Podcasty things

A podcast potpourri post, pedantic and possibly piquant.

First, Gabe Weatherhead has posted the lastest episode of his Generational podcast, with David Sparks, Brett Terpstra, and yours truly. The topic is how to pick up women text editors and text editing. A good time was had by all, and Gabe gathered enough links from the conversation to keep you busy until the crocuses come up.

At the end of the show, in the Things We Like segment, I chose the In Our Time podcast and radio show from BBC Radio 4. This is hardly the first time I’ve suggested people check into IOT, but it’s a recommendation worth repeating. I will say, however, that the episode I mentioned specifically, on Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall turned out to be not the show’s best. It was a rare case in which the host, Melvyn Bragg, kept butting in to say more about a topic. Usually he’s chivvying his academic guests to stay away out of the weeds—“Can you tell us briskly…” is his favorite opening phrase—but this time his love of Waugh got the better of him. I got the distinct impression he’d have been just as happy doing this show all by himself.

The most recent IOT episode might be a better introduction for people interested in technology. It’s about Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers, whose Wikipedia page, after telling us his name and that he was born in Bramham cum Oglethorpe, Wetherby, Yorkshire, goes on to tell us, in what may be the most superfluous entry ever, that his nationality was English.

Pitt Rivers was the first archaeologist to document his work carefully and to treat it more as a science than as treasure-hunting. He was taken by Darwin’s theory of evolution and thought it could be applied to artifacts and the development of the technologies that made them. His huge collection was arranged not by region or by era, but by thing, showing the development of, for example, spears across the continents and centuries.

If this idea of technology evolving as if it were a living thing rings a bell, it’s probably because that was the thesis of Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants, which got a lot of coverage when it came out a couple of years ago. I read several reviews and blog posts about it back then, but none of them mentioned Kelly’s antecedent in Pitt Rivers, nor did Kelly himself. A commentary on Kelly’s depth of scholarship, I suspect.1

Finally, I want to mention the current episode of the Grammar Girl podcast, about the proper placement of “only.” I often find “only” in the wrong spot in my writing and in the writing of others—modifying the wrong word or phrase. The episode explains how speaking allows us to use emphasis to let our audience know what “only” is modifying, so the proper placement of “only” within a sentence isn’t essential to get our point across. Writing doesn’t give us that freedom, which is why writing the way we’d talk can lead us astray.

The episode reminded me of something I read long ago: the purpose of speaking is to be understood; the purpose of writing is to avoid being misunderstood. That aphorism can be taken too far, but I do tend to write more explicitly than I talk, especially when I’m writing a technical report that’s likely to be excerpted.

The genesis of this episode was an article on “only” by James J. Kilpatrick, a columnist with horrible right wing opinions who wrote wonderfully and entertainingly about language, grammar, and usage. (No, I’m not confusing him with William Safire, but that’s easy to do.) Kilpatrick’s place in pop culture history was assured when Saturday Night Live began doing parodies of his “Point-Counterpoint” mini-debates with Shana Alexander on 60 Minutes. YouTube has an example of the original

and just a touch of the takeoff.

  1. Although I shouldn’t talk, since I couldn’t be bothered to finish his book after checking it out from the library. Maybe I’d read so much about it that my interest in the topic had already been satisfied.