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17 July, 2009

Choosing Books for Children

Someone asking for recommendations for good speculative fiction for children and teenagers got me thinking. As a culture we tend to feed young people the most awful rubbish in this genre. I don't mean books that are badly written or poorly plotted, I mean unrealistic fantasy.

People picking books for youngsters tend to avoid sex and violence, quite reasonably, but will not balk at choosing a book full of unicorns or angels, talking animals and walking trees. Does anybody ever stop to wonder which will do more harm to a young mind, the reality of sex and violence, or the unreality of fantasy and religion? Truth? Or make-believe?

How can we expect children to mature into adults who can understand and cope with the real world if we feed them bizarre fantasy worlds and strictly-censored distortions? As a society we warn parents that TV shows might contain 'themes' - usually meaning the story deals with drug abuse, incest, torture, sex, or some other set of issues that many children could use our help in understanding. Yet there are no warnings for shows that involve magic beings (vampire stories, religious broadcasts, talking dogs, psychics, etc.), vigilanteism (Batman, for instance), or state-sanctioned violence (cop shows, P.I. shows, and war stories).

I'm sure that finding suitable books for children is hard but that doesn't mean we have to feed them the strange fare that currently passes for acceptable. Forgetting the complete abandonment of reality most of these stories represent, just consider the political statements that most fairy stories (and fantasy novels) make about the legitimacy of inherited power, or the complete abnegation of personal moral responsibility implicit in any story involving 'higher powers' (as gods tend to be called in fiction these days) who dictate or enforce moral absolutes.

We can't expect a world full of morally responsible, socially skilled, and politically sophisticated adults if we give our children unrealistic, nonsense to read.

14 July, 2009

Just for fun...

I don't usually post videos here - in fact, this is the first one. Mostly that is out of consideration to people who have slow Internet connections (for example, Australians using Telstra's NextG wireless 'broadband' service.) However, this one just made me smile and I thought you might like to see it.

It was filmed in Antwerp's central railway station. It features over 200 dancers and is a promotion for a Belgian TV programme.

11 July, 2009

Australia is Endangering Global Democracy

Just thought I'd point this out in case any Rudd government ministers are reading.

Even children's groups like Save the Children oppose the Australian government's plans to censor the Internet. Since the government censorship plans are ostensibly to protect children, surely this should give them pause.

Or maybe they would rather just go ahead and put their censorship technologies in place and then come clean about the real reason they're doing this? On the other hand, maybe they wouldn't. Their whole attitude seems to be, "Stuff you, Australia, we're going to censor the Internet and nobody can stop us."

Maybe other Western countries should start agitating against this move. After all, once one Western democracy has taken complete control of the Internet and what its citizens can see there (yes, just like China) won't other Western governments want to do the same? Once there is a precedent, it will be much easier for this to happen in the USA and the UK too.

The scary thing is, no-one seems to understand the danger that government-controlled Internet filtering poses to Australian democracy. Why is there no national and international outcry against this?

04 July, 2009

Letting Marketers Loose on Language

Language evolves. New words are coined; old words change. The end result is the rich and complex lexicon we have today. Some of this growth and change is acceptable and understandable. New words are needed as new concepts arise, as new social activities develop, and as new objects are made. But some of it arises for less acceptable reasons. Sometimes the person who coins a word - and the people who then use it - are ignorant of a word that already exists with the same meaning. Sometimes new words arise from a misunderstanding of an existing word. (Consider the modern use of the word 'showstopper' which has the opposite connotation of the word in its original meaning.) Sometimes a new word arises from laziness (e.g. when people would rather use 'text' as a verb than say, 'send a text message') sometimes from a desire to draw a strained and unwarranted analogy.

In this last category, consider how the suffix '-gate' has entered the language since 'Watergate'. In Australia in the past few weeks we've had a storm-in-a-teacup political scandal the press has dubbed 'utegate' ('ute' being a local contraction of 'utility vehicle' + '-gate' meaning a political scandal). Also consider the experiments underway at MIT to record and analyse the first three years of a child's life in order to track every utterance the child makes along with every utterance it might have heard. This has been called 'the human speechome project' by (a very strained) analogy with the human genome project. It seems that '-ome' is a new suffix which means something like 'scientific endeavour that produces an extremely large and complete data set in some field'.

It is understandable that scientists would want to associate their work with the human genome project. It isn't quite so easy to see why they would coin a word quite so ugly as 'speechome'. It is interesting to look at how we got to this sorry neologism.

The word 'genome', originally meant the
'sum total of genes in a set,' and was coined (in its German form 'genom') in 1920 by German botanist Hans Winkler. It comes from gen, short for 'gene' + om from 'chromosome.' It was Aglicised to 'genome' in 1930.

Looking back, the word 'chromosome' was coined in 1888, also by a German, anatomist Wilhelm von Waldeyer-Hartz. He constructed it from the Greek words khroma, meaning 'colour' + soma meaning 'body.' ('Colour' because chromosomes contain a substance that stains easily for microscopic viewing.)

A recent addition to this family of words is 'proteome'. This is the set of all proteins that can be expressed by an organism's genes in a particular environment, or under any circumstances (more properly the 'complete proteome'). It derives from prote(in) + (gen)ome and was coined by Marc Wilkins in 1994. Notice that the '-ome' suffix has now taken on a life of its own. It is no longer an abbreviation of 'soma' but of 'genome'. It has stared to become like '-gate', a suffix which emphasises a flattering comparison the user wishes to take advantage of, rather than one that contibutes to the interpretation of the word.

And so we come to 'speechome'. This was probably coined by marketing people at MIT within the last couple of years, simply to aggrandise the project which bears its name. Marketing people, like journalists, use language to sell things. They don't care about etymology - or indeed meaning. They have other rhetorical motives for choosing words than to educate or inform. Now that '-ome' is in the hands of marketers and journalists, expect it to move farther and farther away from the sense in which it was originally conceived.

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