No Sachs please, we’re villagers

February 22, 2014

Jeffrey Sachs is the macroeconomist to the stars. He gets himself photographed with Bono, Angelina Jolie and Sharon Stone. How does he manage this? Well, when you write a book called The End of Poverty, A-listers will indeed beat a path to your door. The more extravagant the promise, the better class of celebrity you will attract. However, reality can be cruel. Sachs’s results do not match up to his rhetorical skills and extravagant promises. The shock therapy he recommended for Bolivia in the mid 1980s and Russia in the early 1990s did not lead to positive results. What we got was destructive Latin American economic populism in the former, and the rise of the oligarchs – and then Vladimir Putin – in the latter. After these successes, he then set out about righting Africa. All in a day’s work for our Jeffrey:

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with African agriculture that can’t be quickly improved…you can improve yields by a factor of two or three…from one growing season to the next…Easy!”

In 2005, he launched what he called the Millennium Villages Project, which sought to implement Sachs’s theories on sustainable development in 14 desperately poor, isolated villages in ten countries across sub-Saharan Africa. How do you connect these rural African villages to the global economy of the 21st century? Sachs dubbed it “MTV Extreme Village Makeover.” It is this experiment that forms the basis of a book by Nina Munk, a Vanity Fair journalist. The Idealist charts the results of Sachs’s project. As well as Munk travelling around with Sachs for a number of years, she also followed up the results of the experiments. I haven’t read the book, but I did hear this interview with Munk on EconTalk.

After the crony capitalist debacle in Russia, Sachs decided to go for a more top-down approach including a Soviet-style five-year plan. The 147-page Millennium Villages handbook, written by 29 academics, is in Munk’s words, crammed with “dozens of flow charts, protocols, organizational tables, benchmarks, timelines, and hopeful objectives.”

In the interview Munk and host Russ Roberts focus extensively on one of the fourteen villages – Ruhiira in Uganda.  32 tons of a high-yield seed, maize and 220 tons of fertilizer were distributed to 7000 households at a cost of about $300,000, which was paid for by the Project. A few dozen demonstration farms were set up to teach the farmers proper planting methods. They were pushed to grow maize, which wasn’t their traditional crop. Nevertheless, the results were extraordinary. There was a bumper maize crop, with yields jumping from 1.3 tons per hectare to 3.7 tons. And the villagers suddenly found themselves with a surplus. There was just one snag – they had nowhere to store it to keep it safe from vermin, pests and disease. Tumushabe Boneconcila, a widow and the mother of nine, summed up the situation:

Maize is everywhere! Under the beds, in the living rooms, in the kitchens—everywhere! And the rats are everywhere too”

Even then they had too much maize. There weren’t any roads in this in this remote landlocked region of Uganda. Even if they could have found a buyer for the surplus maize, the cost of transportation would have wiped out any profits. And there wasn’t really that much demand for maize. Mutoke, the local cooking banana, is what people really want. In the end they did what poor farmers in isolated regions tend to do – they sold their excess crop all at once, causing prices to plummet. Most failed to recover even their inputs; others, unable to find buyers any price, simply left the maize to rot. Naturally the farmers were not well pleased. They felt they had been duped. Maize was harder work than matoke, which grew naturally there. What’s more matoke can be harvested every month, whereas maize takes four months. It wasn’t quite as easy as Sachs had imagined.

This is just one example of what happened. Every intervention had unintended consequences. Time and again they were able to solve one problem, but ended up creating another one. Munk compares it to a game of Whac-A-Mole. How should we judge the experiment? It cannot be considered an absolute failure. Many people’s lives were indeed made better. Foreign aid does a lot of good. But we are talking about charity. This is not the same as economic development. And we need to judge Sachs on the basis of what he promised, which was not simply to help a few thousand or even tens of thousands of people in isolated villages in Africa. He claimed he could end poverty in a sustainable way. This was supposed to be a blueprint that could then be scaled up in other underdeveloped areas of the world.

The result of all these experiments is sobering. I favour markets, but what happened in Russia was a bad idea. How could it have been done differently? I don’t know. Markets work well but they are embedded in institutions and behaviours that cannot be imposed from the top down. Indeed, we have a number of problems with the functioning of our markets here in the West.  Similarly how can we fix education problems in Africa when we are incapable of doing the same thing in our own countries?

Sachs’s failure reflects a number of themes of this blog. I am critical of the role of experts and their plans. Humans are not chess pieces to be moved around at whim. The pieces like to move themselves. Markets work well because they use the particular knowledge of time and place possessed only by individuals. Sachs did exactly the opposite – he neglected the locals’ knowledge and culture.

You feel wary about criticising a man who is well-intentioned. Those who criticise aid are seen as heartless baby-killers. But we need to have accountability. I wish I had easy answers, but I don’t. I will finish with a quote from one of Sachs’s leading critics, William Easterly, the author of The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good:

“Remember, aid cannot achieve the end of poverty. Only home-grown development base on the dynamism of individuals and firms in free markets can do that.” 

Chávezonomics revisited

February 22, 2014


Venezuela has been in the news recently. I’m not going to go into the political aspects, but I am interested in the demented economic policies of Chavez, and his successor Nicolás Maduro. I wrote about this in a post just over three years ago:

Chávez, unlike the vast majority of economists, believes in price controls. They sound wonderful but as economist Thomas Sowell always says about a particular policy, you have to ask a very simple question: And then what? Unfortunately history shows that they do not work. The Roman emperor Diocletian introduced price controls, which resulted in a decline in supply, which combined with the increased demand led to massive shortages. These shortages led the emperor to denounce the hoarding of food. This is exactly the kind of demagoguery which Chávez also likes to engage in; political leaders can always find someone else to blame for the bad consequences of their own policies.

Venezuela is said to have the highest inflation rate in the world I have heard the figure of 305%. When you get very high inflation shops do indeed try to hoard because there is more valuable than holding cash. Price controls and inflation are a deadly combination, leading to massive shortages. Figures released by the Central Bank of Venezuela show that low production, price controls, and restricted sale of foreign currency have hit supply. Shortage soared 5.8%, from 22.2% in December to 28% in January, the highest level ever recorded

Now, I would like to claim a special insight in being able to foresee the economic problems that would beset the South American economy. But any student of first-year Economics would have been able to write that post. Well, when I say any I am not being strictly accurate. That darling of many Guardianistas Seumas Milne might not agree. Educated at the elite Winchester private school and Baliol College, Oxford, where he read Philosophy, Politics and Economics, Milne has been a cheerleader for the economic policies of Chavez and Maduro for many years. I went to a state school and then Hull University, but I seem to have a better grasp of economics. But then again as that other public-school educated boy George Orwell said:

There are some ideas so wrong that only a very intelligent person could believe in them. 

Comparisons are indeed odious

February 16, 2014

In English we have an expression I like – comparisons are odious. It came to mind after a recent appearance in the Spanish parliament Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, the Minister of Justice in the ruling PP government. Gallardon told Joan Saura, a senator from the Catalan Green party ICV, that he should be worried about being on the same side as the leader of France’s National Front, Marine Le Pen. This type of argument, which attempts to invoke guilt by association, is based on fallacious reasoning. The problem with guilt by association is that it fails to show what is wrong with the policy it purports to criticise. Just because some bad people like, support or do not it make it wrong. The Nazis were keen on ecology and anti-smoking. Are these policies wrong because a repulsive ideology happened to support them? If something is wrong, you need to demonstrate why it is wrong, rather than resorting to this kind of cheap shot. To get my own cheap shot in, I would also like to say that vile Rumanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu was a fanatical anti-abortionist. I hope you will be able to sleep comfortably at night Mr. Gallardon.

If there isn’t one already there ought to be one listing such fallacies. It would I guess be dominated by Nazi references. This happened recently with billionaire Tom Perkins. The 82-year-old Perkins originally wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal of the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to San Francisco’s war on the rich. In a second letter he went on to compare the ‘Occupy’ movement to German fascism before the Nazis rose to power. What was he hoping to achieve? There is nothing wrong with criticising the Occupy Movement. He could have pointed to all the wealth that high-tech companies have brought to California, or how invoking envy can make for bad policies.

My other example of dodgy comparisons is that of people in the public eye comparing themselves to Nelson Mandela. In 2004 the Guardian featured this quote by Bill Clinton:

“[Mandela] told me he forgave his oppressors because if he didn’t they would have destroyed him,” Mr Clinton said. “He said: ‘You know, they already took everything. They took the best years of my life; I didn’t get to see my children grow up. They destroyed my marriage. They abused me physically and mentally. They could take everything except my mind and heart. Those things I would have to give away and I decided not to give them away.’ And then he said ‘Neither should you’.”

Mandela fought a brutal regime and was in prison for nearly a quarter of his life. Clinton got into trouble because he spunked on a young intern’s dress. He did not spend a quarter of his life incarcerated, but he was reprimanded by congress.

And in an interview with Barbara Walters Martha Stewart declared: “Many good people have gone to prison. Look at Nelson Mandela.” As Steve Lowe and Alan Macarthur pointed out in Is it Just Me or is Everything Shit?, their situations were indeed comparable:

Stewart’s would indeed have been identical to Mandela’s – if only Mandela had owned a business empire worth 800 million and had been jailed for lying to investigators regarding a suspicious stock sale.

So this is the end of my brief guide to ridiculous comparisons, nest time you hear a politician or celebrity making a comparison I hope you will listen carefully.

My favourite links #41

February 16, 2014

To promote his new book, The News: A User’s Manual, philosopher Alain de Botton has created The Philosophers’ Mail, an alternative version of The Daily Mail written by philosophers. The idea isn’t to so much to report about the high-brow things that the Daily Mail doesn’t feature, but instead to cover the typically Mail stories in an entirely different way. Under the headings Perspective, Tragedy, Disaster, Virtues, Capitalism, Relationships, Shopping Utopia, Hierarchy and What This Is All About De Botton goes about reinventing the Mail.

Take a staple of Mail stories – crime. De Botton argues that there is nothing wrong with crime stories. Western Literature is full of them. Sophocles believed that we should look at the mother who has chopped up her children and not just gawp but wonder what the lessons can be learned.

Here is a sample of the type of stories you can find on the website:

Exclusive Interview with the soul of David Beckham

Important news: Anne Hathaway takes her chocolate labrador Esmeralda for a walk

Man finds tuna on his plate and tries to discover where it came from

Death still without cure after vitamin D shock trial results

A colourful seductive church in southern Germany offers Polly Toynbee and George Monbiot a lesson

Simon Cowell, on holiday in Barbados, proves that suffering is part of the human condition

I’m not quite sure what to make of it, but it’s worth checking out. Alas I fear it will not have the million hits the Mail Online website apparently receives every minute.

The Philosophers’ Mail

Bruce Springsteen was wrong about television!

February 9, 2014

So I bought a .44 magnum, it was solid steel cast

And in the blessed name of Elvis well I just let it blast

‘Til my TV lay in pieces there at my feet

And they busted me for disturbin’ the almighty peace

Judge said “What you got in your defense son?”

“Fifty-seven channels and nothin’ on”

The Boss may be a great performer, but his analysis of audiovisual culture in late twentieth/early twenty-first century America was off the mark. You will remember that Springsteen released 57 Channels (And Nothin’ On) in 1992. Poor Bruce had had cable and satellite installed, but was unable to find anything to satisfy his aesthetic yearnings. Perhaps he should have been a bit more patient because in 1999 things would be shaken up. This was the year when HBO began to change the perception around television with the first season of The Sopranos. Curiously, Steven Van Zandt, a member of Springsteen’s own E-Street Band, had a major role in that series as gangster Silvio Dante. We are now living in the year 15 A.S. Television had had a bad rap for many years. The prevailing attitude is captured in these quotes that I featured in an earlier post:

  • How can you put on a meaningful drama when, every fifteen minutes, proceedings are interrupted by twelve dancing rabbits with toilet paper?  Rod Serling
  • I find television to be very educating.  Every time somebody turns on the set, I go in the other room and read a book.  Groucho Marx
  • The smallest bookstore still contains more ideas of worth than have been presented in the entire history of television.  Andrew Ross
  • Theatre is life.  Cinema is art.  Television is furniture.  Author Unknown

How was television able to transform itself? Firstly, we need to revisit Chris Anderson’s concept of the long tail. New distribution models allow companies to sell limited quantities of many products and still make a profit. In the old days you had to sell millions and the lowest common denominator was what sold. Programmes were indeed made to sell toilet paper. But all this has changed. Cable, satellite and online streaming channels have altered the economics of television and the way we consume it. HBO, AMC and Showtime have become synonymous with what was once considered an oxymoron, quality television. The shows I mention below have not been mass phenomena in the way that Dallas was. But, they don’t need to be, which gives their creators much more artistic freedom. And we mustn’t forget the new big-screen HD TVs. They have allowed directors to be able to experiment with more innovative, cinematic techniques. Anyone who has seen Breaking Bad will recognise this.

All this came to mind recently when I was reading Difficult Men, a book which looks at the creative renaissance of American television in the last fifteen years or so. Although he does look at many of the successful shows of the last fifteen years, the author, Brett Martin, really focuses on five of these series – The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Deadwood and Breaking Bad. The book’s title refers both to the male characters who appear and the men who were the creative forces. Martin wants to focus not on the plots but on the writers behind these shows.

The importance given to writers in television is in marked contrast to their disposable status in Hollywood. Martin argues that this predominance is down to the insatiable appetite for content that television has; it’s a train that is always rolling and writers provide the coal. These demands also make collaboration essential, as no one person can do it all. So, you get this peculiar institution that is known as the writers’ room, where talented professionals come together to produce a unified product designed by committee. I like a point made by Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad. In it he says that even the crummiest TV show was horribly hard to make. So imagine what it is like to make a great show. I suppose we have all sat through the credits of some Hollywood turkey and wondered how so many people were needed to create such a shitty final product.

What tends to characterise all these shows are complicated, morally compromised, male characters. Tony Soprano, Stringer Bell, Al Swearengen, Don Draper and Walter White are not moral exemplars. Yet somehow we end up rooting for them. They are really good at what they do. All these characters are men – it would be nice to see more women as protagonists in the future. Having said that, Carmele Soprano, Peggy Olsen and Skyler White are all very strong characters. Incidentally Livia Soprano, Tony’s mother, is apparently based on the mother of show’s creator, David Chase.

I have to admit I came late this party. Apart from Mad Men, which I began watching from the beginning, it took me a long time to appreciate what was going on. However, I have made up for lost time and have now seen all five of them. The only one I have been unable to get into was Deadwood, which I saw four episodes of. I just couldn’t get into it. I started watching both the Sopranos and Breaking Bad some two years ago and had finished both by the end of 2013. I am now halfway through the first series of The Wire. What I don’t do is binge viewing. I prefer to keep various series in the air at the same time.

One word I was not familiar with before reading Difficult Men was showrunner. This term, which appeared in the OED’s new words list in June 2013, refers to person who is responsible for the day-to-day operation of a television series – creating story lines, writing scripts casting actors, hiring and firing writers and crew members, keeping track of budgets and dealing with studio and network bosses. The term was necessary to distinguish its functions from that of executive producer. If you watch the opening credits for the Sopranos, you will see a total of five executive producers. With so many names appearing on the credits it is necessary to know who the person ultimately responsible for the show is. It is the showrunners who decide the creative direction of the show, the characters’ arcs (the status of the character as it unfolds throughout the story), the production look and even the soundtrack. Unlike Hollywood, where directors are in creative control of a film, in the world of TV series, the showrunner outranks the director.

In Difficult Men Martin focuses on five showrunners: David Chase, David Simon, Matthew Weiner, David Milch and Vince Gilligan. They may not always come across as likeable, most seem to be dictators and control freaks, but I judge them by work they produced. Here is a little bit about the five of them:

David Chase, the pioneer of  this movement, grew up worshipping film. He loved the auteurs of the French new wave and the highly personal directors who made the 1970s such a creative decade. Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman were talents he could aspire to emulate. Alas, he ended up in television, which he felt was a sell-out. He never really shook off those feelings even after he created what many consider the greatest TV show of all time. After the pilot of The Sopranos had been finished Chase was half-hoping that HBO wouldn’t actually pick it up. What he really wanted was for the studio to give him the cash to turn it into a feature-length film. I wonder what he thinks about it all now

David Simon who did The Wire, believed in creating an atmosphere of intellectual combat in the room. He looked for writers who thrived on being challenged.

David Milch, the man behind Deadwood and Luck, was a loose cannon who had problems finishing series. His style was described thus in the New York Observer:

“After witnessing this process on several occasions—the ambience in the room seems equal parts master class and séance—the comparison that strikes me as most apt is channelling. The only sounds are the hum of an air-conditioner and Milch’s voice, or, more precisely, the voices of his characters speaking through him.”

Matthew Weiner, Mad Men’s showrunner, is renowned for his autocratic rather intimidatory style. Everything that comes out of the writing room must serve his singular vision.

Vince Gilligan, of Breaking Bad, however, prefers to foster a more open and collaborative atmosphere. He is known to hate the concept of an auteur, arguing that collaboration is the best way to make a show.

These showruuners and the characters they created were indeed difficult men. How long will this period of intense creativity last? The 13-episode season offers great scope for the development of characters.  But all good things come to an end. I do miss Breaking Bad and The Sopranos. I don’t want to exaggerate what has been going on here. There were great programmes before and I’m sure there will be again. There are also great shows being produced in many other countries too, but there is something special about the programmes made in this new Golden Age of television. Long may it continue!

The 101 best-written TV series of all time

February 9, 2014

Last year The Writers Guild of America published its list of the 101 best-written TV series of all time. For what it’s worth, here are their rankings:

1. The Sopranos

2. Seinfeld

3. The Twilight Zone

4. All in the Family

5. M*A*S*H

6. The Mary Tyler Moore Show

7. Mad Men

8. Cheers

9. The Wire

10. The West Wing

11. The Simpsons

12. I Love Lucy

13. Breaking Bad

14. The Dick Van Dyke Show

15. Hill Street Blues

16. Arrested Development

17. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

18. Six Feet Under

19. Taxi

20. The Larry Sanders Show

21. 30 Rock

22. Friday Night Lights

23. Frasier

24. Friends

25. Saturday Night Live

26. The X-Files

27. Lost

28. ER

29. The Cosby Show

30. Curb Your Enthusiasm

31. The Honeymooners

32. Deadwood

33. Star Trek

34. Modern Family

35. Twin Peaks

36. NYPD Blue

37. The Carol Burnett Show

38. Battlestar Galactica (2005)

39. Sex & The City

40. Game of Thrones

41. The Bob Newhart Show and Your Show of Shows (tie)

43. Downton Abbey, Law & Order and Thirtysomething (tie)

46. Homicide: Life on the Street and St. Elsewhere (tie)

48. Homeland

49. Buffy the Vampire Slayer

50. The Colbert Report, The Good Wife and the UK Office (tie)

53. Northern Exposure

54. The Wonder Years

55. L.A. Law

56. Sesame Street

57. Columbo

58. FawltyTowers and The Rockford Files (tie)

60. Freaks and Geeks and Moonlighting (tie)

62. Roots

63. Everybody Loves Raymond and SouthPark (tie)

65. Playhouse 90

66. Dexter and the US Office (tie)

68. My So-Called Life

69. Golden Girls

70. The Andy Griffith Show

71. 24, Roseanne and The Shield

74. House and Murphy Brown (tie)

76. Barney Miller and I, Claudius (tie)

78. The Odd Couple

79. Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Upstairs, Downstairs (tie)

83. Get Smart

84. The Defenders and Gunsmoke (tie)

86. Justified, Sgt. Bilko/The Phil Silvers Show (tie)

88. Band of Brothers

89. Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In

90. The Prisoner

91. Absolutely Fabulous and The Muppet Show (tie)

93. Boardwalk Empire

94. Will & Grace

95. Family Ties

96. Lonesome Dove and Soap

98. The Fugitive, Late Night with David Letterman and Louie

101. Oz

How to invent a language

February 2, 2014

Recently I finished reading In The Land of Invented Languages by the linguist Arika Okrent. The subtitle, Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build A Perfect Language, gives you a pretty clear idea of what the book is about. Okrent delves into the fascinating world of made-up languages and the eccentric people behind them. Elvish, Esperanto and Klingon are the most famous ones but I wanted to focus on two of the lesser known languages and the stories behind their failures:


Karl Kasiel Blitz was born in 1897 in Chernivtsi in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in what is now the Ukraine. The eldest of four children, his early life was difficult amidst poverty and hunger. As a Jew in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bliss grew up in a climate of anti-Semitic taunts and pogroms. But Bliss was a talented child who had a passion for engineering. He got a degree in chemical engineering from the Vienna University of Technology in 1922. He joined an electronics company and rose to be chief of the patent department. But his life was about to get very complicated. In 1938 he was living in Austria when the Adolf Hitler and the Nazis began their European tour and he ended up in a couple of concentration camps. With the help of his wife, who was a gentile, he was released. He then went on his own tour. He did seem to have a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was in London during the blitz. It was here that he decided to change his name. His surname had rather negative connotations, so Karl Blitz became Charles Bliss. The bad luck continued; he was in Greece when the Italians invaded and in Shanghai when it was occupied by the Japanese. They put him and his wife in the ghetto. Despite all this hardship, living in China did have one important benefit – it introduced Bliss to Chinese characters, which would have a massive impact on his life.

After the war, he settled in Australia, where he had to work in a number of blue-collar jobs. At night he devoted himself to creating a system of symbols he hoped would transform the world. Bliss set out to invent “a better, simpler system of pictorial symbols, a logical writing for an illogical world.” He got the inspiration for his Blisssymbolics from the Chinese characters he had studied during his sojourn in Shanghai. When he saw the Chinese symbol for man he realised that he understood it even though he had no idea how to say it. You could bypass words altogether.


There would be few basic symbols which could be combined. For instance two swords together would mean war. Bliss would spend several years and use up all the family savings pursuing his dream. Out of all this time and money would come his magnum opus International Semantography: A Non-Alphabetical Symbol Writing Readable in All Languages. A Practical Tool for General International Communication, Especially in Science, Industry, Commerce, Traffic, etc. and for Semantical Education, Based on the Principles of Ideographic Writing and Chemical Symbolism, which was published in 1949.

Semantography or Blisssymbolics never did catch on. Bliss sent out 6,000 copies to academics, bureaucrats and world leaders, but nobody was interested. But it did have an unintended beneficiary – a rehabilitation centre for children with cerebral palsy in Toronto. These kids were so impaired that they couldn’t speak. At first Bliss was delighted that his system was being used for therapy. He actually flew to Canada to see it for himself. At first things went swimmingly. He even proposed to one of the speech therapists there, but then things started to go wrong. The teachers were adding symbols and the kids were improvising with the language. Every change that occurred was turning it into a dialect. Bliss felt proprietary about his creation and he was none too pleased when they started changing his creation. What was ultimately behind his anger was that the centre was using his system as a way of help the pupils arrive at English, and what Bliss wanted was for his universal language to replace English.

It all became extremely acrimonious with Bliss finally suing the Toronto centre. The case was finally settled in 1982 with Bliss receiving $160,000 in compensation. So a man who had set out to change the world, ended up robbing a group of disabled kids.

Why did Blisssymbolics fail to live up to its inventor’s high expectations? Bliss was misguided in assuming characters could an international medium of communication. There can be no universal international symbols which can be understood by all men at all times. Meaning resides not in the symbol or the image or the language in which it is encoded but in the society that interprets it. Think about how difficult it was for Jean-François Champollion to decode Egyptian hieroglyphics. And while a Japanese speaker reading a Mandarin newspaper may be able to recognise a number of the characters, they will only have a vague idea of what it all means. This lack of universality was exactly the problem faced by the semiotician Thomas Sebeok in the early 1980s. The Office of Nuclear Waste Isolation asked him to prepare a report on how best to encode a warning message on sites where nuclear waste had been buried. This message will have to be interpretable for 10,000 years. His solution was one of extreme redundancy the message should be printed in all known languages and there should be pictures, icons, and any other relevant symbols. Every 250 years or so, the information will need to be re-encoded into whatever languages, symbols, and communication devices that are in use at that time. But even this may prove insufficient in the year 12,000.

Loglan and Lojban

In 1955, James Cooke Brown, a sociologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville, set about creating a new language. He would call it Loglan – logical language. At this time the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was in vogue. According to Sapir and Whorf language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about. Brown wanted to test the social and psychological implications of this hypothesis. He planned to teach his language, whose grammar borrowed its rules from modern logic, to subjects of different nationalities in a laboratory setting. Would speaking in logic make people more logical? Would it facilitate thought?

However, Brown had a tendency to alienate people and this led to a schism in 1987. The breakaway group, led by Bob LeChevalier, was known as Lojbanists. It may have been the bastard child of Loglan, but Lojban has actually proved to be far more successful than its progenitor. The name Lojban is a compound formed from loj and ban, which are short forms of logji (logic) and bangu (language), respectively. The main sources of its basic vocabulary are the six most widely spoken languages of 1987: Mandarin, English, Hindi, Spanish, Russian, and Arabic.

It is not easy to define Lojban. Natural language is often ambiguous. I saw the man with the binoculars has two possible interpretations. Lojban wants to do away with this ambiguity. But this desire for precision leads to Lojban being, in the words of Okrent, specified to within an inch of its life. It is just horrendously difficult to speak. Indeed, Okrent suggests that no one is actually fluent enough to be considered a speaker. She compares it to watching people do long division in their heads.

All Lojban’s rules are contained in The Complete Lojban Language, a 600-page grammar book, which was published in 1997. Simplicity is not one of its design criteria. A simple word like and becomes incredibly complex in this über-logical language. Here is Okrent’s explanation:

There are many ways to say “and” in Lojban. If you use the word .e in the following sentence (the . stands for a slight pause):

la djan.e la alis. pu bevri le pipno

“John and Alice carried the piano.”

you assert two propositions: “John carried the piano” and “Alice carried the piano.” Maybe they took turns. Maybe one of them did it in 1963 and the other one did it yesterday. But this sentence does not apply to the situation where John and Alice carried the piano together. For that you would use joi:

la djan. joi la alis. pu bevri le pipno

“John and Alice (as mass entity) carried the piano.”

You would be wrong to use joi, however, if you wanted to say, “John and Alice are friends.” For that situation you must use jo’u:

la djan. jo’u la alis. pendo

“John and Alice (considered jointly) are friends.”

If you used joi here, you would have said John and Alice massed together form some kind of friend entity. If you used e, you would have said that John is a friend (of someone) and Alice is a friend (of someone), and maybe they don’t even know each other.

There are at least twenty ways to say “and” in Lojban. But that’s nothing compared with what happens when you get into “or” and “if.” Even if you master the many, many rules pertaining to those little words, you’ve still barely begun to scratch the surface of the tip of the iceberg that is Lojban.

Not only did Ockrent fail to learn this language from hell, but she even began to doubt her ability to speak English. She tells of watching Elmo with her son. One of the puppet characters asked which two numbers came after six. Her mind, in turmoil after trying to make sense of Lobjan, went completely blank. Did they mean the two numbers directly after six?

My favourite story about Lojban has to be one involving a heated debate among its followers. One of the participants used the Lojban expression for go fuck yourself. What followed has definite shades of Life of Brian – the participants began dissecting the grammar- had the speaker used the correct syntax in formulating the insult?

We can now see that Blisssymbolics and Loglan were flawed projects. A number of these artificial languages were born amid the idea that language was a dangerous weapon. But to paraphrase that famous NRA bumper sticker: Words don’t manipulate, people, people manipulate people. You cannot invent a language in which a Goebbels cannot pervert the truth. Esperanto, the most successful invented language, the creation of Ludwik Lazarus Zamenhof, was supposed to stop people killing each other. Charles Bliss had a similar vision. Of course, we all know that people who speak the same language will never engage in genocide, right?

Natural language is the perfect example of bottom-up evolution of complex decentralised mechanisms for transmitting information. Real languages are not invented; they develop organically. This has been a recurring theme in this blog. Looking at artificial languages should help us respect natural languages more. They have to deal with the complexity and messiness of the real world. The ambiguity and lack of precision, far from being a flaw, actually allows us to make sense of the real world. Language needs to be sufficiently flexible to deal with everyday communication and the precise communications of lawyers. It may not be perfect, but it does the job well enough. I want to close by adapting a famous Hayek quote:

The curious task of economics linguistics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.