Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Merciful Talliban

Somewhere in the middle of my morning paper, I ran onto two stories posted side by side, so that the headlines could be read almost together. The first headline was, "Taliban Prisoner Complains about Treatment." It seems that a jailed terrorist thinks that his keepers are being too strict on his, limiting his ability to practice his religion, and therefore putting him in danger of hellfire. He claims that if he can't exercise his religious convictions to the fullest, he is unacceptable to God. In this case it's prayer, something about the way his rug is positioned. The second headline read, "Taliban beheads 13 at party." It seems that some people, exercising their religious convictions to the fullest, broke into a home and cut the heads off of a bunch of people. All in the name of God, of course. Ah, those Talibaners, they know how to have a good time.
I'd like to believe that the layout person at the paper put those two stories together deliberately, so that the forbearance of one society could be contrasted nicely with the viciousness of the other. But, probably not.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Grammar King

I just finished a most unsatisfying semester. I was notched into a class I didn't want to teach, and felt that I was really not able to give my best shot. Not because I didn't know the material -- it was Grammar, and I am a Grammarian. Or, at least, a linguist.
Y'see, the problem is that as a linguist I know that there is a huge difference between the knowledge of the rules of grammar (as they are taught in the school system) and the ability to produce grammatical sentences. For most people, there is no reason or value or validity or worth or profit in studying traditional parts of speech grammar. I felt obliged to share this information with the class, which caused them to ask the question, "Then, why are we here?"  I couldn't answer that one very well.
So there I was, teaching grammar. Since I had to teach it and they had to take it, I vowed that I'd try to 1) make it interesting, and 2) make sure the students got it. As a result, I basically worked on a day to day schedule, talking about nouns and verbs and adjectives and (shudder) adverbs, then testing the students to see what they had absorbed. It made for an up-in-the-air experience which must have been unsettling to modern students, who want to know exactly what they are doing from day to day, and, more importantly, when the test days are.
In this class, students knew the general trend of the lessons, but didn't know precisely what we would be doing on any one day.
It was actually a very liberating experience in a way. I wasn't simply covering a set amount of material in a set time -- I was covering as much as I could cover thoroughly in the time I had. And, I have to admit, for a linguist, talking about syntax and words is fun any time, even if it doesn't serve any real-world purpose.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Myth as history

So here's the deal: A beloved king in ancient times knows that he's getting old and liable to bite the dust any day. He wants to assure that his oldest son succeeds him, and to give his people some kingly advice. So, he says to his son, "Get everyone together tomorrow and I'll talk to them." Now, we have no idea what time of day this occurred, but let's say about 10 a.m., the start of the business day.
So, on the next day, all the people of the kingdom gathered, and there were a lot of them, so many that the king had to order a tower built so that he could speak from it. How big was the tower? We don't know. Let's say, though, that it was 12 feet tall and big enough to hold one king.
With me so far? Okay, so in come the people. They came in droves, they came in hordes, they came in legions. How many? We don't know, but they set up their tents facing the king's tower, and gathered together as families. So, the patriarch's tent would be there, in all its patriarchal splendor, then the tents of the sons, the sons of sons, the sons of sons of sons, and so on. I don't know where the daughters were -- they're not mentioned.
Now, there were so many people, that they couldn't all hear the king, not even from his tower, not even if he used a megaphone. So, he stationed people throughout the crowd with paper and pencil (or the equivalent) to take down the words the king spake and distribute them to the crowd. The king gave a bang-up sermon and named his oldest son as successor, a good time was had by all, and the people went home satisfied and edified.
But there are some trouble spots in the story. The way the story is told, it was a spur of the moment kind of thing. The king talking to his son and sort of hatching the plot on the fly. That being the case, here's what had to happen in the space of about one day:
- The king had to get word to his people to assemble. There being no telephone or radio service, no roads, it meant runners out to all the segments of the kingdom. Since it's a kingdom and not a city or a duchy or a barony, we can assume there were a lot of people. Were there runners hanging around, waiting for the king do tell them what to do? No, because the king prided himself on not being that kind of a king. So, first he had to hustle up some messengers. Whom would he choose? Professional messengers? Aren't any. So, he's got to find someone to round up the messengers. He's got to write out instructions to everybody on assembling: time, place, order of encampment, and so on.
- The people have to assemble. So, first, they've got to get the message. Then, they have to pack and make provisions for their flocks and herds and fields. I mean, you don't just drop everything and take off to see the king. So, herds taken care of, tents packed, family assembled, the families have to journey to where the king is giving a speech, set up camp, get dinner cooked and eaten and the kids to bed.
How long would that take? Let's say that the kingdom is a small one -- fifty by fifty miles, and that the king's tower was smack dab in the middle. So, starting from 10 a.m., the king has to write and make copies of his orders, say one hour; find some runners (he'd need, what? 50?), two hours; get them equipped, girded, mounted, given food, drink, and the messages, another two hours. So, it would be a minimum of five hours before they even started out. And that's assuming a bureaucracy more efficient than is really possible. Then, the riders have to ride, run to the ends of the kingdom, seek out the patriarchs, give them the messages, and ride home, exhausted. The patriarchs have to gather their people, etc. etc. etc., and make it back to the king's city before nightfall, in time to set up their tents. And these people are either walking or riding in carts, which have a top speed of three miles an hour downhill in a tail wind.
See what I mean? I can't be done. What I've described is a process that would take a week under the best of circumstances, and more likely three.
Yet, there they were the next day.
And what about the scribes, the paper, the writing, the copying, of the speech? And the tower. Let's not forget about the tower. If the king scared up builders and got them started right away, how long would it take? Well, first he'd have to find enough builders. Then, they'd have to get the lumber, probably cut it as there were no Lowes stores anywhere around. Then, they'd have to put it together. Could it be done in one third of one day? Maybe. But I've seen movies of people trying to build things like siege towers, and it's a more-than-one-day job, and they did have a Lowes nearby.
Yet the account is firm -- it happened in the space of about 24 hours. Heck, let's say 48 hours. It's still not nearly enough time. I mean, the logistics of the note-taking themselves are formidable.
Yet people buy the story. As history. Not as myth, allegory, legend, or parable. As history. I just can't go along.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Sex Education

The Utah legislature is considering a bill that would allow schools to dispense with sex education altogether. I have no idea why they would be doing this, since there is no evidence whatsoever that sex ed influences kids to have sex. Actually, they're going to do that anyway, regardless of whether they learn about sex in the classroom or in the back seat of a car.
The mentality the legislature seems to be displaying is this: Someone asks a question --"How can we protect our young people from the dangers of sexual indulgence?" The legislature's answer seems to be, "Let's keep them in complete ignorance!"
Wow, what a stroke of genius! I'd like to advise the legislature to take it one step further. Maybe we could make it a law that women should wear a garment that covers them from head to foot. We'll leave armholes, of course, and a slit to see out of, but if that doesn't protect our young people, then perhaps we'll have to move on to chastity belts.
Sex education has much to recommend it, and nothing to suggest that it isn't a help in people's lives. To me, this proposed legislation makes the legislators, in the words of Professor Fate, "Thimble-headed gherkins."

Monday, February 6, 2012

Chariots in the red sea

I recently ran across a spate of items on the famous crossing of the Red Sea, when the Hebrews crossed on dry land, and "Pharaoh's army got drownded," so Mary don't you weep.
It seems that an amateur archaeologist claims to have found chariot wheels at the bottom of the Red Sea, which proves that the Biblical account is true.
Whoa there! Some comments:
1. First of all, there is no evidence that there is anything at the bottom of the sea at all. There are photos, of what could possibly be wheels, but no actual artifacts.
2. Even if there were chariot wheels found, what would that prove? It would prove that there were chariots at the bottom of the Red Sea. It does not follow that they were Pharaoh's, nor that they were chasing Israelites, nor that they were part of an army.
If we are to accept the Biblical account, I suspect we would need to find the following:
- Lots and lots of chariots. After all, it was an army that got drowned.
- Evidence that the chariots were Egyptian, Military, and period appropriate.
With evidence like this in hand, I might be inclined to accept that the account could be true.