Notice: this is a bit off-topic, but I hope you’ll find it entertaining. Like most people in our region I’m stuck at home sheltering from Covid-19 and wildfire smoke. Yet I seem to be scattered around the world today. Twenty-some years ago a large ...
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"Publisher’s Round-up" - 5 new articles

  1. A Sequestered Travelogue
  2. Ghosting and Haunting
  3. The Triumph of Late Capitalism
  4. Politically Healthy Language
  5. When It Rains, It Pours
  6. More Recent Articles

A Sequestered Travelogue

Notice: this is a bit off-topic, but I hope you’ll find it entertaining.

Like most people in our region I’m stuck at home sheltering from Covid-19 and wildfire smoke. Yet I seem to be scattered around the world today.

Twenty-some years ago a large number of us were teaching a two-semester sequence of courses on world civilizations at Washington State University, at that time required for most freshmen. Several of us decided that the various textbook readers available commercially were unsatisfactory. I in particular wanted to use more literary texts from the cultures we discussed. So ten of us joined forces to create a custom-published anthology of readings. 

But it turned out that big-time publishers like Penguin and Indiana University Press wanted huge fees to allow us to reprint their translations even for a small press run (Pico della Mirandola may be in the public domain in Italian, but a satisfactory modern English version costs plenty). So we set ourselves to translating as many texts as we could from French, German, Italian, Spanish, Latin, Chinese, Urdu, Sanskrit and more, hoping to eliminate royalty fees and reduce the cost to our students.

The result was a pretty fantastic reader, titled Reading About the World, in two volumes. 

But our money-saving scheme failed because commercial publishers that produced custom textbooks weren’t interested in saving their customers money and kept the retail prices high.

We decided to put our translations up online for all to share for nonprofit purposes and a small fee for commercial publication. Copyrights were retained by the translators.

Vol. I    Vol. 2 

One of several translations I contributed was an excerpt from the 16th century Descrittione dell’Africa (Description of Africa) by Leo Africanus. Born El Hasan ben Muhammed el-Wazzan-ez-Zayyati in the Moorish city of Granada in 1485, he was expelled along with his parents and thousands of other Muslims by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. 

Settling in Morocco, he studied in Fez, and as a teenager accompanied his uncle on diplomatic missions throughout North Africa and and to the Sub-Saharan kingdom of Ghana. Still a young man, he was captured by Christian pirates and presented as an exceptionally learned slave to the great Renaissance pope, Leo X, who freed him, baptized him under the name “Johannis Leo de Medici,” and commissioned him to write in Italian the detailed survey of Africa which provided most of what Europeans knew about the continent for the next several centuries. 

The section we needed was a famous description of the city of Timbuktu.  Penguin was charging a fortune for reprint rights, so I decided to take it on.

At the time Leo visited the Ghanaian city of Timbuktu, it was somewhat past its peak, but still a thriving Islamic city famous for its learning. “Timbuktu” was to become a byword in Europe as the most inaccessible of cities, but at the time he visited, it was the center of a busy trade in African products and in books. Leo is said to have died in 1554 in Tunis, having reconverted to Islam.

Over the years my translation has been widely reprinted in course packs and in American and British textbooks. 

Back in February I was approached by the South African branch of a major international textbook firm for the right to reprint a brief excerpt in a forthcoming textbook. Since I had dealt with their British branch in the past with no problems, I agreed to allow them to use it for my usual nominal fee.

Then they handed me off to their permissions department—in India. It turned out that a vast amount of paperwork including some information I was reluctant to give out would be required in order to reimburse me. I decided it wasn’t worth the trouble and risk involved; so I declined, explaining that other publishers required much less. I wondered if all this was some sort of scam to get my info.

I didn’t hear anything back until last week, when I was contacted by one of their South African coordinators saying that they still wanted the translation, and that perhaps something simpler could be worked out. Could we discuss it online?

We had a terrible time connecting, partly because of the 11-hour time difference and partly because she had taken her laptop to the United Arab Emirates on a trip and had forgotten that while she was thinking in South African time, her laptop was thinking UAE time. She also wasn’t seeing the emails I was sending her, trying to connect.

But after a couple of hours of frustration we eventually got together on Zoom. I offered to just give them permission to reprint the item for free in their forthcoming middle school textbook, but it turned out doing it for free was almost as complicated as being paid. South Africa has very strong laws to prevent scammers from selling the work of others as their own, and barring the illicit use of copyrighted material—hence the need for all the invasive documentation.

I explained my much simpler experiences with the London branch and asked whether the UK office could buy the rights for them. No luck.

However she thought their Indian agent would help her work out something reasonable. 

But the Indian agent is on vacation.

After a quick text exchange they agreed to try to work something out via Zoom next week.

So here I am, stuck in the house, with my brain zinging all over the globe.

I think I’ll go put my feet up.



Ghosting and Haunting

To “ghost” as a verb meaning to suddenly disappear—cease all contact with someone, especially in a would-be romantic relationship, mostly online—has become very popular usage during the past decade, and almost everyone knows what it means. 

But it struck me recently that ghosts are traditionally known for the opposite behavior: unexpectedly appearing when the living original has departed.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary the main traditional meaning of “to ghost” was “to haunt.” 

However, a more modern usage suggests invisibility: someone who writes a book published under the name of someone else is said to be a ghostwriter who ghosts manuscripts for pay, like Tony Schwartz. That may well be the inspiration for using “ghost” to mean “disappear.”

But using the contemporary idiom, you could certainly be haunted by the memory of someone who ghosted you.

See “A New Meaning of the Verb 'Ghost'“ at Merriam-Webster.

Also “Exes Explain Ghosting, the Ultimate Silent Treatment” in the New York Times.


The Triumph of Late Capitalism

Some contemporary leftists love to talk about “late capitalism” as if the system were in its dying stages, destined to land on the trash heap of history as socialism triumphs.

This is BS, or at best wishful thinking.

The phrase has been around for many decades but was more recently popularized by Fredric Jameson, author of Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991).

It appears to most of us that history is moving in the other direction, with capitalism finding ways of developing in a variety of ways in purportedly socialist countries, for good or for ill.

Consider contemporary Russia, which abandoned its supposed socialism for an old-fashioned form of crony state capitalism. Russia needs a trust-busting Teddy Roosevelt type more than another Lenin. 

I agree with those who argue that such systems are really closer to fascism, but I think it's confusing overkill to use that term.

China’s leaders continue to cling to the term "communism" while fostering instead an even more classic sort of capitalist entrepreneurship.

Cuba continues to discourage individual enterprise but it flourishes nevertheless. In Vietnam capitalism also flourishes, competing directly with China. Even in North Korea the economy is being propped up by profit-seeking individual enterprises. 

Those who describe contemporary Western economic systems as part of “late capitalism" sound as quaint and unplugged from reality as apocalyptic religious types who have been preaching for centuries that we are living in the latter days.

Capitalism has many problems, but it is metastasizing, not fading away. All around the world greedy profiteering is triumphing over working for the common good, with precious few nations moving in the other direction.

I detest almost everything that Stephen Miller has said and done in the Trump administration, but I have to admit I agree with most of what he wrote in in his Washington Examiner article “Why Liberals and Socialists Love to Harp on ‘Late Capitalism.’”

Politically Healthy Language

During David Remnick’s interview with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on his recent New Yorker podcast, he asked her why she calls herself a “socialist” when her ideas sound very much like New Deal liberalism. I was exasperated by her reply just as I’m exasperated by the way Bernie Sanders does likewise and also by the way he calls his advocacy of a program of reforms a “revolution.”

The insistence by these very smart people in trying to reclaim their opponents’ accusations by adopting their terminology and redefining it to suit their own views strikes me as politically obtuse. Bernie belongs to the generation that thought moving from “protest” to “resistance” to “revolution” was a boldly courageous stand when instead it fractured the overwhelmingly non-revolutionary anti-Vietnam War movement and helped to promote opposition to it. Ocasio-Cortez should know better.

Merriam-Webster’s note on “socialism” makes clear that these politicians are being more provocative than accurate:
In the many years since “socialism” entered English around 1830, it has acquired several different meanings. It refers to a system of social organization in which private property and the distribution of income are subject to social control, but the conception of that control has varied, and the term has been interpreted in widely diverging ways, ranging from statist to libertarian, from Marxist to liberal. In the modern era, "pure" socialism has been seen only rarely and usually briefly in a few Communist regimes. Far more common are systems of social democracy, now often referred to as democratic socialism, in which extensive state regulation, with limited state ownership, has been employed by democratically elected governments (as in Sweden and Denmark) in the belief that it produces a fair distribution of income without impairing economic growth.
Neither of them advocates nationalizing American industries. At best they are Western European-style democratic socialists, advocating a system in which capitalism generates the wealth which can then be taxed and shared for social purposes.

The exception is the private health insurance industry, which both candidates have said they want to abolish.

I can’t help sympathizing, since I wish we had a single-payer government system like Britain’s; but the fact is the overwhelming majority of voters are opposed to this notion, and embracing it as an immediate goal just confirms in the public’s mind that the Republicans may have a point in claiming “The Democrats want to take away your health insurance.”

Ezra Klein analyzes this problem thoughtfully in his Vox piece “Abolish private insurance? It depends.”

In my opinion a smarter answer to the question would run along these lines:

Private health insurance companies, both for-profit and nonprofit, have plenty of problems that need to be solved to provide affordable health care and reduce the amount Americans spend on it. Medicare and Medicaid have their own problems, but they are far more efficient than the private industry, and would be even more so if conservatives had not legally barred the government from seeking lower prices for drugs.

I prefer the proposal to open a program like Medicare to the general public as an option and let it compete on an even playing field with private insurance. Then we could see which was more attractive. "Free market" advocates don’t like government competing in the marketplace, but this is one instance in which the evidence is pretty strong that it would be healthier both economically and medically for the US to provide such an option. That would be a truly free market.

Just don’t call it “socialism.”

When It Rains, It Pours

A member of a Facebook photo-editing group I belong to writes that he did not like the “pail sky” in one of his shots, so he created a substitute sky with some wispy clouds in it.

Musing on what a “pail sky” might be, I realized it must be the kind from which it “rains buckets.”

Then I wondered if anyone had used the spelling “pail face.” Sure enough, there’s a “pail face” hashtag on Instagram that brings up images of people with very light complexions.

Some people have used “pail face” deliberately as a pun, but this doesn’t seem to be a very common usage.

A sarcastic contribution to The Urban Dictionary defines “pailface” as “One who is shamed by having a pail or bucket placed on their head.”

“Beyond the Pail” gets more action, however. The Lucky Bucket Brewing Co. brews a pale ale which some people claim goes by that name, though I’ve unable to confirm that on their own Web site.

For my discussion of this latter phrase, see p. 36 of Common Errors in English Usage (3rd ed.) or check out the online version.

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