December 30, 2009

Blog hijack

Language Log is a terrific blog with a long list of prolific contributors. It can be a little unwieldy to follow, not only because of the number of posts but because each post is usually an in-depth article and is followed by many insightful comments.

Not so one Dec. 25 entry, in which Arnold Zwicky traces the divergent sources of a clever line by Paul Krugman (writing on politics: "No, Virginia, at this point there is no sanity clause.").

The entry itself is brief, and the comments section is abruptly truncated by Zwicky after a commenter went off-topic, attempting to move the discussion from language to politics.

Zwicky writes, in his terminal comment, writes:

I've had it repeatedly explained to me that when you open a posting to comments, the comments section then "belongs to" the commenters (who are free to take up any topic they want), not to you. I reject this idea, but hardly anyone seems to agree with me.

Well, I certainly agree with him, as do many other bloggers who moderate the comments on their sites. Unfortunately, Zwicky has decided that to obviate such a hijacking in the future, he simply won't allow any comments at all.

I do hope Zwicky reconsiders this drastic measure. It's a shame the rest of us should miss the lively discussions Language Log usually inspires just because one crank realized there's a bigger audience for his political views there than at his own blog.

December 26, 2009

An urban legend in a pear tree

A co-worker recently brought up that modern myth about the origins of the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” and asked whether it was for real. This is the story that says the song is a coded reference to Scripture. "Five golden rings" stands for the Pentateuch, "Four calling birds" equals four gospels, and so on.

Some claim the song originated in the 16th or 17th century, during the period when English Protestants were persecuting Catholics. “Twelve Days” is said to be a sort of catechism song for teaching the tenets of the faith to children, with the premise that Catholics couldn’t put anything in writing for fear of imprisonment, torture or hanging.

Illustration © Michele Paccione • Fotolia

This origin story, as I told my colleague, is nonsense. It apparently was made up by someone who either couldn’t be bothered to look up the truth, or didn’t care. Like the bogus story about candy canes being the letter J for Jesus, the “Scripture code” story about the “Twelve Days” song is an attempt to cram religious symbolism into a folk custom.

There are several problems with the “Scripture code” story. Chief among them is that there would be no reason to “encode” such information, because the items cited are common to both Catholic and Protestant Bibles.

Also, the things that the items in the song symbolize change from one version of the story to another. For instance, the three French hens are alternately said to represent the Trinity; the virtues of faith, hope, and charity; or the gifts of the magi.

And what good is a catechism song only sung one month out of the year?

Actually, the song most likely originated as a “memory and forfeits” game for Twelfth Night (the Epiphany, Jan. 6). The “first day of Christmas” is Dec. 26.

In a memory and forfeits game, the leader sings the first line, and the players follow along. With each round, the leader adds a new phrase, and as people mess up—as we so often to once you get into the double-digits of this song—they are “out,” until only one player remains. It is in this context that the song was first published, in the book Mirth Without Mischief, in 1780. Similar songs are recorded earlier in French.

Whether by translation or through the passage of time, some errors appear to have crept in. The “calling birds” were originally “colly birds,” colly (or coal-y) meaning black, therefore “blackbirds.” And “five golden rings” may originally have meant ring-necked pheasants, making the first seven gifts all birds.

What one’s true love was supposed to have done with 28 birds, not to mention all those people, is not known. And it’s OK to not know. Not knowing is preferable to inventing falsehoods.

December 25, 2009

I bring you good tidings...really.

The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things. The one who comes from heaven is above all. He testifies to what he has seen and heard, yet no one accepts his testimony. Whoever has accepted his testimony has certified this, that God is true. He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has placed all things in his hands. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God's wrath.

—John 3:31-36

That's neither holly nor jolly, is it? Yet this is today's gospel reading from the Presbyterian Church USA's daily lectionary.

Many people are taking today as a vacation day. But is is a holy day? Are we stopping to consider what it meant for God to put on flesh and dwell with us? Are we accepting his testimony? Or are we performing some cultural norms out of habit, or because everyone else does?

I skipped decorating this year. Not so much as a wreath on the door. And for half a minute, I worried that my neighbors might think I'm not a Christian because there's nothing on the outside of my house to show it.

Meanwhile, around the corner, our neighbors have a yard full of inflatable decorations and more lights than Vegas. I would live in fear of such an electric bill.

What, I ask you, does an electrically lighted inflated Santa have to do with the immanence of God?

By contrast, I attended my first Christmas Eve worship service at my new church last night. I had the pleasure of sitting in front of the most tone-deaf person I have ever heard. I soon got over the little thrill of not being the worst singer in the room for once. As the saint behind me offered up "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" with all the gusto she could muster, I thought of this Psalm, which also happens to be on the lectionary for today:
Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises.…
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the King, the LORD.
Sing praises to the King of Kings. Accept His testimony. It's not holly. It's not jolly. It's holy.

December 23, 2009

We Wish You A Merry Christmas

One of my favorite Christmas traditions is caroling. Even though we closed John Calvin P.C. at the end of October, some of us gathered recently to go caroling at the homes of our former members, many of them homebound. I've always been touched by how moved people are when we perform this simple service for them.

The custom of caroling goes back a long time. The first known collection of carols was published in 1521. But the trouble is, so many Christmas carols are so old the words are baffling to modern folk.

How about that line in “Deck the Halls” — “don we now our gay apparel?” Yeah, the teenagers get a giggle out of that one.

And what about “Here we come a-wassailing?” Does anyone go wassailing anymore? Or even know what wassail is?

Wassail was brought to English by Viking invaders. The Norse phrase “ves heill” is a toast: “to your health.” To go wassailing involves drinking toasts to the health of your friends. The custom of caroling originated with wassailing. The word “wassail” also came to describe the drink itself, usually mulled cider, sometimes spiked. I suppose if you were going around drinking at all of your friend’s houses, you might start singing, too.

Good King Wenceslas, who “looked out on the Feast of Stephen,” was a real person. He wasn’t a king, though. He was the Duke of Bohemia, in what is now the Czech Republic. He was born c. 907 in the castle of Stochov, near Prague. Although the castle is gone, the church he attended still stands.
Christianity was a fledgling religion then, and there was much conflict between Christians and Pagans in Bohemia. Wenceslas’ mother, in fact, was Pagan, and opposed his support of Christianity. But he was raised by his grandmother, who was Christian.

Wenceslas’s support of the church and his charity to the poor led to his being honored with a song, but not in his lifetime. He died in 929. The words to his carol were not written until 1853, which may be why confusion as to his title crept in.

The music is an old tune (though not as old as Wenceslas), Tempus Adest Floridum, which dates from the 13th century. The same tune is used in the carol “Gentle Mary Laid Her Child.”

As for the feast of Stephen (whose martyrdom is described in the book of Acts, Chapter 7), it takes place on Dec. 26.

And a Happy New Year

We all sing “Auld Lang Syne” on New Year’s Eve, even though few people outside of Scotland know what it means. “Auld lang syne” translates, literally, as “old long ago,” and means, more or less, “the good ol’ days.” So “we’ll drink a cup of kindness yet for auld lang syne” means, roughly, “we’ll toast the good old days.”

Whether you drink your toast with spiked wassail is up to you.

December 19, 2009

As the risk of sounding like your mom -- look it up

Any time an e-mail starts with something like "IT IS FOR REAL..." you can be pretty sure it's not. The capital letters are the major tip-off.

Someone actually sent me this oldie that's not a goodie recently:
"...I do not usually forward messages, But this is from my friend ... and she really is an attorney. If she says that this will work - It will work. After all, what have you got to lose?"

"I'm an attorney, And I know the law. This thing is for real. … Bill Gates sharing his fortune. … Microsoft and AOL are running an e-mail beta test When you forward this e-mail to friends, Microsoft can and will track it..."

And make you a billionaire without your having to spend years building a business that produces software used by millions of people every day.

Bill Gates is sharing his fortune, all right, but he's sharing it with genuinely needy people who don't have, like, a roof over their head and food to eat, OK? Not lazy Americans who haven't figured out that if you Google "Microsoft and AOL are running an e-mail beta test," you'll find a bunch of pages telling you it's a hoax.

I wrote about this in OBJ back in 2003, and bunches of people wrote about it before me, including the venerable, under the brilliant heading of "Thousand Dollar Bill."

So here we go again, kids. Do us all a favor: When you get one of these e-mails, visit and look for it. You will be amazed at how many of these things are complete fabrications.

I should say you may be amazed. If you're a jaded journalist, you won't be amazed at all, just sad. Not only sad that so many people pull these hoaxes, but that so many people fall for them.

December 3, 2009

The most fun I ever had losing

Over at The Anomaly, the online forum where the Marcher Lord Select contest is being conducted, matters have taken an interesting turn.

Remember when I said there was no Simon Cowell in this contest?

As I quickly discovered, the participants are keen and well able to offer insightful commentary. Some of it may be a tad snarky, but none is cruel or rude. They are always helpful and constructive. One author even re-wrote her pitch right there in the forum based on reader input.

Many of us have formed extraforum partnerships to continue appraising one another's work. I e-mailed my first three chapters to Robynn, for example. After giving me her excellent critique she wrote, "This is fun! I hope you're enjoying it, too."

I am having a blast.

A couple of days ago, Publisher Jeff Gerke posted this thought:

I love that you guys are forming your own crit group partnerships. I didn't realize that one of my secondary goals in all this should've been to bring you folks together for an amazing meeting of the minds. I'm glad you're way ahead of me.

This is the beauty of networking, whether it happens online or off. Connections are made, and new projects develop therefrom. I doubt anyone could have planned it this way.

I would go so far as to say those of us who've been "voted off" are now having a better time than those who are entering Phase 3, for the pressure must be increasing as the competition gets tighter. The rest of us are free to critique and encourage one another. It's like a support group.

I call it "Writers Anomalous."

November 30, 2009

Christmas in Space

My science fiction Christmas comedy, "The Feast of Stevens" got an honorable mention in the 2009 Not So Cynical Christmas Writing Contest. The winning stories and runners-up will be published at The Cynic Online Magazine starting Dec. 1.

I suspect "Stevens," while lighthearted, was not as warm and fuzzy as the editors were looking for. If you get over there to read it, please come back and tell me what you think of it.

November 18, 2009

A simile a day keeps the editor at bay

If I had a simile-of-the-day award, it would go to Clay Shirky for this gem:

"...the spread of electronic commerce for everything from music to groceries is part of the increase in empty store fronts on shopping streets, leaving a series of Citi branches, ATT outlets, and Starbucks that repeat at regular intervals, like scenery in a Hanna-Barbera cartoon."

Shirky also has some thought-provoking things to say about the future of independent bookstores.

November 16, 2009

Voted off the island

Well, my book did not advance to the next round of the Marcher Lord Select contest. I hope to get feedback on why that is.

In the meantime, though, this contest has been -- and continues to be -- terrific exercise for understanding why so many good writers collect so many rejections. Marcher Lord Press publishes three books each spring. But they already had two books lined up that are sequels to previousl MLP titles. That left one slot open, with 36 viable entries to choose from.

One can hardly blame Publisher Jeff Gerke for crowdsourcing that decision. It's a tough one.

Of the eighteen books advancing to round two, only one will be published by MLP in the spring. Which means there will be several -- I can't call them losers -- several non-winners that I would love to read, but will be unable to read because they won't be published.

I can only hope they'll find a home elsewhere, later.

November 2, 2009

Just don't throw down your gimlet

In the Middle Ages, one ran a gantlet (an ordeal) and threw down a gauntlet (an armored glove). No one does either of these things literally anymore, except, perhaps, in the SCA.

These expressions persist in modern English as idioms, but because we are so disconnected from their chivalric origins, people tend to get them wrong. They speak of “running a gauntlet,” although “throwing down a gantlet” is rarely heard.

I consulted with Prof. McIntyre over at You Don't Say, and he informed me that Bryan Garner, author of Garner's Modern American Usage, "is still holding the line on gantlet/gauntlet."

The new edition of Garner's includes a Language-Change Index, which ranges from Stage 1, rejected, to Stage 5, fully accepted. Prof. McIntyre informed me -- because I have not yet read the latest edition of Modern American Usage -- that Garner puts "run the gauntlet" at Stage 4. And, Prof. McIntyre added, "My own view is that it's a battle not worth fighting."

I'm inclined to agree. Moreover, I'm beginning to wonder if these phrases have passed from idiom to cliche. Surely it's better to endure an ordeal or issue a challenge while expressing your meaning in a clear, modern way. Unless you’re writing a historical novel set in the Middle Ages.

October 31, 2009

Like American Idol -- without Simon Cowell

Marcher Lord Press, which publishes Christian speculative fiction, is putting a new spin on publishing.

"Marcher Lord Select is American Idol meets book acquisitions," says publisher Jeff Gerke. About 40 completed manuscripts will be presented, and readers will decide which one should be published.

The contest will proceed in phases. In each subsequent round, voters will get larger glimpses of the competing manuscripts.

The first phase will consist only of the book's title, genre, length, a 20-word premise, and a 100-word back cover copy teaser blurb. Voters will cut the entries from 40 to 20 based on these items alone.

Following rounds will provide voters with a 1-page synopsis, the first 500 words of the book, the first 30 pages of the book, and, in the final round, the first 60 pages of the book.

The winner of the final round will be published by Marcher Lord Press in Spring 2010.

Marcher Lord Select begins Nov. 1, 2009 and runs until January or February 2010. All voting, discussions and other Marcher Lord Select activities will take place at The Anomaly forums in the Marcher Lord Select subforum. Free registration is required.

Contestants are admitted by invitation only, but anyone may register to vote for the winner.

"In order for this to work as we're envisioning," Gerke says, "we need lots and lots of voters. So even if you're not a fan of Christian science fiction or fantasy, I'm sure you love letting your voice be heard about what constitutes good Christian fiction. So come on out and join the fun!"

Fair disclosure: My book is entered in this contest. Gerke encourages authors to direct as many people as they like to the contest, as long as they don't campaign for their books in the forums.

October 16, 2009

Gone Phishing

Recieved at my company e-mail account, no less:

"This e-mail was sent by America Online Billing to notify you that we have temporarily prevented access to your account."

Well, thank goodness. Because if there was an AOL account in my name, I'd want it disabled.

"Your account may have been accessed by someone else. Please verify your details by following the link below:"

A classic phishing ruse. Does anyone still fall for this bunk anymore? They must do, or spammers would stop sending it.

I don't don't like to encourage pessimism, but I will prescribe a healthy dose of skepticism for all netizens, especially the newbies, who always seem to have it least and need it most.

October 10, 2009

Old, moldy, beautiful books

How appropriate that I found Awful Library Books just one day before we had to go clean out the church library.

ALB is a librarians' blog that partly mocks out-of-date books but mostly chides the librarians who keep them hanging around long past their usefulness. In fact, the hosts frequently point out cases in which out-of-date books have not only been kept, they've been re-bound.

Every bibliophile knows the agony of throwing away a book. Even a bad book is hard to throw away, as a co-worker and I discovered one day upon receiving in the mail an unasked-for review copy of a self-published book that was, ostensibly, about global economics but in reality was unintelligible. Not only did it not have any readily apparent structure, it was written by someone who did not have a firm grasp upon English grammar or syntax.

There should have been no qualms about tossing this incoherent screed into the garbage, but we hesitated because … it was a book. Someone wrote it, printed it, bound it. And the binding, at least, was neatly done. But, yes, into the trash it went. (Note to self-published authors: Before you send a review copy to a newspaper, make sure it's a newspaper that actually publishes reviews.)

I felt similar pangs clearing out the John Calvin Presbyterian Church library in preparation for the church's closure Oct. 25. As we pulled books from the shelves and spread them out on tables so the congregation could take their pick, we not only found the laughable sort of examples that provide fodder for ALB, we found curiosities, gems and battered treasures.

Between reading ALB and gutting the JCPC library, I've concluded that books come in a variety of types, none of which is readily discardable:

Not old, and still good looking

I have yet to find a volume from the JCPC library that has seen a lot of circulation. In fact, most of the books, once cataloged, never left the property. So even the ones that are ten to fifteen years old are in great shape. Well, except for the card pockets glued in the back and the "John Calvin Presbyterian Church" stamps in them. Even trade paperbacks are pretty when new. I love the way the trim creates a tidy rectangular polyhedron. The older ones have glossy covers, which is a bit garish. I prefer the newer ones that have a matte finish.

Just old enough to be mockable

Quite a few of the ALB entries fit this category. A recent example was a hair stylist's guide from the 80's that included some gag-inducing mullets. We didn't find many in the church's collection that fit this category, other than the Time-Life cookbooks. Yeah. I don't know why the church library had cookbooks either. These are the easiest type to discard, unless you anticipate their growing up into the next category.

Old enough to be cool, in a kitschy sort of way

One of my fellow congregants took home a temperance-era volume of family devotionals. This thing was huge -- the size of an unabridged dictionary. What convinced her to keep it was a doggerel poem about the evils of drink. She found it amusing.

Of ALB's entries in this category, my favorite is a home economics textbook from 1959.

Old, shabby, and priceless

I haven't seen any of this variety on ALB yet. Presumably by the time a book reaches this stage, a library will already have withdrawn it, or moved it to a special collection. I now have in my possession several of these, in varying stages of shabbiness, and am looking for a book conservator. There is an 1868 Bible with its covers off. An 1869 copy of An Illustrated History of the Holy Bible also has a broken binding. It is outdated, as it can't contain anything about the Dead Sea Scrolls. But it has beautiful colored endpapers, with the edges of the book painted to match. Only handcrafters make books this way anymore. These books are foxed (which is to say, moldy) and worm-eaten, and they're treasures.

One of them is a Hebrew Old Testament. If there's a date in it, I can't read it, as it's not in numerals. In the back cover (what would be the front cover if it were an English book) is a rubber-stamped "Property of John Calvin Presbyterian Church…Donated by ___" and in the blank is handwritten "R.L. Hall."

Ridgely L. Hall was the founding pastor of JCPC, and though he died before I was born, I've come to respect and admire him. Those who knew him hold him in high esteem -- I would go so far as to say awe. Handwritten on the endpaper, with pencil, in what I can only assume is Pastor Hall's handwriting, is this quotation:

"Whence but from Heaven could men unskilled in arts, in several ages born, in several parts, weave such agreeing truths? Or how or why would all conspire to cheat us with a lie? Unasked their pains, ungrateful their advice, starving their gain and martyrdom their price."

…with the attribution "John Dryden(?)"

Yes, Ridge, that was Dryden. And I promise, when I hand this worm-eaten, rubber-stamped, Dewey-decimaled treasure to the conservator, it will be with strict instructions NOT to erase the note on the endpapers.

September 26, 2009

'Fun' with M$ Office.2

For ages, I have wrestled with Entourage, which I love. I really do. But, like the people I love, it sometimes does things in a way that's not the way I would have done it if I were them.

Entourage's Tasks list, for example, can be sorted by due date, or priority, or alphabetically. But, given three items of equal importance with the same due date, it won't let you manually move one to the top because it's a prerequisite for another. Or move one to the bottom because it can't be done because some prerequisite piece of the project yet to be recieved from another person or department.

And there's no obvious way to export the Task list as an editable text file.

Well, I finally discovered this article which describes how to get Tasks out of Entourage using BBEdit. Why I never found it before, I can't imagine. Perhaps it's Google page rank wasn't high enough before. I don't know. I'm just glad to finally be able to get my Tasks out of Entourage and into something editable.

The article was written in 2005, but I tried the technique using BBEdit's sibling, TextWrangler, and it worked just as well. Dragging into Word, however, copies only the first item in a group. So you have to drag each task individually. That means if you have 12 tasks, it will take you 12 times as long to copy them into Word as into TextWrangler.

Oddly, while Word only picks up the first item in a grouped list of tasks, Apple's TextEdit only picks up the last. So TextWrangler rules.

Once you get the tasks out of Entourage and into TextWrangler or BBEdit, they can then be imported into OmniOutliner for even more control. Love it.

This simple drag-and-drop export method also works with Notes and Calendar items.

If only the things ON my to-do list could be handled so easily.

September 11, 2009

Google's caboodle of books

Authors and publishers are trying to put a stop to Google's digital library project, which would digitize millions of books now sitting unread on library shelves.

Their complaint is that Google is not first seeking permission from the authors or publishers of those works, which are out of print but still under copyright. Google's proposed settlement, which comes up for judicial review October 7, would pay damages to any author whose rights are shown to be violated by the project. Opponents say Google should get permission to digitize first, not offer apologies after the fact. Google argues that in many cases, the copyright holders cannot be found to give permission.

Either way, I believe authors have more to gain from the project than they have to lose.

Sales driver: While researching journaling as a spiritual practice for my Sunday school students, I found at Google books Ron Klug's How to Keep a Spiritual Journal. This proved so helpful, I went to Amazon and bought a copy. So the searchability of a digital library can direct readers to books they might otherwise never discover. The proposed settlement would allow out-of-print books to be printed and sold by Google, Amazon and others. This could be a great benefit for authors not inclined to self-publish their out-of-print books.

Research tool: I'm developing a character whose mother is Welsh. I perused a map of Wales to pick a euphonious hometown for my fictional Welshwoman. I found Llanavan, a town named for St. Avan, of whom I have never heard. Well -- here is the dark side of reasearch, which leads down trails of cross-references far away from one's point. But I didn't wish to pick this town without learning about its namesake, so of course I turned to Google, which helpfully found Our Sunday Visitor's Encyclopedia of Saints by Matthew Bunson and Margaret Bunson, and even dumped me onto the relevant page, which tells me Avan was a sixth-century Welsh bishop and that all that is known of him comes from an inscription in the Llanavan churchyard where he was buried. Ah, well. It would have been much more interesting if he had turned out to be the patron saint of accountants, or something. (Remind me to someday tell you the story of St. Chad, the "patron saint of disputed elections".) Still, in less than five minutes I learned all I needed to know about the origin of Llanavan's name. I couldn't drive to the library in that time, and even if I had, the county library system doesn't have this book anywhere in its collection.

The digital library will bring to light millions of pieces of information just like this. Those who moan about the impropriety of Google having a monopoly are missing a crucial point: Google has a monopoly only because they thought of it first. Rather like Microsoft or the old AT&T. It certainly needn't remain a monopoly. Just as there are multiple physical libraries, there could be multiple digital libraries.

This is fundamentally a debate about adapting existing copyright laws to new technologies. Terence Ross, a copyright lawyer not invoved in the matter, is quoted in a Bloomberg article, saying, "Innovation often poses problems for the law and established bureaucracy.”

That's an understatement. I'm reminded of Peggy Lee and others who provided voices for Disney films, whose contracts with the studio didn't cover royalties to be paid when films were re-released on VHS and DVD, because of course neither medium had been invented at the time.

As a writer, I wish to be paid for my work, so I understand the complaints of those who fear the digital library will prevent their earning proper royalties. But I think those fears are unfounded. An author earns only one royalty payment for a volume sold to a library, no matter how many people subsequently read that copy. Does that mean we don't want our books in libraries at all? I should think not.

Google's plan may not be perfect. The court may call for changes to it. I agree the court needs to ensure that copyrights are honored. But Google's project is at its heart a good one. I find it hard to classify as evil something that brings old or obscure books out of the dark stacks and into the light.

September 7, 2009

Depends on how you define "original"

When I saw Hope Clark's post about the Harlequin Presents writing contest, I almost gave it a miss right off, based on Harlequin's reputation. But Hope noted that with no entry fee, and the prize of editorial services for a year, it was right for "closet romantics."

Since a couple of my back-burner items might be called "romantic," if not capital-R "Romance," I gave it a look.

The publisher claims to want "unique perspectives and ... originality," but:

"At the heart of your novel must be ... the hero ... a powerful, ruthless man ..." and a heroine who is "shy and vulnerable ... also plucky and determined to challenge his arrogant pursuit."

So they want originality, as long as your original story isn't about a vulnerable hero and a ruthless heroine.

It rather takes the joy out of writing to have not only the characters delineated beforehand, but the course of the romantic subplot as well. The publisher only wants stories in which he's pursuing and she's resisting. This leaves out any story about mutual attraction opposed by outside forces. Romeo and Juliet would not be welcome here.

What I find most appalling is that these are not just the guidelines for this contest. They're the guidelines for Harlequin's entire "Mills & Boon Modern Romance" imprint. Harlequin is devoting an entire division to the publication of books in which the type of characters and the course of their relationship is the same in every book. That's not what I call original.

September 3, 2009

Putting a republic to the test

I just finished Michael Lind's book What Lincoln Believed. It's not a biography, it's a philosophical examination. It covers Lincoln's religious, economic, and racial views. For most of his life, he was a deist. He was a Hamiltonian, while most of his Southern opponents were Jeffersonians. And while he belived "all men are created equal," he believed human rights didn't necessarily equate with civil rights.

What stunned me most about this book was how it changed my view of the American Civil War. Common wisdom says the war was about slavery. Confederate sympathizers have said it was about state's rights, but none could pretend that the primary right being argued about was anything other than the right to buy and sell human beings.

Lincoln did not run for office on an abolitionist platform. Like the country's founders, he was willing to allow slavery to remain where it already existed. The point of contention was whether Southern slaveholders would be allowed to export slaves to the new territories in the West.

When, after Lincoln's election, Southerners demanded concessions on threat of secession, Lincoln refused to be blackmailed. In a letter rejecting one compromise proposal, he wrote, "We have just carried an election on principles fairly stated to the people. Now we are told … the government shall be broken up, unless we surrender to those we have beaten…"

The "beaten" pro-slavery minority, tried, as Lincoln put it, "to break up the government." When Lincoln said, in his address at Gettysburg, that the war was testing whether the republic "can long endure," he was not talking about slavery. He was talking about the ability of a democratically elected government to quell an internal rebellion by an angry minority.

In an address to Congress in 1861, Lincoln summed up the matter this way: "When ballots have fairly, and constitutionally, decided, there can be no successful appeal back to bullets…there can be no successful appeal, except to ballots themselves…whatever they cannot take by an election, neither can they take it by a war…"

I have sometimes wondered why the union bothered to fight. If Southern states no longer wished to be part of the Union, why force them to stay in it? Here's why: The Constitution contains no mechanism for a state, once admitted to the union, to later separate from it. That means the Southern states' secession was unconstitutional. Lincoln's duly elected administration was opposed by insurgents who flouted the country's founding principles. As Lind puts it, "The Civil War was about law and order in the service of democracy."

Lind's text is a bit dense at times, but it is worth working through to get at these gems of insight about one of our nation's finest presidents and darkest times.

Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

August 26, 2009

Rejection is not always about you

Hope Clark had a great post yesterday on writers, editors and rejection. An excerpt:

Writers have good days and bad days. … Editors have good days and bad days. They accept and decline submissions for a wide variety of reasons, most of which a writer will never know and the editor will easily forget.

As I wrote in the comments at Hope's blog, the calls I most dread are from the public relations people who want to know why we didn't use the item they sent. Because usually, there's no easy answer, and even when there is, the truth isn't pretty.

One reason we might skip a story is that one of our competitors has already done it.

Other times, it's just not the kind of thing we ever publish. For example, I had a call from FOCUS about getting coverage for their Interfaith Prayer Action for Health Care Reform. I'm a supporter of FOCUS and have many friends who are actively involved there. But I had to tell the caller it's not something I could cover because it's national and nonprofit and we're local and business.

But most of the time, at least with the "People in the News" and "Biz Digest" columns, it's simply because we have a limited number of pages, and when they are full, we stop. A good news item might get moved to the queue for next week, but if something bigger comes along, that will move to the front of the line. A $5 million deal is a bigger story than a $500,000 deal. If enough million-dollar deals come along, the $500,000 deal may become old news before it ever sees ink.

Here's a scary statistic that I share liberally: We get five hundred press releases a week just for these two columns. There's room in the paper for about fifty. That doesn't mean the other 90 percent are no good; it just means there wasn't room for them.

As much as an editor may strive for objectivity, not every editor has the ability to set dollar-amount cutoffs to determine which submissions make the cut and which go to the bitbucket. It must be especially difficult for fiction editors, as fiction is so difficult to quantify.

Sturgeon's Law surely applies at every periodical and book publishing house. No one has the resources to publish everything they get. There are too many writers -- and PR people -- out there.

Sturgeon's Law -- named for Theodore Sturgeon, a writer and magazine editor -- says 90 percent of everything is crap. But crap is relative. The 11th percentile may not be crappy at all. It's just slightly less good than the 10th percentile. And when you're making decisions about how to spend your publisher's money and your reader's time, that 1 percent difference is enough, even if the reasons for the difference aren't quantifiable.

That's why targeting your market is crucial. You must know what the publisher or editor needs in order to increase your chances of landing in the top 10 percent.

August 21, 2009

But none are named Quatro

Watching the Little League Baseball World Series today, we couldn't help but notice the disproportionate number of players in the game named Trey.

Georgia has a player named Trey Maddox, and Iowa has Trey Creighton and Trae Cropp.

Yes, Cropp, a pitcher, spells his name differently. But the presence of several boys whose names are all prounounced the same, all in a single ball game, got us wondering whether, ten years from now, we'll be watching Major League Baseball games populated by vast numbers of Treys with increasingly ingenious (or is that ingenuous) spellings: Tres, Tray, Treigh...

And of course I find it amusing that, in this game, there were three.

August 15, 2009

Milking it for all it’s worth

I'm alternately entertained and consternated by lists of things I’m supposed to eat – or not. For example, one article advises me to drink milk for calcium to prevent osteoporosis. But another tells me to avoid dairy products to reduce my risk of heart disease.

That, along with a visit to a restaurant where every other thing on the menu had goat cheese in it, got me wondering: Why do humans consume products made from the milk of ruminants?

Or, as Calvin once said to Hobbes, “Why do we drink cow milk?? Who was the guy who first looked at a cow and said, ‘I think I’ll drink whatever comes out of these things when I squeeze ’em!’?”

Cattle have been domesticated for thousands of years, but even before then sheep, goats and other ruminants were domesticated and provided dairy products like cheese, which was developed about 10,000 years ago in the Middle East.

Legend tells of a trader carrying milk in a pouch made from a sheep’s stomach. After being jostled by the movement of the trader’s horse all day, the milk separated into curds and whey. Hungry, he ate/drank it anyway, and the rest is history.

Curds are solidified bits of milk, mostly protein and fat. Whey is the liquid that’s left over, mostly water, lactose (milk sugar), and some proteins and minerals. Yum.

Strain the whey from the curds and you have, basically, cottage cheese. Adding various bacterial cultures and leaving the results to harden produces different types of “aged” cheese. Soft cheeses, such as Camembert, are aged for a short time. Hard cheeses such as Roquefort are aged longer. Both Camembert and Roquefort are made using molds related to penicillin.

Dairy consumption is an almost entirely European idea, although it did also crop up in the Middle East and parts of Africa. Since Europeans spent the 15th through the 19th centuries colonizing other parts of the world, dairy products have become more widespread.

But many segments of the world’s populations do not — or cannot — consume dairy foods. The late, great Bob Mervine, one of Orlando’s most famous foodies, once told me the use of milk and cheese is unheard of in traditional Asian cuisine. Almost 100 percent of Asians are lactose intolerant.

Dairy consumption, evolutionarily speaking, is a recent mutation. The ability to digest lactose is present in infants, because they subsist almost entirely on milk. But the production of lactase (the enzyme that digests lactose) slows after infancy and stops at about age four. Or would, if we didn’t keep consuming milk from other animals.

Lactose tolerance is found only in cultures that have a long history of dairy consumption, such as northern Europe, where only 4 percent of Swedes are lactose intolerant.

In Africa, the population of southern Sudan, where people have long been cattle herders, is only 17 percent lactose intolerant. But in Nigeria, where the climate is not conducive to raising cattle, the lactose intolerance rate is 99 percent.

Native Americans also have a high rate of lactose intolerance — 95 percent — presumably because it is so hard to milk a wild buffalo.

Many nutritionists and physicians now question the health benefits of humans consuming milk from other mammals. Especially when cow’s milk is what allows a calf to double its body weight in only 47 days.

July 27, 2009

A woman after my own heart

Harriett Lake is a lovely woman who has had a tremendous effect on the arts community in Central Florida through her philanthropic contributions.

Not only is Lake the namesake of the Harriett Lake Festival of Plays, but Harriett's Bar at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center is named for her. I especially enjoyed hearing of her latest contribution to the community.

For her $1 million donation to the Dr. P. Phillips Orlando Performing Arts Center, Lake was offered her choice of naming opportunities. She picked the first floor ladies room, which will henceforth be known as "Harriett’s Ladies Lounge."

Board chairman Jim Pugh would win my quote of the week award, if I had one. He said, "She obviously has a clear sense of the priorities of the patrons who will utilize the facility."

For a mere million, you, too, could get a piece of the center in your name. But these bits are already taken:

  • The Bill and Mary Darden Box Office (Darden Restaurants)

  • The Richard Kessler Hospitality Suite (Richard Kessler, a local hotelier)

  • The Peter Family Stage (Annette Neel, the Peters’ daughter)

  • The Lynn and Chuck Steinmetz Stage (the Steinmetzes)

Although Jesus said we should give without regard for recognition, I must say these people-centered labels are, at least, better than giant corporations slapping their logos on major landmarks. I still staunchly refuse to call the sports arena in downtown Orlando by its proper name. It will always be the O-rena to me. But Harriett’s Ladies Lounge is a naming right I’m glad to honor.

I just hope Avodart doesn’t sponsor the men’s room.

July 22, 2009

Power junkies

I used to chide my son for scouting public places for the nearest power outlet. He, of course, was looking for a place to charge up his handheld video game devices.

Now I've taken to scouting public places for power outlets. Of course, I'm looking to charge a laptop computer. Much more important.

The other day I wound up sitting on the floor in a major airport, using the only power outlet I could find that hadn't already been claimed by other laptop jockeys. Clever airport designers of the future will put outlets near seats. Or the other way round.

Unfortunately, despite finding power, I was unable to complete the important work of posting this note on that day, because the aforementioned airport, unlike Orlando International, does not provide free public wi-fi.

With the Kindle growing in popularity, I expect power outlets will be even harder to come by in the future. But at least Kindle users don't have to worry about finding free public wi-fi.

July 10, 2009

Connections are good

After gathering dust for many years, my short story The Last Buffalo has been cleaned up and given its debut. It appears in the 2009 Coffee House Fiction anthology.

I was directed to Coffee House Fiction by an entry in Hope Clark's "Funds for Writers" newsletter. I met Hope at last year's Florida Writers' Association conference. And I joined the association on the recommendation of Jim Lussier, whom I met in connection with an arts project for OBJ.

So this post is just a big thank you to everyone in the chain.

July 1, 2009

Take the [hey...] train

The other day, I cracked Tribune for its use of standardized features. Since the Sam Zell takover, Tribune has increased the number of features produced in Chicago and shipped nationwide to be printed wholesale in sundry locations. Not just the stories. Art and page layout packages are routinely pre-fabricated for use by all Tribune papers.

I must admit, this isn't entirely a bad thing. Any national news organization does this to some extent. If the same story needs to be told in 40 cities, there's no reason to send 40 reporters to do the same thing 40 times. (Before 2012, someone please explain this to the local TV stations, or they will once again each send a reporter to cover the Olympics. Which, last time I checked, Bob Costas et al did quite competently.)

So packaged national content isn't wholly objectionable. But some effort must be made to make it locally relevant. Or at least, not locally irrelevant. But our local daily ran one such feature on the topic of incorporating more physical activity into your daily routine. One suggestion was to use the stairs instead of the escalator at the station when taking the commuter train to work.

Orlando, as you may know, has no commuter train.

June 29, 2009

Attack on your wallet

With the news dominated by Wacko Jacko and Bernie Made-off-with-your-money, I was pleased to have a lead story for today's OBJ Market Wrap radio report -- thanks to my colleague Steven E.F. Brown in San Francisco -- that hadn't already reached the saturation point: Oil over $71 a barrel after Nigerian attacks.

But then I started to wonder: Why, with the SEC filing charges against even more Ponzi scheme operators and troop movements in Iraq and Nigerians blowing up oil rigs, did our local daily devote a large portion of page A1 to a story about a woman whose car has 600,000 miles on it?

I'll admit this is mildly interesting. And it is local. And an attempt was made to make it relevant to the reader by including a list of tips on how to keep a car running for a long time. It surely would have made a better inside feature than another of the one-size-fits-all Tribune features packaged in Chicago for distrubution to every market in the country. (You can spot these because the writers are identified as being with "Tribune Media Services" instead of as staff writers for the local paper.) But local or not, a person driving the same gas-guzzler since the Johnson administration is not A1 news.

The destruction of oil rigs in Nigeria is. Need I explain why?

I don't know at what hour the local daily is printed, but Bloomberg had the Nigerian oil story at 3 a.m. EDT. At that time, it said "Crude oil for August delivery rose … to $69.41 a barrel."

By the time I did the OBJ Market Wrap for WLOQ-FM this afternoon, crude was up to $71.50, a 3 percent increase from yesterday's close. In after-hours trading, it's up further still, at $71.87. This means all of us will be paying more for gas, no matter how old our cars are.

June 13, 2009

Taking stock of the market

My friends no doubt think I'm crazy, reading Peter Lynch's 15-year-old investment book Beating the Street. Anything about the stock market that's printed on dead trees must be outdated, right?

Not entirely.

Certainly many of the individual stock recommendations are no longer applicable, because companies, industries, and most importantly, regulations have changed. This book predates Sarbanes-Oxley.

Nevertheless, the book is informative on two counts. First, as a sort of professional biography, in which Lynch recounts his experiences as a stockpicker. And second, as a manual describing how to research public companies.

One can always learn from history, and Lynch's observations about what he calls "The Great Correction of ’87" are instructive for those wondering how to invest in the current climate. Chapter nine is called "Prospecting in Bad News."

People, companies, and stock portfolios grow by learning from mistakes. But it's equally important to learn from other people's successes. The Great Correction of ’87 did not herald the end of civilization, nor did any of the 33 recessions identified by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The lessons on how Lynch and others prospected their way to success through the recessions of the ’80s and ’90s are still instructive to us today, even though we are no longer able to follow his suggestion to buy Chrysler. Even if we wanted to.

June 8, 2009

Fitting a book into your boot

Grant Barrett, a lexicographer and co-host of the National Public Radio show A Way With Words, has posted an e-book version of his The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English on his blog as a free download.

He has done this because the book, which is no longer being printed by the publisher, has shown up on bootleg e-book sites. Barrett figures he'd just as soon have the traffic to his site as someone else's. He also says he's "resigned" to the bootlegging of his book.

Which is sad, really. No person should have to resign himself to the theft of his work.

Unfortunately, there isn't much that can be done to stop book bootlegging. Or movie or music bootlegging or other forms of intellectual property theft, for that matter.

And it can't all be blamed on computers and the Internet, either. On an episode of Masterpiece Classics earlier this season, host Laura Linney mentioned that Charles Dickens's books, though immensely popular in the U.S., earned him little money here because most of the editions were bootlegged.

Now, as then, most people give little thought to copyrights. It would be laudable if the citizenry would consider it their bounden duty to uphold copyright law. But I hold out little hope for this, given a society in which we can't stop our own co-workers from taking their colleagues' sodas from the company fridge. Perhaps resignation is the less stressful response.

June 7, 2009

Of big hats and knitting in public

I was going through some old issues of Knitter's Magazine, and re-read Perri Klass' Winter 2003 column "Knitting Fantasies," about places she'd like to knit but wouldn't. Klass wrote: "Am I the only person who has ever thought about how well knitting would go with religious services? Has anyone ever tried it?"

I read that column back in '03, and the idea of knitting in church germinated. I started knitting in church several years ago. Also, one of my fellow congregants crochets in church. We have yet to be chided for this activity. Keeping the hands busy producing something useful not only aids concentration, it prevents sleepiness. If only my teenage boy would take up knitting...

Klass also wrote that she would not take knitting to a business banquet. I have tried this a couple of times, but these were luncheons, not dinners. It seemed those who saw me doing it were smiling. I suspect they wished they had something to occupy their hands, especially when the speaker was dull. Those with Blackberrys didn't seem to notice me knitting.

I admit to feeling a bit self-conscious, but I didn't let that stop me. I suppose I am willing to be considered eccentric. I also once wore a wide-brim church hat to a business luncheon, but I haven't dared the hat and the knitting at the same business event. Yet.

June 2, 2009

When do we get to the last "first?"

I long for the day when the first deaf Jewish female president nominates the first quadriplegic Buddist of Kazakh descent as a supreme court justice, and the only thing the media mentions is ... you know, the nominee's actual judicial record.

May 30, 2009

Webmasters hate old eyeballs

How else can one explain the vast number of Web sites that use teeny gray text? Today I visited a blog that had white text on a black background. I've also seen brown text on a fake parchment background.

These myopia-disdaining designers are the reason the Firefox plug-in Accessibar is my new favorite gadget.

According to Aycan Gulez at Wow Web Designs, designers like gray text better than black because it's more attractive when looking at the page as a whole. "Unfortunately, some visual designers sacrifice readability for a slight increase in visual appeal because they do not really read the text on screen," he writes. "They treat it as a large block of horizontal lines, and the darker those lines are the uglier they look."

Well, that depends on how you define "ugly." I find illegibility ugly.

I suppose my perspective is different because I've worked in print journalism so long. The publisher would chew me out if I printed news stories in gray.

If form follows function, and the function is to disseminate information, then the form should be one that allows the information to be read by the greatest number of people.

Even myopic people.

May 13, 2009

Do pigs swarm?

An OBJ poll showed most respondents believe the news surrounding H1N1 virus -- that virus of many names -- to be hype. One commenter summed the matter up well, pointing out that "over 36,000 people die from influenza every year in the U.S. … More people die in car accidents … yet you do not see them staying out of cars. Just practice good hygiene and go about your business."

You also rarely see news of flu deaths delivered with the breathless sort of mania that has attended the recent outbreak.

Detracting from the hype is the inappropriate amount of furor over what to call the thing. "Swine flu" offends the pork industry and Israelis. "Mexican flu" annoys Mexicans.

Whatever you call it, don't make this unfortunate error:

Third Case Of Swine Confirmed In Orange County.

I'm sorry, a "case of swine?" Is that a crate containing a dozen pigs? Or is it more like "Hey, I've been turned into a pig. Can I go home?" What does a swine outbreak look like? Or is a rash of swine better called an "infestation?"

One may justifiably ask why the story wasn't headlined "Third case of flu confirmed..."

Well, obviously, that would draw a big "who cares" from the readership.

Which is exactly the point I wish to make.

Perhaps it is inappropriate to belittle a fatal illness. But the problem with coverage of The Virus That Must Not Be Named is that it has been completely out of proportion to the actual threat. Moreover, it is out of proportion to the usual coverage of the flu. This sort of skewed journalism needlessly frightens the naive and just leaves the rest of us jaded.

May 9, 2009

Initially concerned

Sometimes when I get an intitialism-riddled press release, I can decipher it with some judicious Googling. But I was stumped by a release from a bank about its new "BSA officer."

Boy Scouts of America?
Business Software Alliance?
Boston Society of Architects?

Those were some of the top Google results. None in the first pageful had to do with banking.

Just for kicks,* I looked at Wikipedia, which gave me a very entertaining list that includes:

  • Bearing Specialists Association

  • Belarusian Socialist Assembly

  • Bethesda Softworks Archive

  • Birmingham School of Acting

  • Bismuth (Bi), Tin (Sn), Silver (Ag) solder

  • Botanical Society of America

  • Bovine serum albumin

  • Brazilian Space Agency

  • British Soap Awards

  • British Stratego Association

and much more.

Fortunately, the bank's publicist quickly responded to my e-mail request for a translation: "Bank Secrecy Act." Without that information, I would have had to omit the item. Of course, I would be much happier had I been given plain English to begin with.

This is a larger issue at daily newspapers, where staff cuts have been staggering. As journalists increasingly rely on publicists to provide information, that information must be correct, concise, and clear.

Clarity requires translating initialisms and other jargon into plain English. Only a handful -- CEO, CPA and MBA are the first that come to mind -- are so well-known as to need no explanation.

And frankly, outside of a business context, even those are iffy. There are circles in which those would be seen as referring to "Collegiate Entrepreneurs' Organization," "Craft Potters' Association" and "Marine Biological Association," respectively.

* — That Wikipedia is unusable as a source for proper journalism has, I think, now been well-established.

May 8, 2009

In training

Like John E. McIntyre, Mark Twain, and Spamalot's Sir Fred, SunRail is “not dead yet.”

One of the proposed stations is near my home. I look forward to the day I can take the train to work and use my commute for writing or knitting. I just hope they get SunRail built and the station opened before I retire.

That's looking a bit iffy these days.

May 1, 2009

Tweet mystery of life...

After David Pogue told us Twitter can be useful, I've been looking for evidence of this.

I finally got it.

John McIntyre's blog, You Don't Say, was discontinued by the Baltimore Sun when McIntyre abruptly became the latest victim of newsroom cost-cutting.

Previously, when I attempted to follow colleagues on Twitter, I gave up because of the superfluity of most tweets. But this was important, dang it. I needed to know where to go to get my daily dose of McIntyresian wisdom.* So I added McIntyre's Twitter page to my webfeed reader.

McIntyre's interim tweets are entertaining. On April 28, his last at the Sun, he indicated he would continue the blog elsewhere. On April 19: "An unexpected pleaseure in reading here, at Facebook and elsewhere what amount to one's own obituary notices. Not. Dead. Yet."

Then, at last, today: "The blog is back."

So Twitter proved useful indeed for keeping up with one of my favorite sages.

So am I going to ask you to follow me on Twitter? Heck no. Not only do I not have time to tweet my every move, I suspect that if I did, anything I had to say would be superfluous.

* McIntyre is a giant in the field, and the publisher wise enough to hire him will be fortunate, indeed.

April 26, 2009

Hooked on Mnemonics

Being a writer naturally leads to a fondness for words. And when you study enough etymologies, eventually you reach a point at which you can figure out what words mean by looking at their roots.

But this can backfire sometimes.

A word that has tripped me up for years is solecism. It looks like it has the same root as "sole" and therefore should mean something like "singularity." But it doesn't.

Barbara Walraff once observed, back when she was editor of the "Copy Editor" newsletter (before its name was changed to "Copyeditor"), that most folks can get by with the dictionary that's built into Microsoft Word. And she's mostly right, except that it only gives you definitions, not etymologies. So grammar geeks like her and me turn to something that does.

Figuring that knowing its etymology would help me remember what "solecism" really means, I looked it up at Merriam-Webster, my favorite online dictionary.

Here's what I learned about the origin of solecism: "from Greek soloikismos, from soloikos speaking incorrectly, literally, inhabitant of Soloi, from Soloi, city in ancient Cilicia where a substandard form of Attic was spoken."

That should do it. I don't think I'll ever again forget what solecism means.

April 17, 2009

Following too closely

Following up on a press release is not an unforgivable sin, just a minor annoyance.

Understand that the press release file is to a newspaper what the slush pile is to a book publisher: a big mass of unsolicited submissions that may or may not see the light of day.*

A follow-up phone call or message asking about the status of a press release usually requires the editor to dig through that big pile -- if she is so inclined -- to find it. Mind you, now that most releases are sent by e-mail, this is a lot easier than it was back in the day when we actually had to dig through real piles of dead tree matter.

If you believe your story is truly a perfect fit for the outlet, then yes, a follow-up call or message to point out that perfectness is allowable.

But following up Friday on a press release sent Thursday is following a little too closely. Give it 3 business days, at least. By then, it might actually have been read and slotted.

Helpful Hint: Your press release will stand out in the e-slush pile if you make the subject line as specific as possible. "Our Co. signs $3 million government contract" will get more attention than "Press release," even if the latter is about a $30 million deal.

* Sturgeon's Law applies in this matter, as in everything else: 90 percent of everything is crap. Including, I don't doubt, 90 percent of all blog posts.

March 26, 2009

The Internet needs a proofreader

Is it wrong for me to be bothered by the fact that this article about writing grant proposals contains more than a dozen grammatical errors? Or that this article had so many, I stopped counting?

March 6, 2009

As if public restrooms weren’t unpleasant enough

A number of local elections are coming up this month, and one in Gainesville quite rightly has conservatives on high alert.

The Gainesville City Commission earlier passed a "Gender Identity Ordinance" that allows individuals to arbitrarily declare their gender based on "an inner sense of being a specific gender . . . with or without regard to the individual's designated sex at birth."

We received word of this today from John Stemberger, president of Florida Family Action. Stemberger, who is a lawyer, writes, "the law's wording is so vague that it allows any man -- even a sexual offender or pedophile -- to legally use facilities designated for women. If a majority of voters in Gainesville vote 'Yes' on Charter Amendment 1, they will be able stop this unbelievable law right in its tracks. Opponents as predicted are engaging in fraud and deception about what the amendment is really about."

The organization Citizens for Good Public Policy in Gainesville is working to rally support for Charter Amendment 1, which would overturn the rather silly Gender Identity Ordinance.

Yes, I said silly. While I have great sympathy for those who genuinely have Gender Identity Disorder, there are times when we must judge gender based on simple, observable things. Like anatomy.

I hate to be so blunt, but a similar gender identity ordinance passed in Colorado has already produced complaints from women about men using ladies' bathrooms and locker rooms. It should be obvious that because the women filing complaints could tell that the people they were complaining about were men, we have a problem.

Yet all these men have to do to defend themselves is claim a "gender identity" issue, and they're off. The Citizens for Good Public Policy Web site shows that while genuine transgender persons are not known to commit restroom crimes, male heterosexuals are:

The [gender identity] ordinance can be easily exploited by the heterosexual males who commit the vast majority of restroom crimes, as it gives them legal cover to scout for opportunity, and a convenient excuse if questioned about their presence. Why make it easier for criminals to plan their crimes?

An educated electorate being vital to the welfare of a democracy, I urge you to educate yourself on this matter. And if you happen to live in Gainesville -- get out and vote on March 24.

As Stemberger points out, "if this nonsense is not defeated in Gainesville now it will be coming to a city council in your Florida neighborhood."

March 4, 2009

Happy Grammar Day

Today is National Grammar Day. Celebrate by reading John McIntyre's Grammarnoir serial.

English is an earthy, messy, sloppy language, but we love it anyway. Here's a snippet that helps explain just why our beloved tongue is such a mess:

"By natural processes of spoken-language change, Latin 'debita' and 'dubitare' had turned into French 'dette' and 'douter,' with complete elimination of 'b.' The French words had passed into English in the forms of 'det' or 'dette' and 'dout' or 'doute.' Now scholars, both in France and England, suddenly became aware of the Latin source of their modern words. Since the parent language, Latin, which they venerated, had 'b' in both words, ought not the 'b' to be restored in their modern descendants, at least in writing? So both French and English began respelling their words as 'debte' and 'doubte' ('doubter' in the case of French). In English, most of these silent, etymological letters stuck. In French, they were partly eliminated at a later period. The result is that today English has 'debt' and 'doubt,' with a 'b' that was never pronounced save in Latin, while French has gone back to the more phonetic spellings 'dette' and 'douter.'" — Mario Pei, "English Spelling," in Language Today: A Survey of Current Linguistic Thought (1967).

Unlike some countries, we have no "academy" to settle spelling disputes or issue edicts about whether "aunt" rhymes with "ant" or "taunt."

And we like it that way.

February 24, 2009

Gauging success

There are already so many blogs about knitting, I hesitate to bring up the subject.

But while working on the Washington Square Vest from the Winter 2008 issue of Intervweave Knits, I ran into some difficulty with the lace edging. Googling brought me no solution, so I had to puzzle it out myself.

Comparing the lace pattern with some of those in Barbara G. Walker's A Treasury of Knitting Patterns helped a bit. Other than that, it was a matter of experimentation to figure out in what way I was misreading the chart.

It was this: Row 4 calls for binding off 2 stitches and then knitting 4 stitches. But binding off 2 stitches is a three-stitch process. Knit two, slip the first stich over the second, knit another, slip the second stitch over the third. So I did this, then knit the four stitches, continued across the pattern, and wound up with a mess.

You see, the third stitch of the bind-off--the one that remains after you slip the second stitch over--counts as the first of the four knitted stitches.

Well, as we used to say in the old country, duh. Once I figured this out--by experimenting on my swatch--the lace fell neatly into shape.

So this reinforces what the knitting teachers and magazines and books always tell us. Don't skip the swatch.* In addition to ensuring you get proper gauge, it gives you an opportunity to practice the pattern stitch on something other than your garment. Had I leapt blindly into the garment without going through this learning and practicing stage first, I would have ripped out and started over again several times.

As it is, I used an entire ball of yarn just working the swatch, which is now almost long enough for a scarf, if it weren't so messy. But instead of ripping out, I can keep this mostly messy but partly correct sample in view while I work the vest. Now that I know what I am doing.

For the non-knitters, a swatch is a small sample of knitted fabric that helps knitters ensure they are getting the correct number of stitches and rows to the inch called for in the pattern. For those knitters (and I once was one) who resist swatching because it seems a waste of time and yarn: swatching not only prevents the ripping and reworking alluded to above, but it also helps prevent the phenomena of the sweater coming out too big or too small, despite your using the same needle and yarn as called for in the pattern.

February 21, 2009

Sorting out sound-alikes

When I see the same mistake three times in one week, I have to write something.

Since this set of homophones* is on almost every list of commonly confused words, I though everyone had learned it by now.

Unfortunately, it seems the only people who read those lists are grammar geeks who already know the correct usage. So I'm going to sound off anyway, in the hopes of reaching someone who is not a grammar geek.


I recently encountered two different versions of this mistake:

"He's a principle at the firm..."

and one of this:

"They need to learn this basic principal of business..."

Do you see the error? Each of these homophones is in the wrong sentence.

The correct versions:

"He's a principal..."
"…this basic principle..."

I wish I could give you some clever mnemonic, but honestly, sometimes you just need to look things up.

Principal: as an adjective, it means "first in importance." As a noun, it's "a person in charge." The term is used in finance to describe the amount of a loan (because first the lender gives you money, and then you pay it back).

Principle: The underlying assumptions of a system of thought.

Both words have additional meanings related to the ones given here. Both have the Latin root princeps (initiator), which accounts for the confusion.

Of course, homophonic errors are only noticeable in writing. But if one wishes to be seen as -- how can I put this nicely -- not careless in one's writing, one must know the difference.

Or at least find a proofreader who does.

*—Homophones (same sound) are words that are pronounced the same but have different spellings and meanings. Words that are pronounced the same and spelled the same, e.g. bear (carry) and bear (animal), are homonyms (same name). Words that are spelled the same but not pronounced the same, e.g. bow (of a ship) or bow (and arrow), are homographs (same writing).

February 13, 2009

Unless you live in a cave...

Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Charles H. Bronson issued a press release today to remind citizens that although "the federal government recently delayed the deadline for the switch until June 12, some television stations plan to convert their broadcasting format on February 17, which had been the original deadline."

Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but given the publicity the conversion has already received, I think anyone who isn't already aware of it does not own a television.

January 23, 2009

Distinguishing real mistakes from non-mistakes

Many of those who frequent the discussion boards of the American Copy Editors Society work hard to disabuse colleagues about journalistic shibboleths, such as the one Bill Walsh calls "the un-splitting fetish."

This is the wrongheaded belief that leads many--including, it seems to me, a disproportionate number of journalists--to write awkward constructions like "we already have been there," where any normal person would write "we have already been there."

This superstition about not allowing the adverb (e.g. "already") to come between the two parts of a compound verb (e.g. "have been") has been thouroughly debunked by the best minds in the field, some of which are cited in Garner's Modern American Usage. For example: "Not only is there no objection to thus splitting a compound verb...but any other position for the adverb requires special justification" (H.W. Fowler, Modern English Usage).

Nevertheless, many people continue to un-split, which is why Chief Justice Roberts, attempting to copy edit on the fly, bungled the inaugural oath. Steven Pinker, chairman of the usage panel of The American Heritage Dictionary, adds his voice to those of the aforementioned minds, giving an insightful examination of why unsplitting is pointless. In doing so, he also gives us a magnificent headline:

Oaf of Office

So let's review: split verb phrases or, dare we say it, split infinitives—not mistakes. Attempting an impromptu rewrite of the most solemn oath of office in the land—big mistake.

January 21, 2009

Landfill fodder

The environmental champions at Greenpeace sent me a rather hefty envelope today. As is my custom, I opened it up, not because of interest in its contents, but because I am able to recycle white paper at work, so I extract such paper from junk mail.

That this procedure had to be performed on an item from an environmental group is odd enough. Odder still is that the contents included a large sticker (not recylable) a card stock response form (likewise) and a sheet of return address labels (also likewise).

Now, ordinarily I don't mind getting return address labels. They are, at least, useful. But the toner had rubbed off several of these in transit. Further, those that remained legible read "Mrs. Kristen," which is just wrong, as Miss Manners will tell you.

So the obligatory four-page screed goes in the recyle bin, along with the Business Reply Mail envelope. The rest goes in the trash.

It seems to me that heaping up landfills with cheap stickers is not the way to rescue the environment from rampant destruction.

January 17, 2009

Games people play

I spent day one of Otronicon working in the Wii Family Arena. It's a multifaceted job, consisting of telling kids not to run, answering questions, offering assistance, and calling tech support when the Wii Fit arbitrarily reboots itself.

Ostensibly, the job also includes crowd control, but a science center crowd practically controls itself.

In a seven-hour shift, I only twice had to caution a youngster that he or she had monopolized a console too long and needed to yield to the next in line. I never had to stop someone from trying to tamper with a console, although we did do a fair bit of tracking down Wiimotes that got moved from one station to another.

Only occasionally was it necessary to help a youngster with a game, because frequently, the person who had just finished playing remained to coach the newcomer. Just as well, since half the time I had no idea what they were talking about.

There is much good-natured rivalry between gamers--taunts about kicking body parts and so forth--but trash talk notwithstanding, my experience has been that most gamers are eager to encourage other gamers. They are even more eager to encourage nascent gamers.

Granted, the quality of person you encounter in a science museum is usually a notch or two--or more--above the hoi polloi. Still, the camaraderie with which they mutually encourage one another is a pleasant thing to see.

Even when I have no idea what they are talking about.

January 15, 2009

Taking video games seriously

I crashed the fighter plane again.

My flight record is pretty pathetic, but since I only climb into the cockpit once a year, I suppose that's to be expected.

The EF-111 Raven is a fighter jet for which the Orlando Science Center has a flight simulator--built into an airplane cockpit that was formerly used for military pilot training. The simulator is part of the center's permanent collection, but I make my yearly flight attempt during Otronicon, which is now in its fourth year.

Otronicon--the name is an amalgam of "Orlando," "electronics," and "convention"--showcases the interrelated realms of simulation and gaming, both of which are key components of Orlando's economy.

EA Tiburon is a local division of California-based Electronic Arts. The folks at EA Tiburon are responsible for EA's Superman video game and the wildly popular NFL Madden game under the EA Sports imprint.

Lockheed Martin has a simulation division here that produces simulators for military training. On display this year: three linked Blackhawk helicopter simulators flying in the same scenario, able to interact.

Full Sail University, the primary sponsor of Otronicon, offers degrees in, among other things, video game design.

Other local companies also have a tie to the simulation industry, including Florida Hospital. Medical simulation is a burgeoning field, especially as regards minimally invasive surgery. That's when the doctor operates by remote control through a tiny incision.

Last year, Dr. James "Butch" Rosser spoke at Otronicon about this subject. It became his specialty when he showed an exceptional aptitude for it, compared with his peers. The main difference between Rosser and the other medical students in his class was that he spent a lot of time playing video games, and had done since he was a child--back in the Pong and PacMan days.

Rosser now trains other surgeons, and has found that students who are avid gamers are consistently better at remote control surgery than those who are not.

The military has seen similar results with pilots. And in fact, the simulators used to train pilots are very like most video games, with a heads-up display that tells you the statistics you need to make decisions.

As Dr. Rosser has pointed out, gamers get used to looking at a heads-up display to tell them what they need to know, then using a controller of some kind to make a virtual device do what they need it to do. Once mastered, this skill is transferrable from a Wii character to a Halo master sergeant to a laparoscopic scalpel to a Blackhawk helicopter.

Gamers have developed this skill. And it is a skill--one that applies to piloting and surgery and, I believe, will apply to a great many more fields in the future.

It is not, however, a skill I have developed, as evidenced by the fact that I crashed the Blackhawk, too.

January 10, 2009

The change we really need ... the change few are prepared to talk about. It's not "politically correct."

Thomas Merton wrote, "the salvation of society depends, in the long run, on the moral and spiritual health of individuals." He was writing in the context of spiritual maturity as related to sanctity. "You cannot save the world merely with a system. You cannot have peace without charity. You cannot have social order without saints, mystics, and prophets."

But our saints, mystics, and prophets are often silenced by a society that believes it is more important to protect people's feelings than to speak hard moral truths.

It's one thing to revile speech that is hateful, based on irrational fear and prejudice. It's another to forbid honest discussion of moral questions, such as why some religions condemn particular actions as sin.

If we cannot discuss such things openly as a society, how can we solve the problems that plague us?

For example: A recent study, referenced in this Wall Street Journal article, found that "the numbers of unfaithful wives under 30 increased by 20% and husbands by a whopping 45%." This despite the fact that "more than 90% of the population believes that cheating on one's spouse is always wrong."

The author's sources speculate on a variety of possible causes for this phenomenon, including the prevalence in our society of people with multiple sex partners prior to marriage -- a habit that some apparently are unable to break after marriage.

Few people outside the pulpit seem willing to go out on a politically incorrect limb and point out that our society not only permits this behavior, it encourages it. Surely none of us wish to be accused of pointing out planks in other peoples' eyes. But we do our society no favors by censoring or vilifying those saints and prophets who affirm the notion that unmarried people ought not to have sex.

Professor Daniel N. Robinson, of the philosophy faculty at Oxford University, said in a lecture about John Stuart Mill, that in our society "...the sensitivity to the needs, and indeed the temperament, of others is such that thought must be censored and speech must be transformed. If Mill isn't turning in his grave, he should have."

Robinson is quite right that the inhibition of free speech hampers liberty and prevents productive discourse. When 90 percent of people say adultery is wrong, while increasing numbers of people commit adultery, then we are becoming a nation of hypocrites, and we must speak up about it.

Infidelity is just one example of moral and spiritual disease. There are many others, including greed, corruption, bigotry, apathy, and certainly hypocrisy. But coercing people into silence lest their opinion hurt someone's feelings will only hamper our nation's healing and our spiritual growth as individuals.

We can only bring about the change our nation needs if we are free to openly discuss -- with respect and honesty -- the moral and spiritual health of the individuals it comprises.

January 5, 2009

We Three Kings of Orient are — not!

The “three kings” -- whose day, aka the Epiphany, is celebrated Jan. 6 –- get a lot of attention, considering that they actually get little ink in the gospels.

They appear only in Matthew 2: “ the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.’”

That’s from the Revised Standard Version. Where it has “wise men,” The Revised English Bible has “astrologers” and the New International Version has “magi,” an Anglicization of the original Greek µáyoi.

Herod, not knowing what they were talking about, called in the Rabbis, who quoted Micah 5, which says the Messiah would come from Bethlehem. So the magi went to Bethlehem and visited the “child” and his mother in their “house.”

No stable and manger here. The visit of the magi may have taken place when Jesus was several months or even years old.

We twelve magi of Babylon are...

The text does not specify how many magi were present. The oral and artistic tradition of the early Western church says three, presumably because there were three gifts. (Gold, symbolizing kingship; frankincense for divinity; and myrrh for healing — or death, foreshadowing the cross.) But in the Armenian and Syrian Christian traditions, there are said to have been 12 magi.

They came to be called “kings” because medieval European art depicts them wearing crowns. In earlier art from the eastern end of the Mediterranean, they are shown in turbans or fezzes, which is more accurate.

Adoration of the Magi by Hieronymus Bosch

In about the sixth century, they got names (Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar), but there is no historical or Biblical support for them. Nor is there any evidence to support the claim by the otherwise venerable Venerable Bede that each of the magi came from a different continent: Asia, Africa and Europe. But that’s why you see nativity sets in which one magus is white, one is oriental, and one is black.

Poppycock. They were Persian.

Following yonder horoscope

“Magi” is a specific term for a caste of Zoroastrian priests, and Zoroastrianism was centered in Persia, specifically the city of Babylon (on the Euphrates River in what is now Iraq). Matthew says they came from the East. Babylon is east of Bethlehem.

Astrology has a central role in Zoroastrianism, and these magi, or astrologers, studied the skies and interpreted what they saw there.

The coming of a “King of Kings” -- a savior born of a virgin -- was predicted not only by Hebrew prophets, but also by Zoraster. The Bible says the magi saw “his star in the East” and “followed” it to Bethlehem. But if they had literally traveled in the direction of the star, they’d have gone eastward from Babylon and wound up in Kandahar.

So the “star” was more likely a horoscope -- an interpretation of astronomical events. They “followed” it in the sense that the stars showed a king was born in Judea, so they went to Judea.

Astronomer Michael Molnar makes a convincing case that the astronomical event in question was the lunar occultation of Jupiter in the constellation of Aries, which occurred about April 17, 6 B.C.E.*. Jupiter indicates kingship, and Aries represents Israel.

Thanks to their very accurate star charts, the magi could actually have predicted this event, giving them plenty of time to prepare to “traverse afar; field and fountain, moor and mountain...” which is, I suppose, more poetical than “cross the Syrian Desert.”

* — Scholars now use B.C.E., “Before the Common Era,” and C.E., “Common Era,” where we used to use B.C. and A.D. That’s because the calendar is messed up. Blame Dionysius Exiguus.

January 1, 2009

Enormous error

Ryan Seacrest just committed a very common error. In attempting to describe the hugeness of Times Square's New Year celebration, he called it an "enormity."

As Inigo Montoya said to Vizzini, "I do not think it means what you think it means."

e·nor·mi·ty n
1. extreme evil or moral offensiveness
2. a very evil or morally offensive deed

Encarta® World English Dictionary © 1999 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved. Developed for Microsoft by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

Now some dictionaries, such as the notoriously descriptivist Merriam-Webster, allow for "enormity" when what is meant is "enormousness." But, as Garner notes in Modern American Usage, "The historical diferentiation between these two words should not be muddled."

And why not, you ask? If people know that Ryan Seacrest just means that the celebration is really big, isn't that good enough?

Perhaps. But the careless use of "enormity" can introduce an appearance of bias where none was meant. For example, Garner cites a 1994 newspaper story titled "Big win" that includes this sentence: "Chances are it doesn't come close to describing the enormity of the Republican victory Tuesday."

Is the writer just trying to say it was a really, really big win? Or is he a Democrat?