(Roughly) Daily

“H as in How in the World Are We Going to Escape?”*…

A treatise on the the letter “H,” on the occasion of its becoming an arbiter of class in the later 19th century…

In George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1913), which inspired the musical My Fair Lady, a fictional linguist describes a phonetic endemic: missed employment opportunities due to the connotations of a person’s accent. Addressing the “many thousands of men and women who have sloughed off their native dialects and acquired a new tongue”, the professor insists that “the thing has to be done scientifically, or the last state of the aspirant may be worse than the first”. Shaw’s wit shows through in the near homonym: aspirations of social mobility, in this period, often included pronunciationary emulation — the breathy aitch sounds of aspirated consonants.

Alfred Leach, who Steven Connor, in Beyond Words, calls one of the “doughiest defenders of the h”, believed that English’s aspirated aitch (or rather, haitch) signaled a direct inheritance from Classical antiquity. In the pronounced h of words like “herb” — notably lacking from American English — he heard the “spiritus asper” of Hellenism. Leach was writing in a period when linguists began reflecting on the shifting history of aspirates and the role they played in indicating status, class, and education. These traits continue into our present day. The historian of language Henry Hitchings, whose own name is uncannily reminiscent of Shaw’s Henry Higgins, argues that the pronunciation of this letter is “still a significant shibboleth”, and quotes Leach’s contemporary, Oxford scholar Henry Sweet, who called it “an almost infallible test of education and refinement”.

Why so much huffing about the letter H? Throughout the nineteenth century, this aspirated sound was on the rise. At the end of the previous century, Received Pronunciation (RP) became known as the accent of aristocracy, leading to aspirational elocution guides like Poor Letter H (1854). While words like “hotel” had once been pronounced in the French style (oh-tell), English speakers had begun to exhale audibly, as if yawning at the continued Norman influence on British tongues. Leach led the charge against “English Grammarians” who “conspired to withhold from us the means of propitiating this demon Aspirate”. In The Letter H, he ridicules those he calls “H-droppers”, speakers whose phonetic errors seem to snowball: “lost H’s have a knack of turning up in wrong places, when they return at all”. Leach is prone to hyperbole — “the early aspirative labours of a converted H-dropper give birth to monstrosities” — and sneers at Cockney speech: “Horkney hoysters, ‘amshire ‘am, and ‘am and heggs”…

More, from Hunter Dukes (@hunterdukes) in @PublicDomainRev: “Aspirated Aspirations: Alfred Leach’s The Letter H (1880)

(image above: source)

* Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler), The Hostile Hospital


As we ponder pronunciation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1961 that Coronation Street premiered in ITV in the UK. It holds the Guinness World Record for longest running soap opera.


“Most of the world is transitioning into natural population decline. I think it’s incredibly hard to think this through and recognise how big a thing this is; it’s extraordinary, we’ll have to reorganise societies.”*…

For essentially the entirety of global history since the Industrial Revolution– and the advent of the modern societies shaped by it– the world’s population has been growing. That’s begun to change…

One of the big lessons from the demographic history of countries is that population explosions are temporary. For many countries the demographic transition has already ended, and as the global fertility rate has now halved we know that the world as a whole is approaching the end of rapid population growth…

As we explore at the beginning of the entry on population growth, the global population grew only very slowly up to 1700 – only 0.04% per year. In the many millennia up to that point in history very high mortality of children counteracted high fertility. The world was in the first stage of the demographic transition.

Once health improved and mortality declined things changed quickly. Particularly over the course of the 20th century: Over the last 100 years global population more than quadrupled. As we see in the chart, the rise of the global population got steeper and steeper and you have just lived through the steepest increase of that curve. This also means that your existence is a tiny part of the reason why that curve is so steep.

The 7-fold increase of the world population over the course of two centuries amplified humanity’s impact on the natural environment. To provide space, food, and resources for a large world population in a way that is sustainable into the distant future is without question one of the large, serious challenges for our generation. We should not make the mistake of underestimating the task ahead of us. Yes, I expect new generations to contribute, but for now it is upon us to provide for them. Population growth is still fast: Every year 140 million are born and 58 million die – the difference is the number of people that we add to the world population in a year: 82 million…

The annual population growth rate (that is, the percentage change in population per year) of the global population… peaked around half a century ago. Peak population growth was reached in 1968 with an annual growth of 2.1%. Since then the increase of the world population has slowed and today grows by just over 1% per year. This slowdown of population growth was not only predictable, but predicted. Just as expected by demographers (here), the world as a whole is experiencing the closing of a massive demographic transition…

We are on the way to a new balance. The big global demographic transition that the world entered more than two centuries ago is then coming to an end: This new equilibrium is different from the one in the past when it was the very high mortality that kept population growth in check. In the new balance it will be low fertility that keeps population changes small.

By 2100, the UN projects, world population will have effectively stabilized: “Future Population Growth,” from Max Roser (@MaxCRoser) and Our World in Data (@OurWorldInData). How will the economies and societies that are premised on growth adapt?

See also: “Fertility rate: ‘Jaw-dropping’ global crash in children being born.”

Christopher J.L. Murray


As we dwell on demographics, we might send carefully calculated birthday greetings to Karl Gunnar Myrdal; he was born on this date in 1898. And economist and sociologist, he shared the 1972 Nobel Prize in Economics (with Friedrich Hayek) for “their pioneering work in the theory of money and economic fluctuations and for their penetrating analysis of the interdependence of economic, social and institutional phenomena.” When his wife, Alva Myrdal, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1982, they became the fourth ever married couple to have won Nobel Prizes, and the first to win independent of each other (versus a shared Nobel Prize by scientist spouses).

Myrdal is probably best known in the United States for his study of race relations, which culminated in his book An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy— influential in the 1954 landmark U.S. Supreme Court Decision Brown v. Board of Education. In Sweden, his work and political influence were important to the establishment of the Folkhemmet and the welfare state.


“The future is electric”…

One of the many Fritchle electric cars manufactured in the early 20th century

And also a thing of the past…

For a brief period in the early 20th century in the United States, the electric car was high society’s hottest commodity, sought after by socialites and businessmen alike…

During the early years of the “Automotive Age,”—from about 1896 to 1930—as many as 1,800 different car manufacturers functioned in the U.S. While innovators in Europe had been working on battery-powered vehicles since the 1830s, the first successful electric car in the U.S. made its debut in 1890 thanks to a chemist from Iowa. His six-passenger was basically an electrified wagon that hit a top speed of 14 mph.

By 1900, electric cars were so popular that New York City had a fleet of electric taxis, and electric cars accounted for a third of all vehicles on the road. People liked them because in many ways early electric cars outperformed their gas competitors. Electric cars didn’t have the smell, noise, or vibration found in steam or gasoline cars. They were easier to operate, lacked a manual crank to start, and didn’t require the same difficult-to-change gear system as gas cars.

Electric cars became extremely popular in cities, especially with upper-class women who disliked the noisy and smelly attributes of gasoline-powered cars. A New York Times article from 1911 reported, “The designers of electric passenger car-carrying vehicles have made great advances in the past few years, and these machines have retained all their early popularity and are steadily growing in favor with both men and women.”…

Like today, one of the challenges for early electric car owners was where to charge them. But by 1910 owners could install their own charging stations on their property, and an increasing number of car-repair shops popped up that allowed electric cars to charge overnight.

One of the most eccentric and interesting manufacturers of early electric cars was Oliver P. Fritchle, a chemist and electrical engineer who began as an auto repairman until he realized he could build a better electric car himself. Fritchle sold his first vehicle in 1906 and set up a production plant in Denver, Colorado, in 1908.

Fritchle made one of the best car batteries in the business, which he claimed could travel 100 miles on a single charge

An advertisement for a Fritchle electric car. Via American-Automobiles.com

What’s old is new again: “Before Tesla: Why everyone wanted an electric car in 1905,” from Megan Barber (@megcbarber) in @Curbed.

J. P. Morgan


As we recharge, we might recall that it was on this date in 1955 that the U.S. Federal government standardized the size of license plates throughout the U.S. Originally, owners had been responsible for their own tags; then individual states had designed– and dimensioned– license plates, resulting in wide variations.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 5, 2021 at 1:00 am

“‘It’s magic,’ the chief cook concluded, in awe. ‘No, not magic,’ the ship’s doctor replied. ‘It’s much more. It’s mathematics.’*…

Michael Wendl (and here) dissects some variants of the magic separation, a self-working card trick…

Martin Gardner—one of history’s most prolific maths popularisers [see here]—frequently examined the connection between mathematics and magic, commonly looking at tricks using standard playing cards. He often discussed ‘self-working’ illusions that function in a strictly mechanical way, without any reliance on sleight of hand, card counting, pre-arrangement, marking, or key-carding of the deck. One of the more interesting specimens in this genre is a matching trick called the magic separation.

This trick can be performed with 20 cards. Ten of the cards are turned face-up, with the deck then shuffled thoroughly by both the performer and, importantly, the spectator. The performer then deals 10 cards to the spectator and keeps the remainder for herself. This can be done blindfolded to preclude tracking or counting. Not knowing the distribution of cards, our performer announces she will rearrange her own cards ‘magically’ so that the number of face-ups she holds matches the number of face-ups the spectator has. When cards are displayed, the counts do indeed match. She easily repeats the feat for hecklers who claim luck…

All is revealed: “An odd card trick,” from Chalkdust (@chalkdustmag). 

* David Brin, Glory Season


As we conjure, we might spare a thought for Persian polymath Omar Khayyam; the mathematician, philosopher, astronomer, epigrammatist, and poet died on this date in 1131.  While he’s probably best known to English-speakers as a poet, via Edward FitzGerald’s famous translation of the quatrains that comprise the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Omar was one of the major mathematicians and astronomers of the medieval period.  He is the author of one of the most important works on algebra written before modern times, the Treatise on Demonstration of Problems of Algebra (which includes a geometric method for solving cubic equations by intersecting a hyperbola with a circle).  His astronomical observations contributed to the reform of the Persian calendar.  And he made important contributions to mechanics, geography, mineralogy, music, climatology, and Islamic theology.


“Man is unique not because he does science, and he is unique not because he does art, but because science and art equally are expressions of his marvelous plasticity of mind”*…

Anatomy of the principal parts of the human body. Engraving by J. Blanchin after J. Dumoulin, 1679 (source: Wellcome Collection)

As Einstein once said, “After a certain high level of technical skill is achieved science and art tend to coalesce in aesthetics, plasticity, and form”…

Scientists have often invited the public to see what they see, using everything from engraved woodblocks to electron microscopes to explore the complexity of the scientific enterprise and the beauty of life. Sharing these visions through illustrations, photography and videos has allowed laypeople to explore a range of discoveries, from new bird species to the inner workings of the human cell.

As a neuroscience and bioscience researcher, I know that scientists are sometimes pigeonholed as white lab coats obsessed with charts and graphs. What that stereotype misses is their passion for science as a mode of discovery. That’s why scientists frequently turn to awe-inducing visualizations as a way to explain the unexplainable…

Professor Christine Curran explains how “Art illuminates the beauty of science – and could inspire the next generation of scientists young and old,” from @ConversationUS.

For more wonderful examples (in the realm of health and medicine), explore The Wellcome Collection.

* Jacob Bronowski


As we visualize, we might recall that it was on this date in 1910 that French chemist, engineer, and inventor Georges Claude switched on the first public display of neon lights– two large (39 foot long), bright red neon tubes– at the Paris Motor Show.  Over the next decade, Claude lit much of Paris.  Neon came to America in 1923 when Earl Anthony purchased signage from Claude, then transported it to Los Angeles, where Anthony installed it at his Packard dealership… and (literally) stopped traffic.

Claude in his lab, 1913


%d bloggers like this: