Feuilles volantes

While waiting in the basement for the washing machine to finish, I picked up a book from the open boxes stacked under the stairs, the remainder of our unpacking from … almost two years ago *gulp*. The book was a well foxed paperback of Victor Hugo’s Choses vues, a sort of memoir of major and minor events from 1830 to 1846. On a whim I riffled the pages, looking for today’s date, and got a hit within seconds — and what a great one for a language lover:

At a meeting of the Académie Française held on this day 168 years ago, the members, or immortels, were discussing spelling reform (dropping double consonants so as to give ateindre instead of atteindre), and whether to bow to current usage. This was odd even then, for the Academy normally resists changes to the language, especially those from common usage. Hugo confessed his ignorance of such usage — indeed it is pretty odd — and refused to accept the idea. Fellow academician Victor Cousin responded by suggesting that such changes were part of the natural shift of language, which always tends towards decline.

Hugo replied:

“I would add that language shift and decline are two different things. […] Since its very first day, language has been in motion; can we say that it has been in constant decline? […]”

Cousin: The decline of the French language began in 1789.

Hugo: A quelle heure, s’il vous plaît ?

Boo-Yah! In! Your! Face!

It’s refreshing to read how pompous egos could be so neatly slapped down in 1843; and if he was around today, Hugo would be a regular guest on the Daily Show and Colbert Report.

Meanwhile, the Académie Française is still fighting a rearguard battle against any perceived threats to the French language. After the fight against franglais in the 1990s (software => logiciel, email => courriel), the Academy more recently protested the inclusion of regional languages in the French constitution (Read more …)

*beep* *beep* *beep*

Laundry’s done. Back to work.

Once more unto the intocht, dear friends

All of the Netherlands turned out yesterday to welcome the return of a pensionado (retiree) from Spain — Sinterklaas! And his merry band of pranksters, the Zwaartepieten (Black Peters), whose political incorrectness is tempered by the addition of fantasy Piets, such as the Elvis Piet.


DIY slum

It might come as a shocking fact to learn that in the Netherlands hundreds of children, some as young as five years old, are living in the most primitive conditions, sheltering from the rain in makeshift huts made from disused wooden pallets and scraps of cloth they managed to scavenge from the piles of trash on the outskirts of town. Their junior slum sits in a muddy field by the edge of the new highway, without any electricity, running water or sanitation, apart from two porta-loos on the edge of the field. Twice a day, adult volunteers come round with large plastic kegs of pale squash for the children to rehydrate after working for hours heaving and hammering their wooden huts together. The children possess little else than a plastic cup and a hammer.

And guess what? They love it! Once a week every year, in villages all over the country, children get together to build their own hut, decorate it, customize it as much as they like — they never stop tweaking it — until the last day, when all the huts are torn down, stacked into piles and symbolically burned in a bonfire.

I went along for the first time this year with my two oldest kids and one of their friends. I had only intended to drop them off, but quickly realized that they were quite incapable of dragging the heavy wooden pallets across the field. So I stayed most of the morning, trying to stockpile enough wood before everyone else had grabbed it. It was clear that experience made a difference; some groups had ten people working together, throwing up three-storey structures within a couple of hours. It almost seemed as if it was a competition between fathers to impress the rest, and I suspect some had prepared the whole thing with autoCAD.

I came across two of our T-boy’s classmates pushing nails disconsolately into the mud, having been left by their parents to fend for themselves, so I adopted them and our team swelled to six. It didn’t make a big difference, however, because none of them could hammer very well (“Swing it from your waist! Don’t tap it in front of your face!”); they quickly got distracted and drifted off to pick wild flowers and make hooks to hang their jackets.

After three hours, we realized our grandiose design was doomed to failure through a lack of wood, so we did a quick redesign and managed to use the remaining pallets for a sloping roof. Inside, the children made a shelf for their cups and hooks for their hammers, and a hanging vase for the flowers. It’s these details that count, not the walls.

Scenes from the slums (click to view)

Girrrl power!
Girls at work

DIY housebuilding for children
DIY junior slum

Babylon burnin'
Babylon burnin'

Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’

Keep those wagons rollin’ …

Life is rollin’ on chez les Bacon — school’s almost out for summer, my contract at the university has been extended for another year, baby Didi is up and walking, and we interviewed a woman last night to come help clean for us, which of course meant we spent a mad hour tidying up before she came so she wouldn’t be frightened off.

On the work front, I see that a big translation I did recently on child witches in Africa has made the news. As with many of the texts I do for UNICEF, it produced very mixed emotions: on the one hand, it feels good to contribute to improving the lives of the kids; on the other, their lives are just so goddamn miserable, and people can be so extremely cruel and sadistic that I sometimes felt physically disgusted.

Meanwhile in my day job at the university, I’m alone in the office, having opted to push my holiday dates back to better match our oldest two kids’ break (the summer holiday is staggered in the Netherlands over three different periods to reduce the mass exodus in August).

The IT people have “upgraded” (sic) our system to Outlook and Office 2010, so I’ve spent the first hour reinstalling my own apps. If you consider we have upgraded from using Novell for our email, then you will understand that we are running about five years behind the cutting edge.

Now, everything seems to have stopped running … maybe I shouldn’t have tried to install Adobe CS4, Flash Player, VLC player, and 17 Firefox add-ins at the same time …

Back to work. Rawhide!


On the occasion of her eleventh birthday, my daughter announced that I was 50,000 days old. It had taken her a little quiet time to come up with this figure, and despite my immediate rebuttal, she insisted her calculation was correct.

So turns out I’m about to celebrate my 137th birthday.

Makes sense.

I feel old …