Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Have your people e-mail my people

If you would like to send me an e-mail message -- and who wouldn't? :) -- you can use the new "Send me an e-mail message!" link over on the right, the first one under Links. You can even send the message anonymously, if, like, you know, you're... shy.

And speaking of "over on the right," the list of links and stuff over on the right wasn't over on the right until today, if you used one of the Gecko-based browsers (Mozilla, Firefox, Netscape). Instead it appeared way down at the bottom of the page (which is way down because Blogger insists on displaying the last 365 days of posts, when I've specifically told it to only display 90 -- can anybody tell me what I'm doing wrong?). Anyway, Blogger-dudes, this template has a problem with floats. And call me dumb, but I only realized recently that I could tweak the CSS for my own template. It turns out it wasn't hard to fix it so the list appears where it's supposed to when using Gecko. And -- lo and behold! -- it didn't break MSIE, either. Yay, links!

Ernesto has turned out to be a real dud of a tropical storm.

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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

When there's nothing else to talk about, talk about the weather

Ernesto is scheduled to blow through here tomorrow. We aren't especially worried. It's more an inconvenience than a threat. The thing that sucks the most is that where I work we were supposed to have this coming Friday off, but since we're not going to be able to work tomorrow, we're going to have to work Friday instead, as a makeup day. It sucks when your employer can shuffle your days off so that you have the crappiest ones off and have to work on the nice ones. But there you have it. It's a paycheck. And the fact is that we're way behind our factory schedule (due to strong demand for our products), and it's probably true that we can't afford to miss a day of production. Not for something trivial like a tropical storm. Ah, the price of success.


Sunday, August 27, 2006

And just who are the madmen, anyway?

I think it was two Christmases ago that I gave my brother Simon Winchester's two books on the making of the Oxford English Dictionary: The Professor and the Madman and The Meaning of Everything. At the same time, I bought copies of the books for myself. I think the idea was that we would read them more or less simultaneously. My brother read his copies promptly. Now it's almost two years later and last weekend I just finished the first one, The Professor and the Madman. Oops.

Honestly, it's not my fault. I have very little time for recreational reading, and what little I have I reserve for fiction, which is my passion. I do read non-fiction, but usually on topics along the lines of Cascading Style Sheets, PHP programming techniques, and .NET Framework.

But now I have, at long last, read The Professor and the Madman. It was pretty good. I enjoyed it. I have to admit it has flaws: The prose is sometimes gratuitously flamboyant. Winchester occasionally flies off into hyperbole. The parts where he speculates on what triggered Dr. Minor's madness are simply overreaching. An editor could have done some good here. But then there are other places where I simply could not put the book down, and I think that's high praise for non-fiction. Winchester has taken several stories which, by themselves, might not have amounted to much, and very skillfully woven them into a whole that stands well. The book is very much a tapestry.

Moving on to the point of this post (yes, Virginia, this long post has a point), I first want to tell you, my three readers, that I am a curmudgeon when it comes to language and correct usage. I will, if it can be done without causing long-term hard feelings, correct someone who confuses insure, ensure, and assure. Likewise for effect and affect. And, like Nero Wolfe, I do not accept the contention that infer and imply can be interchanged. I am also horrified when nouns are used as verbs -- a practice that people who agree with me call by the tongue-in-cheek name "verbing." For a time, I was even collecting specimens of verbing for a gallery on this Web page.

All this said, as I was reading The Professor and the Madman, I was given pause in chapter four ("Gathering Earth's Daughters"), when Winchester lamented (to the extent of four pages) that Shakespeare (not to mention Bacon, Spenser, Marlowe, Donne, and others whom Winchester does mention) did not have the use of a dictionary in his time. Not even one:
Whenever he [Shakespeare] came to use an unusual word, or to set a word in what seemed an unusual context -- and his plays are extraordinarily rich with examples -- he had almost no way of checking the propriety of what he was about to do.

He could not check the propriety! Horror! But there's more:
Consider, for instance, Shakespeare's writing of Twelfth Night, which he completed sometime at the very beginning of the seventeenth century. {snip} Sebastian and Antonio, the shipwrecked sailor and his rescuer, have just arrived in port and are wondering where they might stay the night. Sebastian considers the question for a moment, and then, in the manner of one who has read and well remembered his Good Hotel Guide of the day, declares quite simply: "In the south suburbs at the Elephant/Is best to lodge."

Now what, exactly, did William Shakespeare know about Elephants? Moreover, what did he know of Elephants as hotels? The name was one given to a number of lodging houses in various cities dotted around Europe. This particular elephant, given that this was Twelfth Night, happened to be in Illyria; but there were many others, two of them at least in London. But however many there were -- just why was this the case? Why name an inn after such a beast? And what was such a beast, anyway? All of these are questions that, one would think, a writer should at least have been able to answer.

"One would think," Winchester says. The only thing I think is that Winchester had caught a small and thankfully short-lived case of diarrhea of the keyboard. Let's go on:
One might think he [Shakespeare, still] would want to look up things all the time. "Am I not consanguineous?" he writes in the same play. A few lines on he talks of "thy doublet of changeable taffeta." He then declares: "Now is the woodcock near the gin." Shakespeare's vocabulary was evidently prodigious: But how could he be certain that in all cases where he employed unfamiliar words, he was grammatically and factually right?

Winchester is trying very, very hard to impress upon us that humanity suffered immeasurable and doubtless irreversible loss because Shakespeare did not have access to a dictionary, and could not be certain that he used words in a manner that was "factually right."

What gave me pause, of course, as I'm sure it has done you, is that I read exactly the opposite message in Winchester's words: Could Shakespeare's greatness have been due, in part at least, to his not having a dictionary? To his not being encumbered by the burden of being "factually right?" To his freedom in letting his linguistic fancy fly free? Part of the magic of Shakespeare is his often startling use of words -- of which even Winchester says "his plays are extraordinarily rich with examples." Could he have achieved this extraordinary richness if his audience continually pointed and said, for example, "Shame, shame, you used a noun as a verb -- why didn't you look that up in your dictionary?"

I, the language curmudgeon, am beginning to think he could not.... It's Winchester, ironically, who is convincing me.

And that leads to some disturbing conclusions (to me, anyway): What great works of creative, mind-bending literature could we produce, today, if we were not hemmed in by our dictionaries? Are we in fact doing harm to humanity by fastening the handcuffs of correct usage? I present as an example a phrase that I admire very much, from Caribbean usage: downpresser-man. It's so much more vivid and visceral than its conventional synonym, oppressor, as you would expect from a word coined by those who actually suffered the oppression -- the downpressed.

I have always admired the OED immensely -- I consider it the greatest single compendium in all of human history. I have always looked to it as, well, the final word. So it has been a revelation to me to learn that the editors of the OED do not recognize the concept of "correct usage." They only recognize usage. If a word is used, then it is, ipso facto, correct. What a concept. The editors of the OED are certainly not, in the eternal words of William Shakespeare (King Lear) "finical rogues."


Sunday, August 20, 2006


In Norton Juster's absolutely wonderful book The Phantom Tollboth (and if you haven't read it you must rush out and do so right now), Milo, the boy hero, meets another boy named Alec Bings. Alec is about as tall as Milo, but his head is up in the air, at the height it will be at when he's fully grown, and his feet are about three feet off the ground. Since Alec and his family have eyes that are at the same height for their entire lives, "'We always see things from the same angle.'" Alec explains, "'It's much less trouble that way.'" When Milo tells Alec that he grows from the ground up, Alec scoffs:

"'What a silly system.' The boy [Alec] laughed. 'Then your head keeps changing its height and you always see things in a different way? Why, when you're fifteen things won't look at all the way they did when you were ten, and at twenty everything will change again.'"

The point, of course, is that it's good for perspectives to change as time passes, and it would be dull and even stulifying if we saw things in just one, unchanging way for our entire lives.

I'm now several years older than my father was when he died. At the time of his death, he seemed very old to me. Now it seems to me that he had half of his life yet to live. But no chance to live it.

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Friday, August 18, 2006

From a Caribbean Isle...

Me (looking in a mirror): Wow! Look at my hair! It's sticking straight up on top of my head, like the crest on an iguana!

J: They say that the longer you stay someplace, the more you start to look like the natives.

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Thursday, August 17, 2006


Me: You know, when we're on a vacation, we always have a place with a full kitchen. And yet the only kitchen utensil we ever use is the corkscrew.

J: Yeah, do we know how to vacation, or what!

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Friday, August 11, 2006


According to this sort-of official notice, my destination is actually implementing the same security precautions as the U.S. TSA. And according to the TSAs latest posting, that would allow me to carry my camera and laptop back.

I guess I will take my chances and my camera.

Oh... and isn't the Internet wonderful?


Feeling sick

I am sitting here, typing, sick to my stomach.

I'm due to fly tomorrow. It's not just a flight -- it's an international flight. Not to England or Europe, only to the Caribbean, but an international flight nonetheless.

I've been preparing myself for the adjustments. Get to the airport an extra hour-and-a-half early. Pack all liquids and gels in my checked bags. I can do this.

Until... I heard about somethng that hadn't even occurred to me:

My destination appears to have even more stringent restrictions on carry-ons that the U.S. does. As in, it does not allow any carry-on baggage at all. None. So... it might be fine for me to board in Orlando and fly there with my laptop and camera. But in a week, when it's time to come home, I may not be able to carry them back.

The laptop is no big deal. I could leave it behind, or even pack it in my checked bag -- inside it's carrying case, it's pretty well padded. But my camera is another story. I'm not stowing my thousand-dollar camera in a bag that's going to get thrown around like sack of potatoes.

I love to take pictures. The fact that I own a thousand-dollar camera may have tipped you off to that fact already. But now I'm facing the prospect of spending a week on a Caribbean island -- one I've never visited before -- without being able to take pictures. I'm sick to my stomach.

It's already been suggested that I wait until I get there and buy disposable cameras. I know, I know. But to someone who's used to a D70, using a disposable camera is like saying to a race car driver, "Yes, you can compete in next year's Indy 500, but you have to drive a pedal-powered Radio Flyer."

I've posted to two newsgroups to find out the details about my destination's carry-on restrictions. Maybe it will work out. But if you happen to be in, say, Bonaire next week, and you see an aging guy with thinning hair, a moustache, and glasses, snapping away with a disposable camera, well...

...that might be me.


Monday, August 07, 2006

If only...

Near where I live, they've built one of those new-fangled "outdoor shopping malls." You know what I mean: It's just like a traditional, indoor shopping mall, except that as you go from store to store you have to dodge automobile traffic, and you don't have little amenities like air conditioning and shelter from the rain. In the old days we used to call these "shopping plazas," but apparently the word "plaza" carries a stigma that "mall" does not.

Anyway, it was at this new outdoor shopping mall that I saw this storefront, announcing the pending arrival of a new tenant:

Coming soon: Justice

"Could it be?" I thought, my hope rising and my heartbeat racing. It didn't seem that far-fetched. With the world going to Hell in a handbasket, wouldn't it make sense for Justice, with her blindfold, scales and sword, to adopt a new business model and set up shop in malls? Would Justice, indeed, be coming soon? Would all be made right, for once? I could hardly wait.

Alas, it is not to be. Justice, it turns out, is a chain store that sells clothing for girls.

I am so disappointed.


Friday, August 04, 2006

Baby Picture

Here's my newest niece, Evelyn Grace, at the ripe old age of seventy-three.


Evelyn at 73 days


Thursday, August 03, 2006

Only geeks need read on...

I do a lot of programming with Microsoft's Visual Studio .NET development environment. There are some things that .NET is very good at. There are even some things that it's amazing at. But there are also some things that it really sucks at. Some really basic things, sometimes. Like generating reports. You'd think that since .NET comes bundled with Crystal Reports, it would be good at reporting "out of the box." But when you start trying to use it, you discover after a few hours that the documentation sucks, and you discover after a few days of trying different things that the documention sucks because the functionality that could be documented sucks. Just because .NET and Crystal Reports come on the same CD, doesn't mean they are integrated. It so does not. Crystal Reports is, in fact, pretty much useless with .NET. At least in my opinion.

So... anyway, last week I came across an online article about Visual Studio Tools for Office -- VSTO -- supposedly a way to incorporate Microsoft Word and Excel into .NET applications. Using the article, I poked around some. I didn't get very far, but I got far enough to be intrigued. So I ordered a book -- the Carter and Lippert. I arrived home last night to find it stuffed into my mailbox. This morning I arrived at work excitedly clutching my book. Now it's a few hours later and I have a .NET application that's creating Word and Excel documents, inserting data into them, formatting them, and printing and saving them.

This is way cool.


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