In das Void-Captains-Tale a Norman Spinrad (si, Spinrad qua sf), all personnes including das narrator usen their eigen sprach, made up of multi words de multi lingui mischmosched en ways unpredictable. Voidisch es in essence un ancestor d'Europanto. Lamentable, das Void-Captains-Tale es apres print, sondern I have geordered same de an apres-print libreria via www.abebooks.com fur multi $$$, .oi.

An ander version de Voidish/Europanto es Euro, in das sf novel The-Computer-Connection a Alfred Bester. This novel multi conlinguini gehabt (although das narration es in standard Inglese), including das lang commun d'U.S., Black Spanglish -- das Beatitudes en B.S. es most amazing. 20th-cicle Inglese, benamt "XX" ("twenty", no "exex") in das book, has an cifre secret d'Group, an collectie d'immortals, gewerden. Euro spielt an role comparativement minor, sondern es mentioned, that es funny to say "Tante danke" when das phrase proper es "Grazie sehr". So Euro haben more rules than Voidish, I guess.


Update: Heute eu have this post getagged so "eur", d'langage tag pro Europanto.

There is too a rhyme for "month"

"The answer then," said Dr. Brown
Who's worked on it a month,
"Isn't merely xn,
It's xn+1."

John's Meatloaf

This should really be called "Gale's Meatloaf" or even "Gale's Mother's Meatloaf", but what the hey.

John's Meatloaf:

1/2 lb (250 g) ground beef
1/4 lb (125 g) ground veal
1/4 lb (125 g) ground pork
1 egg
2 cups (500 ml) cornflakes
Splash of milk
Salt, pepper, tarragon, allspice, lemon peel, orange peel, basil, chives, dried onion, dried garlic to taste (you can use minced fresh onion instead if you don't mind a few tears)

Line a medium to large roasting pan with aluminum foil. If you have a roasting rack, you can use that too. Bread loaf pans also work. Mix all ingredients well with your hands in a large bowl (cold and messy job) until everything is well smushed together. Form into a tall, skinny loaf, rounding off all edges and closing all fissures.

Roast 1 hour in a 350 F/175 C oven. Make sure the meat is well-done throughout by cutting it open. Remove from oven and let stand for about 15 minutes (or it tears when you cut it). Serve sliced with potatoes or rice and local vegetables. Even better the next 1-2 days (keep in refrigerator) as sandwiches.

This recipe can be doubled; increase cooking time to 90 minutes, or make two loaves.

How to tell a Canadian

Spot the Hidden Canadian is a fun game: they think they can pass for Unitedstatesians, but there are Signs. (It's said that Peter Jennings's TelePrompTer has the word "lieutenant" written as "lootenant", in order to remind him not to say "leftenant" and destroy, quelle horreur!, the illusion that he's One Of Us.)

If someone writes "tire center", they're probably American; if they write "tyre centre", they might be British. But if they write "tire centre", that marks the Canadian. (When a Brit read an earlier version of this post, he enquired whether a "tire centre" was a place where people go in order to become less energetic and more sleepy.)

When speaking, there are three things to look for: the "eh?", Canadian Raising ("writer" and "rider" sound different; "spider" and "inside her" don't quite rhyme, and so much for Miss Muffet), and the rounded British/Bostonian pronunciation of short "o" as in "hot" and "pot". None alone is infallible: all three together? Canadian.

We do but jest, poison in jest, no offense i'th' world.

Weird ways of bailing out

The Chiltern Hundreds are small area in England that used to have their own local administration (a "hundred" is a collection of villages). The Stewardship of the Chiltern Hundreds has been a do-nothing job for centuries, but is carefully preserved for this reason:

Nobody can resign from Parliament as such. However, no M.P. can hold an "office of profit or trust", an obvious anti-corruption measure. Therefore, to resign from Parliament, one applies for the Stewardship of the Chiltern Hundreds, an office of profit (it pays a salary), is forthwith no longer an M.P., and then resigns the Stewardship.

Diagnosis of a software project gone nuts

Lots of valuable lessons here.


The English-speaking nations.

The English-speaking nations include Rightpondia and Begrudgeria in Europe, Leftpondia and Northicia (pronounced with four syllables) in America, Bharattia and Qasimia in South Asia, Sarfeffrica and Cecilia in Southern Africa, Scamfundia in West Africa, North and South Safaria in East Africa, and Downundria and Aotearoa in Oceania. Island nations include Lumpia off East Asia, Rafflia off South Asia, and Dreadlockia in the Caribbean.  Rightpondia may further be divided into the six sub-nations of Londonia, Eboracia, Stannia, Bagpipia, N'Iron, and Quaint.

(ISO codes: GB, IE, US, CA, IN, PK, ZA, ZW, NG, KE, TZ, AU, NZ, PH, JM.  The sub-nations have no ISO codes as such.)


Getting close to TagSoup 1.0

In case you haven't heard of it, TagSoup is my SAX parser for nasty, ugly HTML, making it look to your XML applications like clean XML (not necessarily valid XHTML, but close). I just released the 1.0rc3 version, and I expect to make it 1.0 as soon as I get rid of a nasty bug involving particularly bizarre HTML documents, mostly the randomly-generated ones that I use for brute force testing. I also need to make it run a little faster.

Let your yea be yea, and your nay, nay

When people ask me how I come to be interested in this, that, or the other obscure subject, I've come to reply over the years that I'm fascinated by complicated domains of knowledge. Not for me the path of broad generalizing simplicity; I like the quirky, the peculiar, the inexplicable. So I will now treat those of you who think similarly to the question of how to say "Yes" and "No" in various languages.

First of all, plenty of languages don't have any such words. Irish is a good example: it just repeats the verb, with or without a negation. This is why people from Ireland, even if their ancestors have been speaking only English for generations, tend to affirm with "I do" or "He was" (and other combinations of pronoun and auxiliary verb), and deny with "I do not" or "He was not". But just looking at a few languages that do have such words, we see a variety of patterns.

The interesting cases arise when the question being answered is a negative one, like "Didn't he go to the store?". Let's just look at the raw data first (where Y = "Did he go?"; N = "Didn't he go?"; y = "He did"; n = "He didn't):

English: Yy=Yes, Yn=No, NyYes, Ny=No

French: Yy=Oui, Yn=Non, Ny=Si, Nn=Non

German: Yy=Ja, Yn=Nein, Ny=Doch, Nn=Nein

Russian: Yy=Da, Yn=Nyet, Ny=Nyet, Nn=Da

Japanese: Yy=Hai, Yn=Iie, Ny=Iie, Nn=Hai

Lojban: Yy=go'i, Yn=na go'i, Ny=ja'a go'i, Nn=na go'i

So we can see that English totally ignores any negation in the question as far as determining whether to say "Yes" or "No". That doesn't mean the negation is meaningless: in fact, it indicates the response the asker is expecting. Latin, which is a verb-repeating language like Irish, actually has three different ways to make yes-no questions: with the clitic -ne attached to the verb, there is no particular expectation; with the particle nonne, an affirmative answer is expected; with the particle num, a negative answer is expected.

Russian and Japanese take the view that a negation in the question is just like any other negation: it has to be taken into account. So with a negative question, nyet or iie means "On the contrary, he did", and da or hai means "That's correct, he didn't." This view is quite logical, though it seems bizarre to English-speakers. (Disclaimer: Japanese culture has qualms about both plain questions and plain answers, and so this explication really only applies to usage between intimate friends.)

German and French agree with English in using their word for "No" to give a negative answer to a negative question, but they use a separate word for affirmative, contrary-to-expectation answers to negative questions. In German, doch can be stuck into an ordinary sentence to indicate that what it expresses is contrary to expectation; German has a lot of particles like this.

Finally, in Lojban the word go'i means in effect "What you said"; it repeats the speaker's last remark. However, if the explicit negation word na is present, it supplies negation whether or not it is already present. Likewise, the explicit affirmation word ja'a supplies affirmation whether or not it's already present. So it would be correct, if redundant, to use ja'a go'i in the first line and na go'i in the last line.

Isn't all this just neat??


An ode of unknown authorship

This was first published in 1919, so it is clearly in the public domain. All the words are or were U.S. trademarks, which are hereby acknowledged.

Chipeco thermos dioxygen, temco sonora tuxedo
Resinol fiat bacardi, camera ansco wheatena;
Antiskid pebeco calox, oleo tyco barometer
Postum nabisco!

Prestolite arco congoleum, karo aluminum kryptok,
Crisco balopticon lysol, jello bellans, carborundum!
Ampico clysmic swoboda, pantasote necco britannica


publish-ftpd: a non-anonymous read-only FTP server

I've written a novel FTP server named publish-ftpd that's meant to do something different from run-of-the-mill FTP servers. It provides each user (which shouldn't have any connection with the server's password file) a read-only subtree of files under password control. It's not high-security (the files can be snooped) or high-performance; it emphasizes protocol correctness -- users can't escape their home tree.

I'd appreciate reviews of the documentation even from people who don't want to run such a thing. Actual reviews of the program are of course useful too.


"The Year of the Mouse"

I've always loved Norman Spinrad, especially A World Between ("Faschochauvinist Fausts!") and Songs From The Stars ("We've used nuclear reactors for centuries, and only had ten core meltdowns."). Here's a free short story, which shows us that Real World conflicts, unlike those in Mad magazine (hi, Len!) are at best gray vs. gray.



Well, here is Resedel (as in REstful SErvices DEscription Language), my entry in the replacing-WSDL sweepstakes. In keeping with the theme of this blog, and my general philosophy of designing programming languages, I have invented as little as possible, preferring to steal almost everything from the prior contributions of Tim Walsh (the RPC-style stuff) and Norm Bray (most of the rest).


Apocryphal tales

I always thought apocryphal stories were the best ones. Here's a couple:

The author Henry Fielding was once talking with the then Earl of Denbigh on how the latter's family name came to be spelled "Feilding". "I know not, my Lord", said Henry, "unless it were that my branch of the family were the first to learn how to spell."

It's said that the King of Denmark during WWII, when the Nazis announced they would be implementing the yellow star that all Jews must wear (one of the first steps in the bureaucracy of murder),announced that he would be the first one to wear it. Probably untrue. But it is true that Denmark openly defied their German occupiers on the Jewish question, with the result that by the end of the war, no Jew in Denmark (most of whom were not even Danish citizens, but stateless German refugees) had died an unnatural death.

My father and the two-headed monster

My father, Thomas A. Cowan, taught law at Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey. One day while walking across campus, he saw a man carrying two cups of coffee. Being my father, he asked the man if he was a two-headed monster. He ended up walking to my father's office, where they discovered a common interest in psychology. The man was also a cartoonist, and drew my father a picture of a two-headed monster with one head saying, "No, he's a Jungian and I'm a Rankian".

The seven degrees of the lie

I have found it very useful on the Internet to know the seven degrees of giving the lie (telling someone they lie, that is), in decreasing order from most to least insulting.

  1. The Lie Direct is simply "You lie" or "You are a liar". Crude, but useful as a challenge to mortal combat.
  2. The Lie Circumstantial is: "If anyone says such-and-such, he lies." This gives your opponent the opportunity to evade your wrath.
  3. Next comes the Countercheck Quarrelsome: "How dare you say such a thing!"
  4. Then the Reproof Valiant: "You know that is not true." I usually use this as the outer limit myself, though I sometimes advance to the Countercheck Quarrelsome.
  5. The next lower degree is the Reply Churlish: "You are no judge; your opinion is worthless."
  6. The Quip Modest I find hard to put into words; it is something like "I prefer it that way".
  7. And finally The Retort Courteous: "My opinion is otherwise."
  8. (redmonk proposed an eighth degree: the Non-Reply Apathetic; an example would be superfluous.)

The list is from As You Like It V:iv, but the definitions are paraphrased from Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Brewer is not always right, but he's always interesting.

sbp pointed out the interesting sentence "If anyone says he is Tony Blair, he lies" in connection with the Lie Circumstantial. It can be explicated as "If you claim to be Tony Blair and you're not, then you're a liar; if you claim to be Tony Blair and are, you lied about WMD to Parliament." We can neglect the existence of other people truly named "Tony Blair".

Our Exagmination Round His Factification For Incamination of Work in Progress

Before James Joyce's last novel Finnegans Wake was published in 1939, there was a collection of critical essays about it with the eccentric title of Our Exagmination round his Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, the last three words being Joyce's working title for the book. Excerpts had been published and some people had seen parts of it in MS, but Joyce was still withholding the final title.

The lead essay, by Samuel Beckett, bore the equally eccentric, if quieter, title of "Dante ... Bruno. Vico .. Joyce". Each dot in the Beckett essay's title represents a century of real time: Dante in the 14th century, Bruno in the 17th, Vico in the 18th, and Joyce in the 20th. Of course, Beckett didn't explain all this: he left it up to us to figure out (much like Joyce himself): what Joyce called "the ideal reader with ideal insomnia". The period after "Bruno" is really just a single dot, but the publisher couldn't be expect to know that.

Joyce himself contributed an essay (at least we think so) under the name of Vladimir Dixon, entitled "A Litter to Mr. James Joyce" where he refers to him(self) as "my dear Mr. Germ's Choice" and "Shame's Voice". He was assuming the role of his own first hostile critic.

Hodie natus est radici frater

One fine day, a Multics system (Multics was the conceptual ancestor of Unix) crashed. When rebooted, instead of dumping its virtual memory to a tape as it should have done, it printed HODIE NATUS EST RADICI FRATER, and refused to proceed. Panic all around. Finally, someone got Bernard Greenberg, who had programmed the recovery routine, at home, and he diagnosed the problem thus (translated into more modern jargon; full details here):

The virtual memory in Multics, rather than being just a big flat space, was a tree of segments, kind of analogous to a file system: there was a root segment, and all other segments had to be accessible from it. ("Opening" a file in Multics meant mapping it to a segment in the VM.) So the crash-dump recovery system walked the VM, dumping each segment to the tape for later diagnosis. Unfortunately, the root segment had been incorrectly written to the disk before the crash, and it had garbage in the "next sibling" pointer. This was the cause of the error message, which means "Today is born to the root a brother".

This story was later inflated into the myth that all Multics error messages were in Latin, and that this was done deliberately to prevent the customer from attempting their own half-assed diagnosis and repair. Rubbish, of course.


A tragedy of semantic shift

This post is 100% a spoiler for the Poul Anderson story "A Tragedy of Errors", so be warned.

The story is set on and around an isolated planet long after the fall of the Terran Empire. Communications have broken down, and so has security. On this planet, the words friend and business have dropped out of the local version of the Imperial language in favor of camarado and 'change (short for exchange), respectively. But they have been recently reintroduced, thanks to an incursion of pirates, in the novel senses of pirate and piracy respectively (as in a very sarcastic "We're your friends, and we're here to do business with you.")

The next set of travelers who arrive saying "We're friends" get shot at. Because slave has also shifted its meaning locally, to something like worker or employee, they shoot back, with disastrous results all around. The semantic shifts are eventually unraveled, but only after some unnecessary killings.

Usually, semantic problems aren't this bad. But the story (which is unfolded from the viewpoint of the second, peaceful set of travelers) vividly demonstrates what's possible when communication breaks down.

A strange semantic experience

Because the microwave on my floor was busy some weeks back, I walked up to the next floor to use their (identically located) microwave. I met there a colleague, who thought I had come to his floor to see him because of some work-related problem. He said "Oh, I thought you came down here to [etc etc etc]".

As a result, the bit in my head telling me how to get back to my own floor was flipped, and I walked up (further) to the next floor. Only when I got to "my" cube (since all the floors are essentially alike) did I realize what had happened.

"Turning the world on its head with a single word! Eloquent guy!" --Terje Bless


Terse Telegrams

When you pay a small fortune per word, as people used to in sending telegrams, the desire to keep them short can become overwhelming. Here's a few examples, the first from Leo Rosten's The Joy of Yiddish and its successors, and some of the others from an essay by Stephen Jay Gould.

Mrs. Gershenbaum, in Moscow, sent a telegram to her husband in Kiev: SAYS TO OPERATE OPERATE. Mr. Gershenbaum replied: SAYS TO OPERATE OPERATE.

The police promptly arrested Gershenbaum: "What secret code are you using?"

"No code," said Gershenbaum.

"Do you take us for fools? Just read these telegrams!"

Well, my wife is sick in the kishkas. So she went to Moscow to see a famous surgeon, and she wired me: 'Says to operate. Operate?' So I replied, 'Says to operate? Operate!'"

Victor Hugo wanted to know how Les Miz was selling, so he cabled his publisher "?", who replied "!"

This tale of two telegrams is told of Shaw and Churchill, but also of other pairs:

London wanted to know if a certain general had pacified the Indian (now Pakistani) province of Sindh. He replied: PECCAVI ("I have sinned").

And then there's following terse summary of a one-man research expedition sent from Britain to ransack the streams of Australia to discover the truth about the duck-billed platypus: MONOTREMES OVIPAROUS OVUM MEROBLASTIC.

An American tale: The newspaper owner William Randolph Hearst sent the astronomer Percival Lowell the telegram IS THERE LIFE ON MARS CABLE THOUSAND WORDS PREPAID. Lowell was a bit discouraged until his eye lit on the last word. He replied NOBODY KNOWS NOBODY KNOWS NOBODY KNOWS NOBODY KNOWS NOBODY KNOWS NOBODY KNOWS NOBODY KNOWS NOBODY KNOWS NOBODY KNOWS ....

Another story about India: A general sent a carefully worded telegram in favor of his nephew to another general nearer the front. The original text was "I commend Dowbiggin [the first general's nephew] to your attention, if he is fit for it." In those days, it was customary for telegraphists to compress telegrams themselves, and so it arrived as LOOK AFTER DOWB.

A quick tutorial on ergativity, by way of the Squid-Headed One

Ergative and its counterpart accusative are terms used in linguistics to talk about different kinds of languages. Here's a brief tutorial on the relevant concepts. (Note for linguists: Yes, I'm oversimplifying things and brushing past certain side issues.)

In English and other languages we call accusative, identical case endings are used for subjects of transitive and intransitive sentences, and another set of case endings is used for objects of transitive sentences. So we say "He ate brains" and "He died", but "Cthulhu ate him".

"He" (traditionally called the nominative form)is used for both intransitive subjects (abbreviated S) and agents of transitive sentences (abbreviated A), and "him" (traditionally called the accusative form) is used for patients (those on whom an agent acts) of transitive sentences (abbreviated P). Typically the nominative form is simpler than the accusative form. This can't be illustrated well in English, with its bare remnants of case; but the final -m of him and them is a case ending originally attached to the nominative forms he and they.

But in ergative languages like Basque, S forms are identical with P forms instead of with A forms. So in Basque we'd say (in literal translation) "He ate brains", "Him died", "Cthulhu ate him". The S+P case is called absolutive, the A case is called ergative, and it's the absolutive case that usually has a simpler ending. Most ergative languages are only partly ergative; Hindi, for example, is accusative in some verb tenses and ergative in others.

Now suppose we combine two sentences with "and", like this: "Cthulhu ate him and died". In English that sentence has to mean that it was Cthulhu who died, eh? But in Basque, it could only be interpreted as short for "Cthulhu ate him and him died", meaning that the unnamed eatee (sic) was the one who perished. This is called syntactic ergativity, and not all languages that are ergative in the above (morphological) sense exhibit it.

Chinese, on the other hand, is neither ergative nor accusative. Sentences that literally translate to "Cthulhu dropped the watermelon and burst" and "Cthulhu dropped the watermelon and was embarrassed" are equally valid, and Chinese speakers interpret them according to common sense. That is, "...the watermelon burst" (ergative) and "...Cthulhu was embarrassed" (accusative). Only the latter one reads properly in the English translation because English isn't ergative.

There are languages that use other schemes. Split-S languages use A forms for subjects of some intransitive verbs, and P forms for others. Fluid-S languages can use A forms or S forms as subjects of intransitive verbs depending on context. So "John slept" with an agent case ending on "John" would mean that John chose to sleep, or something like that; "John slept" with a patient case ending would mean it was involuntary. Sometimes it's about whether the S has control rather than volition.These two types are jointly called active languages.

In yet another type, dubbed Monster Raving Loony languages (that name is not official), there is one form for A and P and another form for S! Rushan (not to be confused with Russian) is one of this rare type.

The unusual word eatee that I used above brings up the -ee suffix, which shows just a little hint of ergativity in English. Typically, it makes a P noun out of a verb, like mortgagee, donee, and vendee -- as opposed to -or and -er, which make A nouns out of transitive verbs. But -ee can also be applied to make an S noun out of an intransitive verb, like absentee and escapee. We don't normally talk of absenters or escapers, because -er is ergative, whereas -ee is absolutive. (What to do with bargee 'one who poles a barge', I don't know, and doubt that you do either -- the OED calls it "apparently arbitrary".)

Mij pa fok dieren

Disclaimer: I don't know any Dutch or Afrikaans, and can't vouch for this story, which was told to me some years back by a reader of Linguist List

Once a young man from the Netherlands moved with his family to South Africa, where he was naturally put in the Afrikaans-speaking class. Afrikaans is an offshoot of Dutch, retaining older spellings and word meanings, and with a fair amount of English mixed in (among other languages). He was asked to write an essay describing himself and his family, and then to read out loud to the class. It contained the harmless Dutch sentence "Mij pa fok dieren" (My father breeds animals), which in Afrikaans (under English influence) has a very different meaning!



A classic geek/SF story from 1955 by Eric Frank Russell. The offog is missing from ship's stores, and the inspector is coming; what to do, what to do?

In actual fact it wasn't really missing. So much the worse. But read the story.

Spoiler content below: select it to see it.

DrBacchus said the "Nom d'un chien!" was a bit too much of a giveaway; I never even noticed it before.


Twice-Recycled #swhack tales

These are bits that have been recycled twice: once through my head, and once through the #swhack logs. Accuracy not guaranteed. Some words are other people's, scurvily recycled without attribution by me.

From a discussion of how to pronounce place names:

Across the Water we have Pierre, the capital of the state of South Dakota (not North, as an earlier version of this page claimed, arrgh), pronounced "peer". Most people outside S.D. say it Frenchwise.

And then there is the Enroughty family of Virginia. Some say "en-ruff-ty", but others make it "darby". The story is -- though not all agree -- that a Darby had to change his name to his wife's name, Enroughty, in order to get an inheritance. Rather than hyphenating, he just kept the original pronunciation. Others say that the second group were descended from someone named "John Darby of Enroughty".

Nome, Alaska, is easy to pronounce, but it's a winner for name bogosity. The story behind Nome's name -- as usual, there's dispute about it -- is that a cartographer noticed that a certain cape had no name, so he wrote "? name" next to it. This was misread as "C[ape] Nome", and the city was named after the cape.

Why Staten Island is part of New York (State and City) rather than New Jersey:

A yacht-race settled the question back in the seventeenth century, from Tottenville at the southern tip to St. George at the northern tip. The New York boat won.

On the name of Case Western Reserve University:

The Case part comes from Case Institute of Technology, which eventually merged with Western Reserve University. But why "Western Reserve"? Because Ohio was the western reserve of Connecticut, which until 1787 claimed everything westward to the Pacific.

Larry Niven on the etymology of "droud"

It began as a persistent typo of Niven's for "crowd" in the story "Flash Crowd". Then it became the name of the implanted device that routes a current to the pleasure center in wireheads.

Sometimes a hyphen can make all the difference" story:

When Cat Stevens sings "Morning Has Broken", he screws up the last line badly because he doesn't sing the hyphen in it. The last line of the third verse in the original Eleanor Farjeon text is"God's re-creation of the new day." Unfortunately, Stevens sings "God's recreation"! This may or may not be intentional.

The Israeli Tomb of the Unknown Soldier:

The American Ambassador to Israel is attending the unveiling of the Israeli Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.He's quite surprised to find written on the gravestone:


"I thought he was supposed to be the unknown soldier", said the Ambassador to his host.

"You don't understand. As a tailor, he was known. As a soldier? Mnyeh."

"Not to 'eat' spam or phish, that is the Law: Are we not geeks?" --The Island of Dr. Morbus

There's a Gene Wolfe collection that I've never read, but I do admire its title and table of contents. The title is The Island of Doctor Death And Other Stories And Other Stories. The title story is of course "The Island of Doctor Death And Other Stories". Two of the other stories in the collection are entitled "The Doctor of Death Island" and "The Death of Dr. Island".

More later.