Friday, July 29, 2011

Word Myths

Word Myths attempts to "debunk" various word origin urban legends. It does a fairly good job of doing so. (However, its approach seems to be primarily based on looking up the earliest origin in the Oxford English dictionary.) Some of the origins "Debunked" seem to be obvious bits of humour (such as a "life in the Shakespeare's day" story that managed to give the "false" origins of all sorts of cliche's.)

Unfortunately, the book tends to be extra verbose and "chatty". And some of the "debunkings" aren't worth the effort. It is actually more interesting to see the origin of the "false etymology" than the true etymology.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Rings, Swords and Monsters: Exploring Fantasy Literature

These lectures almost inspired me to read some fantasy books. However, the size of the books is always intimidating. (Not to mention the fact that they tend to be boring.) However, some of the pre-Tolkein fantasy books do look like they may be worth pursuing.

The bulk of the lectures concern J.R.R. Tolkein and his Lord of the Rings. he is given extra credit for giving the linguists touch to his work and creating large "full" worlds. Many others are seen as responding to or imitating his work. In other words, the dominant form of today's popular entertainment is dominated by one person. Quite impressive. Though perhaps stretching things a little too far.

The other obervation is that fantasy often deals with "needs" rather than wants and tends to be really long. The length is definately accurate, and what has often turned me off. Sure they are full worlds. But it takes a huge effort to get in to them. Once the effort is taken, going further may be worthwhile, but why take the effort?

The lost bit touched on some non-Tolkein fantasy, such as the "King Arthur" fantasy and magical realism. T.H. White, Borges, Garcia-Marquez, etc. Now this stuff sounds interesting. Perhaps there is some fantasy for me after all.

The Eyre Affair

I enjoy reading Jasper Fforde books, yet feel no urgency to read more. The books have plots, but they are not particularly engaging. The characters have their interesting points, but they are not the types you would want to get to know better. The strength of the books lies in the style. This makes them fun to read, but doesn't leave an urgency for more.

In the Eyre affair, the characters inhabit the "real" world, however, a few things are different. Britain is still fighting the Crimean war. Wales is an independent republic. Certain people can travel in time (or make time stand still.) And their are also some inventions, such as a machine that lets people travel in books. Of course, the bad guys get hold of this and use it to remove characters from original manuscripts, thus changing the novel.

There is also a giant corporation that dominates the control. It seems to play the role of nuisance. And of course, the hero has a love interest, a father that pops in and out, and plenty of other side interests.

However, all of this stuff is secondary to the bizarreness of "life" in the universe. I'm often stuck wondering - "is this a real event?" or "is this how the novel really is?" Historical fact and fiction are weaved in and out of the novel. Characters often bear names of "pop-culture" objects, whether they be games, scientific procedures or expressions. It makes for plenty of fun bits in the Monty Python/Douglas Adams tradition, but alas doesn't quite maintain interest.

A History of Hitler's Empire

This series of lectures does a great job of presenting Hitler in his time. The key events that lead to his power in Germany were described. Hitler's strengths along with the proper sidekicks and right situations all helped him gain power. The Nazi party had a bizarre set of values. However, in the nutcase that was interwar Germany the simple "we stand for something different" was all that was needed to gain a large share of the votes.

The early rise of Hitler's nazi party seems perfectly legitimate. Later on there was a little thugery. However, even that could be brushed aside. Hitler was a deft salesman, often building off of the supposed international abuses to unite the German people. The catch was the logical extension - you either go on conquering, or have your empire implode as you run out of enemies.

The actual war years only hold a brief section of this work. A disproportionate amount of the war coverage relates to the Holocaust. However, the actual extermination of the Jews seems to have been not very well known in the world or inside Germany until near the end of the war. The attack on Jews was a natural extension of the "unity through enemies" approach carried out by Nazi party. However, when the enemies are different and have money, they become easy target. The impression in these lectures is that the cruelty originated from lower level functionaries, but those higher up did not object and later gave their approval. (Some even began to take pride in their ability to "dehumanization" them.)

The lectures bring out the point that Hitler was not some gross aberration, but a product of our western culture. Germany of the time had one of the most open, educated, liberal welfare states. However, it also felt abused by other nations, and was thus ready for someone to unite them against a common enemy. Unfortunately, this had disastrous results. Could this be repeated again?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Bikes are faster than planes

With a section of freeway shut down in Los Angeles, JetBlue airlines ran a promotional flight between two nearby airports. Some L.A. bike groups didn't miss the opportunity to stage a race between destinations near each airport.

The winners?


The plane came in fourth place, behind a transit user and rollerbalder. The transit user is the most intriguing. You can actually take transit on a weekend in L.A.? Wow. Perhaps there is a city down there with all the sprawl.

It reminds me of the commute from Sunnyvale to Stanford. The fast bicyclist could always win. However, even the transit user could often beat the driver - especially when factoring in the trip from the parking lot to the office.

Slate or LA Streetsblog or US News

Toy Story

Toy Story was the first big Pixar animated movie. Since then, it seems all movies have gone the computer generated animation route.

The story was quaint, not bad, but not incredibly memorable.

I thought it was an ok movie when it first came out. Now it still seems ok. I guess it has thus stood the test of time. It has a few scary parts (with the kid that destroys toys), however, other than that, it is great for kids. For adults, it has a nice simple plot about acting rashly and seeking forgiveness. But, the toys are still the main selling point here. By using classic toys, the movie has managed to stand the test of time.

Santa Clara county library fee

The Santa Clara County libraries have started charging $80 to use the library. It seems to be an interesting divide with some of the wealthiest cities in the county (Los Altos Hills, Saratoga, etc.) charging a fee to some of the poorest areas (San Jose) for the privilege of using the library. Something seems a little wrong here.

To be fair, areas like Los Altos are up in arms about the fee, while it is "poorer" areas such as Campbell that are most in favor of the move. However, that just adds to the irony. The poor "in crowd" gets libraries subsidized by the likes of Los Altos, but doesn't want to subsidize San Jose.

On their homepage, they bragged that over 800 paid library cards (and 500 free student cards) were issued in the first few days. The big question is how it will turn out.

At one end, the library could rake in all sorts of money from the fee, and see a significant decrease in library activity.

On the other end, they could get just the most frequent library users ponying up. Say 2000 people pay the fee, bringing in $160,000. Since they pay the fee, they may increase their library usage to make sure they get their money's worth. Plenty of students get the free student cards, with families using a student card for occasional library usage. The net result is a stabilization or increase in library usage. Los Altos remains very perturbed about the library situation, and decides to leave the county system, taking away their multi-million dollar subsidy to the other libraries. End result: increased demands on the library, with decreased funding. (Not to mention the ill will.)

How will it pan out? It would be nice if Santa Clara county could simply create a unified system like San Mateo county, but that may be dreaming a bit too much...

Paxtis Pizza

Real Chicago style pizza in California! I had endured the horrors of "Pizza Chicago", and resigning myself to never finding "real" pizza in California. (Pizza Chicago is not all that bad for what it is; however, it is definitely not Chicago Pizza.)

Then some friends brought over some Patxis Pizza.

Unbelievable. It was real pizza. Stuffed crust. Spinach. The whole deal. It was like the stuff we would get from Giordano's down the street in Chicago. Stuffed deep with cheese. Layers of tomato sauce, and enough spinach hidden away to let you pretend its healthy.

At last, "real" pizza in California, without having to make it yourself.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Kung Fu Panda

It's funny. The plot is crazy. There is also a Panda who's father is a bird. It doesn't actually make a lot of sense, but, hey, isn't that the point of Kung Fu movies?

A panda is somehow ordained the chosen one to save the world from the evil bad guy. Problem is he doesn't know squat with regard to martial arts. He learns a little, and then goes crazy fighting for a dumpling. He then learns from his father that the secret ingredient is - nothing. That gives him the faith to finally beat the bad guy and make everybody happy.

Ahh. How nice. There is also plenty of kung fu action. (Enough to get a 6 year old up and dancing on the couch) Not bad for an escapist movie.

A world lit only by fire

This book rambles on about the middle ages and renaissance, and eventually goes on the laud Magellan. Finally in the afterward he explains that it started after he wrote an introduction for a friend's work on Magellan. He decided that he wanted to write a brief background to the times of the explorer. Things got out of hand, and we ended up with this book. He also admits to using all secondary sources in the work.

Alas, what we have is a book that is half filled with lurid details of the depredations of corrupt popes, and half filled with the voyage of Magellan. Here is the middle ages as seen through the eyes of modern sensibilities.

This book reads like a disorganized term paper on the middle ages that was graded on length not quality. About the only part worthwhile part was the tale of Magellan's final fall. And this would probably be better told in a more focussed book. That leaves, well, nothing to recommend in this book.


The movie shows babies in the US, Japan, Mongolia and Africa. That's about it. There is no narrative and just a smattering of dialog (all in local language). Even growing up in very different surroundings, babies act a lot a like. They like to nurse, explore their world, and get in to general trouble. The movie can be quite boring at times, but does have its bits of interesting parts. It is interesting to see how "overprotective" legislation doesn't seem to change the core behavior of little ones.

Indiana jones and the kingdom of the crystal skull

Perhaps Indiana Jones should not have gone out of retirement. The Last Crusade was a great movie. Crystal Skull was not. Aliens? Com'on. Sure, they tie it to ancient artifacts and the city of gold, but it just seems to stretch the Indy concept a little far from the core. The 50s background also just didn't seem right. (It felt like the 30s masquerading as the 50s.) And an illegitimate teenage son? And a wedding to the son's mother? ugghh. The story has plenty of Idy's trademark ironic quips, but here they just seem to fall flat. About all that is left is a lot of action (with the trademark theme.) Even this just doesn't seem to cut it like it used to. If only this franchise had remained in retirement.

Lost Languages

This display is "encyclopediac" with two columns per page, filled with diagrams and pictures. However, this does not distract from a very engaging narrative. It begins with background on deciphering lost languages, and how it differs from code-breaking. (One intends to deceive, but renders a common language. Another does not intend to deceive, but does not render to a known language.)

It then spends time covering some decipherments such as Linear B and Mayan. These are intriguing synopses, with plenty of details provided to allow the reader to try it on their own.

After that it goes in to some of the major "undeciphered" scripts. The degree to which they are not deciphered varies. Some are totally unknown. While others have a few proposed decipherments, but nothing that scholars can agree on. Part of the problem is simply identifying what defines a "character". We haven't been blessed with ancient civilizations that did a beautiful job typesetting all of their artifacts. Instead we have characters that may be the same, but have slightly different shapes. We may also have compound characters and perhaps characters that look almost the same, but are really quite different. Then once the characters are "cracked", there is the matter of figuring out what they mean. If we don't know the language of the time, we cna try to find related languages and hope for the best. Or we can try computer models, or we can just try to come up with something new.

Will we be able to crack this old scripts? Probably one day, but it could take a while.

This book does a great job of exciting interesting in ancient languages, while also making their challenges clear.

Hebrews, Greeks and Romans: The Foundations of Western Thought

Hebrews , Greeks , and Romans : The Foundations of Western Civilization ( Course Guide ) (THE MODERN SCHOLAR)

It starts out good, but my interest faded when he started going in to details about the Greeks and Romans. I had recently heard a lot of the similar material and was hoping for more details putting everything together. Instead it was a big narrative of the Odyssey, Illiad, Socrates, Aneid, and how they are all important. That is all nice, but more useful would be how they all built upon each other and how the different areas combined to give us our modern western thought. For that, we do have bits and pieces such as descriptions of how some Greek philosophical views are the root in communist arguments. However, we really didn't get much more until the last lectures where he finally ties everything together. If the middle lectures kept up the quality it would have been much more enlightening.


Take a run-of-the-mill story, animate it with ants, and voila, you have a blockbuster. Unfortunately, underneath it is still not much to reccomend.
In Antz, a worker ant feels that the conformist life of an ant is not for him. It just so happens that the princess ant happens to be slumming one night, runs in to him and he finds himself hooked. He chases her down, runs off with her to insectopia, and eventually they grow to like each other. They come back just in time to save the ant colony from the destruction instigated by the princesses fiancee. Everything finally works out in part by the ants ability to work together. Wait, wasn't the goal supposed to be to think independently? This isn't the only sort of confusion. At times, it seems to be geared towards kids, then it tries to get serious and throw in some bad language in attempt to attract adults, or perhaps throw in some toilet humor to attract "older kids". In the end it just makes for a bad movie.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Words Words Words

David Crystal shows that he is an expert in the English language. He has knowledge of the intricate details of words, while also knowing his audience well. He describes the intricacies of English words in clear understandable language.

It contains sections describing where words come from, how they change, and how they fall away in usage. (And in some cases, seemingly come back from the grave.) English is a melting pot of many different languages, with an Anglo-Saxon base. However, even some common words come from languages outside this base. Some of the oddities of the language can be traced back to attempts to formalize rules, or make things easier. (For example, "love" is spelled with an "o" because it was difficult to distinguish between u and v.)

I found the etymological analysis to be especially intriguing. Words evolve over time, some broadening or narrowing their scope, others adopting a more positive of negative meaning. Some words like "bling" can pop out of nowhere, become wildly adopted, and in the process be shunned by their original rapper coiners. Others such as wireless seem to die (in favor of radio), only to roar back to life (as mobile phones and the like.) To truly understand words, you need to know what they mean at the given point in time.

English also has a great system for coining new words out of already-existing parts, or through commonization of proper nouns. As long as the audience understands the speaker, communication is working. Jargon is great when used among specialized audiences. However, when used among common folk it hinders understanding. Similarly many other usages can be appropriate in some cases, but not in other. (However, outside forces inflicting "political correct" language often just transfer the negative view to other seemlingly benign words.)

Words words words is a short book with many words in it (and a cover to inspire budding gymnasts.) It titles each chapter with a "word" word, and even goes on to cover scrabble, text messaging and the internet. It is well worth the effort. And if it really inspires you to seek out more, there are a multitude of sources to keep you going.

Thursday, July 07, 2011


In the past few weeks I've eaten more hamburgers than I've had in a while. However, all are not created equal.

In N Out is still the best burger joint around. The cheeseburgers are tasty, filling, and relatively cheap. The menu is also refreshing. You have hamburger, cheeseburger, double, fries, drinks and shakes. And that's about it. With a burger, they ask if you want onions or not. There are also many other "options" you can add if you want. (Grilled Cheese is popular with the kids.) However, by default, you get something good.

Five guys is almost as good as In N Out. However, they have a huge menu - and no shakes. They also have many toppings to pick from. The kids complained that they expected other things on their burgers and hotdogs instead of just ketchup. They did have a pile of peanuts to munch on while waiting. The cheeseburger was almost comparable to In N out; however, it did cost about twice as much. And the stress of picking the many toppings was a downer.

McDonalds was just plain gross. I tried a McDouble. Ugghh. The kids gave me their cheeseburgers after taking a bite. Yuck. The cheese tasted fake. The burger was a flat thin thing, and the toppings were watery and not much more than a pickle and ketchup. And I felt sick after eating it. It was only a buck, but not worth it. They did however have yummy mango-pineapple smoothies for a one dollar promo price. Not bad. They tasted fruity rather than the sickening syrup taste you often get with pre-fab smoothies. (It actually comes close to jamba juice quality. wow!)

The Aeneid of Virgil

I had always thought if the Aeneid as simply a Roman rip-off of the Odyssey. That might still be true. However, these lectures help show the importance it has on its own. It has endured as one of the most studied Latin texts, and thus is useful in understanding many subsequent literary works. It also was written at a time when many Greek sources were available, and thus has additional clues about the Trojan war that are not available today. And perhaps of greatest importance, it is useful for understanding the Roman psyche.

Virgil composed the Aeneid in the time of Augustus Caesar, and used it as chance to showcase the current Roman view of themselves. The adventures of Aeneas can be easily compared with those of the Greeks in the Odyssey and Iliad. The differences showcase different worldviews that the Romans had of themselves vs. the Greeks. The Romans saw themselves as "rulers" who came from elsewhere to adopt good points of others' cultures and rule over them. Loyalty to the state was important.

The lectures here start with a general Roman historical background, then go through the Aeneid,providing a summary of each section before it is discussed. This provides a quick introduction to the Aeneid, as well as background to understanding it. Events such as "funeral games" are explained in the context of their day to help with the interpretation of the work. Historical tidbits (like the fact that Virgil thought it was unfinished and wanted it destroyed) are also intriguing. Now I just need to learn enough Latin to slog through the original.

Fumble Rules

Fumblerules: A Lighthearted Guide to Grammar and Good Usage
In Fumble Rules, Safire tries to be "smart" by creating grammar rules that are described in the bad grammar that they purport to fight. Unfortunately, this approach backfires, often making the rules difficult to comprehend. When the rules are easy to comprehend, however, it also backfires, showing that the rule is not really critical to understanding.

Perhaps this can be taken with a grain of salt, as he acknowledges that these are primarily for formal writing, rather than more informal text. (But who really writes readable formal writing these days? It seems to be either legalese mumble jumble, or informal prose.) Even the rules themselves come with a myriad of exceptions. It looks like the strict grammarian is doomed in this democratic English language.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

How to Learn Any Language

Farber starts this book with an engaging history of his languaphillia. He fell in love with learning Latin - until he got to the grammar. That led him to learn Chinese, which he finally got to speak with WWII soldiers. Eventually he added more and more languages to his repertoire. He went through phases of intense language acquisition, and others of specific language avoidance. In this book, he attempts to give us the help that he wished he would have known before.

His primary bit of advice is "work". He cautions that no "learn-quick" shortcuts can be used to truly grasp a language. Instead, he recommends that you avail yourself of all resources available - grammars, dictionaries, dialogs, phrase books, etc. He outlines a basic approach:
1) Start with a grammar book, and slog through the first 5 lessons.
2) Get a newspaper in the target language, and pick the top article, making flashcards for every word you don't know (whether it is in your dictionary or not)
3) Continue studying the vocabulary and grammar along with other related tools.

He also stresses working on native-level pronunciation, even if you don't fully get it.

The approach is no easy way to learn a language, however, it does provide a balance between the "fun" parts of language acquisition and the "tedium." In the end, their is no substitute for work.

Also of interest, he provides some background on various languages and how easy they are for English speakers to learn. Some seemingly exotic languages like Indonesian are among the easiest to learn. Others like Finnish are more difficult to learn. As English speakers we actually have it somewhat difficult as many people are trying to learn our language. However, people can still be impressed by the effort to truly engage in learning other languages.