Books: Ella Minnow Pea

January 17, 2013

This is another book I read because it was the monthly selection for the book discussion group I joined in November. (Unfortunately, it’s also another book I won’t get to discuss at the book club due to schedule conflicts.) It is short and an easy read – unless you are troubled by encountering vocabulary words you don’t know and feel obliged to look them up in a dictionary.

I rarely encounter words I don’t know, but this book had some, such as aposiopesis. They didn’t interfere with my understanding what was going on, but I found myself wondering whether author Mark Dunn even knew all the words himself or if he had to go specifically looking for unusual words to include. The entire book is a play on words, and on letters.

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Games: Puzzle Baron’s Acrostics

September 29, 2012

I don’t remember exactly how I found the website for Puzzle Baron’s Acrostics. (I think I had been looking at the crossword puzzle feature of the Wall Street Journal; maybe it was linked from there.) But once I found it, I immediately bookmarked it. And I have lost count of how many times I have been back in the past few days, or how many puzzles I have solved.

I’ve liked acrostics since I first learned how to do them in books of variety puzzles as a child. But the one time I found a book of just acrostics, they were so hard that I’m not sure I ever managed to finish a single one. (I think they were reprinted from the New York Times, which has very difficult acrostic puzzles.) Recently I have discovered that the Wall Street Journal’s Saturday puzzle is sometimes an acrostic, and I can solve those, even if it does take me at least an hour, usually two or three (over the course of the weekend).

Puzzle Baron’s acrostic puzzles are considerably easier. I have only twice asked for a hint (three random letters are revealed), and those were in the first four puzzles I solved there. But they are still challenging enough to be enjoyable. I never manage to get all the clues on the first time through the list (unlike easy crossword puzzles where I rarely get stuck even for a brief time). Some of them even have me stumped for a few minutes.

One way they are easier is that the quotations are shorter and there are fewer clues. Sometimes fewer clues does not mean easier – if you can only solve two clues out of a dozen, it’s really no easier than if you solve four out of two dozen. But in general these are also easier clues – sometimes I do get at least half of them on the first time through. (Sometimes I think I have gotten more than half, but there is usually at least one that turns out not to work.)

Having the puzzle automatically transfer letters from the clues to the grid, or from the grid to the clues, is a bigger help than I thought it would be. It seems that almost every time I work an acrostic on paper, I manage to misplace at least one letter, a mistake that makes it hard to solve the puzzle and which I do not discover until I am just about finished.

It’s also great to be able to guess letters that I’m not sure of, knowing that I can change them several times without having to worry about making holes in the paper from erasing too many times. Though it’s annoying to have to go back and re-type letters because the program apparently cannot keep up with me if I type too fast, and it overwrites one letter with the next one I type.

And these acrostics fill in punctuation, which is not ordinarily done – at least not in the acrostics I have worked on before. That makes it easier to start to make sense of the quotation – though I can still be thrown off by a quotation that does not follow all the rules of grammar I learned in school.

These acrostics do still follow the convention of having the first letters of clues (the answers to them, that is) spell out the name of the author of the quote and/or the work in which it is found. That made me start wondering – just how does one go about creating this kind of puzzle? I recently read a book about crossword puzzle construction, and that seems difficult enough, but creating an acrostic must be even more difficult.

The writer of this blog post certainly seems to think so. As a matter of fact, he compares the difficulty of constructing an acrostic with the difficulty of constructing an electric car, and concludes that the car is the easier project. I don’t know how tongue-in-cheek that might be, but his post details all the reasons I think the puzzles must be difficult to create. (He states that they can have no more than 26 clues, since the clues are traditionally listed as A, B, C, etc. rather than 1, 2, 3, etc. But I am sure I have done acrostics with clues that went past Z into AA, AB, etc.)

This article doesn’t tell much about the process of constructing an acrostic, but it does include some interesting history, not just of acrostic puzzles, but of acrostics in general.


Arrrrgh – I didn’t talk like a pirate today

September 19, 2012

If I still worked in a large IT department, sitting at the front desk where I had occasion to chat with my colleagues over the course of the day, it would not have been mid-afternoon before I found out that today was Talk Like a Pirate Day. Not that most of the developers and system administrators actually went around saying “Avast” – but one of them would have mentioned something.

As it was, I was sitting down at a meeting when the VP of Student Services commented on the fact. He didn’t go on to actually talk like a pirate, and I wondered if he had acquired his knowledge from a student, his online resources, or a general interest in nerdy topics (an interest he may or may not have – he is my supervisor but I don’t really know him yet). He did mention that celebration of the day really took off ten years ago when Dave Barry wrote about it – something I hadn’t known before.

I found out from nationalGeographic.com that it could more accurately be called Talk Like Robert Newton Day. Or perhaps Talk Like Disney Day. Not that I ever thought the presumed pirate-style talk was all that historically accurate, but I was surprised to learn that it has such a recent origin. And from the purveyors of Mickey Mouse!

Despite the comments at the end of the article, I don’t think National Geographic is trying to spoil anyone’s fun, or take a silly topic too seriously. Their role is education, and people like me appreciate learning more about the origins of today’s good-humored “pirate talk.” It wouldn’t stop me from talking like a (Disney) pirate, if I were so inclined.

It was actually a crossword puzzle that made me realize, one day recently, how inaccurate the pseudo-pirate talk is. Consider the opening lines at the Talk Like a Pirate Day website: “Avast, me hearties! Welcome…” Wouldn’t you guess, from that opening, that avast was some sort of greeting? So I was very surprised to discover that a five-letter word meaning “Stop!” is AVAST.

Next thing you know, I suppose I’ll be reading that pirates didn’t really wear earrings and have parrots perched on their shoulders…


Games: Word Zen

September 3, 2012

I had one game credit left at Big Fish Games (the result of forgetting to cancel my membership after buying a game for my son for Christmas), and only a couple of weeks left until it expired. Usually I have trouble finding any games there that appeal to me, but I had purchased two recently for my son (with the other game credits from forgetting to cancel), so I looked for something I could enjoy myself.

And I found Word Zen. Unlike most of the games at Big Fish Games, there is no storyline. That is a drawback in my son’s eyes, but it’s just fine with me. I’d rather the game developers put their time and effort into making the game run well, look good, and provide a good range of difficulty levels, rather than spend it on creating a storyline that neither makes the gameplay more interesting nor stands on its own as a compelling story.

The basic idea of the game is very simple. You form words using letter tiles, which are arranged in various Mahjong layouts. As with Mahjong, you can only use tiles that are open on at least one side. But instead of matching symbols, you use as many letters as you can to form words. At the level I’m currently at (Apprentice, which is the easiest), there is a limit of eleven letters; I don’t know if higher levels allow longer words.

As with other word games such as Bookworm Adventures, some tiles give you more points, and there is also a suggested “bonus” word, though I haven’t noticed that making those words seems to add many points. (Plus it often happens that one or more tiles needed to make the bonus word are not available.) There is also a timer, which ends the level when you run out of time. At the Apprentice level I sometimes clear the tiles before running out of time, but one of the reviews indicates that at the highest level the time is way too short.

The “reward” for finishing each level is an item in your “Zen Garden,” which provides “soothing visuals and sounds” to help you relax. I have the sound turned off right now, so I don’t know how soothing the sounds are. Somehow I can’t see looking at a picture of a garden on a computer screen to relax – reading a good book or taking a walk is much better for that purpose.

But I like making words. So far, my biggest problem is that my hand and wrist are getting tired from using the mouse to click on letters, as I go through level after level. So now it’s time to take a break and go relax with a good book.


Is it a word if it’s not in the dictionary?

August 10, 2012

I’ve always thought of the unabridged dictionary as the authority on what is or isn’t a word. But words existed long before dictionaries. And every word that has been added to the dictionary had to exist before it could be added.

So the dictionary can tell us positively that something is a word, if it’s in there. But it can’t prove that something isn’t a word. So what does determine if something is a word?

I read an very interesting column a couple of months ago, about using “undictionaried” words. I’ve generally tried to avoid using such words (though here on my blog I feel somewhat free to take linguistic liberties I would not in other contexts). But Erin McKean, the founder of wordnik.com, sees no good reason to avoid using a good word just because the lexicographers haven’t yet given it their imprimatur.

Of course, McKean points out, that’s not justification for making up new words just for the sake of novelty. Too many unfamiliar words, whether dictionaried or not, will reduce the reader’s comprehension. Encountering a new word that sounds just right is a pleasure. But new-fangled words that seem to have little purpose other than demonstrating the writer’s cleverness may have quite the opposite effect.

If a word gets plenty of use, it has no trouble making it into the dictionary. But I read today about a repository for words that haven’t been deemed worthy of inclusion, at least not in the venerable Oxford English Dictionary. I particularly liked earworm – maybe I’ll have to make a point of using it and help it get established as a valid word. I was surprised to see locavor on the list. Is it just a variant spelling of locavore, which I see used a lot?

I think, as a writer, that I’d feel quite a sense of accomplishment if a word I created only made it as far as the OED’s secret vault. (Though, the vault being secret, I suppose I’d never know.)


Books: From Square One

July 7, 2012

Sometimes I try to think what subject I could conceivably write a book about. It would need to be something that I have enough interest in to do a lot of research. Sometime recently, I decided the general subject would be words. But that’s too broad. Maybe word games?

Even that covers a lot of territory. And there are probably a lot of books written on the topic already. Just a few weeks ago I saw one in the library – and would have checked it out if I hadn’t already had a pile of other books I planned to read. What about a particular word game, such as Scrabble? But any decent book about Scrabble would have to include Scrabble tournaments, and those do not interest me at all.

Then I thought of crosswords. Those are done for one’s own satisfaction, rather than to win competitions (or so I thought). There are different kinds of crossword puzzles, and there are all sorts of interesting tangents one could take, using the unusual words and clues one encounters in these puzzles. Plus, I had long wondered, just how does one create a crossword puzzle?

But were there already books written on the subject? I checked the library catalog, and found an entry for From Square One by Dean Olsher. It sounded fascinating, so I eagerly checked it out, and just finished reading it this week. It’s a short book, with a mix of all sorts of information (and opinions) about crosswords, the people who make them, and the people who solve them.

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Do I have logolepsy?

June 8, 2012

I discovered a website this evening dedicated to one of my favorite subjects – words. Wordnik.com just might replace dictionary.com as my place to go when I want to look something up.

It has a dictionary, of course, with the usual features – definitions, examples of the word used in context from a variety of sources, word etymologies, and how to pronounce a word. And it has a word-of-the-day feature, including some very unusual words.

Today’s word is nekton: “Swimming organisms considered collectively and in contrast with those that float and those that live upon or in the bottom.” That didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me until I saw an example which includes the word for the organisms that drift – plankton. Aha! Plankton drift, nekton swim.

Then I realized that I had never realized that plankton were not a specific species of sea creature. I’m afraid my mental image of plankton comes from a certain cartoon about a yellow sponge who wears pants. And I certainly had never realized that the word plankton is plural (the singular is plankter).

But there’s a lot more. There are images to go with each word, though some of these are only peripherally related to the word (the images for plankton include a SpongeBob Squarepants Christmas tree ornament and some seascapes). And there are lists of related words, which go far beyond the usual lists of synonyms and antonyms.

There are hypernyms (similar in meaning but more generic or abstract) and hyponyms (words that are more specific). For instance, for the word surgeon, some hypernyms are doctor and physician; some hyponyms are neurosurgeon and amputator.

One feature I especially like is the reverse dictionary, which contains words and phrases that use that word (the one you’re looking up) in the definition. How often have you tried to think of a word, and you can think of a number of words related to it, but not the right word? A reverse dictionary may not reveal the word you want, but there’s a good chance it will.

Oh, and if you’re wondering about the title of my post, logolepsy is “a fascination or obsession with words.” Yes, I am probably a logolept. And now that I’ve written my post, I’m going to go enjoy a good (i.e. challenging) crossword puzzle.


Never bored with this board game

January 19, 2012

 

Scrabble!

When I first saw the question about a board game I would never get tired of, I had trouble thinking of one. When my son asks to play a game, I usually try to think of one we haven’t played in a while. Most of them are moderately entertaining, but not something I want to play frequently.

I thought of LIFE, Clue, Trouble, and the various other board games in our “gaming room” in the basement (including a few Al and I made up together). I looked at answers other people had given – checkers, chess, Monopoly. (How could someone not get tired of Monopoly?)

Then as I was walking out the door on my way to work I suddenly thought of Scrabble. Oh yes, Scrabble is a board game, isn’t it? I can’t remember the last time I played Scrabble on an actual gameboard instead of a computer screen.

I log on to Facebook at least once a day, usually more, to see if it’s my turn in Scrabble or Words with Friends (similar to Scrabble though not quite as good in my opinion). And sometimes my husband and I play Scrabble (which is also a standalone application) on his computer.

I would probably play it more often if it were loaded on my computer, though I don’t find it as fun to play against the computer as against another person. There’s no one to exclaim to over lousy letter choices or the fact that the built-in dictionary doesn’t allow a perfectly good word, or to suggest good words to (my husband and I regularly offer each other suggestions).

Back when I lived in the Philadelphia area, I had a friend who would occasionally invite me over for dinner and Scrabble (and sometimes to help her with her computer). Those were fun evenings. Playing on a computer is just not the same, though online Scrabble is better than a lot of the other games out there.

Scrabble was the one board game that my mother was willing to play, as I remember. She had no use for activities that were purely for entertainment, but Scrabble was educational. She didn’t care if she won, she just wanted to learn new words.

All in all I prefer to win than to lose, but the main thing I like about Scrabble is the game itself. I love word puzzles of any kind. (I amazed myself by finally managing to finish the acrostic from Saturday’s Wall Street Journal last night, after four days of struggling with it.) And Scrabble is a great word puzzle.

If you like Scrabble and you’re on Facebook, let’s play!

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What’s merry about Christmas?

December 25, 2011

I read an interesting essay yesterday by the late Christopher Hitchens, on why he objects to the “forced merriment” of the Christmas season. I agree with him in principle, though I have not experienced the degree of coercion he rails against.

Perhaps he exaggerates for effect. Perhaps his dislike of the religious nature of the holiday colors his perceptions. I don’t recall any “compulsory jollity in the hospitals and clinics and waiting rooms.” But I have heard objections, including from devout Christians, to the monthlong assault on our ears by the seasonal music played at shops, malls, and other public spaces.

I haven’t noticed it much myself. I spent time yesterday in a mall for the first time in months, and if there was music playing I was oblivious to it. Perhaps I tend to tune out piped-in music along with all the rest of the noise that I associate with crowded stores.

I do dislike it when I am expected to act happy when I don’t feel happy. I have never liked it when someone, seeing me walk by with a serious look on my face, says, “Smile!” Whether I was looking serious because I was unhappy or deep in thought, I don’t want to be told how to feel, or at least to pretend that I feel.

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Computer as translator

October 29, 2011

As a lover of language and languages, I was intrigued but bothered by the opening lines of an article I read this week at The Hot Word (dictionary.com’s blog). “Back in the 1940s, mathematician Warren Weaver made an audacious suggestion: what if translation was not a feat of literary theory and linguistics, but one of cryptography?” The rest of the article indicates that Weaver was on the right track, as evidenced by both Google Translate, and the recent success of some cryptographers in decoding the Copiale Cipher.

I think computers are great tools, and it wouldn’t surprise me if eventually they could be programmed to understand and use human languages fairly well. But to do it by the tools of mathematics rather than linguistics? Besides, even humans often do a poor job of translation (Charles Berlitz gives some very amusing examples in his book Native Tongues) – how could a computer possibly do better?

I decided to check out Google Translate. I took a sentence from the article I had just been reading, and pasted it into Google Translate. It didn’t matter much which language I translated it into, since my aim was to re-translate it to English and see how this compared with the original. I chose Russian. The result was not perfect, but better than I expected.

Original sentence: By making a machine-readable version of the text, a team of computational linguistics were able to run the characters through a software program that found patterns in the text, which were otherwise inscrutable.

Russian translation: Делая машиночитаемой версии текста, команда компьютерной лингвистики смогли запустить персонажей через программное обеспечение, которое обнаружили закономерности в тексте, которые в противном случае неисповедимы.

Back to English: Making the machine-readable version of the text, Computational Linguistics team were able to run characters through software, which found a pattern in the text, which otherwise inscrutable.

By way of comparison, Babel Fish produced this when translating the same sentence to Russian and then back to English: “With way to make machine-readable the version from the text, the command of computational linguistics could break into a run natures to the program of software which it found the pictures in the text, which were otherwise inscrutable.” Yes, definitely inscrutable.

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