Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Sardines, part 2

After a June post on sardines, I thought this little video about sardines, men and humpbacked whales wouldn't go amiss.

I was originally steered to it by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which are currently working on the preservation of forage fish, an indispensable part of the food chain. You can add your name to their petition HERE, if so inclined.

Monday, July 29, 2013


I live right next door to Silicon Valley. Well, over a mountain range, but that doesn't stop a lot of people from living in one place and working in the other. Nevertheless, I'd never heard the term "lifehack" until just now, when I read about it in an article in Slate. According to the piece by Evgeny Morozov, it was coined as recently as 2004 by a tech journalist named Danny O'Brien but has already been validated enough to appear in the Oxford Dictionaries Online:

lifehack: a strategy or technique adopted in order to manage one's time and daily activities in a more efficient way.

Anyway, I thought the article's premise that life hacking is just a sneaky way to get us to work more fit in very neatly with my recent post, and more importantly, the article it linked to, on work ethic.

I did find it a heartening sign that Danny O'Brien's own blog is called Oblomovka , in tribute to the patron saint of lifehacking, Oblomov. I've never actually read Oblomov-- though could you call yourself an Oblomovian if you've actually opened the book?--but I did go to a movie of it. All I can say is that at least 2/5ths of my family slept right through it.


Friday, July 26, 2013


Given that my posts here seem to have been filtered through current events lately, you could be forgiven for thinking that this post is also drawn from the headlines. But no, it came up while I was reading a book--Gore Vidal's novel Creation. The narrator, Cyrus Spitani, mentions at one point that the meaning of the word tyrant has changed even within his own lifetime, which spans much of the 5th century BCE. At the beginning of the book he uses the term tyrant in a neutral way, meaning simply a ruler of one of the small Greek fiefdoms that Darius and his successors held within the sway of the vast Persian empire. But by the end of Cyrus's life, "tyrant" has come to have the negative associations that it carries for us today.

So what happened?


Turns out there is a very good article on all this by Jona Lendering on a website called Livius. He tells us that the word originally meant 'sole ruler' and was neutral in tone. It probably came from a Lydian word for lord. Its meaning became more complex as Greek history acted upon it. The first Greek tyrants were simply aristocrats who combined with monied non-aristocrats that had until then been excluded from sharing power. Another period showed the rise of the rulers of city-states on the fringes of the Greek world, who were trying to combine their territory into larger political units. I believe some of these particular tyrants are the ones Cyrus Spitane is referring in much of the novel, as Persia has its eye very closely on Greece (and pretty much every place else).

Lendering also mentions the "eastern tyrants", who were rulers of city-states within the Persian Empire. They could be said to ruling for the Great King of the Achaemenids--in other words the Emperor of the Persian Empire. I think that Vidal in his book is more likely to call them satraps. Vidal also writes as though some of those Greek tyrants were also acting as intermediaries with Darius or his descendants as well.

The main thing about a tyrant, says Lendering, is that their power is not constitutional. They come to it from outside the democratic process. The odds of that in the ancient world seem pretty great if you go by Creation, where even patricide is not so beyond the pale as all that. Tyrants, often rising out  of fragile coalitions, had to make their grasp on power seem legitimate if they were to endure. To that end, they often did things that were beneficial to their dominion, expanding trade, embarking on building projects and the like.

So where does the idea of a tyrant as a bad thing come from? Blame those Ancient Greeks, of course. It was something of a spin job. Lendering thinks that Herodotus and Thucydides cast the tyrants as the anti-type to the emerging Athenian democrats. In this light, it's pretty amusing to see the 5th century BCE told through the eyes of Cyrus Spitani, who dislikes the Athenians, and Herodotus in particular. But in the long run of history, its not so much 'to the victor, the spoils' as 'to the victor, the story'.

In the West at least, we all know whose version is still being told.


Tuesday, July 23, 2013

work ethic

You will no doubt be questioning my own work ethic if I simply send you to this very good piece, On 'work ethic', by Peter Womack on the OUP blog. It makes me question mine too, though probably in a different way...

Friday, July 19, 2013

Space Madness the Board Game

We take yet another break from our regularly scheduled programming to do a quick mention of a Kickstarter project that my friend Robert Easley is doing. He's a gaming guy and this looks like a very fun project. His mom is also a friend of mine, and she's a talented artist who has done much of the artwork for the game. I don't know if it will help him any for me to put it up here, but it can't hurt.
 I'll let him explain it himself.


The Kickstarter project is HERE. Robert has recently added a download there where you can try a  printable version of the game for free. Good luck, Robert!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Travels with Julie

My sister has a new blog up that she's writing while traveling to first London and then Ireland with her kids this month. She's trying this one on Wordpress so that's a new adventure as well. I've just put it in my blog roll, but if you don't feel like scrolling down--and who does, really?--here's the link. You may as well check it out while she's still living it...

Monday, July 15, 2013

What happened to the t in listen? Or, shouldn't that be Eas'enders?

Some if not all of my posts are completely redundant, as you can find all of this information quite easily elsewhere if you have a mind to. It's just about things that come up for me. Last night I was watching an episode of Eastenders and was sure I heard a character pronounce listen as 'list-en', with a hard t. It was plausible because he was black and had a sort of Jamaican British English, and I thought maybe just one of those variants of English that happens because of its farflung nature.

Luckily, I was watching this on tape, and as it turns out, I was wrong. I don't know quite what he was saying, but I think the 'listen' was pretty normal. But then I started wondering why we don't pronounce the 't' in words like listen and glisten.

Like I said, this turns out to be a common question. And you can find a pretty thorough answer here at Grammarphobia, which looks to be a much more authoritative blog than this one. Basically, the unsurprising answer is, we're lazy. Apparently, we just find it too hard to make that 'st' sound. Too much work. It's a bit odd when you think about it, because we don't mind saying words like stone and stalk and stammer, do we? I guess by the time we reach the middle of a word, we're just too tired out. Because although I happened to think of listen and glisten, there's also moisten, hasten and fasten (and try explaining to a non-English speaker why those last two don't rhyme. Actually, try explaining it to me.) And so on. Not going to pronounce that t, are we? Je refuse!

We don't always refuse, though. As Grammarphobia points out, when it comes to words like justly, mostly, lastly, we muster up the strength to keep that t sound in. They quote one William Bright as referring to these as conscious compounds. By this I think he meant that the words just and most and last are solid enough in our minds that they don't sound right to our ears if we omit that last, or should I say las' 't'.

The funny thing about 'listen' in particular, though, is that the spelling is kind of made up. The original Old English word was hlysnan, which had Germanic roots and is related to present day German lauschen. The t was added, probably because of an association people made to the Old English word hlystan, or list. Apparently our forebears were made of sterner stuff than we. They actually wanted to pronounce that t, whether it was there to begin with or not.

Hlysnan, do you want to know a secret?


Friday, July 12, 2013


House Republicans raised the Democrats hackles yesterday when they dropped Food Stamps from the Farm Bill. Representative Pete Sessions explained, "What we have carefully done is exclude some extraneous pieces", which included the nearly fifty year old, 80 billion dollar Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Dems quickly began an outcry about the legislation treating the 47 million people covered under the program as "extraneous people".

As occasional readers of this blog know, I usually try to dig pretty dig into the etymology of a word, but etymology doesn't seem to be what's fascinating me the most lately. Extraneous comes from the Latin extraneus, which meant external or strange,  the Latin prefix extra- having to do with being on the outside, without or except, all of which relates to the extraneous people theme pretty well.

When you Google the definition of extraneous, you come up with:

  • Irrelevant or unrelated to the subject being dealt with.
  • Of external origin.  

    So. If you put this together with my last post on the word relevant, what you discover is this governmental view of the citizenry.
    What is relevant? 
    Everything you say and everything you do.
    What is irrelevant?   
    At least if you're hungry... 

    Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

    Here's a Dana Milbank piece on the story, which gives the hopeful news that the bill as it now stands is unlikely to pass the Senate.

    Tuesday, July 9, 2013

    Define 'relevant'.

    a : having significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand.

    b : affording evidence tending to prove or disprove the matter at issue or under discussion ...

    I think in general my position on the shifting of language is that at its best, it's pretty cool the way words migrates, and at worst, its more like a venial sin than a mortal one. I might get irritated when a noun has morphed into a verb overnight, but I don't mind it all that much. But there is one arena where we all ought to be a little less lazy and a little more vigilant, and that's when words creep into other meanings when used by the powerful. Ezra Klein's  recent segment on Rachel Maddow talks about how a secret government court has rewritten law so that the word "relevant" applies to, well, pretty much everything:


    Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

    Thursday, July 4, 2013

    Literal Meanings of Placenames of the World

    Hey, this is a pretty cool link to a map of the world that has the literal meanings of all those place names. Not entirely unrelated to my quest here, so enjoy while I get my act together.

     Thanks, Slate!

    Oh, and for some reason my Windows browser won't open things like maps from Slate, which is pretty odd when you stop to think about it. But it worked fine in Firefox.