What did I just witness?

So, I was walking down Broadway here in lower Manhattan, and saw a lady writing on a piece of cardboard about how she’s homeless and needs help, etc.

Terribly sad, for sure.

But something hit me.

Had she been homeless for a while now, and just updating her sign as a means of requesting donations?


…what if I witnessed a human being on their first day of being homeless – having just given up her last-ditch attempts at continuing to live in the place she had called home that very morning?

…what if that was the very moment she resigned herself to having to take to the chilly streets of Manhattan, and relying upon the kindness and spare change of strangers?

…what if, she’d spent the day wandering around the city, and had just chosen that spot, on this windy, busy, thoroughfare, as her new perch for the indefinite future?

I find that possibility completely horrifying.


New study – Many English Speakers Cannot Understand Basic Grammar

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I’ll paste the entire content of the article, which can be found by clicking here. I will bold the points I find most interesting, followed by my comments below.

ScienceDaily (July 6, 2010) — Research into grammar by academics at Northumbria University suggests that a significant proportion of native English speakers are unable to understand some basic sentences.

The findings — which undermine the assumption that all speakers have a core ability to use grammatical cues — could have significant implications for education, communication and linguistic theory.

The research, conducted by Dr Ewa Dabrowska, showed that basic elements of core English grammar had not been mastered by some native speakers.

The project assumed that every adult native speaker of English would be able to understand the meaning of the sentence:

The soldier was hit by the sailor.”

Dr Dabrowska and research student James Street then tested a range of adults, some of whom were postgraduate students, and others who had left school at the age of 16. All participants were asked to identify the meaning of a number of simple active and passive sentences, as well as sentences which contained the universal qualifier “every.”

As the test progressed, the two groups performed very differently. A high proportion of those who had left school at 16 began to make mistakes. Some speakers were not able to perform any better than chance, scoring no better than if they had been guessing.

Dr Dabrowska comments: “These findings are ground breaking, because for decades the theoretical and educational consensus has been solid. Regardless of educational attainment or dialect we are all supposed to be equally good at grammar, in the sense of being able to use grammatical cues to understand the meaning of sentences.

“Of course some people are more literate, with a larger vocabulary and greater exposure to highly complex literary constructions. Nevertheless, at a fundamental level, everyone in a linguistic community is supposed to share the same core grammar, in the same way that given normal development we can all walk.”

The supposition that everyone in a linguistic community shares the same grammar is a central tenet of Noam Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar. The theory assumes that all children learn language equally well and that there must therefore be an underlying common structure to all languages that is somehow “hard-wired” into the brain.

Dr Dabrowska has examined other explanations for her findings, such as limitations to working memory, and even so-called “test wiseness,” but she concluded that these non-linguistic factors are irrelevant.

She also stressed that the findings have nothing to do with intelligence. Participants with low levels of educational attainment were given instruction following the tests, and they were able to learn the constructions very quickly. She speculates that this could be because their attention was not drawn to sentence construction by parents or teachers when they were children.

She adds: “Our results show that a proportion of people with low educational attainment make errors with understanding the passive, and it appears that this and other important areas of core grammar may not be fully mastered by some speakers, even by adulthood.

“These findings could have a number of implications. “If a significant proportion of the population does not understand passive sentences, then notices and other forms of written information may have to be rewritten and literacy strategies changed.

“What’s more, the existence of substantial individual differences in native language attainment is highly problematic for one of the most widely accepted arguments for an innate universal grammar: the assumed ‘fact’ that all native speakers of a language converge on essentially the same grammar. Our research shows that they don’t.”

Dr. Dabrowska presented her findings in a keynote lecture at the UK Cognitive Linguistics Association Conference on July 7.

When I first skimmed the study, I assumed that it was about people who were not born in English-speaking countries, and their issues with understanding grammar. To see that these comprehension difficulties were with native English speakers was pretty surprising to me. It always seemed logical to me (and apparently to the grammar and linguistic theorists as well), that while people may have different vocabularies and levels of grammar understanding, that if you were born and raised here you would have a basic understand of the general grammar rules.

The example cited in the study was “The soldier was hit by the sailor.” I erroneously assumed that this “basic” sentence would be understood universally by native English speakers. I thought that even the group that left school at 16 would have no problem with this sentence; there are no sneaky punctuation marks and no difficult words to comprehend. Apparently, the issue with comprehension was that it’s a passive sentence. This caught me completely by surprise.

Dr. Dabrowska noted that it was not an intelligence issue, and that once those with comprehension issues were taught the correct usages, they learned it quickly.

What is somewhat unsatisfactory is her speculation that this could be because their attention was not drawn to sentence construction by parents or teachers when they were children. I’m not sure that I have a better explanation, but just by hanging out with friends or coworkers or television one might limn enough about sentences to figure it out.

I guess we were all wrong.

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Rookie Blue – Review

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Rookie Blue

Rookie Blue (ABC Thursday nights at 9) centers around five fresh-out-of-the-Academy cops. The general impression you get is that they’re a little giddy and excited, which comes off a little bit annoying, as though they’re trying to be considered cutesy, when they’re actually officers of the law. They’re all really good-looking, too. Surprise!

Where are they cops? What mean streets are they patrolling? We don’t find out. I spent the first ten minutes trying to figure out which city they were in, only to notice that every police car and uniform was missing any form of identification. Nowadays it seems like many shows have the city in the title, and if not, you find out within the first few minutes. A generic city makes the show generic, which isn’t a good sign.

Parts of the first episode are kind-of obvious and stereotypical, complete with one cop putting her radio on the wrong side, pushing the wrong button, another not knowing when to have their gun out, and other hyuks that are too predictable. Also somewhat cliche is that the the veteran training cops roll their eyes at the young rookies. Traci Nash (Enuka Okuma), a pretty black female cop walks over to her new partner, full of cheer and excitement, with a giant pink bag, and the veteran goes “Great. I get Jenny from the block” and snarkily says about her bag “That is not coming in my car.” Not surprisingly, we meet a possible love interest for Andy McNally (Missy Peregrym), who appears to be the main character.

To the show’s credit, I liked the chemistry between the rookies. It kind-of reminded me of the (original) cast of  Scrubs.

I enjoyed the show. I might have enjoyed a little more substance in a first episode. It seemed like a lot of the show was fluff, and there needs to be more content and plot development. The show didn’t instantly draw me in, which was disappointing; it took me a while to “care” about the show. There is a lot of potential in the show, and I’m going to keep watching for improvements.

Other cast members include Gregory Smith (Dov Epstein), Charlotte Sullivan (Gail Peck), Travis Milne (Chris Diaz), Ben Bass (Sam Swarek) and Eric Johnson (Luke Callaghan). We’ll need to see more of these people to judge.

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Origins #17: Why a fast day is called a “fast”

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Fast Day

The point of this post, believe it or not, is about the choice of the word ‘fast’ to symbolize the abstention from food, drink, et cetera. Anybody who has fasted will tell you that these days feel like the slowest days of the year.

The first (of many) definitions for the word ‘fast’ is:

1 a : firmly fixed <roots fast in the ground> b : tightly shut <the drawers were fast> c : adhering firmly d : not easily freed : stuck <a ball fast in the mouth of the cannon> e : stable <movable items were made fast to the deck>

The idea seems to be indicating a firm adherence to the religious ritual of abstaining from food for a specified period. It would take willpower and firmness of resolve. Anybody who has fasted knows this quite well.

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On our trip to the Prospect Park Zoo, I came to a sad realization

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Prospect Park Zoo

We are big fans of zoos, and make an effort to visit as many as we can on our various travels.

To that end, we’re members of the Wildlife Conservation Society, an organization that runs various New York City-area zoos and an aquarium. They include:

The Prospect Park Zoo was the last one we visited, and I was quite disappointed at what we saw on display at the zoo.

Prospect Park Zoo Map

Prospect Park Zoo Map

I’ve attached a map for frame-of-reference.

In just about every section designed to accommodate an animal, most of the time you get just that – one animal. Want to see an emu? Assuming it’s in an area where you can view it (we saw it hiding wayyyyyyy in the back of the enclosure), you’re more than welcome to feed it. On a side-note, feeding emus is fun and I would advise anybody who has the chance, to take advantage. It’s sad, but the song that kept popping into my head was “The loneliest number is one.”

The entire time we kept waiting for the moment that would impress us, and make us want to come back. No such moment came.

Take the aviary for example, and I use that term most loosely. Normally I have to be cajoled to enter an aviary, as I’m still getting over my aversion to animals. When we entered the aviary, I realized it didn’t appear that there were many birds at all. It’s probably a good thing because it was about the size of a large bedroom. There were some ducks (ho-hum) and a handful of birds in trees that were only identifiable by the contrast in color.

There is some charm in the Barn, a place I imagine would be fun for kids, but even there the animals were not free to roam around you and you could only get close to some of them.

As always, the sea lion continues to be my favorite animal, and as the map indicates, it’s the highlight of the zoo. We attended a feeding, and the sea lions ate and did some tricks. I always enjoy it no matter how many places I’ve seen it occur. There were also some really friendly black Tamarin monkeys that we enjoyed interacting with through the glass. Also, how anyone can see a twenty pound rabbit and not smile is beyond me.

All that said, let me make something clear. The zoo is not BAD. It’s not offensive, it’s just small. It’s a mini-zoo in a big town. The Gift Shop is seasonal. The cafe consists of vending machines. The staff was friendly, the ambiance was pleasant enough for a decent day out.

As we’re going through the zoo, I came to the sad realization mentioned in the title. As I posted here, the WCS is facing some giant budget cuts. It might be a good idea to close shop. Brooklynites will still have the New York Aquarium, Botanical Gardens, and about a thousand other things to do without getting on a bridge. Perhaps it would be a good idea to leave the petting-zooish Barn for kids to visit, but the bulk of the animals there seemingly would be able to be integrated into the other zoos in New York City without causing too much of a burden. The staff should be able to be assigned similar jobs at the other zoos now that the number of animals and attendance in the respective zoos would have increased.

Obviously this is hardly an enjoyable solution, but it should save the WCS a lot of money and help save the aquarium and the other zoos. While you’re here, sign the petition to protect the WCS here.

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Origins #11: Expressions you can drink to!

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For those who drink a lot, these expressions are ones they hear quite often. Let us explore these expressions and try to bring some light to their origins.

Minding your Ps and Qs: There are multiple theories as to the origin of this expression, but some of them originate in the pub. Behold:

1) Ale was served at local taverns out of a “tankard” … you were charged by the angle of your elbow … half-way up… you drank a pint, all the way up… you drank a quart. Since the Quart cost so much more than the Pint, you were warned to “Mind your Ps & Qs”.

2) It stands for “Mind your Pints and Quarts. The expression was intended for people to mind how many Pints and Quarts they drank, or in other words, to behave!

3) The derivation of ‘minding your P(int)s and Q(uart)s’ was deemed to have come from the necessity of the ‘barkeep’ to keep accurate disbursement records of alcohol for the purpose of paying the tax on alcohol.

4) The best explanation of “minding your P’s & Q’s” I’ve heard came from the fact that the barkeep would keep track of how much you drank on a chalk board. This admonished you to keep track of how much you had to drink so that the barkeep couldn’t add a few pints to your tab and charge you for something you hadn’t consumed.

Getting Tanked: When you drank too much out of the above “tankard” you were said to be “tanked” … if you got so “tanked” that you passed out, there was a chance that somebody might think you had actually died. Since back then they didn’t have experience with taking pulses, they often buried people alive who were actually in a drunken stupor or otherwise comatose.

Getting Bombed: A bombard is a leather jug which holds 8 pints or 4 quarts. A full bombard of ale would make you drunk.

Wet Your Whistle: Many years ago in England, pub frequenters had a whistle baked into the rim or handle of their ceramic cups. When they needed a refill, they used to blow the whistle to get some service.

Tumbler and Tipsy: Glasses were hand blown, thus flat bottomed glasses were difficult to produce. Those with curved bottoms would tend to tumble over when placed on the table, and too many tumblers of whiskey would make you a little bit tipsy.

All the information is courtesy of goodwords.com.

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