Tuesday, March 29, 2011

No More Cars

by Conroy

Will all London streets be this empty in 2050?
There was a story out today that the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, is considering banning cars from urban centers by 2050. Such a proposal is both wildly unrealistic and terribly misguided...fortunately the story isn't true. What the European Commission is actually proposing is to eliminate diesel and gasoline powered cars from European cities by mid-century.

This idea is both reasonable and worthwhile. Eliminating traditionally powered cars - and replacing them with cars that use "cleaner" technologies - makes both environmental and economic sense, assuming of course that alternative energy approaches are fully realized. Electric cars are inherently clean and draw power from the electric grid, and ultimately power plants, which are far easier to "clean-up" then individual cars and trucks. Other technologies like hydrogen fuel cells promise even cleaner energy, but this technology has a long way to go before it is affordable and can be applied to personal transportation.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Change in the Air

by Conroy

Djokovic celebrates a win over Nadal at Indian Wells
The last time I wrote about tennis on this blog, Roger Federer had just defeated Rafael Nadal to win the prestigious year-end ATP World Tour Finals. The win capped a great late season surge by Federer and seemed to set the stage for 2011, another year to be dominated by Nadal and Federer.

The Other Year-End Result
Just a week after that result, tiny Serbia, a nation that had virtually no tennis presence as little as five years ago, won the Davis Cup, tennis' annual national team competition. The victory over a powerful French team in front of a rabid Belgrade audience captivated the Balkan nation. The victorious players became national heroes, flying the flag for a country seeking outlets for a brimming national pride. Leading Serbia, and winning all seven of his singles matches over the four rounds of the competition, was Novak Djokovic.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Word Play in Bullet Park

After reading Conroy's post about the mot juste, I decided to run a search on my Kindle for narthex, one of the words that Conroy identifies as being part of the specialized vocabulary used to describe castles and churches. My hope was to see it used in the context of a story, and I was pleasantly surprised to find it in Bullet Park, a novel by John Cheever. The passage in which it appears, quoted below, showcases Cheever's mastery. He often chooses not merely le mot juste, but le mot musical; when he writes of the "sound of the priest's voice in the vestarium," we hear the alliteration and marvel at Cheever's skill in using just the right word in just the right place. And by drawing from the "system of terms" appropriate to a church—pew, font, narthex, vestarium—Cheever places us inside of one:
This division of Nailles’s attention during worship had begun when, as a young boy, he had spent most of his time in church examining the forms captured in the grained-oak pews. In certain lights and frames of mind they seemed quite coherent. There was a charge of Mongol horsemen in the third pew on the right, next to the font. In the pew ahead of that there appeared to be a broad  lake—some body of water—with a lighthouse on a peninsula. In the pew across the aisle there was a clash of arms and in the pew ahead of that there seemed to be a herd of cattle. This lack of concentration did not distress Nailles. He did not expect to part with his flesh or his memory in the narthex. His concerns in church remained at least partially matter-of-fact, and on this winter morning he noticed that Mrs. Trencham was carrying on her particular brand of competitive churchmanship. Mrs. Trencham was a recent convert—she had been a Unitarian—and she was more than proud of her grasp of the responses and courtesies in the service; she was bellicose. At the first sound of the priest’s voice in the vestarium she was on her feet and she fired out her amens and her mercies in a stern and resonant voice, timed well ahead of the rest of the congregation as if she were involved in a sort of ecclesiastical footrace. Her genuflections were profound and graceful, her credo and confession were letter-perfect, her Lamb of God was soulful, and if she was given any competition, as she sometimes was, she would throw in a few signs of the cross as a proof of the superiority of her devotions. Mrs. Trencham was a winner.
At the beginning of the passage, we learn that when Nailles was young, he would pass the time in church transforming random, mundane patterns seen in the grain of wooden pews into iconic boyish imagery. In the latter part of the passage, we watch him transform Mrs. Trencham into a burlesque of sanctimony. And here we see more specialized vocabulary put into play; we learn of Mrs. Trencham's disingenuous amens and mercies, her genuflections and credos, her confessions and Lambs of God. These terms—together with a couple of striking phrases ("competitive churchmanship" and "ecclesiastical footrace")—heighten the bathos of the scene. This is diction at its best.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

There's a Word for That...

by Conroy

It should hardly surprise that a blog writer would love language and words, but you know what subset of this topic really interests me? Terminology, or the system of terms that belong to a particular subject. Let me give you an example.

Leeds Castle - not so simple as it looks
Recently I was flipping through the channels on my TV and came across a show about castles. I don't know much about castles, I've visited a few during vacations in Ireland and England, I've seen a bunch in movies, and they're an iconic part of medieval history, but still I don't know all that much. Nor, to be completely frank, am I all that interested. I always found the castles I visited to be cold and dark. Not very pleasant places to spend time, let alone live. Nevertheless, the show drew me in. Why? Because it featured a description of all the parts and features in classic castle design supported by real world examples. I love this sort of thing. Sure, most of us know about the moat built around some castles, but did you know that the mound that a castle was frequently built on is called a motte? Or that the open courtyard area is known as a bailey? You might know about dungeons, but did you know the underground dungeon reached by trap door is known as oubliette (or less elegantly a starvation hole)? How about some other castles features like the squint, narthex, and finial?

I bring this up because I think there's a certain joy to being able to use the exact right word to describe an object, idea, or concept. Sure I could write that castles often included an enclosed passage between the main entrance and the nave of a church, but isn't it more interesting and informative to note that this passage is called a narthex?

I'm sure most people use specialized terminology everyday in their work and other activities. Think about some of the terminology associated with your occupation. Using the right word is often essential to effective communication. Using the wrong word can lead to confusion and mis-communication. In addition, using specialized terminology demonstrates a familiarity and understanding of a subject that often needs to be expressed for reasons that go beyond simple necessity. You may not understand all of the jargon your doctor is saying to you ("myocardial infarction" instead of "heart attack"), but you get a certain confidence that at least he knows his trade. [At the same time, specialized terminology and jargon can be intimidating to a layperson. In my experience you should avoid jargon if possible and be clear in explaining terminology to someone unfamiliar with the subject and/or details.]

I like English because as a language it is so word friendly, including a vocabulary of more than a million by some counts. And English speakers have no reticence in borrowing terms from other languages. For instance, the exact right word is the mot juste, a term English took from French. Well I'll strive to use the mot juste in my writing. If I ever have to write about castles, I'll be off to a good start.


To give another example of the terminology associated with even seemingly simple systems, consider just a sampling of the terms associated with basketball (timely because the NCAA Tournament began today):

shot clock, air ball, three-pointer, alley-oop, assist, backboard, backcourt, ball fake, screen, bank shot, baseline, pivot foot, bench, shot, backdoor cut, rebound, brick, center, forward, guard, dribble, dunk, fast break, field goal, foul, free throw, halftime, jump shot, layup, over-and-back, front court, pass, run, swingman, technical foul, block, three-point play, travel, turnover, offense, defense, foul line, mid-court, sixth man, referee, sideline, paint, key, flagrant foul

As a casual fan you can overlook the myriad terms associated with the sport, but each term has an exact meaning in this context.

Perhaps you can take a few minutes to think of the wide terminology used in other everyday activities and items (cooking, your car, exercise, etc.). What's the difference between a car's fender and quarter-panel? In food preparation, how does a scraper differ from a spatula?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Build it Tall

by Conroy

The iconic spire of the Chrysler Building
When I was a little kid I was awed by tall buildings. I thought skyscrapers were the coolest thing (along with bridges, tunnels, dams, etc.). Little surprise that I became a civil engineer. Perhaps a little surprise, or irony, that my career has been focused on transportation, close to the ground. Anyway, back in my youth I never asked myself why we built these tall, expensive, monumental structures. An economist will explain that in dense urban environments, where land is in great demand and therefore expensive, building high makes economic sense. Certainly this is true. But I doubt the pharaohs were thinking of economics when they built the great pyramids in Egypt, or that cost was on the mind of the designers of the Chrysler Building, or that economic investment was the real impulse behind the building of Burj Khalifa (Burj Dubai). No, the real reason these iconic structures were built, along with the tens of thousands of other "great" buildings erected by man, was not for economics or any other practical reason, the reason was, is, and will always be: wonder.

Ask yourself how you react when you see a tall building, or long bridge, or high dam. Do you find yourself staring at these creations of man? At our achievements in engineering? We build higher and higher, span greater distances, dam massive rivers, tunnel under water and through mountains. Man has built countless churches, cathedrals, and mosques to the glory of God. But maybe, also, for the glory of himself. Is it a masculine impulse? Perhaps. Are our great buildings absolutely necessary? Perhaps not. But like anything else, great achievements arise from great ambition. And who wants to live in a world where our imaginations don't reach toward the sky?

Friday, March 4, 2011

Top 250 - Update

by Conroy

Recently my favorite radio station, WTMD, out of Towson, Maryland (and affiliated with Towson University) played a list of the "500 Desert Island Songs" as compiled by WTMD listeners. WTMD has a history of playing countdowns of lists like these during its tri-annual fundraisers. Like all public radio stations, WTMD survives because of user contributions, a fiscal reality that may become even more basic if federal funding is largely or entirely curtailed.

I am a contributor to WTMD because the station resurrected my belief that radio is worthwhile, and because I think it's a great supporter of the Baltimore music scene. It is as advertised, radio for music people and not radio around commercials. It has also become my best source to hear new music. The station streams online and the website is linked in this blog's Favorite Web Sites list (see right sidebar). Check it out if you get a chance.

When I heard about the latest list, I hurriedly submitted my 10 favorite "desert island songs" to WTMD (this is how the overall list was compiled). Actually, I submitted three lists, or my top 30 songs (only mild cheating because I didn't submit any song twice). WTMD took a month to compile the full list, so I can only assume that thousands of songs were submitted. "Desert Island Songs" were supposed to be songs that a person couldn't live without, which I think is a form of a person's favorite songs. As a result, I thought it would be interesting to compare WTMD's 500 Desert Island Songs to my Top 250 Songs. How much overlap could there be? On one extreme all 250 songs from my list would show up on the WTMD list, on the other extreme none of my Top 250 Songs would show up on the WTMD list.

Before the countdown began, I guessed that 75 of my Top 250 Songs would be represented and 35 of my Top 100 Songs would be there. The actual results:
  • 41 of my Top 250 Songs were on the Desert Island List (16.4%)
  • 26 of my Top 100 Songs were on the Desert Island List (26%)
So I'm a little surprised that not as many of my favorite songs were listed as other WTMD listeners favorite songs. And a review of the WTMD list reveals song songs and rankings that are head-scratchers (and maybe some "ballot stuffing" by zealous fans of particular artists/songs). Still, the amount of overlap seems reasonable...my list has enough "popular" songs to avoid being overly eccentric but enough outliers to be distinctive.

What was the highest ranked song that is included in my Top 250 Songs? "Thunder Road" by Bruce Springsteen (also the highest Top 100 Song), ranked number 3. The most surprising Top 250 Song to make the WTMD list? I don't know, maybe "Misunderstood" by Wilco; I thought maybe this song wasn't as liked by others as it was by me.