Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Something I don't understand

Is why in every airplane I've ever been in, including new ones, there is an ashtray in the bathroom. Really, this makes about as much sense as holding an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at the local bar. Someone once gave me the rather lame answer that there needs to be a way for someone to put out a cigarette, just in case they happen to completely ignore all the warnings that "tampering with smoke detectors in an airplane lavatory is a federal offense."
And why do we use the word "lavatory" in this sense and this sense alone in contemporary English? Actually, the language is full of luscious and lugubrious words like lavatory that are woefully underutilized. How about bringing back the word emolument? One's emolument is one's collective wages and perquisities, or perks- although now the word in use here is usually "compensation." Now, I don't know about you, but I don't get "perky" when I hear the word compensation used to refer to both people egregiously affronted by a tort (or a torte if you don't like your repast at a Viennese coffeehouse) and people who have sold their labor for wages and perquisites.
Anyway, just something to chew over. I'm getting back into Carpe Diem mode this week, trying to hew to my perhaps overly ambitious schedule of learning 25 French words per day, and ten new English and German words a week. That doesn't sound like much, but I've also got about 25 other items on my weekly to-do list. Getting it all done is ambitious, perhaps, but if you know of a better way to bleib-im-Schwung, to harness the positive power of inertia, and increase personal efficacy in a way that leads to a superoptimal outcome in terms of both aggregated universal and personal utility, I'm all ears.
In other words, entelechy. The greatest word you haven't heard of. I'd tell you what it is, but better to look up the word on your own- entelechy is good stuff, and the closest I think one can come to summarizing the meaning of life in one word. More later.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Another splendid idea from the mind of one David C. Madden

I'm back in the states this weekend for a quick four days to tie up a number of loose ends. Meanwhile, as I was passing through customs at JFK yesterday, a thought occurred to me that I'd now like to share with all and sundry. More than one European friend of mine has remarked to me how unfriendly and unwelcoming the US Customs Service is. Seeing as though a customs official is usually the first American a foreigner will meet when she arrives in the USA (and we all know how important first impressions are) and that a customs official works for the government and therefore represents the country as a whole, it wouldn't hurt for customs officials to be more friendly. I know their job can hardly be described as the most exciting in the world, but they are nevertheless really hurting our national image. Foreigners are often already fed up with the fingerprinting, questioning, and visa regulations, so why not try and be a little bit more friendly by having customs officials learn how to say "Welcome to the United States" in ten different languages.
For this to work, they wouldn't even have to memorize ten short phrases. It would work just as well if customs officials had a phonetic transcription in front of them. For example, with German, they could have "Vill kom in in dee oo ess ahh." Then, next to the transcription they could have "Use with citizens of Germany and Austria" so that way Austrians would be greeted too. Since customs officials see everyone's passport, they could easily find what to say on the sheet. Even officials who don't have a knack for languages would thus probably memorize ten phrases and their respective countries within a week. The ten languages would have to both be spoken by an overwhelming majority of citizens from a particular country (thus they couldn't use German with Swiss citizens, unless they were trained to spot German names, since 30% of Swiss people don't speak German as a mother tongue) and be commonly found among citizens at a particular crossing. Obviously this would vary somewhat according to region. At JFK, to give just one example, I would recommend the following ten languages be used (in no particular order): 1. German, 2. French, 3. Italian, 4. Portuguese, 5. Spanish, 6. Arabic, 7. Russian, 8. Chinese, 9. Japanese, 10. Korean. Those ten languages certainly account for well over half the people passing through customs.
Like the idea or have a way to make it even better? Post a comment, then. Within a week or two, I'll then sit down and write a letter to a number of different customs postings, along with a proposed table of languages, countries, and phonetic pronunciations. If I get any feedback, I'll dispatch it in this space. To be continued...

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Czeching out the neighbors

Last weekend my girlfriend and I decided rather spur of the moment to go to Prague. One of my favorite things about Europe for years has been the ability to decide on a whim to go to a foreign capital for a quick getaway. So this weekend, we went to the Czech Republic.
Last year, Slovenia became the first Eastern European (i.e. ex-communist) country to surpass a Western European country (in this case, Portugal) in terms of per-capita income. Suffice it to say that the Czech Republic is well on its way to following Slovenia on that route. Every time I have visited Prague, it looks just a little bit cleaner, with fewer communist buildings around, and more buildings that would be right at home in Vienna.
That has its pluses and minuses. One of the nice things about going to Prague has been that it's, well, not Vienna. It's cheaper, not as staid, and in more ways than one, Bohemian. Now, with prices having risen by leaps and bounds over the past ten years, Prague is no longer cheap, nor off the beaten path. For those looking for the Prague of old, I suggest Bratislava, or perhaps Warsaw as two other Eastern European capitals that are still quite cheap, far from touristy, and have plenty to offer. Indeed, a trip to Bratislava with my girlfriend on my motorcycle (once I feel confident after lots more practice- for those parent-sorts out there who read this)
is in the cards, as are trips to Ireland, Scotland, Italy, and a few other places too. The rolling stone keeps on rolling...

Saturday, September 6, 2008

A Favorite Place

One of my favorite places in Vienna isn't a famous landmark or a fancy coffeehouse or a sophisticated cocktail bar but rather a simple underground gym that I have been going to about 3 times a week since coming to Austria back in March. Earlier this year I started getting a little bit frustrated that certain aspects of my life were lacking in any notable progress. One of these was my physical fitness. Sure, you might think that having just hiked the length of the United States I would be in great shape, but in fact, I lost a good deal of upper body strength over those seven months when my legs were doing all the work.
Well, all that upper-body strength is now back and then some. It's a great feeling to be able to say that I've never been in better physical shape, but this is true. Over the last six months, I've gone about my fitness very systematically, rarely missing visits to the gym, taking vitamins and necessary supplements, and the results are quite noticable- both for me and my new girlfriend.
Okay, enough tooting my own horn- the point is that I think everyone would feel great if they could overcome a limit in any activity in life through sheer determination and hard work. And over time, with noticable positive results, it gets easier as one feels good about it and makes continued effort part of one's routine. Now that I've done this with physical fitness, in addition to my continued workouts, I'll start going systematic on learning French (I'm going to aim for 30 words a day to start, possibly increasing that over time) and feeling better mentally (I've been going through some ups and downs late, but there's so much out there I can still do that I haven't begun to try yet).
And onward to greater success!