Great Green Dragons & the Big Bad Wolf
Hello there :)
Welcome to issue twenty five of Manufacturing Serendipity, a loosely connected, somewhat rambling collection of the unexpected things I’ve recently encountered.
This newsletter is free to receive, but if you’d like to support me in this odd little endeavour you can buy me a coffee :)
Speaking of coffee, grab yourself a suitable beverage my loves, let’s do this thing…
Part I: Things I’ve Encountered Online…
Some of you might recall this tweet from back in 2016:
The quote in the image reads:
“…adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out. And as size comes before colour, green great dragons can’t exist”
~ The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase by Mark Forsyth
It’s a fascinating notion, and one that I think is probably mostly correct.
These “rules” of adjective ordering aren’t something native English speakers learn (or, at least I certainly didn’t) but nevertheless, most of the time we instinctively follow them: “great green dragons” sounds right; “green great dragons” does not.
However, quite rightly, at the time, many questioned the “rightness” of Forsyth’s example sentence. It’s very clumsy, right? I think it’s partly because we typically wouldn’t string quite so many adjectives together, but that’s not the only problem:
His choice of noun (a knife) is a pretty odd one. Most of the time we don’t describe the shape of a knife: knives are necessarily knife-shaped, so claiming it’s rectangular feels odd.
I also feel like there’s something off with the ordering of colour-origin-material - “green French silver knife” sounds weird - some materials, like silver, infer colour, so you’re left wondering how a knife can be both green and silver. A “green-handled French silver knife” makes slightly more sense in that it’s easier to imagine, but still, as a description it doesn’t sit quite right, and I’m still not convinced those adjectives are in the correct order. Does “French green-handled silver knife” sound more right? Possibly? I’m not sure, everything’s turning into word soup on my screen right now.
Anyway, let’s put Forsyth’s sentence to one side for now. At the time, there was also a bunch of debate around whether or Forsyth’s “rules” were actually correct.
Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?
If we follow Forsyth’s rules, it’s not the “Big Bad Wolf”, it’s the “Bad Big Wolf” (opinion-size-noun). And yet, “Bad Big Wolf” sounds utterly wrong.
It turns out that the “rules” which Forsyth has highlighted aren’t the only things which come into play when we consider adjective order. Some have suggested the reason we favour the “Big Bad Wolf” rather than the “Bad Big Wolf” might be down to the Pollyanna principle - i.e. speakers prefer to present positive, or indifferent, values before negative ones.
Others have noted our tendency to place adjectives based on how essential (or otherwise they are) to the thing we’re describing: the more essential an adjective is, the closer it goes to the noun. This might go some way to explaining our “Big Bad Wolf” - the fact this he is “bad” is perhaps more important to know than his size.
It’s also been noted that our preference for this ordering might be down to the repeated sounds in the phrase. Apparently, when it comes to repeated sounds, we tend to favour a certain vowel order. Usually, ‘i’ comes before ‘a’ or ‘o’ in these cases. For example, we say “zig zag” not “zag zig”, and “hip hop” not “hop hip”. Possibly, we’re seeing this at play in ‘Big Bad Wolf’, essentially, the vowel order rule is more important for it to sound “right” than the adjective order.
In short, the “Big Bad Wolf” might appear to break some “rules”, and yet, it clearly adheres to others.
What’s most interesting, I think, is that instinctively, pretty much everyone can agree that certain phrases sound “right”, certain phrases sound “wrong”, and there are a bunch of rules at play that govern this stuff which we seem to adhere to, and yet we’ve never been taught.
This week I came across another such rule which we seemingly adhere to. Dear reader, this one’s pretty sweary, but nevertheless interesting I think.
It’s '“abso-f*cking-lutely” not “absolu-f*cking-tely”
This is absolutely glorious, no?
This video from Tom Scott offers a more detailed explanation. For those of you who’d sooner read than watch a video (YOU ARE MY PEOPLE!), I’ve popped the transcript below:
“There are some words that I can’t use in this video. Partly because I try not to swear on camera, and partly because I want these videos to be suitable for everyone, no matter how conservative your views on language are. Or how conservative your parents’ views on language are.
Fortunately, I am British, so there’s a word that I can use instead: Bloody. “Bloody” used to be a taboo word, it used to cause great offence, and there’s no actual consensus as to why. But these days, it’s been classified as “generally of little concern” by the UK’s broadcasting regulator, so I’m going to assume I can get away with it.
But before we get to that part of the bloody video, we have to talk about something that high school English class probably didn’t teach you.
Prefixes fit on the start of words. And suffixes fit on the end of words. And that’s about as far as most people get in school.
These little atoms of language, these bits of meaning that can’t be split any further, are called morphemes: we’ve talked about those before. And when a morpheme is used like this, it’s called an affix.
But affixes aren’t just prefixes and suffixes: there are also infixes, morphemes that slot into the middle of a word. And it is very awkward for an English teacher to talk about infixes.
In some other languages, it would be much easier.
In Khmer, for example, there’s an infix that shows causation. So slap in Khmer means “to die”, but samlap means “to kill”, or “to cause to die”. It’s more complicated than that, of course, but that’s a good simple example for English speakers.
Proto-Indo-European, the reconstructed ancient language, (that’s the common ancestor of most languages between Iceland and India), Proto-Indo-European almost certainly included a nasal infix: in English, a few millennia later, there is evidence of that in one irregular verb: it’s the difference between “stood” and “stand”.
But modern English doesn’t have infixes.
Unless you count one language feature that school kids would very much enjoy playing around with: expletive infixation.
Now, "expletive", in linguistic terms, usually means a word that’s not conveying any meaning itself, but which helps with some other goal in a sentence, like being a dummy subject.
So in “it rained”, what’s “it”? The world? The sky? It doesn’t matter, “it” in that sentence is an expletive, it just means we don’t have to point at the window and go “Raining!”.
But “expletive” also has another meaning for non-linguists: a curse word. And that’s what we’re talking about here.
Expletive infixation means sticking a curse word inside another word, to add emphasis, which is fan-bloody-tastic.
Yes, this is a genuine linguistics thing, there are papers written about it, because it's not a free-for-all: English speakers have some rules and patterns that we generally stick to.
First rule: You can’t just use any word, or even any curse word, as an infix.
The words that can systematically be used like this are expletives that can already be used at almost any point in a sentence, words that were wonderfully described as "fornicatives and theo-imprecatives": in short, it’s usually about sex, or it’s about asking god to damn someone. Or they’re words derived from those originals: so "fricking", "flipping", "goshdarn".
There are certainly instances where entirely different words could be used: you can put a huge number of curses in the middle of “abso-bloody-lutely” and it’ll sound okay because we’re so used to that construction.
If you like, pause the video now, and try out a few of them. Out loud. Shout them. Just to help you deal with the state of the world.
But there are a few more common words that are used for this. In a 1980 article, James McMillan connected expletive infixation to what he called "interposing", which is "the interruption of any tight syntactic phrase".
So that’d be "Mount St friggin’ Helens", "of bloody course", or "Isaac god-damn Newton."
These interposing words can occupy spaces that no other part of speech can, they break the rules that we’re taught, and it turns out you can extend that to even interrupting in the middle of single words.
So that’s the words you can use.
Second rule: you can’t stick an expletive infix anywhere in a word.
There is some disagreement among phonologists about the exact details of where they can fit, but there’s a general agreement that the infix has to go before a stressed syllable, and not break a morpheme in two.
So "im-bloody-POSSible" and "disa-bloody-GREEable" are fine.
But put the infix before an unstressed syllable and you get: "imPOSS-bloody-ible", "imPOSSi-bloody-ble", or "disaGREEa-bloody-ble."
Which all sound terrible.
And the thing that's so interesting about that construction: seeing as it's usually taboo, you were likely never taught how to use any of those in school by an English teacher.
But you knew how it worked anyway.
The way we learn the rules of language without being "taught" them traditionally is in-bloody-credible.”
Moar serendipitous finds:
You’d likely expect artists like Drake to be racking up the biggest streaming numbers on Spotify, but according to Rolling Stone, Indie label Sleep Fruits Music has captured the attention of digital marketers who spend their days scrutinizing the streaming platform:
“Sleep Fruits Music’s tracks are barely more than 30 seconds — lasting just long enough to register as a stream on Spotify and trigger a royalty payout.
Many of the hundreds of songs are short recordings of rainfall, while others are soft electronic sound-baths.
Sleep Fruits Music did not exist at the start of this year, but last week, the account was generating roughly 10 million streams a day, according to screenshots shared with Rolling Stone from the Spotify for Artists tool, which allows acts to compare stream-counts with their peers.
Those numbers are on par with streaming statistics for one of the biggest pop stars of the last 15 years: Sleep Fruits Music earned more Spotify streams than Lady Gaga on an average day in recent weeks.
In addition, a playlist titled “Sleep Fruits Music: Night rain sounds, Relaxing nature thunder,” which is filled with at least 235 brief rain recordings co-credited to Sleep Fruits Music and Ambient Fruits Music, was recently the eighth most-streamed playlist worldwide on Spotify, according to a confidential list that the streaming service shares with its partners, which was reviewed by Rolling Stone.
Last week, that playlist was outperforming premier Spotify collections like RapCaviar and Hot Country, despite having a much smaller follower count.”
I guess some of you might be thinking “that’s a pretty smart way of extracting income from Spotify”, and I’d acknowledge that yep, that’s true; however, some members of the music industry have rightly highlighted that Strange Fruits Music aren’t stealing money from Spotify, they’re stealing money from artists:
“Under Spotify’s divide-one-pie payout model, there’s a finite pool of money for artists that comes in from the streamer’s ads-and-subscriptions revenue, and each act’s allocation is determined by his or her fraction of overall plays. When rain sounds are amassing millions of streams, that diverts money to Sleep Fruits Music at the expense of more traditional musicians — singers, rappers, producers, and songwriters.
“Cutting up ‘rain sounds’ into 31-second clips to maximize streams and take as much money as possible is egregiously immoral,” says Dustin Boyer, managing director of Venture Music, a digital marketing agency based in Nashville, Tennessee. “They’re just taking money” — he estimates $20,000 to $30,000 a day — “straight out of the pockets of artists.”
When approached by Rolling Stone to comment on this story, Dutch electronic producer Stef Van Vugt (the founder of the sleep-music account’s parent record label, Strange Fruits) said:
“My mind is blown even trying to grasp the idea of saying [that] what Strange Fruits is doing is a bad thing. In a wildly consolidated music industry, Strange Fruits is an indie that has figured out how to take a piece of the major pie.
You’re going to bash the indie? Finally someone has been able to take a percentage of the whole music market that isn’t Universal, Sony, or Warner.”
Are they indie though?
Strange Fruits have a deal with the Alternative Distribution Alliance, Warner’s indie distribution wing. Now I don’t fully understand this stuff, but it seems to me like, sure, they’re kinda indie, but THEY ARE ALSO PART OF WARNER.
Van Vugt appears to acknowledge this too:
“Being with the majors gives you a protection layer where you can fuck up left and right, a little bit, sometimes.”
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that Van Vugt compares his label’s promotion strategy to that of a startup, and sounds remarkably like your typical arrogant tech bro.
Not gonna lie, I really wish this was an article rather than a twitter thread, but given the way twitter seemingly works now (some have theorised that perhaps tweets with links to external sites either don’t get shared as much, or perhaps the twitter algorithm doesn’t show tweets like this as frequently on people’s feeds, which, in turn negatively impacts engagement), this is how we’re apparently forced to share stuff now.
Regardless of my griping this is excellent, click through the tweet to read the thread:
Netflix pulls all the frames from a given programme or film
Each frame is tagged with metadata
The frames are graded based on a variety of variables
These frames are then ranked based on these variables and previously noted winning traits - e.g. expressive faces, and main characters
Localisation is considered - i.e. historically winning traits from previous thumbnail images in a given country
Based on all this, a bunch of thumbnails will be selected and tested
One thing I found particularly interesting is that the thumbnail you’ll be served will likely be based on your recent viewing history - e.g. if you’ve watched something featuring a particular actor you might be more likely to see a thumbnail featuring that actor for another show or film.
A glorious thinger created by Jim Vallandingham which creates a heatmap of average IMDb ratings for any TV series.
Just type in the name of a series and see the ratings for each episode:
Japanese artist Tanabe Chikuunsai IV threads strips of bamboo together into sculptural works that appear to grow from walls and ceilings. His creations utilise a style of weaving that his family has practiced for generations, and result in installations that coil across rooms, stretch dozens of feet into the air, and loop around support beams.
You might also like:
It’s decorative gourd season motherf*ckers! (which has been going viral every October since 2009)
The Last Battle in the Sellout Wars was fought on Oprah’s Book Club (there’s a transcript, which is a little borked, so you can still (just about) read rather than listen to this if you want)
Part II: Books I’m Reading Right Now
First up, The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed. This book is featured on the Booker Prize Longlist, and has also made the cut to the Shortlist.
Here, Mohamed has novelised the real events surrounding the wrongful imprisonment and execution of Mahmood Mattan, a Somali seaman and father of three young boys, who was the last man to be hanged in Cardiff prison in 1952. Fabricated evidence, false witness testimonies and institutionally racist policing led to him being found guilty of the murder of a shopkeeper, Lily Volpert, here renamed Violet Volacki.
Given that discussions of racial inequity, and its exploration within fiction often focus on the US as opposed to the UK; I was really pleased to see the Booker Prize committee nominate Mohamed’s novel. The events she’s novelised here take place within living memory (relatively-speaking we’re talking about recent history here), and yet, prior to reading this novel I, (and I suspect many others) had never heard Mahmood Mattan’s story.
But to the novel itself. Others have noted that the novel takes its time to gain momentum, which, I think, is arguably a fair criticism, but it’s not one I’d level. Any perceived lack of momentum is down to Mohamed’s decision to ensure that the murder of Violet Volacki was in no way minimised or diminished, which might have been the danger had she elected to tell the story differently. For me, she made the right decision here.
That said, her prose undeniably shines when the attention is squarely focused on Mattan, and those chapters where he was her sole-focus are incredibly compelling.
Author Junot Diaz said: “If a novel can be an avenger then The Fortune Men is the one we've all been waiting for.”
I’d strongly recommend reading this book, it’s a sensitive and brilliant depiction of a story that more of us should have heard.
I also read Bewilderment by Richard Powers (also shortlisted for the Booker Prize).
The novel is centred on two main characters: Theo Byrne an astrobiologist who programs simulations of life on extrasolar planets, and Robin, his son.
Robin is mourning the death of his mother, an environmental activist who died in a car crash. He is intensely focused on the natural world, and prone to violent rages. After yet another incident at Robin’s school, Theo is under immense pressure to medicate him, but instead elects to enrol him into a new, experimental type of therapy called Decoded Neurofeedback.
Initially this new therapy seems to be benefitting Robin, (echoes of Daniel Keyes’s classic sci-fi novel Flowers For Algernon are deliberate, and referenced within the book), but as the story progresses various events conspire against this father and son.
This book’s received pretty mixed reviews, but I really loved it. It’s science fiction but rather than being set in a distant future, it’s one that feels much closer to home; and I’d thoroughly recommend it.
Part III: Things I’ve Been Watching
I watched Nine Perfect Strangers, (Amazon Prime).
**Please note: this section contains spoilers**
On paper, it’s a show that sounds like it should be good. It has an impressive cast including Nicole Kidman, Melissa McCarthy, Michael Shannon, Regina Hall and Bobby Cannavale; and concerns a mysterious and very expensive spa retreat in California, run by a Russian woman called Masha (played by Kidman).
However, from the outset we have a bit of a problem: in a show titled: Nine Perfect Strangers you might reasonably expect that the people who’ve shown up to Masha’s weird wellness spa don’t know each other. Problem is, a whole bunch of them do. So, erm, yeah, as this guy quite rightly points out, the title of this show makes no sense at all:
Despite this glaring error, I persevered, dear reader. Early episodes seemed almost promising - you get strong cult-vibes from Masha, and/or the sense that maybe she’s a con artist. None of the characters are particularly sympathetic or likeable, but that was part of the appeal.
Also it’s beautifully shot, and the script whilst a little creaky in places, isn’t eye-wateringly awful.
But as the series progressed stuff got more dull, and I think I fell asleep for a bit. What started out as a twisty turny thing became much less twisty turny. Worse, though, I began to get the strong sense that actually, far from being a delicious, machievellian nightmare; Masha was for real.
And here’s where the whole thing collapses.
From my perspective, if you set up a premise whereby a viewer is expecting to see a whole bunch of rich people get ripped off, emotionally scarred, and quite possibly die horrible deaths; that’s what you really ought to deliver.
If you elect not to, (and instead attempt to palm off your audience with some half-assed happy ending) then you make your viewers the dupes.
And dear reader, I felt very much the dupe.
Seriously, don’t watch it - spend those eight hours doing something that makes you feel good instead.
I, along with pretty much everyone else with a Netflix account have been watching Squid Game. It’s a nine-part limited series, which follows a group of debt-ridden characters as they fight for a $38m prize—and their lives—in series of violent versions of traditional Korean children’s games.
The show’s not without its flaws: for me, the final episode was a bit of a let down - it lacks pace, tension, and some of the characters behave pretty inexplicably. But crucially, (unlike many of the hyped shows I’ve watched recently), this one is actually worth watching.
Part IV: What I’ve been up to…
Substack is squawking about this email being “near length limit” so I’ll need to keep this super-brief.
In the past two weeks, when I’ve not been doing proper grown-up work which enables me to eat and pay my mortgage, I have mainly been writing fiction thanks to the wonderful London Lit Lab course I signed up for.
Nothing I’ve written is yet at a point where I’d be comfortable sharing it, but maybe (if I’m feeling particularly brave and/or foolhardy) I might possibly share something I’ve written here at some point in the future.
That’s all from me for now :)
Do you have a question you’d like me to answer? I’m happy to have a bash at answering any questions you might have, be they work-related or otherwise. Hit reply to this email, and ask me a question (any question at all!); and I will answer it in a future edition of this newsletter.
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