Thursday, August 17, 2006

Word of the Day

One of the things I have visible on my google homepage is's word of the day. I'd like to think it's there so I can improve my vocabulary, but really it's there so I can feel superior at all the words I already know.

Or think I know.

So today's word is "fortuitous" which is defined as "happening by chance". This definition struck me as wrong, even for a one-liner. So I looked it up on itself and got a slightly longer definition:

"happening by accident or chance"

With the meaning I expected listed as a "usage problem". Damn those users! Underneat, was the following explanation (quoted from

"In its best-established sense, fortuitous means “happening by accident or chance.” Thus, a fortuitous meeting may have either fortunate or unfortunate consequences. For decades, however, the word has often been used in reference to happy accidents, as in The company's profits were enhanced as the result of a fortuitous drop in the cost of paper. This use may have arisen because fortuitous resembles both fortunate and felicitous. Whatever its origin, the use is well established in the writing of reputable authors. ·The additional use of fortuitous to mean “lucky or fortunate,” is more controversial, as in He came to the Giants in June as the result of a fortuitous trade that sent two players back to the Reds. This use dates back at least to the 1920s, when H.W. Fowler labeled it a malapropism, but it is still widely regarded as incorrect."

I'm a great fan of Fowler (or I should say the Fowler brothers), who are collectively responsible for both the modern Oxford English Dictionary and Fowler's Modern English Usage. I think, however, that it behooves a dictionary to provide definitions of words as they are used (at least as far back as the 1920s) rather than as they ought to be used, since someone looking a word up is probably more interested in what the speaker or writer intended to say than what they would have said if they were in compliance with the 1923 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Incidentally, here's the current definition of fortuitous from the OED: "adjective 1 happening by chance rather than design. 2 happening by a lucky chance; fortunate." Note that the "correct" (i.e. if we were in fact speaking Latin and not English) meaning is still first, but the second -- more likely intended -- meaning is given.

It did pay for a few ad impressions though, so not all is lost. Does this mean that has a financial incentive to provide, in essence, incorrect or surprising definitions of words in an effort to drive traffic to its site (increasing ad revenues)? It's a delicate balancing act -- do it a little too often and will soon be thought of as, essentially, useless.

It's not like is the last bastion of the English pedant. Here's their first definition of decimate:

"To destroy or kill a large part of (a group)."

As every good pedant knows, decimate originally meant "to kill every tenth man" and was applied to Roman legions which were seen as having failed in their duty to The Empire. This is provided as the third definition, while the second definition (another usage problem) is hard to tell apart from the first definition. So here we have a well-known "incorrect" usage listed as the top definition, while a far more obscure and less incorrect usage gets a short essay and is listed solely as a usage problem.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Yay, I got a new computer

It's been a long time between drinks. My last new desktop computer was a 2.4GHz Dell, which is now pushing four years old. When I bought it, the fastest PC I could have gotten without paying ridiculous prices was a 3.08GHz P4. This machine matched my philosophy of buying the fastest cheap machine or the cheapest fast machine available. The other side of my philosophy is to only buy a new machine if it's going to be at least twice the raw speed of the last one; anything less isn't noticeable a day or two later.

The biggest leap I've ever made from one computer to the next was probably from my first Mac 512kE (upgraded twice from a 128kB original Mac) with its 8MHz 68000 to a Mac IIci with a 25MHz 68030, 5MB of RAM, and a 40MB hard disk. That was a simply amazing leap. (I'd gotten a Commodore Amiga 500 in between the two, but the Amiga was slower for most anything except games than a Mac, so that was not a speed boost).

My new computer is a standard config Mac Pro. So I've gone from a dual 1GHz G4 Mac on the Apple side and a singe 2.4 GHz P4 on the PC side, to a quad core 2.66GHz box. When you do the math, it's actually a jump comparable to the jump from the Mac 512kE to the Mac IIci -- at least on the cpu side. I can theoretically put 8x the RAM into the G5, but I can't practically afford to!

The real beauty of this, from Apple's point of view, is that instead of someone like me buying a Mac every four years and a PC every three years (for important productivity tools, like World of Warcraft), both Apple and its customers can have their cake and eat it. We can spend less money on computers and upgrade every 2-3 years, buy a better machine, and not split our incremental upgrades (new graphics cards, more RAM, more hard disks, nicer displays) between our two current boxes. Yes, Apple stuff often costs more (although, try buying a quad Xeon for $2500 from Dell), but it doesn't cost as much as Apple stuff + Wintel stuff.

It's bad news for PC hardware makers, since they'll be losing sales to Apple, but also bad news for Microsoft, because their target audience doesn't buy a copy of Windows with each box. Yes, the retail version of Windows costs more, but you only need to buy it every five or six years (based on the time elapsed between XP and Vista), during which time many of us would have bought two or three OEM Windows licenses. (In our household, we've bought four OEM Windows licenses in the last five years.)

The Macintosh Difference

Dell makes pretty good PCs, as PCs go. Here's the Mac Pro out of box experience. You open the box. There's a keyboard and a small black box with CDs, mouse, and such, and some cables (two video adapters, a USB extension cord, power cord). You lift up a styrofoam tray, and there's the Mac's handles, and it's wrapped in thin foam sheeting. You break the seal, the Mac lifts straight out of the box. You stick it on your desk, attach power cord, keyboard, and monitor; hook up the mouse to the keyboard; plug it in, boot. You're asked to enter a few pieces of info (e.g. your AppleID), which populates stuff like your address automatically and correctly, and then you're good to go. Elapsed time, five minutes.

Everything, from the fact that the Mac just slips out of its box to the system pinging Apple for your customer info to minimize form-filling is an example of why Apple and Macs don't suck.

Anyway, first impressions last, but I'll write about my second impressions later. So far, so very very good.