The Ecphorizer

An Editors Grab Bag
George Towner

Issue 10 (July 2007)

What is The Ecphorizer?
It has been more than a year now since readers of the San Francisco Mensa Intelligencer were treated to a good scrap in the Letters column. (Dissertations on “What is a Milpitas?” do not count.) I refer to those grand old battles over such weighty matters as the Mensa Sperm Bank, hot tub etiquette, and which ladies might jump behind the couch with Burt Reynolds if he came to a Mensa party. Alas, these controversies have become excluded by a space and budget crunch.

But help is on the way. It will be the function of The Ecphorizer to stimulate (ecphorize) discussion among its readers. Not artificially, by picking fights, but constructively, by exposing the genuine differences of opinion among thinking people. From time to time we will invite guest editors to help field the brickbats.

At a Mensa party a while back, I remarked that it was my observation (based on two visits to the country) that blacks in South Africa seemed generally happier and better off than Africans in many other countries, living under black governments. One listener was aghast at this idea, and regarded me as a monster for voicing it. She edged away from me for the rest of the evening. We never succeeded in discussing it rationally; but perhaps if we had written down our opposite viewpoints, each of us (and others who followed our interchange) might have grown in understanding. The aim of this magazine will be to foster such written interchanges.

So send us your most entrenched opinions, charged and vitalized with your best arguments. Unshackle your most exotic ideas. If they have any life at all, we will expose them naked to our readers. Don’t be afraid to let the world know what you think; maybe we can all learn something.

Blocks of print are neater and more readable if they are “right justified,” i.e. if the right-hand margin is made straight by setting the lines to uniform length. The Ecphorizer accomplishes this in the least sophisticated way, by using a text editor option that doubles enough spaces in each line to cause it to break at a word ending or at a natural hyphenation. But if lines are short and words are long, this can lead to unsightly gaps in the line.

Ancient inscriptions and early books trued up their lines by dividing words wherever the line ending fell; but the demands of modern speed reading require that this division be made between syllables, so that the reader can store a recognizable word fragment before going to the next line. Thus modern text printing depends on syllabification.

Computer-controlled typesetting machines typically offer two levels of technique in syllabification. At the lower level, an algorithm examines words to determine where their syllable divisions probably fall. A machine we have used (the Mergenthaler VIP) appears to be about 95% accurate in this task. With a sophomoric electronic shrug, it makes the obvious error “disco-very”; but it also makes the very obscure error “know-ledge.” Clearly the eccentricities of English orthography can outwit any algorithm. The higher level of technique requires a dictionary in the computer memory, containing words that the algorithm divides incorrectly. Purchasers of the machine are sometimes given a stack of business-reply cards, so they can tell the manufacturer about such words as they discover them. With a good comprehensive dictionary, the accuracy of machine syllabification can rise to the 99.9% level.

But there are situations that will mystify even a dictionary. Consider the word “present.” As an adjective (the present time) it divides pres-ent; as a verb (to present a speech) it divides pre-sent. Now syllabification depends on meaning. It might make an interesting project for someone like Noam Chomsky to dredge up all such English words and write algorithms to separate them on the basis of context. However, at present the only completely successful syllabification program known is the one that runs in the big computer that generated the problem in the first place—the human brain.

Cry, Wolf
In the October [1981] issue, “venerable wolf” Lupus Canus asked for a show of hands (so to speak) from people who scream while making love. The returns to date are entirely from alleged nonscreamers; maybe we have at last unearthed the Silent Majority. Or maybe it’s just that people who make noise in bed don’t reply to questionnaires. However, one reply—from a lady who signs herself “Bo Peepless”—contains the interesting observation that as men grow older they become more vocal, ultimately becoming what she calls “Old Yellers.” We would welcome more data on this subject. Perhaps Lupus and Peepless would care to do some joint research, in the spirit of Isaiah 11:6 [The wolf shall lie down with the lamb, etc.].

Punctuation Punctilio
When a sentence ends in a quotation, typographical tradition shoves the final period inside the quotes even though it belongs to the sentence as a whole. This form is “correct.” This form is “incorrect”. The same holds for commas; to punctuate “correctly,” stuff them inside. All this may seem like the caviling of a grammicaster (a “mean verbal pedant”—see last month’s article on Johnson’s Dictionary); but it is taken seriously in the publishing biz. What happens when the intrusive period or comma encounters another punctuation mark, already properly residing at the end of the quote? You say “Aha!,” and turn to pages 58-68 of A Handbook for Scholars by Mary-Claire van Leunen (Knopf, 1978), where all is revealed. This remarkable treatise starts with general principles, carries the reader through a seven-step algorithm for shifting and eliding various combinations of dashes, semicolons, etc., culminates in a grand chart of 124 possible formations, and ends with a discussion of “dicey situations.” Rest well, Gentle Readers; we have waded through it, and will do our best to toe the line (nevertheless, you might well exclaim, “Why bother to ask the question ‘What is correct?’?”!).

Demonic Mnemonics
Various mnemonic alphabets are used to spell names over the telephone; the standard nowadays is A as in alpha, B as in bravo, etc. However, it is said that an eccentric Mensan named W. Casey has devised his own standard. When asked to spell out his name, he shouts “W. Casey—that’s W as in why, C as in cue, A as in are, S as in see, E as in eye, Y as in you!” When rattled off rapid-fire, it invariably brings the desired response: “Say that again, please?”

Toward a New Metrology
An engineer of my acquaintance once rated his girl-friend’s sex appeal in “millihelens”—the quantity of female beauty required to launch exactly one ship. In this vein, I now offer a selection of other measurement units that technologists may find handy:

The quantity of female beauty required to launch exactly one ship.
The amount of purity of heart that gives a person the strength of one
The unit of military incompetence sufficient to order exactly six man to ride into the Valley of Death.
The unit of military incompetence sufficient to order exactly six man to ride into the Valley of Death.
A universal flood that lasts four days and four nights.
A totalitarian world order designed to endure for one year.

Creative Journalism
It is June, 1940. After a six-week blitzkrieg, the Nazi war machine has crushed the armies of Luxembourg, Belgium, Holland, and France. The British Expeditionary Force has fled the continent. In a railroad car parked by the town of Compiegne, fifty miles northeast of Paris, Hitler is re-enacting on the same spot the scene that ended the first World War. But this time, instead of Germany signing a humiliating armistice it is the French who are capitulating.

Hitler is immensely pleased with himself. As a newsreel camera captures the moment, he strides happily from the car. In front of the camera he dances a ludicrous little jig, while the dazed French remain sitting at the surrender table.

The conqueror’s impromptu waltz became an indelible image of the times. It was shown on every movie screen in the free world. Frame shots appeared in every newspaper. Headlines proclaimed “Nazi Dictator Dances for Joy at French Humiliation.” Hitler had been graphically exposed as an utter barbarian. The only problem with this brilliant piece of journalism is that it was completely fake.

The truth came out in 1958. While walking across the railroad yard, Hitler stumbled or hopped—today no one is sure what happened—as the camera ground away. John Grierson, the documentary film maker, was working in the Allied laboratory that received a print from the Germans. Before sending the print on its way, he spent several hours copying and splicing the few frames of that stumble, until he had expanded and reduplicated it into a madman’s minuet.

Today we would be incensed at such trickery. But things were different in 1940 (even in 1958). Hitler was a monster, and deserved everything he got. It was blatant lying, to be sure, but... lying in a good cause.

In 1993 George Towner compiled various contributions to The Ecphorizer into a self-published book called Ecphorizations.  While most articles fit neatly into this book, there were bits and pieces that didn't, and George collected most of them into the "Editor's Grab Bag," which he says, "...contains fragments left over from everything else, which I wrote as fillers for The Ecphorizer."  The items contained herein have appeared elsewhere in The Ecphorizer. You can read about George's latest book here!

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