Why people who say “train station” sound stupid

Google Ngram "railway station" all English: click to embiggenI cringe when people talk about the “train station”. “It’s ‘railway station’, you morons,” screams my brain. Well as it turns out, they’re actually not stupid — at least not for that reason. It’s just another relatively modern shift in language.

The chart at the top of the post is a Google Ngram search of their entire English corpus since 1820 — the first public steam railway in the world was the Stockton and Darlington Railway, which opened in 1825 — comparing the usage of “railway station” (blue) versus “railroad station” (red) and “train station” (orange).

You can click through to the full-size chart, or run the search yourself.

As you can see, the most common usage has almost always been “railway station”, with “railroad station” distinctly second-place. A “train station” wasn’t even a thing until the 1950s, but it rose in popularity quite quickly. “Train station” has been the most common usage since the mid-1990s, although it has been declining again since around 2000. I wonder why.

My understanding is that many railway terms derived from the military, because until the railways came along nothing else had been organised on that sort of trans-national and even trans-continental scale except armies. Hence trains have “guards” for their safe operation, and “stations” along the line where staff are stationed to maintain the entire railway system — including fuel, water, trackwork and signalling.

Railway stations are therefore part of a railway’s entire operation, not merely “train stations” for trains to stop at. For me, someone talking about “train stations” is showing their ignorance of how railways work: it’s more than just the trains.

Since I had the Google open in front of me, I thought I’d look at the variations in US versus UK English. It seems that “railroad station” isn’t the dominant American usage that I’d imagined.

Continue reading “Why people who say “train station” sound stupid”

McLuhan’s aphorism rules at The Global Mail, alas

The Global Mail masthead“The medium is the message”, the sole phrase that seems to remembered of Marshall McLuhan’s work, certainly held true in Friday’s story at The Global Mail, Twitter Tackles Open Government.

The piece is a follow-up to an article published on Thursday, Why So Secretive?, by OpenAustralia founders Katherine Szuminska and Matthew Landauer — a stinging attack which alleges that Australia’s Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) is “unlawfully obstructing over 100 Freedom of Information (FOI) requests from the general public in an attempt to maintain secrecy”.

Friday’s article centres on a subsequent discussion on Twitter between DIAC national communications manager and “avid tweeter”, as The Global Mail quaintly describes him, Sandi Logan.

In 2013, isn’t it just a bit retro to draw attention to someone using Twitter a bit? Particularly when it’s their job to respond to public comment?

Anyway, here’s what I tried to post as a comment at The Global Mail just now, only to be told: “Your comment was unable to be posted at this time. We apologise for the inconvenience.”

The medium truly is the message. The first of Logan’s statements quoted in this story contains 68 words of substantive content, counting the URLs as one word each, and 48 of those are a direct quote from legislation.

Anywhere else this would be a “brief statement”, perhaps even a “terse statement” if the journalist was wanting to pre-judge Logan’s mood on the readers’ behalf — but I was once taught not to do that because it’s editorialising.

But because Logan’s words are spread across four tweets, it becomes a “flurry”. Really?

The Macquarie Dictionary gloss for “flurry”, skipping over the literal weather-related ones, is: “3. commotion; sudden excitement or confusion; nervous hurry.”

Logan’s entire conversation reads to me as a perfectly level-headed conversation with critics. Certainly his initial comment is one simple, coherent paragraph, spread across four tweets only because the limits of the medium demand it.

Now that I’m blogging this, I’ll add my usual gripe about the headline.

“Twitter Tackles Open Government”? No, the San Francisco-based company did no such thing. Nor did the abstract communications network that operates via their servers. People tackled a DIAC staffer. And as far as I can see, all but one of the people quoted was a journalist. The medium through which that happened is hardly relevant.

A handful of journalists and sprinkling of public policy advocates is hardly representative of Twitter users as a whole. If we analysed the level of Twitter discussion about DIAC that night, in comparison with the global firehose of tweets, I doubt that we’d even see a prostate-corked dribble.

Still, a more accurate headline, such as “A few journalists question a media adviser”, would detract somewhat from the “power to the people” theme.

The icing on the cake for me is that the article is about demands for DIAC to be more transparent, and that commenters at The Global Mail are advised that “you have a lot more credibility when you use your full name”, and yet it’s bylined… “By Staff”.

Goose, gander etc, folks.

[Disclosure: I know Katherine Szuminska and Matthew Landauer, and have had dinner and drinks with them on numerous occasions. For what it’s worth, I generally support their calls for more government transparency. Browsing through what I’ve written previously will soon reveal my attitude towards the government’s asylum-seeker policies.]

Sydney Harbour “giant gambling den” bullshit reportage

Map showing "giant gambling den in relation to Sydney Harbour: click to embiggen“Is A Billionaire Former Scientologist Shaping Sydney Harbour Into A Giant Gambling Den?”, asked the headline in an email this morning from The Global Mail. Is he? Let’s see!

The story in TGM, the philanthropic media project of Graeme Wood, also a key investor in The Guardian’s forthcoming Australian edition, is obviously about plans by James Packer to build a casino at Sydney’s Barangaroo development.

The proposal is controversial, certainly. But Sydney Harbour becoming a “giant gambling den”? FFS! If it’s not immediately obvious why this is complete bullshit, I’ve drawn a picture for you. A special kind of picture called a “map”.

The black bit is Sydney Harbour, traced from Google Maps. The red bit is the entire proposed casino complex, assuming this report in the Sydney Morning Herald is still roughly correct. You might have to click through to the full-size map to see the red bit.

Sydney Harbour is clearly not becoming a “giant gambling den”. Sydney Harbour will be changed in a way that will be barely noticeable, at least if your global perspective manages to make it any further west than Glebe Point Road. And I’d have thought that the intelligent, well-educated people at TGM would be able to figure that out for themselves.

We were told that The Global Mail was about “quality journalism”, but apparently it’s just another in a long series of comfortable colour supplements for Sydney’s whining middle class, with bonus points for waving the good ol’ Scientology scare-stick.

The story itself is by Nick Bryant, whose work I like. He’s got a biography of Packer coming out, so I assume the article — which I haven’t read yet — is an extract from that book and somewhat better than the promotion it’s been burdened with suggests. I’ll let you know once I’ve read it.

Sky-shouting, yes, but what to call it?

Old Man Yells At Cloud screenshot from "The Simpsons"Discussions with editors about what I’ll be doing in 2013 continue. One discussion is about the title of a new column that the editor in question has described as me shouting at the sky. I need your help.

“Shouting at the sky,” you ask?

We mean the analysis and opinion pieces that result from me cutting loose about something that’s pissing me off, or that quote people who are in the same frame of mind.

Here’s half a dozen near-random examples, chosen from a variety of mastheads so I don’t reveal where this column will appear.

I should also mention that this is for a technology-related masthead, and the topics will include that key focus that I’ve identified in my work: changing power relationships.

Yesterday I asked for suggestions on Twitter. Here’s what you’ve come up with so far.

Continue reading “Sky-shouting, yes, but what to call it?”

Script Challenge prize finally organised

Dario Besseghini and gift: see text for detailsSeveral billion years ago, I set a challenge. I posted a passage of text in an unknown script. Could people decipher it?

Actually it was in 2007. I fully expected it to be solved within days, perhaps a couple of weeks at most, because I’d solved it myself fairly quickly. Before we had computers.

But it took ages. Years.

Finally, Italian computer scientist Dario Besseghini​ solved it in February 2012. That’s him pictured above, on the right.

I’d promised a prize, and Dario provided an Amazon wishlist for me to choose from. And then I forgot about it. Until the other day.

I have just ordered for Dario a copy of In the Land of Invented Languages: A Celebration of Linguistic Creativity, Madness, and Genius by Arika Okrent. That’s it pictured above, on the left. The theme of invented languages seemed particularly appropriate.

So, Dario, my apologies for the delay, and my best wishes for the holiday season.

I know you were fretting because you hadn’t written up your solution method in more detail, but there’s certainly no rush!

I’ve closed comments on this post, so that any conversation will continue at the original place.

Postscript: As an indication of how little I participate in consumer culture, it turns out that this was the first time I’d ordered anything from Amazon since some time before 1 July 2007. How do I know? Because I started doing my bookkeeping in Saasu on that date, so if there had been a purchase there’d be a record of it.