Sunday, September 18, 2005

Dumbing down the English language

It was C.S. Lewis who commented that the fashion, popular in his day, that writing should be "functional" had robbed writing of half its functions. I wonder what he'd make of the state of English in our day. One has only to read ten pages of Lewis' The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader and then ten pages of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire to realize that the English language has undergone a significant decline in the 50 or so years between the publication of these two children's stories.

And J.K. Rowling is not the worst offender. My candidate for the worst influence on the learning of English is: school textbooks. This is fresh in my mind, as I recently took a position as a high school teacher and am trying to come to terms with the new generation of textbooks. Those I learned from in Central Africa in the 1950s and 1960s looked a lot like The Times - simple text laid out in sequential paragraphs, with an occasional headline or line drawing. By contrast, today's textbooks look more like People or USA Today - full of colour, profusely illustrated, and with fact boxes cluttering every page. I wonder how any student ever follows the topic, there are so many interruptions placed in his or her way.

And the English! I find that since I learned mathematics in the 1960s the word "percentage" has become extinct. "Express 3/4 as a percent" says the Grade 8 textbook, a grammatical blunder which would have brought a sharp rebuke from my math teacher had I made it in class. Likewise the word "subtract" has been lost in the mists of time, so that even Grade 12 students are likely to say "You have to minus the constant".

And it isn't just in the sciences that we face this crisis - for that's what it is - of the erosion of our language, which is our only means of expressing ideas to one another. Social studies textbooks talk about dictators being "driven by hate", oblivious to the fact that "hate" is a verb (I hate, you hate, he hates...) and that the noun required here is "hatred". If you use that word in a conversation today, there's a chance that you may be viewed in the same way as those old folks who still talk about a musical "record" instead of a "CD". Or, worse, you may get curious stares from people who think your grasp of English is so poor that you have begun making up your own words.

I think I'll go back and re-read my copy of "Eats, Shoots and Leaves" to reaffirm my own sanity!

Thursday, August 11, 2005

It‘s appearance beautify

I've always been a fan of what used to be called "Janglish" - the type of English found in the instruction books of Oriental products. (Nowadays it's more often called "Chinglish", which probably reflects an improvement in English language instruction in Japan.)
One of my favourite examples came from a Panasonic portable radio sold in the 1960s. Clearly, the translator had studied Shakespeare. In describing the transparent plastic case, he or she wrote:
"The cabinet is painted on the within, to shine beauteously on the without."
What a difference 40 years makes! Yesterday I saw a little round pocket-size USB plug converter in a local computer parts store. No Shakespeare here - this translator must have used a service like AltaVista's Babelfish or to get a result like this:
"When you are traveling. Do you bring the very more USB cable? Is it very trable? Now, you have the flying savcer[sic] No 1, the door is throw wide open to your.”
Update 2010-02-11: We just bought some mandarin oranges individually wrapped in clear plastic pockets, each printed with the message below, spelled, punctuated and formatted exactly as shown:
MingHua mandarin is Orange,contain
of protein,sugar,vitamin and inorganic
salts etc,sorts of composition,especia
lly contains rich maize element, Vc,Vp,
and carotene,Resistant to cancet,he-
alth spleen,moisten lung,relieve a co-
ugh,it‘s appearance beautify,juice sa-
vory,flesh delicious,Not only is nouri-
shing product,but also is preserve yo-
ur health.It is good foodsfor health.
They are delicious!

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The "dark continent" is now invisible

How does an entire continent remain invisible?

Check out any ad where a corporation claims to be "world-wide". See if they include Africa. For example, lets you click your region to go to its web page, but there's no button on Africa. I've also seen countless print ads where companies wanting to impress me claimed a worldwide presence, but left Africa out of their world. The last US company I worked for, which did have an office in Africa, divided the world into four regions including one called "EMEA" -- Europe, the Middle East, and oh yes, Africa. Now there's as unlikely a grouping of customers as I can imagine.

Despite Africa's huge size, its roughly forty countries together have only about a third of the population of a major nonwestern country like India or China. And with around 20% of all Africans HIV-positive, that number may well go down. So numbers are part of the problem.

Blame the rest on corruption -- though, as we've been finding out, there's plenty of that to go around, including the UN Oil-For-Food scandal in Iraq, Canada's sponsorship scandal (see the Gomery inquiry), and recent claims that top Israeli politicians leading the drive to hand Gaza over to the Palestinian Authority have foreign business partners who are already licensed by the PA to develop casinos on that land as soon as the homes there are bulldozed. Still, when most people think of Africa, their first thought is of corrupt leadership and chaos on the scale of Rwanda, Somalia and Zimbabwe.

Africa has a very small class of potential investors. I recently read that, not counting the top dogs with their numbered accounts overseas, the 100,000 wealthiest Africans have an average net worth of US$8-million, but there's a big gap between them and the average village dweller, whose entire possessions could be purchased with the average Canadian income tax refund.

Thirty years ago, countries in Africa and Asia had much the same GNP per capita as each other. Today, those Asian countries have 30 times the GNP per capita of the African countries. What did Asia do right, that Africa should have learned from? And how can Africa catch up now? There are enough resources in Africa that it ought to be wealthy. How can we achieve that in one generation or less?

Saturday, August 06, 2005

You get what you pay for

For the past few weeks I've been trying to choose a PC for a small charity I volunteer with. I drew up a specification and began checking prices.

Option 1: buy the parts locally and build the computer at home. That way I'd know the quality of all the parts and warranty service would be local. Cost: $1,000.

Option 2: buy the "house brand" PC from a local retailer. This is like Option 1 except the retailer chooses and assembles the parts. Warranty service would be local. Cost: $1,000.

Option 3: buy a "name brand" PC. Their large turnover lets them buy parts cheaper. I finally found a Compaq that exactly meets our spec. Cost: $800.

It's obvious that Option 3 is cheaper, right? But to get warranty service we must ship the computer halfway across North America at our expense. If we want local service we'll have to add an "extended warranty". Cost: $200, bringing the total to $1,000. Can't get away from that number!

And if I choose the Compaq, before I can install the software this charity uses, I must spend up to two hours uninstalling all the unwanted "wrapware" (promotions, demos, games and low-end applications) preinstalled by Compaq. This factor alone would make Compaq last choice if I was being paid.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Watch your language!

Last month I read a newspaper article that referred to a handsome movie star riding a motorcycle with "a beautiful model hanging onto his waste." Yuk! Thanks to spelling checkers we no longer see many spelling errors, but more than ever we are seeing the wrong homonym used. Here are a few examples I saw just in the last month:
  • "School stationary" -- on the cover of a stationery catalog intended for, of all people, educators. [Should be stationery = that which comes from a stationer, whose original job was chaining expensive books to their station to prevent theft.]
  • "This will please your pallet" -- on an elaborate glossy flyer explaining in upscale terms why Papa John's pizza is so much better than its competition. [Should be palate = part of the mouth.]
  • "We don't have a special rate per say" -- in an e-mail from an upscale arts organization. [Should be per se = (Latin) "as such".]
  • "[the car] careered round the harepin bends...and plunged over the cliff." -- from a famous newspaper columnist. [Should be hairpin = mountain road made up of long straight sections joined by sharp corners and thus resembling hairpins.]
  • "Ron's Restaurant, formally Joe's and Flo's" -- expensively-painted sign outside local restaurant. [Should be formerly = in former (previous) times.*]
Some words that people confuse don't even sound the same. I often see "except" where "accept" is intended, such as "We don't except cheques." And I've lost track of how many times I see "affect" and "effect" used interchangeably, even by well-educated people.

The church I currently attend has abandoned hymnbooks in favour of a digital projector, and those who type the words into the computer sometimes seem to be cobbling together a brand-new theology. One song said "I'm excepted by God", which brought to mind the ancient practice of selling indulgences. Another song confused nudity with infertility, asking God to cure our "spiritual bareness". After calling up I was able to persuade the operator to let me correct the spelling to "barrenness".

In fact, the hardest job these days is persuading people that errors like these even matter. Yet just go back and read that first paragraph again -- all the romance goes out of the mental image when that last, awful word arrives to wreck the sentence. And the yuppie intentions of the pizza flyer were completely deflated by the mental image of a fork-lift truck moving bulk pizza ingredients stacked on the wooden platforms they mistook for their customers' taste buds.

And when an error changes the entire meaning of the sentence it's in, it's no longer just embarassing but could be an expensive business problem. Of course, one could always put a disclaimer on every document; how about this one, which I've actually seen on a document: "errors and omissions accepted"?

* 2008 update: perhaps Ron reads my blog; "formally" has now changed to "formerly" on his sign.

The Incredible Shrinking Brain

Around 1959 I read an exciting Dell* paperback about everything that was newest and best in the world of science. The only chapter I remember today was the one about computers, which said that it was now possible to think about building a computer that would duplicate the functions of the human brain. The only catch was that the computer would be as big as the planet Jupiter.

As a bit of a solar system buff, I never forgot that claim, which is why I was startled about 11 years later (1970) to read that if a computer was built that would duplicate the functions of the human brain, it would cover all of North America and be several storeys tall. What had changed in the meantime? Vacuum tubes had been replaced by transistors, and transistors were just beginning to be replaced by the late Jack Kilby's invention, the integrated circuit.

Over the years since then, I've occasionally seen in the press further references to the size of the hypothetical computer that duplicates the functions of the human brain, and each one is smaller than the one before. As big as a city - as big as the Empire State Building - as big as a house - and a couple of years ago, the announcement that pretty soon it would be possible to build this computer and make it the same size as the human brain. Now that's progress!

But a few weeks ago, turning the pages of InfoWorld, I did a double-take at the implications of a headline there: "IBM to simulate accurate model of human brain with Blue Gene/L". Did you catch that? We no longer need to "build" an electronic human brain - we'll just write one as software and run it on an existing computer!

Mind you, Blue Gene/L isn't the sort of thing you buy at your local PC store for $499.95. No, Blue Gene/L is a supercomputer that will run (when completed) at 360 Teraflops. Nor is it the size of a human brain. But the significant point is the fact that the functionality of the human brain is going to be delivered as software. Once that is achieved, the software can be moved to successive generations of smaller and smaller hardware until it reaches any desired physical size. The day may come within the lifetime of some of my readers when you will be able to own a "brain" smarter than your own, the same size and price as a good Swiss watch.

How will our lives change when we're surrounded by "digital assistants" smarter than we are? Perhaps the best advice came from the late comedian and recording artist Allan Sherman at the end of his 1963 parody song Automation:

"When it sidled over and gave me a hug, dear, that's when I pulled out its plug!"

(* That's the Dell Publishing Company, not Dell Computers which didn't exist until 1984.)

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Time to replace your potato peeler?

Note today's date: it may be seen as a very important moment in economic history. China has taken the first step toward "unpegging" the value of the Chinese yuan from that of the US dollar. It's now pegged to the average of several of strong currencies.

This will mean prices for Chinese goods here will go up as the international value of the US dollar declines, which it must do as long as the US runs a trade deficit with the rest of the world. And the US will, unfortunately, run that deficit as long as it pursues a policy of "guns and butter" -- high military spending that isn't financed by higher taxes.

This can only get worse, as China is currently rebuilding its major cities from a European model where people live downtown and walk to work, to the US model where people must commute to their downtown jobs from the suburbs. China sees this as progress and a good stimulus for its fledgling car industry, but it is a major reason why
China recently overtook Japan as the second-largest importer of oil, having increased its oil imports by 30% in one year. China's appetite for oil is a major factor in the recent global oil price increases, and this price increase is a double-hit on Chinese export products because oil is both the feedstock for plastics manufacturers and the life-blood of the transportation industry.

These trends mean that fairly s
oon now, our local dollar stores will have to become a $1.25 stores or close down. Several dollar stores in our area recently went out of business, and I've already noticed that the rest no longer carry certain items that were once common there; those items now show up elsewhere at $2. If your potato peeler is on its last legs, now might be a good time to replace it.


(2009 follow-up: Of the three major dollar store chains operating in our area - Dollar Giant, Everything For A Dollar Store, and Dollarama - the "new kid", Dollarama, was the first to crack; they now carry items priced $1.25, $1.50 and $2.00 in addition to their $1 items. Dollar Giant then raised everything in the store to $1.25. EFADS still charges $1, but it has registered a new name so it's ready for when everything is $2.)

(2010 follow-up: EFADS has now followed Dollarama in having multiple prices. And Dollar Giant, once "proudly Canadian", is now a subsidiary of the US chain Dollar Tree.)

(2012 follow-up: EFADS went bankrupt in October 2012. Dollarama's prices now go as high as $3. Dollar Tree is slowly converting its Dollar Giant stores into Dollar Trees and has stayed with the $1.25 price limit.