Friday, March 29

'Sophisticated, stylish and sometimes surprising' Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder died yesterday, aged 95. He lived just long enough to see the Oscars being awarded for the 74th time, and was involved in 69 films in 66 years (1929-95). In Hollywood––having famously arrived knowing only about 100 words of English––he started off as a writer (the story of One Exciting Adventure, 1934).

He will probably be remembered most for his comedies, but he was a master of several other genres as well. His economical, acerbic dialogue lent itself just as much to serious cinema. His first solo film, Ace in the Hole (1951, retitled The Big Carnival) was a cynical tale of a reporter cold-bloodedly capitalising on a tragedy. Though not a great hit with audiences, it earned him a Best Screenplay nomination.

J.M.C. Sween writes in his review at IMDb (http://us.imdb.com/Title?0046359) that Wilder's WWII POW comedy-drama Stalag 17 (1953) is 'arguably one of his best. The scripting is a perfect example of how to marry a tight plot with sharp dialogue and great characters . . . easily one of the finest films of its time, if not of all time, and I would encourage anyone who has never experienced its unique blend of cynicism, comedy, suspense and drama to check it out at the earliest available opportunity.'

Later in the same decade, Wilder directed Sabrina (1954), The Seven Year Itch (1955), The Spirit of St. Louis (1957), Love in the Afternoon (1957), Witness for the Prosecution (1957) and Some Like It Hot (1959) (source: http://us.imdb.com/Name?Wilder,+Billy). In 1960 he won three Oscars––as writer, director and producer of The Apartment, which the IMDb reviewer 'DukeofPearl' calls 'the definitive movie for the comedy/drama genre' (http://us.imdb.com/Title?0053604).

Double Indemnity (1973), for which Wilder co-wrote the screenplay with Raymond Chandler in 1944, is a film noir. The Lost Weekend (1945; it won Oscars for Best Picture, Director and Screenplay), following the desperate life of a chronic alcoholic through a four-day drinking bout, is a serious study of alcoholism. And Sunset Boulevard (1950), Wilder's own favourite among his own films, is a Gothic melodrama that shatters Hollywood myths. From there to the 'screwball masterpiece' Some Like it Hot -- described by Gary Brumburgh (at http://us.imdb.com/Title?0053291#comment) as 'an uproarious Marx Brothers-like farce with mistaken identities, burlesque-styled antics, and a madcap chase finale'––is quite a step.

What makes Some Like it Hot so enduringly popular? The consensus is that it is a comedy classic, and many cinemagoers describe it as the funniest film they have ever seen. Why? Brumburgh gives us what is, perhaps, at least part of the answer:
‘For those headscratchers who can't figure out why the so-called "mild" humor of "Some Like It Hot" is considered such a classic today, I can only presume that they have been brought up on, or excessively numbed by, the graphic, mindless toilet humor of present-day "comedies." There was a time when going for a laugh had subtlety and purity––it relied on wit, timing, inventiveness and suggestion––not shock or gross-out value. It's the difference between Sid Caesar and Andrew "Dice" Clay; between Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon and Chris Farley and David Spade; between "I Love Lucy" and "Married With Children"; between Lemmon's novel use of maracas in the hilarious "engagement" sequence, and Cameron Diaz's use of hair gel in a scene that ANYBODY could have made funny. Jack Lemmon could do more with a pair of maracas than most actors today could do with a whole roomful of props. While "Some Like It Hot" bristles with clever sexual innuendo, today's "insult" comedies are inundated with in-your-face sexual assault which, after awhile, gets quite tiresome––lacking any kind of finesse and leaving absolutely nothing to the imagination.’
The three-hour AFI special documentary 100 Years . . . 100 Laughs (2000) revealed America's 100 funniest movies, as chosen by leaders of the entertainment community from a list of 500 nominated movies. The top ten funny movies were : 1. Some Like It Hot, 2. Tootsie, 3. Dr. Strangelove, 4. Annie Hall, 5. Duck Soup, 6. Blazing Saddles, 7. M*A*S*H, 8. It Happened One Night, 9. The Graduate and 10. Airplane!.

Wilder defined his own message as 'Don't bore people'. Looking back on his career, he said: 'I just made pictures I would've liked to see.' And he once said: 'A bad play folds and is forgotten, but in pictures we don't bury our dead. When you think it's out of your system, your daughter sees it on television and says "My father is an idiot."'

No, Billy Wilder, you were no idiot. Your later films may not have been as good as your earlier ones. And you may not have stayed in touch with the times. But who does? And as you put it yourself, in 1976: 'They say Wilder is out of touch with his times. Frankly I regard it as a compliment. Who the hell wants to be in touch with these times?' Your heyday lasted 25 years and, hey, that's longer than most people's. My hat is off and here's a big salute and thanks to you from me.

* * *

Levity versus gravitas

Jemima Lewis, editor of The Week (‘All you need to know about everything that matters’) writes in Issue 350, 23 March 2002:

‘Nobody likes having their prejudices overturned, so I’m annoyed to find myself rather warming to George W. Bush. In the early days of his administration, the mere sight of Dubya brought me out in an allergic rash. This was, I admit, as much to do with looks as with policy. With his sloping shoulders, beady, nervous eyes and bobbing Adam’s apple, he seemed so utterly lacking in presidential gravitas. His attempts to appear manly––leaning against a wooden fence wearing an outsize Stetson and a bootlace tie––just threw his puniness into even sharper relief.

‘But it’s impossible to hate a man who makes you laugh––and Bush, it turns out, is a born joker. At college, he formed a “stickball” team and called it “the Nads” so that the chant from the stands would be: “Go Nads! Go Nads!” Time has not dimmed his powers of levity. During the presidential election, the New York Times reporter Frank Bruni travelled on Bush’s plane. “At least twice,” Bruni recalls in a new book, “I felt someone’s hands closing tight on my throat and turned around to see the outstretched arms of the future president, a devilish and delighted gleam in his eyes. On another occasion, he grabbed the sides of my head, pressed his forehead against mine and made a sound not unlike that of an exasperated pooch.” It’s hard to imagine Tony Blair fooling about like that, more’s the pity. Call me incorrigibly frivolous, but I like a world leader who doesn’t take himself too seriously.’
* * *
Exalting our existence
'What's most exciting, though, is not where a word has been but where it's going, what *you* will make of it, and you don't have to be a crossword puzzler or word buff ... to amplify your own rich, raucous, sexy, vocabulary, whether you wish to become a polysyllabic jazz conversationalist or to discover how words can take us beyond our meanings, exalting our very existence.'
--Karen Elizabeth Gordon, American writer, The Disheveled Dictionary, 1997. Quoted by Paul McFedries in 'The Word Spy' for 28 March 2002.

Another excerpt from The Disheveled Dictionary:
'divagation, wandering, straying, going astray; digressing in speech
'The ventriloquist’s divagations took a turn south, with a lexical jambalaya and an anecdote about his great-aunt Foxie Belle Bloom catching crawdads in the bayou with her torch songs and ululations and her Blond Assassin lacquered nails (from the Emily Dickinson cosmetics collection).'

* * *

From Martha Barnette's www.funwords.com:
'Welcome! Do you know where your tragus is? Have you footled today? If someone calls you costive, should you be flattered or insulted? You can find out the answers to these and other timeless questions (such as, "Hey, what is a snollygoster, anyway?") in the new, expanded Fun Words Archive. Scroll down for some of the latest news of etymological and linguistic interest -- plus info about some of my latest projects, including my most recent book on word origins, Ladyfingers & Nun's Tummies: A Lighthearted Look at How Foods Got Their Names from Vintage Books.'

It was Martha Barnette who, in Allure magazine, coined the word 'spendorphins' ('the pleasure proteins that seem to be released during a shopping frenzy'). (Source: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/7.04/mustread.html?pg=11).

* * *

Twenty-five more neologisms from the Jargon Watch archive at Wired.com:
* Arrow Shooters
'The visionaries in an organization who come up with ideas and trace their far-reaching trajectories.'
* Bio-break
'Techie euphemism for using the toilet.'
* Bozon
'A unit of stupidity. "Is it just me, or is there always a high bozon count in Rupert's posts?"'
* Coopetition
'The phenomenon of computer companies joining their competitors on a project-by-project basis. The products are referred to as "AllianceWare".'
* Docubug
'A mistake in computer documentation. Used in the technical writing department (the "DocuZoo") at Sun Microsystems.'
* Furverts
'The denizens of FurryMUCK and alt.fan.furry, or other people who enjoy emulating anthropomorphs (humanoid animals).'
* Graybar Land
'The place you go while you're staring at a computer that's processing something very slowly (while you watch the gray progress bar creep across your screen). "I was in graybar land for what seemed like hours, thanks to that CAD rendering."'
* Image Aspirations
'Plastic surgery jargon for the amount and type of bodily cosmetic changes one is willing to pay for. A digital imaging system is used to simulate the image aspirations of a potential client and to generate a price list for the various desired body modifications.'
* IQueue
'The line of interesting e-mail messages waiting to be read after you've deleted all of your junk and floodgater (see "Jargon Watch," Wired 2.05, page 26) mail.'
* Jargonaut
'A person who coins a piece of net slang or jargon with the express purpose of trying to get it into Jargon Watch. (This word was chosen during an impromptu contest run on alt.wired to coin such a term.)'
* Kodak Courage
'An extra dose of courage and the tendency to go beyond one's usual physical limits when being filmed or photographed (from action sports such as skateboarding, snowboarding, and extreme skiing).'
* Multi-mediocrity
'Boring, poorly done CD-ROMs (or any other multimedia platform). Heard on NPR.'
* Non-Linear Behavior or NLB (from chaos theory)
'Used to describe emotional or irrational flaming on the Net. "That gun-control topic is overwhelmed by NLB."'
* Open-Collar Workers
'People who work at home or telecommute.'
* Plug
'Term for either a temp worker, or a new addition to a work staff, who covers work overflow. "He's a plug for Jean until she gets back in June."'
* PONA
'Acronym for "Person Of No Account." Someone who is not online.'
* Road Builders
'The people in an organization who come along behind the arrow shooters and pave the way for profitable applications.'
* ROM brain
'Someone who spews forth ideas and opinions but can't seem to accept any input from the outside world.'
* Rumorazzi
'Writers of various back-page "industry insider" columns in computer trade journals. Dedicated to collecting and reporting (and sometimes debunking) various rumors and secrets within the industry. "Be careful at Comdex; you never know where the rumorazzi may be lurking."'
* Send Storm
'A deluge of private chat messages while one is trying to do something else online. "Sorry, I'm currently the victim of a send storm. I'll be with you in a moment." On AOL, this is called "being IMed to death" (IM stands for Instant Message, AOL's private chat feature).'
* Siliwood
'Short for "Silicon Hollywood", the coming convergence of movies, interactive television, and computers.'
* SITCOMs (Single Income, Two Children, Oppressive Mortgage)
'What yuppies turn into when they have children and one stops working to be with the kids. The true martyrs of Reaganomics, as characterized in The Economist.'
* Smart Seats
'The seats found in VR entertainment venues that are equipped with motion bases and wired to respond to actions on the computer screen.'
* Toy Value
'Useless gewgaws in a program or product. "The animation screens in this backup program may have some toy value, but they slow everything down to a crawl."'
* User Eye-D
'A face-to-face (FTF) meeting with someone you've gotten to know only over the Net. "My User Eye-D with Robin was not what I expected. He's a guy."'

* * *
Clichés
Spike Milligan, who died recently, once said: 'I love breaking clichés. People hang on to clichés. The cliché is the handrail of the crippled mind.’
http://books.guardian.co.uk/news/articles/0,6109,659393,00.html

See also 'Avoid Clichés -- Like the Plague' by Patricia Fripp, including 'Fripp's Four Foolproof Tips' for making your point when writing or speaking. She quotes Sol Stein's advice in Dialogue for Writers: 'Your job as a writer is to energize people, not put them to sleep.'
http://www.fripp.com/art.cliche.html.

* * *

Snobs and slobs by David R. Williams
From http://www.vocabula.com/VRMAY01Williams.htm

'You . . . need to think carefully before you choose your words. You need to be aware of the language battle that is raging around you. Only then can you choose consciously, and with full knowledge of the consequences, how much of a snob or how much of a slob you want to be. Worse yet, that this is an ongoing war between two eternal factions means you have no generally accepted rule you can safely follow. Some teachers are more snob; some more slob. Which you are going to be is up to you, not some authority.

'Along with this debate goes the perennial pedagogical punchout between those snobs who insist that students master the traditional rules of grammar and those slobs who think it more important to empower students by allowing their oppressed voices to burst out of the shackles of patriarchal rules. The snobs argue that learning how to write correctly is a tool that actually empowers students, that students who master the "correct" way to write can get good jobs, seize control of their lives, and escape from whatever ethnic ghettos entrap them.

'The slobs respond that "correct" means "by the standards established by white males in order to make everyone else play by the rules of which they are already the masters." They argue that it is more important that students be allowed to express themselves in their own idioms and styles and punctuation and not be made to feel illiterate and stupid simply because they are different. This, they say, truly empowers students by allowing them the freedom of their own subcultures.

'My own view is that both standard grammar and the liberation of individual voices are needed. Just as a good jazz musician must first master the scales and fingering of his or her instrument, so the writer must, as the snobs insist, master the technicalities of grammar. But just as technical mastery alone cannot a jazz master make, so a writer must also learn how to dig down and release his or her individual soul before the music can swing. Expression without form is the wailing of an infant, but form without all that primal energy is as dead as the letter without the spirit. We need both.'

See also
* 'On Dimwitticisms' at http://www.vocabula.com/vrMAY01ondimwit.htm
* 'Words to be Wise' at http://www.vocabula.com/vrMAY01block.htm
* 'Scarcely Used Words' at http://www.vocabula.com/vrMAY01scarcely.htm
* 'The Perfectibility of Words' at http://www.vocabula.com/vrPerfectibility.htm
* 'Why Linguists Are Not to Be Trusted on Language Usage' at http://www.vocabula.com/vrSEPT00Halpern.htm
* 'The Remains of All Writing, the Spoils of All Speech' at http://www.vocabula.com/vrRemains.htm
* 'Clues to Concise Writing' at http://www.vocabula.com/vrMAY01concise.htm
* 'Grumbling About Grammar' at http://www.vocabula.com/ebooks/GrumblingAboutGrammar.htm

* * *
Macmillan survey of literary vocabulary

Dalya Alberge writes in The Times Online on 22 March 2002 that Colin Dexter (‘the crossword-loving author of the Inspector Morse detective stories’) uses 11,582 different words in his books. His vocabulary outstrips that of Shakespeare, Dickens and Wilde, and is getting on for twice that of Jane Austen. But none of the above can compete with James Joyce who, on the strength of Ulysses, heads the list with 19,903.

The survey was carried out by Macmillan the publisher with Brighton University, to coincide with the launch of the Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners. It involved compiling a corpus of 200 million words. The sample of each author’s work was confined to 200,000 words––the equivalent of about three novels. (Altogether, Shakespeare wrote a total of some two million words, comprising 20,000 different words.)

Dexter’s range (Alberge reports) includes 2,133 verbs, 5,482 nouns and 2,688 adjectives (Jane Austen’s vocabulary was a mere 6,798, including 1,441 verbs, 2,901 nouns and 1,643 adjectives). Dexter is surprised at the findings, and says he felt important for the first time in his life. He chooses words such as ‘hebdomadal’ rather than ‘weekly’ to help improve his readers’ word power. There is also, he concedes, an element of showing-off, and says he suffers mental torment if he doesn’t look up a new word he comes across.

The researchers found that contemporary writers such as V. S. Naipaul have a wider vocabulary than their predecessors. Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones’s creator, unexpectedly beat literary figures such as Virginia Woolf and Oscar Wilde––but Chris Shakespeare, head of the Macmillan research team, thinks this is because of her own additions to the English language, such as ‘smug-marrieds’. Joyce, too, was always inventing new words.

The researchers say that the key to learning the English language is recognising the core 7,500 words needed to speak and write fluently.
_____

Glossary of the public and voluntary sectors

See http://society.guardian.co.uk/glossary/0,11637,646397,00.html for the Guardian’s glossary of acronyms, jargon and technical phrases used in documents issued by the UK public and voluntary sectors, complete with links to web sites for further information. It also includes advice on how to write clear and concise public documents that are easily intelligible to all.

Examples:
* Accommodated
Term used to describe children who are looked after by their local authority but are not subject to care orders.
* Acute services
Medical and surgical treatment provided mainly in hospitals. Acute trusts are management units in charge of hospitals providing these services.
* Aggregate external finance
The total amount of money central government gives local government. Made up of the revenue support grant, business rates and ringfenced grants. Local authorities top this up with the council tax.
* Almshouse
A residential home, usually for older people or the homeless, providing accommodation for the poor and needy. Almshouses are often charities in their own right, or are owned and run by other charities as part of their operations. There are around 1,750 almshouse charities providing more than 30,000 dwellings across all parts of the country.
* Antisocial behaviour order (Asbo)
An injunction made by councils or the police against anyone over 10 years old causing harassment, alarm or distress to a household or a neighbourhood. Breaching the order is treated as a criminal offence and carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
* Assertive outreach
An approach to working with severely mentally ill adults who do not effectively engage with traditional mental-health services. Staff work with service users in their own environment––at home or in a cafe, a park or the street––rather than through appointments at an office or hospital.
* Beacon councils
Award scheme that aims to highlight good practice in delivering local government services. Other councils are then encouraged to learn from the beacons.
* Beacon servicesA scheme set up to identify and spread knowledge of examples of best practice in the NHS, highlighting innovative approaches to service provision in a range of areas, including accident and emergency, human resources, and reducing health inequalities.
* Bedblocking
Phenomenon of older people being forced to stay in hospital beds because other forms of care, such as nursing homes or home care, are not available - thereby "blocking" beds that could be used by other patients.
* Brownfield site
Land that has been built on before and is usually in an urban area. The land involved is often contaminated. Under a government target, 60% of all new development should be on brownfield sites.
* Business improvement district
Government regeneration initiative that allows councils to raise extra money from local businesses, but only if firms vote in favour of the move. The money is likely to be used for a specific project, such as cleaning up litter and graffiti in an inner city area, rather than general local authority spending.

Wednesday, March 27

Scientific Greek: the prefixes ‘pico-’, ‘piezo-’ and ‘pyro-’

The prefix ‘pico-’ means ‘one-trillionth’ (one million-millionth, or a ‘ten to the twelfth’, part), symbolised by ‘p’. ‘Piezo-’ (from the Greek verb meaning ‘to press, squeeze’) means ‘subjected to pressure’. ‘Pyro-’ means connected with fire -- as in words like ‘pyrotechnics’ and ‘pyromaniac’.

In his article ‘Power Play’ (27 March 2002, http://www.technologyreview.com/articles/wo_cameron032702.asp), David Cameron describes a new ‘bare-bones’ wireless experiment that is nearly ‘ready to hit the airwaves’. At the Wireless Research Center in Berkeley, California, Prof. Jan Rabaey and his group -- funded by industry and the government -- have been working to create ‘picoradio’. This is a network of wireless nodes that ‘run advanced information systems, use an absolute bare minimum of energy, and cost next to nothing.’ No batteries will be needed, because the nodes (the size of shirt buttons) can extract all the energy they need from their surroundings. The prototype of a wireless network demonstrating picoradio’s low-energy protocol is due for completion in April, and the group intend to build a fully operational network prototype by December.

Each node will contain one or more sensors for measuring temperature, pressure, motion, light, sound or the like; a microprocessor; an interface to communicate with other nodes; and a power component, either solar cells or a piezoelectric polymer that can convert vibrations from the environment into electricity. One possible application, according to Rabaey, is climate control for large buildings. As Cameron explains, to operate on such low power, each node communicates only with one adjacent to it, which in turn signals the next, forming what Rabaey calls a ‘multi-hop network’. The network could be used for other jobs that use radio-frequency identification technologies, like tracking items or people in a contained space.

Piezoelectric polymers, i.e. cheap pressure sensors, have many applications. One such polymer is polyvinylidiene fluoride (PVDF), used in e.g. basketball players’ shoes that light up when the wearers land on their feet after a hard rebound. Piezoelectric film converts the pressure into a voltage that is then picked up and activates the LEDs on the heels of the shoes. Other current applications include pressure sensors in robotic hands, micro-actuators, displacement detection, active vibration control, force and pressure gauges, microphones, hydrophones, ultrasonic transmitter-receivers, impact localisation, non-destructive testing, toys, disk drives, ultrasonic imaging equipment and accelerometers. (Sources: http://www.stanford.edu/~puppy/desk/polymer.htm and http://www.piezotech.fr/appli.html.)

Pyroelectric sensors, on the other hand, detect humans’ and animals’ movements by sensing infra-red emissivity (http://www.acroname.com/robotics/parts/R3-PYRO1.html). The word ‘pyroelectric’ is applied to certain crystals that, on being heated, become electrically polar, i.e. exhibit positive and negative electricity at opposite ends (the effects being reversed while cooling). It is also applied to the effect exhibited by such crystals and to devices employing it. (Source: OED.)

Pyrolysis is ‘decomposition of a substance by the action of heat; loosely, any chemical change produced by heating’ (OED). Pyrolytic boron nitride (PBN), for example, is (I read at http://www.matweb.com/SpecificMaterial.asp?bassnum=CADV10), ‘an anisotropic, high-temperature ceramic’ that shows a unique combination of high electrical resistance and good thermal conductivity. It is non-toxic, non-porous and ‘exceptionally pure by virtue of the synthesis process (high temperature/low pressure chemical vapor deposition)’. PBN is widely used the semiconductor, electronics, metallurgical, thin-film and pharmaceutical industries. (Information provided by Advanced Ceramics Corporation.)

Tuesday, March 26

Inuit words for snow and the ‘Whorfian renaissance’

The Inuit are said to have hundreds of words for snow. Benjamin Lee Whorf, a linguist, mentioned in the 1930s that there were seven; since then, the count has shot up. J.R. Minkel writes that there are no more basic Inuit words for snow than there are English (cf. sleet, slush, powder, flurry, blizzard, hail, hardpack, etc). The myth of multiple words for snow in the Inuit language arises because the language combines adjectives and nouns into new terms (e.g. ‘snow that’s been peed on’). All it means is that you can say a lot of things about snow.

Whorf argued that language affects thought. But ‘Whorfian effects’ were hard to substantiate, and by the 1970s the consensus among psychologists was that linguistic and perceptual distinctions are mutually independent. Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that human languages, however varied, all share a basic structure that seems to be a matter of normal brain function.

In the early 1990s, opinion swung back in favour of Whorf’s theories. Lera Boroditsky’s research showed, for example, that speakers of German and Spanish (both languages with noun gender), shown pictures of objects, rated the objects more similar on a scale of one to four to inherently feminine words (e.g. ‘girl’ and ‘ballerina’) if the objects were grammatically feminine in their native language. Conversely, they associated the objects more with essentially masculine words if the object names were masculine in their own languages.

But the jury is still out. Some researchers argue that the effects of language on cognition are trivial. Lila Gleitman of the University of Pennsylvania has found that speakers of languages with different ways of describing space and movement seem to think alike ‘if given the chance or the right cue’.

Sources: ‘A Way with Words’ (http://www.scientificamerican.com/explorations/2002/032502language/) and ‘Snow, by Any Other Name (http://www.scientificamerican.com/explorations/2002/032502language/snow.html) by J.R. Minkel.

See also Mark Halpern's article 'Why Linguists Are Not to Be Trusted on Language Usage' at http://www.vocabula.com/vrSEPT00Halpern.htm. He refers to 'The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax', but also quotes a letter from someone in the know, which appeared on page 8 of New York magazine for 13 June 1994:

'In the "Fast Track" piece "The Very, Very Tiresome Season of Storms" [by Steven J. Dubner, February 28], Dr. Steven Pinker of MIT is quoted as saying that Eskimos don't really have hundreds of different words for snow. He states, "They have exactly as many or perhaps two or three more words than English speakers." I have spent the past 22 years living in an Inupiat Eskimo community. According to the North Slope Borough's Inupiat History, Language, and Culture division, the Inupiats have more than 30 words for snow, and more than 70 for ice. In the Arctic, the specific conditions of snow and ice are critical to hunting and survival; two or three words would hardly cover our needs.'

Elise Sereni Patkotak
Public Information Officer
North Slope Borough
Barrow, Alaska

Monday, March 25

What is a writer?

Writer, n. 1. synonym for masochist, 2. a person who works nights to pay for their habit, 3. (as according to Murphy’s Law) a famous person whose immense popularity is proportional to their need for seclusion from screaming hordes of devoted fans (possibly brandishing manuscripts for said writer’s perusal, editing, suggestions and, of course, lavish praise and testimonials).

From www.cafepress.com (makers of products for writers).
Resistance to spring-cleaning

1. I’m not going to waste my time on such petty, bourgeois and conventional occupations.
2. What does a clean house matter? Housework isn’t creative. My mind’s on higher things and it would disturb my precious alpha brainwaves.
3. I never pretended to be a contender for Ms Perfect Housewife of the Year, so why should I start now?
4. Let someone else do it. Or at least wait until the time’s right and enlist husband & son (if poss., make it a family game).
5. Pay someone else to do it.

Counter-arguments

1. But the time would hardly be wasted. Think what an unaccustomed pleasure it would be to live in a clean house, at least for a while!
2. I could make it a kind of meditation -- and stop to jot down my creative thoughts as I go along. Once the house is clean, it might even help the brainwaves along.
3. No one in their right mind would dream of giving me that award, but maybe I don’t always have to be best . . . and if I start now I might actually get it done by Easter.
4. That sounds good, but experience tells me it’s impractical. The game idea is great but difficult to implement. Knowing my family, it might last ten minutes (at best).
5. Probably the best solution. Go for it!
Primary-school humour

As part of a recent survey, 200 Nottinghamshire-based primary schoolchildren aged 10 to 11 were asked to tell their favourite jokes. Here are the 20 most popular:

Why did the chicken cross the road?
- To get to the other side.
A boy needs the toilet so the teacher asks him to say the alphabet - a, b, c, d, etc. After a while he says: "Miss, why is the p half way down my leg?"
Why is the sky so high?
- So the birds don't bump their heads.
What did one traffic light say to the other traffic light?
- Don't look at me, I'm changing.
Why don't polar bears eat penguins?
- Because they can't get the wrappers off.
What is the difference between a fireman and a soldier?
- You can't dip a fireman in your egg.
What do you call a dog without legs?
- Anything you like. It won't run after you.
Why do the Teletubbies go to the toilet at the same time?
- Because they only have one Tinky Winky.
Doctor, doctor, I feel like a bridge.
- What came over you?
- Two cars and a bus.
What do you get if you cross a sheep with a kangaroo?
- A woolly jumper.
Why do cows have bells?
- Because their horns don't work.
What do you call a girl with a frog on her head?
- Lily.
A man walked into a hospital and said: "Doctor, doctor, I've grown curtains."
The doctor said: "Calm down man and pull yourself together."
Why can't a car play football?
- Because it has only got one boot.
What's white and swings through the jungle?
- A fridge.
Why wasn't Cinderella allowed to be in the soccer team?
- Because she runs away from the ball.
Why did the boy take the pen and paper to bed?
- So that he could draw the curtain.
What does the secretary do to old nails?
- File them.
Why don't aliens starve in space?
- Because they can find mars, a milky way and a galaxy.
What do you call a deer with no eyes?
- I've no idea...

(Reported by BBC Online in 'Jokes help pupils learn', 23 March)
Heartening news

Last week was a good one for Afghan children -- especially girls. Even before the Taleban fewer than one in 10 girls attended school. Now, funded by the international community, education in Afghanistan looks set to enter a new era and girls, in particular, should have a better chance than ever.

BBC Online reports in 'Back to school in Afghanistan' (23 March) that more than 3,000 schools have reopened for the new school year. Getting the 1.8 million pupils back to school in time for the new term has been one of the biggest operations ever undertaken by the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef). Planes, jeeps and even donkeys have been used to get the books and teaching materials into place.

About half of Afghanistan's schools were destroyed under the Taleban. Many teachers fled, and more than half of Afghanistan's children still have no school to attend. But in the year ahead the Afghan authorities hope to absorb another two million children into the education system. In January the US pledged almost $300m to the country in the coming year, on top of $400m in humanitarian assistance committed by President Bush last autumn.