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530 - Men of Kent or Kentish Men? Two Strange Cases of Mappable Local Identities
Transcript of an extract from BBC Radio 4 entertainment interview show Chain Reaction (first broadcast on 26 August 2011). Intersperse with a good deal of [live studio laughter].
Kevin Eldon: "Now, Mark, you come from Kent."
Mark Steel: "I do, yes."
KE: "Are you a Man of Kent or are you a Kentish Man?"
MS: "Oh, I decided a long time ago not to even know, because… I tried to flee Kent in my mind as much as possible."
KE: "Really? Let's… First of all, let’s try and work out what you are - it’s important to me, you see. Now, the traditional definition is that anyone born east of the river Medway is a Man of Kent and anyone born west of the river Medway is a Kentish Man. This is really interesting actually, because I hope to get an entire series on this."
"Now see, if you are a Man of Kent, right, that’s quite good. You can get demoted to a Kentish Man, because according to the Reverend Samuel Pegge in 1735, he said: Some say that ‘A Man of Kent’ is a term of high honour, while a Kentish Man denotes but an ordinary man."
MS: "So I’m the ordinary one, or I am…"
KE: "You have to tell me now are you a Man of Kent…"
MS: "Well, I’m from the west of the Medway, so near London."
KE: "That means that you are then a, erh, yes, you’re a Kentish Man. You’re of inferior stock."
MS: "It would have no validity, that theory, if it was the other way round. Linda Smith – who is no longer with us – she came from Erith, which is just up the road from Swanley, and after she died, someone showed me an obituary, and it quoted her as saying: I often used to argue with Mark Steel which of us came from the most awful, horrible town. I would say it was Erith and he would say it was Swanley. And then she said: I always put up a really good case for Erith but deep in my heart I knew he was right."
KE: "I can almost trump that, I come from Chatham in Kent, if you've ever been there…"
MS: "No, you can't trump it because, you know, Chatham has a river and an ex-dockyard, and it's got loads of pubs and Gillingham Football Club up the road and a million things. Swanley has absolutely nothing. I mean, I've yet to know anyone who's actually been to Swanley who doesn't come away and go: I thought you were exaggerating Mark, but you're right."
KE: "What one word would sum up Swanley? Is there one word?"
MS: "I'll tell you one word if I just illustrate it with this little story if you like, not a story but, there's one pub, and it is the most filthy rotten pub, and… it's suicide. I mean it is literally suicide, going in there. I mean, those people going to Switzerland are wasting their money in my opinion. Get a one way ticket to Swanley, go in there and say: I'm not from round here. That'll do it."
KE: "The Kill Yourself Arms."
MS: "Yes, so suicide: that is the one word that would sum it up."
KE: "Let's just do Kent for this whole interview, shall we?"
Or let's not. Rather, let's return to that curious distinction at the top of the interview. It sounds like a non-sequitur: aren't Kentish Men de facto also Men of Kent, and hence in the same category? From a purely semiotic point of view, both labels may be interchangeable. As the French say: chou vert et vert chou . But it turns out that there is an historic fundament to this rather comic-sounding divide.
Kent, the UK's southeasternmost county, is often called the Garden of England, for its orchards and hop plantations. But it's only partly rural; its western bit is well within the commuter orbit of London, and highly urbanised. In fact, some parts of the ancient independent kingdom of Kent such as Lewisham are now an integral part of metropolitan London. The boundary between Men of Kent and Kentish Men does not reflect this rural/(sub)urban divide. Rather, it goes back to the Germanic settlement of England, around 1,500 years ago.
Like much of southern England, West Kent was settled by the Saxons . East Kent was settled by the Jutes , the odd one out in the trio of Germanic tribes that would turn Roman Britannia into England. Unlike the other two, who would go on to bestow the adjective anglo-saxon on the world, the Jutes seem to have left no lasting mark on history.
Except in the distinction between Kentish Men (and Maids) on the left bank of the Medway, remnants of the Saxon settlement; and Men (and Maids) of Kent, descendants of the Jutish settlers on the right bank. As for why the former denomination might be a derogatory term while the latter may be considered a badge of honour - this could go back to 1066 and all that. One tradition holds that the Jutish inhabitants of Kent put up much more of a fight against the invading force of William the Conqueror than their Saxon neighbours.
It is remarkable how an age-old distinction, stripped of its meaning centuries ago, can still survive in local memory and language. Another possible example of this I noticed in a series of videos for VIA2018, the bid of Maastricht and its surrounding Meuse-Rhine Euregion  to become European Capital of Culture in 2018.
The campaign rests on the premise that the Euroregion - which comprises parts of three different countries and linguistic areas - operates on the principles of the swarm:
This would explain both the differences and the similarities within the Euregio. One similarity refers to the subject of fried potato slices, which are called patat in the north of the Netherlands, pommes in most of Germany, but fritten (or frieten, frietjes, or frites) in Belgium and the other areas of the Euregio. Would it be too far-fetched to infer from this fanciful map the palimpsest of ancient ethnic boundaries between tribes who customarily fried their food, and those who didn't?
The map showing the dividing line between Men of Kent and Kentish Men was found here on the webpage of Kentish singer/songwriter Mick Sumbling. The map of 'Fritland' is a still from a series of videos on the VIA2018 website (here).
Update 16 April 2016 – Many thanks to Tony Leekens for sending in the map below, found in an online article on the naming of 'French fries' in Belgian and Netherlands Dutch.
In general, Belgians use frieten and Dutch use patat to describe (French) fries. The map reflects a number of different uses for the terms, as noted by field dialectologists in 1972. South of the red line, the common word for potato is patat, north of it, it's aardappel (literally: 'earth apple'). French fries are called frieten in the purple zone, and petat in the orange zone. In a few localities, marked with green dots, punters prefer the compromise term patat friet.
Dutch-speaking Belgians (i.e. Flemings) take pride in their frieten, are happy to mock petat, the (to their ears) ridiculous-sounding Dutch equivalent, and are generally quite surprised to find that this word is used north of the Belgian-Dutch border (white line dissecting the purple zone).
According to the article, published on the website of the Flemish public broadcaster VRT, the term frieten is making headway even further north of the language purple/orange border indicated on this map (and already way north of the national border, marked in white).
 Literally: green cabbage and cabbage green - i.e. one and the same thing, even if labelled differently.
 Very geographically oriented, those Saxons. Hence Wessex, Sussex, Middlesex and Essex. But no Norsex - that's where the Angles settled.
 Originating in Jutland, roughly compatible with mainland Denmark. For more about the definition of Jutland, see #46.
 More about Euregions here: #86.
 An intriguing palimpsest mentioned earlier on this blog: #348. Do you know of any others?
Ever since we've had the technology, we've looked to the stars in search of alien life. It's assumed that we're looking because we want to find other life in the universe, but what if we're looking to make sure there isn't any?
Here's an equation, and a rather distressing one at that: N = R* × fP × ne × f1 × fi × fc × L. It's the Drake equation, and it describes the number of alien civilizations in our galaxy with whom we might be able to communicate. Its terms correspond to values such as the fraction of stars with planets, the fraction of planets on which life could emerge, the fraction of planets that can support intelligent life, and so on. Using conservative estimates, the minimum result of this equation is 20. There ought to be 20 intelligent alien civilizations in the Milky Way that we can contact and who can contact us. But there aren't any.
The Drake equation is an example of a broader issue in the scientific community—considering the sheer size of the universe and our knowledge that intelligence life has evolved at least once, there should be evidence for alien life. This is generally referred to as the Fermi paradox, after the physicist Enrico Fermi who first examined the contradiction between high probability of alien civilizations and their apparent absence. Fermi summed this up rather succinctly when he asked, “Where is everybody"?
But maybe this was the wrong question. A better question, albeit a more troubling one, might be “What happened to everybody?" Unlike asking where life exists in the universe, there's a clearer potential answer to this question: the Great Filter.
Why the universe is empty
Alien life is likely, but there is none that we can see. Therefore, it could be the case that somewhere along the trajectory of life's development, there is a massive and common challenge that ends alien life before it becomes intelligent enough and widespread enough for us to see—a great filter.
This filter could take many forms. It could be that having a planet in the Goldilocks' zone—the narrow band around a star where it is neither too hot nor too cold for life to exist—and having that planet contain organic molecules capable of accumulating into life is extremely unlikely. We've observed plenty of planets in the Goldilock's zone of different stars (there's estimated to be 40 billion in the Milky Way), but maybe the conditions still aren't right there for life to exist.
The Great Filter could occur at the very earliest stages of life. When you were in high school bio, you might have the refrain drilled into your head “mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell." I certainly did. However, mitochondria were at one point a separate bacteria living its own existence. At some point on Earth, a single-celled organism tried to eat one of these bacteria, except instead of being digested, the bacterium teamed up with the cell, producing extra energy that enabled the cell to develop in ways leading to higher forms of life. An event like this might be so unlikely that it's only happened once in the Milky Way.
Or, the filter could be the development of large brains, as we have. After all, we live on a planet full of many creatures, and the kind of intelligence humans have has only occurred once. It may be overwhelmingly likely that living creatures on other planets simply don't need to evolve the energy-demanding neural structures necessary for intelligence.
What if the filter is ahead of us?
These possibilities assume that the Great Filter is behind us—that humanity is a lucky species that overcame a hurdle almost all other life fails to pass. This might not be the case, however; life might evolve to our level all the time but get wiped out by some unknowable catastrophe. Discovering nuclear power is a likely event for any advanced society, but it also has the potential to destroy such a society. Utilizing a planet's resources to build an advanced civilization also destroys the planet: the current process of climate change serves as an example. Or, it could be something entirely unknown, a major threat that we can't see and won't see until it's too late.
The bleak, counterintuitive suggestion of the Great Filter is that it would be a bad sign for humanity to find alien life, especially alien life with a degree of technological advancement similar to our own. If our galaxy is truly empty and dead, it becomes more likely that we've already passed through the Great Filter. The galaxy could be empty because all other life failed some challenge that humanity passed.
If we find another alien civilization, but not a cosmos teeming with a variety of alien civilizations, the implication is that the Great Filter lies ahead of us. The galaxy should be full of life, but it is not; one other instance of life would suggest that the many other civilizations that should be there were wiped out by some catastrophe that we and our alien counterparts have yet to face.
Fortunately, we haven't found any life. Although it might be lonely, it means humanity's chances at long-term survival are a bit higher than otherwise.
Cross-disciplinary cooperation is needed to save civilization.
- There is a great disconnect between the sciences and the humanities.
- Solutions to most of our real-world problems need both ways of knowing.
- Moving beyond the two-culture divide is an essential step to ensure our project of civilization.
For the past five years, I ran the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement at Dartmouth, an initiative sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation. Our mission has been to find ways to bring scientists and humanists together, often in public venues or — after Covid-19 — online, to discuss questions that transcend the narrow confines of a single discipline.
It turns out that these questions are at the very center of the much needed and urgent conversation about our collective future. While the complexity of the problems we face asks for a multi-cultural integration of different ways of knowing, the tools at hand are scarce and mostly ineffective. We need to rethink and learn how to collaborate productively across disciplinary cultures.
The danger of hyper-specialization
The explosive expansion of knowledge that started in the mid 1800s led to hyper-specialization inside and outside academia. Even within a single discipline, say philosophy or physics, professionals often don't understand one another. As I wrote here before, "This fragmentation of knowledge inside and outside of academia is the hallmark of our times, an amplification of the clash of the Two Cultures that physicist and novelist C.P. Snow admonished his Cambridge colleagues in 1959." The loss is palpable, intellectually and socially. Knowledge is not adept to reductionism. Sure, a specialist will make progress in her chosen field, but the tunnel vision of hyper-specialization creates a loss of context: you do the work not knowing how it fits into the bigger picture or, more alarmingly, how it may impact society.
Many of the existential risks we face today — AI and its impact on the workforce, the dangerous loss of privacy due to data mining and sharing, the threat of cyberwarfare, the threat of biowarfare, the threat of global warming, the threat of nuclear terrorism, the threat to our humanity by the development of genetic engineering — are consequences of the growing ease of access to cutting-edge technologies and the irreversible dependence we all have on our gadgets. Technological innovation is seductive: we want to have the latest "smart" phone, 5k TV, and VR goggles because they are objects of desire and social placement.
Are we ready for the genetic revolution?
When the time comes, and experts believe it is coming sooner than we expect or are prepared for, genetic meddling with the human genome may drive social inequality to an unprecedented level with not just differences in wealth distribution but in what kind of being you become and who retains power. This is the kind of nightmare that Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Jennifer Doudna talked about in a recent Big Think video.
CRISPR 101: Curing Sickle Cell, Growing Organs, Mosquito Makeovers | Jennifer Doudna | Big Think www.youtube.com
At the heart of these advances is the dual-use nature of science, its light and shadow selves. Most technological developments are perceived and sold as spectacular advances that will either alleviate human suffering or bring increasing levels of comfort and accessibility to a growing number of people. Curing diseases is what motivated Doudna and other scientists involved with CRISPR research. But with that also came the potential for altering the genetic makeup of humanity in ways that, again, can be used for good or evil purposes.
This is not a sci-fi movie plot. The main difference between biohacking and nuclear hacking is one of scale. Nuclear technologies require industrial-level infrastructure, which is very costly and demanding. This is why nuclear research and its technological implementation have been mostly relegated to governments. Biohacking can be done in someone's backyard garage with equipment that is not very costly. The Netflix documentary series Unnatural Selection brings this point home in terrifying ways. The essential problem is this: once the genie is out of the bottle, it is virtually impossible to enforce any kind of control. The genie will not be pushed back in.
Cross-disciplinary cooperation is needed to save civilization
What, then, can be done? Such technological challenges go beyond the reach of a single discipline. CRISPR, for example, may be an invention within genetics, but its impact is vast, asking for oversight and ethical safeguards that are far from our current reality. The same with global warming, rampant environmental destruction, and growing levels of air pollution/greenhouse gas emissions that are fast emerging as we crawl into a post-pandemic era. Instead of learning the lessons from our 18 months of seclusion — that we are fragile to nature's powers, that we are co-dependent and globally linked in irreversible ways, that our individual choices affect many more than ourselves — we seem to be bent on decompressing our accumulated urges with impunity.
The experience from our experiment with the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement has taught us a few lessons that we hope can be extrapolated to the rest of society: (1) that there is huge public interest in this kind of cross-disciplinary conversation between the sciences and the humanities; (2) that there is growing consensus in academia that this conversation is needed and urgent, as similar institutes emerge in other schools; (3) that in order for an open cross-disciplinary exchange to be successful, a common language needs to be established with people talking to each other and not past each other; (4) that university and high school curricula should strive to create more courses where this sort of cross-disciplinary exchange is the norm and not the exception; (5) that this conversation needs to be taken to all sectors of society and not kept within isolated silos of intellectualism.
Moving beyond the two-culture divide is not simply an interesting intellectual exercise; it is, as humanity wrestles with its own indecisions and uncertainties, an essential step to ensure our project of civilization.
New study analyzes gravitational waves to confirm the late Stephen Hawking's black hole area theorem.
- A new paper confirms Stephen Hawking's black hole area theorem.
- The researchers used gravitational wave data to prove the theorem.
- The data came from Caltech and MIT's Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory.
The late Stephen Hawking's black hole area theorem is correct, a new study shows. Scientists used gravitational waves to prove the famous British physicist's idea, which may lead to uncovering more underlying laws of the universe.
The theorem, elaborated by Hawking in 1971, uses Einstein's theory of general relativity as a springboard to conclude that it is not possible for the surface area of a black hole to become smaller over time. The theorem parallels the second law of thermodynamics that says the entropy (disorder) of a closed system can't decrease over time. Since the entropy of a black hole is proportional to its surface area, both must continue to increase.
As a black hole gobbles up more matter, its mass and surface area grow. But as it grows, it also spins faster, which decreases its surface area. Hawking's theorem maintains that the increase in surface area that comes from the added mass would always be larger than the decrease in surface area because of the added spin.
Will Farr, one of the co-authors of the study that was published in Physical Review Letters, said their finding demonstrates that "black hole areas are something fundamental and important." His colleague Maximiliano Isi agreed in an interview with Live Science: "Black holes have an entropy, and it's proportional to their area. It's not just a funny coincidence, it's a deep fact about the world that they reveal."
What are gravitational waves?
Gravitational waves are "ripples" in spacetime, predicted by Albert Einstein in 1916, that are created by very violent processes happening in space. Einstein showed that very massive, accelerating space objects like neutron stars or black holes that orbit each other could cause disturbances in spacetime. Like the ripples produced by tossing a rock into a lake, they would bring about "waves" of spacetime that would spread in all directions.
As LIGO shared, "These cosmic ripples would travel at the speed of light, carrying with them information about their origins, as well as clues to the nature of gravity itself."
The gravitational waves discovered by LIGO's 3,000-kilometer-long laser beam, which can detect the smallest distortions in spacetime, were generated 1.3 billion years ago by two giant black holes that were quickly spiraling toward each other.
What Stephen Hawking would have discovered if he lived longer | NASA's Michelle Thaller | Big Think www.youtube.com
Confirming Hawking's black hole area theorem
The researchers separated the signal into two parts, depending on whether it was from before or after the black holes merged. This allowed them to figure out the mass and spin of the original black holes as well as the mass and spin of the merged black hole. With this information, they calculated the surface areas of the black holes before and after the merger.
"As they spin around each other faster and faster, the gravitational waves increase in amplitude more and more until they eventually plunge into each other — making this big burst of waves," Isi elaborated. "What you're left with is a new black hole that's in this excited state, which you can then study by analyzing how it's vibrating. It's like if you ping a bell, the specific pitches and durations it rings with will tell you the structure of that bell, and also what it's made out of."
The surface area of the resulting black holes was larger than the combined area of the original black holes. This conformed to Hawking's area law.