Animal words are strange fishes

I’m currently editing a book about a zoo. One of the things it’s drawn my attention to is the oddity of animal plurals. Discounting irregular forms such as ‘geese’ and pedantry such as ‘octopodes’, there seems to be a whole thorny area around what are known as ‘zero plurals’, where the plural is the same as the singular. There is a small list of canonical examples:

  •     deer
  •     moose (though I wish it were ‘meese’)
  •     sheep (disregarding Vi Hart’s proposal)
  •     bison
  •     salmon
  •     grouse
  •     pike
  •     trout
  •     fish
  •     swine

Our old friend Wikipedia says: ‘As a general rule, game or other animals are often referred to in the singular for the plural in a sporting context: “He shot six brace of pheasant”, “Carruthers bagged a dozen tiger last year”, whereas in another context such as zoology or tourism the regular plural would be used.’ This is corroborated in a PDF I found from the University of Granada (yeah, OK, not the leading source for English grammar, perhaps): “Nouns referring to some other animals, birds and fishes can have zero plurals, especially when viewed as prey: They shot two reindeer. The woodcock/pheasant/herring/trout/salmon/fish are not very plentiful this year.” And thanks to Colin Batchelor for pointing out that Eric Partridge (of Usage and Abusage fame) regards this as a snobbish usage by big-game hunters; and further that the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL) includes the above words as ‘base plural only’, then elk, quail and reindeer as ‘base or regular plural’, and elephant, giraffe, lion, partridge and pheasant as ‘base plural restricted’.

(In the book I’m editing, the writer sometimes writes phrases such as “tapirs and capybara”, but has “tapir” as plural elsewhere. I imagine the capybara example is explained by subconsciously thinking that it is a Latin neutral plural. Doing a bit of crowdsourcing with Google reveals that for both animals the -s form appears far more in phrases referring to ‘two’ or ‘a pair of’ both types of creature, and indeed for the much-victimised pheasant, suggesting people do generally favour a simple English plural rather than the snobbery of the hunter.)

Andrew Carstairs-McCarthy’s Introduction to English Morphology expands on the ‘prey’ theme:

…there seems to be a common semantic factor among the zero-plurals: they all denote animals, birds or fish that are either domesticated (SHEEP) or hunted (DEER), usually for food (TROUT, COD, PHEASANT). It is true that the relationship is not hard-and-fast: there are plenty of domesticated and game animals which have regular -s plurals (e.g. COW, GOAT, PIGEON, HEN). Nevertheless, the correlation is sufficiently close to justify regarding zero-plurals as in some degree regular…

Hm, does “not hard-and-fast” really mean the same as “sufficiently close”? It’s not what I’d call a rule – more a matter of usage as Partridge suggests. And there are non-animal counterexamples such as ‘aircraft’ in any case.

And hang on, what about this buffalo madness from Mark A Wickens’ Grammatical number in English nouns:

Zero plurals

And let’s not get into the whole fish/fishes pond (Wikipedia: “Using the plural form fish could imply many individual fish(es) of the same species while fishes could imply many individual fish(es) of differing species” and so on.) Or indeed the other buffalo madness.

As far as I can see this is a grammatical minefield and nobody has a cleer steer. Or should that be bison. As for the book, I’m going to err on the side of English plurals with -s unless there is a compelling reason not to, such as a lexicographer approaching me with a blunderbuss.

Simple methods get my vote

For the last decade I’ve been following the fascinating work of Gerd Gigerenzer and colleagues (especially Dan Goldstein) – as briefly as I can state it, he has identified a number of very simple heuristics which outperform far more complex models for decision-making processes or making predictions about certain kinds of data (this stuff has partly inspired my Feweristics project). The most accessible explanation of all this is in his book Gut Feelings, where he explains things such as the recognition heuristic, and how it can be used to predict the winner of Wimbledon, or build a stock market portfolio that outperforms many experts, and so on.

Now two researchers, inspired by Goldstein and Gigerenzer’s ‘take-the-best heuristic’ have applied the less-information-beats-more methodology to the US elections since 1972. You can read their paper, Predicting elections from the most important issue facing the country (PDF – I found it via Decision Science News, the work of GG’s collaborator Dan Goldstein), though the bare bones as follows.

In the abstract, authors Andreas Graefe and J Scott Armstrong say that their simple model, called PollyMIP, “correctly predicted the winner of the  popular vote in 97% of all forecasts. For the last six elections, it yielded a higher number of correct  predictions of the election winner than the Iowa Electronic Markets”. Basically, they used a database of pre-election polls to identify what voters thought was the single most important issue each time (this varied over time before the election, in some cases more than others), then used the same database to pull out poll results for which of the two candidates (ie Democrat or Republican) they believed would deal with that issue best (they looked at all polls up to 100 days before the election). In passing, they corroborated other research that the incumbent party always starts with an advantage. (The authors note in their paper: “In the real world, people usually have to make decisions under the constraints of limited information and time, which is why models of rational choice often fail in explaining behaviour.”)

In full, their PollyMIP heuristic works thus (taken verbatim from their appendix):

Step 1 (identifying the most important problem)
Search rule: Look up last available poll on the most important problem facing the country; sort problems in the order of importance.
Stopping rule: Stop search if there is a single most important problem. If two or more problems are of similar importance, average their importance with the results from the most recent previously published poll until a problem is identified as the single most important.

Step 2 (obtaining voter support for candidates on most important problem)
Search rule: Look up polls that obtained voter support on the problem identified in step 1.
Stopping rule: Stop search if there are one or more polls available. Average voter support for each candidate and calculate the two-­party shares of the incumbent. Move to step 3.
If no polls are available and the most important problem (as identified in step 1) is different from the previous day, move to step 2.A. Otherwise move to step 2.B.

2.A (most important problem different to the day before)
Stopping rule: Take the incumbent’s two party share of voter support from the last available poll on the most important problem. Move to step 3.

2.B (most important problem similar to the day before)
Stopping rule: Take the PollyMIP score (see step 3) from the previous day. Move to step 3.

Step 3 (determining election winner)
Decision rule: Average the incumbent’s two-­‐party share of voter support for the last three days, which is referred to as the PollyMIP score. If the PollyMIP score is above 50%, predict the incumbent to win. If it is below 50%, predict the challenger to win. Otherwise, predict a tie.

Or, more briefly: “(1) Identify the  problem seen as most important by voters, (2) calculate the two-­party shares of voter support for the  candidates on this problem and average them for the last three days, and (3) predict the candidate with the higher voter support to win the popular vote.

Not bad for predicting election results 97% of the time. I’d love to see whether this would work for Britain’s elections, too. (They used the iPOLL databank – anyone know if there’s an equivalent for the UK?)

A new look at the publisher’s lunch

As usual, everyone’s talking about how publishing can survive, and how to make money on the internet. Paul Graham has written an excellent essay, Post-Medium Publishing, where he observes that it is wrong to think publishers sell ‘content’ – rather, they sell a means of distribution, and prices are dictated by that (ie, historically, the price of paper and printing) – if t’were otherwise, we’d all pay vastly different sums depending on the quality of the content. And we don’t. Bottom line: “Whoever controls the device sets the terms.” Prospect Magazine, commenting on Graham, also reminds us that we’ve seen all this before, back in Shakespeare’s time.

Meanwhile, Steve Outing warns that ‘Your news content is worth zero to digital consumers’, and that money is again in delivery systems such as neato iPhone apps. (He quaintly goes on to suggest micro-rewards – tip jars 2.0, I guess.) Jeff Reifman has weighed in against Outing saying ‘Micropayments could save journalism’. It’s hard to see how: if the headline writers are any good, the headline is where the news is – the rest is elaboration. I get my news from a few simple sources, all of them essentially ‘headlines’:

  • A few snatched moment’s of Radio 4’s Today programme between bouts of baby care – I really just get the 7am headlines
  • RSS feeds from the BBC and the Guardian on my iGoogle page – I’ll occasionally click through if I want the detail or I’m piqued by something
  • Twitter feeds

I buy one newspaper a week: the Saturday Guardian. I do read the news in it – but almost invariably I’ve seen it the day before on the web. I like it for the columnists, the features, the magazine, basically as a ritual entertainment to accompany a cup of tea. My wife just does the crossword. The physical newspaper, in other words, has become an entertainment channel rather than a news one.

Micropayments? I can’t see myself paying for news stories. Features… maybe, if they’re really going to interest me. Academic papers: possibly, if I’m researching something. That said, I did make one micropayment this week: we were planning to buy a new car seat for the baby, and only one place, Which, has a decent, up-to-date review of best buys, focusing on safety (ie there’s an emotive imperative here – and the possibility of saving money, I guess). They charge £1 for a trial subscription – but then sting you with monthly payments several times that. You can cancel any time, so I will cancel straight away. It’s very annoying: I just want one article, which I probably would have paid £5 for, simply because it’s not possible to get this quality information elsewhere. I subscribed because I’m bloody minded enough to remember to unsubscribe – though of course their business model partly relies on people forgetting, or being sufficiently charmed by the dull magazine you get in the mail.

Paul Graham says that the only kind of information people will pay for is that “they think they can make money from” – I’d add that saving money (assuming more is saved than the information costs!) might be a motive, and niche issues such as the baby safety report I mentioned.

Graham reminds us, as people like Chris Anderson have done before, that something else people will pay for is live entertainment. I wonder if this connects to another constraint upon pricing for publishing models: it’s noticeable that novels, DVD rentals, cinema visits, CD albums, all generally fall within the £5 to £15 range: people will only pay so much for entertainment that they know can be reproduced. Live entertainment, such as a theatre show, opera, music gigs and a decent meal at a good restaurant, is more of a one-off experience, and commands more value. In his excellent book 59 Seconds, Richard Wiseman points to research showing that people’s happiness is improved significantly more by experiences than by products. There’s no such thing as retail therapy.

Again and again I come back, too, to the feeling that modern content producers – writers in particular – have unrealistic expectations of fame and fortune. Most people don’t want their content, and won’t pay much for it even if they do. As Prospect says, we’ve gone back to a pre-Romantic time (I’m thinking of poets and gentleman publishers such as John Murray here, which is where the modern author-publisher dream of the last 200 years began) where writers have to work hard, diversify, hawk their products themselves, and not just sit back and expect a publisher (whose grip of the medium is now somewhat buttery) to make them millions. The Dan Browns and J K Rowlings are the lucky exceptions.

I’m a writer myself, so it’s not like I don’t have an interest in these issues – but I just write to commission, content I know someone seems to want, rather than trying to sell my own ideas, as the latter is so much hard work (obviously I thank my stars for those commissions – and make most of my money by doing design work anyway – ie making vessels for others’ content). Whatever ideas I have (mostly daft, I admit) I give away for free, often at this website.

Perhaps the answer lies in Kevin Kelly’s 1000 True Fans argument: build a core, devoted audience – if your stuff is good enough (and has a bit of luck and a fair wind), there will be some people at least who will go to your every gig, buy every T-shirt, read every book. If you can’t find 1000 true fans… maybe it’s time to be honest and admit the world isn’t knocking at your door. Do something for free. See what happens. Oh, and go out for a nice meal: it will make you happy.

Edit: After a challenge on Twitter to crowdsource payment for an article, you can now pay micropayments to get me to write an article on ‘The Modern Ninja’! I can’t lose: if not enough money is raised, it proves content isn’t worth much to people (well, er, my content…); if it is, I get a paid commission! (Oh, and if less than $300 is raised, I’ll refund your money folks!)

Cough cough

So, we did that thing, you know, where you take an ickle baby to church on Christmas Day. Unlike the carol service the other night, which we had to abandon after 20 minutes due to said ickle baby screaming his ickle bright red head off, he slept through it and all was well. We had a zillion people cooing over him. One dared to make some reference to the ickle baby Jesus. We winced.

Anyway, having sat next to two coughing old ladies swapping tales of their antiobiotics, I wasn’t dead chuffed about shaking their hands for the peace-be-with-you bit. However. It did give me a new theory about religion. It all makes sense now: religion has nothing to do with spirituality and everything to do with epidemiology.

Shaking hands to share peace. Communion. Sharing the body and blood. It’s all about sharing germs. Your close-knit community of old shares its germs and raises its collective immune system. Except now we all only come together at Christmas. So steer well clear of the coughing old ladies.

In other news, we’re having Christmas just the three of us as a fambly [/Dickens]. Thanks to Louis this will almost certainly mean us eating in separate sittings like every other day. But anyway: thanks to a surfeit of Marks and Sparks vouchers I got in trade for some old mobile phones, our entire Christmas spread has cost us 82 pence cash. Beat that, Robert Peston!


Parenthood and its discontents

As if having a baby wasn’t exhausting enough, the received wisdom on looking after the little blighter is a nightmarish minefield of theory and counter-theory. The chief debates are these:

  1. ‘On demand’ vs ‘routine’. Theorists abound and create whole industries around their bestselling books. On the left, I give you attachment parenting: William Sears, Margot Sutherland et al. They say a baby should be given everything it needs when it wants it, and favour things such as co-sleeping (see below) and carrying them around everywhere in a sling. The debit side is that it can be very punishing on parents, and leaves their needs forgotten. On the right, the ‘controlled crying’ etc brigade, led by the dreaded Gina Ford, who advocates dividing your day into 10-minute chunks and forcing the baby to fit in with it, heedless of neurologists’ observations that night waking/feeding helps babies’ brain development.It’s notable that Sears has 8 children, and apparently Ford has… none. Tracy Hogg (‘the baby whisperer’) claims to tread a middle path, but is really a Fordite as far as I can discern.
  2. Breast vs bottle. Paediatricians don’t seem to give a toss for the breast, and in hospital happily try to foist formula on anyone who isn’t producing milk, or whose baby is ill and needs extra feeding (we were lucky as Oxford has a ‘milk bank’ and a stern ward sister arranged for donated milk). Meanwhile midwives are ardent breastfeeding campaigners and it’s hard to get them to admit how miserable and gruelling it can be, or help you consider alternatives.
  3. Dummy or no-dummy. Dummy use has been shown to be a preventative factor against cot death, but then again it can also lead to more ear infections, and in some babies seems to cause ‘nipple confusion’ making breastfeeding even more complicated than it already is.
  4. Co-sleeping or separate room. Western cultures don’t like the former as it disrupts the mother-father relationship in bed, and there’s the fear of squashing the mite (though this is extremely rare unless alcohol or drugs are involved). There are potential cot death risks for either argument, and in practice most people have a cot next to their bed.

Oh, and a special note for Dunstan Baby Language, whose nice-little-earner-DVD identifies 5 different cries baby makes and claims that all their needs can be met by spotting them and responding appropriately. Yeah, right. (There does seem to be something in it – but babies need more than five things.)

There’s probably more I’ve temporarily forgotten, addled with sleeplessness as I am. Anyway: it’s all bloody depressing, and I suppose going with one’s intuition is as good as anything. Of all the books I’ve looked at so far, one called Fatherhood… The Truth, although somewhat melancholy, is by far the sanest I’ve read. It’s by Marcus Berkmann – yup, the one who used to write for Your Sinclair. Surely, surely, if you can program a Spectrum, you can raise a child.


It’s all been happening. On Sunday I played cricket for the first time in 20 years. It was advertised as ‘Rubbish Cricket’, so I took comfort from that, but was nevertheless the rubbishest player there (out of 11 in total, so only small teams). That said, I did have a moment of glory right at the very end when I took a wicket. The setting was glorious: the village cricket ground at Ewelme. On Monday I ached all over all bloody day, because clearly I are seriously unfit.

On Tuesday I went to some arts/business function at the BMW MINI plant at Cowley, avoiding the awards ceremony it was all about purely to go on a free tour of the plant afterwards – these are apparently much prized, and I just like being in places where I have no conceivable business.

It’s an extraordinary experience – well, after 90 minutes I was getting pretty bored, but before that it was more overwhelming. We visited two of the vast (and we’re talking about dozens of football pitches each here) ugly prefab buildings that grace that bit of Oxford’s ring road. The first was where loads of huge robots swing around in constant motion, grabbing parts and welding them together and so on. It’s the most dehumanised setting I’ve ever seen (there are very few actual meatware staff in there), like something out of an sf horror film really. The Matrix? You’re already in it, sunshine.

I only asked one question: “Are the robots made by robots?” They are. The whole place is an amazing monument to human technology – and utterly depressing. I couldn’t help but think our civilisation is totally fucked.

The second shed had lots more people, all of whom do 11-hour shifts on huge conveyors (they’re moving on them too), fitting all the twiddly bits to the cars. They make 50 Minis (sorry, MINIs) an hour, every single one to order and different from its shiny neighbour.

And fourthly (geddit?), on Wednesday we learnt something important – that’s a story for another day, but the good news is that all is well.

Slipping on peanut butter

Here’s a great bit of journalism on the mysterious death of dolphins in Cornwall:

There are several theories, including that the dolphins may have been upset by some sort of underwater disturbance.

So, er, the underwater creatures may – though we have no idea – have been upset by something under water that upset them.

I’m always reminded at times like this of my favourite bit in How to Get Ahead in Advertising:

Businessman 1: I see the police have made another lightning raid… Paddington drug orgy.
Priest: I suppose young girls was involved?
Businessman 1: (reading the newspaper) One discovered naked in the kitchen…breasts smeared with peanut butter. The police took away a bag containing 15 grams of cannabis resin… it may also contain a quantity of heroin.
Bagley: Or a pork pie.
Businessman 1: I beg your pardon.
Bagley: I said the bag may also have contained a pork pie.
Businessman 1: I hardly see a pork pie’s got anything to do with it.
Bagley: Alright then, what about a large turnip. It might also have contained a big turnip.
Priest: The bag was full of drugs.
Bagley: Nonsense.
Priest: The bag was full of drugs, it says so.
Bagley: The bag could’ve been full of anything. Pork pies, turnips, oven parts… it’s the oldest trick in the book.
Priest: What book?
Bagley: The distortion of truth by association book. The word is “may.” You all believe heroin was in the bag because cannabis resin was in the bag. The bag may have contained heroin, but the chances are 100 to 1 certain that it didn’t.
Businessman 1: A lot more likely than what you say.
Bagley: About as likely as the tits spread with peanut butter.
Businessman 2: Do you mind?
Priest: The tits WERE spread with peanut butter!

The music of the warming spheres

So, when I was coaxed out of the house last night, little did I know I’d end up discussing Borat with climate change guru Mark Lynas in a village pub.

It was after a talk he gave in the same village hall (Ramsden) where I went to a previous talk on climate change (which I wrote about here and here). Lynas is an excellent speaker and very accomplished at effortlessly marshalling bucketloads of data, as well as fielding complex questions without pause. He provides an admirably sane view of the whole issue, very much from the perspective of a scientist rather than a campaigner. My only worry is that he is over-optimistic about human psychology, ie a reliance on co-operation between nations (though I don’t really doubt that his solutions are at least possible). To me the issue smacks heavily of the prisoner’s dilemma, and the evidence from studies of that doesn’t suggest co-operation is a likely strategy for people in a world where fighting habitually takes precedence over common sense.

He’s also an entertainingly sarcastic sod, and it was fun talking with him. (I’ve only just discovered he was two years below me at Edinburgh, too). My lingering memory of the evening – other than the talk itself – is of the crazy, beer-filled notion of turning his book Six Degrees (a documentary version is being broadcast by National Geographic next week) into a musical. I can’t help thinking about it. It’s horrible, but it could almost work. Mark, get your people to talk to my people. Or, better, get them to sing.

I’m loading the gun now

So, in today’s post I had a letter from John Lewis, offering me insurance for our dishwasher two years after we bought it for ongoing “peace of mind”. Naturally, that the dishwasher might not have been covered any more has been nagging at me like something from Edgar Allen Poe, and it was only a matter of time before I went out and MURDERED SOMEONE WITH A TEASPOON when the pressure built up to an unbearable point.

But of course, what would really give PEACE OF BLOODY MIND is for people never ever ever ever to offer me insurance – which, like religion and charity-giving, I’m perfectly capable of seeking out when I bloody well want to, thank you, peace be with you.

So out of curiosity I googled for associations with the phrase “peace of mind” and the word insurance.

“peace of mind” insurance gives 1.98 million hits
“peace of mind” -insurance (ie excluding the latter term) gives 2.21m
“peace of mind” alone gives me 2.28m

I learn two things from this:
1. Insurance companies (or their copywriters) demonstrate a breathtaking embrace of cliché. Sadly this comes as no surprise.
2. Google can’t count, so it’s advanced search delimiters can’t really be trusted.

If someone could maybe insure me against Google giving me misleading results, perhaps then I would truly have peace of mind.

Methodism in the madness

A few weeks ago someone suggested to me what’s needed to make people really wake up to climate change and the root-and-branch alterations to daily life it will inevitably demand is a new religion. I think, in a sense, we already have it.

Last night we went to Tom Dyson‘s excellent talk on climate change, which neatly summarised the main issues, tackled some of the criticisms, and advocated personal carbon rationing. Sitting there in Ramsden Memorial Hall, a beautiful converted barn with ancient beams gnarling across the ceiling, not to mention aided by the local brewery’s imaginative stimulant, I half found myself back in the 1740s. The occasion reminded me (I say ‘reminded’ – I mean, I’m getting on, but I’m not 300 years old) of the early days of Methodism, where small village groups would assemble to hear the new message.

The meeting had a mixture of locals of all ages, plus a bunch of us loyally going to swell Tom’s crowd, where most were already receptive or indeed converted to the message. In the Q&A afterwards, a few theological niceties, as it were, were discussed; and there were only one or two voices of dissent, notably one from a chap who thought the whole thing was highly suspicious, but nevertheless led perhaps one of the least carbon-consumptive lives of us all. I bet John Wesley met people like him too – people already living ‘the Way’ but deeply sceptical of imported justifications for it. One or two in the audience were perhaps even leaning towards the temperance movement in spirit.

Ever since the age of 12 when I harangued our school chaplain with unanswerable questions, I’ve been on the side of unbelief. But now, suddenly, that seems to have changed. All round the country, likeable lay preachers such as Tom are spreading the word; further afield, there are charismatic prophets such as George Monbiot (let’s leave aside Al Gore’s messianic tone for now). The difference, of course, is that the ‘revealed truth’ underpinning this belief system is a set of 928 scientific papers, and not a book written by a motley collection of marketeers a couple of millennia ago.

(I’m going to stop now as I’ve just been invited to expand on this theme in a paid article!)