Ability to sustain pearly platitudes dwindling rapidly

sustainable

Yet another word battered into meaningless by overuse and corporate marketing.

Here’s a hint: once the big boys of industry start littering their advertising with a specific term, such “sustainable” or “going green” or “giving back,” that term has probably not only been utterly co-opted, but lost any real meaning.

Sustainability, or its elite cousin, “sustainable development,” always seemed like a loaded term, anyway – another way of saying that a small group somewhere thinks it should have the ability to control how a much larger segment of people live their lives, based on what the smaller group believes is in everyone’s best interests.

The goal of sustainability is what’s best for the planet. The problem is, who’s determining what’s best for whom, and what the cost in economic, political and intellectual liberty?

Most of us, say, can agree it would be nice if the Amazon wasn’t stripped to look like a World War I battlefield. But is it right to tell the dirt-poor Brazilian farmer, trying to scratch out of a living, that he can no longer clear trees to grow crops to feed his family and try to earn a living, so that first-world do-gooders can feel like they’ve effected change?

Gerard of Cremona’s role in reinvigorating medieval Europe

Toledo-Spain

Polyglots are a fascinating breed. As one who has worked all his life, and is still working, to gain mastery of a single language, I have mucho admiration for those who easily and fluently pick up additional tongues.

My maternal grandfather, a native of Italy who immigrated to the U.S. more than a century ago, could speak multiple languages, including Italian, French and English, along with a variety of others, due to the fact he grew up in the far northeastern part of the country, near a variety of shifting borders.

I am living proof that being a polyglot is not an inherited trait. I failed English in 6th and 7th grade, and came close again in 10th grade. In addition, I barely made it through two years of college French (mandatory for graduation).

Of course, upon reflection I have recognized that study habits – or lack thereof – were largely responsible for my early inability to learn the intricacies of English, as well as the basics of French. At least, I’d like to think so.

Yet, there is no question that for a special few individuals, the ability to learn languages is indeed a gift.

Take Gerard of Cremona, an Italian who found himself drawn to the intellectual riches of the Spanish city of Toledo in the 12th century. Toledo during this period was a true multi-religious melting pot, with Christians, Jews and Muslims living, working and learning side by side.

Gerard, who was born around 1114, is believed to have traveled to Spain in his late 20s due to the lack of written scholarship available in his native area.

Toledo, the former provincial capital of the Caliphate of Cordoba, had been conquered by Alfonso VI of Castile in 1085 but had remained a seat of learning, with protected Jewish and Muslim areas.

The city was full of libraries and possessed an abundance of manuscripts. It represented one of the few places in medieval Europe where a Christian such as Gerard could be exposed to Arabic language and culture, along with extensive written scholarship dating back to the Greeks.

What Gerard saw upon his arrival in Toledo staggered him; myriad books in Arabic on every subject, all nearly unknown in Latin.

Like any true polyglot, Gerard first taught himself Arabic, then proceeded to work his way through Toledo’s libraries, “churning out translations of at least seventy major works previously unavailable in the Latin-speaking west,” according to Chris Lowney in A Vanished World: Medieval Spain’s Golden Age of Enlightenment.

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Osteen vs. Luther: in a theological debate, go with the dead guy

osteen luther

There’s no doubting televangelist Joel Osteen’s appeal to millions of Christians. The senior pastor of the largest Protestant church in the US, Osteen’s televised sermons are seen by more than 20 million viewers monthly in more than 100 countries, and he has written five New York Times bestselling books.

The Texas-based preacher has been lauded for touting God’s love for humanity, efforts to inspire others to overcome personal setbacks and emphasis on the need for mission and purpose in life.

Similarly, Osteen has been criticized for his simplistic black-and-white thinking, being a theological lightweight and applying Scripture out of context.

While I generally keep my distance from televangelists and megachurches, I will also readily admit to not being able to see into the hearts of others.

I can’t determine, in this case, whether Osteen is a well-intentioned individual who is doing his best, and has very likely provided solace to a significant number of people, or if he is part preacher, part carnival barker who has used his ability in the pulpit to enrich himself.

That said, there are many theologically savvy types who have had a field day picking apart Osteen’s teachings. Among them is the individual who created this imaginary back and forth between Osteen and 16th century Protestant reformer and noted killjoy Martin Luther.

While the twitter conversation is, of course, imagined, both Osteen’s and Luther’s quotes are taken from the respective religious figures’ various sayings and/or writings.

Luther, not remembered as a light and fluffy sort, would probably have had Osteen burned at the stake after sitting through just a few minutes of one of the latter’s feel-good services.

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In Vermont, a solution goes in search of a problem

south burlington scoreboard

In a nation of perpetually aggrieved there is diminishing room for reason.

Consider the “controversy” taking place in South Burlington, Vt.

For more than 50 years the South Burlington High School has used the “Rebels” as its nickname, said to be in recognition of the city’s secession from Burlington many years before.

However, now there is a movement to do away with the moniker because “rebel” is said to be associated with the racist policies of the Confederacy, a former teacher at the school told the Burlington Free Press.

“It was unintentional, I’m sure, but it’s still connected to that,” said Bob Walsh, who taught at the school for 18 years. “I think it’s time for us to recognize the fact that this symbol is inappropriate and it’s time to change.”

Walsh’s comments came during an August school board meeting. He was the only member of the public to speak against the school’s nickname.

Elizabeth Fitzgerald, board chairwoman, said when she grew up in the area and participated in events against South Burlington High, she never recalled any reference to the Rebels being affiliated with the Confederacy.

Julie Beatty, another school board member and a South Burlington High alum, said she never associated the “Rebels” nickname with the Confederacy during her time as a student, and said she doesn’t think students today associate it with the Confederate States of America.

The board decided to gather more public opinion before making a decision. Young said the topic will be open for public comment at the next board meeting, which will be held tomorrow.

What Walsh and others who advocate a break with the name “Rebels” seem to overlook is that not only did South Burlington split from Burlington, but Vermont itself was established by many individuals who were considered “rebels.”

Vermont was founded by Ethan Allen, Thomas Chittenden and others who sought independence from New York, seeing themselves “as a distinct region outside the legitimate jurisdiction of New York,” according to historian Christian Fritz.

Although Vermonters fought the British during the American Revolution, they didn’t join the fledgling United States at the outset of war, as both New York and New Hampshire wanted the territory for themselves.

Instead, in 1777, Vermonters declared independence, wrote their own constitution and formed the Republic of Vermont, which lasted until 1791, when the state was admitted to the Union as the 14th state.

And, of course, rebellion was the dominant theme in the founding of the United States of America, with the Founding Fathers undoubtedly being seen as “rebels” by Great Britain.

(Top: Scoreboard at South Burlington (Vt.) High School, with nickname “Rebels” evident.)

Geneticists say they’re closer to solving mystery of the Basques

freedom to choose the basque language

To say that the Basque are enigmatic is a bit of an understatement.

Theirs is the only Western European tongue that does not belong to the Indo-European family of languages. Written Basque features an extraordinary number of x’s and relatively few vowels.

There is a legend that says the Devil tried to learn Basque by listening behind the door of a Basque farmhouse. After seven years, he mastered but two words: “Yes, Ma’am.”

In addition to the language, the genetic makeup of the Basque has also puzzled researchers.

Now, it appears a team of geneticists have made progress in solving the mystery behind the Basques, who reside in northern Spain and southern France.

A study in PNAS journal suggests they descended from early farmers who mixed with local hunters before becoming isolated for as much as five millennia, according to the BBC.

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Local schools: If it’s inconvenient, then it’s not worth doing

Helicopter-Parents

Summer reading lists have been around for eons, it would seem. Until this year, that is, at least in my neck of the woods.

When my girls, who are going into the 10th, ninth, ninth and seventh grades, finished school last May they told me they didn’t have any required summer reading. Seeing how each of them independently told me the same story, and there was no information about summer reading on their respective schools’ websites, I was forced to accept this as truth.

However, as each had been given reading lists since at least the third grade previously, I found the change perplexing.

I told them, though, that they would be reading at least one book that I would pick out for them. My girls have varying levels of interest in reading: One is an avid bookworm and is never without something to peruse; another is a social butterfly and, while an excellent writer, would rather do just about anything than sit down and read.

The four start school tomorrow and over the summer between them managed to read 18 books. This, however, is not broken down evenly. One of my twins read nine books, including The Scarlet Letter, which I picked out for her. The youngest read six books, including Little Women, which was my choice. The oldest read two books – All Things Bright and Beautiful and Animal Farm – the first of which I chose because of her love of animals, and the second she chose because she thought it was about a farm (I didn’t disabuse her of that notion when she showed it to me initally). My other twin managed to get through one book, To Kill a Mockingbird, which I chose for her.

Obviously I would have preferred for the latter two to have spent more time reading and less time playing on their cell phones, but they only live with me part of the time so I’m glad they accomplished what they did.

What I found rather discouraging was the reason their schools didn’t assign reading lists, which I learned only this past weekend.

My three older girls were told at the end of last year that students weren’t being assigned summer reading “because kids won’t do it.” This was verified by another student who attends a different area school.

As an aside, my children are fortunate enough to attend classes in one of the best public school districts in South Carolina.

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The analogy was a bad one, not unlike a illogical comparison

analogies

The above seems plausible enough. I was once in high school and undoubtedly penned a number of bad analogies, though I also recall having considerable difficulty differentiating analogies, metaphors and similes from one another.

While most of my analogies were sports-related – “the sound his head made as it bounced off the pavement was a sharp thwack, resembling the tone of a Nolan Ryan fastball being fouled off by Reggie Jackson” – and many were substandard, they probably weren’t as cringe-worthy as the above.

But, of course, the Internet being the Internet, it turns out that the above analogies weren’t written by high school students but by readers of the Washington Post.

In July 1995 the Post ran a contest asking for outrageously bad analogies, according to the blog Socratic Mama. Readers were asked to write the most hideous prose they could imagine. The above is a selection of those submissions.

It wasn’t long before a sample of these were being gleefully passed around the web, attributed to high school students.

I suppose because nearly all of us were high school students at one time, and most of us have struggled with analogies – at least in practice if not theory – the idea that teens could come up with the above seems utterly plausible.

After all, high school students struggle with analogies in much the same way that a thirsty, yet dignified souse struggles not to break into a trot when he hears a beer truck has overturned just up the road.

To see the Post’s collection of reader-inspired bad analogies, click here.