Category Archives: Uncategorized

Different sounds that we think are the same sound (but others don’t)

My latest article for The Week is on sound distinctions that other languages make but we don’t. Some of these are things that even linguistics students don’t notice until they’re pointed out. It includes a video!

The subtle sounds that English speakers have trouble catching


Explaining the exploitation of explicit expletives

Do words have “bad apple” effects on other words by sound resemblance? Mmmmmaybe. If they do, one possible case is the subject of my latest article on The Week:

How did ‘expletive,’ ‘explicit,’ and ‘exploit’ become such sleazy words?



Yes, this is going to be one of my periodic photography rants. But if you ever plan to buy or even think about digital cameras, you’ll want to read this.

Megapixels is a word that sells cameras. “How many megapixels is your camera?” “Mine’s 10.” “Mine’s 12.” “Mine’s 18!” “Wow, that little pocket auto-zoom camera has 18 megapixels! Ossum possum!”

Listen to it for a moment. It would be too much of a stretch to say “mega” sounds like a lens focusing (it doesn’t) and “pixels” like a shutter clicking (it sorta does). But the mega has a soft, muddy sound, and the pixels has a crisp, sharp, keen sound – sort of like the different image qualities due to other effects that can make the actual pixel count irrelevant, as I will tell you about below.

Mega, of course, is a morpheme about big that sounds big and sells big. It’s from Greek for ‘large’ and is used as the metric prefix to mean ‘million’. It reeks of lotteries: megabucks! Yeah! And yes, I’m going to tell you that there’s more than a little bit of the lottery in megapixels on cameras.

Pixel is a word invented just under a half century ago that refers to the smallest bit of a digital picture: pix from picture and el short for element. Reality is always more detailed than a picture, of course; ever micrometre contains not just a book but a whole library of information if you can but read it, but to our naked eyes several micrometres are only the visual equivalent of a single letter, and a photograph may condense even more than that into the equivalent of the dot of an i. Given that i, you have no means of extracting even a full word from it, let alone libraries of information. And so, contrary to what many TV crime shows would have you think, there is no way to “enhance!” a blob of 12 pixels into a detailed face or parking sticker on a windshield. “Enhancing” photos just means smoothing and heightening the contrast of what is there so our brains can parse it more easily (I have another article where you can find out about sharpening and how it’s like language). You simply can’t get more than a pixel out of a pixel.

But never mind that. In many – perhaps most – digital photos, each of those 10 or 12 or 18 million pixels contains not even a whole pixel’s worth of information, actually. The truth is that when dealing with the pixelated (rendered in pixels), you may often find yourself pixilated with an i – a fine old word that means pixie-led, bamboozled, drunk (in this case with fatuous information).

Let’s start, though, with how many pixels you actually need – how many will even make a difference. If you’re printing a photo on 4 by 6 paper, 300 pixels per inch is really the upper limit of what your eyes can generally discern in sharpness (and the printer can output effectively). So 1200 by 1800 pixels. This is 2.16 megapixels. Print it out large, at 8 by 12, and you need up to 8.64 megapixels. You are very unlikely to have a digital display that will come close to that. HDTV gives you 2.1 megapixels; a high-end 4K monitor gives you 8.3 megapixels. So unless you’re cropping tight or printing posters, you will never actually need more than 10 megapixels in your camera. Even 8 will do fine, but almost every current camera does more than that. For most non-pro purposes, even the camera in your phone has enough. (My iPhone 4 has 5 megapixels.)

But then there are the factors that can limit the resolving power of your camera, so that each pixel really is only worth a fraction of what a pixel is worth in a truly sharp picture:

Lens sharpness. Not all lenses are equally sharp. Some produce pictures that are pretty “soft” even to the naked eye.

ISO. We used to call this ASA. It’s the “film speed” – the light sensitivity. The higher the ISO (as required when the camera is getting less light into it), the less sharp the picture, because it’s having to pool light from multiple pixels and fill in as best it can.

Sensor size. I mean the physical size. This of course makes a difference in regard to lens sharpness; a lens that can resolve 3000 lines per inch will resolve 1/4 as many actual lines on a sensor that’s 1/4 the dimensions. But usually the cameras with smaller sensors also have crappier lenses, so you get even less final sharpness. It also can relate to ISO performance: a smaller sensor size with the same number of pixels has smaller pixel sensors that individually gather less light, so they can start getting dodgy at lower ISO numbers. (Sensor technology is improving, though.)

Aperture. A lens has an opening in it that can be wider or tighter, like the pupils of your eyes. This is expressed in f-stops, which are the ratio of the focal length to the opening (aperture): f/4 means the aperture is 1/4 the focal length. Why this affects sharpness is the same reason that we squint to see better, and the same reason it’s harder to see sharply in low light (when your pupils are dilated): the smaller the aperture, the sharper the image and the more of it that’s in acceptable focus: this is called depth of field, because it’s how deep the in-focus area is. But when the aperture gets too small, you lose sharpness due to what’s called diffraction effect. I’ll spare you the details; they’re Google-able.

Camera shake. If you’re taking pictures at too slow a shutter speed – because the light is low and/or your aperture is small (to improve sharpness) and/or your ISO is low (ditto) – the motion of your hand, such as you get when pressing something like, say, a camera shutter, will cause the camera to move perceptibly during the time of exposure, which of course will blur the image a bit.

There are other things you really should consider more carefully than pixels and sharpness:

Colour. Different lenses convey colour and contrast differently, and differently well. Some lenses really wash it out; some make it vivid and contrasty; some are better for some colours than others. This is also true for different cameras.

Lens speed. The “faster” the lens, the lower the minimum f-stop, which means the wider the aperture. Given that lower f-stops make a photo less sharp, why would you want this? Because they let you blur out the background more (see bokeh), focusing in on the subject – a shallow depth of field is quite desirable for many kinds of photos. If it’s a good lens, the subject will still be sharp enough, even at a low f-stop.

Sensor size (again). This also relates to depth of field: the in-focus distance is a portion of the distance between the camera and its effective “infinity,” and its effective “infinity” is determined by the actual focal length of the lens. The smaller the sensor, the smaller the focal length for the same field of view. A 25 mm lens on my Olympus has the same field of view as a 50 mm on a full-frame camera (full-frame means the sensor is the same size as a frame of 35 mm film: 24 mm by 36 mm) and as about a 9 mm lens on a 1/2.33” sensor such as many pocket cameras have, but its infinity is half as far away as on the full-frame and almost 3 times as far away as on the pocket camera. Meaning you get much less depth-of-field effect on the really small sensors. This is also why everything is always in focus on your camera phone: its sensor is less than half the size of your little fingernail, so its focal length is about 1/8 of an inch, so its “infinity” is closer than almost anything you’ll photograph with it.

Ease of use. The camera you have with you will always take better pictures than the one you left at home because it’s too much of a nuisance to carry around, as my dad regularly says. And if you miss the moment because you’re futzing around with the controls, well, that’s not a good picture either. So balance the desire for a large sensor with the effect that will have on your equipment size (see my rant on zoom lens) and consider what you really want and need. I use an Olympus E-PL3, which I can fit in a jacket pocket; its sensor is half the size of a full-frame sensor, but that’s just fine for me.

Because you’re my friend, I took a little time to take a few pictures out my window of the Cathedral Church of St. James here in Toronto, using three cameras, the third of which with three different lenses. These will help you to see why, for most people, with even the cheapest cameras giving at least 8 megapixels, the megapixel count in your camera doesn’t matter; it just leaves you mega-pixilated.

This is the zoomed-in version taken with a cheap little Nikon Coolpix L21, reduced to 500 pixels wide, which is as wide as this blog will display.

This is taken with a cheap little Nikon Coolpix L21 8 megapixel pocket camera, with the lens zoomed in; I’ve reduced the image to 500 pixels wide, which is as wide as this blog will display.

This is the actual full-size image of the steeple at screen resolution (72 pixels per inch) from the Coolpix, zoomed in.

This is the actual full-size image of the steeple at screen resolution (72 pixels per inch) from the Coolpix, zoomed in. Not so sharp, eh? How many pixels in one usable bit of photographic information?

The is the Coolpix, zoomed out. The f-stop is higher because the focal length is longer.

The is the Coolpix, zoomed out to widest. The f-stop is higher because the focal length is longer.

This is the pixel-for-pixel view of the above.

This is the pixel-for-pixel view of the above. The lens is sharper at this length, but still not so great.

This is what my iPhone 4 sees, shrunk to 500 pixels.

This is what my iPhone 4 sees, shrunk to 500 pixels.

This is the same photo, cropped to the church and shrunk to 500 pixels.

This is the same photo, cropped to the church, which is also pixel-for-pixel size at 72 pixels per inch.

This is my Olympus E-PL3 with an old manual Canon 50 mm lens at f/1.4, shrunk to 500 pixels.

This is my Olympus E-PL3 (10 megapixels, micro 4/3 format) with an old manual Canon 50 mm lens at f/1.4, shrunk to 500 pixels. This is my favourite lens. Sharp and good colour; notice the slightly dreamy effect it has, though.

The Canon 50 mm at f/1.4, pixel-for-pixel.

The Canon 50 mm at f/1.4, pixel-for-pixel.

For comparison, the same lens at f/8, necessitating higher ISO.

For comparison, the same lens at f/8, necessitating higher ISO.

See the difference the ISO makes?

See the difference the higher f-stop but higher ISO makes?

Here's with a Panasonic 20 mm lens on the Olympus: what it actually sees, shrunk to 500 pixels.

Here’s with a Panasonic 20 mm lens on the Olympus: what it actually sees, shrunk to 500 pixels.

Here's that cropped to just the church and shrunk to 500 pixels.

Here’s that cropped to just the church, at pixel-for-pixel.

Using the zoom lens that came with the Olympus, here's what I get at the widest, shrunk to 500 pixels.

Using the zoom lens that came with the Olympus, here’s what I get at 42 mm focal length, shrunk to 500 pixels.

Here's cropped and shrunk to 500 pixels.

Here’s cropped and shrunk to 500 pixels.

Here's pixel-for-pixel on that.

Here’s pixel-for-pixel on that.

And here's the 14 mm view, shrunk to 500 pixels.

And here’s the 14 mm view from the same lens, shrunk to 500 pixels.

Here's that, cropped down to the church and visible pixel-for-pixel.

Here’s that, cropped down to the church and at pixel-for-pixel resolution.

Scroll up and down and look at them a few times. Which do you like, really? What stands out most? If you’re still thinking mostly about sharpness, here’s a tip: look at the copper-green part of the church roof, to the left of the steeple. Some are mega-muddy, some pixel-sharp. But what about colour and feel? And what really matters when you see it at 500 pixels wide?

Get the point? Ignore all the megapixel stuff on your camera (unless you’re actually a pro or serious large-photo geek, in which case you know all this already). There are much better things to worry about.

But if you want to see what kind of resolution you really can go for if that’s your thing, a while back I scanned in two medium-format negatives at high resolution (they’re 56 mm square – that’s 2¼” on a side). They’re not of the church; sorry. One’s a forest scene in fall, and the other is a city scene at night. Here are the links to the full-resolution images on Flickr. Warning: these will take a minute to load, eat up a lot of memory, and will not fit on your screen (but there are links above the pictures to smaller versions).

Trinity Square at 28 megapixels

Leaves at 28 megapixels


Obviously, if yesterday was nook, today must be cranny.

I think it’s safe to say you’ve said or written cranny. But have you ever used it without nook and before? And, for that matter, without every nook and before?

Can you even tell me the difference in meaning between nook and cranny?

It seems to fall into those double-barrelled-shotgun phrases: search every nook and cranny; in this day and age; every jot and tittle; this is your last and final boarding call

What cranny really means is, as Oxford puts it, ‘A small narrow opening or hole; a chink, crevice, crack, fissure.’ It seems to come from French cran. So it’s not a nook per se, but it’s a similar thing on a smaller and perhaps more accidental scale. It is the tittle to nook’s jot.

But what if it meant something quite different? What if it meant ‘cranberry’ or ‘granny’? What about ‘narc’ or ‘cramp’ or ‘crane’? Look, if you Google “every nook and granny” (exact phrase) you get more than 25,000 hits. “Every nook and cranberry” gets more than 22,000 results. Even “every nook and crane” gets 29,000 hits, most of which appear not to be “every nook and crane-y” puns. Imagine! Imagine searching corners, alcoves, and grandmothers, or corners, alcoves, and cranberries, or corners, alcoves, and, for heaven’s sake, construction cranes (or the birds called cranes)!

Well, there it is. Cranny was once a word that people knew how to use, but it became just an attachment, a trailer, a little linguistic cranny in the wall of words. And you know what we do with those: fill them with available materials. Fill them full – don’t let them go half-caulked. Stuff them with your cranberries and grandmothers and little origami cranes. And you’ll spend all your time searching those berries and babushkas and birds for meaning, when in fact they’re what’s in the way of it.

Welcome to language!


Pick up the crystal glass and hold it by the stem. Moisten your fingertip and run it in a ring around the lip at top. Its sound names it: “rim.”

The rim, the brim, the perimeter. A trim and prim ring, or a grim edge; the beginning of merriment, or an interim rest, or the end for a criminal. As Daniel Trujillo wrote to me, “A boundary, an insurmountable frontier that both denies passage and invites trespassing.” Transparent yet intransgressible like a scrim, or opaque yet surpassible. An edge that is at the heart of so many uses. Glasses, tires, oceans, coins: inside the rim is value, but use comes from touching the outside.

The word rim does not have such a taste of the edge; it is something found crimped in the middle of other words. It rings and hums, but its sounds are made with the heaping heft of the tongue and the closing of the lips. A word that made more of the edges in the mouth (tip of tongue, ridge, teeth, lips, back) would be loving. Or living. Or leaving. The contact points of our existence, the interface between the value within and the use without. But while these are our rims, our word is rim; it collects the rime and the rhymes.

The rimes, in fact. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Coleridge:

The sun’s rim dips; the stars rush out:
At one stride comes the dark;
With far-heard whisper o’er the sea,
Off shot the spectre-bark.

The rim of consciousness, The Day-Dream of Tennyson:

And o’er the hills, and far away
Beyond their utmost purple rim,
Beyond the night, across the day,
Thro’ all the world she followed him.

The rim of an acquaintance, Parting at Morning by Robert Browning:

Round the cape of a sudden came the sea,
And the sun look’d over the mountain’s rim:
And straight was a path of gold for him,
And the need of a world of men for me.

On the rim of the air, The Skylark of James Hogg:

Over the cloudlet dim,
Over the rainbow’s rim,
Musical cherub, soar, singing, away!

The rims of flowers on the rim of a house, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed by Whitman:

As we wander’d together the solemn night (for something I know not what kept me from sleep),
As the night advanced, and I saw on the rim of the west how full you were of woe,
As I stood on the rising ground in the breeze in the cool transparent night,
As I watch’d where you pass’d and was lost in the netherward black of the night,
As my soul in its trouble dissatisfied sank, as where you sad orb,
Concluded, dropt in the night, and was gone.

The feeling you get on the rim of the west. At last, past the rim of the earth and the rim of consciousness, past sun, hills, mountains, rainbows, without recrimination, we touch the lip and enter the heart, or the heart enters us. Or both. We drain the cup, but then we are the cup, and we overflow. No: we are the rim, and the overflow is our living, loving, leaving.


“We are game-playing, fun-having creatures, we are the otters of the universe. We cannot die, we cannot hurt ourselves any more than illusions on the screen can be hurt. But we can believe we’re hurt, in whatever agonizing detail we want. We can believe we’re victims, killed and killing, shuddered around by good luck and bad luck.” —Richard Bach, Illusions

I think Richard Bach is the person who came up with the phrase otter of the universe. It has gotten around some since.

When I first saw it, used by someone else, it struck me as a useful play on author of the universe. Many people want to know who the author of the universe is. They want to find out how everything got here. They want to understand the author’s intentions.

When children approach a playground, how many of them ask themselves what things the designer had in mind, and try to do only those things? The ones who do (there may be some) are the annoying ones who suck the fun out of it. They probably grow up to be grammatical prescriptivists or similar dogmatists. Or I should say fail to grow up, because while play is childlike, dogmatism is just plain callow.

Otters don’t show up and try to establish first causes. They just look at what can actually be done. And one thing that can be done is play. Otters reallyliketo play. They make good use of what’s around them. And by good I mean fun.

The first time I saw otter of the universe was actually about the first time I became aware of otters as playful animals. I had always thought of otters as just sleek aquatic animals with a name that sounded like a ruler when you hold one end of it against a desk near the edge, bend and release the free end, and pull the ruler back towards the desk: “ott-tot-tot-tt-tt-ttttrrrrrrrrr.” Wooden, rigid as a rudder, a hard sound at odds with the water in which the animals moved. I oughta have known better.

The word otter is easily played with, after all. It’s practically made for a Dr. Seuss treatment: If an otter bites the butter that a potter put on platter for his daughter, will the potter hit the otter with a putter or a rudder? Will the potter’s daughter titter at the otter’s pitter-patter? Will the bettered, battered otter battle bitterly for butter? Or do otters bite on potters’ pretty daughters’ butter patties just to put on pity parties when they’re battered by the potter with a butter-splattered putter as they skitter to the water?

There’s more than that, though. The word otter comes ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root *udr-, ‘water’. This water has followed many courses: the hydro- root we get from Greek (and that multi-headed water serpent, the hydra); some of the words for ‘otter’ in some other languages (Slavic languages in general have something in the line of vidra; Latin had lutra, which has shown up variously changed in Romance languages); and of course various words for ‘water’, including water.

So this word has flowed around and frothed and leapt like water – and like otters in the water. Do the various flows and changes of words over time seem like utter madness? I’d say they’re more like otter happiness.

Language is my favourite sport. A word isn’t worth much in my world if it can only mean one thing at a time. Rules are made to serve communication, not the other way around, and sometimes what’s being communicated is first of all “Have some fun with this.” And sometimes that’s the best thing to do – whether or not the utterer thought of it, go with what the otterer will do with it. I want to frolic in the stream of consciousness. I want to push language play to the otter limits. And beyond!

And then, at the end of the day, we can rest like otters in the water, floating, holding hands, allowing ourselves even in sleep some play in the stream.

mode, model, modest

Originally published in The Spanner, issue 0011.

I was recently wandering the art gallery – as is lately my mode – scanning the exhibited pictures but also appreciating the two-legged artworks engaging in the same activity. Galleries are good places to see society à la mode: the chilly cream that adorns the pie of life. The clothing is often especially modish. On this particular day, my eyes were drawn to a model of near perfection.

When I say a model, I do not think that she was actually a fashion model, although she did look like a fashion plate (perhaps the plate on which was served the pie). I was told by another person that she was a dancer. But what she was in any event was style itself: as long and lean as a stylus, wearing a dress draped loosely over her sleek figure from neck to toes and a hat with a brim so wide that from most angles her face was invisible. She was not the mode, because the mode is what is most common and she was uncommon; but as fashion is mode, and she was most fashionable, she certainly was the modest. And since her skin was covered completely and neatly concealed from view, her dress was modest, even as it was outstanding.

Is it right to play with mode and modest in that way? Surely modest is not just the superlative of mode…?

No, it’s not, but it does come from it, in a roundabout way. We start with modus, Latin for ‘measure’ or ‘manner’. From it we get mode as in the most common measurement in a set, one kind of ‘average’ (in {1, 2, 3, 3, 3, 72}, the mode is 3 although the mean is 14). We also get mode as in fashion, and as in music (Phrygian? Dorian? Phryg-Dorian?), and mood as in grammar but not as in thought (so the song ‘If I were a rich man’ is in a Phrygian mode and a subjunctive mood, and is not modest in its aspirations). And we get moderate.

Moderate, the verb, means to make something more measured, restrained. Something that has been moderated is, in Latin, modestus. Thus modest. Not extravagant. But one can have extravagantly much fabric leaving extravagantly little skin to be seen and yet consider it modest rather than simultaneously prodigal and parsimonious.

In modern times, modesty may seem outmoded. But remember that modern is a model of mode too: in Latin, modo means ‘to the measure’ or ‘in a certain manner’ and came to mean ‘just now’; that ‘just now’ sense gave birth to modernus. So, if we want to be measured and just now, we can be ‘just now’ and ‘measured’ and that will somehow be the modern way.

So let us measure this model now. We will find at length that she is at a great length, and in a great length of fabric, but she is just a little bit of the mode. Indeed, she is not modus but its diminutive modellus, whence model. We may not think of models as being modest, but in name, at least, each model is a little modest.

This one is more than a little modest. By which I mean she is immodest in her visual salience, but she is quite modest in the fabric module she has enclosed herself in. And she is the chief picture at this exhibition. Oh, there is art, and plenty of it: pictures of buildings, pictures of fairy tales, pictures of rich and poor, all well orchestrated. But she brings electricity to it, which means she is a conductor, and she brings exquisite composition to it, which means she is a composer. And we know who composed Pictures at an Exhibition.

Yes, of course. Modest Mussorgsky. He was named after a Saint Modestus, a man named for exemplify a virtue. Modest Mussorgsky was Modest but his music was specular and spectacular, and he drank immodest amounts and did not live longer than the mode for his time.

Meanwhile, in modern times, our chief picture at this exhibition, our modest model, leans forward to peer at a painting from beneath her brim (thus allowing the draped dress to reveal her callipygian quarters). And, having elevated the mood, she moves on.