parsnips etc

One of the benefits of being at home in the holidays is access to not only my dad’s theology books but my mum’s extensive library of cookery books (don’t worry, they read each other’s).

More on the theology front later perhaps – I’ve already decided which tomes to cart back to Edinburgh with me when I leave, and will be letting dad know later.

Among the recipes I’ve been browsing through is a Parsnip and Satsuma Soup, featured in The New Free Church Cookbook – published in 2005, and to be thus known, in spite of whatever its official title is, until a newer one comes out. (Officially the nation’s number one resource for communion baking, or at least until the ladies of the FPs get their act together and start publishing at, it features everything from tablet to tagliatelle and is a bargain at £6.00.)

Anyway, the parsnip soup sounds perfect for my ever increasing passion for big hearty soups to feed crowds at weekends without excess hassle, and goes something like this:

Peel 2lb parsnips and cut into chunks, then put in a pan along with 3 onions and the juice of 4 satsumas. Add parsley and seasoning. Cover with water, add a couple of stock cubes, and simmer until the vegetables are just cooked. Cool, liquidize, and adjust consistency to taste with more fruit juice if required. Serve with a swirl of cream. (Serves 8.)

That’s a plagiarised version of what was contributed by one Margaret Macleod of Tain, whose suggestion of garlic I’ve taken the liberty of omitting.

I’ve also decided, thanks to Nigel Slater’s Real Cooking, that it would be a good idea to make more use of bulghar wheat in 2008, and caramelise more onions than hitherto, and on the puddings front, expect to hear more of Nigella’s chocolate pear pudding, and cheesecakes of one sort or another.


what /p/ looks like

One of the reasons why the term “visual words” in (psycho)linguistics is so irritating is because it assumes that a written word is just the same as a spoken word except that you see it rather than hearing it.

And another thing that’s been bugging me to varying degrees recently is the assumption, all but dead in phonology but persisting even in fields which find it necessary to invoke phonology constantly, that speech consists of phonemes.

Both these points deserve (lengthy) rants in posts of their own, but mentioning them right now gives the perfect opportunity to showcase two beautiful screenshots from Praat which have been sitting around in my laptop since I created them for a presentation only to decide they weren’t needed. Behold:



(I’d show you the audio files too, except I’m too much of a cheapskate to pay £10 to WordPress for a year’s worth of the privilege of being able to upload wavs.)

What they illustrate is, 1, that the closest you get to making an auditory word “visible” is when you measure and graph its acoustic properties (and/or of course measure and graph or video its articulation) , and 2, there is very little in the way of (either acoustic or articulatory) evidence for units in the speech stream. While everyone agrees that the concept of phones, physically invariant slices of the speech stream, is naive and outdated, the view that phonemes-as-such can be identified in the speech stream-as-such still tends to linger, in spite of not only the lack of evidence in its favour but all the evidence against it. You can call incidences of approximately simultaneous bilabiality, voicelessness, and plosion “/p/” if you want, but, as can be seen from comparing the pink bits in the two waveforms and the corresponding portions of the spectrograms, this is not a conclusion which falls out of the acoustics per se.

PS – does anyone think the sections for ‘p’ are a bit long? In spite of offering the audio files I can’t actually immediately lay my hands on them to check. If it looks suspect, it will just be my segmentation at fault.

how can they not tell?

Without wanting to sound unappreciative of the ever-growing amount of spam that Akismet catches for me, surely there must be ways of filtering out things like this:


They go on for multiple screens and are longer than the posts that even I write and consist of nothing but hyperlinks: and are annoying to keep deleting.

my tidy desk

Yesterday’s achievement:

That was after I didn’t reach the office till midday, discovered someone had polished off my milk that was in the fridge and binned the carton (again! thankyou, whoever you are), and was forced to acknowledge I wouldn’t get everything finished that I’d wanted before the end of semester.

Meanwhile, Tony Blair has announced his conversion to Catholicism – it’s not a surprise, but it will be interesting to see if it’s any more genuine, any less of a dissembling play-act, than anything else he’s done in the past decade or so.

In other news, I caught Any Questions on Radio 4 this lunchtime and was impressed with the performance of Dominic Grieve and Lib Dem Sarah Turner on the question of the national identity register. In the light of the recent multiple data loss fiascos, the government minister’s line was simply that ‘mistakes happen’ – ‘you can’t legislate against human error’ and there was no question of going back on the ID scheme. Both Grieve and Turner pointed out that since this is so – for this very reason – the national identity database is indefensible. In case I don’t get round to posting about it specifically, I might as well mention that I did eventually get a lengthy letter back from Alistair Darling in reply to my queries about how the government could assure us that our data would be in safe hands, given their carelessness with the child benefit data (rhetorical queries, obviously) – but he did the same thing as the minister on Any Questions, and simply recited the potential benefits, as he saw them, from having this scheme in place – failing to offer any suggestions about safeguards, failing to address the civil liberties case, and in general, failing to show how the government’s data-grab (with which it will be compulsory to comply) can be seen as anything better than an officially sanctioned kind of identity theft.

“This data disaster shows up the madness behind the government’s ID schemes. People had no choice about giving up that information. It makes the government the biggest identity thief of all.” (No2ID)

incredible 2

Now I’m amazed at what Harriet Harman has been quoted as saying it’s her personal view that we should follow what they’ve done in Sweden and make it illegal to pay for sex:

Can’t be a bad thing surely, but it came as a surprise after a BBC article feebly wondering whether it’s “empowering” for women to be portrayed the way they are in lads’ mags. The answer is no, obviously:

Once women burned their bras, today they send photos of their breasts to lad mags and call it liberating. Is this really a new form of feminism or just the old objectification?

Just more of the same old objectification, even if slightly less far down on the scale than prostitution. But as Harriet Harman says, “Do we think it’s right in the 21st century that women should be in a sex trade or do we think it’s exploitation and should be banned? Just because something has always gone on, it doesn’t mean you just wring your hands and say there’s nothing we can do about it.”

(And given the success of some campaigners in the past, I’m even inclining to a little glimmer of optimism on this – I can’t resist reminding you of Josephine Butler, inspirational mum who battled for women’s rights in spite of serious illness and personal difficulties of her own, in an at least equally uncongenial atmosphere.)


Obviously there are lots of important things I could be mentioning right now – defining consent in Scottish rape cases (linking from the BBC page so you avoid the outrageousness of the comments in the Scotsman, the release of a couple more men from Guantanamo, that sort of thing.

But I’m just back from Oxfam, where I nipped in to buy some Christmas seasonal greetings cards, and quite frankly I’m amazed. Two people were trying to steal stuff! From the Oxfam shop!

Can you believe that?

in this world

In a semantics tutorial not so long ago, I bizarrely found myself saying something like, “Obviously, in this world, you wouldn’t blah blah (be able to find an extension for that phrase, or something).”

The slightly peculiar reaction from the student I was talking to reminded me (a) that they haven’t actually been told about ‘possible worlds’ theories yet, and (b) that anyway ‘this world’ is a phrase which maybe only trips off my tongue so easily because of how familiar is the concept that there is another world in addition to the one we presently live in.

But the thing is, I’ve been uncomfortably realising recently that the other world is much more distant from my thoughts than it should be, and having much less of an impact on my daily life than it really should. Whoever it was that said it, it’s true – eternity is just a step away; the only thing that separates us from the eternal world is the breath we breathe. It’s too common and far too easy to assume that things will carry on here just as they always have done – and more subtly, that we ourselves personally will always still be here. (It’s only very rarely that you seriously face up to the absolute certainty that it won’t be all that long before your life here will be irrevocably ended.) Whereas this mindset is glaringly counterfactual. ‘Change and decay in all around I see’ – nothing in this life is constant or perpetual, and grasping the implications of that would make a world of difference to how we live, if only we would grasp it.

Leaving the scene of time and stepping into eternity – that’s what our whole lives here are geared towards, and eternity is much more real, and much more near, than I for one really tend to acknowledge. It’s also much more important. ‘Teach us to number our days, and so to apply our hearts unto wisdom. O satisfy us early with thy mercy, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.’ Let it be true, that ‘surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.’

‘in no wise’

Another snippet from John Bunyan’s quotable little treatise:

“It is manifest that it was not the greatness of sin, nor the long continuance in it, no, nor yet the backsliding, nor the pollution of thy nature, that can put a bar against, or be an hindrance to, the salvation of the [sinner coming to Jesus] …

Suppose that one man had the sins of, or as many sins as, an hundred men, and suppose another should have an hundred times as many as he; yet if they come, this word, ‘I will in no wise cast out,’ secures them both alike.

Suppose a man hath a desire to be saved, and for that purpose is coming in truth to Jesus Christ, but he by his debauched life has damned many in hell; why, the door of hope is by these words set as open for him, as it is for him that hath not the thousandth part of his transgressions: ‘And him that cometh to me, I will in no wise cast out.’

Suppose a man is coming to Christ to be saved, and hath nothing but sin, and an ill-spent life, to bring with him; why, let him come and welcome to Jesus Christ, ‘And he will in no wise cast him out.’

Is not this love that passeth knowledge? is not this love the wonder of angels? And is not this love worthy of all acceptation at the hands and hearts of all coming sinners?”

These considerations are obviously mainly intended to act as an encouragement to people who are already worried about their sin in a way that makes them at least wonder if there is mercy available from Christ for them – and even more specifically in the context of the book itself, people who might be worried that their sin would be a reason why there would be no hope for them in the gospel. Clearly Bunyan’s words are not meant, for example, to let people think that gospel mercy licences them to carry on absorbed in things that are opposed to the gospel and in the neglect of their souls.

Bunyan’s message here is to show how the Saviour is a Saviour for sinners, however sinful they might be, which is not a trivial consideration to people who find sin in everything they do. Sinners are not excluded from the gospel offer: the gospel is offered in fact to sinners as such; and as the final sentence in the quote shows, the undeservingness of the people it’s offered to is one of the greatest incentives to accept it.

(Other excerpts from the same book here and here.)

John Bunyan, Come and Welcome to Jesus Christ: A Plain and Profitable Discourse on John 6: 37. First published 1681, my edition 1820, p192

privacy in scotland

This motion is apparently going to be debated in the Scottish Parliament tomorrow:

That the Parliament believes that the fundamental liberties enjoyed by generations of our citizens must not be eroded;
welcomes the commitment by the previous Scottish Executive that ID cards would not be needed to access devolved services and its proportionate position on DNA retention;
is concerned at the threat to civil liberties from the UK Government’s expensive and unworkable proposal to introduce compulsory ID cards;
believes that the Scottish Government should not put citizens’ privacy at risk by allowing the UK ID database to access personal information held by the Scottish Government, local authorities or other devolved public agencies;
therefore calls on the Scottish Government to ensure that all data protection procedures are secure and that audit of data under its jurisdiction is independent of government and accountable to the Parliament,
and takes the view that there should be no blanket retention of DNA samples and that the Assistant Information Commissioner for Scotland should have specific powers to carry out spot checks on the compliance by Scottish government agencies and bodies with the Data Protection Act 1998.

It will be interesting to see what they say. Already in Scotland some fears have been raised about the so-called Scottish Entitlement Card, which people apply for on the basis that it acts as a free bus pass, but which requires them to waive their data protection rights in order for their personal information to be shared across unspecified other government departments, on the basis that this will give them easier access to other government services which may be provided via the card in the future. (In theory there is an opt-out, so that your personal details will be used only for the purpose of getting you the bus pass you’re entitled to but for no other purposes, but, as John Welford has been documenting, it’s not so easy to achieve in practice.)

I’m a bit unclear as to the procedures of the Scottish Parliament and what the implications of any outcome of this debate will be, but if (in the wake of the multiple data loss scandals of the past few weeks) our elected representatives in the Scottish Parliament decide that identity register schemes are not in the interests of ordinary members of the public, some change of policy on the much-vaunted ‘free bus pass’ might well be required.