Saturday, August 1, 2015

Unknown Words?

You've probably heard the saying, "It's all Greek to me," which people sometimes say when speaking about a word or phrase or something that makes no sense to them. It can kind of imply a double level of confusion for us English speakers, since not only are the words some o' them furrin' constructions, they're even in a different alphabet than we're used to!

According to this bit at The Washington Post, the phrase has a Latin origin, which maintains the double layer of "huh?" because Romans used the letters we've come to use and Greeks didn't.

The diagram answers a question that you might or might not have thought of -- if we say, "It's all Greek to me," then what do the Greeks say?

University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Mark Liberman did some digging into different languages to see what language they referenced as being so completely unintelligible that all unintelligible statements might as well be said in it. Turns out a lot of languages inherited that Latin phrase about the mystery of Greek, including the Poles, Portuguese, Norwegians, Swedish, Spanish, Persians (modern-day Iran) and Dutch. Some of those groups also use other languages as their fallback incomprehensibilese. The Macedonians, who are kind of cousins to the Greeks, suggest that stuff they don't get is all Spanish to them, so the Spanish are kind of returning the favor by aiming their shrugging at the Greeks.

The Greeks lay their confusion off on the Chinese. So do a lot of others. The Chinese say that stuff that makes no sense comes from Heaven, which is kind of ratcheting up the game a couple of notches.

All of this, of course, is stereotyping. Greek letters are actually very easy to understand, or else drunken undergraduates would not be able to memorize the Greek alphabet whilst pledging fraternities or sororities. And any American knows senseless gibberish has only once source: Washington, D.C.

(H/T Leah Libresco)

Friday, July 31, 2015

Words + More Words!

At So Bad So Good, there is a list of 100 English words the writers think are particularly lovely and they suggest they should be used more often.

I think that would be kind of neat myself. I confess I have been rather desultory (#14) in expanding my vocabulary, but on the other hand I have sometimes a propinquity (#76) to get rather high-handed whenever I employ pollysyllables. As I often find such an attitude untoward (#96) for one in my profession and for the halcyon (#40) air I wish to project, I eschew (not on the list; picked it myself) those words for others.

Well, that was an experiment of great felicity (#33), which I hope shall not be too fugacious (#36).

Thursday, July 30, 2015

This Place Looks Like My New Warehouse...Oh Wait, It Is My New Warehouse!

Industrial parks are places where companies that need large buildings to make or store things find several of them in close proximity. Sometimes they will be built that way to take advantage of combined shipping or shared utilities or other things.

And then sometimes soldiers with guns come into them and tell you that you have two months to move your stuff out of them because the government's going to turn them into housing. At least, if you live in lawless Venezuela they do. Now, to be fair to President Nicolas Maduro and his kleptocractic government, the companies were told of this possibility back in 2013. That is, they were told of the potential seizure. It's not clear if the 60-day eviction notice, filed via form AK-47, was a part of that information. Judging by a couple of quotes in the story from workers, it seems unlikely that it was.

But when you try to operate a business in a country that operates by the Leaden Rule -- kind of like the updated Golden Rule, but it goes, "He who can spray the lead makes the rules" -- then this is the kind of thing that can happen.

There is no word on whether President Maduro will supply the new housing with that rarest of Venezuelan rarities, toilet paper, or whether he will need to keep a significant supply on hand given what kind of hole his predecessor Hugo Chavez and he have turned their country into.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015


So here's an idea to tug at your brain for a bit, if you like. Most Christians -- and many other religions which feature a supreme being -- say that God, or whatever name they use, is infinite.

In Christian tradition, we also say that God's attributes are infinite. God is described as both omniscient (all-knowing) and omnipotent (all-powerful). That combination leads to some head scratching when we consider suffering in the world, but that's not what I wanted to bring up here. Those phrases, all-knowing and all-powerful, are another way of saying infinitely knowing and infinitely powerful.

When we talk about God, we usually use those "infinite" words to mean that there are no limits to those qualities. There are no limits to God's knowledge, there are no limits to God's power, there are no limits to God's love, and so on. Although it's tough to actually conceive of what kind of knowledge, power, love or whatever that might imply, the concept is not impossible to grasp.

But what does it mean to say God is infinite? When we usually talk about infinity, we treat it like a really huge number, saying things like "double infinity" or "half infinity," even though those phrases really don't mean anything. Infinity is a concept rather than just a big number, which means it can't be doubled or halved or otherwise processed by mathematical operations. How do you double "everything that is?" If somehow you manage to do that, you still have everything that is, which means you still have infinity.

At the other end of the math realm, the concepts of unity (one) and nothingness (zero) work similarly. If you have one thing and you take away half of it, you still only have one thing, even though it's a smaller thing than it used to be. If you have nothing and you square it, you still have nothing.

Mathematicians have spent some time trying to figure out infinity, and as Stephen Webb notes in this article from First Things back in March, they may have a better handle on what it would mean to say God is infinite than Christians do who use the phrase. I think some of that may be because they are simply exploring infinity as a concept, while we Christians are trying to understand something about a being who is infinite, rather than just the concept itself. And some of it is probably because we spend time getting Ten Commandments monuments placed in public spaces instead of thinking about their Author.

Either way, the Incarnation or self-limiting of God into the person of the human being Jesus of Nazareth suddenly seems like quite a helpful move on the part of God. Until you start trying to think of how Jesus is both a limited human being (fully human) at the same time he's the unlimited second person of the Trinity (fully divine). But maybe that's for another time.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Roll Purge

The major league Baseball Hall of Fame took what is hopefully a first step towards making its voting and admission policies a little more sane -- from now on, a voting member who hasn't been active for 10 years is subject to losing their ballot.

"Inactive" means that the writer hasn't really written about baseball in those 10 years. Previously, once you got your ballot as a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America, you kept it until they pried it from your cold dead hands. It took 10 years to earn your spot.

Discussion suggests that the purge means that more of the voters follow baseball more closely and cast more knowledgeable ballots. It also means that the voting pool's memory gets shorter, as retired, semi-retired or moved-on-to-other-beat writers who know about the play of those previously overlooked are dropped from voting eligibility.

Either way, it seems like the Hall of Fame is taking some steps to try to make more sense out of its admissions process. The flaws in that process and the flaws it has created have been discussed in this space before and need not be repeated.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Needful Things?

At Discover, the Neuroskeptic probes a bit into research on people who for one reason or another are missing large parts of their brains.

Due to a condition called "hyrdrocephalus," some people have large areas of brain tissue essentially replaced by water. The word hydrocephalus literally means "water brain." After treatment, some of the people who suffer from this fluid buildup are found to have the missing brain tissue and the water in its place. But as the Neuroskeptic notes, some of these people seem to suffer little or no loss in cognitive function or memory. Some scientists have suggested that this means not all of our brain tissue is strictly necessary, and that the brain's ability to store information doesn't scale up or down with its size.

One British researcher even suggests that the information previously stored in the brain tissue now replaced by water is somehow still stored, either in the fluid itself at some sub-atomic level or perhaps even in a kind of metaphysical version of a cloud computer server.

The Neuroskeptic is properly skeptical of such a claim, noting that while much of the brain tissue was replaced by fluid in these cases, not all of it was, and it may be that the remaining tissue happens to be that which the brain needs to run the body and retain its thinking ability. It's also possible that the remaining tissue is somehow dense enough that it can take over the functions previously handled by a larger volume of that same tissue.

Studies on this matter remain limited enough that answers are as yet unclear. Hence the question in the Discover blog post headline, "Is Your Brain Really Necessary?" At first it might seem scanning certain persons who are quite obviously operating without brains might be a promising path of investigation. Pick a group of people who, say, take Al Sharpton or Don Imus seriously, support Donald Trump for president, think Che Guevara was a hero, watch TLC reality shows or commit some other action indicative of extremely low levels of cognitive function. Scan their brains to see if their skulls contain fluid or brain tissue. If they contain fluid, then voila! a link between the absence of brain tissue and really really dumb ideas is proven.

But a problem arises. If these scans show these skulls to be filled with the ordinary sort of gray matter we all have, then we have not yet determined whether or not a brain is necessary to modern American life. We have only determined that the use of a brain is not necessary to modern American life. And given things like Kardashians, Sean Penn and Mike Huckabee thinking enough people want to vote for him for president that he could win, that's information we already have.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

From the Rental Vault: Justice League: Gods and Monsters

The 2011 change by DC Comics to its new continuity called "The New 52" did more than make bad comics. It also made for bad animated DVD release movies, which is the one area where the company had outperformed its great rival, Marvel. Seven movies have been released in the new continuity. The four directly related to the change and the new version of the Justice League stunk. Two connected more to the Batman storyline were better but not spectacular.

The seventh is Justice League: Gods and Monsters, and it's easily one of the better entries in the whole group of 24 animated DVDs released to date. And, it should be noted for the benefit of the DC "brain"trust, it has nothing to do with the New 52.

The Justice League consists of just three members: Superman, created on Krypton from the genetic material of Lara and General Zod and raised by Mexican peasant farmers when his spaceship landed near their home. Wonder Woman, also known as Bekka of New Genesis, one of the New Gods who has fled her world's endless conflict with Apokolips for reasons of her own. And Batman, who is scientist Kirk Langstrom after he has been affected by a mutated bat serum design to combat his cancer and is now more vampire than human. This League does fight criminals and wrongdoers, but they do it without the moral constraints that their more familiar counterparts have.

When scientists start dying, it soon becomes clear they were connected to a secret project designed to combat the League if it ever went rogue. Forensic evidence at the different crime scenes points to the League members, whose reputations for ruthlessness leave people all too ready to believe the worst of their terrifying heroes. The trio will have to fight off attempts to bring them in while searching for the masterminds behind the scheme and uncovering their ultimate goal.

As mentioned, none of this continuity is based on the New 52 storyline -- in fact, the revised characters are unique to this movie and accompanying web-based series of shorts. But unlike the 52 creators, Gods and Monsters writers Alan Burnett and Bruce Timm create completely different yet intriguing versions of the characters comic fans have followed for 70+ years. Superman's mother Lara is still the same, but his father is the megalomaniac Zod instead of the great scientist Jor-El. While Zod's tendencies were tempered by being raised by poor peasants, this Superman has to figure out how to walk a fine line between protecting the weak and dominating them (Lois Lane still has his number, through). Wonder Woman's role in the New Genesis/Apokolips war has left scars on her she can't defeat by beating other adversaries, even though she keeps trying. And this Batman is not just metaphorically removed from humanity -- he drinks blood to survive and while he won't prey on innocents, lawbreakers find themselves wishing they could go to prison.

The voice casting of Benjamin Bratt, Tamara Taylor and Michael C. Hall as the lead trio strengthens the movie considerably -- while animation can draw whatever expression on people's faces that the director wants, those aren't worth much if the actors can't sell the emotion and the main three do that quite well. The decision to use an animation style that resembles the old DC Animated Universe is also a good move, as it provides some familiar context into which the altered characters can be placed. Also a plus is the non-kid-friendly use of violence to demonstrate how ruthless the League can be -- it buttresses the plausibility of this world fearing its saviors more than it wants them.

Gods and Monsters represents a first collaboration between Warner Bros. Animation and the gaming multi-channel network Machinima, Inc. The movie and the three webisodes will be followed by a second season of 10 more episodes in 2016, and if they maintain the quality of this initial movie they will be a welcome addition to DC's animated storytelling.