Friday, August 31, 2007

Why I hate Esperanto

I have friends who, in recent years, have expressed an interest in Esperanto, including one friend who is able to speak it. Without fail, they all profess this to be the language of the future. Even after having been shown that it has existed since the 1880’s, they persist by explaining that, thanks to the Internet, this language can become universal and soon our children or grandchildren will all be speaking Esperanto, and so everyone in the world will understand each other and we will have peace on earth and live happily ever after.

I find this a load of hogwash.

Universal languages have been around since the beginning of time. Ever since people started realizing that languages are different and change, they have been trying to overcome this. At first it was by trying to recreate the Adamic language form (or ancient Hebrew). To a great extent, Kabbalah scholars are still trying to do this. Once Latin fell into disuse among the masses in Europe, around the 4th or 5th century AD, philosophers have been trying to unite all languages into one. Dante’s Divine Comedy, in the common vulgate, is one example. He did not write in Italian, or in a Tuscan dialect, but gathered different expressions and forms from all the Italic dialects he encountered, trying to find the most communicative form in doing so.

On the other hand, Dante, unlike many scholars before and after him, understood that languages cannot remain the same. When in Paradise, Adam tells him that the language spoken at the time of the Tower of Babel is very different from that which he spoke, because it is the nature of man to change, and therefore his language will change throughout time.

There are some variations to this theory which I should mention. They came about when Europeans discovered the Chinese language and, more specifically, Chinese characters. When the first traders and missionaries came back from the Far East, Europeans were enthralled at the idea that, even though there were many different languages in China, everyone could be understood by writing down universally recognized characters. They could also communicate with the Koreans and Japanese in the same manner, although these also spoke completely different languages. Kircher spent his life trying to prove that Chinese characters derived from Egyptians Hieroglyphics, which had been a sublime form of writing for him. Leibniz, on the other hand, saw Chinese characters as a form of Binary code, or mathematical language (although he did so through a flawed translation of the I-Ching).

The more modern versions of these international auxiliary languages are Volapuk, Solresol and Esperanto. Out of these, Esperanto by far has had the most support. A country between the Netherlands and Prussia was supposed to be founded in 1908 with Esperanto as its official language, but this never came to fruition. Likewise China, after the Xinhai revolution, thought to establish Esperanto as its official language in order to break from the past. This also did not occur.

Therefore, despite all these studies, an international language has not emerged. There is one glaring exception to this: numbers. The Hindu-Arabic numeral system, as we know it today, is used by a vast majority of the world and is understood at sight by virtually every literate person. In other words, if I were to show the symbol “5” to someone, this person would know right away what it meant. Whether this person called it a different name, or spelled it in a different manner, would not matter. The concept would remain the same. Well then, why can we not expect the same out of a language in the future? In order to understand this, we should understand the past, or how the Hindu-Arabic numeral system came to be universally adopted.

The symbols themselves (from 1 to 9) came from India and were adopted by the populace and picked up by traders. From there they traveled through Arabia and Northern Africa, where Fibonacci picked them up. We can credit him with spreading their use in Europe, where people soon discovered they were easier to use than the current Roman numerals (imagine writing an algebraic equation in Roman numerals). But why was this so? It has less to do with the shape (there is nothing extraordinary in the shape of 4 or 5) than with the format. The structure of numbers fits a numerical system with a base number of 10. This is fortunate, since 10 is our base number (in earthly mathematics, at least). It is also relatively easy to writing long numbers and, most importantly, there is no ambiguity in these numbers.

Of course, our numerical system is not perfect. It would be nice to have concrete numbers for such important constants as π and e, as it would be nice if we could find the roots of a quintic equation by following the same methods as we do for a quartic, cubic, quadratic and linear equation. But so far, this is the best system we have, so we stick with it.

Another example, briefly, is chemical formulas. If one person wants to convey Sulphuric acid to someone else, he or she could do so by writing H2SO4 and it would be universally accepted. I mention this only briefly because chemical formulas are not commonly used among the populace of different countries. They are also not commonly found in everyday international conversation. I would be hard pressed to find an example of chemical compounds having been used over pints at a bar in order to convey a message between strangers of different nationalities. On the other hand, both patrons of this bar would understand the total numerical amount of the tab, even if they hadn’t been able to communicate one word between themselves.

Which brings us back to the initial question. Why couldn’t we expect a universal language in the future? It has worked with numbers and with chemical formulas. The next step should be languages, right? Wrong. Language is not numbers or chemical formulas. As much as we would like to find greater meaning in the words we use, linguistic patterns develop along a semi-chaotic sequence of popular abbreviations, borrowings and expressions which no one person can control.

If we say “I’ll talk to you later”, someone may abbreviate that to “Talk to you later”, and someone else to just “later”, while another person will start typing “ttyl”. Other expressions, such as “Late” and “Laters” will pop-up, and soon enough the language itself has changed to accommodate peoples’ perceptions. This is how we developed words like textbook and aqueduct, how Bucks became synonymous with Dollars (itself of Slavic origin) and how Milan took the place of Mediolanum. It is for this reason that the Dictionary needs to be updated at least as often as the Encyclopedia, while numbers and chemical formulas are updated only as new ones are discovered to add onto the list we already have.

In short, even if a universal and utopian language were invented, within a couple years there would be different forms of slang; within a generation there would be different dialects and, within 100 years or so, different languages altogether. At this point, a universal language such as Esperanto would just become the modern version of what Latin was during Dante’s time: a universal but dead and artificial language. Then someone may develop a new universal language that will grab peoples' imagination, and the cycle will continue.

Friday, August 17, 2007

The New Hermit Kingdom?

HR 1 became public law on August 3rd, 2007, after having passed the House and Senate votes and being signed into law by the President. This bill was a recommendation by the 9/11 commission, with one alteration: the requirement that 100% of cargo shipped into the United States be inspected before entering our borders. As reported by the World Shipping Council (in a statement dated June 30), this provision was opposed by the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, all major cargo shipping organizations, ocean carriers, the European Commission, as well as the governments of Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Singapore, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

The reason for this was not cost nor a lack of belief in security, but because it is an unfeasible law. Section 1701 reads:

a) Container Scanning- Section 232(b) of the SAFE Ports Act (6 U.S.C. 982(b)) is amended to read as follows:

(b) Full-Scale Implementation-

(1) IN GENERAL- A container that was loaded on a vessel in a foreign port shall not enter the United States (either directly or via a foreign port) unless the container was scanned by nonintrusive imaging equipment and radiation detection equipment at a foreign port before it was loaded on a vessel.

For those not familiar with the mechanics of international commerce, here are the main problems with this bill:

1) Who will do the scanning? This is not addressed in the bill. The United States government does not have the resources, so will it be foreign governments? The importing companies? The cargo companies? The foreign ports? Let us remember that the last congress determined Dubai Ports World to be an unacceptable security risk in operating a U.S. marine terminal, yet are we now to assume Congress would allow this same company to scan incoming cargo?

2) Who pays for, operates and maintains the technology? This relates to the point above, yet is not answered by Congress.

3) Which standards do we apply? The rest of the world has different safety standards than those of the United States. We are not able to analyze all incoming cargo according to our own criteria, yet are we asking other entities to find the means to do so?

4) What if other countries decide they’ll do the same with us? The United States does not scan any outgoing cargo. In fact, it would not be able to scan all exports to all 600 ports around the world. Could not another government, or many of them, decide to implement similar legislation as ours and require we start doing so? Do we then terminate trade with these countries?

5) What is “nonintrusive imaging equipment” and what do we do with the data collected? No recommendations are made to this effect.

6) Who will analyze the data and when? Does our government analyze it? Do the foreign ports? Do we wait until all data has been analyzed before starting to import cargo? Do we just keep a file for our records?

Rep Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), a cosponsor of the bill, attempts to refute these objections. His press release on the matter includes this statement:

DHS will set the scanning standards and will have to address some of the logistics of how the scans are to be taken and transmitted to U.S. government officials. We intentionally gave DHS flexibility to work out implementation with foreign governments, particularly because port operations are not the same in every single country and at every single port.

Congress is therefore mandating operations to be taken in overseas ports, according to heretofore-unspecified U.S. standards, which the DHS is to implement at each overseas shipping origin. No discussion has yet been had with these “partners” concerning what the U.S. Congress has decided will take place in these “partners’” own ports.

The simple fact is that this law cannot be realistically implemented, even if we had prior agreement with all foreign countries involved. This, in reality, is not a law but a political stunt. It is one out of many that have been sprouting recently and that can do nothing but harm the health of the United States’ economy, all in the name of National Security.

The effects of these stunts can already be seen; for example: a) Royal Caribbean, the second largest cruise operator in the world, has established a starting point for its cruises in Panama, in order to avoid the ever-tightening Visa controls its passengers must undergo when departing from their current starting point in Miami. b) United States resort locations have long attracted foreign retirees who, because of stringent Visa requirements and terrorist fears, are now finding it harder and harder to buy houses in our country. As a real estate agent in Florida recently put it: "These people aren't taking American jobs, and they're not living on welfare, they're bringing their dollars to feed our economy." Well, they were in the past.

With our current account deficit setting new records, and the world awash in dollars, the U.S. needs to attract more foreign investment, not drive it away. The hysteria in Washington over the proposed Dubai Ports World acquisition of the P&O US ports operation was watched with incredulity from overseas, much like the furor caused by the failed sale of Unocal to the Chinese. With their money not wanted, and finding it difficult even to visit America to examine acquisitions, is it any surprise that foreign investors are turning to other countries for investment opportunities? Couldn’t this be one of the reasons why the dollar is at such a low level?

We should learn from history. The Ming dynasty in China was one of the strongest ever known. It had a standing army of 1 million, managed great explorations, maintained a flourishing iron trade, printed books in moveable type and oversaw a population of 160 million that was, in many ways, more advanced than the European continent. Following piracy along the coasts and currency inflation, the Ming rulers decided to close their borders, build up the “Great wall” and turn inward during the 15th century. This caused the iron industry to collapse, inflation to continue, rebellions to occur and, ultimately, allowed the Manchus to conquer China and establish the Qing dynasty.

These times require enhanced security, but they also require closer worldwide teamwork. Instead, the United States is closing in on itself, discouraging trade, tourism, and foreign investment. We need to remember that all Hermit Kingdoms throughout history have been unsuccessful. Let’s hope politicians don’t turn our country into a cautionary tale.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Fröhlich Geburtstag! Bon anniversaire! Buon Compleanno! Bun di da naschientscha!

During the 12th century, the dukes of Zähringen were lords of what is now Western Switzerland. When Berchtold V died in 1218, the Zähringer dynasty ended, and these Swiss cities became Reichsfrei (or city states within the Holy Roman Empire). It was during this time that the Kyburg were fighting the Habsburg over these territories.

During this time, also, the alpine passes in Raetia and St. Gotthard gained in importance as ways to pass through the Alps. This suited the Reichsfrei of the Forest Cantons of Uri, Unterwalden and Schwyz. Unfortunately the Kyburg dynasty became extinct in 1273, thereby eliminating all rivals to the Habsburgs for control of these territories. Once rulers, they promptly revoked the Cantons' Reichsfrei status.

At this point, the Forest Cantons decided to conspire against the Habsburgs. They drafted the Federal Charter of 1291 and this formed the Ewiger Bund der Drei Waldstätten, signed on August 1st, 1291, effectively bringing Switzerland into existence. The famous Oath on the Rütli (or Patto di Grütli, as I learned in my History class) is said to have occurred in 1307, although evidence has never been found to corroborate that it ever happened.

Through wars, alliances, luck and necessity, Switzerland was able to keep its independence and add territory, until it became the country we know today.

Some points of interest:
1) Although many claim that Switzerland joined the Nazis during WWII in order to maintain their "neutrality" this is certainly not true. The Germans did draft a plan of invasion for Switzerland but never followed through. The Swiss were also able to maintain independence thanks to economic concessions (made to both Axis and Allied powers), through a general agreement that Switzerland was to remain neutral and (most importantly in my view) due to the fact that Germany had many other issues to occupy its time. It should be noted that there was a Swiss Nazi party, but it never gained any real power, due to the divided and different cultures forming Switzerland. The Swiss newspapers also tended to be very antagonistic towards the Third Reich, with many articles infuriating the German government.

2) Between 1798 and 1803, the Swiss flag looked like this:

3) William Tell never featured in this. His legend only came about in the 15th century, with similar legends featuring in Norse, British and Danish folktales.