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Thursday, January 21, 2010

panama palindromes

A palindrome is a word, phrase, or sentence in which the letters are identical whether read forward or backward.

For example:

  • kayak

  • rotator

  • Mr. Owl ate my metal worm.

  • A man, a plan, a canal: Panama!

In 1983, Jim Saxe realized that he could add a cat to that last one:

A man, a plan, a cat, a canal; Panama?

Two Guys soon extended the list even further. Guy Jacobson produced:

A man, a plan, a cat, a ham, a yak, a yam, a hat, a canal--Panama!

and Guy Steele offered:

A man, a plan, a canoe, pasta, heros, rajahs, a coloratura, maps, snipe, percale, macaroni, a gag, a banana bag, a tan, a tag, a banana bag again (or a camel), a crepe, pins, Spam, a rut, a Rolo, cash, a jar, sore hats, a peon, a canal--Panama!

By the following year, Dan Hoey had extended the palindrome to 540 words, using what he termed "a fairly simple-minded program" and the Unix spelling dictionary:

A man, a plan, a caret, a ban, a myriad, a sum, a lac, a liar, a hoop, a pint, a catalpa, a gas, an oil, a bird, a yell, a vat, a caw, a pax, a wag, a tax, a nay, a ram, a cap, a yam, a gay, a tsar, a wall, a car, a luger, a ward, a bin, a woman, a vassal, a wolf, a tuna, a nit, a pall, a fret, a watt, a bay, a daub, a tan, a cab, a datum, a gall, a hat, a fag, a zap, a say, a jaw, a lay, a wet, a gallop, a tug, a trot, a trap, a tram, a torr, a caper, a top, a tonk, a toll, a ball, a fair, a sax, a minim, a tenor, a bass, a passer, a capital, a rut, an amen, a ted, a cabal, a tang, a sun, an ass, a maw, a sag, a jam, a dam, a sub, a salt, an axon, a sail, an ad, a wadi, a radian, a room, a rood, a rip, a tad, a pariah, a revel, a reel, a reed, a pool, a plug, a pin, a peek, a parabola, a dog, a pat, a cud, a nu, a fan, a pal, a rum, a nod, an eta, a lag, an eel, a batik, a mug, a mot, a nap, a maxim, a mood, a leek, a grub, a gob, a gel, a drab, a citadel, a total, a cedar, a tap, a gag, a rat, a manor, a bar, a gal, a cola, a pap, a yaw, a tab, a raj, a gab, a nag, a pagan, a bag, a jar, a bat, a way, a papa, a local, a gar, a baron, a mat, a rag, a gap, a tar, a decal, a tot, a led, a tic, a bard, a leg, a bog, a burg, a keel, a doom, a mix, a map, an atom, a gum, a kit, a baleen, a gala, a ten, a don, a mural, a pan, a faun, a ducat, a pagoda, a lob, a rap, a keep, a nip, a gulp, a loop, a deer, a leer, a lever, a hair, a pad, a tapir, a door, a moor, an aid, a raid, a wad, an alias, an ox, an atlas, a bus, a madam, a jag, a saw, a mass, an anus, a gnat, a lab, a cadet, an em, a natural, a tip, a caress, a pass, a baronet, a minimax, a sari, a fall, a ballot, a knot, a pot, a rep, a carrot, a mart, a part, a tort, a gut, a poll, a gateway, a law, a jay, a sap, a zag, a fat, a hall, a gamut, a dab, a can, a tabu, a day, a batt, a waterfall, a patina, a nut, a flow, a lass, a van, a mow, a nib, a draw, a regular, a call, a war, a stay, a gam, a yap, a cam, a ray, an ax, a tag, a wax, a paw, a cat, a valley, a drib, a lion, a saga, a plat, a catnip, a pooh, a rail, a calamus, a dairyman, a bater, a canal--Panama.

Hoey opined, "With a better word list and a smarter program I'm sure the palindrome could be ten times as long."

Years later, in honor of the palindromic date/time of two minutes after 8 PM on the 20th of February, 2002, at (i.e. 20:02 20/02 2002, or in the U.S., 20:02 02/20 2002) Peter Norvig decided to try to create the world's longest palindrome. On finding Hoey's website, he took up the challenge to find a palindromic sentence ten times as long as Hoey's. Using this program, Norvig created a palindrome beginning with:

A man, a plan, a caddy, Ore, Lee, tsuba, Thaine, a lair,

ending with:

Hell, a burial, Aeniah, Tabu, Steele, Roydd, a canal, Panama.

and containing 15,139 words in all.

Norvig offered this commentary:

Maybe I'm biased, but I think the palindrome starts out quite strong. "A man, a plan, a caddy" is the basic premise of another fine piece of storytelling. Unfortunately, things go downhill from there rather quickly. It contains truths, but it does not have a plot. It has Putnam, but no logic; Tesla, but no electricity; Pareto, but no optimality; Ebert, but no thumbs up. It has an ensemble cast including Tim Allen, Ed Harris and Al Pacino, but they lack character development. It has Sinatra and Pink, but it doesn't sing. It has Monet and Goya, but no artistry. It has Slovak, Inuit, Creek, and Italian, but it's all Greek to me. It has exotic locations like Bali, Maui, Uranus, and Canada, but it jumps around needlessly. It has Occam, but it is the antithesis of his maxim "Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem." If you tried to read the whole thing, you'd get to "a yawn" and stop. Or you might be overcome by the jargon, such as PETN, ILGWU, PROM, UNESCO, and MYOB. Most serendipitous of all is that Steele, who collected several shorter versions of the Panama oeuvre in a book about a Lisp, shows up in the very last line. Steele and some others have some comments. You can read the results from top to bottom (if you don't get bored) or you can start in the middle; the letter "y" in "Moray".

I don't know. While I find this interesting on an academic level, I think the palindrome loses something when it becomes too long. Though these lengthy palindromes are grammatically correct, they don't convey any real meaning. What makes "A man, a plan, a canal: Panama!" interesting is not just that the letters are reversible, but that it offers commentary on a historical event. What do you think?

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Sunday, July 26, 2009

is jesus a sinner? an etymological survey

The ninth chapter of the Gospel of John tells the story of Jesus healing a man who was born blind. Because the healing happens on a Sabbath, the Pharisees accuse Jesus of being a sinner. The man who was healed tells them a sinner wouldn't be able to cure blindness. The Pharisees tell the man he can't possibly know that; his blindness is a sure sign that he is a sinner too. The story ends with Jesus telling the Pharisees that they are the ones who are truly blind.

According to Gary Amirault of Tentmaker Ministries, most of us are the blind Pharisees. Amirault's logic is as follows:

The word "to sin" in the Hebrew is the word "chata" which literally means "to miss," as in missing a target with a bow or sling. The Greek word is "hamartano" which means "to miss the mark (and so not share in the prize), to err." It means to fall short of a goal or a purpose.

Amirault explains that Jesus' goal or purpose was to save everybody. So, if even one person is not ultimately saved, Jesus missed the mark; he "sinned". Therefore, if we don't believe in universal salvation, we must believe Jesus is a sinner.

Amirault, on the other hand, is above all that:

I once was blind to the Truth and like most Christians, I declared Jesus a sinner like the religious people in Jerusalem did. I said He was not going to save everyone. Then one day He opened my eyes and I saw clearly that He had to save everyone in order to fulfill His mission of doing the Father's will. My eyes were opened to the Scriptures in a new and exciting way. I saw Jesus not "missing the mark," but perfectly completing everything He planned from the foundation of the world. "If I be lifted up from the earth will draw (drag in the Greek) all mankind unto Myself." (John 12:32)

It all sounds beautiful. In the end, love conquers all and everybody goes to heaven, where we all live in sweet harmony. Unfortunately, there are so many flaws in Amirault's logic, it would take several posts to deal with them.

Today I'm going to consider Amirault's definition of sin. Is Jesus a sinner unless he saves everyone?

Amirault defines sin as, "to fall short of a goal or a purpose," based on the etymology of the word. But how reliable is etymology as a guide to a word's meaning?

Let's look at a few words to see:

cabinet: From Old French cabinet meaning "small or private room". It's not hard to see how this could morph two ways into today's terms "kitchen cabinet" (which is rather smaller than a room) and the Cabinet, the President's top-level advisors (who meet with him in a private room). But the original definition no longer matches either sense of the word.

sunrise: From Old English sunne meaning "sun" + risan meaning "to go up". This one looks fine, until you consider that the sun does not rise the way an airplane or a rocket rises into the sky; the earth spins on its axis creating the optical illusion of the sun's movement. It would be a mistake to take the meanings of the two words as evidence of a geocentric universe.

tofu: From Chinese dou, "beans" + fu, "rotten". OK, that one's probably accurate.

strike: From Old English strican, "pass over lightly, stroke, smooth, rub," or "go, proceed". None of the modern definitions of the word quite match; the closest is probably the baseball term for a swing and a miss. But the same word "strike" has acquired many additional meanings: to hit with a fist, to mark something out, to collide, to stop working, to knock down all the pins in bowling. These are all derived from strican; the etymology is completely unreliable as a guide to meaning.

Etymology can be dangerously misleading: The word pedophile is derived from the Greek words for "child" and "loving", but I wouldn't recommend hiring one as a babysitter.

And sometimes even when a word does mean the same as the term it was derived from, it doesn't. We get the word neighbor from Old English neah "near" and gebur "dweller", someone who lives nearby. But in Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan, neighbor has an entirely different meaning.

So is Amirault being fair when he claims that to say Jesus will not achieve his goal of saving everybody is to say that Jesus is a sinner? My answer is a word derived from the Old English na, meaning "no, never".

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Saturday, May 30, 2009

to me it seems?

An anonymous commenter left this on my recent post hierarchy of english adjectives:

Is either of these more correct.
It seems to me.....
To me it seems.....

Short answer:
"it seems to me..." is more correct, if you're talking about the name of this blog. Otherwise they are both OK.

Long answer:

I'm not an expert on the English language, any more than I am on anything else I post here. Don't take my word as the final word.

The standard form of the phrase is "it seems to me...." In English, most sentences follow the SVO(Subject-Verb-Object) pattern. The subject here is "it", whatever "it" is. The verb is "seems", meaning this is the way it appears, even if it really isn't so. The prepositional phrase "to me" is an indirect object, the person who is affected by the seeming. The sentence usually concludes with a dependent clause that begins with the word "that" and explains what "it" is.

The phrase "to me it seems..." is an example of inversion of word order for emphasis. In the standard sentence order, "seems" appears before "me", therefore the emphasis is on the seeming, that is, the uncertainty of what follows. Inverting the word order puts the focus on "me", emphasizing the personal nature of what follows.

That's how I understand it. Fellow language nerds, what do you say?

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

cafeteria christianity

Whenever I've heard the term "cafeteria Christianity", it's always been used in a negative sense — until now. James McGrath has peeled open the metaphor and served up a meaty defense of the idea.

Now before you get all steamed and rush off to flame him for it, simmer down and feast your eyes on the way he dishes out a new understanding of the phrase:

All who consider themselves Christians are in the cafeteria. The difference is that some of us enter delighting the buffet, eager to taste new things and help ourselves to a little of this and a little of that, aware that we are not eating absolutely everything that is on the menu. Others simply enter and say "I'll have what he's having" and believe that they are tasting everything, when in fact what their pastor, family, church or denomination is serving is never everything Christianity has to offer, never everything "the Bible says", never everything that Christianity is, was or has been.

I'm sure some people will find this interpretation hard to swallow. They will decide this is a half-baked idea, not worth its salt, a recipe for disaster.

But I'm going to chew on it for a while. The extended metaphor seems a bit raw; I'm not sure whether it would withstand a grilling. But McGrath does have a point: if we limit ourselves to the white bread teachings of one church, we won't get the whole enchilada of the Christian experience.

So I'm going to let these ideas marinate overnight.

For now, I'll just savor this tasty morsel from McGrath:

Let me close by noting that the cafeteria is full of people debating the merits of this or that food. But the point of the cafeteria is not simply to stay there, but to feed there and then go forth with fresh strength and energy to do something more useful than simply debate food tastes.

That's a delicious way to refer to the work of the church.

Please, go devour McGrath's entire post. It's some good food for thought.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

hierarchy of english adjectives

In an essay titled Rules no one teaches but everyone learns, Ruth Walker of the Christian Science Monitor says:

Time, manner, place. Time, manner, place.

That was my mnemonic when, as I high school student, I struggled to learn the rules for ordering German adverbs and adverbial phrases. "I love in summer with you down the Rhein to sail." The time phrase ("in summer") is followed by indicators of manner ("with you") and place" ("down the Rhein").

It seemed utterly wrong. The only way through seemed to be to memorize the rules. Hmph! We don't have rules like this in English – or do we?

It turns out that we do, and that they are much more complex than time, manner, place.

In 1899, when seven-year-old J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a short story about a dragon, his mother objected to his phrase "green great dragon." She told him the phrase should be "great green dragon". This gave the young Tolkien a desire to penetrate the mysteries of word order, which led to a lifelong fascination with language.

Today, textbooks for teaching English as a second language explain the entire hierarchy:

  • Opinion
  • Size
  • Age
  • Shape
  • Color
  • Origin
  • Material
  • Purpose

Whenever two adjectives are used to modify the same noun, they must appear in the proper order according to the hierarchy, or be separated by commas. A noun will not likely have all eight categories, but the ones it does have must be in the correct order. That's why "green great dragon" sounded wrong to J.R.R. Tolkien's mother. It's why we say "grumpy old man" or "big yellow car" rather than "old grumpy man" or "yellow big car". All native English speakers learn this, but not in the classroom.

That I find this fascinating probably makes me a language nerd. If you've read this far, you're probably a language nerd, too. Welcome to the club.