August 12, 2011

Testing - please ignore

Just testing to see if a move to a new server went okay (not like anyone reads this blog anyway).

January 28, 2011


I was, like most of my generation, raised on the power of science and engineering to achieve amazing things, and grew up with an idea of America that was largely based on my sense that once we put our minds (and wallets) to something, nothing could keep us from getting it done. As I got older, and read about the men and women of the space race, the threat posed by the Soviets, and America's response, I felt a kind of pride in the way that sound engineering and guts defined us as a nation, and kept that feeling for much of my life.

Even in the disillusioned days after 9/11, when the idiots that had always been there came out of the woodwork with their ridiculous "power of pride" bumper stickers and flag decals, I could reassure myself that despite the jingoism and feeble understanding of world politics (and America's role in them, good and shameful) we were still a country who held a special place, whose dedication to breaking through the chains of history was sacrosanct.

I may not hold with the mass of neoconservatives in the matter of the necessity of religious belief for moral soundness, and think government has done a number of great things (though alongside a number of really stupid ones), but undeniably one of the great ones is the act of putting men, American men, on the moon and in space and sending craft to the other planets and moons. I had a telescope when I was a kid, and I remember looking at the tiny crescent of Venus, the craters of the moon, distant Jupiter with its moons and Saturn with its rings. Knowing that we had sent things to those places and that they sent data and images back for science was somehow enough to keep out the creeping feeling of how small that meant we were, I was.

But on a cold day in January 1986, twenty five years ago today, I was sitting in a hallway waiting for Mrs. Thomas to unlock the classrom where we were going to watch the shuttle launch after lunch, and my friend Josh, who was an affable if somewhat goofy kid, came up to me and asked me what was up, and just to screw with his head a bit I said "didn't you hear? The shuttle blew up!" Of course, I didn't know about it yet. It hadn't happened yet. He was terribly upset and I felt bad about things, but then along came Mrs. Thomas and we went into class as usual.

And I soon watched in horror as the first real disaster of my life unfolded, my faith in science and technology started to waver and crack, and I learned that while equations are still part of a perfect world, O-rings and frost and bureaucracy and other big little things can tear a hole in the sky and fill it with smoke and dead astronauts.

At this point, all I can say is that there's a bit of that pride still there, knowing that even after Challenger was lost, and then Columbia, there are still those who are willing to throw themselves into the sky strapped to giant pillars of fire, so that we might not all be bound to scratch out our meager lives on this swirling oblate spheroid we call home.

November 19, 2010

Not sure what this says about my brain

I spend much of my day looking at, and for, patterns. Whether they be patterns that match hostnames, like I create as part of my antispam project, Enemieslist, or patterns in email traffic, or patterns in many other arenas, one thing you have to watch out for is being misled by false clues.

In the ongoing effort to classify naming conventions, I've learned a lot about the culture and terminology of networking. A token 'bri' may refer for example to 'Basic Rate Interface', and implies that the host is an ISDN link. 'ppp' may mean dialup, and hence normally dynamically assigned hosts, but it may also mean statically assigned hosts over Ethernet (pppoe, usually). But the mere presence of a certain token isn't always sufficient to signify what you expect it would normally; for example, 'client' in some contexts is roughly equivalent to 'user' (dynamic) and in others means 'customer', more in the sense of 'business class customer'. So I struggle with the varied conventions and limitations of Google Translate and do the best I can do.

When I'm grinding through long lists of hostnames and zooming around my XML files in emacs, I try to take breaks every so often, to keep my mind from turning to mush. One thing I've found enjoyable is to look up the various regions and locales that I find domains registered in, or hostnames containing references to. One search led me to a short page about a town in Poland, which is distinguished only by a clock tower and the fact that the town's Jews were completely exterminated by the Nazis in 1943. Must be fun to be part of the Chamber of Commerce in that town, eh?

Another search led me to a page delineating the various words, suffixes, and prefixes that English has absorbed over the years from older languages, used in place names, and their meanings ("lea" is a meadow or clearing, "holm" is an island, "hithe" a wharf, "ford" a crossing, and so on). I was familiar with many of them, just from reading over the years; others I'd had different senses of ("wich", meaning simply "place or settlement", I had been misled into thinking meant "salt works" because several early salt works were in Middlewich, Norwich, and other such - it's also possible that wick derives from Norse 'vik', or bay, because if you're going to make salt, a bay is a pretty good place to do it).

One which I hadn't known before, however, stuck with me.

It seems that "-ey" in many place names is an old reference to an island. (Think of the French "ile", for example). Anglesey, the island just off the northwest coast of Wales, is "the Angles' island"; Athelney is an island (actually, a dry area surrounded by marsh) in southwest England. Once I learned this, I couldn't keep from finding the suffix everywhere. Unfortunately, usually in exception rather than proper observation of the rule. My grandfather on my mother's side, for instance, was named Sidney (said to derive from the French St. Denis, itself a corruption and derivation of Dionysus). A friend in the antispam world has the last name Bilbrey, which is a corruption of Bilborough or Bilbury, similar to the pronunciation of Marlborough among a certain class of English (MAR-bra). And while Romney (once an island in Kent), Orkney (Norse for "seal island", from an even older Gaelic name), Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Lindsey, and others are the result of the pairing of some other word with "-ey" and do refer to islands, most don't.

Haughey, Finney, Gaffney, Griffey, Duffy, Caughey, Sweeney and a variety of others are actually anglicized from Gaelic names that have nothing to do with islands. Some others are simply different spellings of unrelated words (Britney from Bretagne/Brittany, Stacey from the Greek Anastasia, Courtney from either Irish Gaelic "O'Curnain" or French "Curtenus", or "short nose"). Many are actually references to meadows or fields (pretty much anything that ends in "ley or "ly" or "lea" is, apparently, excepting nearly every adverb in English, of course). Godfrey is a corruption of German Gottfreid. Aubrey is Tuetonic for "King of the Elves". Cheney is an old French surname. Names ending in "-by' tend to be derived from Norse for "farmstead or small village". Surrey is derived from "Suthrige", or southern region. Disney, from the Norman D'Isigny, but I'm unsure whether the French refers to an island. Riley, which you might think would mean "rye meadow", is also derived from Irish Gaelic and means something else entirely. McCaffrey, Gaffney, Casey, Daley ditto. Kinsey is derived from "King's (or royal) victory" in Old English.

You see the point. But it's been absolutely maddening for me for some reason, and spurred me on to research every name or placename I hear that ends in a long e sound, and almost all I've looked at have been exceptions to the supposed rule. It's almost to the point where I'm feeling anxious about it, and I'm not sure why. It may be that it just seems weird to have never noticed how many English names end in a long e sound. When I was a kid one of my favorite illustrators was Aubrey Beardsley. Somehow, it never occurred to me to notice that both of his names ended in 'ey' or to wonder whether it meant anything or not. (In this case, neither is related to islands, as we saw with Aubrey above; Beardsley is apparently a "lost place", it doesn't exist today, but many people in Nottinghamshire or Leicestershire have it as a surname).

Or perhaps it's just what it portends for our ability to know where we came from, with so much of the origins of our language obscured by a simple ending with so many different corruptions and influences. I recently read The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, which was a fascinating inquiry into the people who may have spoken the language we refer to as Proto-Indo-European, actually a reconstructed idea of a language. It's really not much more than a few stems and prefixes, derived by tracking the evolution of modern languages and finding commonalities and trends in sound shifts and so forth. I was ensnared by the idea that we could reconstruct a language nobody has spoken in tens of thousands of years, just as I was chilled by the idea that one day the language of my thoughts and arguments and judgements would be gone.