Tuesday, October 30, 2001

Does "Patriotism" say it "All" for you?

From SF Gate, the web site of the San Francisco Chronicle, comes this editorial by Mark Morford on the meaning of patriotism in these "evil" days.
Evil Evildoers Of Evil / How to feel calmly patriotic and yet not the slightest bit reassured by Bush & Co.

Monday, October 29, 2001

The Meaning of Dictionary

Microsoft seems to have confused the word and the thing in a recent revision of its Word 2002 thesaurus and dictionary. As the accompanying story suggests, it appears they decided "to remove offensive terms and even words such as cancer, in the belief that if the word is extinguished, the things themselves will be."
smh.com.au - The Word according to Microsoft: no more idiots, or any other losers

Tuesday, October 23, 2001

Breaking the Hobbit

Police get tough with the hobbit-lovers of Kazakhstan
From the UK Independent News, By Patrick Cockburn in Moscow, 29 July 2001:

People who dress up as hobbits have become the latest victims of a police crackdown on unconventional lifestyles in the Central Asian state of Kazakhstan.

J R R Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is very popular in the countries of the former Soviet Union, where thousands of fans dress up and re-enact scenes from the book. But this innocent if dotty pursuit is seen as subversive by the notoriously brutal police in Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan. It is part of a wider drive against those whom the police suspect of enjoying "bohemian" lifestyles.

"We are perfectly legal," said Vitaly, a so-called "Tolkienist". "In fact we spend most of our time in the mountains. We only hold conventions in the city twice a year. It's our lifestyle. The police don't like it, but we aren't going to stop. It's our entire life."

The London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) says that, besides Tolkienists, people detained include buskers, "alternative artists", gays and lesbians, anarchists, hippies, punks and members of dissident religious sects, many of whom complain that they have been systematically tortured. Alexander, the leader of a punk-rock band in Almaty, said he was held for two days in a so-called "water tank". This is a method commonly used by the police to extract confessions. "They put the person arrested in a narrow cell about 4ft 6in high, and half fill it with cold water. You cannot stand up straight because the ceiling is too low, and you are unable to sit down because you will be under water so you have to crouch all the time."

Tolkien's writings have been widely read in the former Soviet Union ever since he was first translated in about 1988 during perestroika. They reached a peak of popularity in the mid-Nineties.

Several hundred Tolkienists gather in Moscow on Thursday evenings in summer in Neskuchny Park overlooking the Moskva river. One enthusiast, Askar Tuganbaev, a computer salesman, said: "In Yekaterinburg [in the Urals] they even built a fortress and fought a battle a couple of years ago with everybody dressed up."

Mr Tuganbaev says the police in Russia are tolerant of the Tolkienists and it is only in Kazakhstan that they are accused of "being Satanists and conducting dark rituals".

Wednesday, October 17, 2001

How People Use Signs and Symbols

This editorial from Stanley Fish of the NY Times affirms very eloquently the controlled and thoughtful use of language in an era of extreme statements and unexpected consequences.
Condemnation Without Absolutes

Sunday, October 14, 2001

Language Use in the News

This ABC News article discusses the question of word usage in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, noting that "loose usage" such as referring to a burned cake as a "culinary tragedy" feels different now.
ABCNEWS.com : How Attacks Are Redefining Language

Tuesday, October 09, 2001

RHIP (rank has its privilege)

In my family, we used this old army phrase to explain why my father could do with impunity the very same things he punished us for--like smoking or getting a speeding ticket. It didn't feel right then, and it doesn't feel right here. Has Mr. Watts confused his government position with his personal importance?
Rep. J.C. Watts lost temper over airport parking ticket, aide says

Thursday, October 04, 2001

All(1) is not All(2)

The All Species Project hopes to identify and catalog every living species on Earth in the next 25 years. Aside from the questions one might have about the cost of such a project, or whether they have any chance of success, what does such a project imply from a general semantics viewpoint?

Organizers Stewart Brand and Kevin Kelly believe that this project should present no more of a challenge than the recently "completed" Human Genome Project. However, they do acknowledge a number of possible obstacles, such as the political and economic effects of using venture capital to enter some of the poorest countries in the world and identifying hundreds or thousands of medically important species.

But what about the inherent difficulty of identifying "a species"? The project home site states that "The All Species Inventory is not a census nor a complete geographical distribution map. It counts a species with a population of one the same as one with a population of one million. This is a roster, an elemental list of all life, an inventory of all the parts." Given the fine distinctions required to separate species in some families of fauna, such as beetles or flies, how much of the list will consist of species of one? And what information will this convey?

Finally, how will they know when they have completed the project? The Human Genome Project recently announced that they had achieved their goal of "mapping" the entire human genetic structure. However, closer reading reveals that while they have identified the location of "all" the genes on the 46 human chromosomes, they still have no idea what most of them do.

What does "all" mean in this case and will the definition of that word as used by the All Species Project end up anywhere near the traditional sense that most of us would recognize?

All Species Home Page