Archive for January, 2012

Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin

January 22, 2012 2 comments


He is not one of the most famous French painters, but Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin at his best seems to me to catch the beauty and dignity of France in the decades leading up to the Revolution. And this painting, Girl Holding a Shuttlecock, is my favorite of his works. The freshness of the subject, her lack of self-consciousness, and her plain attire herald a France turning away from Baroque excess towards a more modern view of the world. Enjoy!       RT


Image: Girl Holding a Shuttlecock. Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin. WikiCmns. Public Domain.

Safe, Unsafe, and Dangerous–Occupy’s Philadelphia Convention

January 20, 2012 2 comments

If there is a heaven on earth, it’s name is safe. Everyone wants an invisible barrier that leaves them free to roam (or stay home) without worrying about who might assault them or break in and steal. And no healthy person can stand the thought of something bad happening to children. So call out the cops, throw the SOBs in the clink and throw away the key, vote the rascals out.

The problem: there is no heaven on earth. And here’s another one: the very institutions we trust to create safe space can be used to destroy it. There is no wall strong enough to keep out the world.

Call it what you want: breakage, collateral damage, friendly fire. Embarrassing, agonizing, and can’t we do something about it? Probably, but not what you think. For starters, people are designed to handle danger. To judge by the durability of culture and social institutions, we are remarkably good at it. But there is a price: our hair-trigger response to signs of danger. In fact, our problem may not be being safe; it may be feeling safe.

And here’s another thought: one man’s safety may be another man’s chains. Walls around a city make people inside feel safe, but they also make people on the outside feel powerless and jealous. Want to sell your stuff at the market? You’ll have to talk to the gatekeeper.

In sum, living well requires courage.


What has provoked these reflections? SOPA, PIPA, 9-11, and the general tendency to rely on walls. What is my solution? The creation of a category called Unsafe. To give an example, I would say that driving while drunk is dangerous; moving to a new city to look for work is unsafe. Drunk driving invites serious injury; new cities expose arrivees to practical challenges that may lead to trouble. Here is a principle difference–there are no benefits to driving while drunk, while moving somewhere to find work or a better career offers a tangible benefit in return for the risk.

Of course all of this is a spectrum–and some unsafe activities can border on the dangerous (or foolhardy)–investing rent money in stocks, taking out a loan without a secure income, investing vital corporate funds in a marginal scheme. And yet there are times when even these actions can make sense. Much depends on whether you have a firm set of goals in mind and have thought your plans through.


So here’s an invitation that might have delighted Teddy Roosevelt. The 99%/Occupy movement is holding a convention to draft a list of political grievances and proposed solutions in July of this year. Election for delegates takes place in March. Safe, unsafe, or dangerous? I vote for unsafe, but tending towards safe.

Interested? Here’s the link:

Bully, Bully!          RT


Photo: Theodore Roosevelt; WikiCommons; LOC; Public Domain.

Afternoon break: I want to go to there

January 20, 2012 Leave a comment


Folks:  Wash away your winter blues!    RT

Afternoon break: I want to go to there.

My Muse: Haiku

January 16, 2012 Leave a comment

Folks: remember Woodstock?    RT

My Muse: Haiku.

Hangul, Literacy, and Culture–What an Alphabet Can Do For You

January 14, 2012 5 comments

King Sejong the Great

I might be skipping ahead a bit folks, but I think it’s time to introduce you to what many people consider to be the world’s most effective alphabet: Hangul.

But before I launch into a description of this alphabet’s extraordinary history and many virtues, a word of warning is in order for English speakers. Hangul was designed for speakers of Korean, a tonal language situated pretty much at the opposite end of the language spectrum from English. What makes Hangul important for the English-speaking world is 1) the story of its creation; 2) its approach to representing the sounds of language; and 3) the hope that its logical design and gradual success might serve as a model in creating an alphabet that can be used to write the major world languages, in particular, English, Chinese, Spanish, French, and Russian.

1) History. Let’s start with the story of Hangul’s creation. King Sejong (r. 1418-1450) faced a not-unfamiliar situation in East Asia: an extremely low literacy rate resulting from the use of the Hanja, the Chinese character set, which arrived with Buddhism in Korea in the 7th century A.D. Sejong decided to create an alphabet for writing Korean that anyone could learn, with the goals of making literacy universal and strengthening Korea’s cultural identity. Overcoming opposition from court officials who did not want to lose the power their literacy gave them, the king summoned his Hall of Worthies–the eminent scholars of his time–and together the king and Hall devised the twenty-eight letters of the new alphabet, publishing the definitive text on Hangul in 1446.

The alphabet was an immediate success, allowing the poorly educated and women to read and write for the first time. But, needless to say, this social revolution prompted a backlash after Sejong’s death in 1450. Confucian scholars fought fiercely to retain the privileges their monopoly on writing had given them, and in 1504, the use of Hangul was forbidden by royal decree. The Hanja were reinstated as the sole legitimate writing system.

But at this point something remarkable happened: in defiance of the official ban, the use of Hangul among the educated class flourished. Starting in the late 1500’s, two entirely new genres of poetry, gasa and sijo, developed, and the novel written in Hangul became a major literary form. Although the use of Hangul among ordinary people disappeared, the literacy rate may nonetheless have increased, since Hangul is extremely easy to learn.

Finally, in the late 19th century, Hangul was reinstated for official use, and during the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-1945), the use of Hangul was encouraged as a means of separating Korea from Chinese influence. Although Japanese became the official language, a mixed Hangul-Hanja script was taught in the colonial school system; education, moreover, was mandatory, and for the first time the use of Hangul letters became universal in Korea.

Soon after independence in 1945, an official Hangul orthography was adopted, and today in both Koreas Hangul has replaced the Hanja as the common writing system.

2) The Hangul Alphabet. Hold onto your hats, folks: the alphabet that King Sejong and his Hall of Worthies created is remarkable by any standard. In its current form, Hangul has 24 letters, of which 14 are consonants and 10 vowels.

a) Hangul is a partially featural alphabet; that is, the shapes of its letters (or letterforms) reflect the sounds they represent. It is the only featural script in widespread use.

b) Consonants are classified by the vocal organ that produces them: molar (velar), tongue (coronal), lip (bilabial), incisor (sibilant), throat (guttural), and light lip (labiodental). The letterform of each of these classes is based on a shape that is meant to resemble the vocal organ involved, with additional strokes being added to indicate the particular letter’s modification(s) from the model/basic shape.

Other consonant’ featural characteristics include a vertical top stroke over a letter to indicate a plain stop; the nonstops lack the stroke.

c) Sejong and his scholars designed the letterforms of Hangul vowels themselves; they are based on just three symbols: a dot (representing the sun), a horizontal stroke (representing the earth), and a vertical stroke (representing man). Vowel harmony was an important consideration in the design of the vowels, though VH is not as important in spoken Korean as it was during Sejong’s period.

d) Letters in Hangul that are pronounced as a syllable are not written consecutively, but are rather grouped together in blocks. The syllable blocks have three advantages: the letters within them are arranged in the block in an order reflecting the sequence of sounds in the syllable;  the blocks save space in writing and printing; and the blocks are beautiful.


Of course, there’s more to the alphabet than the brief description above covers; to get an better idea of the script, study this chart of jamo, or Hangul letters:

3) Modeling a Future Universal Alphabet on Hangul. A writing reform based on the development of Hangul would go far towards  increasing literacy and bringing cultures across the globe closer together. Here are some of the Hangul principles that one might use to create this alphabet:

a) A strict adherence to phonetic letters;

b) A letterform design that reflects that vocal organs used in producing the sound;

c) A uniform method of marking the same kind of modification to a class’s basic letterform;

d) A logical arrangement of the letters by class; and

e) The continued use of current alphabets until their use become burdensome.

RT’s Related Posts: 1) The Greek Alphabets, An Independent Tradition? 2) Breaking the Code: Points of Articulation & the DoGs

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Photos: Top: Public Statue of King Sejong in Seoul, Korea. Author: David Hepworth. WikiCmns. CC 2.0 Generic. Bottom: Papers printed with Hangul letters. Author: jared. WikiCmns. CC 2.0 Generic.

Music of the Spheres

January 13, 2012 2 comments


It’s been a while since I’ve been on NASA’s Cassini webpageCassini, the NASA/ESA spacecraft that hove into orbit around Saturn in 2005 and started sending back mind-blowing images of the planet and its moons. First, it launched the Huygens space-probe, which successfully landed on the surface of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, sending back amazing images along the way and from the surface (postcards from a billion miles away), then it started photographing the planet and its other moons, discovering four new moons, Methone, Pallene, Polydeuces, and  Daphnis, as it went about its work. Cassini has also mapped the surface of Titan–the second largest moon in the solar system–with cameras designed to penetrate Titan’s thick, smoggy atmosphere.

And then it discovered the ice geysers on the moon Enceladus.

Whoa! Let’s give the probe an A+ for achievement. So, at some point, I figured the fireworks were over, Cassini had sent back all the amazing data it could.

Wrong! The photo above, taken in May 2011, is as fine as any image the spacecraft has sent us so far. Who knows what else we may discover before the batteries run out on this mission. I’ll do my best to keep you posted.       RT


Photograph: Saturn’s Moons Titan and Dione Seen Against the Planet’s Rings. NASA website. NASA-JPL. Public Domain w/ attribution.

A Bird Came Down the Walk

January 10, 2012 3 comments

There is something haunting about this poem by Emily Dickinson. It isn’t just the subject’s transformation from a mere “commuter” bird to an emblem of the sublime; the poem’s modern tone suggests that transcendence is possible even for the most ordinary of creatures. Nature offers us hope of the eternal, an escape effected by beauty.    RT

A Bird Came Down the Walk

A bird came down the walk:

He did not know I saw;

He bit an angle-worm in halves

And ate the fellow, raw.

And then he drank a dew

From a convenient grass,

And then hopped sidewise to the wall

To let a beetle pass.

He glanced with rapid eyes

That hurried all abroad,–

They looked like frightened beads, I thought;

He stirred his velvet head

Like one in danger; cautious,

I offered him a crumb,

And he unrolled his feathers

And rowed him softer home

Than oars divide the ocean,

Too silver for a seam,

Or butterflies, off banks of noon,

Leap, splashless, as they swim.

Image: Comparison of the Feathers of Six Moderns Birds with the Feathers of Archeoptyrix; Author, Conty; Source:  Licence: CC 3.0 Unported.

2011 in review

January 7, 2012 1 comment

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

& folks–the results were somewhat surprising–I’m more than gratified to see some of the Dragons of Grammar posts make the top five. All of the five are certainly worth checking out–and if I had to add one more, it would be Black as a Raven, Red as Blood, White as Snow. Enjoy!     RT

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 12,000 times in 2011. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.