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Split the Infinitive. Please!

September 29, 2013 Leave a comment

split-infinitive

[Illustration taken from an article by Tom Chivers in The Telegraph*]

There’s not much to this post. Just a one-sentence quote from a letter to the editors of the New York Review of Books written by Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff. But I’m going to take some time getting to the sentence, in order to provide context. The context comes in two strands.

1. The first strand is not germane to the point of this post, but it seems only fair that I explain what Rogoff’s letter is about. Rogoff and his Harvard colleague Carmen Reinhart wrote a 2010 paper, Growth in a Time of Debt, that became immensely influential as a source for those arguing in favor of economic austerity policies. Last April, three University of Massachusetts economists published a paper showing that the Reinhart-Rogoff paper had errors in its data and analysis. Controversy ensued.

A highlight of the controversy has been an ongoing argument between Reinhart-Rogoff and Paul Krugman, including this letter written to Krugman in late May and Krugman’s response.

Which brings us to the New York Review, on whose pages Rogoff has continued the debate, noting that Krugman has used a review of a book by other writers to continue “his attack on me and Carmen Reinhart.” Krugman responds that

Mr. Rogoff and Ms. Reinhart seem to have misunderstood the nature of this discussion. I have never attacked them as individuals, and have often praised their earlier work. However, their claim that severe negative consequences follow when public debt exceeds 90 percent of GDP has had an enormous, malign impact on policy discussion. It doesn’t matter whether they themselves are policy hard-liners; the alleged result was out there—and despite important questions raised about their claims from the beginning, they did nothing, as far as anyone can tell, to dissuade others from citing their work on behalf of harsh austerity policies. I’m sorry if they feel mistreated—but this is about policy, not about personal feelings, theirs or mine.

2. The second strand is the persistence of the rule not to split infinitives in English writing. The nonsensical nature of this rule has been well treated over the years in a sequence of articles by Geoff Pullum at Language Log and Lingua Franca. See, for instance, this and this and this from last June and this from a year ago.

Here is the opening paragraph from the first of the linked Pullum articles:

I have commented elsewhere on the fact that writers in The Economist are required to write unnatural or even ungrammatical sentences rather than risk the wrath of the semi-educated public by “splitting an infinitive” (putting a preverbal modifier immediately before the verb in a to-infinitival complement clause). The magazine published a sentence containing the phrase publicly to label itself a foreign agent where clarity demanded to publicly label itself a foreign agent.

Now to the point of this post, which is to offer another stunning example of the damage done when a writer insists on not splitting an infinitive. The writer is Kenneth Rogoff, the example coming from his New York Review letter. I have already quoted a fragment from the opening paragraph. Here is the paragraph in full.

In his review of books by Mark Blyth, Neil Irwin, and David A. Stockman, New York Times columnist Professor Paul Krugman continues his attack on me and Carmen Reinhart. Never mind that only one of the three books even mentions us. This is no obstacle to Krugman’s relentless campaign narrowly to circumscribe and grossly to misrepresent our research and its influence. His goal seems to be to paint us as extremists whose work is only referred to by conservatives. In reality, our long-standing position has been as centrists in the economic policy debate.

Narrowly to circumscribe. Grossly to misrepresent. How dare he!

*The Chivers article is well worth reading, though beware its final paragraph. (See here and here and the note at the end here for the reason why.)

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Categories: Language

A Short Bright Flash

September 29, 2013 Leave a comment

shortbrightflash

I’ve written before that the Wall Street Journal book reviews are one of the reasons I read the paper. From time to time, a book is discussed that falls a bit outside the mainstream, one I might otherwise not know about. For example, this past Monday, Henry Petroski reviewed Theresa Levitt’s A Short Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouse, which came out last June but I hadn’t seen mention of anywhere else.*

*It turns out that Levitt’s book was mentioned in the NYT last May in an article on antiques(!). The article was really three separate notes, the first of which was the source of the article’s title, “The Fall of Gnomes: Tasteful to Tacky.” No wonder I missed it.

Here’s the blurb at the publisher’s website:

How a scientific outsider came up with a revolutionary theory of light and saved untold numbers of lives.

Augustin Fresnel (1788–1827) shocked the scientific elite with his unique understanding of the physics of light. The lens he invented was a brilliant feat of engineering that made lighthouses blaze many times brighter, farther, and more efficiently. Battling the establishment, his own poor health, and the limited technology of the time, Fresnel was able to achieve his goal of illuminating the entire French coast. At first, the British sought to outdo the new Fresnel-equipped lighthouses as a matter of national pride. Americans, too, resisted abandoning their primitive lamps, but the superiority of the Fresnel lens could not be denied for long. Soon, from Dunkirk to Saigon, shores were brightened with it. The Fresnel legacy played an important role in geopolitical events, including the American Civil War. No sooner were Fresnel lenses finally installed along U.S. shores than they were drafted: the Union blockaded the Confederate coast; the Confederacy set about thwarting it by dismantling and hiding or destroying the powerful new lights.

Levitt’s scientific and historical account, rich in anecdote and personality, brings to life the fascinating untold story of Augustin Fresnel and his powerful invention.

Petroski, the WSJ reviewer, is a professor of civil engineering at Duke University. He describes Levitt’s book as “captivating,” concluding that she

recounts all this in fine prose, combining matters of biography, science, engineering, technology, art, history, economics and politics seemingly effortlessly and definitely seamlessly. “A Short Bright Flash” is an excellent book and a joy to read.”

Even though I had just started another book, I was unexpectedly taken by the notion of reading lighthouse history. I downloaded the book Monday night and began reading. I’m a little past the one-third point now. Fresnel is rolling out lighthouses with the new lenses the length of the French coast, the primary obstacle being the difficulty of finding glassmakers able to manufacture the lenses to suitable tolerances.

Fresnel lens

Fresnel lens

[From wikipedia]

In the first chapter, I learned about Fresnel’s pioneering work on the wave theory of light. He encountered severe difficulty getting his ideas heard against the background of the prevailing particle (or corpuscular) theory of light, especially given that one of the proponents of the particle theory was the great mathematician and scientist Pierre-Simon Laplace. Levitt explains that Laplace

sought to explain light through a similar [to Newtonian gravity] inverse square force acting on particles of light, and he gave several students … the task of exploring optical phenomena within that framework. The particle theory of light thus underlay his broader vision for a triumphant Newtonian worldview, making Fresnel’s work on diffraction deeply heretical.

It’s a great story, which Levitt tells all too briefly. Of course, we now understand that Laplace and Fresnel were both right, the complementarity principle being a central tenet of quantum mechanics.

Categories: Books, History, Science, Technology

Public Education

September 29, 2013 Leave a comment

ravitchreign

This is weird. Three nights ago I finished a post on Amanda Ripley’s book The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. I logged into my WordPress account a few minutes ago and it didn’t show up on my list of posts. I searched my list of drafts in case something went wrong when I clicked on the publish button, but it wasn’t there. I was getting anxious that the post was lost entirely, but then I spotted it, listed as a post from September 15, two weeks ago.

I don’t know how that happened. In case you missed it, this post serves as a pointer. It’s here.

In addition to pointing, let me add some new content by noting the publication of Diane Ravitch’s book Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, reviewed by Jonathan Kozol today in the Sunday NYT.

Whenever I see a Ravitch piece in the New York Review of Books, I read it immediately. In the same spirit, I should download the book right now. However, I fear that I’ll find it to be an expanded version of the articles I’ve already read.

In any case, I’m a big fan. So too is Kozol, and he sure knows a lot more about the issues than I do. From his review:

Diane Ravitch was for many years one of the strongest advocates for the testing-and-accountability agenda. Because of her impeccable credentials as a scholar and historian of education, she was a commanding presence among critics of our schools. Some years ago, however, she reconsidered her long-held beliefs and, in an influential book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” parted ways with her former allies and joined the highly vocal opposition.

In her new book, “Reign of Error,” she arrows in more directly, and polemically, on the privatization movement, which she calls a “hoax” and a “danger” that has fed on the myth that schools are failing. Scores go up and down from year to year — usually, as she explains, because the testing instruments are changed and vary in their difficulty. But, pointing to the National Assessment of Education Progress, which has sampled math and reading scores every two years since 1992 and, in an alternate version, every four years since the early 1970s, Ravitch demonstrates that levels of achievement have been rising, incrementally but steadily, from one decade to the next. And — surprise! — those scores are now “at their highest point ever recorded.” Graduation rates are also at their highest level, with more young people entering college than at any time before.

[snip]

What passes for reform today, Ravitch writes, is “a deliberate effort” to replace public schools with a market system. The “unnatural focus on testing” has produced “perverse but predictable results.” It has narrowed curriculums to testable subjects, to the exclusion of the arts and the full capaciousness of culture. And it has encouraged the manipulation of scores on state exams. “Teaching to the test, once considered unprofessional and unethical,” is now “common.”

All of this, she says, has continued unrelentingly under the administration of President Obama, who has given “full-throated Democratic endorsement” to “the longstanding Republican agenda.” The president’s signature education package, Race to the Top, is “only marginally different from No Child Left Behind.” In fact, it compounds the damage by requiring that states evaluate teachers, partially at least, on the basis of yearly gains in students’ scores — no matter if the teacher has a different group of children from year to year, which is usually the case, and no matter whether a teacher has more troubled children, or more with disabilities, than another teacher who comes up with higher scores.

In its funding practices, the White House has “abandoned equity as the driving principle of federal aid,” offering new funds on condition that states expand the scope of competition by opening more charter schools and outsourcing normal functions of public schools to private agencies. This, Ravitch says, is “the first time in history” the government has “designed programs with the intent of stimulating private-­sector investors to create for-­profit ventures in American education.”

Ravitch’s book and Ripley’s converge in their focus on Finland. Kozol again:

If we are to cast about for international comparisons, Ravitch urges us — this is not a new suggestion but is, I think, a useful one — to take a good, hard look at Finland, which operates one of the most successful education systems in the world. Teachers there, after competing for admission to schools of education and then receiving a superb course of instruction, are “held in high regard” and “exercise broad autonomy.” They are not judged by students’ test scores, because “there are no scores.” The country has no charter schools and no “Teach for Finland.” But, as Ravitch reminds us, there is one other, crucial difference: “Less than 5 percent of children in Finland are growing up in poverty.” In the United States, 23 percent do.

Maybe I should read it after all.

Categories: Books, Education