Sunday, 20 June 2010

Big words

While I was out and about I was surprised to see the word humongous on an advertising poster. I always thought it was one of those made up words. It also reminded me of an admonishment from one of my school English teachers about the word ginormous. I decided to settle this once and for all. Off to the OED.

First up: humongous. I'd always thought it ought to be "humungous" with a second "u" (I didn't think people knew the u-sounding o thing any more). Turns out the former is the original US slang. And the word only dates to 1970.

Ginormous is also in there, naturally given as the contraction of gigantic and enormous. The surprise is that it is dated back to 1948. Modern slang in the big scheme of things but quite a lot older than I might have expected. And older than humongous. Score one against the English teachers.

Even more interesting to me, however, was looking at the etymology of humongous - of uncertain origin but influenced by hugeous. Hugeous? A word but a hyperlink away. Given as equivalent to huge, dating back to 1529. Still current (i.e. not listed as obsolete) and I think worth a revival.

As a by the way, meaning in all cases is as expected: "extremely large, excessive in size". Ginormous also has the extra: especially in comparison with one's expectations.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

From here to way over there

Several years ago I attended a conference lecture by the then head of DHL's It infrastructure. I won't go into the details of computer systems discussed but he had a really interesting observation about international mail, especially packages. The point was that email was heralded as the death of regular mail, as nobody would need to send physical mail. DHL actually saw business boom. Why? Well with more people communicating with each other, especially internationally, they had more reason to send each other packages, documents etc. He reckoned they kept Concord flying just on the banking business papers DHL shipped.

As much as the Internet has enabled global communication and reduced the distance between people, so too has the improvement of postal services supported the growth of e-commerce. Expensive courier package services have been around for a long time (DHL, UPS, FedEx etc) with direct, point-to-point shipment. And they're good. A couple of weeks ago I got a package from Europe by DHL and knew by the minute where it was as it flew over-night on a Sunday to get to me.

But the service that impresses me is EMS, organised by the Universal Postal Union. This is one of those international agreements, and United Nations agencies, that doesn't seem to get much publicity but is quietly getting on with the job.

For example, I currently have a package en-route from Canada to here in the Philippines via EMS. CanadaPost gives me a tracking number and via their website I (and the guy who sent it to me) can follow it all the way to my door (currently stuck in customs). Gone are the days of vague international mail, unsure of location, duration or delivery. No more losing track as your mail crosses borders. The reciprocal nature of the cooperative also means that I could ship something back with similar reliability. Globalization and global agreements can work.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Everyone's an expert, noone is

I love the Internet, it's become like a second home to me. For an information junkie like myself who loves to learn stuff, it's the best thing that ever happened. Any time I get curious, or wonder why or have a nagging question in the back of my mind, five minutes of searching and my curiosity is nicely satisfied. And as it's so easy, you'd have thought that everyone would be doing it. education would never have been so good.

But the reality is rather different.

In the first point, there is the well known phenomenon of like minds congregating - intellectual birds of a feather. We like to associate with, read and listen to those whose opinions match our own. It seems to be basic human nature. And it has been noted in politics that trying to refute an opposing opinion can actual entrench the opposition rather than win them around. Balanced opinion forming doesn't seem to be a strong human characteristic but in some ways I can understand such behaviour.

Developing on from that behaviour, however, is the curious Internet phenomenon of the forum experts. (I pick on forums as it seems to be the worst meeting house for such people as I shall describe.) On the one hand, there are genuinely informed people in all areas of human knowledge, true experts and those who just know their field better. working in a technical environment, I encounter them on a regular basis. And having some technical knowledge, I can spot them in other related fields. I have hobbies that involve technical equipment, and I can see how the principles of my profession apply in those fields. I either know what I'm talking about or can spot those who do.

So why is it that forums abound with ignorant nay-sayers (that being ignorant in the true sense of being uniformed, not unintelligent)? Up pops a technical wise-man to dispel myths, expound facts, explain the principles. And from the woodwork jump the anecdotalists with apparent first hand experience (usually irrelevant) to shoot down the facts. Or pitch in pointless opinions. And gather a crowd of supporters.

What happened to checking the facts, admitting ignorance and apologising for failure. In a world of near limitless access to learning, people still wallow in ignorance. Why is that? I'd love to see the research material on why most people would rather not learn anything beyond the minimum to function. It seems true intellectual curiosity, desire to learn and dissatisfaction with not knowing are rare traits. Much is touted of the ability of technology to bring people and knowledge closer together and yet it's the flames of ignorance that attract the most moths. What's the psychology of that behaviour? I can never understand why others don't wish to learn new things but maybe that's because I do.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

The breeding of a nation

A lot of links in this one - largely to Wikipedia as a good first stop for general information but not necessarily my only source of learning, just convenient.

I've been enjoying the recent Caedmon posts (part I, II, III)over at the ever-interesting Idiotic Hat. That lead to me commenting as much on this interlude post. The response I got referring to Celts intrigued me. I wasn't just thinking of the English when suggesting that the Anglo-Saxon period (generally that from the end of the Roman occupation of Britain around AD400 until the Norman Conquest in 1066) set the defining characteristics of the British. And just how separate are the Celts anyway?

The trouble with defining British, English or any other defining national characteristic is that we're really a mongrel horde. Even if we only consider the period from the Roman invasion (the AD dates), there is a mass of immigration, conquest, occupation, inter-marriage. The Romans were really a motley of absorbed foreign legions, promoted locals and a few long-distance postings. They seemed to mix with the various local groups in England.

On Roman departure, there are arrivals & movements of Angles, Saxons, Celts, Norse (roughly grouping the Scandinavians). Then the Normans (a sort of French-Viking mix) and, much later, French and German influences. Not to mention modern immigration.

So exactly which makes British? All of them, I suppose. A development of behaviours, culture, language which all go to making what we consider our national characteristics. Things stolen and
absorbed from many sources. It's why I love the English language so, the idiosyncrasies that lend it power of expression. And much the same with our culture.

So what of the Celts? Well, the modern idea of the Celt as the warrior type, distinct in culture is largely a modern myth. As are many of our views of ourselves as nations - colourful creations of lineage and cultural tradition to foster certain sense of identity. And yet the truth is so much more exciting, I think.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Le Chatelier for sociologists

Le Chatelier's principle is a useful expression of equilibrium in chemistry. It was probably the most important thing I learnt in A-level (high-school) chemistry. Briefly put it explains how equilibrium systems react to change - in effect any system tends to respond to oppose the change imposed on it.

I won't bore the non-science types any further (go read the link) but I was thinking that this basic idea can also be applied to human behaviour and is, in part, linked to the Law of Unintended Consequences. Something politicians, and others who would impose their views on others, could do well to think about.

Whenever we get new laws, decrees, taxes, doctrine, there is a reaction that tends to resist. Raise taxes and tax avoidance and evasion go up. Start cracking down on one crime and the criminals try something else. impose a new speed limit (or worse, a speed camera) and drivers find another route. Societal response is never as cut and dried as those who study it might have use believe. It leads me to have an instinctive skeptical response to anyone who tries to frame such issues in black-white, yes-no terms. It's not that easy and the choices are difficult.

In the end, I want more careful thought from those making the decisions. Weigh up the alternatives, the benefits, the consequences. And realise you'll never achieve the benefits you hope.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Why bother voting?

Election fever is all around me. The UK (home) goes to the polls on 6th May, the Philippines (where I'm living) on 10th May. Electioneering all around. News, commentary etc and so forth.

And once again I'm not bothering to vote. Haven't done in years. In the past it was largely because political decisions back in the UK affected me very little. Living abroad generates that distance. This time it's for wider reasons, largely to do with the fact that the politicians quite frankly refuse to grasp the nettle firmly. The British economy has been hammered, government spending is out of control and grossly inefficient and ineffective. What I want to see is someone stand up and say that spending has to be slashed (let's say 25-30% reduction in 12 months - a proper, hard-headed business approach). That means simplifying government, especially tax and benefits systems and cutting back on the bureaucrats. (No I don't think you need to cut teachers, doctors, policemen etc to make those savings.)

The main point, though, is there are too many politicians and not enough who understand politics. What's the difference? this, from the Oxford English Dictionary:
politics n.
2. The theory or practice of government or administration.

a. The science or study of government and the state.

c. Public life and affairs involving matters of authority and government.

and then the people:
A n.
1. a. A schemer or plotter; a shrewd, sagacious, or crafty person. In later use also (esp. U.S. derogatory, influenced by sense A. 2b): a self-interested manipulator, whose behaviour is likened to that of a professional politician.

2. b. A person who is keenly interested in practical politics, or who engages in party politics or political strife; now spec. one who is professionally involved in politics as the holder of or a candidate for an elected office.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, usually with opprobrious overtones.
Pretty much sums up the whole thing, really. Not enough people with any real qualifications or who understand the proper stuff of politics. Just a bunch of self-interested politicians who really don't have the nerve to do what is necessary in the best long-term interests of their country. Or so it seems.

And so my protest is not to vote. Yes, democracy & the right to vote is important. I have cast mine. Maybe the silence will be deafening to those who would listen (or maybe they are just deaf).

Sometimes I think that Douglas Adams had it right when he wrote that the person most suited to being in charge is the one who least wants to do so, as all those who do wish to are so inappropriate.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Parallel universes

There was a period when the idea of parallel universes, existing on different time planes was a popular concent in Science Fiction. You know the kind of thing; mad scientist invents workhole which allows jumping to another dimension. Same world but different evolutionary outcome. The whole notion hits the "barely plausible" button, even with the great Hadron Collider elevating mad-science to new levels.

But parallel universes do seem to exist and it's the internet that is creating them. How do i know? Some random surfing. And checking some of the odd searches that land on my blogs. I've found people drop by while looking for all kinds of odd stuff. Strange life-styles, religions, politics, photography and other writings. There are people out there doing things and leading lives that I didn't even know existed. The internet gives a global voice to the individual and a means of connecting the disparate. parallel layers of connected lives. Right here on Earth, right now.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

So why another blog?

I write several photography-related blogs. And that is fine and dandy. But lately I've been feeling the need to put down some thoughts, get them out in th World, on a range of other subjects. This is that blog.

Living alone can have it's disadvantages, not least is not necessarily having anyone to talk to about this stuff. But then I can vent to the world in general. Comments and conversation welcome. Keep it nice. You may not like what I have to say but I like constructive argument and disagreement: I reckon that's how we make progress in life as individuals and as a society.