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Michael Jennings talking about maths and about international passenger aviation

Somewhat over a week ago I did a posting here about maths. What use, I asked, is it? I always knew there were plenty of good answers, but the quantity and quality of what the Samizdata commentariat came up with amazed and delighted me, as it did a number of those same commenters. Someone even suggested we have other postings here about what use other educationally controversial things are, like poetry, Latin, and so on (I am thinking: media studies, which I definitely do not assume would have to be useless).

At the end of that piece I mentioned that Michael Jennings and I were about to record a conversation on this subject. Its been up and listenable to at my Education Blog for a while now, so apologies for the delay in mentioning it here, but far better a week late than never. This is not the kind of thing that will be going out of date any time soon. Here is the link to it.

I did most of the asking, and Michael did most of the answering, and it must be admitted that Michael is not what you would call a hundred per cent fluent speaker. It sounds like he suffers from the mild remnants of a childhood stutter, which means that he would not be the ideal choice to perform on Just A Minute, a BBC 4 radio show where your mission is to talk uninterrupted nonsense and where you get penalised for the slightest suggestion of hesitation or repetition. For, on the plus side, Michael does not do nonsense either, which is part of the reason why he still often hesitates. He wants to get things right. Basically, the man just knows so much, about so many things, which means that when he answers a question he is as likely as not choosing between four or five equally relevant facts that he might then serve up. You can see why the people in the City of London get so rich, if they have people like Michael keeping them informed about the world and its business. I strongly urge anyone who resents even the hint of a lack of verbal fluency to, as the Americans say and pardon my split infinitive, deal with it. I found my talk with Michael about maths and its uses absolutely fascinating. Word of mouth already tells me that others have liked listening to it also, and I know that many more will if they click on the above link.

The delay in telling Samizdata readers about this recorded conversation enables me also to mention here another such conversation involving Michael Jennings that has been more recently immortalised by another of London’s libertarian recording angels (so to speak), Patrick Crozier. This time, the subject is aviation, landing slots at Heathrow, international aviation treaties, and the like. If you have any doubts about Michael’s credentials as an expert on this industry (which of course could never have got off the ground without the relentless application of mathematics), then do what Patrick Crozier suggests and have a(nother?) read of this Samizdata posting from way back, on this same subject. Sadly, there was a mix up with the first attempt to record all this (might Patrick perhaps benefit from a media studies course?). The first conversation got stopped in mid flight through a wrong button getting pressed, and a separate concluding recording was done. But here they both are, and they are both well worth listening to. Patrick’s brief bloggery about them is to be found at Transport Blog, here and here.

By the way, Patrick Crozier and I seem to have very divergent ideas about what is the correct volume at which to record these things, so be ready to do some nob twiddling if you go from one to the other. Technical comments about which of us got it wrong (both I dare say) and by how much would be very welcome. More media studies.

Getting back to what was said, there are many delightful moments in these discussions, especially in the maths one, which I would say, wouldn’t I? Nevertheless, my absolute favourite bit of all happens towards the end of the first of the two aviation conversations, a soundbite which Patrick also featured on the short trailer that he did for that. The dialogue goes like this:

Patrick: “Can you trade your slots?”

Michael: “Er … kind of. Not legally. Well, sort of.”

There are times when hesitation is the most eloquent thing there is. Listen, and all is explained.

9 comments to Michael Jennings talking about maths and about international passenger aviation

  • Millie Woods

    It truly amazes me how many people are terrified of the non-issue of infinitive splitting.
    If you say – help me to unload the car – or – help me unload the car – you are using the infinitive unload – in one case with the infinitive marker to in another without the marker. I
    f you say you should reduce your carbon footprint or you ought to reduce your carbon footprint you are again using the same infinitive with in one case its marker in another without.
    The high frequency modal auxiliaries, can. could, should etc., have dispensed with the infinitive marker. The less frequent ought has not.
    The verb help is in a transitional phase where the infinitive marker to is sometimes used, sometimes not. If you want to chart the progress of the decline of the infinitive marker look to the King James version of the Bible. Remember he maketh me to lie down and similar utterings. The King James is full of such examples.
    All of which is to say that there is no such critter as a split infinitive and here endeth the lesson.( Even we recovering academics do go on if given the opportunity.)

  • Laird

    Millie, I’m sure you are entirely correct, but I still prefer my infinitives unsplit! A foolish pedantry, no doubt, but there it is.

    Brian, I haven’t yet listened to your recording, but I did very much enjoy reading the various responses to your earlier posting. Thanks for raising the question.

  • Millie Woods

    The point was that the infinitive is the verb element not the particle + verb ergo the only way to split an infinitive is to write something like wribeautifullyte. Or in other words there is no such thing as a split infinitive but the belief in its existence is like Al Gore believing he really invented the internet, there is a vast right wing conspiracy, we, like the witch in the Wizard of Oz, have nothing to look forward to except melting, melting, melting.
    End of rant.
    Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, split infinitives – there’s no there there.

  • Laird

    And I suppose you’re now going to tell me that a preposition is something it’s OK to end a sentence with?

  • Pa Annoyed

    Would that be preposition stranding that you’re talking about?

  • Millie Woods

    Laird your comments remind me of James Thurber’s Miss Fidditch, the English composition teacher. Thurber’s Miss Fidditch admonished Shakespeare for his But me no buts and uncle me no uncles with the waspish comment that but was a conjunction or preposition and uncle was a noun and hence could not be used as verbs.

  • Midwesterner

    I once prepositioned an English major. I think it was her left hand she slapped me with. She apparently wanted me to go away. It was pretty clear she didn’t want to get it on. It had been a long day and she was probably feeling all done in. But it could have been something else I never thought of. In any case, she really gave me what for. So heartbreaking, it is something I’ve never recovered from. I must say, she has been very hard to get over. I think she moved Down Under.

    Well, some people could keep this up the whole night through. But I’ll let this be the one I stop on.

  • Midwestener: Enough.

    I was really hoping someone would talk about me in this comments thread, but no, just grammar flames. I am disappointed.

  • This is coming in rather late, but Midwesterner’s “prepositioning an English major”, and the consequences, were the wittiest contribution to the debate. Truly good word-play, aphorisms and apophthegms are rare beasts to be treasured. I like Oscar Wilde’s description of fox hunting, “The English country gentleman galloping after a fox – the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable.” (Apparently, though, foxes are safer now.)
    Laird’s trotting out the old comment that “a preposition is something it’s OK to end a sentence with” is surely now a bit limp and hackneyed.
    Try a bit of social engineering. In my ’07 visit to the UK and Europe, I noted that northern hemisphere people are just as silly and rude when using mobile phones as we are in the Antipodes. I should have brought some of the cards I leave here and there in Australia : “Mobile phones allow stupid, vulgar people to show their stupidity and vulgarity more publicly and more often.” It’s hardly an aphorism, but spread a few of these cards round (with discretion!) and you might have a more relaxed trip home from work.
    Bill Jennings (father of Michael).