Friday, February 8, 2013

Let dying languages die

The Los Angeles Times had a story yesterday on school children in Northern California being taught the nearly extinct language of the Yurok Indians. Everyone quoted in the story elderly Yuroks, the teachers in the program, a professional linguist seems to think this is a swell idea because it will prevent the language from dying out. (You can read the story here.)

But no one seems to be asking a key question: Is this good for the students?

Under the program, elementary and high school students spend precious class time studying a language that is spoken by only about 400 people on Earth, almost none of whom use it as their primary language. As the story notes, only 17 people are considered "conversationally fluent" in Yurok.

So while the program pleases a few academics, it gives kids a skill that is virtually worthless. Why not spend the class time having them learn Spanish, or Mandarin Chinese, or any of the many widely used languages spoken around the world?  Why not give the stidemts a skill that will be valued by employers, help them to travel confidently to other countries and allow them to communicate with millions of people, not just a handful?

Languages die out as a natural part of cultural change. This is not something we should mourn. The loss of a language means that more people are sharing a common tongue and can communicate clearly and freely without translators or the risk of misunderstanding. That's a good thing.


(Please support this blog by clicking on an ad.) 

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Review: "The River of Doubt" by Candice Millard

After an arduous and unsuccessful run for president in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt was spent. He needed to get away. Never one to do things halfway, Roosevelt REALLY got away.

The next year, Roosevelt was on a boat heading to South America to explore the rain forest. The expedition, organized by Father John Zahm, would take Roosevelt and other participants onto several rivers to see wildlife and visit remote jungle areas. It promised to be an interesting trip, yet hardly a groundbreaking one.

But upon arriving in Brazil, an official asked Roosevelt a tantalizing question: "Why don't you go down an unknown river?" The question changed everything. Roosevelt, who craved the chance to be a "real" explorer, jumped at the opportunity.

The "River of Doubt," a wonderfully written book by Candice Millard, is the story of the 1914 Roosevelt-Rondon expedition to explore a 1,000-mile river that was literally was not on any map. When the 22-man team set out, no one knew where the Rio da Duvida ("River of Doubt") would take them, how long they would be gone or what kind of dangers they would face.

As it turned out, the difficulties of the trip were far beyond what they had imagined. The men had to deal with disease, swarms of insects, snakes, hostile Indians, dwindling supplies of food, waterfalls and their own internal conflicts. Roosevelt nearly died and ... well, I don't want to give too much away. Like the River of Doubt itself, this book takes some surprising turns.

Millard leads the reader along step-by-step on the entire trip, beginning with its planning stages in the United States, helping you feel as if you are going along with the expedition. Unlike many survival stories, this one does not hinge on a single disastrous moment. There is no shipwreck, avalanche, or plane crash. Rather, we see scores of small flaws in the planning and execution of the trip, along with the extraordinary difficulties of travel, add up in a death-by-a-thousand-cuts style to cripple and hamper the expedition.

Millard details a fascinating cast of characters, including the vainglorious Father Zahm, Roosevelt's hard-working but reckless son Kermit, and various scientists and laborers. Some are strong and headstrong, some fearful, some lazy, and the interaction among them adds color and depth to the story. (Sort of like "Lost" on the Amazon.)

Of course, the main character is Theodore Roosevelt, my favorite president. This book illustrates many of his strengths - he is tough, fair-minded, decisive and selfless. Yet I have to say that part of the expedition's problems stem from his failure to take charge of the planning early enough. He left many of the details of supplies and equipment to Zahm and others. Due to poor planning, the high-quality canoes they brought with them never reach the river and they have to rely on unreliable native dugouts. They also discover too late their food supplies are inadequate.

The other unforgettable individual in the book is Brazilian Colonel Candido Rondon, the co-leader of the trip. I had never heard of him, but I gather that he is a national hero in Brazil. He had led numerous expeditions into the Amazon to explore and lay telegraph lines, and worked hard to bring peace with Indians. He was stern and demanding, and seemed immune to the jungle diseases that afflicted, and often killed, the men around him.

"In the most remote reaches of the Amazon," Millard writes, "Rondon was unreachable and unstoppable. He had never allowed his men's suffering or even their deaths to affect his work in the wilderness, and he never would."

Millard broadens out the story with historical background of the Amazon and descriptions of the strange flora and fauna of the jungle. Much of this is fascinating, but she might take it a bit too far. As the expedition progresses, you want to stay with that story and see what happens. Millard may interrupt once too often with a scientific lesson.

If you enjoy this type of story, you should also consider "Undaunted Courage," Stephen Ambrose's story of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Also, there are many good books on Ernest Shackleton's troubled Antarctic expedition that are worth a look.


(Please support this blog by clicking on an ad.) 

Saturday, February 2, 2013

How to tick off your customers the My Lifetouch way

My Lifetouch, a website for purchasing school photos, has a unique three-step process for ticking off its customers. Pay attention here's what to do: 

First, make it impossible for customers to do a simple one-time purchase. They must create an account first.

Second, when customers try to order pictures, include one field My Lifetouch uses "country" that is grayed out so that nothing can be entered in it. Then require customers to enter something in that field. Make it impossible to move forward.

Third, when customers call your help line during hours it claims to be open, answer with a recording and then hang up on them. Every time.

One, two, three it's a simple plan that My Lifetouch seems to have perfected.
That may be why, when you email them, they say, "We're proud of our accomplishments."


(Please support this blog by clicking on an ad.)

Friday, February 1, 2013

Movie review: "Planes, Trains and Automobiles"

I got three hearty laughs out of this 1987 movie and assorted light chuckles. That's good, but it's not enough to make it a great movie. Unfortunately, the plot is thin and the love-hate relationship of the two main characters is too obviously contrived.

Everyone has had a bad trip, so when things go wrong for Neal Page (Steve Martin) and Del Griffith (John Candy) as they're trying to get home for Thanksgiving, we can all share their pain and empathize. And when things go particularly bad, it's particularly funny.

Still, for a road trip movie, "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" loses momentum and stalls a surprising number of times. And parts of it just don't make sense.

The second half of the movie shows Page trying to get from St. Louis to Chicago. He finds he can't get a plane or a rental car. But his wife is waiting for him in Chicago, so why doesn't he just call her and have her come get him? Yes, that's a four-and-a-half-hour drive, but given that he doesn't seem to have any other options for getting home for Thanksgiving, wouldn't any wife do that? Or at least get a friend or relative to go?

Somehow that doesn't happen. By luck, Page gets a ride with Griffith, who is also heading to Chicago. The passage of time is unclear at this point, but their drive starts in daylight, goes into the darkness, they switch drivers twice, Page falls asleep in the passenger seat. Surely by this point they must be REALLY close to Chicago, right?  You'd think so, but somehow no.

When more trouble ensues, they again fail to call Page's wife (how far away can she be?). Then when they get a ride in a truck, Griffith says that they're only three hours from Chicago. Huh??

That's not the only part that doesn't make sense. At one point they end up driving the wrong way on a virtually deserted freeway. C'mon even in 1980s Illinois no freeway is that empty.

One fun element in this movie is that several actors who go on to bigger careers can be found in small roles  Kevin Bacon, Ben Stein, Michael McKean.

While this movie isn't great, it might make an OK family movie except for one scene where the f-word is used about 50 or 60 times (attention parents: It's the scene at the rental car counter; skip ahead). That's too bad. Sometimes I wonder if filmmakers intentionally do this to avoid getting a PG rating, which is somehow considered "lightweight."


(Please support this blog by clicking on an ad.)