It’s the Weather, Stupid

New York Times article about pessimistic Canadian historians and pundits:

[A] growing number of historians, foreign policy thinkers and columnists from some of the nation’s top newspapers … see themselves as part of an informal school that has no name or single mentor … [All] are writing the same assessment: Canada is in decline, or at the very least, has fallen short of their aspirations. For these thinkers, Canada is adrift at home and wilting as a player on the world stage. It is dogged by not only uninspired leaders but also by a lack of national purpose, stunted imagination and befuddled priorities even as its economy prospers.

Here we have the conjunction of two very common phenomena. One: Canadians who think Canada is a great country that would be much better off if Canadians, and Canadian leaders in particular, weren’t so lame. Two: A Times article that identifies a long-standing situation and declares it a novel trend. (Canadians are pessimists! Brides go crazy about weddings! Parents love their children!) Still, it’s always nice to see CanCon in the NYT.
Read more


Car Wars

I went to a talk yesterday by Martin Melosi on the historical impact of the automobile on American cities. Melosi is an urban and environmental historian who’s written several big books on urban transportation, communication, and sanitation networks. His talk was heavy on facts and anecdotes and light on conclusions, so my notes on it will be too. But it was interesting.
Read more


Curling for Loonies

Nothing is more annoying in the ordinary intercourse of life than this irritable patriotism of the Americans.

—Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

I had lunch the other day with a very smart, very nice guy named Jason Kaufman, a young professor of sociology at Harvard. He is one to watch, folks. He obviously possesses that astounding combination of dogged hard work and genuine genius that one needs to become a young professor at Harvard, but he’s also such a nice guy that I can’t envy him for it, much.
Read more


France part Dinkum: Professor, what’s another name for pirate treasure?

(Originally published on my old LiveJournal.)

Parlez-Moi, with Sol

“Professor, what’s another name for pirate treasure?”
“Well, I think it’s booty… booty… booty… That’s what it is!”

My Ontario high school French held up tolerably well in France. I was able to ask for directions, order in restaurants, and politely inform one stupid American woman in the airport that “19.08” was not the price of the sandwich she wanted to buy (“Nineteen DOLLARS for a SANDWICH? Is that REAL dollars or FRENCH dollars?”) but the day’s date. (The real price was clearly marked in LARGE BLOCK LETTERS.) Oh, and when Pitou ruined the picnic by stealing Mama’s poulet, I was all set.

I was thrown a curve, however, by our little Lonely Planet phrase book. Like any English to French phrase book, it listed words and phrases in English, in French, and then in a phonetic approximation of the French pronunciation. Simple enough, right? But any time we used the book we were met with uncomprehending stares.

It was bouteille, the French word for “bottle,” that finally tipped us off. I knew thought it was pronounced “boo-tye,” the second syllable sounding like “Thai” or “tie,” with a little bit of an “ayee” at the end if you’re feeling frisky. But Lonely Planet gave the pronunciation as “boo-tay.” I felt just a little funny calling for bootay in a fancy restaurant.

[Edit: Note schooling me on French pronunciation in comments below. Grumble grumble big shot Manitobans think they’re so great…]

What I’d forgotten when I bought the book was that Lonely Planet is an Australian company. The phonetics were written for Aussie accents. “Boo-tay,” rhymes with “g’day,” actually is a pretty good approximation of bouteille. Once we’d cracked that Rosetta Stone (and when I say “we”, I mean “Lisa”), we could see that the whole phrasebook was like that: ‘ay’ for ‘aye’ and ‘r’s on the end of everything except the few places they belonged: “ler” for le, “der” for de, “zher per” for je peux. So the book wasn’t worthless to us, but we did have to channel Crocodile Dundee while reading it, a tricky bit of cognitive processing that led me to walk into more than a few lamp posts and open manholes.