Posts by Dr. Boli

ARE YOU FRIGHTENED BY GOOGLE YET?

One of the odd things about the world of Google is that improvements often arrive unannounced. Google Docs, for example, is a simple but capable online word processor that becomes more capable by invisible increments. It was only today that Dr. Boli discovered one of the more surprising improvements.

He had occasion to write something that included a Latin quotation, and it was only after having finished the document and read it through once that it occurred to him to notice: there were no wavy red lines under most of the Latin words.

The obvious first assumption was that Google recognized the text as being in a foreign language, and simply gave up on trying to check the spelling. But that assumption wrecked against the rock of the evidence that there was a wavy line under one of the Latin words. In fact, not to keep our readers in suspense, Google did indeed recognize the Latin, and it was perfectly capable of checking the spelling without even asking the writer to specify the language.

The passage in question was Tacitus’ famous description of Nero’s persecution of the Christians. You can try it yourself by pasting this paragraph into Google Docs:

Sed non ope humana, non largitionibus principis aut deum placamentis decedebat infamia, quin iussum incendium crederetur. ergo abolendo rumori Nero subdidit reos et quaesitissimis poenis adfecit, quos per flagitia invisos vulgus Chrestianos appellabat. auctor nominis eius Christus Tibero imperitante per procuratorem Pontium Pilatum supplicio adfectus erat; repressaque in praesens exitiablilis superstitio rursum erumpebat, non modo per Iudaeam, originem eius mali, sed per urbem etiam, quo cuncta undique atrocia aut pudenda confluunt celebranturque. igitur primum correpti qui fatebantur, deinde indicio eorum multitudo ingens haud proinde in crimine incendii quam odio humani generis convicti sunt. et pereuntibus addita ludibria, ut ferarum tergis contecti laniatu canum interirent aut crucibus adfixi [aut flammandi atque], ubi defecisset dies, in usu[m] nocturni luminis urerentur. hortos suos ei spectaculo Nero obtulerat, et circense ludicrum edebat, habitu aurigae permixtus plebi vel curriculo insistens. unde quamquam adversus sontes et novissima exempla meritos miseratio oriebatur, tamquam non utilitate publica, sed in saevitiam unius absumerentur.

Dr. Boli had copied this paragraph out of the on-line edition of Tacitus in the Latin Library. The one word Google Docs flagged was Tibero. “Did you mean Tiberio?” Google asked.

And the answer was yes. Yes, there is a misprint in the Latin Library edition of Tacitus’ Annals. Tibero should be Tiberio (the ablative of Tiberius).

Are you frightened by Google yet?

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NEW FRONTIERS IN INTERNET LAW.

The National Library of France (Bibliothèque nationale de France) has a delightful site called Gallica, in which you can see a huge variety of the library’s precious treasures in digital form. If you visit from the United States, the home page automatically defaults to English, so that you can browse without knowing a word of French.

Except that you are required to agree to a little stipulation:

“En poursuivant votre navigation sur ce site, vous acceptez l’utilisation de cookies nécessaires à la réalisation de statistiques et d’études d’usages ainsi qu’au fonctionnement des boutons de partage sur les réseaux sociaux.”

BNF cookies

To get rid of that notice, you must agree (by clicking a button labeled, amusingly enough, “OK”).

What do you suppose a lawyer would think about a site in English that makes us agree to a stipulation in a foreign language—one to which we agree simply by using the site in English? (A translation: “By pursuing your navigation on this site, you accept the use of cookies necessary for gathering statistics and studying usage as well as for the operation of sharing buttons for social networks.”)

Even as he poses the question, Dr. Boli knows the answer. The answer is that any good intellectual-property lawyer is thinking to himself, “Boy, I wish I’d thought of that.”

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HAPPY H DAY.

On this day in 1911, Pittsburgh officially resumed possession of its H, having been spelled “Pittsburg” in federal documents for some years before that. You might think there would not be much of a celebration a hundred eight years later, but you would be wrong. And the fact that Pittsburgh has a holiday celebrating the last letter of its name tells you more than you could learn from whole books of essays about the character of the city. (And if you follow this link, you will find a recipe for Pittsburgh Chocolate Stout “H” Cake, which celebrates the letter in tangible and edible form.)

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EIGHT WAYS A DOG CAN UNPLUG A COMPUTER.

The enmity between dogs and computers is legendary (surpassed, perhaps, only by the enmity between cats and computers). Researchers at the Boli Institute have catalogued eight different ways a dog can unplug a computer charger from a power strip, all of which were observed in the space of one morning:

1. Leap up in a fit of barkolepsy and kick the charger all the way across the room.

2. Catch the cord and yank the charger out of the surge strip.

3. Catch the cord and yank the surge strip out of the wall.

4. Catch the cord and yank the charger cord out of the computer.

5. Turn off the switch on the power strip.

6. Get so tied up in the cord that the master has to unplug the computer himself to untie the knot.

7. Walk over to the power strip and simply bat the charger out of the outlet with one paw.

8. Stare very hard at the power strip and cause the charger to fall out of the outlet by telekinesis.

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ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY.

Nero at the burning of Rome, from an illustration by Howard Pyle for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Codex.

On this day in 64, Rome burned. The heroic emperor Nero, in an attempt to calm the panicked crowds, played a medley of popular song hits on his lyre; but curiously his performance had the opposite effect. The lingering unease in the Roman population made it necessary to torture a large number of Christians to death. Nero thus deserves credit for discovering the principle that torturing Christians has a sedative effect on angry mobs.

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ASK DR. BOLI.

Dear Dr. Boli: This bag of Himalayan pink salt I just bought says, in big letters, “100% NATURALLY PURE.” It also says that it “contains up to 84 minerals and trace elements.” My question is this: Huh? —Sincerely, A Confused Dollar-Store Shopper.

Dear Sir or Madam: Obviously, by the usual laws of English denotation, “Pure” means one thing, and “contains up to 84 minerals and trace elements” means something entirely different. The single word in English that best describes “contains up to 84 minerals and trace elements” is contaminated.

Dr. Boli did some research to make sure he was giving you the correct answer here. Bailey’s Dictionary, for example, defines “pure” as “simple, uncompounded.” Dr. Johnson gives us “Unmingled; not altered by mixtures; mere.” Worcester says “Free from mixture with any thing else.”

But we are standing on the frontiers of lexicography here. It is often true that lexicographers, even ones as recent as Worcester (Dr. Boli consulted the 1860 edition), lag behind the common sense of the people in questions of meaning and usage. As with the word “comprise,” the word “pure” may be coming to mean its opposite. This is a development we should encourage in more words. The more ambiguous our language, the less we can definitely be accused of having said any one thing in particular, and the fewer people we shall offend as a result. Eventually we shall reach the happy state of not being able to communicate at all, and wars will cease at last.

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