29 November 2010

Slavery and secession

Another interesting but mostly just upsetting New York Times article on commemorating the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War: Katharine Q. Seelye’s “Celebrating Secession without the Slaves.” The South has spent the last century and a half denying that the war had anything to do with slavery: it was all about “states’ rights,” we are told ‒ with the only right really in question being the right of states to permit slavery.

All this is old news, though. What I liked in this piece was a very succinct statement, from University of Illinois sociologist James Loewen, of how slavery related to the start of the war:

The North did not go to war to end slavery, it went to war to hold the country together and only gradually did it become anti-slavery ‒ but slavery is why the South seceded.

Simple, really: while the North didn’t fight to end slavery, the South did fight to preserve it.

No such thing as a ‘trove’

I know it’s a living language. I know linguists’ job is to describe, not prescribe. But I hate the pseudonoun trove. Ain’t no such thing, folks.

WikiLeaks’s release of the State Department cables has caused yet another outbreak of ungrammatical “troves” in the American news media. The Washington Post writes that “Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi has insisted he only throws elegant, dignified soirees at his villas and not wild parties described by a Rome-based U.S. diplomat in a cable contained in the Wikileaks trove.” The Los Angeles Times writes, “The morning after the first disclosures of WikiLeaks’ trove of diplomatic cables, buzz in Israel was somewhere between relief and vindication, and officials were being thankful by keeping quiet.” I could go on: everyone seems to be calling the collection of cables a “trove” (except, apparently, for the British: the BBC calls it “a cache of 250,000 secret messages.”) But what the hell is a trove?

Trove, obviously, is short for treasure trove. What is it, then, a unit of measurement for treasure? Or perhaps a collective noun: herd of sheep, school of fish, flock of birds ‒ trove of treasure?

Nope. It’s an adjective.

Treasure trove is a common law concept; the term itself is a corruption, via Law French, of trésor trouvé (found treasure). Basically, it refers to ownerless treasure which is found and (traditionally) becomes the property of the finder; a BBC News article from February illustrates the technical use of the term: “Bracelet Found in Vale of Glamorgan Is Treasure Trove”.

Treasure trove, therefore, is treasure which has been trove (i.e., trouvé: found). There’s no such thing as “a trove”, just treasure.

We don’t normally place adjectives after nouns in English, and when we do they are usually part of fossilized expressions which are carryovers from Law French, like court martial (a court which is martial) or attorney general (an attorney who is general). Since they don’t follow the usual English word order, these terms tend to trip people up ‒ and those particular about English usage (pedant is such an unkind word!) read attorney generals instead of attorneys general and get very worked up: we’re not dealing with generals who are attorneys, but attorneys who are general.

Incidentally, Wikipedia’s article on such adjectives has a link to an amusing Onion piece from a decade ago: “William Safire Orders Two Whoppers Junior”. (I have to note, however, that Mr. Safire would never really have said “A majority of Burger King patrons operate under the fallacious assumption that the plural is ‘Whopper Juniors’,” though: surely he would have said “a majority of Burger King patrons operates.” I’m torn as to whether that was a mere slipup by The Onion or a particularly clever meta joke.)

Speaking of generals, though, sometimes the battle is just lost. Back in the days of yore, a military company had three important officers: the captain, his lieutenant, and the sergeant major (the plural of which is sergeants major, naturally). When you got a bunch of companies assembled together to form an army, you had to have an overall leader, who was the captain general ‒ the captain not of any particular company, but the captain of the army in general. Naturally, he had his own lieutenant ‒ the lieutenant general ‒ and a sergeant major ‒ the sergeant major general. Eventually those got shortened to just general, lieutenant general, and major general ‒ and with the top rank being reduced to general without the noun it once modified, it was inevitable that lieutenant general would be reanalyzed from “a lieutenant who is general” to “a general of the lieutenant sort.” Now we write not lieutenants general but lieutenant generals, and not even William Safire could do anything about it.

By the way, this indirectly explains why lieutenant generals outrank major generals despite majors outranking lieutenants ‒ something that I personally found mystifying when I first learned my military ranks. Colonels also got their own lieutenants and sergeants major, and the colonel’s sergeant major (now just called major) was under the colonel’s lieutenant (lieutenant colonel) but higher than a captain’s lieutenant (now just lieutenant). It’s all perfectly logical.

28 November 2010

Science and engineering

There’s an important difference between science and engineering that seems often to be lost on people, especially when discussing future technology and/or the limits of scientific knowledge. The classic example that always seems to get thrown out is human flight: The scientists said we would never fly, the argument goes, and they were wrong, so take everything scientists say with a grain of salt.

Many intelligent people in the late 1800s did deny the possibility of human heavier-than-air flight. But what we tend to forget is that no scientist ever said heavier-than-air flight was physically impossible: birds do it quite routinely, a fact that was well known to these learned gentlemen. The physical principle ‒ air flow over a wing produces lift ‒ was not in question. The objection was that the engineering problems would prove insurmountable: We could not, they argued, ever engineer an aircraft light and powerful enough to fly; they were wrong only because they underestimated how good internal combustion engines would turn out to be at providing lots of power for their weight.

We go far astray when we conflate the law of physics seem to say it’s impossible and I can’t see how we’d ever make it work. Bending spoons with mental powers is in the first category; building a space elevator is in the second. For the first to work, we would have to be completely wrong about almost everything we think we know about the universe; for the second to work, we just need to have structural materials far lighter and stronger than anything we can currently make. That means that when a scientist says “spoon bending is fantasy” it’s very different than when an engineer says “space elevators are fantasy.” They said we’d never fly is a valid reply to the latter, but not to the former.

24 November 2010

Twenty-first century piracy

The last piracy conviction in a United States court was in 1819 ‒ until today. AP reports via NPR that five Somalis, captured after attacking USS Nicholas (FFG 47) on 1 April this year, have been convicted of piracy in United States District Court and face mandatory life sentences. BBC’s report gives the specific charges: “piracy, attacking to plunder a maritime vessel, and assault with a dangerous weapon.”

(Now, I have no desire to do time in prison, by if I had to, it sure would be cool to be able to say “Me? I’m in for attacking to plunder a maritime vessel.” Beats grand larceny in the fourth degree.)

Seriously, though, it’s astounding that piracy on the high seas has reemerged as a problem. We’ve gotten used, in recent years, to hearing about Somali pirates in the news ‒ so used to it, in fact, that I think we’ve lost touch with just how bizarre the situation really is. I mean, the last time this happened, the world’s great powers were the United Kingdom, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia, and the Kingdom of France. Germany and Italy didn’t exist as unified countries yet; Greece was still part of the Ottoman Empire. The Pope still had a real army. Japan was still sealed off from the outside world; Hong Kong wasn’t British yet. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were still alive.

Plus ça change...

16 November 2010

Accounting and disinformation

I have to wonder about the participants in tax policy discussions: Is it possible they are so ignorant of the subject, or are they guilty of deliberate obfuscation, assuming that their audience cannot understand the most basic of accounting principles?

I’m not an accountant, or even much of an entrepreneur. But a recent New York Times op-ed ‒ Glenn Hubbard’s “Left, Right, and Wrong on Taxes” ‒ astounded me. Hubbard was, he says, a Treasury official during the first Bush administration; presumably he knows something about accountancy or tax law. But you wouldn’t guess it from the argument he makes.

Hubbard supports “a cut in the corporate income tax, which holds back both investment and wages.” Really? How does that work?

Isn’t it obvious?, I can hear them saying: Every dollar a business wastes on taxes is a dollar it can’t spend on hiring someone or investing in expanding the economy. On the face of it, that seems to make sense. Except that it’s completely wrong.

Don’t take my word for it, as they say. Let’s take a look at the IRS’s Form 1120, U.S. Corporation Income Tax Return. What income do you pay tax on? That’s Line 30, Taxable Income. How do you figure that? It’s Line 11, Total Income, minus Line 27, Total Deductions; Line 29a, Net Operating Loss Deduction; and Line 29b, Special Deductions. Leave aside 29a and 29b; what does into Total Deductions? Shockingly enough, it indludes Line 13, Salaries and Wages. And fourteen other categories of deductions, of course.

I mean, c’mon, people. It’s really pretty elementary. Businesses pay tax on their profits, not their sales. If you don’t have a profit, you don’t pay taxes.

Say I’m an executive at MarxCo. Our sales are $10 million, our cost of goods is $5 million, and we have $4 million in other deductible expenses: our profit is $1 million and we pay $350,000 in taxes, leaving us with a $650,000 after-tax profit. Is that $350,000 taken away from what I would pay additional workers?

What if the tax rate were reduced from 35 percent to 26 percent, as Hubbard advocates. Now we have a $260,000 tax bill and $740,000 after-tax profit. Why would we assume that the extra $90,000 goes into hiring an additional worker? We already had $650,000 in after-tax profit that we weren’t spending on hiring additional labor.

Let’s look at EngelsCo, then. It’s a similar company except that its deductible expenses are $5 million, leaving it with no profit. They can’t afford to hire anyone else because they’re just breaking even. Clearly a tax break would help them to hire more workers, right? No, because they’re not paying any taxes. EngelsCo’s Line 30, Taxable Income, is zero. Reducing the corporate tax rate changes their tax from 35 percent of zero to 26 percent of zero.

It’s hard to believe that the Hubbards out there don’t understand the difference between income and profit. The alternative explanation isn’t very charitable, but absent another plausible one, I have to assume that they are consciously spreading disinformation under the assumption that the American public is so ignorant of the basics of accounting and taxation that they won’t notice.