Our Crazy English Language

The following has been making the rounds on Tumblr, and I wish I could determine the source to give due credit. It’s been shared so many times that it’s essentially a part of the web now.

Let’s face it – English is a crazy language. There is no egg in eggplant nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins weren’t invented in England or French fries in France. Sweetmeats are candies while sweetbreads, which aren’t sweet, are meat. We take English for granted. But if we explore its paradoxes, we find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.

And why is it that writers write but fingers don’t fing, grocers don’t groce and hammers don’t ham? If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn’t the plural of booth beeth? One goose, 2 geese. So one moose, 2 meese? One index, 2 indices? Doesn’t it seem crazy that you can make amends but not one amend? If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it?

If teachers taught, why didn’t preachers praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat? In what language do people recite at a play and play at a recital? Ship by truck and send cargo by ship? Have noses that run and feet that smell? How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and a wise guy are opposites?

You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language in which your house can burn up as it burns down, in which you fill in a form by filling it out and in which an alarm goes off by going on. English was invented by people, not computers, and it reflects the creativity of the human race (which, of course, isn’t a race at all). That is why, when the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible.

Why Daylight Saving Time is Pointless

Personally, I don’t mind having an extra hour or so in the day, considering that the sun is rising earlier and setting later anyway. But for obvious reasons – namely a disruption of sleep – a lot of people disagree. Gizmodo lists its own reasons as to why DST is dated and causes more trouble than it’s worth. I guess being insomniatic makes me somewhat bias in its favor!

Also, it was British-born New Zealander George Vernon Hudson who first advocated that we move our clocks forward one hour in advance, back in 1895. He too wanted to squeeze more out of the day, since his work as an entomologist required more daylight (he collected bugs). Englishman William Willett is also credited with being the first to promote the practice, for similar reasons. Guess our obsession with trying to make more time in the day is hardly a new one. I wonder what other innovations we’ll come up with to that end.

Read more about the history of DST here, or some little-known facts and misconceptions here. Hope those of you living in DST-practicing regions are adjusting well.

Happy Valentine’s Day

Remember only this of our hopeless love
That never till Time is done
Will the fire of the heart and the fire of the mind be one.
~Edith Sitwell

In many countries, such as Finland and Estonia, Valentine’s Day is actually called “Friend’s Day,” and it is a time to celebrate all of your loved ones, romantic or otherwise. After several years of solitude (not all of it voluntary), I’m very grateful for having an exceptional person like Vivian in my life. But I also take this occasion to rejoice in all the wonderful people who have enriched my life. Cheers to all of you, from pleasant acquaintances to trusted confidants, for making my life so much better! I wish the best of luck to all your current – and still pending – relationships!

It’s still disputed as to where the traditional “heart shape” came from. One suggestion is that it’s based on the seed of the silphium plant, which was used in ancient times as an herbal contraceptive. Another suggestion is that it represents the features of the human female body, such as an idealized female buttocks, vaginal area, or a spread vulva. Less erotically, it could also be derived from the shape made by swans necks during their courting ritual.

Interestingly, the inverted heart symbol has sometimes been used in medieval heraldry to represent stylized testicles, too.

As for the origins, like most Western holidays, Valentine’s Day has its origins in Christianity, namely the Catholic Church. And like most holidays, its link to the past—namely to its origins—is tenuous and mostly mysterious. The term Valentine, in its original Latin Valentinus, derives from the key word Valens, meaning ‘worthy.’ It was a relatively popular name among in olden times, including with Saints. The Church, however, had at least a dozen St. Valentines that it officially recognized until 1969, when he probably figured they could stand to shed a few. The men associated with the date February 14th, Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Temi, were martyred for their faith but beyond that neither had any known romantic element in their lives or death. It would seem that like most holidays, namely Halloween and Christmas, the various traditions and themes associated with Valentine’s Day would turn out to be Industrial-era additions added either for commercial reasons or even for the very hell of it.

However, during my research I came upon one possible lead: the Legenda Sanctorum, also known as the Legenda Aurea: the Golden Legend. Though it sounds like some Lovecraftian occult tome, it is actually an embellished collection of hagiographies: biographies of Saints, written around the year 1260 and added upon much in following years. Now to be honest, it’s inconclusive how factual this may have been and it could very well be made up, but it makes for an interesting and compelling story (besides, most holiday myths are, well, just that!).

Anyway, in it, there is mention of another St. Valentine whose full name is unknown. He lived during the short reign of Roman Emperor Claudius II, around the third century AD. Apparently, Claudius II issued a decree banning young men from marrying, believing that doing so would bolster the ranks of his army since he felt single men made better and more willing soldiers, i.e. they don’t have a family to live for so it makes for fearlessness, so his logic apparently goes. Valentine, then a priest – Rome was gradually becoming Christianized – ignored the law for the sake of love and arranged marriages for young men in secret.

When this was found out, he was arrested, thrown in jail, and sentenced to death. During this time, it was said he remained a loving and patient man, even trying to convert Claudius to Christianity – though it failed, and by some accounts led him to finally be executed. He also befriended and fell in love with the jailer’s daughter, who by some accounts was blind until he healed her. The day he was to be executed, February 14th, he wrote a letter to her, professing all his love and admiration…and it began with the famous words: “From your Valentine…”

Another origin story for Valentine’s Day involves the Christianization of the Greco-Roman festival known as Lupercalia, an ancient pagan holiday celebrated around February 14th or so. It supposedly involved either fertility, shepherds, or  both.

You can read more about the origin’s from the History Channel’s website. Either way, I wish you a happy one, whatever it means to you.

Wikipedia

Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing.

— Jimmy Wales, Founder of Wikipedia 

Most of my friends know me to be a very strong “wiki aficionado”, to put it lightly. I’m quite obsessed with the site, and I lose countless hours traversing its seemingly endless sum of information, ranging from the mundane and obscure, to the profound and fundamental. I’ll freely admit that “wiki-ing” is basically a hobby of mine, and I credit this unique and wonderful site with teaching me a lot, or at least pointing me to the right place to do so. Despite popular belief, most articles have references and external links to relevant sources, and those that are sufficiently cited are identified as such to readers; also, pages with a bronze star at the upper-right corner are indicated as high-quality by the site’s actually employees.
 
In any case, my love for Wikipedia is almost certainly unsurprising. I’m a knowledge junkie after all, so any site that can give me full and easy access to almost any topic imaginable is a godsend (needless to say, I have a Wiki App on my iPod touch to facilitate constant learning).  
 
In fact, I was a true believer in the site from the very beginning, back when it was an upstart that was largely disregarded by most of the public, especially those in academia, who derided it as inaccurate and unreliable. At best, it was a fun little curiosity or something to pass the time with. Throughout my college studies, I recall having an increasing number of professors explicitly forbid the use of Wikipedia as a source, and from what I hear, that position has only become more prevalent, to the extent that such a warning is now codified in most class syllabi. Of course, most people still utilized it anyway, opting to simply fact check its claims from conventional sources, or clicking on its linked references.
 
Granted, Wikipedia was certainly not the most dependable source out there, especially in the early years when supervision was lax and vandalism – or mere human error – was subsequently common (if not exaggerated in its extent). But there wasn’t anything else like it that was online or as accessible – and there still isn’t. For all its flaws, Wikipedia was the only source of its kind – an aggregate of as much human knowledge as possible, covering realms of data ranging from pop culture to metaphysics.
 
I knew Wikipedia wasn’t perfect (and still isn’t, despite vast improvements). But I also knew that such an ambitious project would, like any other, take a lot of time and work to see fruition. If not yet taken seriously as a source, it at least deserved some respect and support as an idea. As its founder’s quote attests, a world where human beings, with their increasing access to the web, can have near-universal access to everything we know is a beautiful one that must be promoted. Long-term users like me will notice that Wikipedia has come a long way, and deserves all the help it can get to continue improving.
 
The site has managed to become the 5th most visited on the web, with close to 500 million visitors and billions of page views monthly – all that popular dismissal notwithstanding (I suspect even critics give it a glance once in a while). Few people have never seen a Wiki entry, and doing any sort of Google search almost always lists one among the top recommendations. The site has managed to grow enough to encompass 283 languages and close to 20 million articles – all this with only 679 serves and 95 staff (for comparison, Google has a million servers and Yahoo has around 13,000 employees).
 
This is all the more impressive given that the entire project is a non-profit, dependent upon donations to sustain it: there is no fee or subscription, nor is there any advertising. The absence of these things makes the site more conducive to learning, yet leaves it without a revenue stream – hence the periodic fund drives that request contributions for the bare minimum of keeping operations going.
 
I honestly used to ignore the banners at the top of each page pleading for donations. I can’t say I had a good reason to, given my enjoyment of the site and my presumed inclination for charitable causes. But I made amends and decided to finally give what I could to a project that is dear to me. I know all this sounds like a propaganda piece, but I sincerely ask that readers to do their part and give what they can. As this blog attests, I’m passionate about the dispersal of knowledge and the advancing of human progress through education. Wikipedia has its work cut out for it, but at least its making a step in the right direction.
 

A Beautiful Skyscape of Space

For those who aren’t familiar with the term, a skyscape is simply a photographic or artistic depiction of the sky. I find it pleasing to say, since it it rolls of the tongue nicely; plus, I enjoy having “image of the sky” condensed into one conveniently word.

Anyway, I have long had a deep fascination with space and it’s related topics: space craft, telescopes, celestial bodies, images, and so on. It was one of my first interests as a child, and perhaps one of the longest held (I wanted to be an astronomer for a long time, and a telescope was at the top of my wish list for quite a few birthdays and Christmases).

Even though the humanities have largely become my dominant interest, I’ve never gotten over my love of science, especially as it pertains to the beauty of the universe. Images like the following, from Astronomy Picture of the Day, always reaffirm why.

The Mangaia's Milky Way

If you click the hyperlink, you’ll see the original photo and be able to click it for a larger view. It’s breathtakingly spectacular, especially when you think about your size and place relative to all those billions of planets and stars. This subject represents just one component of our single vast galaxy -i imagine the millions of other galaxies and all their billions of celestial objects. It’s mentally staggering to try to comprehend it.

The description of the picture, credited to amateur Turkish astronomer and night photographer Tunc Tezel, is as follows:

From Sagittarius to Carina, the Milky Way Galaxy shines in this dark night sky above planet Earth’s lush island paradise of Mangaia. Familiar to denizens of the southern hemisphere, the gorgeous skyscape includes the bulging galactic center at the upper left and bright stars Alpha and Beta Centauri just right of center. About 10 kilometers wide, volcanic Mangaia is the southern most of the Cook Islands. Geologists estimate that at 18 million years old it is the oldest island in the Pacific Ocean. Of course, the Milky Way is somewhat older, with the galaxy’s oldest stars estimated to be over 13 billion years old. (Editor’s note: This image holds the distinction of being selected as winner in the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition in the Earth and Space category.)

It must be quite a job to travel the world photographing space at it’s most gorgeous displays. The fact that Mr. Tezel had to travel to the relatively isolated Cook Islands (also beauties of nature) betrays a sad fact: thanks to light pollution, most of us could barely scratch the surface of what is contained in the great beyond. You have to go pretty out-of-the-way to see space in it’s full glory. I no doubt hope to do so someday (I never did get that telescope, but I certainly plan to).

If anyone is interested, the photographer has an online gallery with dozens of these kind of images captured from around the world (including some rare occurrences, such as meteor showers, occultations, and eclipses). It’s part of a larger collection from astronomers comprising the group, The World At Night (TWAN). It goes without saying that I definitely encourage you all to browse through it if you have the chance.