Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.
Tuesday, February 05, 2013 4:30 PM
This article originally appeared at Reality Sandwich.
Razzle, dazzle, drazzle, drone, time for this one to come home
Razzle, dazzle, drazzle, die, time for this one to come alive
And hold my life until I'm ready to use it
Hold my life because I just might lose it
Because I just might lose it
--from Paul Westerberg's Hold My Life
An essay I've recently published in Reality Sandwich, "An
Esoteric Take on The Big Lebowski," has been very well received. There
are a few works out there, be they novels, movies or even pieces of music, that
manage to make the esoteric, exoteric. Such works rarely surface, though,
because the shallow machinery of the publishing, movie and music industry is
mostly allergic to them. As I was re-reading Lin Yutang's masterwork, The
Importance of Living, I found so many passages that seem custom-made for
the Dude that I thought it might be fun to explore the points of departure and
arrival of both works, in tandem. To do that, I need to start from the
not-so-distant premises that prompted Lin Yutang himself, back in 1937, to
write his book.
Even today, despite the West having gone through an unprecedented process of
secularization, the numbers are staggering: there are 2.1 billion Christians
worldwide; 1.6 billion Muslims; about 900 million Hinduists; and 350 million
Buddhists. Therefore, almost 5 billion people follow the four largest
religions, which have one common trait -- they are life-renouncing.
In a nutshell, the Abrahamic religions -- Judaism, Christianity, Islam -- see
life as a period of probation in which man, by acting virtuously according to
the doctrine set out by each religion, will earn for himself a place in heaven.
The focus, therefore, is on the afterlife. Life on earth is a series of tests
that must be passed and temptations that must be resisted. Again in a nutshell,
Hinduism and Buddhism, the two major Indian religions, are similar in that both
hold that life is suffering and the only way out is freedom from the endless chain
of reincarnations. The ultimate goal of life, referred to as moksha
and nirvana respectively, consists of liberating oneself from samsara,
thus ending the cycle of rebirth. Union with
God can then be attained.
Recently an old friend of mine, for years a convert to Buddhism, suffered an
aortic dissection, a life-threatening tear in the aorta that I am familiar with
because my father died of it. When he began to feel sick a friend who was with
him, a medical doctor, rushed him to a hospital, where he was operated on
within minutes. For days his life hanged by a thread in the ICU. His anguished
wife, back at home, organized reunions with fellow Buddhists who would pray and
chant together for him to be spared and then recover. As I followed from a
continent away, my heart went out to him and his family and friends, but in the
back of mind I couldn't stop hearing a nagging voice. It asked: "What
business do Buddhists have in asking to prolong one's life?" It was
incongruous. The followers of the most life-renouncing religion known to
mankind were fervently praying for this one man to cling to life. Mercifully,
the surgery was successful and my friend pulled through, but I still wonder if
his Buddhist wife and friends behaved consistently with Buddhism?
Of course they didn't, and this incident is meant to make a point: almost five
billion people living on this drinkable, edible, and breathable planet of ours
follow religions that, I fear, go against our nature. Normally, we want to
live, not to let go of life. It is only natural, so natural, in fact, that it
seems very strange that this would need to be stated in the first place.
Lin Yutang's world was less populous than ours, but in proportion more
religious yet, especially in the West. Back in his day some pioneers were
exploring the "occult", that more than vague definition that has been
since subdivided into many fields: the Royal Art, Alchemy, parapsychology,
extrasensory perception, dream interpretation, lucid dreaming, out-of-body and
near-death experiences, not to mention humanity's penchant for the most varied
psychoactive substances in the hope that altered states will lead in the
exploration of parallel or otherworldly realities. From all this and the four
major life-renouncing religions I'm bound to infer that by and large we don't
like our lot on earth. Lin Yutang started from the same premise.
Like early man, do we envy the birds for being able to fly? The fish for being
able to breathe under water? Cats for seeing in semidarkness? The list goes on and
on: from a physical standpoint, we're inferior to so many species. But not to
worry, modern man has come up with a number of flying contraptions, scuba
diving equipment, night vision goggles, and many other gadgets that mimic the
abilities of more physically gifted species. And yet the premise stands: either
our adherence to a life-renouncing religion, or, more recently on a large
scale, our multifarious attempts at transcending our very nature and
That we feel distinctly uncomfortable in our own skin is not a supposition but
a statement of fact. Do we feel so chokingly uncomfortable because the first
time we realize that, sooner or later, we are doomed to die, our natural
impulse is to cry? My wife and I have witnessed this reaction in two of our
three boys. When, around five years of age, they understood that life doesn't
last forever, they cried inconsolably, out of disbelief, then anger, finally
fear. This tragic cognizance we carry inside ourselves for our whole life. It's
our congenital memento mori, which kicks in the moment the concept of
time ceases to be a present-tense continuum, as it is during early childhood,
and becomes one of duration, with a precise beginning and end.
For the materialists, those not interested in religions or attempts at
transcending human nature, there are the following bits of ancient wisdom:
Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius's "Live each day as if it were your
last;" the ancient Roman poet Horace's Carpe diem, seize the day,
which was reprised during the Renaissance by Lorenzo De' Medici in his famous
poem Canzona di Bacco, Bacchus Song, which begins: "Youth is
sweet and well / But does speed away! / Let who will be gay, / Tomorrow, no one
can tell;" even the ancient Chinese proverb: "Enjoy yourself;
it's later than you think." Many agnostics, atheists, and skeptics have no
better guideline than this to live by, and accordingly try to feast on life,
which, they perceive, is "here today, gone tomorrow."
Lin Yutang offers an approach that goes beyond life-renouncing religions,
daring transcendental explorations, and clichés such as enjoy yourself, it's
later than you think. One thing was clear to him as it must be to so many of
us: being alive, living, matters. The Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke suggests
why in the ninth of his Duino Elegies, written between 1912 and 1922,
and excerpted here in the translation of A. Poulin, Jr. To the question,
"Why, then, do we have to be human and, avoiding fate, long for
fate?" the poet replies: "Because being here means so much, and
because all / that's here, vanishing so quickly, seems to need us / and
strangely concerns us." And a few lines down: "To have been on earth
just once -- that's irrevocable."
How are we to celebrate, then, the plain yet miraculous reality of being alive?
The poet surprises with "Praise the world to the angel, not what can't be
talked about. / You can't impress him with your grand emotions. In the cosmos /
where he so intensely feels, you're just a novice. So show / him some simple
thing shaped for generation after generation / until it lives in our hands and
in our eyes, and it's ours. Tell him about things. He'll stand amazed
So there it is, straight from the pen of one of the most mystical poets in
western literature: an exhortation to speak to the angel not about grand
emotions but about the world, about things. Some years after Rilke
finished his elegies, Lin Yutang wrote in The Importance of Living:
"As for philosophy, which is the exercise of the spirit par excellence,
the danger is even greater that we lose the feeling of life itself. I can
understand that such mental delights include the solution of a long
mathematical equation, or the perception of a grand order in the universe. This
perception of order is probably the purest of all our mental pleasures and yet
I would exchange it for a well prepared meal." Years ago, when I first
read this passage, I laughed out loud. It was liberating. But where is Lin
Yutang coming from? In another book of his, The Wisdom of China, he
remarks: "The Chinese philosopher is like a swimmer who dives but must
soon come up to the surface again; the Western philosopher is like a swimmer
who dives into the water and is proud that he never comes up to the surface
I'd tend to agree, but there probably is a linguistic reason for this. The
Chinese never developed a proper alphabet, but rather ideograms, or Sinograms,
or better yet, Han characters. The Kangxi Dictionary contains the astonishing
number of 47,035 characters. Compared to the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet,
the 23 of Classical Latin and the 30 of the German alphabet, it's evident that
writing and reading in Mandarin is an effort in itself, which explains the
emphasis placed by Chinese on calligraphy.
Ancient Greek, Latin and German have been used by most of the greatest
philosophers of the western tradition, with Latin being the lingua franca of
European scholars for centuries. Inevitably, intellectuals would be tempted to
play around with words -- and they did! Western philosophy is immensely more
voluminous than its Chinese counterpart, but its value should always have been
considered from an historical perspective. No one in his right mind should have
argued over, say, St. Thomas Aquinas's five proofs of the existence of God --
but that went on for centuries. The history of Western (theoretical/discursive)
philosophy ought to have been read like the history of architecture:
philosopher so-and-so built that castle in the air, while his opponent built
this other castle. Western philosophy should be appreciated aesthetically
rather than intrinsically.
Again in The Wisdom of China, Lin Yutang writes: "The Chinese can
ask . . ., ‘Does the West have a philosophy?' The answer is also clearly ‘No.'
. . . The Western man has tons of philosophy written by French, German,
English, and American professors, but still he hasn't got a philosophy when he
wants it. In fact, he seldom wants it. There are professors of philosophy, but
there are no philosophers."
So, what exactly does Lin Yutang prescribe as a philosophy of life? And how
does the Dude, our hero (I haven't forgotten him), happen to behave in
accordance with so many of the philosopher's ideas?
Read the rest of this article at Reality
Sleeper Cell, licensed under
Tuesday, March 27, 2012 10:38 AM
Beautifully captured stop-motion
How social networks make
it tough to see ourselves as part of a larger group, like say, a class.
A NASA project that studies surface-level ocean currents is
Gogh’s Starry Night come to life.
Why thinking green could actually be bad for
What 2050 may really
look like (minus the flying cars).
Backronyms and downright falsehoods: debunking linguistic
The specifics on our brave
new digital world.
What house mice can tell us about where
the Vikings have been.
New research on the other
How the heat wave in the Midwest
NOAA’s climate software.
David Foster Wallace wants you to turn
the music down.
A new app lets Facebook users “enemy”
instead of “friend.” The app, developed by a University of Texas researcher, is called EnemyGraph, and purports to encourage a more accurate reflection of our social lives than the "friending" and "liking" can.
Image by Andreas Bauer, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, November 08, 2011 5:05 PM
Most of us haven’t read both the Bible and the Koran cover to cover, let alone dissected each word of text. Now, with a new online program called bibleQuran, users can compare the number of times key words appear in each of the holy books, with surprising results.
Type in any search word—“war,” “forgiveness,” “behead,” whatever—and bibleQuran will reveal its frequency as well as the percentage of verses in which it appears, reports Information Aesthetics. (You can even read the individual verses by hovering your mouse over the highlighted tiny rectangles.) Here are examples of how a few words measure up, based on percentage of verses:
Love: Koran, 0.98% | Bible, 1.8%
Hate: Koran, 0.34% | Bible, 0.67%
Friend: Koran, 0.91% | Bible, 0.37%
Enemy: Koran, 1.1% | Bible, 0.67%
Ruler: Koran, 15.2% | Bible, 22.8%
Slave: Koran, 0.56% | Bible, 0.26%
Revenge: Koran, 0.19% | Bible, 0.19%
Pitch Interactive, the data visualization firm that designed the program, sees it as an opportunity to, perhaps, combat religious divisiveness:
Unfortunately, people of one faith try to use the holy text of another faith to ridicule that faith or show its abominations by pointing to a particular text, often entirely out of context or misquoted. One such example is the Quran burning controversy stirred by Terry Jones in Florida. While claiming the Quran is a violent book of terror, Jones failed to make a comparison to the Bible, which also contains many violent passages.... Our primary goal is to help inform and educate of the differences and, more importantly, the similarities between both texts.
The interface isn’t perfect—one commenter points out that “fig” and “dress” are synonyms—but it provides an objective way to compare two books that are so often pitted against each other in a much less civil face-off.
Source: Information Aesthetics, Pitch Interactive
Image by Mo Costandi, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, September 14, 2011 11:08 AM
If you know even a little bit about the natural world, you’ll find Aelian’s On the Nature of Animals quite ridiculous. Here are some of the “facts” presented in the newly released first English translation of this ancient bestiary, written by a Roman-empire scribe named Aelian in the first century C.E.:
When cranes squawk, they bring on rain showers. So it is said—and also, that cranes have some sort of power which arouses women and causes them to dispense sexual favors. I take this at the word of those who have seen it happen.
The horned ray is born in mud. It is very small at birth, but it grows to a huge size. Its belly is white; its back, head, and sides are inky black. Its mouth, though, is small, and you cannot see its teeth. It is very long and flat. It eats great quantities of fish, but its favorite food is human flesh. It has little strength, but its size gives it courage. When it sees a man swimming or diving, it rises to the surface, arches its back, and slams down on him with all its might, extending its length over the unfortunate man like a roof and keeping him from rising to breathe. The man dies, and the ray greedily enjoys its feast.
Boeotia has no moles. They do not enter from the neighboring province of Leabadeia, and if one arrives by accident it dies.
The octopus is greedy, sneaky, and voracious, and it will eat anything. It is probably the most omnivorous creature in the sea. Here is the proof: in times of hunger, it will eat one of its own tentacles, thus making up for a lack of prey. When better times come, it grows back the missing limb. Nature thus gives it a ready meal in moments of want.
At first, reading On the Nature of Animals provides a smug sense of amusement, like encountering a modern conservative fundamentalist tract on creationism or climate: utterly at odds with the findings of post-Enlightenment science, driven more by whimsy than logic, and with an occasionally breathtaking unbelievability.
But of course, it’s wholly unfair for me to toss a first-century author in with the anti-science leaders of the 21st century U.S. Republican Party: After all, Aelian “knew as much as any person of his day about animals,” writes the book’s translator Greg McNamee in his introduction, and likely relied on the best sources he could find. The anti-science modern conservative, on the other hand, deliberately overlooks centuries of established science in order to reach back to a simpler, more ignorant time for politically convenient “truths.”
Besides, even Aelian didn’t seem to believe all his own bullshit, to use a modern English colloquialism. He often took care to attribute his more outlandish “facts” to observers, and he sometime flat-out undercut them: “the Egyptians say—though I don’t believe them for a minute—that … .”
Ultimately, McNamee sees Aelian as being far before his time in crediting mere beasts with possessing qualities usually seen as human:
Often we find these entries amusing, and rightly so. Often we find them outlandish, foolish, primitive. Yet I suspect that not so long from now—if there is a not so long from now for us busily habitat-devouring humans—scientists will wonder at our own naivete and arrogance, at the thought that language, emotion, and even reason are gifts of humans alone.
Source: On the Nature of Animals
Thursday, September 08, 2011 9:37 AM
If your writing is sprinkled liberally with first-person pronouns (I, me, myself), you’re probably a pretty honest person. If, on the other hand, you eschew what The Secret Life of Pronouns author James W. Pennebaker calls “I-words” and use lots of articles (the, a, an) and prepositions (up, with), you might be hiding something. That is Pennebaker’s conclusion after 20 years of language research from a psychosocial perspective, he reports in New Scientist:
Hidden inside language are small, stealthy words that can reveal a great deal about your personality, thinking style, emotional state and connections with others. These words account for less than 0.1 per cent of your vocabulary but make up more than half of the words commonly used. Your brain is not wired to notice them but if you pay close attention, you will start to see their subtle power.
Pennebaker began his pronoun studies in the 1980s after discovering that people who had kept secret a traumatic event in their life experienced more health problems than those who experienced similar trauma but didn’t cover it up. When he prompted patients to write about their secrets, he found that their health improved—and their pronoun use changed remarkably:
[O]ur most striking discovery was not about the content of [traumatized] people's writing but the style. In particular, we found that the use of pronouns—I, me, we, she, they—mattered enormously. The more people changed from using first-person singular pronouns (I, me, my) to using other pronouns (we, you, she, they) from one piece of writing to the next, the better their health became. Their word use reflected their psychological state.
To read more about Pennebaker’s findings—and get a sense of where you stack up on the scales of honesty, health, and other personal characteristics—read his article in New Scientist.
Source: New Scientist
Image by wheat_in_your_hair,
licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, September 02, 2011 4:55 PM
Of the 7,000 rich, varied languages spoken in the world today, only half will be around at the end of the century unless we make efforts to save them, reports Miller-McCune’s Emily Badger. But if people can communicate without them, why do obscure languages matter? She writes:
As the famous example says, Eskimo have numerous words to describe what Americans would just call “snow” and “ice.” This suggests language systems don’t merely translate universal ideas into different spellings; they encode different concepts. And when we lose a language, we risk losing those concepts.
Last month, a joint program of the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities called Documenting Endangered Languages received $3.9 million in funding to record and preserve disappearing dialects. Says Badger:
The project may sound like a punch line for another anti-science tirade from a small-government politician, but its work touches on fundamental questions about how the brain works, how people express ideas, how societies adapt, and how human history has evolved.
Some of these languages are spoken by fewer than 30 elders, and most members of the next generation are not learning them, making the need for preservation immediate. Below are ten of the unique languages that researchers are endeavoring to save, along with links to their programs.
Bangime, Northern Bali
Navajo, Southwestern U.S.
Cherokee, Southeastern U.S.
Chechen, the Caucasis
Southeastern Tepehuan, Mexico
Image by laogooli, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, July 12, 2011 11:38 AM
The art of cursive handwriting is at a crossroads. Touch-typing on a computer keyboard has replaced hand-writing on a sheet of paper so fully that the Indiana Department of Education, in a memo to the state’s elementary school principals (April 25, 2011), has officially canceled cursive writing from the state curriculum, replacing it with keyboarding.
Some educators have been calling for the end of handwriting for years. But handwriting is not an antediluvian method of communication to be tossed aside in favor of e-learning, reports the Los Angeles Times (June 15, 2011). The motion of writing out letters and words and sentences by hand stimulates the brain in a way that keyboarding does not. Perhaps it is not so different than the way reading a book activates the brain differently than hearing the same information or watching it on a television screen. None of this is to say that computers and TV can’t be educational, but the tactile, memory-creating relationship between you and your language lessens once the re-creation of the letters by your own hand is taken out of the equation.
Like math class, the brain-taxing work of penmanship is not simply about its practical application in daily life, Jason Wire reminds us (Matador, July 8, 2011):
I get it. We type more often than we write nowadays. But I also use calculators more often than I long-divide, and I’ve never once used the slope formula in my everyday life. In high school I loathed calculus, seeing it as pointless and irrelevant, until I realized math class is more about exercising the brain than ensuring life-long memories of equations. Why is cursive handwriting not seen the same way?
It bears mentioning that a child who never learns to write cursive will also never learn to read cursive. The neglected art has already created a generation of schoolchildren, from third graders on up through high schoolers, to whom cursive is a foreign alphabet. Claudette Sandecki met the written language barrier head-on (Terrace Standard, July 6, 2011):
Replying to my posted letter written in the cursive style I was taught 70 years ago, a teenager told me bluntly, “I can’t read your handwriting. Type.”
...[A] teen said she leafed through her grandmother’s journal shortly after she died, but could barely read her cursive handwriting. “It was kind of cryptic, like code.”
Is it flimsy nostalgia that makes me want the next generation to be able to read a historic text or a card from their grandpa? I think not. I think, rather, that it’s wildly practical to maintain cursive in the classroom and not turn handwritten documents into indecipherable codes.
And we needn’t fear that classroom time on penmanship will have a luddite effect on our children. The Zaner-Bloser Company, venerable publisher of handwriting lesson plans, has revitalized its handwriting curriculum for the modern era, including interactive whiteboard-ready digital resources that allow students to handwrite letters on a touch screen.
Source: Los Angeles Times, Matador, Terrace Standard
Image by EraPhernalia Vintage,
licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, June 15, 2011 9:32 AM
I’m an environmentalist. There, I said it. Now why is it so hard for so many people to make this simple proclamation?
It’s not just clear-cutting, oil-drilling, emission-spewing right-wingers who reject the label. I’m constantly encountering well-meaning folks, even progressive and generally earth-friendly ones, who start sentences with “I’m no environmentalist, but …” or “I wouldn’t call myself an environmentalist, but ….”
Now why is this?
Being an environmentalist, to me, simply means you care about the environment: maybe a little, maybe a lot. It doesn’t mean you place it above all else. It doesn’t mean you can’t still identify yourself as a Christian, a businessperson, a farmer, a parent, a queer, a golfer, a juggler—whatever. It doesn’t mean you’re an environmental activist or extremist, and it doesn’t mean you’ve been initiated at a Starbucks window-smashing workshop and accepted into the Anarchist Order of Tree Spikers.
I’ve come to learn that saying, “I’m no environmentalist, but … ” is a lot like saying, “I’m no racist, but … .” When you hear it, you know that what follows will inevitably be support for an environmental stance.
The thing is, racism is inherently abhorrent to the rational mind. Environmentalism is not. The label has taken on a negative cast because the right wing has successfully demonized it, and by running away from it we allow the demonization to continue and even to deepen. We need more, not fewer, people willing to call themselves environmentalists. It’s hard for me to envision a habitable world, 100 years from now, in which the vast majority of people do not do so.
Ultimately, I take heart in the fact that when people say they’re not environmentalists, it often means they’re grappling with the issue of just what an environmentalist is—and they may suspect, deep in their hearts, that they are one. It often means that they’ve been complacent about environmental issues but have suddenly confronted one that demands their attention. It often means they’re trying to save face, because they’ve previously stereotyped environmentalists as unreasonable and now find themselves, much to their surprise, agreeing with them. Psych!
It doesn’t take much Googling to figure out what these non-environmentalists are all about. They’re about protecting the environment. Here are a few of my favorite statements from, well, whatever these people are:
I’m no environmentalist, but maybe we need to stop cutting down so many trees.
I’m no environmentalist, but … we don’t need any more development on the barrier islands along the coast of South Carolina or Georgia.
I’m no environmentalist whacko, but I do support those people who are down there in Albany protesting hydro-fracking.
I’m no environmentalist, but calling a place “Rolling Meadows” when it’s clearly a landfill seems slightly insulting to intelligent people.
I wouldn’t call myself an environmentalist, but I am concerned about what we’re doing to the environment and what kind of environment will be left for our kids.
I wouldn’t call myself an environmentalist. I am a swimmer who wants clean water, and a dad who wants his kids to grow up in a healthier world.
I wouldn’t call myself an environmentalist, but recently I’ve become aware of something that may be linked to the environment and it concerns me greatly: breast cancer.
While I wouldn’t call myself an “environmentalist” or “tree hugger,” I am concerned with how we are trashing our environment, wasting precious resources and the disbelief of global warming.
I’ve got just one thing to say to all these perceptive though not entirely self-aware folks: Welcome to environmentalism. You’re going to do just fine.
, licensed under
Thursday, June 09, 2011 10:43 AM
The word seminal is thrown around a lot these days. A seminal band, a seminal book, a seminal figure, a seminal work—it’s easy to attach this adjective to a noun, particularly in arts writing, to give the subject a sense of groundbreaking importance, even if none actually exists. But to me, seminal conjures mostly one thing: semen.
That’s the root of the word, you know. Seminal is the adjectival form of semen. Maybe, as a word person, I simply know too much about the roots and origins of language, but every time I see the overused term, I picture an anatomical illustration from my junior-high human sexuality class that also includes terms like vas deferens and loop of Henle. To me, it’s not poetic or descriptive or eloquent, just clinical.
Can we take a break from the ejaculatory locutions, please?
To be sure, the dictionary does back up those who intend the word to mean “creative” or “original”—this is the second definition, after all, following “of, relating to, or consisting of seed and semen” in Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. But even this doesn’t quite capture what most writers seem to mean, which is more like “pioneering,” “groundbreaking,” or “influential.” Why not just use one of those less, um, loaded terms?
In any case, many writers who employ the word seem not to consider its implications. Certainly, the Wikipedia author who wrote about feminist artist Judy Chicago did not. Chicago, the bio states, “co-founded the Feminist Studio Workshop, located inside the Los Angeles Women’s Building, a seminal feminist art teaching and exhibition space.”
A seminal feminist space! Who woulda thunk it? I suppose the same people who have called Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique a “seminal feminist text,” or former L7 singer Donita Sparks, whose own website refers to the all-female group as “a seminal rock band.”
Even to a penis bearer like me, it seems awfully retrograde to suggest that the font of life springs entirely from the loins of human males. After all, it does take more than semen to make a baby—this I learned in that same junior-high class.
Rock critics and their corollaries in music publicity are some of the worst serial offenders. I can’t get through my e-mail day, which includes a healthy blast of music PR, without a reference to some “seminal” band I’ve never heard of. The Facebook page “Girl Rock Critics for the Eradication of the Word ‘Seminal’ ” attests to a small but already fizzled backlash: Its last posted comment was in 2008.
Well, I’m willing to take up the futile cause. After all, I still haven’t made my peace with anal as a synonym for fussy or detail-oriented. Which I suppose makes me kind of—oh, all right—anal.
, licensed under
Wednesday, May 25, 2011 11:06 AM
What’s the point of learning a second (or third, or fourth) language if you can just have your iPhone translate it on the fly? A new augmented reality app called Word Lens is capable of translating signs written in Spanish to English, or vice versa, reports Technology Review. Word Lens scans the input from your smartphone’s camera and, after decoding the Spanish, will repaint the picture in English.
According to the Technology Review, Word Lens was actually a programming tangent: It “pushes the boundaries of handheld computing, given that optical character recognition—a trick it performs in real time—was designed for the less challenging task of reading scans of paper documents.”
All of the bugs aren’t worked out yet, per Wired’s field test. “In our tests, it worked smoothly, although the words had a tendency to wiggle around a bit, switching between English and Spanish and flipping between alternate translations,” writes Charlie Sorrel at Wired. “You could get the gist of a sentence, but not read it clearly. Holding the camera very steady helped mitigate the ‘wiggling’ effect.” Ultimately, though, the magazine’s technofuturists were impressed:
Word Lens is a taste of science fiction, something like a visual version of the universal translator or the Babelfish. Only instead of being a convenient device to avoid movie subtitles, it’s a real, functioning tool.
Of course, the app doesn’t solve the problem of actually being able to speak to people from exotic locales. But until we’ve caught that Babelfish, Word Lens will inch us closer to speaking a digital Esperanto.
Sources: Technology Review(free registration required), Wired
Monday, December 20, 2010 10:19 AM
The word freaks at the Oxford English Dictionary have long had a reputation for being snobs—exhaustive snobs, with something of a completist obsession, but snobs all the same. To say that they’ve been challenged on multiple fronts in recent decades would perhaps be an understatement, and as James Gleick writes in The New York Review of Books blog, the OED’s mission has gotten all the more complicated (and comprehensive) thanks to its roomy new digs in cyberspace.
I’ll confess to being a dictionary obsessive. I own at least a dozen, including a 12-volume set of the OED, the two volume unabridged (with magnifying glass), and an unabridged Webster’s that requires a sturdy stand. I also don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I consult a dictionary at least once a day, and a search for the meaning or etymology of a particular word will often lead to an hour spent wending my way along sidetracks and stumbling into interesting—if useless—cul-de-sacs.
That said, when it comes to words and their meanings there may be such a thing as too much information. Samuel Johnson understood this when he more or less singlehandedly produced his own enduring, and remarkably succinct, contribution to lexicography in 1755. Gleick also clearly understands this, and his piece, in fact, addresses the recent OED regime’s obsession with that single word: “Information.”
“In their latest quarterly revision, December 2010, just posted, the entry for ‘information’ is utterly overhauled,” Gleick observes.
The renovation has turned a cottage into a palace. Information, n., now runs 9,400 words, the length of a novella. It is a sort of masterpiece—an adventure in cultural history. A century ago “information” did not have much resonance. It was a nothing word. “An item of training; an instruction.” Now (as people have been saying for fifty years) we are in the Information Age. Which, by the way, the OED defines for us in its dry-as-chili-powder prose: “the era in which the retrieval, management, and transmission of information, esp. by using computer technology, is a principal (commercial) activity.”
Through those 9,400 words the OED editors track “information” from its humble origins to its current status as a teeming metropolis of meaning, and as fascinating as that journey can be at times, it’s also exhaustive to the point of exhausting.
Gleick quotes an attempt by Michael Proffitt, the OED’s managing editor, to justify the dictionary’s aggressive approach to blowing out the definition of “information,” even at the risk of leeching the word of all real meaning:
What makes it so distinctive as the fabric of mass communication is the very combination of immateriality and massiveness, its overwhelming diffuseness. It’s also a word which provides a point of imaginative sympathy between OED‘s editors and readers.
That paragraph—troubling on so many different levels—says about all you need to know about both the current state of our language and the slowly eroding “imaginative sympathy” that exists between the OED’s editors and readers.
Source: The New York Review of Books Blog
Image by Cofrin Library, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, November 23, 2010 2:36 PM
B.H. Fairchild is afflicted with logophilia, a love for language. He writes in the literary journal New Letters about his lifelong affinity for the well-turned phrase:
I remember, around the age of four, being delighted with the onomatopoeia the writers of Captain Marvel and Batman would invent for certain sounds: KAPOW, VROOM, or my favorite, POIT!, used (without any auditory connection I can locate) to described something soft (the bad guy’s head) bouncing off something hard (a brick wall).
Later, when I was a teenager, there was the poetry of the oil fields … often disguised as profanity: “Colder than a well digger’s ass,” “Colder than a witch’s tit,” “I whipped the bastard like a rented mule” … . My father, who was embarrassed by poetry and refused to read anything but nonfiction, one time for just a moment became the Prince of Language when Joe Whisnatt, a large man who for unknown reasons rode a very small motorcycle, was pulling out of the driveway. As he drove away, my father said, “You know, Whisnatt on that little bike looks like a monkey fucking a football.”
Fairchild traces his taste for colorful locutions back to Keats and, before him, Shakespeare, admitting that he is a “fool for language” and thus the foolishness
of Catullus, Li Po, Villon, Marlowe, Byron, Christina Rossetti, Yeats, Hart Crane, Dylan Thomas, Anne Sexton, and a thousand others, drunk on language—but without the drunkenness, that is, the logophilia, just solid citizens who read the newspaper and pay mortgages and vote regularly and live sensible, organized lives.
Source: New Letters, Vol. 76, No. 4
(article not available online)
Image by hslo, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, June 17, 2010 10:52 AM
So, some people are concerned that Obama’s oil spill speech was too linguistically ambitious. CNN reports that
Tuesday night's speech from the Oval Office of the White House was written to a 9.8 grade level, said Paul J.J. Payack, president of Global Language Monitor. The Austin, Texas-based company analyzes and catalogues trends in word usage and word choice and their impact on culture.
Though the president used slightly less than four sentences per paragraph, his 19.8 words per sentence "added some difficulty for his target audience," Payack said.
What is this, SATVerbalSection-gate? No, it isn’t, because that's not a thing. For my money, The Awl has the only comment that matters. Check the title on their quicklink: “Why Won’t Barack Obama Talk To Us Like The Morons We Are?”
Source: CNN, The Awl
Image by jurvetson, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, January 07, 2010 11:05 AM
Last August William Zinsser gave a talk, “How to Write English as a Second Language,” to incoming international students at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Reprinted in The American Scholar, his advice on how to write well is shrewd and funny—and just as apt for native English speakers, even non-journalist types.
Read the whole piece—Zinsser gives vivid examples of great writing, plus all the elements of a perfect sentence—but here’s a sample. He has just railed against Latin words, generally “long pompous nouns that end in -ion,” and is moving on to what pleases him:
So if those are the bad nouns, what are the good nouns? The good nouns are the thousands of short, simple, infinitely old Anglo-Saxon nouns that express the fundamentals of everyday life: house, home, child, chair, bread, milk, sea, sky, earth, field, grass, road . . . words that are in our bones, words that resonate with the oldest truths. When you use those words, you make contact—consciously and also subconsciously—with the deepest emotions and memories of your readers.
Source: The American Scholar
Tuesday, November 10, 2009 4:56 PM
When playing with Legos, it’s important to keep the “four-er flat hinge-y bits” separate from the “clippy bits.” Every Lego enthusiast, or family of Lego enthusiasts, seems to develop their own language to tell a “T-shaped joiney thing” apart from a “car mirror piece.” Writing for The Morning News, Giles Turnbull conducted a highly scientific survey of two American children and two British kids about what they call the different Lego pieces. That way, if someone asks for a “golden snapper” readers will know they really need a “flat clippy piece.”
Source: The Morning News
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Tuesday, October 20, 2009 4:15 PM
Just in time for sounding extra-smart when discussing health care, Merrill Perlman dissects the finer points of how to correctly use insure, assure, and ensure for Columbia Journalism Review’s Language Corner. Allowing for the fluidity of English (and subtle, disputed uses), Perlman still manages to boil down general proper rules into one illustrative sentence: “In Washington, legislators are trying to ‘assure’ their constituents that they are working to ‘ensure’ that any new health-care bill will ‘insure’ them.”
Source: Columbia Journalism Review
Friday, October 16, 2009 5:31 PM
Americans are peculiar. We like ethnic food, as long as it’s not too ethnic. We like foreign films, as long as they’re not too foreign. But we draw the line more starkly at non-English pop music. We don’t widely embrace music that is not sung in our tongue.
What is it about non-English lyrics that so repels us? Elyse Franko proposes on the travel website World Hum that we’re driven by overblown fears:
We English speakers are terrified of not understanding. We’ve gotten so used to speaking the coveted lingua franca that we’ve neglected to give other languages a chance—even if doing so would somehow benefit us. At this point, neglect has turned to fear: fear of miscommunication; fear of traveling outside the realm of English-language tours; fear of ordering the wrong dish from a non-English menu; and fear of misunderstanding the non-English lyrics to an otherwise excellent song.
Franko notes that many artists seeking a large audience are pressured to learn English, and that 19 of last year’s 25 Eurovision song contest finalists sang in English. But she also holds out hope that the tide is turning. After all, she notes, the Swedish “swing-rap-jazz combo” Movits recently performed on The Colbert Report—in Swedish!
OK, so maybe it wasn’t a cultural watershed, but Franko’s central point is well taken: “In this, the Age of the Internet, new music can travel over continents in seconds—why should we ignore good tunes just because they’re not performed in a language we can understand?”
To do our part, we’ve included two songs with non-English lyrics on our downloadable October Utne Reader music sampler: “Culpa de la Luna” by Rupa and the April Fishes, which is in Spanish, and “Surprise Hotel” by Fool’s Gold, which takes the multicultural prize: It’s African-style music played by non-African Los Angelenos and sung in Hebrew by the Israeli-born son of parents from Iraq and Russia. Touché!
Source: World Hum
Image by pocuswhiteface, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, September 24, 2009 12:25 PM
The economy is not “unhealthy” right now. It’s neither “ailing” nor “suffering.” The economy is not an autonomous entity like the human body; it’s made up of people taking actions that have an effect on other people. Anat Shenker-Osorio writes for New Deal 2.0 that talking about the economy like a living, breathing thing deemphasizes the actions of people—including irresponsible bankers—and makes efforts at regulation more difficult.
Most people don’t need external interference until something goes wrong. The same is not true of an economy. But when people say, “the economy shed jobs,” they’re reinforcing the idea of the economy as an autonomous thing. It’s better to say, “more people are unemployed,” or “companies laid people off.” Shenker-Osorio writes:
We personify the economy to our peril. Even as our overt messages insist the economy requires consistent external oversight, our language conveys the economy is an autonomous, self-regulating thing. The more we imply that the economy is something that exists and functions on its own, the less credible are our arguments that there’s no such thing as an unregulated free-market.
Source: New Deal 2.0
Image by Photos8, licensed under Creative Commons.
Saturday, August 22, 2009 10:54 AM
In 1654, people weren’t smoking tobacco. They were “drinking” smoke from pipes. And in the early nineteenth century, English speakers referred to a set of false teeth as a “ratelier,” derived from the French word for “rack.” These insights come from the food magazine Gastronomica, where Mark Morton has compiled a linguistic history of chewing tobacco, false teeth, and other non-food items that people stick in their mouths.
In the article, Morton revives the word “gamahuche,” an awkward and little-known euphemism for oral sex. He also sheds some light on the history of “toothpaste,” a word which appeared in English long after the Romans were using human urine to whiten their teeth. An advertisement in The American Railroad Journal used the term “toothpaste” in 1832, just 13 years after the Family Receipt Book suggested the use of gunpowder as a tooth whitener.
Monday, August 10, 2009 4:15 PM
When English isn’t good enough, innovative inventors set out to create their own languages. Most fail miserably, but every once in a while, a newly formed language will take on a life of its own. “Every time an invented language has found success,” language expert Arika Okrent told Failure magazine, “it has been an unexpected success.”
Okrent, the author of In the Land of Invented Languages, thinks that most would-be language inventors tend to view their new form of speech as a product, while most speakers don’t think of it that way. The most successful invented languages are Esperanto and Klingon, which have both changed far beyond their original intents. Okrent advises potential inventors:
Put your language out there in the world and then let people take it away and ruin it for you. If you try to hold on too tightly you’re going to have problems. If you want people to use it, you have to let them use it, but they are not going to utilize it the way you want them to.
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Friday, May 01, 2009 4:19 PM
Changing language is no cause for concern for many linguists and lexicographers, Ben Yagoda writes for The Chronicle of Higher Education. Contrary to popular belief, expert wordies are interested in “charting and interpreting recent and historical changes in the way English is written and spoken, not interested in labeling those changes as ‘mistakes,’ and even less interested in decrying such so-called errors as evidence of a decline in American civilization.” Yagoda recalls a panel discussion on language whose audience was distraught by the use of “impact” as a verb and “their” as a singular pronoun, but the experts didn't seem too bothered.
The audience should probably get used to it, as such changes are likely to continue. With native English speakers diminishing, the language will change to better reflect the lives of those who use the language. Annalee Newitz argued for Utne Reader's November-December issue that this linguistic evolution should be embraced, not derided.
Source: The Chronicle Review of Higher Education, Utne
Thursday, January 29, 2009 6:20 AM
Babies can follow a beat just days after birth, and they can notice when a rhythm pattern is disrupted, according to study results presented by Discover. Some scientists believe the ability to recognize steady rhythms, called beat induction, could be unique to humans. Some, including the study’s authors, also think it’s innate. Lead researcher Istvan Winkler suggests that a sense of rhythm helps newborns process and respond to repetitive baby talk, paving the way for language acquisition. If he’s right, our affinity for music may be a happy evolutionary accident, a byproduct of other essential learning processes.
Image by Kamal Aboul-Hosn, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, January 14, 2009 10:11 AM
Esperanto began as a stab at linguistic utopia. Imagining a world unfettered by communication barriers, Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof invented the grammatically simple language in late-19th century Poland. He dreamed that it eventually would be adopted worldwide as a universal second tongue. While these ambitious plans never reached fruition, the Boston Phoenix reports that a small, but tight-knit, international community of speakers keep Esperanto alive.
These loyal fans translate books, write songs, and hold annual conferences. They’ve also benefited from a host of web resources, using services like Skype and Facebook to stay connected and practice conversation. It helps that the language has only 16 basic grammar rules; the simple structure makes it easy for budding Esperantists to learn quickly.
Check out the article to learn more about the language and read comments by some enthusiastic speakers. Wikipedia’s also got an extensive page on Esperanto, with plenty of historical info and good links for further exploration.
Wednesday, July 23, 2008 3:25 PM
A synthesis of all things linguistic, Language Magazine is page after page of worldwide news, technologies for improving language acquisition, and resources for anyone who values communication. The latest issue features news about Portugal’s decision to change its national language to the Brazilian Portuguese, anecdotes from Spain, France, and Belgum, and a back page by Richard Lederer, author of several books celebrating the complexities and humor in language.
An article in the July issue, “Xpert sez txt is gr8 4 language,” considers Professor David Crystal’s research on text messaging as a new language style. Concluding that text messaging enhances and enriches language skills, Crystal “called it an ‘urban myth’ that school work was riddled with text speech, and said in fact students knew when to use it in the right context.”
Formerly known as the American Language Review, Language Magazine could be mistaken for a strictly academic publication. Though some articles are geared toward language teachers, many more are endlessly useful for those considering learning or improving proficiency of another language, which—to put it simply—most people could stand to do. Whether that language is French or Spanish, or a rare dialect known to only a few hundred folks, there is a laundry list of resources to be found between these pages, including recommendations for study abroad locations, program specifications, and news about language-learning software to help ease your journey toward language enlightenment.
Monday, April 21, 2008 5:55 PM
“For an obscenity to work, it must be both inside and outside speech,” Ian Coutts explains in Quill & Quire (article not available online). Obscenities begin as ordinary words until, as children, we are told they are bad. “The power of obscenity comes from this paradox,” Coutts writes. “We must never say those words, but obviously we do—or they would be lost to all time.”
Obscenities are more than just paradoxical pleasures: They both separate us from and join us to the animal world, writes Coutts. Whereas an animal might yelp or cry in pain, humans have words to articulate these feelings. (Oh, s#$% that smarts!) But even as obscene language separates us from our animal kin, these naughty words also often refer to copulation and defecation, two of the fundamental functions we share with other living things.
Obscenities evolve with our culture, so as society becomes increasingly comfortable with bodily functions, Coutts predicts fresh swear words will emerge to reflect whatever is deemed newly unmentionable.
Monday, December 10, 2007 2:51 PM
If, like me, you tend to obfuscate the meaning of your sentences using abstruse yet mellifluous words, or if you have a penchant for going all sesquipedalian on your interlocutors, have I got a social networking site for you. It’s called Wordie.
On Wordie, which is “like Flickr, but without the photos,” lovers of the English language can list their favorite words and share their lists with other linguaphiles in a supreme act of literary didacticism. Just don’t get wordasphyxia.
Wednesday, October 17, 2007 12:00 AM
Explicit and taboo language can help relieve stress at work, the BBC reports. Researchers at England’s University of East Anglia have found that swearing at work can build team spirit and help co-workers deal with stress.
The researchers did caution, however, not to swear in front of customers.
Yeah, no $%#*. -- Bennett Gordon
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