The woman who can’t forget

February 18, 2018

Becky Sharrock

What’s your earliest memory? One thing I’m sure of is that it does not go back to when you were 12 days old. For Brisbane resident Becky Sharrock it is all too real. This young Australian can remember every one of her 28 birthdays. I have long been fascinated by how we male memories. In a post I wrote nine years ago, Memories are made of this, I referred to the case of HM, who after a botched lobotomy, was unable to make any new memories. I then looked at declarative memory for records names, faces, and new experiences, and motor memory for such things as riding a bike, driving a car or using a toothbrush. After this I explored I how memories can go wrong. Memory does not work like a videotape recorder. Every time we remember something we are prone to subtle biases. Finally I talked about how some people are able to train themselves to perform prodigious memory feats.

Becky Sharrock’s case is different. She suffers from an exceptionally rare condition which is known as Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory or HSAM. I heard about her life on ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind podcast. HSAM, which is also known as hyperthymesia, was first diagnosed just 12 years ago, and there are said to be some 60 people in the world who have it. This is surely an underestimate, but it is vanishingly rare. It was in 2006 that the American neurobiologists from the University of California-Irvine made an important discovery. A team led by James McGaugh reported the first known first diagnosis of HSAM for Jill Price, a woman, from Southern California, who would inspire more research into the condition.

People with HSAM have a fantastic memory for dates. But this aspect should not be confused with the people  like Dominic O’Brien who was able to memorise a random sequence of 2808 playing cards (54 packs) after looking at each card only once. O’Brien employs mnemonic techniques, whereas Sharrock’s memories come naturally. They also have an incredible recall for mundane details. Curiously, they do not show exceptional memory in other domains apart from autobiographical memory. Thus they don’t tend to be good at rote learning.

Here is an example of the way Sharrock’s memory works:

4 September 2006 was a Monday, and on that particular day I was going to my therapist who I was seeing for my autism. I was on my way to see him when my stepdad called my mum and said, ‘Did you hear Steve Irwin died from a stingray?’ And I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘No, I didn’t hear of that,’ because Steve Irwin, I looked at him as invincible to any animal attack. He’d done so many daring things with crocodiles, I thought there’s no way on earth Steve Owen could have died. But then I saw the news afterwards and it was true, and it was sad, and especially since he had two young children and the time and it was sad for…it was sad for Terri, and it was sad that little Robert who was only two years old at the time, that he didn’t get a chance to spend a lot of time with his dad, yeah.

Her facility for remembering everything can be unnerving for Sharrock’s mother as her daughter has a word-for-word recollection of what her mother said. She can pick her mother up on what she said five years ago.

Her memories also trigger associated powerful emotions, which can be a real problem.  This is the real curse of HSAM. You end up reliving negative memories. Here is an example of how her emotions come to the fore:

I was walking down a path and I saw a leaf on the ground which was at a similar angle to how it was at a time when I was walking home from school, and when I re-lived that time, on that particular day after I walked home from school I had been bullied that day. So the emotions when that memory was formed, I was depressed because a bully said something to me. Then years later when I saw a leaf that was similar to one that I saw on the path walking home, I again re-lived just the depression and the feeling of hopelessness that I experienced back at that time.

Obviously, this makes life very hard. She gets a lot of headaches. Sleep is also a big challenge; she is often kept awake by her intense memories. She has to have her brain stimulated to help her to fall asleep.

Sharrock also re-feels physical pain and re-tastes food. This is great if the memory is associated with Black Forest gateaux, her favourite. She can actually re-taste the cream, the chocolate and the cherries. It’s worse when it comers to re–experiencing pain.  Sharrock has synaesthesia when she thinks about certain objects or things she gets unusual associations. She has a heightened perception of stimuli. She has been diagnosed with both OCD and autism. How these interact and what links there might be between them is a controversial area.

From reading about Becky Sharrock, I found that a lot of the science is rather tentative. After all, the condition was only diagnosed just over a decade ago. The physiological basis has not been clearly established. We do not really know how their memories work. Sharrock describes what she remembers of when she was twelve days old. I’m not sure how we can know if they are real. However, if they are genuine, HSAM could also shed light on how babies and children view the world. I suppose we also learn the value of forgetting. They may have superior memories, but they are also capable of forming false memories. Indeed, up until now, no group has been found that were immune to these flawed memories.

There is no doubt that Rebecca Sharrock has had a challenging life. Nevertheless, the fact that scientists are researching the condition and that she does not feel alone has helped her establish an identity and even a career path. Self-employed, she blogs for a company called SpecialKids.Company, which makes and sell purpose-made clothes for children with disabilities. Her contribution is to write posts giving her insights. She has a YouTube channel and gives public talks. What an uplifting story!

I’ll finish a video of Sharrock reciting Harry Potter from memory:

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How illnesses are named?

February 11, 2018

Doctor to patient: The bad news is you have disease unknown to medical science – the good news is I’m going to name it after me.

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Where do the names of diseases, illnesses, conditions and syndromes come from? The history of the way we give names to diseases is colourful and controversial. It is a story of confusion, national rivalries, stigma and controversial scientists. The names we give to diseases reflect our current medical knowledge, but they are also a product of our societies. This is a fascinating historical journey.

Many of the names of illnesses have traditionally been eponymous. Medical eponyms are terms used in medicine that are named after people, and less frequently places or things. Although there are eponyms from patients such as Lou Gehrig disease (ALS), it is far more typical to take the name of the discovering doctor or scientist – Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Chagas disease, Tourette syndrome, Asperger’s syndrome and Hodgkin’s lymphoma are well-known examples. One thing I did not know was that Salmonellosis is an eponym too. The epidemiologist Theobald Smith, who isolated the bacteria in 1885, named the bacteria salmonella in honour of his boss, Daniel Elmer Salmon, a veterinary pathologist in charge of a U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Animal Industry research program during the late 19th century.

Sometimes the name taken can be controversial. Reiter’s syndrome is “a medical condition typically affecting young men, characterized by arthritis, conjunctivitis, and urethritis, and caused by an unknown pathogen, possibly a Chlamydia.” The problem is that Hans Reiter was an infamous Nazi war criminal who carried out terrible experiments on inmates at Buchenwald. He had discovered the syndrome in 1916 when he treated a soldier during the First World War. Now it is often referred to as reactive arthritis.

I do think that it rather bizarre to have a condition disease or a deadly microbe named in your honour. I suppose it is a way of achieving immortality, but I wouldn’t think that it would make your future in-laws feel particularly well-disposed towards you. There has been a move away from such eponyms. There are a number of reasons for this. These names provide no information to medical professionals. And imagine having to memorise all these surnames. The condition Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser Syndrome, which involves congenital anomalies in or absence of the uterus and vagina, must be a nightmare to remember. This is why is also known as Müllerian agenesis or RKHS syndrome. What’s more science has become a much more collaborative enterprise, where it has become increasingly difficult to name just one person. I love the human stories behind eponyms, but I can see they may belong to another era.

What do Lyme Disease, Guinea Worm, German Measles, Ebola, and Lassa Fever have in common? They belong to another branch of eponymous name, ones which refer to the place where the disease allegedly originated. I use the word allegedly for good reason; many times the name does not reflect the medical reality. The classic case of this is the so-called Spanish Flu of 1918. There was nothing particularly Spanish about this catastrophic epidemic, which left more than fifty million people dead. Why did Spain get the blame for this? As Spain was neutral in WWI, the Spanish government did not censor newspapers, as happened in the countries which were fighting. They did not want to lower morale. The Spanish press did print information about some deaths in Madrid, which were thus believed to have been the first cases. In fact, there had already been an outbreak in the USA, but it was hushed up.

This human tendency to blame whatever country they hate the most other areas for an illness is best shown in this map I found online. The disease in question is syphilis. Click on ther image:

AIDS provides another example of our tendency to lay the blame on unpopular social groups. It was originally known as GRID (gay related immune deficiency). I also saw 4H disease (haemophiliacs, homosexuals, heroin users, and Haitians. The names can also be misleading. In the case of swine flu it was humans who infected pigs, not pigs infecting humans. Nevertheless, a 2009 pandemic in Egypt led the Egyptian government to order a comprehensive hog slaughter. The pigs belonged to the much set-upon Coptic Christians. There was no scientific justification for the cull.

All this has led to the WHO introducing guidelines.  You can find them online:

The best practices state that a disease name should consist of generic descriptive terms, based on the symptoms that the disease causes (e.g. respiratory disease, neurologic syndrome, watery diarrhoea) and more specific descriptive terms when robust information is available on how the disease manifests, who it affects, its severity or seasonality (e.g. progressive, juvenile, severe, winter). If the pathogen that causes the disease is known, it should be part of the disease name (e.g. coronavirus, influenza virus, and salmonella).

 Terms that should be avoided in disease names include geographic locations (e.g. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, Spanish Flu, Rift Valley fever), people’s names (e.g. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Chagas disease), species of animal or food (e.g. swine flu, bird flu, monkey pox), cultural, population, industry or occupational references (e.g. legionnaires), and terms that incite undue fear (e.g. unknown, fatal, epidemic).

The reality is that it is really hard to find the right name. Let’s take Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. I have almost no idea about the work of Hans Gerhard Creutzfeldt and Alfons Maria Jakob. They did seem to have interesting lives. Creutzfeldt, who was 54 years old when WWII broke out, was not a Nazi supporter. Indeed, he saved a number of people from certain death in concentration camps, and also managed to rescue almost all of his patients from being euthanized under the Nazi Aktion T4 program. Be that as it may, the name is not very informative. However, transmissible spongiform encephalitis means little to me. However, there are worse examples. If you look at the longest words in the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary, they all seem to be medical in nature, but this is my intuition.

hepaticocholangiogastrostomy – 28 letters

spectrophotofluorometrically – 28 letters

pseudopseudohypoparathyroidism – 30 letters

These mash-ups of Latin and Greek roots are just incomprehensible to me.

The longest word in any of the major English language dictionaries is pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, a word that refers to a lung disease contracted from the inhalation of very fine silica particles, specifically from a volcano; medically, it is the same as silicosis. The word seems to have been deliberately coined to be the longest word in English. What some people will do to get attention! In the end when it comes to epidemics, you also need a word that is catchy, that alerts the public to the dangers. To do all of this does strike me as extremely complicated. It is very difficult to control language. we may well need to develop a dual system – one for the public and another for professionals.

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If you are interested in this topic, there are a couple of interesting podcasts:

Allusionist 45: Eponyms II – Name That Disease.

BBC Word of Mouth: Naming Diseases


Adapting books: turning oxen into bouillon cubes

February 4, 2018

Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes. John le Carré

As an author, you can’t expect a movie to be an illustration of the book. If that’s what you hope for, you shouldn’t sell the rightsBernhard Schlink

When you’re making a movie of a book, people are always waiting with their knives.    Joel Edgerton

A book can be a great friend, an advisor, a means to an end. A book reveals so much more than a movie would ever do. For example, when I watched the movie “The Hours” I was fascinated by the story. Just a year later I decided to read the book. And what was my surprise that I was even more dazzled by its writings than I was by the images… The images in my head were more vivid than the film could ever transport me to that feminine universe that the author was trying (and so successfully granted me) to conceiveAna Claudia Antunes

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Auguste and Louis Lumiere recorded their first footage of workers leaving a factory on 13 February 1895. It didn’t take long for moviemakers to seek out books. It is hard to say which is the first ever adaptation as many silent movies have been lost. There were William K.L. Dickson’s eight short films based on Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle. When I say short they seem to have been under a minute. The 1902 silent film A Trip to the Moon by Georges Méliès was inspired by a couple of Jules Verne’s novels, From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon. It is also frequently referred to as the first science fiction film. In contrast to Rip Van Winkle we the legendary German director Erich von Stroheim’s rendering of a Frank Norris novel Greed. This silent 1924 MGM film was originally 462 minutes long, although it was cut down to 140 minutes for cinematic release. Since these early days there have been many more. But is it a good idea to take a 500-page novel and put it on the silver screen?

For me there are two fundamental disadvantages of adapting books to the silver screen. The first of these is that you have to leave out so much. This is the same argument when you have an abridged audiobook. You have to concentrate on the plot. This is a fine, but there is so much more to a book than this. The larger canvas a novel provides allows the authors to develop their characters. The second obvious drawback is that books let readers use their imaginations. It is invariably a disappointment to see a director’s vision of what we have already imagined. If you really love a book it’s highly unlikely that a film will make you want to be unfaithful. I feel that way about Bonfire of the Vanities. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy was another big let-down. You’re much better off with the books or the radio series.

Films do have their advantages too. Imagination is good, but directors can produce some spectacular images. If you add brilliant acting, what’s not to love? What’s more life is short. We don’t have time to read all the books out there. Sometimes I prefer to spend a couple of hours enjoying the film. It is true that once I’ve seen the film I find it almost impossible to read the book. I realise that this is not completely logical as they are often very different. It’s just that I find it difficult to invest the ten hours that a book may well take me. I have read both the Silence of the Lambs and Jaws, and I liked both of them, but I think the films were better.  There are others where I imagine that the film may be better but I can’t be sure as I haven’t actually read the book: The Godfather Psycho and Doctor Strangelove come to mind

I have long thought that TV is a better way to adapt. You do lose some of the cinematic brilliance, but you do avoid the biggest problem the lack of time. This is clearly seen with the TV adaptation of I, Claudius. I love the book, but the TV series is spectacular. It is not for spectacular special effects; what it does have is brilliant acting and the time to develop the story. And in recent years we have seen the rise of streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu we now have adaptations with high production values. Over the last few years I have enjoyed a number of excellent adaptations Show Me a Hero, Big Little Lies, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Night Manager and Decline and Fall. What I like now is that many of the dramas are base on non-fiction. This year we have TV series such as McMafia, Sharp Objects, The Alienist, Fahrenheit 451 and The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story to look forward to.

In the end the best option is to enjoy all the different cultural forms. I think there is much choice out there. The only problem is to find the time.

 


Homicide: murder and manslaughter a brief guide

January 28, 2018

Homicide is the act of one human killing another, the ultimate crime. I must have seen thousands of films and read hundreds of books dealing with murder. You often hear those dubious factoids that by the time the average child has finished elementary school, they will have seen 8,000 murders on TV. And by the age of 18 they will have been exposed to 200,000 of violent acts on TV. I am in my sixth decade and I have no idea how many fictional killings I have seen or read, but it will surely be an enormous number. And it’s not just me. If you type murder into the IMDB you get 200 results for films TV series and documentaries. I’m sure this is just scratching the surface. These are just films and TV shows that have the word in the title. Despite being a connoisseur of mystery and suspense, I sometimes get confused about the different classes of homicide. In this post I intend to look at the hierarchy of homicide crimes, going from the most serious in descending order. Where a crime is situated on this ladder depends on what the perpetrator was thinking at the time of the action that caused the victim’s death.

At the top of the ladder is first-degree murder. This involves unlawful intentional killing with malice aforethought; the victim’s death must be premeditated. First-degree murder involves a rational, cold-blooded decision to kill. The period of premeditation required to support a charge of first degree murder doesn’t have to be protracted. What is more important is defendant’s formulation of a plan to commit the murder, and opportunity to reconsider before committing this act. It is about the quality of thought that went into the decision to kill—not the quantity. Nevertheless, the more time spent making the decision, the more likely it is that a court will find premeditation. The punishment for first-degree murder is harsh. A conviction for first-degree murder could mean a long stretch in prison, or in many countries, capital punishment

On the next rung we find second-degree murder, which can get you 20 years or more in prison. Second degree murder is also intentionally caused, but the defendant does not premeditate or deliberate before committing the murder. The language talks of impulsive killing, death resulting from an intent to cause serious harm and depraved indifference to human life. A bar fight that end in the los of life is the classic example,

Voluntary manslaughter is a homicide crime that is a special exception to the crime of second-degree murder. If the defendant qualifies, his punishment can typically be reduced to half of what it would have been if they had been convicted of second-degree murder. Voluntary manslaughter is a partial defence to a murder charge. While you’re still guilty of homicide, it is seen as considerably less serious. This doctrine serves to mitigate the punishment in cases of extreme anger. It seems to reflect a testosterone-driven worldview. It was created in a time of male-on-male violence and spousal adultery. The latter is the classic crime of passion. A man finds his wife in bed with another man, and kills his wife, the other man, or indeed both. Judges decided that this shouldn’t be classified as murder; the killing was only partly the fault of the defendant, and the adulterous lovers should also share some of the blame. The crime was reduced to voluntary manslaughter. Of course the early common law judges who devised the doctrine were all men. It does seem to belong to a bygone age. Within involuntary manslaughter there is imperfect self-defence. This can occur when a person is being threatened but then counters with a force disproportionately greater than that used against them.

At the bottom of this ladder is involuntary manslaughter. The crime of involuntary manslaughter generally consists of causing another person’s death without the intent to kill, but where a death occurs through the negligent or reckless actions of the defendant. The classic example is someone who fails to stop at a red light and who subsequently kills another driver or pedestrian.

This is my brief tour of the law of homicide. I hope it has been useful it was necessarily brief. I did not delve into the concept of causation in law, which I might look into in a future blog post.


The state as entrepreneur: did Uncle Sam invent the iPhone?

December 10, 2017

Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation. But because it’s not always profitable for companies to invest in basic research, throughout our history, our government has provided cutting-edge scientists and inventors with the support that they need. That’s what planted the seeds for the Internet. That’s what helped make possible things like computer chips and GPS. Just think of all the good jobs — from manufacturing to retail — that have come from these breakthroughs. Barack Obama

 The foundational figure in the development of the iPhone wasn’t Steve Jobs. It was Uncle Sam. Every single one of these twelve key technologies was supported in significant ways by governments—often the American government. Tim Harford Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy

In my blog post last week featuring my favourite parts of the latest Tim Harford book Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy I included part of his essay on the iPhone. What was interesting about this piece was the importance of government spending on this iconic symbol of capitalism. The essay was based on the work of Mariana Mazzucato. This Italian economist, an eloquent exponent for an activist state industrial policy, believes that that the government should play a key role in directing investment. This is what is known in economics as picking winners. She states her case in a famous 2013 book The Entrepreneurial State. Along with other left-leaning economists, such as Joseph Stiglitz, Simon Wren-Lewis, and Thomas Piketty, she also served as an advisor to Jeremy Corbyn.

I think that there are a number of fallacies here. In Obama’s famous “You didn’t build that” speech he asserts that says Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet. No, the military created the internet as a way of communicating in a nuclear war. It was the genius of the market system that found uses that its inventors would never have imagined. Technological progress in itself does not add new products to the shelves by itself. This is confusing technology with actually bringing a product that consumers will actually want to the market. Entrepreneurship involves much more that inventing technology. The feedback mechanism of the market is what directs investment. Ultimately, as economist Don Boudreaux has pointed out, market entrepreneurship is far scarcer than is infrastructure.

I am not blind to the role that the government can play in correcting market failures. It may well be true that the private sector will be reluctant to invest in the kind of basic research which will not produce immediate results. And I do think that big companies should pay more taxes. They should not be able to get away with the arbitrage; their tax avoidance schemes are an outrage. But beyond this I am sceptical about the further role of the government.

I can think of plenty of examples of governments picking winners. In my youth we had such things as British Leyland and Concorde. Indeed there was a threat to put Marks & Spencer into public ownership. Governments face perverse incentives. In Spain we have had a number of airports with no passengers. This is what happens when you are spending other people’s money. It’s easy to idolize government. You just need to focus on what it claims it will do, rather than what it actually does.

I am not a market fundamentalist. The government does have an important role in creating an environment where ideas can flourish. The kind of basic research I mentioned above is an example of a role a government can play. You could also give companies tax incentives to do their own fundamental research. I am, however, sceptical of the role that those such as Mazzucato want to give government. Her research has undoubtedly been influential. A headline in the Huffington Post last year proclaimed: The Real Creator of the Apple Watch Wasn’t Steve Jobs, It Was Uncle Sam. I would argue that that is fake news.

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Here is Obama’s famous “You didn’t build that” speech:

    If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

    The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.

    So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together. That’s how we funded the GI Bill. That’s how we created the middle class. That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. That’s how we invented the Internet. That’s how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that’s the reason I’m running for President — because I still believe in that idea. You’re not on your own, we’re in this together.

 


The Pizzagate scandal

November 26, 2017

 

This week’s post is about Pizzagate, one of those fake news stories that emerged in 2016 in the month leading up to the presidential election. It is one of those stories that I was vaguely aware of, but I did not know many of the facts. Luckily I heard a podcast from Reveal which looked into this bizarre conspiracy. In Pizzagate: A slice of fake news the podcaster teamed up with Rolling Stone and The Investigative Fund “to explore how fake news starts, snowballs and sometimes erupts into gunfire.” The cast of characters includes chairman of the 2016 Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, the alt-right, a famous conspiracy theorist, a performance artist, Madeleine McCann and an actor/writer who decided to take the law into his own hands.

“My NYPD source said it’s much more vile and serious. We’re talking an international child enslavement and sex ring. Not even Hillary’s most ardent supporters and defenders will be able to excuse this!”

The first clue comes from this Facebook post by Carmen Katz that went up on October 29th, last year, just ten days before the election. The reporters saw that Carmen’s profile said that she lived in Joplin, Missouri. Unable to find Carmen Katz in the phone book, they found her real name Cynthia Campbell. They were eventually able to talk to her. She denied any involvement, claiming that her Facebook account had been hacked. Later though her attitude changed and she accused the journalists of the hacking and threatened to sue them.

The starting point for the conspiracy theory goes back to the thousands of hacked the Democratic Party’s emails from the man running the campaign John Podesta. In Podesta’s emails, there are a few references to pizza and a couple of references to Comet Ping Pong, an establishment whose owner Podesta knew, and where Democrats would hold fundraisers. The emails did made lots of references to pizza. Conspiracy theorists on Reddit knew that this had to be some kind of code. Of course it was – cheese pizza had to stand for child pornography.

The story slowly began to gather momentum. Carmen Katz’s original tweet appeared on the Twitter account at David Goldberg in New York. Given the name and that the photo for his avatar was of a man with a large Photoshopped nose, it seems more like an anti-Semitic meme used by White Supremacists. Be that as it may, the post was shared at least 6,000 times on Twitter and was subsequently picked up by a fake news site.YourNewsWire.com.

The story then goes international. The reporter goes off to Macedonia. There in Veles, a depressed former factory town we meet Borcha Pechev, a man who earns a bit of extra cash setting up fake news sites, for which he charges 100 Euro at a time. Veles is said to be the fake news capital of the world. They don’t actually invent fake news there; they just copy and paste it from American fake news sites. And they do not have it in for Hillary – this is strictly a business.

The story was still doing the rounds on the fringes when on November 2nd Alex Jones’s Infowars programme. I have mentioned Mr Jones in previous posts. Trump is known to be a fan. His most notorious claims are probably that 9/11 was a hoax and that nobody actually died in the Sandy Hook shooting. One guest on alleged that there was a child slave colony on Mars. Despite this, or maybe because of this, his show has excellent ratings and he gave the Pizzagate claims fresh impetus.

This particular episode featured an interview with Doug Hagmann, a private investigator from Erie, Pennsylvania. He claimed that:

All of the components are here to expose the greatest perversion, the greatest satanic, and I mean satanic, cabal of people that are associated with Hilary Clinton. And the people in the halls of our power in the United States.

It later emerges that he has no evidence to back up his claim. Jones would eventually apologise for his role in Pizzagate.

You would have thought that Trump winning the election would have seen the story die.  But that didn’t stop the spread of Pizzagate. It actually grew after the election. The story got became huge in Turkey, where it has been suggested that the Islamist conservative Justice and Development Party government wanted to distract attraction from a recent child abuse scandal and from controversial pending legislation on child marriage, which would have made a child rape no longer punishable if the perpetrator offered to marry his victim.

Jack Posobiec, a thirtysomething, an American alt-right activist, went to Comet Ping-Pong, where he used Periscope to live-stream an investigation of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory. When he tried to broadcast a child’s birthday party being held in a back room of the restaurant, he was asked to leave.  A New York Times story, which restaurant owner James Alefantis hoped would help debunk the story proved counterproductive. And of course Russia was involved.

A 28-year-old actor/writer (he has a credit for a film on the IMDB) from North Carolina, Edgar Maddison Welch, had become obsessed with the paedophile cabal. It was his duty to save all those innocent kids On December 4th, 2016, armed with a handgun and a semiautomatic rifle, he decided to drive from his home state the miles to the nation’s capital. On the way, he made a suicide video: “girls, I love you all more than anything in this world.” Once he had arrived at Comet Ping Pong restaurant, he started looking for the basement. All he could find was a locked door. He shot it up only to discover, there was no basement. And there were no kids either. He then surrendered to a SWAT team,

After the incident, Michael Flynn Jr., son of Trump’s short-lived National Security Advisor, Michael T. Flynn, and also a member of Trump’s transition team, tweeted:

Until #Pizzagate proven to be false, it’ll remain a story. The left seems to forget #PodestaEmails and the many “coincidences” tied to it. This tweet may well have been the reason why Flynn Jr. was forced out of Trump’s transition team on December 6, 2016

Welch and he was arraigned on federal charges and pled guilty. Now, his life, and his family’s life, is ruined. The restaurant owner, James Alefantis has also had his life is changed forever by this. The death threats have continued. I really don’t think this wacky conspiracy theory decided the election, but it does show a crazy idea can take on a life of its own. This is nothing new, but social media has made its impact even greater.

 

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1) And what about the performance artist I mentioned in my introduction. The artist in question is Marina Abramović. She was close to John and Tony Podesta. One of the Wikileaks emails referred to a 1996 performance piece Spirit Cooking:

Dear Tony,

I’m so looking forward to the Spirit Cooking dinner at my place. Do you think you would be able to let me know if your brother’s joining?

All my love, Marina

In the oeuvre Abramović wrote a series of absurd dark self-help mantras phrases on the walls of a gallery in pig’s blood. The phrases included:

 Fresh morning urine. Sprinkle over nightmare dreams.”

 “With a sharp knife, cut deeply into the middle finger of your left hand. Eat the pain.”

 “Mix fresh breast milk with fresh sperm milk. Drink on earthquake nights.”

 “Sitting on a copper chair. Comb your hair with a clear quartz crystal brush, until your memory is released.”

This tied in with the conspiracy theories.

2) According to Wikipedia, conspiracy theorists claimed John and Tony Podesta kidnapped Madeleine McCann. They claim that the brothers were in Portugal at the time of the kidnapping. The source was the conspiracy website Victurus Libertas, which has also argued that Queen Elizabeth II is a reptilian.


The words they are a changin’: why it’s OK to use literally to mean figuatively

November 19, 2017

We laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability; shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay. Samuel Johnson

Maybe some prefer their flowers pressed dry in books. There are those with affectionate feelings toward the inflatable doll and the corpse. Surely, though, most of us seek life. Language, too, lives. We must take a deep breath and, like the people initially so put off by Darwinism, embrace reality, this time linguistic. Among the many benefits of doing so: wonder replaces disgust, curiosity replaces condemnation, and overall, you have a lot more fun. John McWhorter from Words on the Move: Why English Won’t – and Can’t – Sit Still (Like, Literally).

I have recently finished reading John McWhorter’s 2016 book on how the meanings of words evolve: Words on the Move: Why English Won’t – and Can’t – Sit Still (Like, Literally). It is a book that looks at the way the meanings of words have changed and are changing right now. His central thesis is that we should be a lot more relaxed about what is going on. The book is full of revealing insights and you find yourself stopping every two or three pages, wowed by McWhorter’s latest gem. The linguist loves to analogise. He invokes fade-out endings in pop music, pre-ripped blue jeans, tool sheds, fads in baby names, junk DNA, living squid in the ocean vs. dead squid in a kitchen and the Victorian party game of creating a tableau vivant to get his ideas across.

The use of literally is one thing that is guaranteed to get any self-respecting pedant’s blood boiling. Thee word originally was another variation on indicating truth, more specifically exactness, as in “by the letter”. But words are not pressed flowers and it was inevitably going to morph into other meanings. As McWhorter points out, literally in its original meaning of by the letter no longer makes sense except as a metaphor. We were literally the only ones there; we were literally on the brink of a depression. There are no letters involved. Literally began to get more personal. It has become a way of venting, of attesting to the vividness of our personal sentiments when we are describing an experience we have had. I was literally dying of thirst. This is an area of language called pragmatics, the study of meaning in the interactional context, looking beyond literal meanings of words. Literally has become a discourse marker, a way to flag sincerity.

OK, so the meaning of words drift, but what irritates people is that this current use of literally is the direct opposite of what it should mean. But this is not unusual in the English language. There is an interesting category of words and phrases called contronyms, terms that, depending on context, can have opposite or contradictory meanings. Literally is one of them. The website Daily Writing Tips has an excellent list of 75 such terms. Here is a selection of other contronyms:

Apology: A statement of contrition for an action, or a defence of one

Bolt: To secure, or to flee

Bound: Heading to a destination, or restrained from movement

Buckle: To connect, or to break or collapse

Cleave: To adhere, or to separate

Custom: A common practice, or a special treatment

Dust: To add fine particles, or to remove them

Fast: Quick, or stuck or made stable

Fine: Excellent, or acceptable or good enough

First degree: Most severe in the case of a murder charge, or least severe in reference to a burn

Fix: To repair, or to castrate

Flog: To promote persistently, or to criticize or beat

Handicap: An advantage provided to ensure equality, or a disadvantage that prevents equal achievement

Hold up: To support, or to impede

Left: Remained, or departed

Mean: Average or stingy, or excellent

Off: Deactivated, or activated, as an alarm

Out: Visible, as with stars showing in the sky, or invisible, in reference to lights

Out of: Outside, or inside, as in working out of a specific office

Overlook: To supervise, or to neglect

Oversight: Monitoring, or failing to oversee

Peer: A person of the nobility, or an equal

Quantum: Significantly large, or a minuscule part

Quite: Rather (as a qualifying modifier), or completely

Rent: To purchase use of something, or to sell use

Sanction: To approve, or to boycott

Sanguine: Confidently cheerful, or bloodthirsty

Scan: To peruse, or to glance

Seed: To sow seeds, or to shed or remove them

Trip: A journey, or a stumble

Variety: A particular type, or many types

Wind up: To end, or to start up

Do such words create mass chaos? No, we are generally able to pick up the meaning from context. If you say you are bound for London, I don’t think that you are trussed up. When they say on CSI that they are going to dust for fingerprints, I don’t think Grissom is going to bring out the duster. If I read that the Bank of England is responsible for oversight of the financial system I don’t think they job is to fail to oversee the banks. Well, actually in that case…

I agree with McWhorter that is actually quite cool that a word can literally mean both itself and its opposite. This is what makes studying a language so much fun.

One part of the book that I found fascinating was when he explained the process of grammaticalization. This is a process of semantic change by which nouns and verbs which represent objects and actions become grammatical markers such as affixes, prepositions and auxiliary verbs. In the latter category he provides us with plenty of examples. The modal verb can comes from the Old English cunnan, which meant know, an etymology which is reflected in such words as canny and cunning. What’s more, the past tense of cunnan was a word pronounced “coothe,” from which the couth in uncouth comes. The uncouth person lacks know-how, that is the knowledge of how to behave in polite society. Another typical modal ought’ originally meant ‘owed’. He also looks at affixes. The suffix ‘-ly’ is a contraction of ‘like’, a word which originally meant body. In the case of a word such as slowly, the original form would have been slow-like. And the past tense ending ed, it comes from the proto-Germanic did, as in walk-did.

There is much more in this book. He defends irregardless, stating that it is human nature to try to make sure that words are strong enough to do the job required. For instance, whelm used to mean what “overwhelm” means now. He also talks about