Wednesday, August 29, 2007

You Can Say Anything With Words

Of all the pithy sayings I've ever devised, the following is surely among my favorites:

You can say anything with words.

If one keeps in mind what I wrote a few days ago about original ideas, one might wonder whether I was the first to formulate this sentence. I'm quite certain the answer is no. A quick Google search shows that whether I was the first or not, I'm surely not the only, although the sentence does appear surprisingly infrequently in the Google database.

I think the statement is true, although it may sometimes be difficult to find the appropriate words, and it may (on rare occasions) be necessary to invent new words to achieve the objective.

An interesting side-effect of this ability to say anything with words is that it's possible to say things that make no sense. Even more exciting: It's extraordinarily easy to say things that nobody has ever said before. This, despite many people's claims that "there's nothing new under the sun" or that "everything's already been said".

Take, for example, what was said by Miss Teen USA competitor, Lauren Caitlin Upton, during this year's pageant. If you haven't yet seen or heard the clip, click here.

Part of me thinks that her response is very sad (almost as sad as the statistic cited by the questioner). Part of me thinks it's extremely funny. And part of me is just astonished by the utter uniqueness of the response. While I'm sure Miss Upton's statement has been quoted many times since she made it, I'm every bit as certain that she was the first person in history to have ever assembled that combination of words in that order. There's not any chance at all that it had ever been done before.


It's just more proof that plagiarism is an unnecessary art form. Why resort to plagiarism when the potential for original wording is so limitless?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Hanging On For Dear Life (A New Photograph)

I came home the other day and the sun was setting and there was a very bizarre light out there. I decided to wander out to the flower garden that's in our side yard. I don't go out there very often, which means that when I do go out there, I'm almost always pleasantly surprised by what I find. All summer long, something is blooming, and I never know what it will be. There were some flowers out there this time that were obviously past their prime, and I just found this shot to be irresistible:

Flower, Last Petal, Hanging on for dear life

That last petal was just holding on for dear life. It was this incredibly vivid color, contrasting with this bizarre hub which used to contain so very many petals and had become so very barren. I think it's lovely. Let me know what you think of it.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Having Original Ideas (even when other people had them first)

I'm always disturbed by people claiming that Columbus did not "discover" America, on the grounds that people were already here. (There are other grounds on which to argue with the Columbus discovery myth, like (a) where he landed and (b) that there seems no good reason to call him Columbus. (Cristóbal Colón seems more likely the guy's name.))

Discovery does not require being the first to discover something. All it requires is finding something when you weren't already certain it was there. Although, even that requirement is a little sketchy. I think you can "discover" the truth, even though you were already aware of its existence. Anyway, I've gone off on a tangent even before I've started with the topic of this post.

Today, I thought I'd mention some original thoughts I've had. They were original thoughts, because as far as I knew, nobody had previously had them. I've since discovered that I was not the first person to have them, however. Meaning that other people have had the same original thoughts before I have had them. This does not mean that my thought process is diminished by not having been the first to get there. A good idea is a good idea, no matter who has it.

A few years ago, I had the original thought of setting up wave turbines to harness the power of the oceans. Turns out that other people already had that thought and industrious people were already working on implementing it. Now, it may turn out that the idea of harnessing the power of the tides is even better than the idea of harnessing the power of the waves. (I can make no claim to having thought of using the tides instead of the waves for electricity generation.) But still, the wave turbines idea is a good idea, and I'm proud to have thought of it.

I also had the original thought a while ago that we really should implement some system of having a national referendum. We have no such system in place, and I think that's a horrible strike against our system of government. As it turns out, Mike Gravel had already had the same idea. I don't know for sure whether it was an original idea in his case, or whether he borrowed it from someone else. I think Gravel has some crackpot notions, and I won't be voting for him. However, on this issue, he has a good idea, and I'm proud to have thought of it.

A long while ago, I was working out (as a thought experiment) how one would go about setting up a local currency. I had never heard of anyone doing it, and as far as I knew, it would be utterly illegal to do within the confines of the U.S. borders. I've recently discovered that not only is it legal, but that there are places where it's been done. Certainly, I wasn't the first to think of it. But I did think of it, and I did so without suggestion from other sources. So I would argue that in my case, it was an original idea. Whether it's a good idea or not, it's certainly an interesting idea, and I'm proud to have thought of it.

Now, I'm sure that most everyone has the "why didn't I think of that?" moments. And I'm sure that lots of people have the "I could have come up with that" moments. There are also lots of us out there who have the experience of having the "hey! I already thought of that" moment(s). It's easy to get discouraged by such moments. I would argue that getting discouraged it not the appropriate response...even if someone else is getting rich off of your bright idea. Just because someone else thought of it (whether they got there first or not), that doesn't mean that you didn't think of it. It doesn't mean that it wasn't your own original idea. And it doesn't mean that you shouldn't take pride in having come up with it.

I've also had this other fantastic idea kicking around in my head for several years. I'm not sure whether anyone else has ever considered it. But I'm sure it was an original idea of my own. I'm fairly desperate to try it out. Sadly, I'm an employee rather than an employer, which takes its implementation far out of my hands. At least for now. If you're in a different position, I encourage you to try it out and see how you like it. If you try it, please let me know how it goes. The idea: Switch from the seven-day week to the twelve-day week. Switch from the five-day work week to the seven-day work week. Switch from the eight-hour work day to the ten-hour work day. Keep the years at their current 365/365/365/366-day schedule, but instead of having each new year start on a different day of the week, the new year always starts on the first day of the week.

What you end up with, instead of 52 seven-day weeks (and one or two spare days left over) is thirty twelve-day weeks with five extra days at the end of the year (or six, in the case of leap year). Those five (or six) days can be used as bonus vacation days.

Seven ten-hour work days for each of 30 twelve-day weeks works out to 2,100 business hours. That's really close to the 2,080 hours that you get from five eight-hour work days, but you get the wonderful benefit of having five-day weekends! Factor in the extra five (or six) bonus days at the end of the year, and figure that when you take a week-long vacation, you actually end up with 17 consecutive days off, and I think you'll quickly see the advantage of my system. Basically, even though your work days may be slightly longer, you get many more free days with which to live your non-working life. Where you might now feel that your measly two or three weeks of vacation per year are just not enough, a one long-week annual vacation, combined with those year-end bonus days, combined with those five-day weekends may actually feel like just enough time off, no?

Now, here's the kicker: If you switch to this system, you suddenly find that you do not need to take days off just to attend doctors' appointments or to have conferences with your children's teachers or to go renew your driver's license or to take your pets to see the veterinarian or to do any of the many other chores that can only be done during normal business hours. This is because your "normal" business hours no longer coincide with everyone else's "normal" business hours. You can get cheaper airfare or hotel rates when you decide to leave town, because you don't have to schedule your travel according to peak travel dates and times. Sure, some weeks, you'll be working from Sunday through Saturday. But on other weeks, you'll have Monday through Friday off, just in the normal course of your life. You can go to see a midweek afternoon baseball game without having to "play hooky" from work, if that's how you like to spend your time. You can visit the museum to see that touring exhibit while there are no crowds, instead of having to go during the weekend like everyone else.

Oh, to dream!

Now, back to my main point: If you have an original idea, don't be devastated if you discover that someone else already had it. And don't let anyone tell you that it wasn't an original idea. If you thought of it all by yourself, then yes, it is your own original idea. Be proud to have thought of it. Just think of how many billions of people didn't think of it!

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Meet the Donkephant! New T-Shirt Design

Well, after many months, I've finally put a new design on my on-line store. If you like the design, and want it on a shirt (or even if you don't especially like the design but want to show that you're a free thinker), you're invited to go there and order.

Donkephant politics not quite working for you? Vote anti-party!

As always, comments are welcome.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Some Insect Photography

Today I spent a couple of hours in my kayak on Willard Pond in Antrim, NH. This was my second visit to this particular pond. It's not very large, but there's an island towards the east end. To the east of the island, there's a field (for lack of a better term) of these aquatic purple flowers. Being no botanist, I don't know what kind of flower they are. What I do know is that the bumblebees seem to love them. So there I sat, surrounded by hundreds or thousands of bumblebees (none of which made any effort to cause me any harm--way too busy going about their pollination activities), probably a few dozen dragonflies, a pretty good number of damselflies and a few lovely butterflies. I had brought my camera with my longest lens, which I set to Macro mode and fired off a bunch of shots. I think I got a few good ones, some of which I'll share here. I hope you enjoy!

Bumblebees, bumble bees, purple flowers, Willard Pond, Antrim, NH, New Hampshire

Dragonfly, purple flowers, Willard Pond, Antrim, NH, New Hampshire

Damselfly, purple flowers, Willard Pond, Antrim, NH, New Hampshire

Butterfly, purple flowers, Willard Pond, Antrim, NH, New Hampshire

I also got to see a couple of fish jumping out of the water. If I had to guess, I'd probably guess perch. But it would be a wild guess. Anyway, they were quick, and of course I didn't get any shots of them.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Another Swig from the Linguistic Trough, and Another Poll

I also happened to invite the Linguistic Mystic to have a look at my July 31 post. He did so and was kind enough to give me a nice credit as the inspiration for his latest post, an interesting discussion of the mysteries of whether "tomorrow" begins at midnight or at wakey-time. Thanks, Linguistic Mystic.

Today's the third in my little series of linguistic discussions, again inspired by newscasters:

Why would you say "an historic event"?

I believe Peter Jennings used to do this. I always considered Peter Jennings to be the perfect exemplar of accent-free American English, despite his Canadian origins (Eh?). (Of course, it's all accents, really...and what I think of as "accent-free" is just as much an accent as is Apu-speak from The Simpsons. At the very least, however, Jennings didn't drop his R's or his H's and there was no chance of confusing the white race with the white rice.)

So why Jennings (and others who don't drop their H's) would use "an historic event" always seemed an inexplicable oddity to me. The best explanation I could come up with is a bizarre Anglophile motivation to try emulating The Queen's English by adding that "n".

Here's the rule I learned in school, which has always served me well:

Use "a" before any consonant sound or a long "u". Use "an" before any vowel sound except a long "u".

The a/an choice is based entirely upon pronunciation of the following word, not ever based on spelling.

So, for example, we get:

an egg -- vowel sound (short e)
a house -- consonant sound (h)
an umbrella -- vowel sound (short u)
a unique experience -- long u (the specified exception in the consonant sound versus vowel sound divide)
a potato -- consonant sound (p)
an honest man -- vowel sound, as the "h" is silent.

So to me, "an historic event" sounds just as wrong as "an potato", unless it's coming from someone with a British accent (for example), where historic is pronounced 'istoric.

If you don't drop your H's, then why would you use "an historic event"? Would you also use "an house"? How about "an halfhearted attempt"?

Note: The use of "an historic event" is certainly not isolated to Peter Jennings. And it's not isolated to spoken usage. I've noticed it in writing as well. And it always puzzles me, especially when I know the author is American.

Comments are invited. If you say "an historic event" and you pronounce the "H", what's your justification? If you know of other examples of people making different exceptions to the rule, please share. If you learned a different rule, what is it?

Here's my second poll:

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Linguistic Discussions

This morning, I invited most of the authors of the Language Log blog to take a look at my last blog entry. (Most, not all, only because there were a few whose e-mail addresses I was unable to locate.) Anyway, what has ensued is a fairly fascinating discussion that's been carried on via an e-mail thread rather than as comments to my blog. Oh well. At least they all included me in the e-mails, which have been most edifying. (They're a bunch of professional linguists, and I certainly am not.)

So here's the gist of what seems to be the consensus:

  • Both usages are in common parlance.
  • This does cause confusion when people of one camp converse with people of the other camp (especially when scheduling, as the "next Wednesday" issue is just as much a problem as is the "last Wednesday" issue).
  • The rift does not seem to be a recent development.
  • This has been previously studied from a linguistic perspective.
  • Such divergent dialectical usages are probably more common than most of us think.

In addition, I've gotten to learn two nifty words today: ideolect and ecolect. (Interestingly enough, both trigger the Blogger spell-check alarm.)

Amateur though I may be, I am much amused by linguistic topics. So today I will add yet another linguistic topic to my blog:

What I've learned from working in bookstores for so many years is that sometimes book covers have proofreading errors. Sometimes, these are especially interesting, including misprints of book titles on the spine. A few years ago, for example, I noticed the spine of a paperback edition of William Gaddis' novel, entitled A Frolic of His Own. The title on the spine read as follows (in two lines):


This is especially interesting because sometimes the mind lets us see not what's actually there, but rather what it seems should be there. Most people, seeing that spine, would read the title the way it should have been printed rather than the way it was printed.

I'm sure the linguists have a scientific name for this phenomenon.

Anyway, on to tonight's discovery:

I found a Phonics book in the Spectrum series from McGraw-Hill. It's for Grade 3. The spine reads:


So I asked a coworker, "What does that say?"

His response: "Phonics, grade three"

So I asked again, "What does it really say?"

Same response.

Now, of course, this reading error is not any indication of stupidity. My coworker is quite literate and quite intelligent, and I don't mean to suggest otherwise. The point is that the mind plays tricks on us, and it's purely by chance that I happened to notice the printing error. Nine times out of ten, I might've read it incorrectly just as he did.

I bring this up, however, specifically because I find this to be an especially funny printing error. After all, it's a book about phonics!

My favorite t-shirt of all time had the following text:

Hukt on foniks wurkt fur me!

(If you're too young to get the reference, ask your mother!)

So, for the kids who have to spend their time plowing through this particular book, I think the final payoff is that they can claim, "I lurnt my fonciss!"