Saturday, January 29, 2005

McGuyver Would Be Proud

A Slovak man trapped in his car under an avalanche freed himself by drinking 60 bottles of beer and urinating on the snow to melt it.

Rescue teams found Richard Kral drunk and staggering along a mountain path four days after his Audi car was buried in the Slovak Tatra mountains.

He told them that after the avalanche, he had opened his car window and tried to dig his way out.

But as he dug with his hands, he realised the snow would fill his car before he managed to break through.

He had 60 half-litre bottles of beer in his car as he was going on holiday, and after cracking one open to think about the problem he realised he could urinate on the snow to melt it, local media reported.

Talk about being resourceful! From this day forth, our car will be fully stocked, just in case. It's a Saturday in January; i.e. avalanche season...Time for a practice drill!

Read It:


Thursday, January 27, 2005

Lost in Translation

My first experience with the vicissitudes of cross-cultural language took place in my first year of University. My roomate from Pakistan, who spoke excellent English, asked me what the phrase "Dijeetjet" meant. I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about, and asked him to explain the context. He said he was standing outside the cafeteria, and a American friend asked "Dijeetjet"?

Only then did I realize that he was asked, "Did you eat yet"?

That experience has colored my perceptions ever since. I've gained an appreciation for the role that context plays in language, and how meaning is easily misconstrued. It's awfully difficult, for example, to assume that a fundametalist knows exactly what the writers of scripture intended when the original ideas were converted from Aramaic to Greek, and finally into English without an extensive knowledge of culture over the last 2000 years. I would guess that any competent linguist would dismiss claims of Biblical inerrancy out of hand. The same can be said for claims about the U.S. Constitution. If you only look at the document without considering what historians have to say about the context, it can be used to justify anything from segregation to holding a vast stockpile of AK-47s in your basement.

When I discuss the role of the constitution with Canadians, they're mystifed by the fact that Americans tend to treat the language of the constitution like it was written in stone. Other countries change their constitution far more often than we do. Could there be some overlap between our perceptions of scripture and the laws of our nation?

Without context, words lose their meaning, but if we approach language as something inextricably linked with culture, we broaden our perspectives immeasurably. As Attaturk once famously remarked, "When you learn another language, you make a second self". Linguist Christopher J. Moore has written a fascinating new book entitled "In Other Words" in which he catalogues some of the world's least translatable expressions. It's a fascinating look at the problems of translation. Here are a few I like:

ilunga (Tshiluba) [ee-Iun-ga] (noun)

This word from the Tshiluba language of the Republic of Congo has topped a list drawn up with the help of one thousand translators as the most untranslatable word in the world. It describes a person who is ready to forgive any transgression a first time and then to tolerate it for a second time, but never for a third time.


taarradhin [tah-rah-deen] (noun)

Arabic has no word for "compromise" in the sense of reaching an arrangement via struggle and disagreement. But a much happier concept, taarradhin, exists in Arabic. It implies a happy solution for everyone, an "I win, you win." It's a way of resolving a problem without anyone losing face.


guanxi (Mandarin) [gwan-shee] (noun)

This is one of the essential ways of getting things done in traditional Chinese society. To build up good guanxi, you do things for people such as give them gifts, take them to dinner, or grant favors. Conversely, you can also "use up" your guanxi with someone by calling in favors owed. Once a favor is done, an unspoken obligation exists. Maybe because of this, people often try to refuse gifts, because, sooner or later, they may have to repay the debt. However the bond of guanxi is rarely acquitted, because once the relationship exists, it sets up an endless process that can last a lifetime.


litost [lee-tosht] (noun)

This is an untranslatable emotion that only a Czech person would suffer from, defined by Milan Kundera as "a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one's own misery." Devices for coping with extreme stress, suffering, and change are often special and unique to cultures and born out of the meeting of despair with a keen sense of survival.

Read the Review:

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Northward To Reality

John Kerry was taken to task during the U.S. presidential election for overstating the cost of the war in Iraq. The talking heads pointed to the fact that the cost of the war at that time was around 130 Billion, and that the figure Kerry cited was 200 million. What they neglected to mention was that,at that time, Bush had requested an additional 80 million. According to their line of reasoning, the money wasn't actually spent yet, so it didn't count. Kerry was portrayed as pessimistic and defeatist in his attitude toward the war. Now, a few months later, we're spending an additional 160 billion on the war, but the mainstream media in the U.S. is loath to mention it. In order to understand the cold stark reality, you have to read about it in the Toronto Star, the Guardian, or some other non-American paper.

WASHINGTON - U.S. President George W. Bush will ask Congress for another $80 billion for the war in Iraq, bringing the price tag for that invasion and ongoing operations in Afghanistan close to $300 billion, six times the original White House estimate.

The total is well beyond the estimate of $200 billion (U.S.) put forward by onetime White House economic adviser Larry Lindsey — subsequently dismissed for his forecast — and is the number Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once derided as "baloney" on network television

Read It:


Monday, January 24, 2005

One Ring To Rule Them All

My grandmother, rest her soul, conveyed her love for her children and grandchildren through masking tape. In her final years, she began to label everything of value for the sake of distribution to her children and grandchildren. Most of the objects I received were familiar; a picture frame my grandfather made, a pocket knife, a sculp
ture of a seal she brought from Sweden...All of them bore a strip of tape with "Steven" written upon it in a shaky hand. Kinder hands have never held a pen.

One gift a received from my grandmother is an enduring mystery: My enigma ring.
Since the ring came into my posession, I've worn it constantly, and complete strangers have even offered to buy it from me. If the winged Nazgul from Lord of The Rings bang on my door someday, I won't be surprised.

Nobody in my family seems to know the origins of this ring, and the calligraphic style makes it difficult to discern what letter it is. Consider the following pictures:

Looking at this image what letter would you say this is? Some suggest it's an "E", others, and "L", and both would fit with my family history.

From this perspective, however, it could be a "J", or even an "I". To further complicate the mystery, it seems to have been resized. The only thing I know for certain is that grandma wanted the ring to be passed down to me.

If you can help me solve the riddle of the ring, or if you can help me come up with a clever cover story, please comment below.


Monday, January 17, 2005

The Beer Conspiracy

Since Molson's first began production in 1786, the mighy 2-4 has become indelibly stamped onto the fabric of Canadian society. Like the majestic loon or the maple leaf, a cardbox box filled with strong beer is an integral part of the Canadian image abroad.

Canadians take pride in their beer, or so it seems. As a rite of passage, every American living in Canada is subject to the world's oldest cross-border joke at least 1,000 times before full assimilation into Canadian society:

Q: How is American beer like making love in a canoe?
A: Both are fu**ing close to water.

While the major American beer producers like Bud, Miller, and Coors generally produce 12 oz. insults to human dignity, microbreweries like Sam Adams and Summit produce excellent beer that can stand toe to toe with their Canadian counterparts. Of course, you'll never be able to find them in Canada. It seems to me that there is a conspiracy afoot to import symbols of American mediocrity abroad.

For example, Coors Light. You might as well soak a pair of rusty skates in nail polish remover. For years, Coors was the target of civil rights groups' allegations of racial and sex-based discrimination. South of the border, Coors Light is the beer of choice for guests on the Jerry Springer show. 'The Silver Bullet' is the perfect compliment for a red neck.

Budweiser? If they served beer at McDonald's, Bud would be the brand. A completely unremarkable, watery tribute to banality. No character, no flavor, no style. The Anheiser-Bush company contributed heavily to Bush's re-election, and is kicking in 250,000 for the grand innagural ball. South of the border, the prominent foreheads of Bud drinkers are easy to spot in police lineups of trailer park incest suspects.

Given all of the above, I feel obligated to discourage Canadians from drinking this swill. Why are these two brands widely available in Canada? Perhaps it's the triumph of marketing over tastebuds. Consider this photo I took at the beer store:

What is wrong with you, Canadians? Why are the worst American beers in your "top ten"? This is the worst deception of Canadian beer drinkers since Bob and Doug McKenzie shut down the Elsinore Brewery. Wake up and smell the hops!


Thursday, January 13, 2005

The Evolution of Breakfast

Canadians and Americans are generally not highly regarded in the culinary world. Because our nations are assimilative melting pot cultures, there isn't a thousand-year old style of cooking that has been refined over generations that we can claim as our own, as far as I can tell.

Instead, wave after wave of new immigrants have led to diversity, which is, in general, a good thing. The variety of choices available to the average consumer is mind-numbing. However, some would say that cooking in North America is a jack-of-all-trades/master-of-none affair. Of course, you can make a strong case for personal preference, but anyone who has had authentic Chinese food can't help but despair at the glutinous, gloppy deep-fried tragedy that passes for Szechuan food here.

I know I'm painting with large strokes, but in general, when we think of highly cultured cuisine, most of us tend to think of France, Italy, India, or Thailand as our inspiration. There are certain regional delicacies in North America to be sure, but it's easy to trace them back to their ethnic origins as opposed to attributing them to homegrown genius.

Nevertheless, North Americans have perfected what many nutritionists regard as the most important meal: Breakfast.

In Turkey, breakfast is a modest affair, featuring bread, cheese, tomato slices and olives washed down with tea served in a small tulip-shaped glass. Northern Europeans favour coarse dark bread, pickled herring, and coldcuts, and a typical Thai, Chinese, or Korean breakfast is, for the most part, indistinguishable from lunch or dinner.

While I appreciate the food of many different cultures, I've found no breakfast culture that compares to that of North America. While Germans are fond of their mueslix served with yoghurt, the vast variety of berry-laden multigrain cereals testify to the importance of the meal in the minds of North Americans. The intensity of the quest for a more appealing breakfast option has led to the evolution of breakfast. Go to Europe. Try to find a cafe that will serve you coffee in anything other than a six ounce cup. It can't be done. Fluffy, decadent pancakes with butter and maple syrup would likely gag a Frenchman with their decadence, and omlettes do not come stuffed to the gills with ham and cheddar. Sure, the Belgians have their waffles, but did they ever think of adding chocolate chips to them; can they double as life rafts in the event of a Tsunami? I don't think so!

While "Freedom Fries" will go down in history as an emblem of xenophobia, North Americans can proudly hold up the mighty pancake as the sign and avatar of our domination of the early-morning culinary world.


Thursday, January 06, 2005

Why Americans are Bad at Math

In a recent OECD study, Canadian students are the third-best at mathematics behind Hong Kong and Finland. Congratulations. Americans, on the other hand, rank 24th amongst 29 nations participating in the study, on par with Latvia.

Read It:

As an American (and a mathphobic), I feel compelled to defend my country's lack of math skills. The teachers and students are doing their very best, but their efforts occur within the macrocosm of American society, and, as we all know, 'Merica is a nation at war.

It only stands to reason that whenever America is at war, mathematical reasoning suffers. We'll call it the Poutine Principle: When Freedom is on the March, Math Skills are on the Retreat. If you don't believe it, consider the ramifications of the following casualty figures, widely disseminated by the media and forged into a story problem by Greg Palast:


by Prof. Greg Palast

Today's New York Times, page 1:
"American commanders said 38 service members had been killed and 275 wounded in the Falluja assault."

Today's New York Times, page 11:
"The American military hospital here reported that it had treated 419 American soldiers since the siege of Falluja began."

Questions for the class:
1. If 275 soldiers were wounded in Falluja and 419 are treated for wounds, how many were shot on the plane ride to Germany?
2. We're told only 275 soldiers were wounded but 419 treated for wounds; and we're told that 38 soldiers died. So how many will be buried?
3. How long have these Times reporters been embedded with with military? Bonus question: When will they get out of bed with the military?

Today's New York Times, page 1:
"The commanders estimated that 1,200 to 1,600 insurgents had been killed."

Today's New York Times, page 11:
"Nowhere to be found: the remains of the insurgents that the tanks had been sent in to destroy. ...The absence of insurgent bodies in Falluja has remained an enduring mystery."

Of course, Americans don't understand math. They've been led to believe that 2+2=5

You Can't Get It There

Like most men, a substantial part of my consciousness is devoted to filling my belly.

As the family's designated grocery shopper, I've discovered many delectable Canada-only delicacies which cannot be purchased in the United States outside of specialty shops in large metropolitan areas.

In any event, here are a few widely-available delicacies that appear to be off the radar in my place of origin.

1. Map-o-spread
2. Piroges
3. Aero Bars
4. Stubbies
5. A wide variety of flavored potato chips (Ketchup, Sea Salt, etc..)
6. Back bacon
7. Dulse
8. A wide variety of pate
9. Poutine
10. Assam Tea

Care to add to the list? What Canadian treats do all of you Canadians out there crave when you're away from home? Conversely, what do Americans crave which cannot be found in Canada?

My insatiable appetite awaits your replies...

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

I Feel Much Better Now

Finally, one of life's persistent questions has been answered:

Jenny's Number:


Coping With The Post-Holiday Blues

The holiday season has come to an end, and after two solid weeks of uninterrupted gluttony and sloth, I'm ready to resume my writing.

January, February, and March are often difficult months for those of us in northern climes, however, I've managed to find some positive coping mechanisms for the post-holiday blahs. Here are a few ways I've been occupying my time:

1. Listening to "Dark Side of the Moon" while curled up in the fetal position under my desk.

2. Reading the obituaries and then crossing the names out of the phonebook.

3. Noticing how trees without leaves resemble gnarled hands reaching up to the sky imploringly.

4. Eating gingerbread men and animal crackers--one limb at a time.

5. Psychoanalyzing Strangers:

Free Hit Counters
Free Counter