Archive for April 2008

Mistranslations and Misinterpretations are unfortunate but with Media assistance, volatile. Introduction.

28 April 2008

First, a clarification of a common misunderstanding (especially rife in the American media):

Translators translate written documents, usually with time to revise or correct their work before it is seen by others. Accuracy at all levels, especially those of vocabulary and style, is of prime importance. Film and video/DVD subtitlers, for example, are specialised translators who need adequate time to prepare and technically present their work, which will be seen on the screen by audiences. Furthermore, because a permanent written record of translations will be available for examination and comparison with the original written form in the source language, translation is not only a highly responsible job but needs the expensive backing of a substantial indemnity insurance policy.

Interpreters, on the other hand, offer a spoken service, performing ‘live’ (at various levels) by offering a spoken ‘translation’ from one language to another. They need, apart from a thorough knowledge of two languages at the highest level, a good speaking voice, quick wittedness and strong self-control. (This does not imply that we translators are dull-witted or even dull. The jobs are simply different and suit people with different temperaments and gifts.)

On a daily basis, on TV and radio, the voiceover comments we hear in English when (for example) a non-English-speaking politician or celebrity is being filmed for the daily (or hourly) News are usually (but not necessarily) done by an interpreter, on the spot (and often in the spotlight). Face to face interviews of any sort (including those most commonly seen on News programmes), need instant interpretation, whether in a private meeting or an international conference. For more ‘leisurely’ documentaries, subtitled or voiceover translations of interviews in a foreign language may be the result of either interpretation or translation, depending on the circumstances. (As a slightly cynical rule of thumb, the more often the English-speaking interviewer nods his or her head in the TV interview without comment in the foreign language while the foreigner is answering the media interviewer’s English question (which has been interpreted by someone else before the interviewee answers), the more likely that the segments of the foreign language will have been translated and subtitled or voice-overed by a local qualified translator or interpreter during or after the interview.)

Both of these professions are demanding, but the interpreter obviously has the more unenviable and stressful (but better paid) job, even in a medical or court assignment for a single client. It is indeed a very great responsibility to bear. When the work is at the most intense and public level (for example, in international diplomacy, in politics or in commerce), the consequences of a momentary lapse, even by a very seasoned professional, can be catastrophic, therefore the pressure and remuneration are correspondingly heavier. (In such exalted interactions, the further hazard of an interpreter (or a translator) being used as a scapegoat by unscrupulous or desperate politicians and Heads of State who have made an error or a misjudgement will be dealt with in a later essay in this series.)

*

For now, two international incidents resulting from unfortunate interpreting or translating lapses will highlight the worst hazards, especially in our anxious world which now has to cope with insatiable media appetites and instant international communications (not to mention the general lack of comprehension of what translation and interpreting really entail).

1.

On 26 October, 2005, the President of Iran gave a speech at a student conference in Iran. He was reported in the English language press as having said that “Israel must be wiped off the map.” In an already tense atmosphere, international shock was deep, peace was threatened and the reverberations can still be felt from time to time when the translation is repeated. But it appears that the alarming translation was incorrect.

The Iranian journalist-author of a (balanced) biography of Ahmadinejad, Naji Kasra, takes this blood-curdling English statement and explains (p. 140) that the President’s intent could not have been genocidal because the Persian words used by Ahmadinejad (quoting from the late Ayatollah Khomeini) were “Een rejimeh eshghalgareh Quds bayad az safeyeh rouzegar mahv shavad.” The writer translates these, literally, as “This Jerusalem-occupying regime must disappear from the page(s) of time.” [Bold type added.] Kasra adds further linguistic commentary on the Persian sentence, stating that ‘shavad’ means “must become” and ‘mahv’, “the crucial word […] can mean ‘disappeared’,’obliterated’, ‘vanished’” and “that it does not uniquely imply violence.” The word (mahv), he explains, could also be used for the moon being shrouded by clouds or a man “disappearing into a thick crowd” and “does not imply action on the part of a third party”. For those reasons, Naji rejects the translation “must be wiped off” (which he says would be ‘bayad mahv kard’) and its ultra-violent associations, while admitting that the pronouncement was indeed extremely hostile.

(From: Naji, Kasra, Ahmadinejad. The Secret History of Iran’s Radical Leader, London & New York, I. B. Taurus, 2008, pp. 139-141)

ADDENDUM: For a more detailed report on the context and complex international reverberations of this mistranslation – and of its unfortunate origin at the “Islamic Republic News Agency” – see http://www.mohammadmossadegh.com/news/rumor-of-the-century.

2. (As a salutary ideological counterbalance)

Melanie Phillips, the prominent and sometimes controversial British correspondent for The Guardian, published a short report on 29 February 2008: ‘The Mother of all Mistranslations’. The subheading was ‘Israel warns of Gaza ‘holocaust’.’ The report began: “Israeli leaders are warning of an imminent conflagration in Gaza after Palestinian militants aimed rockets at the southern city of Ashkelon. The deputy defence minister said the stepped-up rocket fire would trigger what he called a ‘bigger holocaust’ in the Hamas-controlled coastal strip.”

Phillips continued: “This reported remark by deputy defence minister Matan Vilnai caused widespread shock and absolute horror. For an Israeli minister to use the word ‘holocaust’ to describe a limited war of Israeli self-defence, when for Jews of all people the ‘Holocaust’ means one thing: genocide – and this at a time when the calumny of the ‘Jews as Nazis’ is rampant around the world, putting Israel and the Jewish people at risk – was simply beyond belief.”

“It was indeed without any credibility – because Vilnai never said it. It was an appalling mistranslation by Reuters, the source of the BBC story.”

Her explanation was simple: “Reuters had translated the Hebrew word ‘shoah’ as ‘holocaust’. But ‘shoah’ merely means disaster. In Hebrew, the word ‘shoah’ is never used to mean ‘holocaust’ or ‘genocide’ because of the acute historical resonance. The word ‘Hashoah’ alone means ‘the Holocaust’ and ‘retzach am’ means ‘genocide’. The well-known Hebrew construction used by Vilnai used merely means ‘bringing disaster on themselves’.”

Phillips underlined the serious consequences of such a basic translating error: “But this grotesque mistranslation has given Hamas a propaganda gift which they lost no time exploiting. Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said of Vilnai’s comments: ‘We are facing new Nazis who want to kill and burn the Palestinian people.’ At a time when the rockets continue to rain down on the southern Negev and Israel is being forced to contemplate stepping up its incursions into Gaza because of the truly genocidal assault upon its citizens by Hamas, such a mistranslation is more than an unfortunate slip. In the present explosive atmosphere, it can lead directly to an enormous escalation of violence by the Palestinians.”

(http://www.spectator.co.uk/melaniephillips/530786/the-mother-of-all-mistranslations.thtml)

Wikipedia’s Grudging Recognition of its Self-imposed Limitations. An Internet Case Study

26 April 2008

(This is a long blog, offering a digest of the important opinions of sincere and reputable commentators. Your patience and indulgence will be rewarded.)

Recent and foreseeable changes in the Wikipedia modus operandi are, in fact, a belated acknowledgement of the validity of the unrelenting pressure from its many articulate and brave critics. The changes and the reasons for them are also a further encouraging proof of the existence of what one Wikipedia critic, Andrew Orlowski, has dubbed “collective intelligence”, which must surely be seen as a complete antonym for the much-touted ‘Wisdom of Crowds’ (which leads, inevitably, to the creation and popular success of projects like Wikipedia in its present flawed form).

Sources of instant enlightenment on this ongoing Internet controversy:

Wikipedia itself dutifully chronicles 25 pages of criticisms:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia_criticisms

Major sites and individuals critical of Wikipedia:

www.wikitruth.info (A Wiki-based site)

http://www.wikipedia-watch.org (Daniel Brandt)

www.theregister.co.uk (Andrew Orlowski)

www.wikipediareview.com (forums especially for disaffected Wikipedians)

http://uncyclopedia.org (Daniel Brandt – a brilliantly satirical Wiki-based site)

http://ascii.textfiles.com/archives (Jason Scott)

Also: ‘Criticisms of Wikipedia – A Compendium’, 4 January 2008, by The Review:

(This post was submitted to the forum by The Review’s resident Troubleshooter, Gomi, on January 1, 2008)”

“Gomi: For the New Year, I decided to attempt to compile a list of Wikipedia Review’s criticisms of Wikipedia. I have tried to approach this broadly — I don’t agree with all of these myself, but this is my view of the complaints that come up over and over again. One thing that is clear, after looking at Wikipedia for several years, is that these problems are not getting better, they are getting worse.”

*

Jason Scott

An ex-contributor to Wikipedia, information specialist Scott boldly and perceptively articulated many serious claims in his lecture, ‘The Great Failure of Wikipedia’ on 19 November 2004 (three years after the launch of Wikipedia). In response to an avalanche of Internet correspondence, including the sort of abuse often directed at “apostates” and whistle-blowers, Scott followed this lecture with two other important contributions in 2005, and a further one in 2007 (on the extraordinary and revealing Essjay scandal).

Here is Scott’s spectacularly vernacular verdict on Wikipedia’s performance:

“This is what the inherent failure of wikipedia is. It’s that there’s a small set of content generators, a massive amount of wonks and twiddlers, and then a heaping amount of procedural whackjobs. And the mass of twiddlers and procedural whackjobs means that the content generators stop being so and have to become content defenders. Woe be that your take on things is off from the majority. Even if you can prove something, you’re now in the situation that anybody can change it.”

(Jason Scott (Sadovsky) ‘The Great Failure of Wikipedia’ (19 November 2004) http://ascii.textfiles.com/archives/000060.html)

On Wikipedia as a concept and on the Wikipedia NPOV doctrine:

“Neutral Point of View is a doctrine about how Wikipedia articles should be written. Like wikipedia itself, it is a great idea in theory. In application, of course, it turns into yet another hammer for wonks and whackjobs to beat each other and innocent bystanders.”

Jason Scott (Sadovsky), ‘The Great Failure of Wikipedia’ (19 November 2004) http://ascii.textfiles.com/archives/000060.html

On the Open system model:

“I should mention that I’ve actually spent several years doing work for an organization, using software that is, basically, a Wiki. However, there’s only about 12 of us with access, and of the 12 maybe 6 are frequent contributors… And I thought this is how they all were. We just didn’t get in each others’ way. It was quite a shock to be on Wikipedia.”

(Jason Scott (Sadovsky) ‘The Great Failure of Wikipedia’ (19 November 2004) http://ascii.textfiles.com/archives/000060.html)

This is also a fundamental point by critic Nicholas G. Carr:

“ … the open source model — when it works effectively — is not as egalitarian or democratic as it is often made out to be. Linux has been successful not just because so many people have been involved, but because the crowd’s work has been filtered through a central authority who holds supreme power as a synthesizer and decision maker.”

(‘The Ignorance of Crowds’, May 2007
http://www.strategy-business.com/press/enewsarticle/enews053107?pg=all&tid=230)

Scott reiterated and clarified his position after intense Internet debate on his writings:

“ My primary disagreement with Wikipedia’s approach is not about expertise, accuracy or quality; it is about procedure energy dispersal […]. [… ] my issues as stated in my previous essay were not about whether Wikipedia was in competition with other reference sources, but how minor procedural decisions have essentially doomed it on its own.”

“ As an off-the-cuff example, Wikipedia has a login system, wherein for free and with no effort, you become a “Person”, an entity with a name and a history and even your nice little page that you can use to build a fun little world of pictures and information about your work on Wikipedia. It is essentially effortless, and it is pretty easy to create a mass of user accounts and foment your opinions in votes and other situations. […]”

“… they allow totally anonymous full-content editing by random users. In other words, no accounting at all. People don’t even have to submit to a rubber-stamp login process to begin screwing with entries that someone may have just spent hours getting just right. […]”

[…]

“ Wikipedia has a large contingency of users who play the Wikipedia Rules of Etiquette and Procedure like they were Role Playing Games and function within them causing havok and personal gratification at the expense of moving the project forward.”

“Academic review, experts vs. non-experts, use of Wikipedia as a replacement encyclopedia, and other such high-level concerns are way down the road and not my concern; my concern, and ultimately the reason why I have stopped contributing to the project (and why many others have, too) rests in aspects much closer to Wikipedia’s core.”

On Wikipedians’ reactions to criticism (of particular interest to ‘whistleblowers’ and those involved with illuminating the murky world of cults and fundamentalist organisations):

“Some days, I feel like I should have never written anything about Wikipedia, positive or negative. Like many cults, it has extreme members or well-meaning folks who do not understand what they are part of, and who take me on personally and then fall back into the ranks should I respond poorly. Some of them, should I respond within the confines of Wikipedia, point to the rules of discourse on Wikipedia and how I am breaking them.”

(Jason Scott 3 Jan 2005 http://ascii.textfiles.com/archives/000067.html)

A few months later:

“… I will rest my case on a single entry: That of the Swastika.

Here, contained in one entry, is everything that I have issues with regarding the implementation of Wikipedia as it currently stands with its rules. […]”

“With over 1,500 edits done to this entry over its 3 year lifespan, the process of becoming even slightly familiar with the editing pattern could be a full day’s work. […]”

[…]

“The story of the swastika’s entry continues after this, for over 1,200 edits. Dozens of people are involved, lots of facts are lost, many are gained… and you would be hard, hard-pressed to show why many of these folks should be editing the Swastika entry in the first place. Calling this “open source” and comparing it to programming projects is borderline insane: open-source programming projects have a core team with goals in mind that they state clearly, who then decide what gets in and what does not get in. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it does not, but people with anonymous IPs can’t just come in and fundamentally redo the graphics code on the program and then disappear, never to be seen again.”

(Jason Scott, 3 May 2005, ‘Swastipedia’, http:// ascii.textfiles.com/archives/000100.html)

*

In October 2005, Andrew Orlowski contributed the following opinions:

“Encouraging signs from the Wikipedia project, where co-founder and überpedian Jimmy Wales has acknowledged there are real quality problems with the online work.

Criticism of the project from within the inner sanctum has been very rare so far, although fellow co-founder Larry Sanger, who is no longer associated with the project, pleaded with the management to improve its content by befriending, and not alienating, established sources of expertise. (i.e., people who know what they’re talking about.)”

[…]

“ Traditionally, Wikipedia supporters have responded to criticism in one of several ways. The commonest is: If you don’t like an entry, you can fix it yourself. Which is rather like going to a restaurant for a date, being served terrible food, and then being told by the waiter where to find the kitchen.”

[..]

“ Thirdly, and here you can see that the defense is beginning to run out of steam, one’s attention is drawn to process issues: such as the speed with which errors are fixed, or the fact that looking up a Wikipedia is faster than using an alternative. This line of argument is even weaker than the first: it’s like going to a restaurant for a date – and being pelted with rotten food, thrown at you at high velocity by the waiters.”

[…]

“Re-working Wikipedia so it presents the user with something minimally readable will be a mammoth task. Although the project has no shortage of volunteers, most add nothing: busying themselves with edits that simply add or takeaway a comma. These are housekeeping tasks that build up credits for the participants, so they can rise higher in the organization.”

“And Wikipedia’s “cabal” has become notorious for deterring knowledgable and literate contributors. One who became weary of the in-fighting, Orthogonal, calls it Wikipedia’s HUAC – the House of Unamerican Activities prominent in the McCarthy era for hunting down and imprisoning the ideologically-incorrect.”

[…]

“One day Wikipedia may well be the most amazing reference work the world has ever seen, lauded for its quality. But to get from here to there it will need real experts and top quality writing – it won’t get there by hoping that its whizzy technical processes remedy such deficiencies. In other words, it will resemble today’s traditional encyclopedias far more than it does today.”

(Andrew Orlowski, ‘Wikipedia founder admits to serious quality problems. Yes, it’s garbage, bit it’s delivered so much faster!’ http://www.theregister.co. uk/2005/10/18/wikipedia_quality_problem/page2.html)

*

On the members of the Wikipedia community:

A satirical definition from http://www.wikitruth.info:

“What is a [serious] Wikipedian?

“You can set up a user account, start editing everything you can find, enmesh yourself into the politics, the lameness, the backstabbing and moronity, and fight an ever-present desperate whirlpooling battle of contract law, miserable personalities and microscopic anal details. You can run out of additional information to add to subjects you know, and instead tunnel deep into shit you don’t have the slightest notion about, using your intense knowledge of Wiki-jargon and gaming the system to fight every bastard who tries to change an article in a way you don’t agree with, or which might have any information you’re unable to garner in the first 5 matches of a Google search.” (www.wikitruth.info)

In its wiki article on Wikipedia, http://www.sourcewatch.org makes this critical point:

“Although experts on a subject may edit a page, they ultimately have no more control over the content of that page than anyone else. Contributors with unique knowledge of unusual subjects may be mistrusted by editors with general knowledge, or to put it less diplomatically, little or no knowledge, who rely on searches of other Internet sites to review new information. Administrators or editors might analyze writing skills or rely on opinions about a contributor to inform decisions when they have no knowledge of the subject of an article, or on a poll of individuals as ill-informed about the subject at hand as they are, themselves.”

Sam Vaknin adds:

“Lacking quality control by design, the Wikipedia rewards quantity. The more one posts and interacts with others, the higher one’s status, both informal and official. In the Wikipedia planet, authority is a function of the number of edits, no matter how frivolous. The more aggressive (even violent) a member is; the more prone to flame, bully, and harass; the more inclined to form coalitions with like-minded trolls; the less of a life he or she has outside the Wikipedia, the more they are likely to end up being administrators.”

(Sam Vaknin, ‘The Six Sins of the Wikipedia’, 2 July, 2006,

http://www.americanchronicle.com/articles/viewArticle.asp?articleID=11109)

A striking example of the many Wikipedia scandals of recent years, unearthed because of the persistence of a critic and the over-confidence of a prominent Wikipedian administrator with brazenly false credentials:

In July 2006, following a fascinating feature article on Wikipedia in The New Yorker by Stacy Schiff, Daniel Brandt posted this letter to the critical forum wikipediareview.com:

“Who is Essjay? I would love to ID this guy. I think he’s notable enough for his own biography.
He says that his username derives from his initials, S.J. That would suggest that his first and middle name, or first and surname, start with S and J. But it hasn’t helped my search.
He’s between 30 and 45, and teaches theology to undergrads and grads. He’s a tenured professor. He says that he teaches at a private university in the northeastern U.S., but I have my doubts about this also.
He says he has these degrees: Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies (B.A.), Master of Arts in Religion (M.A.R.), Doctorate of Philosophy in Theology (Ph.D.), Doctorate in Canon Law (JCD)
I’ve searched on his degrees, and I’ve looked at religion-department faculty lists in the northeast by using this resource. No clues.” […]

(http://wikipediareview.com/index.php?showtopic=2778&mode=threaded)

Six months later, Brandt’s suspicions were confirmed. In February 2007, Wikipedia’s credibility suffered a further bodyblow when his evidence and an announcement in The New Yorker revealed that one of Wikipedia’s prominent administrators (recently promoted to be a salaried Wikia employee) did not possess the tenured professorship and four academic degrees that he had claimed on his User page and to the journalist Stacy Schiff. After further internal investigation and discussions revealed that 24 year old “Essjay” (with a tally of 16,000 edits) had used the prestige of his false credentials in edit disputes, he was eventually asked to resign by Jimmy Wales.

*

On Signs of Change in the System, Nicholas G. Carr:

“Aware of Wikipedia’s flaws, Wales and other contributors have been trying hard to improve the quality of the site’s content. A management team has slowly been taking shape, and it is establishing editorial policies and policing contributions. But even though this nascent hierarchy has already become much more bureaucratic than Linux’s lean managerial structure, it hasn’t yet been able to substantially improve Wikipedia. The failure appears to stem from the makeup of the supervisory group. Whereas the Linux team is a strict meritocracy, Wikipedia’s administrators represent a broader mix of contributors. They’re often chosen on the basis of how much they’ve contributed or how long they’ve contributed rather than on the quality of their contributions or their editorial skill. It seems fair to say that although the bazaar should be defined by diversity, the cathedral should be defined by talent.”

(‘The Ignorance of Crowds’, May 2007 by Nicholas G. Carr
http://www.strategy-business.com/press/enewsarticle/enews053107?pg=all&tid=230)

Nicholas G. Carr’s much earlier brief analysis of Wikipedia is also highly instructive and much wider-ranging.

“In theory, Wikipedia is a beautiful thing – it has to be a beautiful thing if the Web is leading us to a higher consciousness. In reality, though, Wikipedia isn’t very good at all. Certainly, it’s useful – I regularly consult it to get a quick gloss on a subject. But at a factual level it’s unreliable, and the writing is often appalling. I wouldn’t depend on it as a source, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to a student writing a research paper.”

(Here Carr gives a critique of two flawed Wikipedia articles (on Bill Gates and Jane Fonda). His analysis was so accurate that Jimmy Wales later admitted the need for improvements.)

Carr continues:

“The promoters of Web 2.0 venerate the amateur and distrust the professional. We see it in their unalloyed praise of Wikipedia, and we see it in their worship of open-source software and myriad other examples of democratic creativity. Perhaps nowhere, though, is their love of amateurism so apparent as in their promotion of blogging as an alternative to what they call ‘the mainstream media’.”

(Nicholas G. Carr, ‘The amorality of Web 2.0’, www.roughtype.com/archives/2005/10/the_amorality_o.php) LINK

*

Transcending the lessons offered by the case of Wikipedia, Carr’s magisterial conclusion to this important essay deserves the widest attention and diffusion in this increasingly ‘amoral’ cyberworld:

“Like it or not, Web 2.0, like Web 1.0, is amoral. It’s a set of technologies – a machine, not a Machine – that alters the forms and economics of production and consumption. It doesn’t care whether its consequences are good or bad. It doesn’t care whether it brings us to a higher consciousness or a lower one. It doesn’t care whether it burnishes our culture or dulls it. It doesn’t care whether it leads us into a golden age or a dark one. So let’s can the millennialist rhetoric and see the thing for what it is, not what we wish it would be.”

(Nicholas G. Carr, ‘The amorality of Web 2.0’, www.roughtype.com/archives/2005/10/the_amorality_o.php)

See also: Fluctuating  Specifications for Online Encyclopedias

Competition between Google and Wikia.com in two Information Markets

25 April 2008

Introduction

The recent entry of Google into the online encyclopedia market (‘Knol’, announced in December 2007) and the equally bold counter move by Wikipedia’s original commercial sponsor, Wikia, Inc. into the Search engine market (‘Wikia Search’, launched on 7 January this year) signal direct mutual challenges by the two Internet giants. Whatever the eventual effects on their corporate Internet success, there are also interesting implications for millions of Internet users of these two essential types of instant online information as well as for other competitors in both of these cyber-arenas (encyclopedias and search engines).

The present study concentrates on the phenomenally successful but increasingly controversial (non-profit) Wikipedia product, whose enormous prestige is (rightfully) enjoyed by Wikia, Inc. Regardless of the outcome of the Wikia Search launch, this challenging Google ploy adds extra pressure on Wikipedia to reconsider its flawed open structure and accelerate the sorts of changes (including the recent Veropedia option) which it has already been obliged to introduce or contemplate over the past three years of intense criticism and embarrassments.

A similar study of the potential effect of Wikia’s move into the Search Engine market combined with a reassessment of Yahoo’s continuing progress in this market would also be welcome, especially to disgruntled users of Google Search. We live in interesting times.

Since the December announcement, little is on show about Knol on Google’s vast network of sites, except the display of a specimen article (www.google.com/help/knol_screenshot.html) and the promise of further articles by experts (which are apparently in preparation). Meanwhile, the Wikia camp has already displayed the first fruits of its beta version of Wikia Search (http://re.search.wikia.com), so preliminary impressions may be drawn. In spite of the instant condemnation by many professional commentators and bloggers and without offering a guarantee to this beta product, attention should be concentrated on how Wikia delivers on its promise to be “more transparent to end users”. For example, the ‘Discuss these results’ option for each search could eventually provide an alternative to those who find Google’s attitude to searchers and website owners too arcane and dictatorial. At the outset of this fascinating contest, the signs indicate that Wikia Search has the interesting potential to become the overdue selective Search Engine that many Netizens need, thereby, perhaps, having a positive influence on the bloated Search Engine Optimisation market. Any frivolous or commercial misuse by Wikia and CEO Jimmy Wales of this longstanding promise to deliver a truly discriminating Search Engine would deserve total public condemnation and flagellation by eagle-eyed Internet observers like Nicholas G. Carr.

IF Wikia fails to deliver the goods, someone else MUST take up the challenge and compound their shame.

*

Since 2001, Wikipedia has established itself as the most successful online encyclopedia. It has proved to be a basically excellent primary source on factual topics. Nevertheless, the seven years of Wikipedia’s phenomenal growth (in many languages) have also been punctuated with strong and vociferous criticism, controversies, complaints and embarrassments in connection with some of the unsatisfactory results produced by its totally open Wiki format. A growing snowball of Internet, media and academic literature expresses both praise and extreme dissatisfaction.

…………………………

(The complete article (‘Internet Niche Markets. 1. Online Encyclopedias. Wikipedia and Others’) will soon be available on my web page: www.briansteel.net/writings)

Quantity versus Quality on the Internet

14 April 2008

Is the frenetic Internet party coming to an end? It is becoming less user-friendly than it was. As it has morphed into a huge hustling bazaar, the Web (2.0) has become more bewildering and intrusive. Most of the alluring and very useful products on offer are free (of monetary cost, at least). So many goodies: email, web browsers, information, chat groups and all sorts of forums, social network membership, video entertainment (YouTube), maps, blogsites, ping sites and myriad other facilities to spread knowledge about millions and millions of blogsites (like this one), and so on, and on, and on. Free services are being thrown at us from all sides. Since it’s Christmas every day in cyberspace, wannabe party poopers can hardly yell “Caveat Emptor!” or “Buyer beware!, but perhaps for many services, especially the free search engines and the well populated social networking empires, “User, take care!” may be a timely warning.

The sheer quantity of information exponentially available as the ‘bots’ dig deeper is so overwhelming and of such varying quality that new initiatives are sorely needed to sort it all in a more qualitative way, rather than offering the spectacular choice of 1 million superficially sorted search results in 0.15 seconds.

Google’s search results are highly praised and in the past I have found them useful, but, in my recent experience, the ranking system seems increasingly crude and uniquely vulnerable to clever manipulation by hundreds (thousands?) of specialised “Search Engine Optimisation” (SEO) companies and smart or unscrupulous invidivuals who can ‘play’ the vital backlinks game and skew the top ranking search results (especially the first page), often on the basis of a popularity count almost as artificially manipulated as an election in a dictatorship. (To get an idea of how big this booming SEO business is becoming, search for “SEO Services”. Yahoo served up 109 million results in 0.30 seconds.)

Although the Google Search engine is still well in front of chief rival Yahoo in numerical terms (5.6 billion searches in December 2007, compared with Yahoo’s 2.2 billion), Yahoo (which is possibly about to fall into the hands of salivating Google rival, Microsoft) has the edge (IMO) on Google in ranking quality and greater resistence to the arcane industry-condoned massage techniques which lead to highly profitable Search Engine Optimisation. In my recent experience, Microsoft, with a mere 940 million searches in December 2007, also often comes higher than Google in the quality of its rankings. In fact, between Yahoo or Microsoft plus the Metasearch engine Dogpile (which includes Google results), one could probably bypass Google’s current offerings with little noticeable loss, at least in the wide areas over which I hunt and gather.

Google hit the headlines when it announced that it regarded its countless billions of individual Searches as valuable archival material, to be carefuly stored, sifted and marketed as it sees fit. The mind boggles over what they might do with all that fascinating and basically private information. Although I do not lose any sleep worrying about my Search habits becoming known, I did recall the company attitude when hearing of Google’s free Gmail service with its virtually infinite storage space (their storage space), free organisation and search facilities for members’ emails. It seemed such a generous, almost philanthropic, gift to humankind in return for the money Google has made and rightfully expects to make from its advertising. Nevertheless, before leaping in to claim my 6 Gigabytes of storage space, and a Search facility on all my emails from cyberNanny Google (who adds the further bizarre promise that “you’ll never need to delete another message”), I actually READ the Terms of Service and was deterred by the image conjured up by Condition 4.4: (as well as utterly bewildered by Conditions 11 and 13).

4.4.: “You acknowledge and agree that if Google disables access to your account, you may be prevented from accessing the Services, your account details or any files or other content which is contained in your account.” (All my emails! All six Gigabytes? What would Google do with them? What would I do without them?) So I decided to continue to trust my own Hard Disk, my friendly Mozilla, and carry on deleting to my heart’s content for a while longer.

So much for the tentacular multi-billion dollar Google information empire. They have made it – BIG-time! Others are still starting up with similarly ambitious plans to attain algorithmically-derived financial nirvana. Take, for example, the Dredgers of Information on People (for People Profiles). This new set of cyber entrepreneurs are now following the Internet money trail, inspired by Google’s spectacular success in the mass farming and marketing of information. This sub-group of new IT companies are hoping to make rich pickings out of the simple automated process of massive robotic web searches for all scraps of information about people (and companies). Whatever their robots dredge up from cyberspace is then presented in a bundle under a person’s name. As simple (and as primitive) as that.

If you think about the ongoing problems of highly experienced Google in ranking their data results in a really helpful way, you may begin to get an idea of the potential for glitches and weirdness in the resulting mixtures of personal profiles. How many other people have YOUR name? Profiles for the Bill Smiths, even perhaps the George Bushs, of this world may become hopelessly mixed up in the ‘hands’ of the bots. As an experiment, try the two people search companies named below. Feed in any names you know and see how much of the resulting profile is relevant to that specific person. Check also to see if the robot profile gives a reasonably balanced portrait. Don’t forget to try your own name because that is where you may get the biggest surprise, perhaps seeing yourself ‘profiled’ along with “body parts” from others with the same name. Well, with only the robots to sort out the information and no human intervention (which is what the companies at present offer), what do you expect. Very scary!

1. Zoominfo.com

Zoominfo offers a subscription service to companies interested in other companies. It also offers free information on “People”. The People profiles offered are not restricted to businesspeople. The basis of Zoominfo’s presentation of its personal data farming operation is explained in a separate disclaimer statement, titled ‘How did Zoominfo get this information?’ One of the paragraphs is the following:

“Please note: ZoomInfo does not fact check its profiles and aggregation errors are possible. Additionally, ZoomInfo does not verify user-submitted information. Errors to your own profile can be corrected by updating your information. [They mean “correcting”.] Other errors or inappropriate content can be reported to ZoomInfo using our support form.” [There is something Orwellian about this “support form”, which is surely a reference to a complaint about the personal information found against a correspondent’s name.]

The nature and extent of the additional “user-submitted information” is nowhere explained. When I questioned Zoominfo on this, they declined to explain, several times. And when questioned on how robots had managed to compose several unbalanced profiles containing negative or disparaging references, the Support team was evasive and dogmatic. On most of these profiles, Zoominfo repeats the blanket disclaimer that it does not verify the information presented.

All in all, this seems an unsatisfactory offering in its present stage. When you check them out, if you don’t like what you see about yourself, or others, let them know. They may resist at first, or wave their disclaimer and robots in your face, but if you insist, they will remove any garbled or unwelcome information.

2. Pipl.com

This apparently newer kid on the block offers a similar service with the same sort of mixed results, but seems to cater for a younger demographic, especially targeting, with “deep searches”, the social networks and specialising in phone numbers, emails and information on old schoolmates. As with Zoominfo, I found the results mixed. There is no disclaimer. According to one IT blogger: “Pipl, a people search engine mentioned here a few days ago, also searches social networking sites. The usual cautions apply: You can’t assume anything you find is true, and you’ll have to find verification elsewhere.” (Mark Schaver, at http://www.depthreporting.com/2007_05_01_archive.html)

Although Pipl’s deep searches tempt us with “most of the higher-quality information about people” which “is simply ‘invisible’ to a regular search engine”, I also found oddly unbalanced (lower-quality) negative profiles about a number of older people.

The initial “Quick Facts” did not always refer to facts and the remainder of Pipl’s information on the names that I looked up was simply the Google result for that name. The Support team responses to my queries were slow, evasive, and basically unfriendly but I know of one or two colleagues who have had their profiles removed after lengthy exchanges of correspondence. Again, there was no satisfactory answer to the question of how the one-sided information was obtained in these selected cases. Another cyber mystery to be solved.

Perhaps the promised Web 3.0 will be able to offer us some overdue improvements in Internet quality, accuracy, and privacy protection.

Etymology, and False Etymology as a Rhetorical Device

13 April 2008

Etymology: “An account of, or the facts relating to, the formation or development of a word and its meaning; the process of tracing the history of a word. The original meaning of a word as shown by its etymology” (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary). For the English language, a majority of etymologies refer to origins in Old English, Germanic Languages, French, Latin and Greek. The origins of the word ‘etymology’ itself are to be found in two Greek roots: ‘etymon’ (true) and logos (word).

It is not essential to know anything at all about etymologies. Most people survive and prosper without even knowing what the word means. Nevertheless, such knowledge (or where to find it: in reliable dictionaries) often proves to be very useful or indispensable to those who deal closely with (or are interested in) the words of a language. An etymological consultation can also help to avoid serious errors and misunderstandings (and sometimes misleading pronunciations). For example, the differences in meaning between the visually and orally similar ‘manually’, ‘manly’ and ‘manic’ are easily explained by their etymologies: respectively from a) the Latin word for hand, b) ‘man’, and c) Greek ‘mania’. Similarly, any suspicion of a common relationship between eschatology / eschatological and scatology / scatological can quickly and safely be dispelled by noting the different Greek roots from which the eschat- (last) and scat- (dung) parts are derived.

The Spreading of False Etymologies

In about 630 CE, a Catholic Archbishop named Isidore of Seville published an important encyclopedic series of books in Latin. This reference work continued to be consulted by European Latin scholars for several centuries. In The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, a recent English translation of this major ecclesiastical work by Stephen A. Barney and three other scholars (Cambridge University Press, 2006), the legendary poor quality of many of the etymologies offered is stressed and suitable samples are offered:

“Horses (equus) are so called because when they were yoked in a team of 4 they were balanced (aequare).” and “Humus (humus) was the material from which the human (homo) was made.” (I quote from a review by Emily Wilson.)

Another excellent example of how badly Isidore dealt with this minor aspect of his magnum opus (because of unreliable sources and, perhaps, lapses in research rigour) is offered by Adrian Murdoch on his typepad blog:

“The walking stick [baculus in Latin] is said to have been invented by Bacchus, the discovered of the grapevine, so that people affected by wine might be supported by it.”

Isidore’s, er, habit has nevertheless prospered in recent eras and in specific areas. There is some interesting evidence that etymological explanations seem attractive as a rhetorical device to prove a point, particularly in preaching, but also in other areas. If the promoters of beliefs are trusted by their readers or audience, impressive-sounding etymological proof will usually be accepted without demur, even if demonstrably false (‘false etymology’). In his book on cults, the Reverend Stephen Wookey refers to research which demonstrates the use of inaccurate quotations and false etymologies used to make a point by such preachers and orators. He quotes a blatant example by Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science.

“The word Adam is from the Hebrew adamah, signifying the red color of the ground dust, nothing new. Divide the name Adam into two syllables [in English!] and it reads, a dam, or obstruction … it stands for obstruction, error, even the supposed separation of man from God and …” (Wookey, p. 338, from line 12 on). Baker Eddy goes on in similar vein, telling us all the negatives that poor Adam “stands for” for half a page. As Rev. Wookey comments: the Hebrew meaning is simply: man.

One of the clumsiest attempts at etymology for religious indoctrination purposes must surely be the one reported by William J. Petersen (Those Curious New Cults, New Canaan, Connecticut, 1973, p. 115). According to Petersen, one of the beliefs subscrtibed to by members of Herbert W. Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God was that the British and the Americans are descended from the so-called Lost Tribes of the ancient Jewish people.’ As one of his ‘proofs’ of this peculiar assertion, Armstrong suggested that the word ‘Saxon’ was derived from ‘Isaac’s sons’.

Armstrong’s false etymologies are also dealt with in an easily accessible article, ‘The “Lost Tribes” of Herbert W. Armstrong’, in Catholic Answers Magazine: www.ewtn.com/library/ANSWERS/LOSTRB.htm.

Apparently, to further his thesis that the Lost Tribes settled in Britain and America, the preacher wrote a further piece of blatant ‘etymological’ indoctrination:

“The House of Israel is the ‘covenant people’. The Hebrew word for ‘covenant’ is brit. And the word for ‘covenant man’ or ‘covenant people’, would therefore sound, in English word order, ‘Brit-ish’ (the word ish means ‘man’ in Hebrew, and it is also an English suffix on nouns and adjectives). And so, is it mere coincidence that the true covenant people today are called the ‘British’? And they reside in the ‘British Isles’!”

And Armstrong’s disciples swallowed the false etymologies.

The Indian guru, Sathya Sai Baba, has also made frequent use of etymologies as a teaching tool. Many of these are unconvincing except to his unquestioning devotees, who consider him to be Omniscient (and he himself has made that claim). For example, SSB has offered his devotees an idiosyncratic etymology of the ‘Sai’ part of the name that he assumed in 1943: ‘Sai Baba’, from Sai Baba of Shirdi – the Muslim/Hindu saint who died 1918 – whose reincarnation he claimed to be:

Sa means ‘Divine’, ai or ayi means ‘mother’ and Baba means ‘father’. The Name indicates Divine Mother and Father …” (Sathya Sai Speaks, Vol. XII, 38:229. These Discourses are translated from Telugu and edited by the Sathya Sai Organisation)

On the real etymology of the original Sai Baba, scholars seem to be agreed. As Kevin R. D. Shepherd writes: “Sai is not a Hindu name, but a Persian word indicative of a holy man. It seems to bear an affinity with the Arabic sa’ih, which in the early medieval era of Islam was used to designate itinerant ascetics of sufi background. It appropriately reflects the Muslim background of the subject. ….” (KRDS, 1986, Chapter 2). See also Sathya Sai Baba’s Claim to be the Reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba

In addition to other inventive Sanskrit etymologies for words like Bhagavan, Guru, Hindu, Krishna, etc., Sathya Sai Baba, the alleged polyglot, has occasionally exercised his imagination on foreign terms. For example, here is one of his etymological explanations of Salaam (which most people know as the Arabic greeting: ‘Peace’).

“The Muslims use the term Salaam as a form of greeting. What does the word mean? ‘Sa’ refers to Sai, the Lord who is the embodiment of Truth, Awareness and Bliss (Sat-Chit-Ananda); ‘la’ means ‘layam’ (mergence). Salaam means merging in the Supreme, who is also the embodiment of Truth and Bliss.” (Sathya Sai Speaks, Vol. XVIII, 30:187)

Notice that in this example, SSB arbitrarily reduces ‘Salaam’ to ‘Sa’ plus ‘la’ (= ‘Sala’) to fit in with his extraordinary self-promotional interpretation.

(I have reported his different etymologies for Allah elsewhere on the Internet.)

More recently, a few writers of highly controversial works on history and archaeology (especially on the Internet) have also shown a preference for creative etymologies and other plays on words and names in order to support their contentious theses. (For the use of False Etymology in politics and propaganda, see the corresponding article in Wikipedia, to which this blog piece may be considered a supplement, at least by non-Wikipedians who do not reject the fruits of personal research.)

Gene D. Matlock, in yet another book on the lost Atlantis, puts forward the theory that there was an Atlantis in or close to Mexico. Part of his proof seems to be that there were Mexican “Sanskrit” place names like Atlán, Tlan or Tollán and that their inhabitants were called Atlantecas. (Those ‘Sanskrit’ names look like ordinary Mexican indigenous names.)

The author of a sensational best-selling book about a putative Chinese fleet which circumnavigated the globe in 1421-1423 (Gavin Menzies) offers as one of his exhibits news of an alleged inscription found in the Cape Verde islands. Menzies apparently attributes this to the Chinese Admiral Zheng He, but a critic (www.1421exposed.com) reveals (among many other inconvenient details) that Menzies himself admits that the inscription turned out to be written in the southern Indian language, Malayalam.

And finally, for now, a much-argued Internet thesis that there is a connection between Abraham and his wife Sarah and Hindu God Brahma and his consort Saraswati (“Sarai-svati” in this case) seems to have foundered on Wikipedia for lack of solid evidence and partly because “a major hole in this hypothesis is that Hebrew is not an Indo-European language, and that the etymologies for each word [offered as proof] are fairly different.”

(See Wikipedia Discussion page for ‘Brahma’; User: ‘Gizza’.)

Justo Gallego – the lone twentieth century Cathedral Builder

8 April 2008

After I listened to a radio interview with Charles Happell, the author of The Bone Man Of Kokoda: The Extraordinary Story of Kokichi Nishimura and the Kokoda Track, the extraordinary mission carried out by a Japanese World War II soldier over the last 25 years of his life, my mind flashed back to a parallel epic of a Spaniard’s dogged determination to fulfil a self-imposed gargantuan mission inspired by very different circumstances.

According to Happell, Nishimura spent the final 25 years of his life (after abandoning his family, like Siddharta) in the jungles of contemporary Papua New Guinea searching for and recovering the bones of his Japanese comrades in arms who, unlike him, had been killed in the fierce battles with Australian troops on the infamous Kokoda Track in the early 1940s.

Justo Gallego’s travails over more than forty years are, thanks to the media and the Internet (especially the increasingly ubiquitous YouTube website), much more widely documented. Readers who are not familiar with this topic are invited to sample:
1. http://www.citynoise.org/article/732
2.www.youtube.com/watch?v=UOygwz8ri20&feature=related
(Copy and paste the URLs, please.)
*
Justo Gallegos (born in 1925) entered a Catholic Trappist monastery in Spain in 1950, with the ambition of becoming a Catholic monk. Unfortunately, Justo contracted TB after several years of studies and (even more unfortunately, IMO) was ‘released’ from his vows by the ecclesiastical authorities, presumably in the health interests of the other monks. Despite these adverse circumstances, he eventually recovered and although (unfairly?) disqualified from becoming a Catholic priest (the only kind of priest then allowed to operate in dictator Franco’s Spain), Justo then made a vow to his mother to build a cathedral in his native Spanish village of Mejorada del Campo, to the greater glory of his God.

For more than 40 years Justo has steadfastly dedicated all his physical efforts to fulfilling that vow, canvassing local support, donations, and working with recycled materials. Against all the odds and quite significant local opposition, Don Justo has now virtually succeeded in building his ecclesiastical “Castle in Spain”. Although his idiosyncratic Cathedral is still not quite finished, when it is completed (possibly after his death), in view of this inspiring example of individual faith in an increasingly secular Spanish environment (and Western world), the Catholic Church really has no alternative but to recognise the Justo Cathedral, dedicated to Our Lady of the Pillar (Nuestra Señora del Pilar), despite local town planners’ misgivings about the structural soundness of this huge building, designed and built by a complete amateur.

My own interest with this fascinating saga dates back to1991 (when the Internet and YouTube, etc., etc. etc., had not even been conceived). Taking a break from one of my language research trips to Spain, I followed up an intriguing Spanish magazine account of Justo’s labours. (He had already been slaving for 20 years!)

From the centre of metropolitan Madrid I took a train, a walk and a bus to the prosperous village of Mejorada del Campo (today one bus is sufficient, from the Avenida de América bus station). Before the bus arrived at the village, the impressive soaring shell of Justo’s homespun cathedral was visible. When I reached it, I talked to Don Justo – who could not even stop working to eat his lunch sandwich, even though his helpers had gone away for their well-earned break. He generously answered my questions before resuming his labours. I then toured the impressive but rickety 2-storey skeleton. On the second storey I was filmed and interviewed by a teenage crew from the local High School engaged on a video project on the Cathedral. They seemed surprised and gratified at this foreign interest, especially from antipodean Australia. I took some photos and before I left, I offered Don Justo a 5,000 peseta note ($50). I am still SO grateful for the privilege of contributing this insignificant sum to the lofty and seemingly Quixotic dream of this ordinary and extraordinary man.

¡Que su Dios le bendiga, Don Justo!
*

I revisited the building – still unfinished – 3 years later (1994) and there were encouraging signs of foreign touristic interest, although the local Municipal Council were still nervous about the project and its structural viability.

Since then Justo’s obsessive energy has put Mejorada del Campo on the tourist map. Bus excursions are run from Madrid (only 40 kilometres away). The irony is that in the 1960s when Don Justo committed himself to his vow, Mejorada was merely a village and the Spanish tourist boom was only just beginning. Decades later, it is a prosperous township close to Madrid’s vastly extended and bustling Barajas Airport. It is under the approach flightpath so some clued-up tourists may also be lucky enough to check it out from the air, free.

For historical comparison, I enclose a few of my photos from 1991.

I also enclose the public statement that Justo Gallego posted in the Cathedral to avoid being overwhelmed by questions from the flood of visiting Spanish and overseas tourists attracted by his fame.

Debido a mis problemas de afonía, les ruego eviten hacerme hablar. Si desean información, lean este cartel.
Me llamo Justo Gallego. Nací en Mejorada del Campo el 20 de septiembre de 1925. Desde muy joven sentí una profunda fe cristiana y quise consagrar mi vida al Creador. Por ello ingresé, a la edad de 27 años, en el monasterio de Santa María de la Huera, en Soria, de donde fui expulsado al enfermar de tuberculosis, por miedo al contagio del resto de la comunidad. De vuelta en Mejorada y frustrado este primer camino espiritual, decidí construir, en un terreno de labranza propiedad de mi familia, una obra que ofrecer a Dios. Poco a poco, valiéndome del patrimonio familiar de que disponía, fui levantando este edificio. No existen planos del mismo, ni proyecto oficial. Todo está en mi cabeza. No soy arquitecto, ni albañil, ni tengo ninguna formación relacionada con la construcción. Mi educación más básica quedó interrumpida al estallas la Guerra Civil. Inspirándome en distintos libros sobre catedrales, castillos y otros edificios significativos, fui alumbrando el mío propio. Pero mi fuente principal de luz e inspiración ha sido, sobre todo y ante todo, el Evangelio de Cristo. Él es quien me alumbra y conforta y a él ofrezco mi trabajo en gratitud por la vida que me ha otorgado y en penitencia por quienes no siguen su camino.
Llevo cuarenta y dos años trabajando en esta catedral, he llegado a levantarme a las tres y media de la madrugada para empezar la jornada; a excepción de algunas ayudas esporádicas, todo lo he hecho sólo, la mayoría de las veces con materiales reciclados… Y no existe fecha prevista para su finalización. Me limito a ofrecer al Señor cada día de trabajo que Él quiera concederme, y a sentirme feliz con lo ya alcanzado. Y así seguiré, hasta el fin de mis días, completando esta obra con la valiosísima ayuda que ustedes me brindan. Sirva todo ello para que Dios quede complacido de nosotros y gocemos juntos de Eterna Gloria a Su lado.

Translation (added 27 December 2011)

In view of my throat problems, please do not ask me questions. If you desire information, please read this notice.

My name is Justo Gallego. I was born in Mejorada del Campo on the 20th of September 1925. From an early age I felt a deep Christian faith and wanted to devote my life to the Creator. So, at the age of 27 years, I joined the monastery of Santa María de la Huera, in Soria, but was expelled when I fell ill with tuberculosis, to avoid infecting the rest of the community. Back in Mejorada and with this first spiritual path closed, I decided to build, on a farm owned by my family, a work to offer to God. Little by little, using inheritance money at my disposal, I gradually erected this building. There are no plans for it, nor any official project. Everything is in my head. I am no architect, no bricklayer, nor do I have any training related to building. My basic education was interrupted by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Inspired by various books on cathedrals, castles and other significant buildings, I forged my path. But my main source of light and inspiration has been, first and foremost, the Gospel of Christ. It is He who lights my way and comforts me and to Him I offer my work in gratitude for granting me life and in penance for those who do not follow His way.

Forty-two years I have been working in this cathedral. I have to get up at three thirty in the morning to start the day’s work. Except for sporadic support from others, I have done everything myself, most of the time with recycled materials. There is no date for completion. I merely offer the Lord every day of work He wishes to give me, happy with what has been achieved. And so I shall continue, to the end of my days, finishing this work with the most valuable help that you care to give me. May it all serve to make the Lord pleased with us and may we all enjoy Eternal Glory together at His Side.

Images:

1. Facade 1991

jgcathfacade19911

2. Justo Gallego 1991 and a written request for donations to finish the work

(“Se Admiten Donativos para terminar la OBRA!!”)

jgallego19912

3. Cathedral detail 1991

jgcathdetail19911

Fuzzy Dates in the Official Biography of Sathya Sai Baba. A Re-examination

6 April 2008

Some of the strong assertions made by Sathya Sai Baba’s hagiographers, as well as by the Sathya Sai Organisation and by spokespersons and devotees, are highly controversial, in particular claims of SSB’s Divinity and Avatarhood. Internet and other coverage of these controversies is already substantial and easy to find. This short essay, which is addressed to researchers and other open-minded readers, sheds light on two details of the controversy surrounding his official biography (hagiography).

As stated in my ‘Dossier 4’ and in earlier articles of mine, new evidence offered by the (devotee) researchers who published Love is My Form, Volume 1 in 2000 draws attention to the circumstantial uncertainties surrounding SSB’s declared official date of birth (1926) and the date of his alleged Declaration of Mission – as “Sai Baba” (1940).

On the first point, since the official biography, which gives SSB’s year of birth as 1926, has always linked the two numbers ‘1940’ and ‘nearly 14’ to SSB’s first declarations that he was “Sai Baba”, the strong recent LIMF evidence that leads to the inevitable conclusion that these Declarations took place in 1943 shows that one of these official figures (14 or 1926) must be incorrect. If SSB was 14 in 1943, as is possible, then he was born in 1929; if he was born in 1926, then he was nearly 17 at the time of the Declarations in Uravakonda in 1943, which is also possible.

To my knowledge, the Sathya Sai Organisation has never refuted (or even mentioned) the LIMF evidence which points to 1943, or my Internet articles about it. There has been no official adjustment to to SSB’s stated age when he undertook his Mission nor to the date of that alleged event. When the SSO does decide to address this question, there are other pieces of information relating to his date of birth which they will need to consider.

In LIMF (pp.132-133) the 1943 Register pages (apparently from Uravakonda High School) give Sathya Narayana’s date of birth as 4-10-39. This is an obvious clerical error. However, the later correction to “4-10-29”, with a signed clarification, “fourth October Nineteen Twentynine” (dated, as far as the writing is legible, 11-8-76). (Note that the same date of birth, in 1929, is also given – with an intricate disclaimer caption (plausible but also defensive), which needs to be taken into consideration – on the transfer certificate from distant Kamalapuram School to neighbouring Bukkapatnam School, in 1941, LIMF, p. 68.) However, before too much is made of the 1929 date ‘discrepancy’, we have been informed, in LIMF (p. 68), and by other experts on Indian culture, that such errors were quite common in rural India in those days. Equally relevant, therefore, is the hypothesis that, in such a remote Indian village in the 1920s, no one would have remembered the exact birth date and the date in the register is an approximation. It is also possible, of course, that the date of birth will never be proved one way or the other, but in the light of demonstrable discrepancies, all the evidence should be considered.

Additional Notes:
1. On this document, the other boys in Sathya Narayana’s class have birthdates ranging from 1933 to 1938, and leaving dates from 1946 and 1949. Sathya Narayana’s early leaving date (suggesting a younger than usual termination of studies), although not recorded, is assumed (according to the LIMF evidence) to have been October 1943, when he made his second Mission Declaration.
2. Still to be investigated is the note by prominent SSB proselytiser, M.N. Rao (A Story of God as Man, 1985, p. 28). It states that after Sathya left, there was an entry in the Uravakonda High School records to that effect. “In the fourth form (ninth class) attendance register of 1940, the entry against the name Rathnakaram Sathyanarayanaraju read as follows: “Discontinued – no T.C. claimed.”

An additional relevant consideration is that the 1926 date of birth is inextricably linked with the claim by SSB and the SSO that Shirdi Sai Baba predicted before his death (in 1918) that he would return in 8 years – a claim not supported, as far as I am aware, by the official Shirdi Sai Association literature. (The two Associations are totally separate.) Equally dependent on the official 23rd of November 1926 date of birth is the confident assertion by SSB writers and devotees that Sri Aurobindo’s declaration on 24 November 1926 about the descent of Krishna into the physical on the preceding day was really an acknowledgement of SSB’s divine Advent. In other words, it is one of a series of unsupported (and often demonstrably unconvincing) official (and devotee) claims that SSB’s birth was foretold by many important sages and leaders. This particular claim was never recognised by Aurobindo (who died in 1950) or by his followers. The latter have always interpreted this special announcement as the arrival of the Divine spirit into Aurobindo’s consciousness, for which he had prayed for years.

The voluminous (partisan) literature on SSB offers a few further pieces of circumstantial evidence for solving this biographical puzzle. First of all, innocent quotations offered in veteran devotee Smt. Vijayakumari’s memoirs seem to provide a degree of independent support for the possibility that SSB’s date of birth may not have been in 1926 but in 1929. In 1945 the little girl’s cousins were strolling in the affluent Bangalore suburb of Malleswaram when they heard bhajans being sung. They entered the house to listen. Sai Baba, who was present there, invited them to go to Puttaparthi (whose name they had never heard). When they returned to their town of Kuppam (south-east of Bangalore, but in today’s Telugu-speaking Andhra Pradesh), the cousins told the girl’s mother about their meeting. The latter was keen for them all to go, but the idea was vetoed by the father, who said: “You tell me He is sixteen years old and claims to be a reincarnation of Shirdi Sai. This is all humbug” (Vijayakumari, p. 12). That night the mother had a dream of SSB and they were immediately given permission by the father to visit the ashram for three days. This first visit allegedly took place during Dasara, in October 1945 (p.13). The family soon became very close to SSB and visited for long periods.

However, since the fortuitous assistance of the research behind LIMF has enabled us to establish that SSB was (allegedly) nearly 17 when he made his October 1943 Declaration, Vijayakumari’s words quoted above indicate that, two years later, in 1945, SSB was not nearly 19, as would be expected, but 16. If true, this would make his year of birth 1929 (as indicated by the register entries in LIMF). What is also interesting about this possibility is that at the time of the (alleged) Mission Declarations of 1943, he would have been almost 14 years old – as he and his biographers have always claimed!
…….
**
The rest of this essay is to be found HERE.

References:
Padmanaban, R. et al , Love is My Form. Vol. 1 The Advent (1926-1950). Prasanthi Nilayam, Sai Towers, 2000. [Often referred to as LIMF]
Vijayakumari, Smt., Anyatha Saranam Nasthi. Other than You Refuge is There None, Chennai, [n.p.], 1999. [Available from the Sri Sathya Sai Books and Publications Trust]
For an introduction to the alleged forecasts of Sathya Sai Baba’s birth and their prominence in the official promotion of SSB: ‘Counter-Evidence to the Sathya Sai Baba Divinity Myth and Related Topics. A Basic Source Guide’