A bit on the subtleties of Bislama

Monday, November 30, 2009

A search on Google News for the word Bislama (and Tok Pisin) usually turns up nothing at all, or otherwise just a travel article on Vanuatu giving a quick mention that "the locals speak a pidgin/creole called Bislama" before going back to describing the country as a travel destination.

A recent search using the term though actually turned up an article about Bislama and Bislama alone, namely about a false confidence some English speakers have in using the language due to its familiarity when sometimes a word can mean something slightly (or very) different. The article doesn't go into a great amount of detail, but that may just be due to a restricted article length and the author has left her e-mail address at the bottom for those that have questions.

Bislama also happens to be the only creole language with a translation on Ted.com, a short video that you can see here:

The person that did the translation there is given as meli.barnes, though I can't seem to find any more information there.

Here's a quick bit from the video showing the English original and the Bislama translation. Note how much longer the latter tends to be.

This map. This map shows the number of seconds that American network cable news organizations dedicated to news stories by country in February of 2007.

Map ia. Map ia i soem nam blong ol seken we olgeta netwok blong nius blong Amerika mo ol rigin nius oganaesesen i bin yusum blong talemaot stori long saed blong ol nius long every kantri raon long wol, long February 2007-wan yia i pas nomo.


Movement for the defense of French created in Montérégie, Quebec

Radio Canada has an article on the subject here, with a total of 76 comments so far. Here's what the article says:

A group for the protection of French has been created in Montérégie. Connected to the Mouvement Montréal français, the Mouvement Montérégie français intends to fight against the anglicization of the southern suburb of the metropolis.

"The Island of Montreal is being anglicized, and this is flowing over the border (into other regions). French is losing ground in many areas, in Brossard, in Châteauguay, in Delson, in La Prairie, in Longueil", says the spokesman for the group, the author Yves Beauchemin.

The movement intends to promote French in this region by participating in welcoming and francization of new arrivals.

Montérégie is the region with the third largest number of immigrants in Quebec. If the group sees a link (to immigrants and a weakening of French), it does not blame them, however.

"It is our attitude to French that is the problem. Quebec almost always uses English with newcomers. It's the softness of the Charest government in defending and promoting French", says Yves Beauchemin.

He also lays blame on the decisions of the Supreme Court, where the last one invalidated Law 104. That law, passed in 2002, closed the door to allophone children who entered English public schools after a stint in a private school.

"This decision is the 200th change, or nearly so, that the Supreme Court has imposed on Law 101, and there it affects the language of instruction."

The Mouvement Montérégie français will be officially launched on Sunday  by a rally denouncing this decision of the highest court in the country.

Some of the comments below blame the quality (grammar, proper usage) of French in Montreal and Quebec for immigrants not learning it (that's definitely not true). One interesting comment has been written by someone from Switzerland about how Switzerland handles linguistic policy.


NASA's Dawn has entered the asteroid belt, and will stay there

Yay! This technically doesn't mean anything on a daily basis since the asteroid belt is still mostly just empty space as well, but it's a symbolic entry into the area where Dawn will spend the rest of its life. It's also the first spacecraft to take up residence there; all others have simply passed through en route to some other destination.

Number of days left to wait until Dawn arrives at the first destination (Vesta): 602.

Another related article from last month may be interesting: the asteroid 2 Pallas is actually a protoplanet rather than just an asteroid. Some are hoping that Dawn will be able to visit 2 Pallas as well after Ceres if it turns out to have the required fuel and health after its mission is over.


29 November 2009: A majority in Switzerland vote to ban the construction of minarets

Well, that was certainly a surprise. You can see the results by canon in German here. Every canon except four voted for the ban. The canon that was most opposed to the ban was Geneva, and the one most in favour of it was Glarus.

Now, as for the international reaction: it will depend on the way other countries treat religious minorities in their own land. Those in which apostasy or the construction of other religious buildings is forbidden for example don't really have a leg to stand on, but perhaps others might. I'm not up to date with the specific regulations in each country though so I can't really say.


National Geographic on the search for other Earths

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Throughout history, only one Earth has been known to exist in the universe. Soon there may be another. And another. And another. 

So begins a new article by National Geographic on a subject written about here pretty much every few days. The article is four "pages" in length and I'm glad to see that page 3 mentions that red dwarf stars may actually be the best candidates for extrasolar Earths and life elsewhere (for why this may be so, see this article from 2001). A lot of other articles fail to take this into account and thus assume that it will take Kepler three years to find an Earth-like planet when really this isn't true. Well, it's also not true because even an Earth-like planet in exactly the same orbit as ours could technically be observed three times (the minimum required before Kepler announces a discovery) in two years and one day instead of three years, if the planet happened to be just on the verge of passing in front of its star right before Kepler began observations.

It also mentions that telescopes dedicated to finding out more about these planets will likely be developed after their discovery, which I also believe to be true. It's simply too enticing a target to not do so. Telescopes are also generally not all that expensive (compared to probes and especially to manned missions), and even nations far away from developing their own spacefaring capability will certainly be able to build ground-based telescopes that will be able to help out here.


Lots of ich und ich songs on YouTube with lyrics for learning German

Using music is a fun and effective way to learn a language, and when the lyrics are readily available it's even easier. One interesting thing about learning a language through music is that the best songs aren't always the best way to learn a language since really good songs (by which I mean highly original, inspired and generally not very radio-friendly music) often have lyrics that are difficult to interpret (Radiohead) or long spaces with no singing at all (Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden). The best songs for learning a language are generally fairly radio-friendly but not overly trendy, with a simple message and lots of repetition. Ich und ich is one of those bands, and on YouTube there are quite a few of their videos with the lyrics right in the video itself which makes it really easy to follow along. Here are three examples:


How to properly ascertain the "value" of a language

The word value is in quotes because the real value of learning and using a language lies simply in, well, learning and using it. Since learning a language usually takes years and years, the only real criterion that should be considered before learning a language is whether you like it or not, whether this language appeals to you enough to invest years and years of your time learning it.

In spite of this, however, languages are often pitted against each other where the value of one is measured against the other in terms of number of native speakers, people studying the language, cultural value, etc. You see this in lazy appraisals of the situation by parents or others that have decided that Language X is totally the language of the past and Language Y is the new must-learn language. Here are some signs to watch out for that might indicate that you're dealing with sloppy logic when someone tells you that Language X is out and Language Y is the next big thing. Chinese and German are going to be compared a lot in this post as Chinese is an example of a language that is being a bit hyped now while German is an example of the opposite, a language just as worth learning that has been ignored recently.

Sloppy argument 1: Languages with more speakers are worth more than languages with fewer.

This is probably the sloppiest argument of them all. Don't learn German, it's only spoken in Western Europe, don't learn Korean, it's only spoken in Korea. The argument is sloppy though because a mere comparison of number of speakers doesn't indicate anything about a language's influence. Let's take a look at the top ten spoken languages in the world as an example. The last one has been removed from the list, so try to guess which one it is.

Chinese, English, Hindi/Urdu, Spanish, Arabic, French, Russian, Indonesian/Malay, Portuguese, and...?

Hm, what could the missing language be? Japanese? Nope. German? Nope. Vietnamese, Korean? No again. The next language on the list is Bengali, one of the most spoken languages in the world with a total speaker population of 230 million. And how often does one hear an exhortation to learn Bengali instead of German or Italian, because there are so many people to use it with? Clearly the sloppy argument about number of speakers is the wrong one to use.

A far better way to ascertain the "value" or influence of a language is to look at a few criteria:

1: GDP per capita
2: Status of the language in the respective countries and areas where it is used
3: Press freedom, internet freedom, economic/human development in the countries where it is used

GDP per capita: GDP per capita is much more important than total GDP or total population, because when someone tells you that Language X is worth learning because it "helps your career", what this means simply is that Language X is better than other languages at helping one earn more money in the end. Okay, so let's think about how the average person makes money. Is it through stocks, buying and selling land, creating companies...? No, usually not. The vast majority of us make money by working for a company, trading a certain number of hours a week in exchange for a certain amount of money. In other words, since most of us work in positions like these, the total number of high-paying jobs that a language has to be able to provide in order to be more worthwhile than another is: one. It doesn't matter whether the language is spoken by one million or one billion, as long as knowing it makes the difference between getting and not getting that one job that pays well and it worth doing.

Take Norway as an example. Norwegian is the easiest language for English speakers to learn, and it has the second highest GDP per capita in the world after Luxembourg. If knowing fluent Norwegian can help one get a job making twice as much money back home, then clearly the language has demonstrated its economic value in spite of being spoken by only 5 million people. On the other hand, Spanish is spoken by more than 400 million people throughout the world, but its value in the workforce (especially in the United States) is a bit iffy, since it's not all that rare a skill to have. Perhaps you are fluent in Spanish, but so are a few million immigrants who do not demand all that high a salary to work. This is not to say that Spanish is not a worthwhile language to learn, but it's not a language where simply putting it on a resume results in a higher salary.

Status of the language in the respective countries and areas where it is used: This is important because often languages have differing statuses in the countries where they are used - some will be official languages, some simply spoken by a large segment of the population, some will be seen as cultured languages by the population, etc. Spanish in the US and French in Canada provide a good example. Spanish is spoken by far more people in the US than French is in Canada (though not per capita, mind you), but French is an official language of the country and many government jobs require fluency in French. These government jobs start the employee out at a slightly lower pay scale than others, then give the employee a year of training in which he or she has to become fluent after which you have a cushy government job and are set. Fluency in French is also often seen as a sign of intelligence or status in Canada, more so than Spanish in the United States.

Afrikaans is another interesting example. It is also another easy language to learn, the cousin of Dutch, and spoken by quite a few people.(12 to 16 million, maybe more). Unfortunately in South Africa it is technically only one of 11 official languages, and so many speak English so well that Afrikaans has to work hard to stay noticed, and even that is only in the western part of the country. Afrikaans is also still (unfairly) stuck with some of the baggage that comes with the legacy of Apartheid.

Press freedom, internet freedom, etc.: Chinese is a good example here of a language that is spoken by a large population and fairly influential, but still a bit sketchy. A few months ago riots occurred in Xinjiang / East Turkestan, the western part of China with a large Uyghur population. In response to this, the internet was cut off entirely. China also often cuts off access to sites like Wikipedia and others from time to time at a whim and without warning. This is quite a big deal since the majority of Chinese found in the world is spoken in the People's Republic of China; remove that country from the equation and there is little influence left. It also remains to be seen whether China will be able to improve its overall environmental footprint in spite of a rapidly growing economy.

On the other hand, Germany and other countries where German is spoken are managing to do quite well here. Press freedom is not restricted, internet access is good, technologies such as wind technology, electric cars and passive houses are being given a lot of importance. Given all this, German is probably still a safer bet in spite of the hype Chinese has been given over the past few years.

Let's get to sloppy argument 2.

Sloppy argument 2: You don't need to learn languages spoken by people that are good at English.

This argument is another sloppy one that has no basis in reality, and is often given by those that have spent a few weeks in Europe and are amazed at how "everyone speaks English". Yes, certainly a lot of people speak English in Western Europe when approached by a tourist needing help. But no, this does not mean that learning the language spoken there suddenly becomes a waste of time and effort. We'll take Norwegian as an example again, since Norwegians are some of the best English speakers in Europe. If you happen to have a very marketable skill then certainly it is possible to work in Norway while knowing only English. Otherwise, however, knowing the language is probably one of the best ways to make inroads into the country, to impress potential employers that you are a serious and ambitious potential employee. It's true that most in the office will still be able to speak to you in English, but a monolingual English employee is still the only one that is not able to answer the phone, understand the conversation by co-workers in the background, understand a rental contract by themselves, understand the news, know what the bus driver is talking about when he says that there's been an accident up ahead and they will have to take a right turn here instead of going straight as the bus usually does, etc. In other words, monolingual employees always require a certain amount of babysitting that bilingual employees don't.

And besides, there are also jobs out there that require a knowledge of Norwegian - Microsoft hired a large number of beta testers fluent in Norwegian when creating the Norwegian translation of Windows 7.

Sloppy argument 3: forgetting to factor in difficulty and similarity to other languages.

This is another area in which Chinese is overhyped at the expense of others. Check the comments section in any Canadian article on French and one is more likely than not to find a comment along the lines of "man, nobody speaks French anymore and French bilingualism is a waste of money. We should be teaching our kids Chinese instead".

The reason why this is a sloppy argument is easy to see: Chinese takes a lot longer to learn for a unilingual speaker of English, and it helps less in learning other languages later on. The only languages that really become easier after learning Chinese are Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese, and this is due to a large historical Chinese influence as opposed to any real similarity between the languages. Leave that part of the world though and Chinese doesn't help to learn any other languages. Compare this to French: French is similar to Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian and Latin, and it has had a huge influence on English as well. It's even similar to German in a few respects (using the verb have to make the past tense, -ons (German uns) in 1st person plural, etc.). It also takes less time to learn. This is important because most students do not become fluent in the first language they take up in school. Many learn one language for a few years, decide they don't like it and then move on to a different one later on. If you learned French in school and want to move on to Spanish or Portuguese, you're good. Same for learning German in school and moving on to Norwegian or Swedish later. Chinese...not so much.

Sloppy argument 4: language X is spoken in more countries than language Y and has a higher total GDP so it's more worth learning.

This isn't quite as sloppy as the other arguments given above since it requires a bit of thought to come up with, but it's still not quite accurate. It's seen often when the argument is given that Spanish is more worth learning than another European language because it's spoken in so many countries, especially in Central and South America. This is naturally a good argument when your goal is to travel or live in Central or South America. It's a bad argument though when one's goal is to simply find a higher paying job, or move to a different country in order to do so. The reason for this is that the GDP numbers here are not per capita. Indeed, the highest GDP per capita one will find in Spanish-speaking South America is Chile, and even that is only $10,000 or so. Compare that to Norway, where the minimum hourly wage is about $16.50 ($34,320 per year). Yes, the country is also much more expensive but compare being able to save some 10% of one's wages in Norway compared to other countries.

Conclusion: this post is not meant in any way to sway you towards languages like Norwegian or German or anything else, but merely to attempt to make sure that you are not swayed towards a language you would not otherwise learn due to sloppy logic. It is always most important to simply learn a language that you are capable of putting in years and years of time into, and if that language is Chinese or Welsh or French or Bislama, then so be it. Just be careful that you do not find yourself a year or two later in the middle of a textbook of a language you do not particularly like, because your parents or friends or teacher or anyone else made a sloppy argument that seemed to be valid at the time but turned out to be little more than hype.


New plans for civilian supersonic jets to succeed the Concorde - QSST, SBJ, QSJ, HISAC, and more

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Welt has an interesting article in German from yesterday on a number of possible successors to the Concorde, which still remains the fastest civilian jet in history but eventually became unworkable and also had a really loud sonic boom that made it impossible to fly over populated areas. Newly proposed jets are a great deal smaller than the Concorde with seating for only a bit over a dozen people, but the sound they make is minimal. In fact, their smaller size may ensure more successful sales since the private business airplane market is full of people that would gladly spend more money for an airplane that would result in a savings of a few hours per flight. This includes not just businesspeople but also leaders and politicians from relatively small countries.

The article itself is fairly long, and here's one part of it.

It is the first civil supersonic jet after the Concorde, it's called QSST (Quiet Supersonic Transport), and on the pre-order list for this airplane is an impressive list of determined buyers. Above everything else though, this QSST is the first example of a new generation of private supersonic business machines for 10 to 50 passengers, all of which must overcome a crucial obstacle: an unobtrusive (i.e., mostly silent) breaking of the sound barrier.

The Concorde sounded on its last flight in 2003 over the Atlantic like a hammer of God: "Ba-BAam!" to the eardrums of sailors or whales. No wonder that it was unwelcome over populated areas, at least at supersonic speed.

The newly constructed and much smaller QSST from the American manufacturer SAI (Supersonic Aerospace International LLC) on the other hand is so quiet, that the American government could repeal the supersonic flight ban over the United States, or at least the manufacturers hope.

SAI ensures that the transition to supersonic speed at a height of 18,000 meters is only audible at a level of 65 dB. This is one hundredth that of the sonic boom produced by the Concorde, and is comparable to the sound made by a passing car at 100 km/h, or a conversation. The QSST costs 80 million dollars, and provides places for 16 passengers. The machine should be capable of flight in 2014, and delivery is expected in 2016.

Another model with a nearly identical price is Aerion Corporation's Supersonic Business Jet (SBJ). This long, cigar-shaped airplane is designed to efficiently fly very near the sound barrier at Mach 0.98, which would enable it to fly over the US without needing a change in the law.

The manufacturer also says that up to a speed of Mach 1.1 no boom can be heard on the ground, in what is known as a "boomless cruise". This is sigfinicant because unlike the US, many countries have existing rules that allow supersonic flight as long as no boom can be heard from the ground. Over the ocean the SBJ can fly at a speed of Mach 1.6 about double that of current airplanes. To bring all their conflicting requirements under one roof, the SBJ uses thin miniature wings instead of the typical delta wing design.

A third American project is currently progressing in the darkness: the Gulfstream Quiet Supersonic Jet (QSJ). There are no pictures of this one, except those produced by a wind canal test at NASA. An engineer there holds a strange combination of arrow-shaped wings and an long, pointed nose in the air stream. This lance-shaped nose is to extend to a length of over eight metres during flight, and at supersonic speeds splits the bow shock wave into several small, shallow waves. The company calls it the "Gulfstream Whisper" and shows an audio simulation of the expected noise heard on the ground as it passes over, to hundreds of environmentalists, politicians, critics and interested parties. Gulfstream is confident that the sound emitted at supersonic levels will be 10,000 times quieter than that of the Concorde, effectively making it no louder than normal ambient background sounds.

Europe to also make its own new supersonic aircraft

The French manufacturer Dassault is also working with 37 partners on a High Speed Aircraft (HISAC) quite similar to those proposed by the Americans: 8 to 16 passengers, modern environmental technology, a range of up to 9000 km and like the QSST, quiet enough that the sound heard on the ground as it passes overhead is no more than 65 dB. The model's form resembles that of the Concord. Even Japan's space agency JAXA is looking at an eventual successor to the Concorde, a small supersonic jet for about 30 to 50 passengers.


Tesla Roadster finally available in Canada (Toronto)

One link here from the Globe and Mail has the story, and another one here features a test drive of the car in Toronto. The second link has quite a bit about so-called "range anxiety", where one begins to notice that the meter has gone down a fair amount and you begin to think about whether there is enough electricity to get home or wherever you happen to be going. This unease that many will still feel when driving an electric car is why it is of paramount importance to work on increasing range more than anything else, because this is the only downside to an electric car without the range problem there simply isn't any reason to stick with a gasoline-powered car anymore.

The range also means that other parts of Canada will not likely see one for quite some time, unless someone feels like taking the roadster on a very long road trip of only a few hours per day.

In other electric car news, Norway's Think has finally decided on a state in the US in which to build its Think City vehicles - Indiana. They had spent quite a bit of time looking at places like Oregon, California, Michigan and a few others. The Think City is actually a much more exciting car than the Tesla Roadster simply for the fact that it has the potential to be purchased by a large number of regular people for everyday needs.


Luther H. Dyer's book The Problem of an International Language and its Solution in Ido

The book has recently moved to this link, and it's definitely a book anyone interested in IALs but uncertain which to learn should give a read through. The part that best explains the difference between Ido and Esperanto is found in the two links here and here, especially in the second where reversibility is explained. Reversibility is one factor in Ido that really appealed to me in 2005 when I first started learning it, as it resembled a few other languages I had learned such as Japanese, Korean and Turkish. See a comparison of mine here.


Swiss citizens to vote on a minaret ban in two days; interview with one of the initiators of the referendum

Friday, November 27, 2009

Meneame (kind of like Reddit or Digg but in Spanish) is currently discussing an article here featuring an interview with Ulrich Schlüer (shown on the right), one of the initiators of the referendum that will be voted on in two days. Items can be put to Swiss citizens in a referendum if over 100,000 signatures are received to support it. Here's most of the interview.
More than 110,000 signed the petition of the SVP (Swiss People's Party) to hold a binding referendum to prohibit the construction of minarets. The posters of the yes campaign have offended the more than 400,000 Muslims who live in this state in the centre of Europe. In them is shown a violent and aggressive image of the religious community that, in Switzerland's case, comes mainly from Turkey and the Balkans.

Ulrich Schlüer is a member of the SVP and the leader of the initiative against minarets. His controversial remarks have generated a heated debate in the country.

Q: - Why has a referendum been arranged to prohibit the construction of minarets in Switzerland?

A: - Minarets open the door to sharia (Islamic law) in Switzerland. We see them as a symbol of political Islam.

Q: - Listening to this it would seem that Switzerland is full of minarets, but in reality there are only four. Moreover, they are only used to call the faithful to prayer. Can you really talk of Islamization?

A: - We do not have the same situation as in Berlin, Paris or London. In Switzerland the problem is just beginning, which is when it can be solved. It's true that we have few minarets, but on the other hand there are 17,000 women that are forced to marry their husbands, and this is against our constitution. We do not accept any other law, because our laws do not come from heaven nor are they proclaimed by a dictator. Anyone can come to Switzerland at any time as long as they respect our laws.

Q: - But a minaret is just a tower of cement joined to a mosque, is it not?

A: - A minaret is a construction but is also a symbol. The political message of a minaret, which has no religious significance, is: "We want to implement Islamic law", and there are mosques in Switzerland in which this is openly said.

Q: - You have no problem with the faithful of other religion, but you do with Muslims. So why not propose a total prohibition of Islam in place of the minarets?

A: - No, Islam as a religion must be respected. In Switzerland we have religious freedom. Here we have Hindus, Buddhists...but we have no intention to change our law.

Q: - But even if the construction of minarets is forbidden, there will still be forced marriage, burkas will still be worn...

A: - Yes, this is true. We cannot change the situation into another in one day. But keep in mind how democracy functions in Switzerland. If politicians see that more than 50% of the population believes that the problem is not solved, they will react and do something about it because they want to be reelected.

Q: - In Switzerlands there have been two waves of Muslim immigration, one at the end of the 1960s and another in the 1990s, but this debate has only taken place just now. What has changed?

A: - In the 1960s we had 16,000 Muslims in Switzerland, but now there are about half a million. We have spokespeople in the Muslim community that believe that Switzerland should have two laws - sharia for them, and another regular law for the rest. This did not happen 40 years ago.

Q: - In Switzerland, one in every four inhabitants is foreign and 5% of the population is Muslim. Does this type of initiative help their integration?

A: - Why not? For decades, important problems in Switzerland were put on the table and discussed openly. If this debate is done away with, that's when you have problems. There are many Muslims that are on our side in this initiative because they are against the growing number of Muslims that want to establish sharia and defend stoning, etc. We are not ashamed to defend our values and our democracy.

Q: - And what about the posters? Do you really believe that an image equaling a minaret with a missile will help integration?

A: - The poster has a clear message: it begins with minarets and ends with the burka. Every one who looks at it for a second understands what it means. There is nothing illegal or offensive in that poster.

Q: - But I still see missiles (in the poster)...

A: - (Note: the original answer in the article is worded a bit badly for a literal translation so paraphrasing would be a better idea. His answer was that alluding to minarets as weapons was not his idea in the first place, that it was Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (the Prime Minister of Turkey) for example who alluded to minarets as "their bayonets". Erdoğan went to jail for four months for that, by the way.)

For more on the minaret controversy and referendum, see here and here. Marseille in France is also facing the same issue, with the construction of a mosque there causing quite a stir.


Mehdi Karroubi intereviewed on Dutch TV on post-election events in Iran

A link to this just went up on Facebook and it's also an YouTube so it can be embedded here. Good not only for those following events in Iran but students of Persian and/or Dutch as well.

The page for the video has the content of the interview in English as well.


26 November 2009 (5 Azar 1388): Authorities in Iran confiscate Shirin Ebadi's Nobel Peace Prize

Apparently this is a first in the history of the prize, and is also a stunningly bad bit of PR as well. Confiscating a human rights activist's Nobel Peace Prize probably ranks somewhere up there with punching babies or kittens as one of the easiest ways to further blemish one's name while not advancing one's agenda at all. All while Ahmadinejad is on an overseas trip as well.

On a related note, Maziar Bahari (the Iranian-Canadian journalist who was recently freed from prison in Iran, accused of being a spy using such evidence as an appearance on the Daily Show of all places) has written a column on talking to Iran that I believe to be accurate.


Norway plans to have 75 - 95% of current intranational air traffic between large cities replaced by rail

This is today's second article on high-speed rail in Norway after this one. The article itself is a few months old but worth taking a look at given its long-term perspective. The original in Norwegian is here. Here's a short summary of the article:

The parliament has a majority to invest in high-speed trains (speeds of 250 kph and above) in Norway. The goal is to capture 95% of air travellers in between Oslo and the largest cities. This has the support of most of the parties except one, the Fremskrittspartiet (Progress Party), who believe it to be useless in a country like Norway. They are of the opinion that the money would be better spent on upgrading existing rail instead of going with high-speed rail, and also that building high-speed trains would go at the expense of other transport projects in the next few years.

The committee majority believes that there is a significant traffic base for high-speed rail, as shown in a study from Urbanet Analyse carried out on behalf of the rail administration. The study shows that high-speed rail sa the potential to take over 75 to 95% of the airline market between Oslo and the other large cities in Norway. The cost to set up the lines is calculated to be somewhere between 80 and 130 billion krone ($14.2 billion to $23 billion), suggesting that the lines would be paid over 30 years.


Size of the Earth compared to every other planet in the Solar System (plus the Sun)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Here's another one of those videos comparing sizes of objects in space, except that this one features only the Earth and other planets (plus the Sun) in the Solar System instead of continuously zooming out to feature larger and larger stars like most other videos do. This is the video to show someone when you want to give some perspective to the fact that the Sun makes up 99.86% of the mass of the entire Solar System.


High-speed rail in Norway from Oslo to Trondheim

That's the subject of an article here in Norwegian which goes over the (still quite low) possibility of a high-speed rail connection between the two cities. The main reason for the low probability for this is probably the fact that one doesn't even exist between the two largest cities of Oslo and Bergen (304 km) compared to 389 km between Oslo and Trondheim.

View Larger Map

First let's take a look at existing and planned high-speed rail in Norway:

Line name and end points
Construction start
Gardermobanen: Oslo - Eidsvoll
67 km
$1.4 billion
Vestfoldbanen: Drammen - Sande
17 km
Vestfoldbanen: Sande - Nykirke
14 km
$770 million
Vestfoldbanen: Barkåker - Tønsberg
8 km
$270 million
Vestfoldbanen: Larvik - Porsgrunn
23 km
$660 million
Dovrebanen: Eidsvoll - Stange
40 km
$1.2 billion
Follobanen: Oslo - Ski
24 km
$2 billion

As you can see, not all that much at the moment. Now for other possible routes:

Present airplane passengers daily
Present train passengers daily
Flying distance
Current distance by train
Oslo - Trondheim
390 km
550 km
Oslo - Bergen
300 km
530 km
Oslo - Stavanger
300 km
600 km
Oslo - Copenhagen
480 km
700 km
Oslo - Stockholm
420 km
540 km

And now a few parts from the article today in Norwegian:
A new high-speed rail route between Trondheim and Oslo will cost around 80 billion krone ($14.2 billion), a sum that the community would be unlikely to pay. According to Tore Sandvik in Sør-Trøndelag: "It is unthinkable that such an investment would happen without a route between Bergen and Oslo also being built. That would cost 180 billion ($32 billion). We have a huge investment in railways in the state budget this year, but that is just a fraction of what this line will cost."

The Norwegian parliament has approved a study taking a look at a line between the two large cities, in order to create a basis to make a decision in 2013.

The article also mentions that the line would probably be paid for over 30 years at an interest rate of five percent. In order to get the travel time between the two cities down to below four hours one would need a train with a speed of 160 kph, but the problem here is that the existing rail is a century old with a curve radius (not sure if that's the right term) of 300 metres, but this needs to be increased to 1200 metres to bring a train up to a speed of 160 kph. The high-speed rail envisioned between the two cities would have a speed of 300 kph.


24 November 2009: Portuguese Orthographic Accord adopted by Guinea Bissau, only two countries remain

Found an article here in Spanish on the ratification. See here if you've never read about this orthographic accord before. The main strength of the accord for the Portuguese language is the fact that it presents a unified script for the language which is a big plus for countries like East Timor, where the language is used officially but not by a majority of the population, and in cases such as those a single script is a good way to avoid confusion over which orthography to use.

View Larger Map

English technically has the same situation as Portuguese with a fairly well-off country as the originator of the language (England compares with Portugal here) and a much larger country with a slightly different orthography that is often thought of as being the main driving force for the language in the world (United States and Brazil). The difference here though is that English is in a strong enough position that variation in orthography isn't really a big deal.

Here's part of the article:

The Parliament of Guinea Bissau ratifies the Portuguese Orthographic Accord

The National Assembly of Guinea Bissau has unanimously ratified the orthographic accord of the Portuguese language, said the Portuguese press on the 24th of November.

Of the eight countries in the world that use Portuguese, the only ones that have still not ratified the document are Angola and Mozambique.

Augusto Olivais from the PAIGC (The African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde) said that this orthographic accord "is great for those that speak Portuguese in the world".


The government of Guinea Bissau approved the new orthographic accord on the 14th of November in an extraordinary session of the Council of Ministers presided by the president of the country, MAlam Bacai Sanhá.

Portugal approved the accord on 6 March 2008 and set up a period of six years for the adoption and entry into force of the new orthography.


In defense of role-playing games

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

An article here presents a fairly interesting idea about the difference between action and RPG video games. To get the full idea the argument makes you'll have to read it yourself, but it basically puts forth the idea that RPGs are inferior to action games, in that they simply reward time - anyone that puts in enough time into an RPG can eventually win it, whereas action games require real skill since without that you'll never be able to win. Action games can only be won when you, the player, have beaten the game, whereas RPGs usually just require one's character(s) to be strong in order to win.

It's an interesting argument but I don't agree. RPGs actually mimic real life in a much accurate way than action games do. Though they can take forever if you simply aren't good at the game, action games can be won in a quick hour if a player is good enough, and even the longest don't take much longer than that. Real life though is not so kind, and RPGs mimic this much better than action games do. RPGs are about a steady and long-term progression of skill, about succeeding at tasks that are just a bit beyond one's current level of skill, and this is what real life is about as well.

Crawling is learned after the baby learns to roll over, and only after that can walking be challenged. After a baby's first steps then the next challenge is to walk in a bit steadier fashion, and only after that can the child begin to run. Mathematics is the same as well, as is learning a language. In fact, every single marketable skill in the world is based on skill acquired over the long term, and just like in an RPG, once you have mastered one skill it then becomes easy and now it's time to move on to the next level. In a game like Dragon Warrior (Dragon Quest) the hero can technically stay around the first town to fight slimes and babbles forever, but after going up a few levels the challenge diminishes, along with the reward, and it's simply too boring to stay around any longer. This is exactly the same as real life.

Finally, on top of all of this there's no reason that an RPG simply has to be about just putting in time. Ultima 7 provides a good example of a game that is both RPG and action - one's character goes up in levels and becomes stronger as time goes on, but action and battles still take place in real time. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is another good example of this. These games tend to be my favourite, as they approximate real life better than any others. They involve long-term effort, but at the same time real-time challenges that must be overcome at the moment they occur, and that's exactly what real life is about.


Some Nynorsk doctors in Norway refuse to use new text-to-speech system that writes only in Bokmål

You can read about it here in Norwegian or automatically translated here by Google. It seems that a new system for doctors has been developed that will allow them to write by speech alone instead of relying on secretaries, but the system only writes in Bokmål and some that use Nynorsk are refusing to use the new system because Bokmål is a minority language in the part of the country where they live and thus another battle over the two forms has begun. The government plans to create a Nynorsk version but it is yet unknown when that will occur. Maybe in six months.


Support for nuclear power and legalization of marijuana on the rise

One of the benefits of a crisis (economic, environmental, energy, etc.) is the desire it creates to find a solution, which can often result in a change of opinion over subjects previously considered to be completely out of the question. One of these is seen in an increase in support for nuclear power throughout the world, and another is that of legalization of marijuana in the United States.

The latter is an easy way to:

- keep law enforcement from having to spend resources on a less than critical area;
- fight drug cartels
- raise funds through taxation, something many states vastly need

Nuclear power on the other hand is an area that should never have been opposed in the first place, since it is much better for the environment compared to technologies like coal, and safety has continued to improve in spite of the previous worldwide opposition to its use. As the chart in the article shows, France is the largest user of nuclear power with 76.2% of its energy supply coming from there, and they were right to do so in spite of all the protests in the 80s and 90s against its use.

Here's the chart from the article rearranged to show the list of countries arranged from those using the most to least nuclear energy.

France 76.2%
Slovakia 57%
Belgium 53.8%
Sweden 42%
Switzerland 39%
Hungary 37.7%
South Korea 36.7%
Czech Republic 32.4%
Finland 29.9%
Japan 24.9%
Germany 23.4%
United States 19.6%
Spain 18.3%
Canada 14.5%
Britain 13.2%

The other advantage to an increase in support for nuclear power is the advantages it can provide for exploration of space. Jupiter is about as far as a probe can explore powered by solar alone, and anywhere after that needs a different power source. Voyagers 1 and 2 are still going strong even at their incredible distance from the Earth thanks to a nuclear power source. Nuclear power may also be a good idea for manned colonization. Admittedly, in the beginning solar will only be necessary since the area of the Moon likely to be explored first is lit nearly 100% of the time.


Note to Firefox users: Maryamsoft's Firefox add-on is better than gTranslate

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

I'm sure there may be other better add-ons than gTranslate out there, but just as a FYI for Firefox users, Maryamsoft's translator is better than gTranslate. It was originally created as a Persian-English-Persian dictionary and was a bit sketchy at times, but a few months ago it switched to Google Translate and thus now is capable of translating blocks of text at a time. Here's what makes it better than gTranslate:

- gTranslate requires the user to select which language pair to use, and this becomes the standard until the languages are changed again. If you want to translate from German to English then you will have to select the text, click the right mouse button, find German, move over, and then select English. Only after that will it translate German to English for you with one click of the button. If you find another language to translate then you'll have to repeat the process over again. Maryamsoft's add-on just acts like Google Translate though, identifying the language selected and translating from that.

- Maryamsoft translates every language that Google Translate provides. gTranslate for some reason only has about 20 or so to choose from, so Turkish and Maltese and all the rest are not available.

- Maryamsoft always stays on top, so you can switch tabs while still seeing the translated content. This is invaluable if you have to type something out and don't want to have to resize the window in order to see it as you do so.

The down side to Maryamsoft of course is that the interface is in Persian. Most of the time you will just have to select the text, hit the right mouse button and it'll translate to English for you (or Persian if you select something in English to translate the other way), but if it fails to identify the language or you want to select another one then you'll have to identify it from the list. A basic knowledge of the Perso-Arabic script is enough to identify languages though, so if you can fumble along with the script then it should be worth adding on to Firefox even if you don't know Persian.

As mentioned above, I'm sure there are better translation add-ons out there so let me know if you use something other than gTranslate and why it works better.


Portuguese spoken by 20% of the population in East Timor, and "is here to stay"

From an article here in Portuguese. 20% of the population translates into a total of about 225,000 speakers. Here's part of the article:

Cite of Praia, 19 November - The Portuguese language, "as a matter of identity, is here to stay" in East Timor, where around 20% of the population speaks the language, said the new East Timorese Ambassador to Cape Verde (Natália Carrascalão) on Thursday.


At present, she said, children learn Portuguese in schools and adults over 40 years of age generally speak the language. "Very rudimentarily, but they speak it."

View Larger Map


Momentum seems to be building for the idea of sending a manned mission to a near-Earth asteroid

Space.com has an article on this subject here today, where it seems like the idea of sending a manned mission to an asteroid is beginning to gain support, partially because it's just so easy to do compared to landing on the surface of a body with a significant amount of gravity. As noted in another post, asteroids 1991 VG and 1990 AO10 could be good candidates for a mission of this type, but the great thing about asteroids is that there are so many to discover that it's very possible we'll find a perfect candidate quite soon, especially with the launch of NASA's WISE telescope next month with a mission that will only require seven months to complete. At best, that mission could discover not only a number of asteroids that would make good locations for a manned mission, but even one or more brown dwarfs closer to our solar system than even Proxima Centauri.

A manned mission to an asteroid is often thought of as being a kind of bridge between the Moon and Mars, but it really isn't like either of those two. The only way in which it can be thought of as a bridge mission is in journey time, as the Moon is only 3 days while Mars is six to seven months, and a mission to an asteroid would take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. Everything else though is entirely different. No landing gear, no plans for permanent colonization, no need for a separate return rocket, no plans for a second or third visit. So what it would be is a nice demonstration that there's more out there besides the Moon and Mars, and a mission that could be done with very little innovation necessary.

Of course, a mission of this type is also completely different in being the only one directly related to protecting ourselves from asteroidal collisions.


Iranian authorities seemingly unaware that The Daily Show is a comedy

Monday, November 23, 2009

The imprisonment of reformists or other so-called political dissidents in Iran almost always works the same way: someone is imprisoned and accused of being a spy, they are forced to confess to acts they did not do, this serves as a helpful bit of short-term propaganda for the government in constructing the narrative they wish to create, and eventually the prisoner is released and is able to tell the world what really happened. That was the case with Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari who talks of what happened while he was imprisoned here.

Besides the predictable bits about being subject to hardship and daily threats of execution, the authorities also apparently thought that The Daily Show where Mr. Bahari made an appearance was a serious show and not a comedy, and used it as "evidence" of him being a spy. The Daily Show's trip to Iran showed that regular Iranians have no problems with The Daily Show's humour, but the authorities there are clearly a few bricks short of a load in that area. Here's the video where Mr. Bahari made an appearance.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart
Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Jason Jones: Behind the Veil - Minarets of Menace

Daily Show
Full Episodes

Political Humor
Health Care Crisis

The Daily Show is not to be blamed for what happened after the election though, as 1) before the election was held it looked like the result would be either an Ahmadinejad victory or a Mousavi victory somewhat similar to what happened with Khatami in the 1990s, and 2) repressive governments interested in creating their own version of reality will use nearly anything to do so, and so the Daily Show interview just happened to be an unfortunate casualty swept up in all of this.

On a related note, today the New York Times has an article on Ayatollah Montazeri, a nice recognition of a man that has never compromised his principles for power.


Bill Stone in 2007 on Europa and exploring the Moon's south pole

One person that must have been particularly pleased by the announcement of water all over the surface of the Moon and the LCROSS impact showing water in particularly heavy concentrations is Bill Stone. These recent announcements have given a video of his given in 2007 at TED extra importance, as though he spoke in 2007 as if the presence of water on the Moon in the south pole was a certainty (it more or less was, but science is all about being careful and holding off from making strong statements until they can be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt), now even the most cautious of us all now know that it is.

As is always the case, don't forget that this video has been translated into other languages (seven so far) so if you are studying one of them don't forget to switch to subtitles.


Canadian school bans homework, marks go up

Here's a story worth taking a look at - a school in Ontario has decided to ban homework after noticing that research shows it to be a negative influence in general, and as a result marks have improved. The most noteworthy part of the positive changes is that teachers have much more time to actually pay attention to student achievement instead of spending hours and hours marking and correcting piles of paper on their own.

Since students still have to prepare for and do well on tests, this is a bit reminiscent of the ROWE (Results-Only Work Environment) system, where employees are free to do whatever they want as long as certain results are achieved in the end. If the company needs Project A done by next week for example then the employees are free to do whatever they wish to get it done, and the details about who checks in at what time and whether one's break is for 15 minutes or 30 minutes or an hour is unimportant.


Spanish language roundup, 22 November 2009: more radio and television stations in the United States, Spanish becomes "abnormal" in Barcelona

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Lots of links today related to Spanish, most about the US and one about Spain itself.

First one is here - Comcast in Detroit has added 11 new Spanish-language channels, bringing the total now to 55. This link has the full list of channels, which are:

     Channel         Network         Channel          Network
     -------         -------         -------          -------
          98        Univision         *627          TeleFormula
         601   Discovery en Espanol    628           Canal Sur
         602      CNN en Espanol      *629       TVE International
         603   Fox Sports en Espanol  *630          TV Colombia
        *604        Caracol TV        *631           TV Chile
         605         MTV Tr3s         *632         Latele Novela
         606    History en Espanol    *633          TBN Enlace
         607         Mun2             +634           Sorpresa
         608       Cinelatino          635            Si TV
        +609       Venemovies         *637         EWTN Espanol
        +610     Cine Mexicano        *638        Cable Noticias
         611       Telemundo          +639          Mexico 22
         612     ESPN Deportes       *+640          TeleRitmo
       *+613      El Garage TV         641         Once Mexico
       *+614       AYM Sports         *642          SUR Mexico
        *615       HTV Musica         *643           SUR Peru
        *616  Ecuavisa Internacional  *644        TV Dominicana
       *+617      Canal 52 MX        *+645    Telemicro Internacional
       *+618      Multimedios         *646      Telefe Internacional
       *+619      Cultural.es        *+647          Utilisima
        +620       Gran Cine         *+648       CBTV Michoacan
       *+621     Canal 24 Horas       *649           HITN-TV
         622        GolTV             *650         WAPA America
        +623       Infinito           *652       Ritmoson Latino
        +624      Video Rola          *653          Tele Hit
        *625     TV Venezuela         *654          Banda Max
        *626  La Familia Cosmovision  *655         De Pelicula

The next one here is about another radio station (this time in Houston) switching from English to Spanish. Some switch from Spanish to English though and I haven't seen any numbers indicating an overall trend either way.

One more link here is a bit more about the importance of Univision's partnership with YouTube.

Finally we have this one in Spanish protesting a vote in Barcelona calling Catalan the "unique and exclusive language of "normal" use in all the activities of the city", which the article says effectively makes Spanish an "abnormal" language, in spite of being the language spoken by 70% of the city's residents.


Scientific synopsis in Interlingua sighted

During its first few years after its creation, synopses for scientific papers were often written in Interlingua in order to demonstrate to scientists how easy it was to understand at first sight. A page here I stumbled across shows an interesting example of this from a paper written in 1967. What makes it particularly interesting is that it is a site that has nothing to do with IALs either.


How best to describe a solar sail

CBC's Bob McDonald tells us here:
A solar sail is basically a potato chip bag - one the size of a small town - that is unfurled in space. The thin, shiny, lightweight Mylar plastic will reflect sunlight off its enormous surface and experience a small force.

Bob McDonald is a bit like Neil DeGrasse Tyson in his excitement for and ability to explain scientific and astronomical concepts, and every once in a while something like that stands out as a perfect way to explain a concept that otherwise might be a bit difficult to explain.

The rest of the blog post is worth reading as well as it explains an upcoming solar sail mission scheduled for next year, and surmises a bit on why solar sails have been so neglected compared to other types of propulsion. A Russian mission attempted to launch one in 2005 (a mission I was quite looking forward to at the time), but the launch failed and thus we have still failed to see a solar sail in action.

Wikipedia also has an interesting image here detailing the trajectory a solar sail would take to achieve maximum velocity - first it would begin on a trajectory taking it away from the Sun, but at too low a velocity to break free. Then the Sun would begin to pull it in and it would keep its sail turned towards the Sun in order to avoid falling directly into the Sun. The Sun does not manage to entirely pull it in however and the solar sail is able to maintain a close but significant distance from the Sun, which means that instead of being pulled in it is able to use the Sun's gravity as it passes by, and as it passes by it adjusts the angle of the sail in order to benefit from the sunlight at the same time, and ends up using the gravity and sunlight in order to achieve a velocity of 30 AU per year.

As for why flybys of the Sun are not used by other craft, see here.


Welt Online article about Transnistria (the breakaway region in Moldova) in German

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Welt Online has a fairly detailed first person perspective on Transnistria, the breakaway region in the east of Moldova that is a bit reminiscent of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia in being strongly pro-Russian and willing to use military force to separate, but also quite different in that it borders on Ukraine and Moldova, whereas the other two share a direct border with Russia which is what made it so easy for Russian troops to move in last year during the war with Georgia. This puts Transnistria in a kind of no-man's land:

View Larger Map

As you can see, eastern Moldova is nowhere close to Russia. Transnistria is also markedly different from Moldova's other ethnic region called Gagauzia - instead of fighting a war and ending in a cold stalemate, Moldova and Gagauzia talked their issues over and now Gagauzia is an autonomous territory within Moldova and nobody has to point guns at each other.

Since the article is pretty long I won't comment on it except to say that it's definitely worth reading for those interested in Eastern Europe and all these tiny autonomous regions that most have never heard of but those living there would be willing to die for. Google has a translation here that is as always slightly awkward but good enough for the task.


What would happen to the Earth if it didn't have the Moon?

I just stumbled across this group of videos of a documentary explaining this. I have no comment to make yet as I haven't found the time to watch it (and might not today) but it's a question that gets brought up quite often so I'm sure it's worth watching. A bonus: it's also subtitled in Dutch. And Patrick Stewart is narrating it.


20 November 2009: Twitter now available in French

A few articles in French on this have just appeared, such as this one. French is the fourth language on Twitter, after English, Japanese, and Spanish. A few terms on Twitter in French are as follows:

  • Tweet (Votre message sur Twitter / Your message on Twitter) - Tweet
  • Tweet (Le verbe Tweeter / The verb to tweet) - Tweeter
  • Twitterer (Personne utilisant Twitter / A person using Twitter) - Tweeteur / Tweeteuse
  • Followers (Ceux qui vous suivent / Those that are following you) - Abonnés
  • Followings (Ceux que vous suivez / What you are following) - Abonnements
  • Direct Message (Boite de réception / Inbox) - Message Privé
  • Retweet (Reprendre un message / Repeat a message) - Retweet
  • Trending Topics (Les sujets chauds / Hot subjects) - A la Une
  • Timeline (Messages dont vous avez accès / Messages you have access to) - Flux Personnel
  • What's happening? (Ce que vous allez écrire / What you are writing) - Quoi de neuf?

An article here also notes Twitter's growing importance in France:
Twitter has had a certain acceleration over the past months in France. Indeed, more and more journalists and political personalities have been won over by this site permitting one to send messages limited to 140 characters, with examples such as Lionel Tardy, Christine Boutin, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, Benoit Hamon and even Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet. Recently, Twitter was even at the centre of a small linguistic controversy in the Senate between the Minister of Industry, Christian Estrosi, and the socialist senator Martial Bourquin, in the discussion on a bill on the post office.

You can see that video in French in the Senate here.

Edit: this site also has an interesting number: when Facebook was translated into French in 2008 it received an extra 600,000 visitors over a month as a result, so this is a big incentive for sites like this to obtain some extra traffic without really having to do anything but ask users to translate the site and provide a means for them to do so. Everybody wins.


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