Putting one over dad

One of the neighborhood kids rang the doorbell asking if S2 could come out to play.  The weather has been unseasonably warm the past couple of days and was in the 70s today.

S2, who would have preferred to play in her room with dolls, was persuaded to come out.

"Can I and A- go play in the park?" she asked.

"Okay," I said, "but come back in an hour because you have a New Year's eve party to go to."

She went out to get her watch (more to show the watch off to A- than to actually use it), looked at the time and asked whether she could come back at 6 o'clock (it was 4.50pm).

"Okay," I told her.

And then she whispered hoarsely to her friend, "let's go! let's go before my dad changes his mind! We can get to play for 70 minutes!"

Travails of English as a second language

For the most part, I can forget that I learned English relatively late, but sometimes it strikes me that I view the language differently from most native speakers.

My son, for a school assignment, wrote that "the tractor had no breaks".  "Do tractors have fuses?", I asked him, before I realized that he meant "brakes".  Because I learned to read and write English before I could speak it, words like "break" and "brake" have no relationship to me. They are completely and totally different. This has advantages -- there is no way I could mix up "their" and "there" in a sentence. Or even "it's" or "its" because I don't tie an English word with its sound.  They are just a sequence of letters. In fact, there are thousands of words that I've never pronounced and the first few years in America, I learned to listen somewhat carefully to figure out the general scheme of pronouncing words and place names. (Incidentally, this listening thing is something that many immigrants never seem to latch on to. I spoke to someone who'd lived in Tulsa for over 15 years who pronounced the name of the town he lived in: "Toolsa".  I didn't have the heart to correct him.). But it has the disadvantage in that misspellings can throw me for a complete loop.

Thus, when a colleague writes, in a blog about a missed forecast of freezing rain, that:
 the freezing drizzle didn't have the dramatic appearance of huge amounts of ice forming that most drivers look for as queues to take action to slow down.
it takes me a long while to realize that he is taking about "cues".  My first thought was that the drivers would slow down only if there was a queue of hitchhikers in an ice storm and only when that mental image didn't make sense did I finally puzzle out the intended meaning. Meanwhile, you probably read through the sentence and had to go re-read it to see that he'd used "queues" instead of "cues".

Crediting the money men, not the technology people

One of the places we always take visitors is the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History. It's a world-class museum, full of world's-largest this and the world's largest that. One of the cool things they now have is a baby apatosaurus:
Of course, an exhibit like this doesn't just happen.  A few bones are found and they are combined (painstakingly) into the structure on display. The skeleton is never completely intact, so missing pieces have to be created.

I happen to know the person in whose lab the bones were pieced together and where the missing pieces were manufactured.  Hundreds of thousands of man-hours and sophisticated technology solutions went into creating the skeleton.

But is that work even mentioned in the credits (see below)? No, only the money men are mentioned. And people wonder why young people do not go into STEM fields. Well, duh. Ambitious people want respect, but in America, it's a catch-22. Science doesn't pay well, and scientific contributions are not publicly appreciated to the level that monetary contributions are.

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Invented Languages

Languages are not my thing -- in spite of growing up hearing multiple languages, I can barely speak two. (I grew up on the border of a French-speaking country, amid people who spoke about 15 different West African dialects and went to college in an Indian city, where at least three languages were commonly spoken). Now, I can speak just two languages fluently.

So, I didn't expect to get much out of a book by a linguist about invented languages. Before you can invent a language, you've got to have the ability to quickly learn a new one, and I can not see myself being able to do that. But every once in a while, I try to read something I don't expect to like much. And a book about invented languages -- Esperanto, Klingon, etc. -- seemed to be just the thing.

"In the Land of Invented Languages" turned out to be an engrossing read. First of all, did you know that there are so many of them? She lists 500 invented languages, and makes it clear that the list is totally incomplete!
The book starts out with Wilkins, a contemporary of Hookes and Newton, who decided to create a language and started out by cataloging everything in existence. His work essentially led to the Thesauraus. And oh, Esperanto which came about as a pan-European, simple language? It's now started to pick up slang and historical accidents of spelling. The way the English word "light" is spelled the way it is, because that's how it was pronounced or that the past tense of "eat" is "ate" because in Old English all past tenses involved changing the vowel sound. Some time later, the rule changed to "add -ed", but no one could change very common words such as "eat" and "know". Another neat aside that I remember, because I had the same misconception. It's not that Koreans can read Chinese in their own language. The characters are very stylized, so it's not the case that the characters represent real-world things. Instead, Koreans make sense of Chinese similar to how a Spaniard makes sense of English -- because many of the Latin-derived words look familiar.

The coolest part about the book, though, is when the author turns to natural languages and points out how is the "flaws" in the language that make them suitable for thinking out loud, for collaboration and for communication. An awesome book. Really. You'll love it even if you don't care a whit about languages.

p.s. There were lots of neat tit-bits throughout ... I loved the book so much that I knew I wanted to write about it. So, I started highlighting various cool passages using my Nook. And then when I went to retrieve the highlighted passages, I learned that there is no way to list all the highlights! So, I'm writing these mainly from memory.  Forget the Nook -- it sucks.  If you are in the market for an e-reader buy a Kindle.

The Nook Touch is worse than the Original Nook

At a time when we take technological progress for granted, it's terrible when new versions of a good product are not as good as the old ones.  What were the designers thinking?

I love my Nook e-reader (the "Original Nook"). I can borrow books from the public library, regardless of where in the world I am.  It's no strain on the eyes (I have read 14 hours straight on planes). The Nook has an expandable micro-USB slot, so I can put my music library on it and listen to music as I read.  It's a self-contained travel companion.

But it's been a couple of years since I bought the Nook and the battery life is not what it used to me.  Now, I get only 7 to 8 hours (in airplane mode: I have not used the WiFi much).  So, I started musing about getting a new one.

The new Nook Touch is better in some ways. It has a white background (the Original Nook had the color of parchment), so that letters stand out more.  It does away with the ugly, useless LCD screen and makes the entire surface touch-enabled.

But ... there is no audio jack.  What? No music when I read? Why on earth would they get rid of a really useful feature like that?  When the battery runs out, I'll take it to Interstate Batteries and ask them if they carry replacement batteries. That, or, buy the Amazon Touch.  It does sport an audio jack, and it now supports public library books.

No New Nook for me.

Patent madness to affect a doctor's office near you

The madness of software process patents (e.g: Amazon's "1-click" patent or Microsoft's "loading images before text" patent) is all set to affect medicine.

The next time a doctor decides that he is going to increase your dosage, of say, statins when you break your leg, he's going to get sued for violating the patent of the researcher who showed the linkage between statins and a period of inactivity.

Instead of fixing the problem with software patents, the Supreme Court is all set to unleash the craziness on yet another field.  How can the court system be this oblivious?

A breezy read

Breezy novels are hard to come by.  Especially  breezy novels that are not piffle.  So, I heartily recommend Rebecca Makkai's The Borrower for the next time you need something to occupy a few hours of your time.

I won't spoil the story by telling you what it's about, except to say that it's not about events that spin tragically out of control (she tells you the ending on the first page, so I'm not spoiling anything by telling you this). Instead, it's about the power of books, and of family -- the typical coming-of-age-novel, except from a unique viewpoint.

Read it!