Thursday, April 29, 2010

What I'm Reading: The Coldfire Trilogy

I read a lot of books-- a book a day, on average. I like to talk about the books I read. My Twilight review made the biggest stir of anything I've posted here (even including my challenge to Scott Adams, who has yet to agree to a duel), so I'm interpreting that to mean that my readership also likes to talk about books. If you just come up and ask someone if they've read any good books lately, though, they assume that you're trying to pick them up. (And to be fair, they're usually right.) Enter: What I'm Reading! So you can all be snarky and elitist about books with me!

The First Mate recommended the Coldfire Trilogy to me with the words, "I don't know that you'll like it, but it's interesting." He was, perhaps, justified in his reservations: The Coldfire Trilogy is a 1500-page high fantasy epic which mixes space travel and Dungeons & Dragons-esque pseudo-medieval archetypes in a way I usually find fairly jarring. The language is stereotypically flowery, the raiment is ostentatious and always well-described (why should I care what your adventurer is wearing? I'm not having cybersex with him, for crying out loud), there's a night-elf looking guy with a glowy sword on the cover of each of them, and the main character is a paladin. For the record: I. Hate. Paladins. And all the lawful-stupid whining they generate.

Despite my trepidation, I dove into Black Sun Rising, the first book. I had to fight the compulsion to stop reading after the first fifty pages, finding them full of tedious universe setup and (in my opinion) riotous and unchecked descriptive adjectives. (Yes, I know they are fun to write, people, but they're not half as much fun to read!) At about that fifty-page mark, though, I consciously put aside my quibbles with the genre, most of which are probably rooted in snobbery. Lo and behold, the universe being effusively described was actually pretty interesting. The story is set on the planet Erna, home to a remote colony of refugees from a long-forgotten Earth who have since lost all Terran scientific and technological knowledge.  Erna teems with semi-sentient natural energy, which is psychically responsive to the needs, fears, and desires of the planet's inhabitants. The introduction of humans into this environment triggers devastating and unpredictable change as all of humanity's basest nightmares, as well as its most noble aspirations, suddenly become flesh and feed on their creators.

I am currently halfway through the second book, When True Night Falls, and so far I've enjoyed both far more than I anticipated. The science fiction and space travel are woven into the fantasy conventions well enough that the juxtaposition doesn't feel incongruous, and the culture and physics of the world are both richly developed and fairly original. The stories are cut from the same sparkly, rune-embroidered cloth as most fantasy epics (Save The Princess, Save The World!) but unless you categorically hate that kind of thing, they've got enough emotional resonance and tricky clever bits to keep you interested. The characters do play true to type, but those types keep showing up in fantasy for a reason-- at their best they're inspiring and relatable and at their worst they're amusing. Unsurprisingly, I like the rampantly evil one best of all, and the paladin, at least, is now becoming jaded enough that he doesn't come off as such a sanctimonious prat. And best of all, the books have more depth than just being ripoffs of the Lord of the Rings, which puts them above most of the popular fantasy novels I have read.

In short, if you like fantasy, you will like these books. If you don't like fantasy, you may still like these books. If you, like me, are too much of a literary wanker to admit to liking fantasy (with the exception of Lord of the Rings, of course. Because it's etymologically significant.), then the rewards of getting off your high horse and onto some three-toed fae beast which glows at night would seem to be greater than you might think.


Posted by Silent Five @ 8:53 PM :: (3) comments

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

WTF Wednesday: Xenophobia Is Even Harder To Stomach Than It Is To Spell

 It seems the mayor of the town where I currently reside posted a YouTube video in which he questioned the authenticity of Obama's birth certificate. The letters column of our local paper has been buzzing about this for weeks. There are a few opportunists calling for the mayor's resignation and bringing to bear a recitation of his other dick moves. There are several people pointing out what I first thought when I heard the report- namely, that birthers are old meme now. So 2008. The man's already been president for two years, and the legitimacy of his citizenship has been demonstrated to the satisfaction of the courts, making the birthers about as politically relevant as JFK assassination theorists and tinfoil-hat-wearers. I was surprised at how many letters the paper received howling that Obama should just produce the birth certificate. Hey, sounds reasona- WHOOPS HE HAS.

Now, I realize that most of these people don't actually believe that someone born on foreign soil is incapable of being a good public servant. They're just looking for any way to discredit Obama because they don't like him. This method, however, rubs me the wrong way in the same way it does when people make much of Obama's middle name being Hussein, and not just because by that same logic everyone named Ted is in league with the Unabomber. It shows the ugly face of American xenophobia.  Xenophobia is, broadly, the fear and hatred of anyone unlike you. (Which is different from Xenu-phobia. Fear of Scientology is, in my eyes, totally justified.)

This same prejudicial sentiment was demonstrated to a frightening and disgusting degree in Arizona this past week. The Arizona governor signed into law the most stringent immigration restrictions yet. The bill makes it a state crime to be in the country illegally and mandates that all non-citizens carry their immigration papers on their person. It also states that without proof of legal residency, people may be arrested and detained on suspicion of violating this law.

Let me say that again. This law allows police to stop anyone without cause, ask to see their papers, and arrest them if they cannot immediately prove that their presence in the country is legal. To put this in perspective, think about all the times you've run to the grocery store or the post office and forgotten your driver's license. Now, imagine that any of those times, you could have been taken into police custody and threatened with deportation. If this doesn't bother you, it should. This isn't just an attack on immigration, it's an attack on personal privacy in the most repugnant way-- oppression masquerading as patriotism. Incredibly, proponents maintain that it won't lead to racial profiling, but I'm pretty damn sure the Arizona cops aren't going to be pulling over a carload of white men in suits and asking to see their passports. This law codifies racial profiling in its presumption that Hispanic people are guilty of illegal immigration until proven innocent.

The thing that perhaps troubles me most about American xenophobia is how it smacks of hypocrisy. With very few exceptions, we are all descended from immigrants, and we are all squatting on stolen land. Tea partiers and immigration reformers would do well to remember that. Time was, multiculturalism was considered one of America's strengths, even its cultural backbone. In this rich and various soil innovation, determination, open-mindedness, and compassion could thrive. I've said it before, about many other issues, and I'll say it again: We, as a country, are better than this. This sort of vindictive, hostile defense is beneath us.


Posted by Silent Five @ 9:32 PM :: (2) comments

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Trip Report Tuedsay: Ask Not For Whom The Mall Tolls... tolls for me.

This week my projects are twofold. One is to continue to lead the needlework club at the elementary school where I work--I'm teaching the students how to knit and crochet-- and the other is to find an outfit for an upcoming job interview. An interview at a real company, where real people work. ("Real" in this instance, being "actual career-path, as opposed to just-fell-into-after-college.") The needlework club is an ongoing project and it's going pretty well. (And speaking of ongoing projects, yes, Mother, I'm still working on your sweater!) The interview outfit I didn't anticipate would be so complicated.

My personal style shifts fairly wildly from "angry hipster" to "classy broad," but lately it's settled of necessity on "educator inconspicuous." None of these are images I want to project at a job interview. I was hoping for, at least, "intelligent professional person who is still stylish and has a life." The trouble is that I've lost about 20 pounds since I last could lay claim to looking professional or having a life, and none of my interview-appropriate clothes fit me anymore. This means I have to brave The Mall.

I'm short and curvy, so clothes shopping has always been a hassle. Nevertheless, I actually rather like paying attention to fashion; it's like making myself into an art project. As such, I think of shopping as a treasure hunt. And if I am the Indiana Jones of fashion, then the mall is my deadly trap-filled cave. I'm going into territory fraught with peril and crawling with hostile natives to seek some legendary item which may not actually exist. In Indy's case, it's a golden idol; in mine, it's a button-down shirt that will actually button down and a pair of pants that don't end six inches past my feet. While at least the Nazis don't steal my find the moment I leave, these items have proven just as elusive as Jones's quarry.

I called my sister for moral support. My sister, who answers to the nickname "Fabulous," is five gay men with their own TV show trapped in one snarky lesbian's body. She has drilled me on appropriate hem lengths and educated me about "suit alternatives." She has told me I'm gorgeous over and over again to inoculate me against how drab, pudgy, and stunted dressing room fluorescent lighting invariably makes me feel. And this past weekend during my preliminary reconnaissance, she consoled me as I spent five (5) hours in the mall and acquired one (1) top-- which I can't even wear by itself. This week's project? Mallrats II- This Time, It's Personal. I am going back and not leaving until I look sophisticated and employable. Or until I die. Whichever comes first.


Posted by Silent Five @ 11:18 AM :: (2) comments

Monday, April 26, 2010

Etymology Monday: Reader Mailbag

The title is somewhat misleading, I suppose, as I didn't actually receive this question in the mail. Like many of these updates, it began with the First Mate yelling down at me through the sniper window in his office loft/nerdcave: "Hey, etymology question. How come..."

Today, the sentence ended "...the German word for poison is 'Gift' and the English word 'gift' is nothing close? Did one branch change the meaning and retain the word, or do they come from different roots? Or are they just being sarcastic?" This brings up a topic which fascinates me as a student of lexical borrowing: false cognates, which are terms that mean one thing in one language and something quite different in another. I first encountered these slippery words as a fumbling French exchange student discovering that confus actually means "embarrassed" (which, to be fair, I usually also was.) I haven't catalogued an exhaustive list, but I would guess that English was exceptionally prone to false cognates, given our propensity for absorbing foreign words and also for not really knowing what we're talking about most of the time.

So whence cometh the Gift/gift disparity? According to my new best friends, the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European roots and the Online Etymology Dictionary, both words originate from the Indo-European *ghabh,  "to give or receive."  The suffixed form *ghebh-ti-, "something given or received," seems to lead fairly clearly to "gift." In English, "gift" is a gift from Old Norse, supplanting the similar Old English word giefu. ("Gift" existed in Old English, but it meant "dowry or bride-price.") The Germanic *geban, meaning "to give," is the more immediate ancestor of both of these words, so at some point after the divergence of Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon, the word for "something given" evolved in Germanic to mean something more sinister.

Here, the trail ends, at least the one I can find on the internet. Yahoo! Answers suggests that at one time, "vergeben" meant both "to poison" and "to forgive" (how's that for irony?) but it became too confusing and so poisoning became "vergiften." Then again, this is Yahoo! Answers, so I might just as reputably have used an Ouija board to contact Arminius and asked him. It seems a not unlikely jump from "something given" to "something given in your rival's ale while he isn't looking," and by that point the Norse, English, and German branches of Germanic were far separated from each other. I do have to wonder, however, just how much cynicism I am justified in reading into this evolution. I also have to wonder if German tourists are ever endearingly confused in gift shops.


Posted by Silent Five @ 9:04 PM :: (0) comments

Monday, April 19, 2010

WTF Wednesday, One Day Early: Gay Rights Are Human Rights

I was fiercely glad to read that Obama recently ordered hospitals to allow patients to choose who has visitation rights. This is a step which seems, to me, to be simple human decency. I can't imagine anyone denying the request of a dying man to be with the people he loves. The fact that a desire this basic is being granted as though it were a concession, as though we should look magnanimous for deciding not to strip the dying of comfort, and not only that but the fact that it took this long, unsettles me. At least now our administration is taking steps to make it right.

My friend Tiana wrote an excellent essay around the time when people were voting on one of the shifting incarnations of Prop 8. In it she said something I've often paraphrased (mostly because I can't find her original wording to quote it verbatim) about how mistaken we are to assume it is appropriate to put another person's human rights to a majority vote. It is the responsibility of all political leaders, and indeed all thinking people, to insist on equal rights no matter how many dissenting voices are raised against them.

This same friend passed on a link to me today which shows with heartbreaking clarity the human consequences of silence on this issue. An elderly gay couple in Sonoma County, CA were separated despite their legal paperwork protecting their right to make end-of-life decisions for each other and placed in different nursing homes against their will. The county took possession of their belongings and auctioned them off and surrendered their home to the landlord. One of the partners died in the nursing home alone. The surviving man is left without a home or possessions, without reminder of the life he and the man he loved had shared for twenty years.

I am angry for these men. I am furious that our society could have failed them so cataclysmically. I am even angrier to hear that the friend who passed the link to Tiana said he could imagine the same thing happening to him and his partner one day. If the majority believes that this is an acceptable outcome-- that these men deserved what happened to them-- then the majority is cruelly, dangerously wrong.

Thank you, Obama. I can only hope that you continue this course, that setting things right is more important to you than political maneuvering and the illusion of popular support.


Posted by Silent Five @ 9:40 PM :: (1) comments

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

WTF Wednesday: This Is An Intervention

It's impossible to be unhappy while reading in a tree. Especially a crabapple tree in full bloom, and most especially in perfect spring weather as the sun is going down. Listening to the birds singing and smelling the fragrance of the flowers as pink petals rain gently down on my book-- utter bliss, isn't it?

If, however, you ask me what I was reading, I will like and say "Linguistics textbooks." Or "feminist theory." Or even "a yellow-back novel like they sell in the saloons and burlesque shows." Because that would be less shameful than what I was actually reading.

This is where the WTF comes in. I disliked the Twilight saga intensely from the minute I first tried to hack my way through it. I tore it apart in my earlier review, and my opinion has not changed. Twilight is, at best, vapid and poorly written. At worst, the relationship between Bella and Edward provides a destructive model for impressionable teenage girls who don't realize that Edward's behavior, vampire or not, constitutes emotional and physical abuse. And for some reason, I'm reading it again.

The best explanation I can think of is that I've been feeling frustrated and overwhelmed lately. Orchestrating a move out of state, trying to find a new job, my mother putting our childhood home on the market, and a number of other tensions have got me down, and it felt good reading about someone who's more whiny and emo than I feel. To crib a phrase from a fanfic review I once read, there's enough angst in Twilight to kill Trent Reznor. I mean, my problems may be annoying, but at least I'm not an uninteresting high-school martyr-bunny inexplicably enamored of an immortal abusive asshole. And it's not like I actually like the series. I'm just rereading it to laugh at it. I can quit anytime I want to.

Then again, I once had a friend who started listening to Manowar ironically and wound up on a slippery slope that led to her getting a "Sister of Metal" tattoo. Friends and readers, I count on you to intervene if this gets out of hand. If I ever start dusting myself with body glitter so I too can sparkle in the sun, stake the hell out of me.


Posted by Silent Five @ 9:26 PM :: (1) comments

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Trip Report Tuesday: Always A Production

I think that Trip Report Tuesday is collapsing under my own ambition. My last project was to send e-mails to linguists, and I did send one. After that, I was in the middle of orchestrating my spring break and a job interview, along with planning a move and dealing with some tricky personal issues, and the linguist e-mails just fell by the wayside. I feel like my life is enough of a project right now that I can't afford to give myself new ones. Therefore, my project this week is merely to continue updating... and to finish that damn sock. I've got to the point where I'm turning the heel and I want to wear the stupid thing already.

Do any of you want projects? Let me know!

Posted by Silent Five @ 8:53 PM :: (1) comments

Monday, April 12, 2010

No Shit?

I can't remember where I first heard this amusing etymological trope. I may have read it in one of the popular linguistic travelogues I've been devouring lately. I may have seen it on the internet, which I also devour. At any rate, someone asserts that the word "science" and the word "shit" come from the same Indo-European root. To which I exclaimed "No shit, really?" And then set out to find proof.

Holy Writ (by which, of course, I always mean the OED) traces "science" to the Latin word scire, "to know." Looking up "shit" in the OED gives a vaguer origin, along with a sense of intellectual shame and a fit of the giggles. The farthest they trace it is an Old Teutonic root, skit-, which they do not gloss but which was handed down unchanged into Swedish and still means "shit." The roots are very similar on the surface, but seem completely separate in terms of meaning. Are they really related? Oddly enough, yes.

Germanic and Latin share a common heritage; both of them are descended from the Indo-European family of languages (which also includes such far-flung members as Sanskrit, Celtic, Hindi, Yiddish, and the Romance and Slavic languages.) The American Heritage Dictionary's appendix of Indo-European Roots (available here) lists both "shit" and "science" as derivatives of skei-, meaning "to cut or split." It is related to the root sek-, which also means "to cut"; the Latin analogue secare, which gave us words like "transect," "secant," and "dissect," came from this second root.

So, conceptually, how do you get from "to cut" to "science" and "shit"? Scire, which furnished "science," began life meaning "to discern," "to tell one thing from another," logically linked to the division of knowledge into categories. (This same link led to the word "nice," another scire descendant-- it once meant "precise" or "exacting.") "Shit" is, once again, vaguer. The American Heritage Dictionary traces it, along with "blatherskite" (a Middle English term for a contemptible, long-winded person derived from skite, "diarrhea")  and "shyster," as being "all from Germanic *sktan, to separate, defecate." This sense is echoed in the Greek root meaning "split" which gave us "schizophrenic." Why separate and defecate, though? Why pack these two into one word? Is there an obvious and disgusting allusion to be made here? Well, no science, Sherlock.


Posted by Silent Five @ 9:18 PM :: (0) comments

Word of the Week

gymnosophy [jim-NAH-so-fee]

n. Philosophical, amusing, or nonsensical insights realized when naked, as in the shower or in bed. (recent coinage: att. S. Galasso, 2010)

Victoria and Albert enjoyed a spot of postprandial concupiscence culminating in a night of gymnosophy and coffee and crumpets at dawn.

The Silent Top Five: Bacon-Flavored Desserts

1) Bacon cheesecake.
2) Bacon gumballs.
3) Bacon ice cream.
4) Bacon-orange bars.
5) Bacon apple pie.

Standard Disclaimer

This is all in no way meant to incur copyright-infringement-related wrath. I'm harmless. I promise. Oh, and if you're offended by anything I may post herein, I guarantee I didn't mean to do so (unless, of course, you are a humorless prig. In which case, go right on and be offended, with my blessings.)