Saturday, January 09, 2010

Karel Čapek: 120th birthday

Czechia is arguably the only country in the world where Google is very far from being the #1 search engine. ("The List"), founded by a guy whom I used to know from a Bulletin Board Service (and from a real-life BBS Session), is well ahead of Google. In fact, many Czamazechs who don't know how the Internet works inside still can't quite distinguish "Seznam" from the "Internet". :-)

(OK, Baidu beats Google in China, 77% vs 17%, about the same margin as Seznam vs Google.CZ. Thanks, Jorge.)

So you should visualize Czechia as a parallel Universe where a local Yahoo clone (with directories) actually survived as the winner, and adopted the standard search format before it was crushed by a pure search-based competition.

By the way, Mr Ivo Lukačovič, the founder of, could have sold the company for USD 1 billion in 2008. He refused: I suspect that they no longer offer the same amount. ;-)

Not too surprisingly, Google is trying to earn the love of the Czech Internet users. National themes are a part of the game. The Doodle on the Czech Google today is the following picture:

Yes, Dr Karel Čapek, a top Czech 20th century writer, was born exactly 120 years ago, on January 9th, 1890, in Malé Svatoňovice, a village in Eastern Bohemia, Austria-Hungary. He died in Prague in 1938, at the age of 48+ years.

Our Czech teacher at the elementary school was a true worshiper when it came to Karel Čapek. She - a member of the Čapek Brothers' Society - has told us dozens of hours of interesting things about Čapek. Unfortunately, your humble correspondent has forgotten most of it - but not all of it.

I've read just a few of his novels and other books (and seen a couple of movies) - he has written science fiction, novels, travel books, fairy-tales (including Dášeňka the Puppy), and even books on gardening: "The Gardener's Year" has been taken by Čapek as a title, so together with Dr Miloš Gardener, we had to choose "We Grow Linear Algebra" for our textbook instead of the more natural title. ;-) He has spent quite some time with the first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (including regular weekly meetings), and wrote a book of interviews with him.

Much like his brother Josef, who was mostly a painter (and is well-known e.g. for the "How Kitty and Puppy Cooked the Pie" fairy-tale - a wise story against mixing meat and sweeties, and other kinds of multiculturalism), he was an anti-fascist. Josef was actually arrested by the Nazis in 1939 and died in a concentration camp in April 1945 (he tried Dachau, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, and extermination camp Bergen-Belsen where he died during typhus pandemics that exploded just months before the war ended).

Karel Čapek wrote many intelligent novels - sometimes excessively intelligent (e.g. "The Makropulos Case" play). But the generic people abroad may know him for R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots, 1921) where the word "robot" has appeared for the first time. Karel Čapek has actually credited his brother Josef for having invented the word.

It may be the only major word that was invented in Czechia but was accepted internationally. As you might know, "robota" [feminime] is a Slavic word describing a kind of work. In Russian or Slovak, among others, it is literally "work" - any kind of work. In Czech, "robota" means drudgery (in feudalism) - a typical example how different Slavic languages mean something "slightly different" by the same words which is why they often sound funny to each other.

The word "robot" [masculine] is the most linguistically natural - yet new - masculine mutation derived out of "robota". And you don't need to be told what a "robot" means. Originally, this device should visually resemble a human being: three original robots from 1921 (from the play) can be seen on the picture above. Of course, people have generalized the term and began to use it for many types of gadgets that have "at least some intelligence".

Well, I shouldn't exaggerate. It's likely that there exist other international words with Czech origin.

For example, "pistols" first appeared in French ("pistole" or "pistolet"). But how did the French language construct it? Unless the word is linked to pommel/saddle ("pistallo" in French) or Pistoia, an Italian town that produced weapons since the 16th century, the word "pistol" comes from Czech "píšťala", a 15th century Hussite firearm whose shape resembled "píšťala", a musical instrument (flute or pipe).

Czechia beats Holland: how much drugs is legal

In Czechia, it was always legal to possess a "small amount" of drugs. However, it was never clear how much a "small amount" actually was. Since the beginning of 2010, this confusing term has been defined (without changing the law). See e.g. Deutsche Welle.

To avoid criminal charges, the Czech citizens can own up to 40 million tablets of ecstasy, 150 tons of marijuana, 15 tons of heroin, or 10 tons of cocaine.

Well, the numbers above are the summed limits for all 10 million Czech citizens combined ;-) (what the inhabitants are allowed to possess in total) but even if you divide them by 10 million, the limits are approximately 3 times higher than those in the Netherlands, the country that was thought to be the most liberal EU country when it came to drug possession. :-)


  1. Hi Dr. Motl,

    You don't have to post this if you don't want to, it's mostly a personal communication to you alone...

    I recently had the opportunity to read "The art of science: interview with Professor John Archibald Wheeler" by Jiri Bicak (forgive my butchery with the characters in this person's name), in the journal General Relativity and Gravitation (specifically: Gen Relativ Gravit (2009) 41:679–689)

    It talks a little bit about Czechoslovakia, so I thought it might interest you.

    If you haven't read this issue of the journal, you really should do so! It's a fascinating review of John Wheeler's work and how it has shaped modern science.

  2. Dear Shawn, too bad it's paid. ;-)

    Jiří Bičák was my undergraduate general relativity teacher, and the "big shot" in the local GR group.

  3. Hehe, well... I'm sure that if you're ever in Prague, Dr. Bičák would lend you his library card. :P

  4. P.S. Your relationship network never ceases to amaze me... That said, please put in a good word for me with Santa this year (a David McMahon book would be nice). And don't deny that you know Santa. He's probably your uncle, or something of that sort! :)

  5. Given the subcurrent of this exchange, I thought it would be appropriate to post this:

    Oh synchronicity, you sneaky devil. :)

  6. Just for the record, I do actually own these books that I talk about all the time. :)