy nation (albeit that the wealth is poorly distributed). We can afford to pay people to have time off. Let's all vote for more paid time off when we go to the ballot box on June 8th and lets also make sure that those people serving us in the pubs whilst we are enjoying the paid time off are fairly remunerated for their hours. (Or at least buy them a pint when you are getting your round in).

Never let it be said that my Labour Party membership makes me uncritical of their policies. Four extra bank holidays is a great idea, but placing them on the Patron Saints' days of the four home nations is dumb. Our Bank Holidays are already too Spring heavy with Easter and the two May Bank Holidays. Adding two in March and one each in April and November is silly. Let's have some time off in the summer!