Thursday, September 28, 2006

Until the End of Everything

This will be my last post about the Oxford English Dictionary, I promise! I know you're sick to death of it. But as I was reading Simon Winchester's The Meaning of Everything, there were four places where I was so struck by a quote that I left a placemark there. These aren't Winchester's words, but where he was quoting someone else:

The first quote is from William Caxton, the man who brought the printing press to England, and produced the first printed books in the English language. This is from an advertising flyer that he circulated:
If it plese ony man... to bye... [books]... late hym come to Westmonester... and he shal have them good chepe. [If it please any man to buy books, let him come to Westminster, and he shall have them good and cheap.]
It may be hard for us to remember when we're shelling out twenty bucks for the latest Harry Potter, but if Man is the Maker of Tools, there are few that have so profoundly changed the course of humanity as the printing press, ushering in the era of knowledge available for "good chepe."

The remaining three quotes are all from the Dictionary's great Editor, James Murray. The first is from a letter he wrote to Lord Bryce in 1903:
I think it was God's will.... I look back & see that every step of my life has been as it were imposed upon me -- not a thing of choice; and that the whole training of my life with its multifarious & irregular incursions into nearly every science & many arts, seems to have had the express purpose of fitting me to do this Dictionary.
I mentioned a couple of posts ago that in my opinion the Dictionary would likely have come to disaster if not for Murray's unique talents. He seems to have felt something of the same.

The second Murray quote is from his Introduction to the Dictionary:
The circle of the English language has a well-defined centre, but no discernable circumference.
This captures in a simple phrase one of the reasons that I love this language.

The final quote is a personal wish from a letter Murray wrote to Fitzedward Hall, one of the most dedicated of the thousands of volunteers who contributed to the OED:
May you live to see Zymotic
Zymotic is, of course, the final word in the English language, and if the OED can be said to be the meaning of everything, then it follows that Zymotic is, in fact, the end of everything. And if Star Trek fans can bid each other farewell with, "Live long and prosper," why can't lexicographers -- or anyone who loves the language -- bid farewell with this simple wish, May you live to see Zymotic, until the end of all things.

So this is my sincere wish for you, my five readers (I'm pretty sure there are five of you now), and also to little Evelyn Grace and Valerie Marta:

May you live to see Zymotic.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Banned Books Week!

2006 BBW; Read Banned Books: They're Your Ticket to FreedomAs the U.S. careens to the political right, it's important to celebrate the now-diminishing freedoms and rights that were handed down to us by the founding fathers. And in that spirit, let's hear a big Yay! for Banned Books Week, which is this week!

Clicking the ALA's official Banned Books Week Web Badge, above or to the left (depending on your browser), will take you to the ALA's Banned Books Week resource page, which is chock full of links, like this one which is to Google's list of books that have been banned, or that people have tried to ban. It still amazes me every time I hear that people are trying to ban Judy Blume's wonderful books.

The ALA would like you to display their Web Badge on your blog, too. You can read about it here. If you need a place to host the gif file, you can link to my copy. It's at

And I love the name of this web site:

Delete Censorship


Sunday, September 24, 2006

Another First

This is the Vermont contributor checking in. Unlike my bro, I haven't read much of substance except for parenting related books in a long time. Alas! There was a time when I could have contributed culturally to these pages. As it is, Linda and I are slogging through "The Vaccine Guide, Risks and Benefits for Children and Adults". If we are talking about genres then this qualifies as a horror story. After hearing some initial stories about how vaccines are loaded up with mercury (supposedly as a preservative) we held off on the standard 2 month shots for little Evelyn. The more we read the more alarmed we get as to the short and long term effects of the various vaccines and the side effects of the shots on developing bodies. Increasingly we are hearing from parents who have chosen not to give their children vaccinations until 24 months, and there are some studies that show that this reduces harmful side effects by 80%.

On to more mundane items, illness of a lesser sort struck the Smith household this week. Linda, Evelyn and I all had minor colds. The little one fared fairly well, her primary symptom was lethargy. Unfortunately she wasn't comfortable enough to sleep much so we spend many late night hours comforting her until she felt better. We are glad to report that she and we are feeling much better.

Last piece of trivia for this post: One of Evelyn's favorite games these days is something we call 'sit-ups' in which she starts out laying on her back and she grabs one of our fingers in each of her little hands and we pull her into a sitting position. She loves to sit up although she doesn't have a lot of balance yet so we have to suppot her little shoulders while she looks around proud as punch before she settles into the difficult task of examining her own feet.

OK, one more: Evelyn succeeded in getting her left big toe into her mouth this week. Talk about a milestone.


Saturday, September 23, 2006

Another long post. Sorry.

Now I have finished reading The Meaning of Everything, Simon Winchester's second book about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. It doesn't have as dramatic a title as The Professor and the Madman, but I think it's (and that's "it's") the better book. I think that the fundamental problem with The Professor and the Madman is that there wasn't a book's length worth of story, so Winchester had to incorporate miscellaneous stuffing. (And while we're on the subject of words, farce, which I had occasion to use in this blog recently, is archaically a verb that means to cram or stuff, and The Professor and the Madman was, in that sense, farced.)

The Meaning of Everything, on the other hand, suffers from exactly the opposite problem: In the interest of keeping to a single small volume, it doesn't do justice to many parts of this sprawling story. To cite just one example, we are told that Wilfrid Murray, a son of the great Editor, has said that, "if the inner history [of the OED]... ever comes to be told in full, [the merchant banker Henry Huck Gibbs] saved the Dictionary." Wow! This Gibbs dude saved the Dictionary? Wouldn't we like to know how? Maybe even why? But, alas, everything that Gibbs did is covered in superficial generality in just two paragraphs.

And, as he gets towards the end, it seems as though Winchester, seeing his page limit approaching, thins the story out more and more. For example, the imposition of the first Co-Editor, Henry Bradley, must have mightily upset the imperative primary Editor, James Murray, but that story goes untold, and the two additional Co-Editors, Charles Onion and William Craigie, appear in the book out of nowhere, almost as if they were placed by the wave of a magic wand.

But... I don't really want to talk about the book. What I really want to talk about is something that struck me forcibly as I was reading it. It's not a point that Winchester makes -- I think he might even disagree with me. It's just a thought that grew on me as I read: That there might not have ever been an OED, or it might have been diluted to the point where it had no authority or respect, had it not been for the completely happenstance intersection of a Scots schoolmaster, in the person of James Murray, and a need to fill a vacant position, that of Editor of the great Dictionary.

The Dictionary was in shambles when Murray took over as Editor. He not only pulled the pieces back together, but, as the decades passed, he showed that he had the exact qualities that were needed to keep this project moving, and moving in the direction that it needed to be moving in. If you want to see what I mean, you'll have to read the book, but in short, he had the precise education, temperament, resourcefulness, friends, and even wife to, at many various times over the years, meet and overcome all the obstacles, and answer (correctly) all the questions, that arose.

It's not that Murray was qualified to lead just any project. For example, if the success of a project depended on diplomacy, rather than standing firm for one's principles in the face of adversity, Murray would have made an awful mess of it. No, my point is that Murray was uniquely and specially qualified to lead this one project, and that some other Editor, with qualities that were exemplary but didn't fit the needs of the Dictionary so perfectly, could have led it to ruin. And the plain fact is that some other, less well suited Editor might easily have been chosen instead of Murray. It was pure chance that he was in the right place and knew the right people at the right time. In my opinion, it is pure chance that we even have the OED today.

I'm making a Big Deal out of this because I've seen the same thing again and again, both in my own experience and in the news: A few projects seem to succeed against all odds and, when they're done, deliver more than anyone expected, and what these projects have in common is a leader who had exactly the qualities that the particular project needed. On the other hand, most projects fade away or achieve no more than mediocrity, and most of the time the failure could have been avoided with better leadership. This isn't to say that the leaders of the projects that fail wouldn't have excelled if they had been in charge of a different project -- one that was a better fit for their abilities. What it is to say is, leaders are appointed for projects with no consideration of their abilities and qualities and, correspondingly, what the project's success will require. Perfect fits, as in Murray and the great Dictionary, are accidents. It's roulette: The wheel spins, and each slot is a unique project requiring unique qualities, but instead of one ball there are as many balls as slots, each a leader with unique abilities. But the balls fall into the slots by chance. Perhaps only one slot of all those on the wheel will be a home to the leader that can guide it to success.

I could cite some examples from my own workplace, but I don't write about my workplace (and this is one very good reason why). Maybe you have examples from your own. But I don't think it would hurt if The Meaning of Everything was required reading... business school.

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Thursday, September 21, 2006

Slow learner

I don't even have "I didn't know" to use as an excuse. I heard, on the news early this morning, a NASA spokesman cheerfully announcing that "the runway lights are lit." But then it was a little after six and I was just starting my shower when it sounded as though someone banged a couple times on my front door. Loudly. I shut off the water and jumped out. Strangely, the dogs weren't barking. Was there really someone at the door? I wrapped a towel around myself and went out into the living room. It was quiet. No follow-up bangs. I was a little unnerved, because it was early and dark and a bang on the door under those circumstances couldn't be anything good.

I opened the door a crack and peeked out. No one. I padded around the house. Everything seemed in order. Nervously, I went back to my shower -- you kinda feel vulnerable in the shower, you know. But no sooner had I turned the water back on that I knew what it was. Of course!

For two decades now the space shuttle program has been my neighbor, and still, after all this time, it mystifies me when I hear the sonic booms that it makes as it's landing.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Ups and Downs

This past weeking Linda, Evelyn and I were fortunate enought to attend the annual retreat for our local Quaker meeting, of which we are fairly inactive members. The event is held at a summer camp in the Green Mountains, though of course we are now in the off season for such camps. The trees have just started to turn up in the higher elevations, and while there were a few brilliant red trees most were still hanging on to their green for a little while. The weather is supposed to turn cool this week which means the colors should start to come in in force soon. Followed, of course, by tourists. (Yesterday I started that other fall tradition - stacking the winter's firewood. Sore arms today).

The retreat was very low key and very relaxing. Evelyn enjoyed being the center of much attention. I can report that she had her first ever spill. I had her in one of those strap on carriers where she was in front of me facing out (as she insists) when I stepped onto a slippery board and went down. Yikes! Fortunately, I landed on my side and she landed on my arm. She was fine, except for being scared, but we had an anxious few minutes while looking her over, wondering about neck injuries, etc. I guess babies are pretty flexible.

Evelyn also celebrated her 4 month birthday on Sunday. She celebrated by drinking milk (as she always does). Mom and Dad celebrated by stopping by the Sweet Surrender coffee shop in Ludlow VT for coffee and sweets. That is where this photo was taken. Evelyn is gazing toward the distant hills, probably waiting for the time when her legs will be able to run over that way.

She is vocalizing quite a bit now. It is almost as if she has realized that she has some control over those vocal chords and is experimenting with different sounds. She hasn't discovered consonants yet but she is pretty good at the vowel sounds. I know that communication is many months away, but sometimes it almost seems as though she knows that somehow these noises are intended to communicate. She will look straight at you and start in on one of her long aaaahhhhs. Very cute.


Saturday, September 16, 2006


I was listening to the news on NPR this morning when I heard the story that the Iraqis are considering encircling the entire city of Baghdad with a trench, to prevent unauthorized vehicles from sneaking into the city. I don't normally comment on politics or news, but as I heard this story I couldn't help but think that if the Iraq war was in fact a novel that you were reading, and as you were reading you were trying to figure out the novel's genre -- you know, suspense, romance, mystery, thriller, science fiction -- you would get to this very point in the story and clap your hand to your forehead and exclaim, "Of course! I get it now! The novel is meant to be a farce!" (Farce - n. 1: a comedy characterized by broad satire and improbable situations.*)

Only this isn't a novel.

* Thanks to WordNet via

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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Stylin' and Profiln' -- Inside-out Insight

Cord Skirt

Today's stylin' and profiln' entry is the skirt pictured here. No, I'm not talking about the wisdom of wearing a mini-skirt when it's apparently cold enough to justify fur-lined (faux, I'm sure) boots. The lady has probably coated her legs with teflon.

I'm talking about the pockets....

They're on the outside. There are two Big Reasons why pockets on the outside are a Bad Idea:

Big Bad Idea Reason #1: Do you really want to walk down the street knowing that people are looking at you and thinking, "Does that lady know her pockets are pulled inside out?" Or, worse yet, "Look at that lady! She's put her skirt on inside-out!"

Big Bad Idea Reason #2: You can't use these pockets to carry anything bulky or heavy. I mean, really, how would that look, with the pockets sagging and slapping? With these pockets, you can't carry anything bigger than a credit card.

But then, to that, the lady in this picture looks like she's saying, "What's your point?"


Monday, September 11, 2006

September 11th, 2006

One advantage of having to be at work at 7:00 am...

...and having a commute that's largely from west to east... that you are priviledged to witness some magnificent sunrises.


Thursday, September 07, 2006


Inspired by my bro, I took the bold step of figuring out how to post a photo. Guess what I chose as a subject? This is Evelyn at 3.5 months. She has figured out how to roll onto her tummy but doesn't really know what to do once she gets there.


Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Documenting Ernesto

It was a week ago today that Tropical Storm Ernesto blew through this area. A coworker sent me a photo that documents the horrific extent of the damage that Ernesto wreaked. I've posted the photo below, but it's so graphic, so shocking, and so visceral that I spaced it down the page a ways, to give you a chance to decide whether or not you want to endure it. Before you scroll down, ask yourself how strong your stomach is. How well do you tolerate scenes of loss and despair? If you think you can take it, scroll down....

Ernesto Damage

And you know what really burns me? Here it's been a week since the storm passed, and I still don't have my FEMA trailer.


Monday, September 04, 2006

How the time does fly

This is the Vermont faction checking in after a prolonged absence. It occurred to me that it has been about a month since I posted an entry other than a comment on this blog which my bro has so graciously shared with me. Initially I thought that I would be able to post wise and witty observations (a la my bro) in August. I should explain that Linda took the little one to California for most of August to introduce her to her west coast relatives. I had envisioned 3 weeks of leisure in which I could compose the aforementioned entries, and had even started a list of favorite books in that regard. Alas, it was not to be. Between crises at work (being without an assistant for the 4th time in a year) and projects at home (sanding and refinishing floors, building garden boxes, etc.) the blog time just never seemed to arrive. I am sure that that violates many rules of blogging.

In any case, for three weeks I went through newborn withdrawal, which was pretty bad. The fact that I got to sleep through the night for three weeks was not a consolation. Then Linda and Evelyn, who is 3 1/2 months old, came back and the change in the little one was simply amazing. In three short weeks she mastered holding her head up. A seemingly simple task but ever so important. Now she can follow things with her head as well as her eyes, and has learned to coordinate her head and eye movements (one of those simple things that I never even thought a lot about until I watched her do it). This skill of course makes it much easier to carry her around since we don't have to support her head anymore. We also get quite a kick noticing which parts of her environment catch her interest. She still loves looking at trees. And, of course, now that she can support her head it is a lot safer to play airplane with her, something she REALLY likes.

She has also learned to grab things with her fingers (but not her thumbs yet). This allowed her to actually play with toys. Of course, since she can't sit or crawl yet we have to bring the rattles, etc. to her but at least now she can grab them (and put them in her mouth of course). Prior to this time 'playing' with something pretty much involved Linda or I waving an item in front of her while she watched it. Her control of her little arms is still tenuous so grabbing something most often involves quite a few attempts before success is achieved.

It is so amazing watching her discover her abilities one by one. I wouldn't trade the experience for anything! Of course she still doesn't sleep through the night. A 3-4 hour stretch is considered a good night at this point, except for the first few nights back from CA when she didn't sleep for more than 90 minutes at a time for days. That was quite the challenge.


I know this will offend some people, but...

A Honda is a motorcycle.

A Triumph is a motorcycle.

A Yamaha is a motorcycle.

A Ducati is a motorcycle.

A Harley-Davidson is just a midlife crisis.


Saturday, September 02, 2006

Ye shall be phishers of children

Yesterday morning I received this interesting phishing attempt:

Subject: Tax Information - - (Code xxxx-xxxx)
Date: Fri, 1 Sep 2006 01:39:47 +0000

Account : Number : xxxx

After the last annual calculations of your fiscal activity we have determined that you are eligible to receive a tax refund of $191,40. Please submit the tax refund request and allow us 5-7 days in orders to process it.

A refund can be delayed for a variety of reasons. For example submitting invalid records of applying after the deadline.

To access the form for your tax refund, please click here.

Internal Revenue Service

Now, I get lots of phishing attempts -- I'm sure you do, too. And this one isn't even well done -- the use of comma instead of decimal point in the monetary amount is something you'd think the offshore phishers would have wized up to by now, and then there are the two typos and the grammatical error. But anyway, why I am highlighting this phishing attempt?

One thing I like to do -- I don't know if you do or not -- is take a peek at the target link, just to see who it is out there trying to steal my personal information*. And there was something interesting about this one. To begin with, this phisher made an unusually devious attempt to conceal the true link:

He used Yahoo's redirection service and then managed to work in the domain name, to make it look as authentic as possible. But if you tease it apart, you'll find it points to a subdirectory -- suitably disguised as an offical IRS page and of course asking for your SSN, credit card number, and ATM PIN -- on this very interesting Web site:

You can click on it -- it's safe.

It turns out that the people trying to steal my identity also operate the Anuban Dekdi "Good Children Kindergarten and Primary School" in Phontong, Thailand. There's a picture of an Thai couple and a tall blond Caucasian man fronted by a row of children in colorful Thai costumes. There are also pictures of teachers and classrooms. Not to mention the notice, under Terms and Conditions, that "Feeding head master's eco pigs is voluntary." Good to know.

Speaking of good to know, I wonder if the parents whose children are being educated there know that their headmaster is party to a despicable and heinous crime. Or if the headmaster himself even knows. And if he doesn't, am I morally obligated to let him know?

I apologize for this uninspired post. I was just struck by the juxaposition of phishing and educating children.

* Do I need a life?

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