Tuesday, July 29, 2008

post-Cairo recovery

Per the pics below: The man pictured in the rear-view mirror is a taxi driver who had just finished shouting at his boss (on a mobile phone) about lost vacation days. As for the rest, no real rhyme or reason. Just a smattering of shots from a week spent in a dirty, sweltering and dysfunctional country.

I got back from Egypt four days ago. Upon landing in the US went straight to the hospital--do not pass Go, do not collect $200--where a couple of draconian doctors and thuggish nurses decided to shove a garden hose up my nose and down into my gullet. Better still: They kept it there for two days, leaving me to sit in bed to a.) listen to the pump slowly evacuate the contents of my belly, b.) welcome rejuvenating fluids delivered intravenously, and c.) rejoice at the fact that I didn't die in Egypt or, worse, end up in an Egyptian hospital.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

jetlagging in schiphol and remembering reader letters

Hanging 5--actually 9, hours that is--in Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, awaiting connecting flight to Cairo. First things first: Thank you to everyone who has reminded me that both Barak Obama and John McCain are left-handed. (Unimpressive article here and here on the subject.) Not that I hadn't noticed this years ago, but it's fun to see others geeking out on handedness. Be wary, though, of pithy statements about what southpawdom means or doesn't mean about the candidates, or US presidents in general.

As book launch date creeps closer
(Oct. 7! Tell your friends!), matters of language are bouncing around the brain and various inboxes. Linguist David Crystal, who was an invaluable help during the England leg of my spelling journey, has a new book out, debunking the myth that texting is bad for language skills. It's called Txtng: The GR8 DB8. And take a look at this note, which just arrived yesterday, from someone who read A Left-Hand Turn Around the World:

Thanks for writing it! You did a nice job, and I hope you keep up to date on the research. I myself am mixed [handed], but more left than right: I eat and write left; play tennis and pool left; throw, bat, and bowl right; and cut, sweep, soap, and do other chores left. One quibble, for your reprints: Several times you mention \"honing\" in on something. One doesn\'t \"hone\" in on anything; one \"homes\" in.

If you ever venture to think people don't take language seriously, let me know and I will send you this and countless other notes like it. That reminds me--well, no, the act of cutting and pasting a reader's letter reminds me--that I recently told someone I would occasionally post letters from readers, with an emphasis on the more ridiculous, if not outright offensive. (I'm off topic from language now, I know, but I have an easy excuse in jetlag.) After my autism article in March '08, Geolexography played host to some extremely out-there rants, so I'll skip that crop; you can read back to them if you'd like. Instead, I'll jump to a letter that a guy sent me last year, after I wrote about the new rail line that the Chinese built to Lhasa. Read on:

Dear David:
As an avid train and railroad photographer I read your article with interest. I'm saddened thought concerning your brief paragraph mentioning the negative impact of this rail line. Its existence will rapidly bring the pacification of Tibet to a reality for the Red Chinese government. As you mentioned, troops will also be able to be quickly moved into the region (to curtail any opposition), and the settlement of Chinese nationals in the region is really bringing about cultural genocide. I cannot remain silent after reading this article. Your trip through the mountains in the head end of the train was no doubt thrilling. I'd like to ask question... with a last name of Wolman, I will assume that you are Jewish. Would you have enjoyed, in 1943, a ride in the cab of a German steam locomotive on its way to Buchenwald? Think the analogy is off? I don't; and to support this line and praise its existence is to say that you don't support freedom and liberty. As for the western business's that have been involved in the construction of this line, they are as culpable of indifference as you are. Some may call this progress, some have to call it cultural genocide...If you have a conscience you have to look at this line as being disastrous for Tibet. I'd be interested in your response.


Wednesday, July 9, 2008

evolving english and the "persistent brainsuck"

Michael Erard has a good essay in this month's issue of Wired about the future of English. I dropped him a note the other day and he sent me the following, from the cutting-room floor.

Will Chinese English be more efficient to use than the proper English it replaces? That assumes English is efficient, but in some ways, it's not. Other languages pack more information into words, such as indicating where the information came from. English pronouns, which lack a plural "you," are particularly weak. As far as the evolution of the language goes, any gains you could get from eliminating a few exceptions (say, the plurals "children," "men," and "women") would be overshadowed by the persistent brainsuck that is English spelling, where "bury" and "fury" are pronounced differently, some letters are silent, and others represent two sounds--and not always the same two.

Well put.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

put dry

A jet-lagged entry today, as I just flew home from Amsterdam and am trying to resist sleeping for another few hours. It was a whirlwind tour through Holland this past week, researching water-related stuff for new project. From Delft and Dordrecht, to dunes and dams, it was quite an experience, complete with a visit to a massive dredging ship, which is more floating factory than it is marine vessel.

As most people know, much of the Netherlands is at or below sea level. Seeing it first hand is really something else, especially when it comes to the various techniques the Dutch have developed over the ages to--in the words of one of my hosts--"put dry" the country.

A few other quick-hit items: Here's a good essay from Peggy Orenstein last week, which relates to both an essay about reason that I'm working on and a reason-meets-faith book that looks interesting. It's called Descartes' Bones. And my friend Scott Morgan is trying his hand at blogging a little during his stint in Burundi. Check it out here.