03/2/14

Reading: A Canadian tragedy… or not?


World Reading Map
The map above might show the making of a serious tragedy for Western and especially Canadian culture. It indicates in colour which nations read the most. Yellow is the second lowest group. Canada is coloured yellow.

TV zombiesIn this survey, Canada ranks 10th – from the bottom! Twenty countries above us have populations which, on the average, read more per week than we do. That surprises and shocks me. And it disappoints me no end.

I’m not only a voracious reader, I’m passionate about books, language, reading and writing, and have been on the library board for 20 years actively helping it grow and develop. Is it a futile task?

I don’t believe so. In fact, I’ve seen the library grow more and more into a vital community resource in the past two decades. It has more users, more books and more reads than ever. That flies in the face of what the map suggests.

The map showed up on Facebook via Gizmodo, The stats come from the NOP World Culture Score (TM) Index (press release here). They’re scary – but are they accurate? They’re certainly not recent: the data were collected between December 2004 and February 2005.

Here are the 30 countries, ranked by the number of hours people there read every week:

  1. India — 10 hours, 42 minutes
  2. Thailand — 9:24
  3. China — 8:00
  4. Philippines — 7:36
  5. Egypt — 7:30
  6. Czech Republic — 7:24
  7. Russia — 7:06
  8. Sweden — 6:54
  9. France — 6:54
  10. Hungary — 6:48
  11. Saudi Arabia — 6:48
  12. Hong Kong — 6:42
  13. Poland — 6:30
  14. Venezuela — 6:24
  15. South Africa — 6:18
  16. Australia — 6:18
  17. Indonesia — 6:00
  18. Argentina — 5:54
  19. Turkey — 5:54
  20. Spain — 5:48
  21. Canada — 5:48
  22. Germany — 5:42
  23. USA — 5:42
  24. Italy — 5:36
  25. Mexico — 5:30
  26. U.K. — 5:18
  27. Brazil — 5:12
  28. Taiwan — 5:00
  29. Japan — 4:06
  30. Korea — 3:06

Canada is listed well below the global average of 6.5 hours a week. Five-point-four-eight hours translates into a mere 49 minutes a day, on average. Are we losing our minds to TV?

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12/23/13

Dictionaries: Concise, Compact, and dacoit


Compact Oxford DictionaryDacoit: noun; one of a class of criminals in India and Burma who rob and murder in roving gangs. A member of a band of armed robbers in India or Burma. A bandit. Origin: Hindi and Urdu.

I love dictionaries. I like opening them up to a random page and just reading, discovering words and uses that I didn’t know. I love finding origins of words and phrases; linguistic connections between past and present. I will happily spend hours reading through Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, or a glossary of Shakespeare’s or Chaucer’s words.

I’ll open any dictionary at random and read a page or two. I’m almost always assured I will find something new. Some, like Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, are delights to read; others are dry and dull.

“Do you read the dictionary?” French author Théophile Gautier once asked a young poet. “It is the most fruitful and interesting of books.”

Last week I bought a used copy of the Oxford Compact English Dictionary, 2005 edition, at the local used bookstore, Cover to Cover (used, but is superb condition, I should add). And when I opened it at random to page 247, I read the definition of dacoit – a word I can’t ever recall encountering before last week. Sandwiched between dachshund and dactyl. Now I know a lot more about it, thanks to a bit of research in print and online sources.

It’s still in use today, albeit not in any media I regularly read. Every reference I’ve found comes from India or Pakistan. In 2004, The Telegraph of Calcutta wrote about the violent evolution of dacoits:

Sten guns, cellphones and agents on the job ‘ the image of the Chambal dacoit has changed over the years. What hasn’t is the centuries-old cycle of violence in the region.

The International News of Pakistan had a headline as recently as Dec. 19, 2013, saying:

Most-wanted dacoit carrying Rs1m bounty arrested

Dacoit, according to the two-volume Oxford Compact Dictionary, has many 19th century references for use in English, dating as far back as 1820. It’s also referred to as dacoity and dacoitery in some sources.

Wikipedia tells us the East India Company established “the Thuggee and Dacoity Department” in 1830. The ruling British enacted legislation called the “Thuggee and Dacoity Suppression Acts” in India between 1836 and 1848. Thuggee has survived in English, reduced to the shorter “thug.”

Not that I’d have much reason to use dacoit in any form. It’s one of those imperialist-period words that wouldn’t find a place in a contemporary vocabulary. George Orwell would have known it; maybe my father uttered it sometime before he left England. I have to wonder what force is keeping it intact in a dictionary that is constantly pressured by new entries: neologisms and borrowed words from other languages that keep popping into our increasingly international, technological language.

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10/28/13

The Circuitous Path from Bulge to Budget


If tinkers may have leave to live,
And bear the sow-skin budget,
Then my account I well may, give,
And in the stocks avouch it.
Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale,  Act IV, Sc. III, Shakespeare

These lines got me thinking about the town’s finances. Sow-skin budget? What does that mean? And how does that relate to the financial plan for the coming year staff is preparing for council’s review? I did some reading (of course…).

In Shakespeare’s time, the online etymological dictionary tells us the word budget meant something quite different:*

“leather pouch,” from Middle French bougette, diminutive of Old French bouge “leather bag, wallet, pouch,” from Latin bulga “leather bag,” of Gaulish origin (cf. Old Irish bolg “bag,” Breton bolc’h “flax pod”), from PIE *bhelgh- (see belly (n.)). Modern financial meaning (1733) is from notion of treasury minister keeping his fiscal plans in a wallet. Another 18c. transferred sense was “bundle of news,” hence the use of the word as the title of some newspapers.

The use of budget as a verb comes from much later – 1884. But for the Bard, a budget was a leather purse (or pouch or wallet). The annual budget is also a fairly new invention, as the Telegraph tells us:

It was not until the early 18th century that a version of the annual Budget emerged. The origins of the word Budget lie in the term “bougette” – a wallet in which documents or money could be kept. While at first referring only to the Chancellor’s annual speech on the country’s finances, the word quickly became used for any financial statement or plan…
Budget Day has historically been held during Spring because the collection of the Land Tax took place in April, and much of the country’s wealth derived from agriculture.

There’s a great description on World Wide Words of the convoluted path the word took to get to today’s usage:

Its first meaning in English indeed was “pouch, wallet, bag”, and followed its French original in usually implying something made of leather…
By the end of the sixteenth century, the word could refer to the contents of one’s budget as well as to the container itself. People frequently used this in the figurative sense of a bundle of news, or of a long letter full of news, and the word formed part of the name of several defunct British newspapers, such as the Pall Mall Budget…
The connection with finance appeared first only in 1733, as the result of a scurrilous pamphlet entitled The Budget Opened, an attack directed at Sir Robert Walpole… It probably also echoed the idiom to open one’s budget, “to speak one’s mind”, which was current then and continued to be so down into Victorian times…

Marina Orlova, the entertaining and pulchritudinous word lady at Hot for Words.com, gives us a more amusing etymology in the Youtube video at the top of this post. Who says learning has to be dull?

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10/23/13

Survival of the Fittest


Herbert SpencerCharles Darwin has long been associated with the phrase, “survival of the fittest.” For a century and a half people have used it to refer to their understanding of his explanation of how species evolved.

But it wasn’t his. And it has obscured the understanding of Darwin’s own theory.

It came from a contemporary, Herbert Spencer. Spencer was a contemporary of Darwin – an English polymath:  philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, sociologist, economist liberal political theorist, utilitarian – and, by some accounts, an early libertarian. His ideas came from people like Malthus and Adam Smith (read more about his philosophy here). Wikipedia tells us:

For many, the name of Herbert Spencer would be virtually synonymous with Social Darwinism, a social theory that applies the law of the survival of the fittest to society; humanitarian impulses had to be resisted as nothing should be allowed to interfere with nature’s laws, including the social struggle for existence. Spencer desired the elimination of the unfit through their failure to reproduce, rather than coercion or state intervention to initiate their physical annihilation.

He wrote his interpretation of Darwin’s ideas in an 1864 textbook of biology:

“This survival of the fittest, which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr. Darwin has called ‘natural selection’, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.”

Spencer was really trying to apply Darwin’s ideas to his own ideas about economics, class struggle, competition and politics. He also believed in Lamarckism – the inheritance of attributes gained in one generation by the next – which has long since been discredited. But whether you agree with Spencer’s views, his reduction of Darwin’s theory to a convenient axiom did the theory an injustice.

In the public mind, Darwin’s ideas about natural selection were confusing and challenging. They became conflated with Spencer’s ideas and somehow the phrase stuck – the Victoria era equivalent of a bumper sticker phrase. It became wildly popular, and was soon applied to social and political phenomena, not simply biological.

It was so popular as a catch phrase that in the 1869  fifth edition of his book, On the Origin of Species, Darwin – unfortunately – added this line:

“But the expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer, of the Survival of the Fittest, is more accurate, and is sometimes equally convenient.”

The problem is really in how the word “fittest” is defined. Like its sister term, theory, it has both a common and a scientific meaning.*

Survival of the FittestFittest, in Darwin’s sense, doesn’t mean the biggest, best, toughest, strongest or even the most competitive. It’s not the macho concept of superiority. It isn’t about power, control or brute force.

It means the “best suited for the immediate environment.” It has also been described as a “property of the relationship between the organism and the environment.” That might be a different colour, smaller size, less active. Whatever offers the best opportunity to survive and breed. Having offspring is key.

It’s a far more subtle notion than commonly used. As Wikipedia says:

Modern evolutionary theory defines fitness not by how long an organism lives, but by how successful it is at reproducing. If an organism lives half as long as others of its species, but has twice as many offspring surviving to adulthood, its genes will become more common in the adult population of the next generation.

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10/12/13

Something so basic, yet so different stands between us


My kinda bread!You’d think it should be this easy: just take a bread machine, throw in all the ingredients listed in the recipe, push a button, wait, remove loaf and eat. Yum.

Nah, of course not. Never is. And there are reasons for this, I’ve been learning.

I have an old bread machine – must be 20 years old or near as dammit – and my results were always mixed, using the recipes in the manual. I constantly tinkered with them. The best loaves were qualified successes. I ate them, Susan balked. The worst were, well, inedible, even for a guy who puts hot sauce on peanut butter.

The machine’s been in the basement fort so long now I’m not sure it still works. Even if it does, it’s a vertical pan and I never liked the crust that produced or the round loaves (when it worked, that is). But I recalled that device last week, with some – possibly misplaced – nostalgia.

Some economic considerations first. I pay $2-$4 for most breads I buy. Some elite types are $5-$7. The small loaves at the $2-$3 range generally last a week, the larger may last two. Depends on what we have for weekend lunch – soup, sandwiches or beans-on-toast. But that’s an average of $2-$3.50 a week on bread. Not a lot of money (Susan has her own bread, but that’s a different tale…).

So a bread maker costs (he checks his notes…) roughly between $100 and $300, depending on whether I want the family sedan or the Rolls Royce model. To justify that cost, the bread I make has to cost less than what I buy. So if I can make a one-week loaf for $1 (most recipes suggest somewhere between 50¢ and $1 per loaf depending on what you add to the mix), it will take me two to six years to amortize the cost. Ouch. But at half that cost, I can justify an inexpensive machine in about a year.

Okay, I can live with that. Just need to convince Susan (this is where the bottle of nice old-vine Zinfandel we’d been saving comes into play…)

Time, I thought, for another one. Bread machine. Not bottle of wine. Or wife.

Last time I bought one, I went into stores, spoke to staff, and essentially chose one at random (as random as my then-threadbare chequebook would allow). This time I have the internet to help me choose. Just read a gazillion reviews, find a model sold in Canada (and, I hope, locally), buy and bake. Fire up the browser and start surfing…

Nah. Not that easy. Nothing ever is.

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09/28/13

The Unknown Monk Meme


Cisterian monksThis pseudo-poem popped up on Facebook today. It’s been around the Net for a few years, without any source attributed to the quote, but it seems to be making its comeback in the way these falsely-attributed things do:

When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world.
I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation.
When I found I couldn’t change the nation, I began to focus on my town.
I couldn’t change the town and as an older man, I tried to change my family.
Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself,
and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself,
I could have made an impact on my family.
My family and I could have made an impact on our town.
Their impact could have changed the nation and
I could indeed have changed the world.

It’s recently credited to an “unknown monk” from 1100 CE, and sometimes just to “anonymous.” Since the latter can be anyone, any time, anywhere, it’s less than helpful. Citing the source – at the very least where you found it – is helpful. Anonymous could as easily be one of those crank posters who reply to news stories with snippets about the New World Order or conjure up conspiracies about the local rec facilities.

And the monk from 1100 CE? Not likely. It reads to me like New Age piffle, something regurgitated without understanding.

So let’s look at the attribution. First 1100 CE is in the High Middle Ages. It was shortly after the Norman Conquest of 1066, so if the monk was in England it was a time of chaos, while the Normans dispossessed the English aristocracy (those few left) and took the lands for themselves.

Not as much secular literature survives from that era as religious writing, in large part because the majority of literate people were in the church. Keep in mind that everything was handwritten, mostly on sheepskin: vellum or parchment. Printing was another 450 years away.

The 12th century literature shows nothing like this “poem” anywhere.

Second, a monk would have practiced asceticism, a lifestyle…

…characterized by abstinence from various worldly pleasures, often with the aim of pursuing religious and spiritual goals.

Celibacy was one of those practices. Hence the monk would not likely have had his own family – wife and children. Parents of course, but likely left behind at an early age to be a novice initiate. How much “impact” – a word that didn’t appear in English until 1601, derived from the Latin impactus: to push against (not the same meaning as today’s usage) – a child could have had on his family is unclear, but I’m guessing little.

We of course don’t know if this alleged monk came from a wealthy or poor family. If the latter, their impact on their town – more likely a village  at that time – would likely have been minimal at best, non-existent at worst. Twelfth century village life isn’t what we think of today. There was no central governing body like a municipal council. All land was owned by the lord, and villagers rented from him. Those who were free and not bound to service:

The 12th Century society and village
What defined your status in medieval England was whether you were free or unfree, and how much land you had.
Some rough proportions: About -
15% of people were free
40% of people were Villani (villeins) – they had substantial land (c. 30 acres) but owed service
35% were cottars or bordars – unfree, less land
10% were slaves or as near as darn it
Not all villages were the nucleated village that we think of today – but it’s far and away the most common model. Each village was composed of a number of tofts (or crofts) – areas of 1/4 – 1 Acre, rented from the lord. each croft held the medieval house – typically 24 x 12 feet, 2 rooms, 5+ people and not a lot else.

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