Sunday, June 29, 2008

Admiring a Near Miss

There are a lot of people that I admire. Among the living, I admire Nelson Mandela. I admire Salman Rushdie. I admire the poet Diane Ackerman. But the people that I admire above all others are...

...those who master English as a second language.

What inspired me to blog about this, you ask? Well, to be truthful, it was the recent death of another person I admired: George Carlin. I've been remembering bits and pieces of his comedy that I've heard over my life, and in particular the "near miss" routine. It went something like this (my paraphrasing from memory):
Why is it, when two planes almost collide, they call it a "near miss"? It's not a near miss, it's a near hit. When the planes actually collide, that's a near miss. {Looking up} BOOM! Whoa! They nearly missed.
Carlin, of course, was trying to be funny. That was, after all, his job. But if you dig under the humor there's an interesting observation:

What underlies Carlin's routine is the fact that miss is both a noun ("a failure to hit, succeed, or find") and a verb ("to fail to hit or strike"). (Don't glaze over on me -- I'm going somewhere with this.) When the word near modifies miss-the-verb, it's an adverb, and means they almost missed, but didn't -- in other words, a hit. It's a little clearer if you use the more common form of the adverb: "It was nearly a miss" (not to be confused with "nearly amiss," which means something completely different).

But when near modifies miss-the-noun, it means there was a miss (that's what the noun means), and near is qualifying the nature of the miss, as in:

"They missed."
"By how much?"
"Not much -- they were pretty near."

So we have a single word, miss, which is both a noun and a verb, qualified by a single word, near, but the phrase near miss has two completely opposite meanings depending on whether you intend to use miss-the-noun or miss-the-verb. Near miss-the-verb means a hit, while near miss-the-noun means a non-hit.

Is that crazy, or what?

Of course we who have been learning English from infancy know that near miss means use-the-noun, but how confusing must these twists and turns be for people who learn it as a second language? Am I'm not even going to talk about individual words that are their own opposites -- called contronyms -- such as fast, left (does "He's left" mean "He's gone" or "He's still here"?), and sanction.

It's incomprehensible to me that someone could master, as an adult, our incredibly rich language with its incredibly nonsensical rules, cobbled together over centuries from bits and pieces of other languages, each contributing a little grammar here, a little usage there; and also modified in countless irrational ways by centuries of speakers and writers, each of whom felt that God blessed him or her alone with a special right to alter the mother tongue according to his or her judgment, some of whom had to be inebriated.

So to those of you who master English as a second language, I admire you, one and all.

There are some who deserve special admiration. I already knew, when I first read Lolita, years (okay, decades) ago that English was a second language to Vladimir Nabakov, the Russian refugee. And so, knowing this, I was completely and utterly stunned when I opened the book to page one and read the very first paragraph:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
That isn't a paragraph. It's a poem.

And then, of course, there's Joseph Conrad... let's not get me started.

So if you (like me) admire (or at least love) our marvelous language, then the next time you're at a baseball game, whether major league or little league, and a batter makes a good, solid connection with the ball, and it scoots past the shortstop or drops into the outfield, turn to your companion -- or better yet, the person in the next seat who you don't know, and who, even better yet, may be a person trying to learn English as a second language -- and say:

"That was a great near miss."

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A Call to Action

So recently I made a rare foray into my Google Analytics account to see what Internet searches were bringing the wayward, misdirected, and odd reader to this blog. Historically, the search that brings the most regretting visitors is something along the lines of "peneci.llin and ta.nning," and while it is commendable that so many people want to find out if it is safe to ta.n while taking ant.ibiotics, it's unfortunate that so many are directed to my blog post, which is actually not about peneci.llin and ta.nning, but derogatives.

But anyway, this time I was surprised to find some visits from people searching on "deta.ched" Seriously? When did I ever mention deta.ched The answer, as it turns out, is: In a post that was actually about Princess Sunni's brain tumor, which early on was thought to be a deta.ched But it seemed unbelievable to me that a Web search would bring up my lame mention as being relevant to anyone looking for information on deta.ched ea.rdr.ums. So I schlepped over to Google and typed in those words, and sure enough, I came up as the second most relevant page:

Google search for... you know what

Getting over my mild case of stupefaction, I slowly realized that I had stumbled onto what may be the most glaring and troubling gap in that splendiferous repository of the amassed knowledge of the human race that we call the Internets Tubes. Yes, it's true:

We desperately need more information on deta.ched ea.rdr.ums.

Good and useful information, that is. Clearly we are tragically wanting in that area. So I call on you, my two readers (another discovery from Google Analytics is that readership of this blog is way down, so if you are one of my two readers, you might want to stop and take a minute to ask yourself why you continue to read, since almost no one else does, but I digress...)

As I was saying, I call on you to generate cogent and useful content on the subject of deta.ched ea.rdr.ums and get it posted somewhere as soon as possible. Because the Internet needs you.


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

George Carlin

Unless you've been living under a rock or scaling Mount Everest lately, you know that George Carlin has died. I grew up watching The Flip Wilson Show, and that was my introduction to George Carlin.

For the last couple of days the news stations have been replaying "The Seven Words You Can't Say" ad nausem. If you weren't familiar with him, you'd think that was the only funny piece he ever did. For my part, my favorite Carlin piece wasn't something he meant as humor. I heard it during an interview, and it was serious, though he delivered it in a much more entertaining voice than you will "hear" reading it dead on this page. But, for what it's worth, this is my Gearge Carlin all time fav:
There's a condition in combat. Most people know about it. It's when a fighting person's nervous system has been stressed to its absolute peak and maximum. Can't take anymore input. The nervous system has either snapped or is about to snap. In the First World War, that condition was called shell shock. Simple, honest, direct language. Two syllables, shell shock. Almost sounds like the guns themselves. That was seventy years ago. Then a whole generation went by and the Second World War came along and very same combat condition was called battle fatigue. Four syllables now. Takes a little longer to say. Doesn't seem to hurt as much. Fatigue is a nicer word than shock. Shell shock! Battle fatigue. Then we had the war in Korea, 1950. Madison Avenue was riding high by that time, and the very same combat condition was called operational exhaustion. Hey, we're up to eight syllables now! And the humanity has been squeezed completely out of the phrase. It's totally sterile now. Operational exhaustion. Sounds like something that might happen to your car. Then of course, came the war in Viet Nam, which has only been over for about sixteen or seventeen years, and thanks to the lies and deceits surrounding that war, I guess it's no surprise that the very same condition was called post-traumatic stress disorder. Still eight syllables, but we've added a hyphen! And the pain is completely buried under jargon. Post-traumatic stress disorder. I'll bet if we'd still been calling it shell shock, some of those Viet Nam veterans might have gotten the attention they needed at the time.



Saturday, June 21, 2008

The girl's still got what it takes

Ever since she was a little puppy, Judi's Princess Sunni has been able to eat corn off the cob. Where most dogs -- at least in my experience -- will grab the entire ear and start gnawing and trying to break it up, Sunni has always known that she has to use her front teeth to nibble at the kernels. But Sunni hasn't had corn on the cob since her treatment for her brain tumor, and the period of extreme debilitation that she went through after that.

Last weekend we had little sections of corn on the cob, and Judi wondered out loud if Sunni would be able to eat one, after all that she's been through. I was adamant that she wouldn't. Judi wondered if maybe I was wrong. I was adamant that I wasn't. Judi said she would give Sunni an ear to try. I was adamant that she was making a mistake.

Of course I was wrong. Otherwise this would be a really boring post. :)

Pictorial evidence (clicking on any picture will open a larger view):

Getting Started

Getting started

Making Progress

Making good progress (Photo: Judi)

My Ear

This is my ear (Photo: Judi)


The finished ear (Photo: Judi)


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Haiku Very Special Tuesday

They've always had love.
Today, Californians
add duties and rights.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Haiku Tuesday, which also happens to be the day that Princess Sunni went back for her six-month checkup with her neurologist

A withering plant's
unexpected flowering
rains on our desert

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Monday, June 09, 2008

Of Beagles and Birthday Cakes

The few of you that read this blog regularly know that Judi's little beagle, Princess Sunni, was diagnosed with a brain tumor late last year. And you know that in January Sunni was doing so poorly that we didn't expect her to live until her birthday. But she surprised us and bounced back and last Friday, June 6th, the hard-charging little girl celebrated that twelfth birthday that we han't expected her to see.

The weekend before that, Judi had said to me, "I want a special birthday cake that's a sunshine face [for Sunni] wearing a princess hat [because she's a Princess]. Do you think [NAME OF GROCERY STORE CHAIN REDACTED] can even make a custom cake like that, and do a good job?"

Now, there's a woman I work with (Maggie) who bakes custom cakes as a business on the side. I've seen some of her cakes, and they're terrific. So I answered, "You want a custom cake? And a good job? Maggie's the girl for you!"

So I called Maggie at home, and she agreed to bake the cake.

Last Friday morning was Sunni's birthday, and Judi and I went to pick up the cake. I was experiencing some trepidation... well, no, that's not true: I was flat-out terrified. Terrified because I had recommended Maggie so highly, and this birthday celebration with this extra special cake meant so much to Judi, and if Maggie didn't come through Judi would be crushed.

We got to Maggie's house....

We went in....

We saw the cake....

And Judi was thrilled. I was stunned. The cake was unbelievable:

The unbelievable cake

Photo: Judi

View from an angle

The "rays", by the way, are edible. And did you notice how she wrote "Happy Birthday Sunni" across the front of the cake -- a vertical surface? You can click on any of the pictures to see a larger version, and if you click on the second one you will be able to easily see the different texturing on the frosting on the hat and the sunshine.

And here are Princess Sunni, and her sister Skye, enjoying their awesome birthday cake. It was a carrot cake with cream cheese frosting, of course, because that's Sunni's favorite:

Princess Sunni and Skye eating cake

Photo: Judi

Judi said the cake was so perfect that it broke her heart to cut into it. If you want a few more pictures, click here and then click on "Princess Sunni Turns Twelve."

P.S. If you live in Central Florida and you'd like to talk to Maggie about possibility making a cake for you, send me a message. There's a link over to the right for you to do that.


Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Haiku Tuesday

We are, each of us,
Superheroes. In
tights, we fight, we soar.


Monday, June 02, 2008

Regular Expressions is your friend

I tell myself this.

Over and over.

I don't believe it... and yet, like Moses on the mountaintop, I may have reached a point where, in the distance, on the horizon, like a spark in a humid haze, I might be able to see that there is, in fact, a place where regex is, indeed, my friend.

And, like a grounded ship feeling a swirl of water under a keel that has for so long known only mud, I am lifted by hope.

Maybe Regular Expressions can be my friend....

(If you have no idea what I'm talking about, count yourself lucky, and forget about it.)


Sunday, June 01, 2008

Underdogishere's Third Annual Welcome to Hurricane Season

Here we are, once again celebrating the first day of Hurricane Season, and here on this blog we have an annual tradition: The Renaming of the Storms. It started two years ago when I explained how boring the official method of naming storms is, and proposed that each year we have, instead, a new set of names following a common theme. In 2006 I proposed the Season of Cheeses. The tradition continued last year with the Season of Greek Gods. I think it was a great success.

This year I humbly suggest a Season of Flowers. There's something appealing incongruous about naming terrible storms after beautiful, colorful, and delicate plants. Here ya go, the tropical storm names for the 2008 season:
Amaryllis, Buttercup, Columbine, Dahlia, Everlasting, Foxglove, Gladiolus, Hydrangea, Iris, Jessamine, Kennedia, Lilac, Milkweed, Nosegay, Oleander, Poinsettia, Quince, Sunflower, Tulip, Violet, Waxflower, Yew, Zephyranth
I could not find any flower names starting with U or X, and, honestly, I wasn't thrilled with what I had to settle for for the letter K, but on the other hand I love Buttercup and Sunflower. Lilac is a tip to my deceased mother -- it was her favorite flower. And Nosegay played an important role in a Nero Wolfe mystery. Yikes!

I hope everyone has a happy and safe Hurricane Season this year!

P.S. And welcome to Tropical Storm Amaryllis (aka Arthur), ushering in the new season over the Yucatan Peninsular today.

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