Saturday, December 02, 2006

This post is just a quick hack

Today we walked from our flat through Bethnal Green to Hackney. On the way, we walked by Überhaus, which, despite its ludicrous name, may become London's answer to Rat Wharf. I finally found out how the term "hackneyed" arose: In the middle ages, Hackney was rural, and became famous for its horses. World Wide Words goes on:

Horses of the hackney type were often worked heavily, in the nature of things that were hired out to all and sundry. So the word evolved in parallel with the previous sense to refer figuratively to something that was overused to the point of drudgery. By the middle of the sixteenth century, hackney was being applied to people in just this sense, and was abbreviated about the start of the eighteenth century to hack, as in hack work; it was applied in particular to literary drudges who dashed off poor-quality writing to order—hence its modern pejorative application to journalists.

Hackney horses were also widely available and commonly seen, to the extent that they became commonplace and unremarkable. So yet another sense evolved—for something used so frequently and indiscriminately as to have lost its freshness and interest, hence something stale, unoriginal or trite. The adjective hackneyed communicated this idea from about the middle of the eighteenth century on.


Last night we attended the last performance of the Queen Mary Players' performance of The Three Musketeers, Le Panteau. It was a pantomime, which, does not, as you might think, involve white-faced mutes. I knew nothing about pantomime before the show. I thought it would be a short play for kids. In fact, it was a 3-hour cavalcade of bad puns, cross-dressing, off-color jokes, and French-bashing. In other words, a microcosm of life in England. I now understand the roots of Monty Python.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Rogue elements

Today's Guardian says that "'rogue elements' within the Russian state" are now suspected in Litvinenko's death. I assume that "rogue element" refers to the perpetrator, not the polonium. I've long been puzzled by the use of the word "rogue," as in "rogue states". A rogue state seems to be a country that we deem irrational, so we don't need to talk to its rulers. The first two definitions of rogue in are

1. a dishonest, knavish person; scoundrel.
2. a playfully mischievous person; scamp: The youngest boys are little rogues.

Now, while I don't think for a minute that Litvinenko's killers are lovable scamps, I do think that these definitions contain an element of truth. After this summer's airline plot was announced, Marina Hyde wrote a wonderful column:

... for the past few years suspected terrorists have been mounting training exercises in the national parks of England and Wales, notably in the Lakes, Yorkshire Dales and Brecon Beacons. In many ways, this is unsurprising. As you will doubtless be aware, there is an unwritten British bylaw that decrees all residential improvement courses must take place in the Lake District. Cordon bleu cooking, watercolour painting (intermediate level), and now jihad - nowhere can these disciplines be better absorbed than in Wordsworth country...

Soon after last year's London bombings, a photograph emerged that featured two of the perpetrators whitewater rafting in North Wales. Apparently this was the leisure activity during some kind of al-Qaida bonding weekend...

It does not belittle murder to admit that that murder is being planned by a bunch of intense, lost, silly boys. But it should absolutely affect our response. Is it truly worthy of us to dismantle long-cherished legal freedoms for this lot? Quite how we will explain the decision to the proverbial grandchildren is hard to say....

This should not for a moment suggest that the danger from such people is not real. But being unable to laugh at it is a danger itself. It implies a critical lack of self-belief, suggesting virtues and values to be so tenuous that they can be shaken by Mittyish socio- or psychopaths, when the reality is that we will never be able to fully protect ourselves against some kinds of ingenuity.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Polonium on a plane

"Small traces of radiation" have been found on two British Airways planes.

"The airline now faces a logistical nightmare tracking down 33,000 passengers who used more than 200 affected flights over the past month, as well as 3,000 staff."

The connection to the death of Alexander Litvinenko isn't clear yet.

Update (November 30, 2006): Now we're up to five "planes of interest".

Monday, November 27, 2006

The persistence of Polonium

I remain shocked, nine days after the story broke in the western media, that an ex-Russian spy was killed with Polonium-210. Steinn Sigurðsson, Derek Lowe and Paul Revere have excellent posts. In Colorado, where we usually live, radon levels in homes are generally high. When we bought a house, testing showed high Rn levels within, so the sellers had to install a system to pump out radon. The danger is actually from polonium:

If inhaled, radon decay products (polonium-218 and polonium-214, solid form), unattached or attached to the surface of aerosols, dusts, and smoke particles, become deeply lodged or trapped in the lungs, where they can radiate and penetrate the cells of mucous membranes, bronchi, and other pulmonary tissues. The ionizing radiation energy affecting the bronchial epithelial cells is believed to initiate the process of carcinogenesis. Although radon-related lung cancers are mainly seen in the upper airways, radon increases the incidence of all histological types of lung cancer.... (from the US Environmental Protection Agency).

Of course, we're talking about modest increases in risk in homes with radon above the federal standard, not death within a month as in Litvinenko's case. The health risks of polonium are discussed here.