Friday, September 23, 2016

Friday Links!

From Eric Higgins-Freese, and it's unbelievable: Archaeologists Discover Perfectly Preserved 168-Year-Old Ship in the Arctic Ocean.

From David Yellope, and what an incredible story: Frankie Dettori: Jockey recalls 'Magnificent Seven' at Ascot 20 years on.

From Meg McReynolds, and this is quite amazing: Building a 13th-Century Castle in the 21st Century.

From Nate Carpenter, and I have no words: Like ‘rugby on horses’ with a decapitated goat: Inside first U.S. team at World Nomad Games.

From 3Suns, and this is incredible: Watch This F-16’s Autopilot Save an Unconscious Pilot’s Life.

Mike G. actually sent me a different link, but on the same page was this headline, and who could possibly pass this up? Witches Allegedly Stole Penises and Kept Them as Pets in the Middle Ages.

From Wally, and these always amaze me: THE AMAZING TRIPLE SPIRAL (15,000 DOMINOES).

From Guy Byars, and this is a fascinating and muddled story: After the Vietnam War, America Flew Planes Full of Babies Back to the U.S.

From C. Lee, and this is amazing: People born blind do math with their visual cortex. Next, and I hope they do a better job, than we do, it's Scientists develop official guidance on robot ethics. Next, and this is quite a read: Survival secret of 'Earth's hardiest animal' revealed.

From Wally, and these are remarkable images: Abandoned stadiums and crumbling arenas. This next link is NSFW and also very, very funny: Seanan's Epic Owl Adventure. If you're not paying attention in Burglar Training School, this is what happens: THIEF BREAKS INTO INDIO YMCA, STEALS FAKE CASH FROM TOY REGISTER.

From Steven Davis, and this is terrific: Magnus Carlsen - Felleskjøpet commercial. Next, and this is an interesting read, it's Why Do Tourists Visit Ancient Ruins Everywhere Except the United States?

Thursday, September 22, 2016


Friends take naps together.

George 11.3 couldn't quite get up onto his window seat anymore, so we looked around and got him what we call The Senior Seat, which has easy spots to climb up on.

I'd make some long post about Eli 15.1 starting to drive, but there's just no drama to be had. He's a very sensible, careful driver, although it's still very, very strange to see him on the other side of the front seat.

Produce (with a side dish of sarcasm)

"I got a bag of Michigan apples at the store," Gloria said, holding it up for my inspection.

"Let me smell,"I said, smelling. "Well, they do smell like apples. Son of a gun, Michigan really does it right!"

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Why? (your e-mail, Part Three)

Steven Davis sent in a link to the history of Hangul (the Korean alphabet), and it's entirely fascinating: Hangul. Of particular note is this excerpt:
In explaining the need for the new script, King Sejong explained that the Korean language was fundamentally different from Chinese; using Chinese characters (known as hanja) to write was so difficult for the common people that only privileged aristocrats (yangban, 양반) could read and write fluently. The majority of Koreans were effectively illiterate before the invention of Hangul.

Hangul was designed so that even a commoner could learn to read and write; the Haerye says "A wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days."

That's very, very forward thinking for a ruler in the 15th century.

Brian Witte sent in a link to Quipu, Here's his description:
Quipu were a system of knotted and braided cords used for record keeping in one of the largest empires (Incas) the world has ever seen.  Most of the quipu were burned by the Spanish and their knowledge suppressed.  A few survive, though, and modern scholars think the information density in them is sufficient to be fully-fledged written language.  In other words, they may have recorded more than just types and tallies: poems and songs recorded with knots and twists (although there is no proven link between spoken language and the quipu).

They are enormously beautiful and staggering dense, as you can see here: Quipu.

Evan S. sent along an excellent read on the evolution of writing, which is titled--hmm--The Evolution of Writing. It's fairly wonky and extremely interesting, including discussing tokens as a precursor to writing.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Why? (your e-mail, Part Two)

Today we'll hear from David about a sub-topic--specifically, Japanese. He says English is not his native language, but his written English is very strong and much better than he would have you believe.


First, let me apologize for the English I am about to write, as this is far from being my native language.

About your recent post questioning why so many various writing systems exist, I’ll just tell you in a short form about the Japanese one, as it is quite recent and although Japanese history, even the most recent, is a matter darker than what constitutes a black hole, the genesis of the Japanese writing system seems to be quite documented.

To sum it up, the Japanese didn’t have (as far as is known) a way to write their syllabic language until Buddhist religion came to them through their exchange with the Chinese Empire. For some time, they even preferred to use Chinese. As is often the case, the religious cast is the literate one, and while being versed in the Chinese Buddhist literature, they started using logograms to represent the Japanese sounds (this is very important: they didn’t use them for their graphical meaning, though it can’t be ignored the Japanese scholars enjoyed resorting to double-entente). The sad part is that any religious person would use their favourite pick in the Chinese array: the results weren’t very intelligible, and to this day, those early Japanese texts are still open to interpretation as to how they should be read vocally, or even what they might mean more deeply.

A first normalization came, appointing a first try at standardizing the reading by selecting a few logograms for each syllable. Logograms are not mere pictures, but are simplification of pictures consisting of multiple parts called "keys" (you could almost say the « keys" are almost like the letters forming an ideogram word, to simplify it). By using such a single selected part from the logogram, the writing was simplified into what is known as the Katakana syllabary (still used today to write mostly foreign or scientific words). The Hiragana, the other Japanese syllabary, is a very cursive form of writing of those logograms as well, that was at first to be used by women and is now the standard writing system.

All this is estimated to have happened over roughly five centuries, in the latter half of the first millennium of our era.

Here comes the tricky part: logograms became also injected back into the modern Japanese language. Some words, purely Japanese or of Chinese Influence, can be written using single or combination of the Kanji, which actually simplifies the reading - especially in a language with so much homonymy. Those Kanji or combination of Kanji oftentimes make sense on their own, allowing you to get an idea or even understand what is meant without strictly knowing the word (the way the Greek-Latin etymology can help you with Romance languages). Some of those choices can be quite arbitrary too. Etymology of the Japanese words is a very tricky matter ironically, made even more complicate with the various writing forms and their evolution, and I won’t divulge more into this aspect. Baring exceptions or short sentences such as warning signs, you can’t make proper sentences using only Kanji; the grammar forms of the Japanese sentence are all tied to the Kana syllabary, and many, many words are written using those as well.

There is no limit to upper Kanji usage per se, although the American-sponsored post-war constitution put a limit to the number of « regular » ones : 1945 (sic) at first, 2100-something nowadays, but you’ll become familiar with much more than that becoming fluent in the Japanese language.

Some think the Japanese writing originated to become the purest form of Buddhist writing. It was to boot both Chinese and Sanskrit out of their league (there are even some interesting, although mostly remote, ties between Sanskrit and Japanese language).

Anyway, I carefully avoided the Chinese Elephant in the room, and while this doesn’t resolve the huge split in languages and why we don’t all draw side views of angular nosed dudes instead of our silly letters, I hope this might be of a little help as to where the particular and peculiar Japanese writing form is coming from. The Japanese language is fascinating, almost philosophically so: the split in its speech and written form feeling almost like the classical Soul and Body one. It might explain why it owes so much to the Chinese language, while being absolutely distinct from it.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Why? (your e-mail, Part One)

It's "Why?" week here at DQ, where you guys answer the question I posed last Wednesday about the development of written languages.

This is a beautifully written and thoughtful e-mail from C. Lee, who has sent me many such e-mails over the years and continually amazes me with the clarity and precision of his thought. So here's C. Lee, and we're all the better for it, I think.


My short answer would be “A series of historical and geographical accidents.” My longer answer would be “It depended on the people supplying the culture to the empire that did the conquering and also on whether that empire lasted long enough to impress its writing system on the people it conquered.”

So as H.G. Wells pointed out in his “Outline of History,” (what follows is largely from Wells) most writing systems started out as picture-writing, as we can see with Native Americans, Bushmen, etc. Egyptian hieroglyphs, of course, began as pictograms, as did Chinese writing. Those pictograms eventually became ideograms, in which combinations of drawings depicted certain concepts (i.e., “tongue” and “words” combine to make an ideogram meaning “speech.”) The Chinese also used combinations of the pictograms and ideograms to make phonograms, in which a particular symbol could express concepts not so easily drawn as others, but which shared the same sound as something else – a kind of homonym, in other words.

In Sumer, writing also developed as pictograms, ideograms, and phonograms. But the Sumerian language happened to contain a lot of polysyllabic words, each made up of distinct syllables that were themselves the names of concrete things. So Sumerian writing evolved into a syllabary, in which each symbol depicted not consonants and vowels, as in our alphabet, but particular combinations of consonants and vowels, such as “ha” or “he.” (Japan’s native writing system, hiragana, which was derived from Chinese characters, is also a syllabary.) The Sumerian syllabary formed the basis of writing for the Semitic empires that conquered Sumer, such as the Assyrians and Chaldeans.

In Egypt and the Mediterranean, again, pictograms led to ideograms and phonograms. But the hieroglyphs we know came to be used for official matters like monuments and the like, whereas the Egyptian priests used a simplified version of hieroglyphs for mundane matters like letter writing and recipe writing called hieratic script. Another hieroglyph-derived simplified script was taken over by various non-Egyptian people in the Mediterranean, like the Phoenicians, Libyans, Lydians and Cretans, and that third script was used for business purposes.

In the hands of these foreigners, the writing system was cut off from its linguistic roots, losing all but a few traces of its original pictorial, ideographic nature, and becoming a purely sound-sign system, which is to say, an alphabet. For a people that traded with both the Egyptians to their west and the Sumerians or successor empires to their east, having your own writing system was particularly useful. If you had something flexible enough to depict the sounds of the Egyptian and Sumerian languages, then you could avoid having to learn to write in both Egyptian and Sumerian – two completely incompatible writing systems -- and save a lot of work. So to make a strained comparison, let’s say I developed a computer to translate between English and Chinese. The computer itself uses a machine language based on binary numbers; that intermediary language, which can depict both English and Chinese with equal ease, is analogous to an alphabet.

So we might speculate that an alphabet is likely to arise a) when a people hasn’t developed their own writing system and b) when they need to converse in a variety of highly different and incompatible foreign languages. Of course, there are other reasons you might want to create an alphabet. For example, a people might find that a writing system adopted from a neighbor is incapable of depicting the various sounds of their own spoken language; such a people would then naturally want a more flexible script, which would point toward an alphabet. Another motivation is the difficulty of learning to read and write a language with thousands of symbols, like Chinese. The relative ease of learning an alphabet is highly attractive to a government seeking to expand literacy among its people.

So back to the Phoenician alphabet, which was adopted by the Greeks long after they had conceived the Iliad; it was that script and derivations thereof that they used to set it down. A further derivation of that script eventually was adopted by the Etruscans, who adapted it for their uses, and then the Romans adopted/adapted that Etruscan script, which became the Latin alphabet they carried everywhere they conquered in later centuries. Because the culture that fed into the Romans used an alphabet, that was the writing system that the Romans transmitted throughout Europe, and that’s why the languages derived from Latin, including English, all use alphabets.

So back to Asia. In India, there was a kind of syllabary called Brahmi script whose origins are now the subject of speculation. Many people think it derived from the Phoenician alphabet, or some descendant thereof, like Aramaic. This became an alphabet called Brahmic script, which eventually became the basis for a number of alphabets/syllabaries, including the one used in Tibet.

As it happens, the two conditions I mentioned before for creating an alphabet were met by the Mongols, who had conquered an enormous empire full of a Babel of languages. The Mongols didn’t have their own writing system before they set out to conquer, and they also needed to communicate with a vast range of incompatible foreign languages. The Mongols had tried adopting a number of writing systems, including Chinese and an Uighur alphabet, but neither was flexible enough to capture the sounds of the Mongolian language. Kublai Khan therefore assigned a Tibetan monk, Drogon Chogyal Phagpa, to design a unified script able to recreate the sounds of both Mongolian and Chinese. Phagpa used his native Tibetan alphabet as the basis for the 38-letter Phags-pa script that was derived from his name.

It was Phags-pa script that’s believed to have been the basis for the only alphabet that arose in East Asia, which was the 40-letter Korean Hangul script. (Japanese, as I mentioned earlier, is a syllabary.) Until that point, Koreans had been using Chinese characters for writing, but like the Mongols found that it was unsatisfactory for depicting the sounds of the Korean language. In the 1400s, a king named Sejong assigned a bunch of scholars to create a Korean script; since the Koreans, having been conquered by the Mongols, were familiar with Phags-pa, it’s likely that they used it as the basis for Hangul. Another reason Sejong ordered the new script was because Chinese script was so difficult to learn that common people couldn’t read. (This was a condition that also held true in China until the 20th century, when the Communists vastly simplified the writing system, as the Japan Times article mentioned.)

As it happens, the Mongol Empire was relatively ephemeral, and quickly broke up into separate Khanates. Because the Mongols were not under central rule for long, Phags-pa never had a chance to supplant the native writing systems of the various conquered peoples, and the Mongols on the spot tended simply to adopt the writing systems of their particular land before eventually being overthrown. The people in China, in particular, who threw off the Mongol yoke and eventually became the Ming Dynasty, were highly nationalistic and made a fetish of going back to traditional Han Chinese ways and culture, and getting rid of Mongol-imposed things, including Phags-pa.

It’s at this point that we might wonder how history might have changed had China at this point adopted Phags-pa instead and ditched their thousands of characters – a psychological improbability, it’s true, but still. Would it have meant greater literacy in China? A flowering of education and knowledge like the Northern Renaissance in Europe that was fueled by the printing press? (Note that China had printing presses for many years before Gutenberg, but that the difficulty of learning Chinese script meant no such flowering of reading occurred there among the common people.)

Then again, we can look at Korea, which had both an alphabet and printing presses, and which did, in fact, experience a flowering of learning and technological development under Sejong. But Korea was a highly caste-riven country in which the aristocracy valued Chinese culture and clung to Chinese characters and China’s literature-based Confucian educational system. That Confucian-derived education produced people highly suspicious of the corrupting influence of money and contemptuous of mercantile activities, which were not encouraged. That, in turn, meant that the money to fund learning all came from a single source: the royal court. Sadly, Sejong’s later successors were nowhere near as interested in innovation as he was (and to be fair, they may simply have been short of money, which had to be wrung out of Korea’s long-suffering peasants in taxes, a large chunk of which was going to whichever dynasty was ruling China as tribute). So we find that Korea, after being mauled by Hideyoshi Toyotomi’s 16th century invasions, sank into isolationism and stagnation. It may be that even with the adoption of Phags-pa, any Renaissance in China would have been short-lived. And yet, I can’t help but wonder, what if it hadn’t? I can’t say whether the world would have been better or worse, but it definitely would have been different.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Friday Links!

This is a long and absolutely tremendous read, in addition to being a remarkable piece of investigative journalism: FRAMED: She was the PTA Mom everyone knew. Who would want to harm her?

This is a fascinating read, but be warned, it's a 9/11 story and it's difficult: The Falling Man An unforgettable story.

And one more: 'Freaks on the peaks': the lonely lives of the last remaining forest fire lookouts.

From C. Lee, and this is quite an excellent rabbit hole: Can Japanese speakers really read Chinese? It depends on what you mean by ‘read’.

Colin S. sent this in, and it's hilarious: The Unnamable Unimaginable Thing In My Basement. And here's one more: Epiphany Continuum Sketch. Good grief, these guys are very, very funny: Burnistoun's Got Talent. The show is called "Burnistoun", and it's on BBC.

From Steven Davis, and man, this is disgraceful: Sugar industry secretly paid for favorable Harvard research. Next, and boy, this is so enjoyable: Bugs Bunny - The Origins of an American Icon. This is utterly fascinating: The Secret World of Foley.

From Wally, and this sounds like a dream: Meet Earl, the Gatekeeper to Paradise. This is absolutely astonishing: Worlds First Flat-Pack Truck. Interesting and overdue: Science makes first study of know-it-all internet commenters. This sounds like fun: House on the Rock Could Be the Oddest Place in the World. This is a worthwhile award: Carbuncle Cup: London luxury tower crowned UK's worst building. Next, and this is bizarre: Microbial matter comes out of the dark. This is remarkably thoughtful and revealing: How To Be Perfectly Unhappy. I'd never even heard of this, but it's a good read: Russia's Pearl Harbor: The Battle of Port Arthur.

From Chris Meadowcraft, and this will blow your mind: Researchers prototype system for reading closed books: New method identifies letters printed on first 9 pages of a stack.

From Phil, and this answers some questions: After Edward Snowden Fled U.S., Asylum Seekers in Hong Kong Took Him In.

From Chris Pencis, and this is just ridiculously funny: Yma Dream.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Stories (Eli 15.1)

I received so many interesting e-mails about language that I'm going to put them up over several days next week, but it's going to take a bit of time to organize and sort.

In the meantime, here are two stories from yesterday.

Everyone in Eli 15.1s school district is within 10 minutes (at most) of the school, and it's open campus for lunch (one hour), so lots of kids eat at each other's houses. We were on our way to practice when this conversation started.

"Hey, I'm having lunch at Sarah's house tomorrow," he said.

"Who's Sarah?"

"She's a junior," he said. "Really nice."

"Okay, sounds good," I said.

We drove along for a few minutes.

"So, about this lunch," I said. "Her mom or dad is going to be at home, right?"

He laughed.

"Of course!" he said. "What are you thinking?"

"I remember being fifteen," I said.

"Last century," he said.

"Fair point," I said. "I just didn't want you in a situation where you had to say 'Put that back in your shirt and where is your mother?' "

Eli started laughing so hard that he was shaking. This went on for a very long time. Finally, he came up for air.

"Somehow the way you said that--," he said, then started laughing again.

"It's my job," I said.

On the way home from practice, we started up again.

"I can't believe how much better I've gotten since we've moved up here," he said. "I can feel it."

"Hockey-rich environment," I said. "You were right about not wanting to go to Dallas because it was still Hockey Island. Hockey Mainland was a very, very smart decision."

"I don't know how it could have worked out any better," he said. "I love it here."

"So do I," I said. "We were very lucky, and you were very good. You're still in the pool, and it's getting smaller every year."

"It is," he said. "Especially this year."

"And what did you do this week on your one day off?" I asked. "You came in and did a hard workout with Chuck. If you hadn't done that, you would have wanted a private lesson with Joe."

"True," he said.

"There are still kids ahead of you out there, but you know what I'd say to all of them?"

"What?" he said.

"Objects in mirror are larger than they appear," I said.

He digested that for a few seconds, then his face lit up.

"Oh man, that's perfect!" he said.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016


For today and tomorrow, I'm going to have a discussion about one topic. This is an interactive discussion, like most things here, so please send me your ideas and input.

The Roman alphabet, in its final form, contains 26 letters. Earlier versions contained 21-23 letters.

The Arabic alphabet contains 28 letters.

The Hindi alphabet has 58 letters (because it must represent Sanskrit as well, according to Wikipedia).

That all seems somewhat consistent.

Well, it does until we consider Kanji.

Kanji has over 2,000 characters. There are so many characters that there is no real agreement on the total number.

Written Chinese has over 50,000 characters; for general literacy, a subset of 4,000 must be learned.

Written Chinese and Kanji use logograms, and use written characters to represent words or phrases (again, according to Wikipedia). This is in contrast to languages that use alphabets, because the letters represent sounds, while logographic languages use characters to represent concepts.


Why did these two forms of representing language emerge separately? It's a vast conceptual difference, using letters as sounds or using characters as concepts. Why would one part of the world develop such incredibly distinct writings systems from another?

The world is enormous, and differences are natural, but this is difference on a galactic scale.

Our Real Lives And Deaths

This is a compelling and unsettling feature from RPS that I highly recommend:
Diary: Our Real Lives And Deaths Across The Globe.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016


Some gasket-type thing on our dishwasher lost its seal, and a bit of water got on the kitchen floor, so it's out of commission until we can get a gasket-type repairman.

Gloria brought out lunch today for Eli 15.1 (who now lives five minutes from school, so lunch at home is entirely feasible), and when she did, she brought over a red plastic cup.

"What is that?" I asked.

"It's fruit," she said.

"Innovation!" I said. "No bowl to wash. Can use a drinking-type motion to eat fruit."

"No, it's just that the dishwasher's broken," she said.

"I disagree," I said. "This is a breakthrough in zero-footprint fruit consumption and water conservation!"


At times, I like to have a little cheddar cheese.

"Do we have any cheese cubes?" I asked. I was standing in the kitchen, crackers in hand.

"No, but there's cheese in the fridge," Gloria said.

"Could we buy some cubed cheese?" I asked. "I enjoy cheese, but I'd like to get out of the cheese production business."

"Oh my god," Gloria said.

Eli 15.1 burst out laughing. "Oh, Dad," he said.

"I'm more of a consumer than a producer," I said. "Although if you can buy some metal device where I could press down on the cheese block once and cube it, that would also work."

Eli was still laughing.

"I guess I just want to get out of the single cheese cube production business," I said.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Welcome: Your Number Is Infinite


I went to the Social Security office last week to get a new Social Security card. It's a critical part of my long-term plan to fake my own death and retire to the island haven of Mercs and Bacos.

A Social Security office is a troubling melting pot of everything. If anything makes you uncomfortable, rest assured that you will find it in a Social Security Office waiting room.

You see both touching and troubling things here: a young Japanese man so hip that he looked like he walked off a Matrix movie set, assisting his resolutely unhip father, who was dressed in crisp old man attire: khakis, zippered cloth jacket, baseball hat, white sneakers.

That was touching.

I will leave out the troubling things; we have enough troubling things already.

The waiting room was a civilized riot, essentially, with everyone talking at once, then everyone talking over each other, escalate and repeat. This is Michigan, though, and everyone was nice, even as the wait grew and I became at least slightly claustrophobic in a small waiting room with at least sixty other people. It was a bit nervous for me, given that I consider three people a crowd.

Plus, there were smells.

All those people in a small space smell differently, and I am exceptionally sensitive to smells. There are even foods I quite enjoy that I never ask Gloria to cook because I can't stand the smell of their preparation.

So I was very uncomfortable, through no one's fault but my own, and when they mercifully called my number, I felt a palpable sense of relief.

I walked around the exit corridor of the waiting area and found my assigned window to be the very first one off the main lobby.

I stepped into a different world.

There was just a man sitting at a desk, dividers separating his window from invisible others, everything receding into darkness behind him. It was utterly calm; somehow, none of the noise made it around the corner. He was serene, and I wondered how the professional path from the lobby to this peaceful pocket world operated.

I began to feel like this man and his small desk were floating somewhere in the darkness of space, where customers walked out of the darkness, then returned. An office of one, somewhere in the galaxy.

I transacted my brief business and left, but the image stayed with me.

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