language, philosophy, photography, science

Emergent Leaves and More

Much more.  Careful consideration of emergent things provides some hints about how to live fully and righteously on a little blue planet in a big oblivious universe.  Does that sound too grandiose?  Let’s start small, with some spring leaves and two ways to make adjectives.
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emergergent-sakura_crp-1_840x841

Turning Verbs into Adjectives

While we do it mostly by adding the suffix [-ing] (and maybe tweaking the spelling), we sometimes add [-ent] (or [-ant]) instead.  There is a subtle but important difference when we turn [emerge] into an adjective.  Leaves emerge and then go about the business of growing and photosynthesizing.  It would be a little better to say that my photo shows “emerging leaves” because there is no “and then” for emergent things.  They just are emergent.  What they emerge from is still there.

For example, look again at my photo, not as leaves but as an image.  It emerges from about 700,000 pixels encoded with about 480 KB of data in JPEG format.  That matters if I want to e-mail it to somebody who pays for data flow over a slow connection.  For many other purposes, to fret about the underlying pixels and bytes is a waste of effort.  The shapes and colors and composition are not in the pixels themselves.  They emerge from the way the pixels are arranged and interact with each other and the viewer.

My mild misuse of the [-ent] suffix for emerging leaves is a point of departure for considering bigger issues, not just a bow to the exact wording of Patrick Jennings’ challenge:

Emergent ~ Pic and a Word Challenge #232 – Pix to Words

Poetic Naturalism

Once we start looking for emergent things, we find that the world teems with them.  (Water, ice, and steam all emerge from crowds of the same kind of molecule.)  We find that fretting about “ultimate reality” may well be as pointless as trying to understand my photo by always diving down into those 480 KB and never looking at the emergent image.  While some contexts demand a deep dive, others demand a shallow one.

One of many places with examples and discussion of various emergent phenomena is Sean Carroll’s book The Big Picture, which somehow manages to be a good read (and a mostly easy one) despite dealing with deep stuff in science and philosophy while being fair to other viewpoints.

While nothing in science is nailed down as tightly as 3+2 = 5 in math, there is much evidence that we are in a tiny corner of a vast universe that goes its own way with no overall design or purpose or supernatural intervention.  Can we live fully and righteously in a cosmos that does not give a rat’s ass about beauty or goodness?  In much more detail than I can hope to put into a blog post, Carroll argues that we can.  Emergence is part of the story.

Tho a little queasy about Carroll’s use of the phrase [poetic naturalism] to name his upbeat attitude in the face of knowledge that would depress many people, I can’t think of a better name or a better attitude.

Don’t despair if love and justice seem as fanciful as unicorns when U consider only the underlying dance of atoms and molecules.  Love and justice may be real enough, but emergent.

 

fiction, humor, philosophy, science

A Tale of Two Kitties

In Dickens’ tale, Madame Defarge is obsessed with vengeance.  The characters in our tale have different obsessions.  One of them is with understanding the code used to knit the fabric of reality.
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When they called for weird stories to be submitted for Volume 2 of The Rabbit Hole, the editors suggested science and/or weather and/or entertainment as themes.  While the suggestion was not a requirement, many of the writers who responded did use those themes.  In particular, You’re Not Late has great synergy between weather and an aspect of science other than weather forecasting.  Maybe there are other great synergies; it will take me a while to read all the stories in RH-2.

Modern scientific theories are also stories, of a special kind.  Tho hard to read w/o wrangling equations, they are gloriously predictive and useful.  (U don’t need hard copy to read this post.)  They are also weird.  As the editors remark in the preface:

The stories are weird because life is weird; all these stories do is cross the boundary of our logic and assumptions, fetch a few samples from whatever lies beyond, and bring them back for you to see.  Just as explorers did in ages past, and scientists do today.
 

Back in 1935, the physicist Erwin Schrödinger told a story to illustrate the weirdness of quantum theory.  The story eventually became a celebrated meme, and here is yet another celebration:

Ode to Schrödinger’s Cat
|Schrödinger’s cat
|is both skinny and fat;
|both dead and alive
|(past age seventy five);
|both purring and hissing
|(while measurement’s missing);
|both mewing and yowling
|(while Einstein is howling).
|Schrödinger’s gone,
|but his cat carries on
|with a Cheshire cat grin
|at the pickle we’re in.

cheshire-cat

Hmmm.  Saying that the cat is “both dead and alive” is a common (and admittedly oversimplified) shorthand for the statistical limbo called “superposition of states” in quantum theory.  Here is a closer approximation to what the theory actually says:

If the box is opened now, there is a certain probability P_q (which we can approximate) that the cat will be observed to be dead, along with the complementary probability 1-P_q that the cat will be observed to be alive.  Before the box is opened, it makes no sense to say that the cat is “really” dead or alive.
 

Despite having a deterministic philosophy, Einstein had no qualms about common-sense probabilities:

The cat is really dead or alive, but we don’t know which.  From what we do know, we can compute an approximate probability P_c of the cat being dead now and an approximate probability 1-P_c of the cat being alive now.
 

Greenish-BunnyIs the clash between quantum theory and common sense just something for novice philosophers to argue about?  Nope.  To see why, we don’t need the nasty gadgets in Schrödinger’s story.  We need two kittens from the same litter, in separate boxes some distance apart.  We also — ah — ah — ACHOO!  The cat dander is ticking off my allergy.

Never mind.  There is a short humorous allegory about this stuff in my story Entanglements, with petting but no pets.  Spoiler alert: quantum theory wins.

Getting You’re Not Late and Entanglements and 27 other stories is easy.  Just buy RH-2.  To consider buying it from Amazon as either a printed book at $11.50 or an e-book at $2.99, click here.  To consider buying an e-book from other retailers at $2.99, click on the rabbit.

To see the Disney version of the Cheshire cat do its thing, U can get to a video on Facebook by clicking on the cat’s image here.  Clicking twice on the cat’s image there will start the video, but only buying RH-2 will get U to the 29 weird stories.

haiku, humor, philosophy, politics

Vampire Bunny at a Haiku Party

Follow tradition or push the envelope?  Normal or weird?  (Normalcy spiked with weirdness?)  Haiku or senryu?  This crowd does not fret about simplistic dichotomies.  Let’s get some saké and join the party.
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Haiku poems often want (and sometimes need) to interact with images or prose, as in haiga or haibun.  Here is a gathering of ten haiku that could stand alone if they had to.  (Some would rather not.)  They have been invited to come here and interact with just each other, while enjoying some good saké (or whatever).

momokawa_crop_vampire-bunny_840x684

Overlay © Incognito – Russian Federation | 123RF Stock Photo

A haiku inspired by an image may or may not speak to readers who have not seen the image.  It’s hard for the writer to make this call objectively.  That’s OK.  As Stephen Jay Gould often told readers of his articles in Natural History, perfect objectivity is a myth anyway.  (The path from my raw data to “facts” that matter to me depends on my cultural baggage and personal experience.)  Rather than pretend that my judgement calls are objective, I try to compensate for my biases.  In particular, some of my haiku were not invited to the party because they might be too dependent on their inspirations to stand alone.  That’s OK too.  Unlike me, they are not compulsively self-reliant.

Like some of the other guests, October was originally posted in a haiga or haibun context.  That’s why the title it wears as a name tag is also a link.  (When a pale yellow background indicates that several such guests arrived together from the same place, only one of them has a link.)  Click on a link to see the guest(s) interact with an image or some prose that adds to the experience of the haiku.

Seen in Spring
|Kelly green moss on
|rocks near the clear quiet stream
|with water striders
 
|October
|Bright sun and cool air;
|azure skies and pumpkin pies.
|Leaves fall in glory.
 


Who Miscounted?
|This so-called “haiku”
|ignores five-seven-five, so
|it’s not a haiku.

 
|Deciduous
|Lifeless?  No, leafless.
|Trees hold their breath all winter,
|exhale leaves in spring.
 


This is Not Apollo 13
|Is failure an option?
|No, it is a given.
|But we will still try.
 
|No Pots of Gold
|Seek ends of rainbows.
|You will not find them? Okay.
|The quest is enough.
 


Fiscal Responsibility
|Debts rise; incomes fall.
|Hard times demand bold action:
|tax cuts for the rich!
 
|Seize the Breeze
|Helicopter seeds
|fall from maples and travel
|far enough, this once.
 


What’s for Lunch?
|Mosquitoes in flight
|are seen as meat on the hoof
|by a dragonfly.
 
|Vampire Bunny
|With coprophagy
|as the alternative,
|you might suck blood too.
 

humor, language, philosophy, photography

Don’t Sweat the Meaning of Life

Your life and mine are not arbitrary symbols used by a third party to communicate with a fourth party.  Don’t let sweating “the meaning of life” interfere with living.
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While pondering “the meaning of food” is rare, pondering “the meaning of life” is common.  Deservedly?  Buckle up and enjoy the ride.

§1: Colors

Meanings are tricky.  Colors provide a simpler way to explore some of the relevant ideas.

§1.1: What Color is the Number Six?

The question heading this subsection is nonsense.  Many different kinds of thing have colors, but numbers don’t.  Making sense is harder than just having sensible-looking syntax.

One of the ways that philosophy made substantial progress in the past century was the realization that some “deep” questions could be as nonsensical as the one heading of this subsection.  Determining which ones are really deep will take a while.  Nonsensical questions may sometimes be failed attempts to pose serious questions that would be more tractable with better wording, so some nonsense may deserve more sympathy than the heading of this subsection.

§1.2: What Color is the US Flag?

Flags do have colors, but the question heading this subsection is still nonsense.  The US flag is red, white, and blue.  While mostly red, the Chinese flag also has some yellow.  How many nations have flags of just one color?

Nobody is silly enough to speak of “the” color of a nation’s flag, but people often do fall into the trap of speaking of “the” thingamajig when there are in fact several relevant thingamajigs.  I posted 4 varied examples (and there are many more).

It does make sense to say that white is the color of the stars in the US flag, that green is the color of the fake foliage in my Xmas wreath, and so on.  But look at the ribbon on my wreath:

closer_crop_840x485

The color I see at any place on the ribbon is intricately context-dependent.  Where is the light coming from?  Where am I standing?  While the solid red ribbons on other wreaths are easier to describe, my iridescent ribbon is prettier to see.

§2: Words

Mole

© tunedin123 | 123RF Stock Photo
(Image has been cropped.)

The word mole has utterly different meanings in chemistry, dermatology, and espionage.  Even if we suppose it makes sense to attribute a meaning to life, pondering “the” meaning of life may still be like pondering “the” color of the US flag, “the” color of an iridescent ribbon, or “the” meaning of mole.

Like mathematical notations (and many hand gestures), words are arbitrary symbols with enough consensus about what they mean to support use in communication.  Who uses life to say what to whom?

I posted 4 imagined responses by an old Yankee to a novice philosopher’s bloviations; one of the responses is

Wehrds need meanings; life don’t.

§3: How to Live

Your life and mine are not arbitrary symbols used by a third party to communicate with a fourth party.  Maybe some concerns about “the meaning of life” are poorly worded concerns about how to live.  Preferring the workable to the grandiose, I go with a simple short list:

  • Try to have some fun.
  • Try to do more good than harm.
  • Don’t sweat “the meaning” of it all.
flowers, haiku, humor, love, philosophy, photography

Gift of Silence

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Words ~ Pic and a Word Challenge

As Susie left home to start a new life with Dale, her mother watched and wondered.  Would the mixed marriage work?

Aware that sharing her worries would be unwelcome and unheeded, Mama let her words of warning remain unspoken and unheard.

susie-dale-mama_840x598

Wisely,  Mama kept silent despite having words to say.  Unwisely, some people run afoul of Wittgenstein’s Laws by breaking silence despite not having any sensible words to say.

Memo to Mystics
|Unless you can grab
|bubbles, you cannot put your
|wisdom into words.

soap-bubbles

growing old, haiku, humor, philosophy

Old Age is a Mixed Bag

Yet again, classical literature says something complex and important, while leaving much for later generations to discover and say.  For now, I will shut up after 2 haiku.
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Carpe Diem Weekend Meditation #61
a new feature for the weekend … introduction

calls for Japanese-style poetry inspired by an excerpt from Plato.  (An excerpt from the excerpt appears below.)  Yet again, classical literature says something complex and important, while leaving much for later generations to discover and say.  For now, I will shut up after 2 haiku.

Plato-CDHK

“… the pleasures of youth and love are fled away: there was a good time once, but now that is gone, and life is no longer life.”

“… when the passions relax their hold, then, as Sophocles says, we are freed from the grasp not of one mad master only, but of many.”

“… for he who is of a calm and happy nature will hardly feel the pressure of age, but to him who is of an opposite disposition youth and age are equally a burden.”

“… I rather suspect that people … think that old age sits lightly upon you, not because of your happy disposition, but because you are rich, and wealth is well known to be a great comforter.”

Fond Memories
|Nostalgia for
|what never was (nor could have been):
|old man dreams of sex.
|
Still Standing
|Mellow curmudgeon
|shrugs off fate and stands proudly
|paradoxical.
humor, philosophy, photography

Novice Philosopher Meets Old Yankee

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The novice bloviates.  Maybe people he has not met yet will try to set him straight.  They might say pretty much what the Yankee says, while making the points in ways that are gentler, longer, and subtler.  But not as funny.

… Why are we here? …

‘Cuz wer nawt theyah.

… What is the meaning of life? …

Wehrds need meanings; life don’t.

What happens when an irrestible force meets an immovable object?

We lehrn who was lyin’: the fellah sellin’ a fawhrs or the fellah sellin’ an awbject.
Hmmm.  Coulda been both.

Certainty is not exclusive to math and logic.
For example, no squirrel can get past the baffle on my bird feeder.

Ehyah??

squirrel_840x636

 

haiku, language, philosophy, photography

AKA Blue-Green (or Cyan or …)

This pretty color is also a visual metaphor: relationships mean more than intrinsic properties.  What to call it?  There’s a reason to prefer “blue-green” over other names, most of the time.
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Cee’s Fun Foto Challenge: Teal, Aqua, Seafoam or Turquoise

blue-green_840x666

What would I say is “the” color of the cloth in my image?  Even more than with other colors, how it looks depends on lighting and surroundings.  This pretty color is a visual metaphor: relationships mean more than intrinsic properties.

Colorful Plain English
|Inkjets squirt cyan;
|some poets sing of turquoise.
|I just see blue-green.

For most purposes, I prefer blue-green (and 2 variations on it) over the other names.  Anybody who knows what blue and green mean can guess what blue-green means.  Those who need more choices for naming colors like this can put blue-green between bluish green (AKA aqua) and greenish blue (AKA turquoise).  The 3 names I prefer are all clearer than names like aqua about where they lie on the range from just plain blue to just plain green.

Nerdy 😉 Note

Need still more choices?  Use Red|Green|Blue coordinates.  The 256x256x256 possible values for the RGB coordinates of a color can make more distinctions than U will ever need.

For example, the image below is a detail from the image above, with little yellow circles around 2 spots on the cloth, one relatively bright and another relatively dark.  Most spots on the cloth have [R|G|B] between the bright spot’s [45|223|226] and the dark spot’s [0|48|86].

blue-green_crop_upsize_mark_crop_840x131

If U like one of those colors enough to want it as a text or background color, U can use the corresponding hexadecimal code (#2DDFE2 or #003056) in an HTML style sheet.  Explicit hex codes avoid the bother of remembering the sometimes flaky conventional names for web colors.

Hex codes also provide flexibility.  Colors rarely look the way one expects when picking a color by pointing to it in another context, as I noticed when I used colors from an image to add a haiku to the image and then to write text referring to parts of the haiku.  Bumping coordinates up or down can adjust colors to look good in actual use.

humor, mundane miracle, philosophy, photography, science

Partially Reflected Light

There is much to celebrate in the simple act of flipping a switch, and the resulting light provides many other mundane miracles to ponder.  Look closely at a partial reflection in a window.
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As the natural light outdoors fades, a mundane miracle occurs.  Tho I have no supernatural powers, I create light and see that it is good.  I need only flip a switch, and the resulting light provides many other mundane miracles to ponder.

Light ~ Pic and a Word Challenge #133

Before I close the curtains, a pine tree across the lawn is still visible thru the window.  Conversely, a bird roosting in the pine could see the light fixture I have just turned on.  Most of the light that my fixture throws toward the window goes right thru the glass, harmless and unharmed.  My fist could not do that.

It gets better.

Some of the light that hits the window is reflected back.  I see my fixture as a ghostly sphere, apparently hovering between me and the pine.  Hmmm.  Consider a single photon among the zillions that whiz from my fixture toward the window.  How does it decide whether to continue on toward the pine or bounce back toward me?

globe-pine-1_840x840

I know.  Photons are mindless particles that do not decide anything.  They just do whatever a divinely perfect knowledge of physics would say they do, and a humanly possible imperfect knowledge of physics is rather good at saying what big groups of them do.

By far the best current human knowledge says that what a single photon does is unpredictable.  Not just unpredictable because we do not know all the details about the laws of nature or how the photon is moving or what is in the glass where the photon hits it.  Not just unpredictable because exact calculations are not feasible. Intrinsically unpredictable!  On a photon-by-photon basis, even divinely perfect knowledge of the rules and the current situation does not determine what will happen in the next picosecond.  Even God must wait and see.

Dunno whether I will succeed in posting more about intrinsic unpredictability and its consequences.  (Don’t hold your breath.)  Without wrangling equations, a great deal can be still be said about the quantum physics behind partially reflected light and its wider implications.  See pages 173-176 of the excellent book Dice World by Brian Clegg (or web pages like the one U can visit by clicking here, if U do not have the book handy).

humor, philosophy, photography

Ecclesi-ICE-tes

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Time ~ Pic and a Word Challenge #131

I want to add another line that starts with “A time to” in the Bible passage Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.  The new line could be anywhere in the series.

To every thing there is a season,
     and a time to
         every purpose under the heaven:

A time to freeze and a time to melt;
     a time to be rigid, and a time to be fluid;

icicle-bright_840x1086

Don’t blink or you’ll miss it!

While I could not resist giving this post a silly title, I do respect the yin/yang wisdom of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 and have already proposed a related serious addition to the “A time to” lines.  Those who have seen and liked yet another addition are welcome to comment with a line and/or a link.

growing old, haiku, philosophy, photography

Wisdom in Wood

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The haiku titles in my response to

Wisdom ~ Pic and a Word Challenge #124

stretch the word.  Another response stretches it similarly.

maple-far_800x1240

After the leaves have fallen in a wooded area, the good news is that we get a relatively unobstructed view of the tree trunks and branches.  The bad news is that it is not clear which of the trees are alive.

With one exception, all the trees and branches shown in this post are alive.

maple-hole-crop_800x595

Wisdom in Wood #1
|Singing silent songs
|of injury and healing,
|trees refuse to quit.

Wisdom in Wood #2
|Never die?
|No, the choice is to
|never quit.

ash-trunk_800x453

humor, philosophy, photography

Old Gold

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Tattered old gold still glows.

gold-point_800x600

But is it really silver?

silver_800x600

Or some nameless pearlish color?

Shifting light; flaky white balance; …

Ultimate reality is elusive (or maybe illusory).

Rashomon

All photos in my response to

Gold ~ Pic and a Word Challenge #111

were taken by daylight on sunny late winter mornings in 2017, using the same dried silver dollar plant in the same corner of the same room.  The old camera’s unpredictable white balance sometimes lucked into interesting images.  It also inspired a riff connecting an old Beatles song to a recycling incentive, but the old camera was replaced after showing more signs of senility.

Another response to the same challenge shows that silver dollar plants sometimes do look golden in natural light!

haiku, humor, math, philosophy, photography, science

They Are Beyond Space & Time

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Taught myself a crash course in digital photo manipulation to respond to

Numbers ~ Pic and a Word Challenge #106

by posting how Plato bounced back from an encounter with intellectual ancestors of Karl Popper.  Hope I did not flunk.

Plato woke up with a nasty hangover after a symposium that had gone badly for him.  Some new sophists who called themselves “natural philosophers” had come to Athens, and the kind of philosophizing they advocated was anything but natural to Plato.

The new sophists spoke about “observations” and “conjectures” and “predictions” rather than abstract reasoning about perfect ideal forms.  Plato could tolerate his student Aristotle’s interest in easy casual observations and simple inferences from them, but the new sophists were different.  They wanted to measure minute details of how the shadows on the walls of Plato’s metaphorical cave flickered.  They would consider anything imaginable as a candidate for “explaining” their observations, even things so fanciful that Homer would never have dared to sing of Odysseus encountering them on his way back to Ithaca.

Instead of trying to establish a conjecture by reasoning to it from first principles, the new sophists wanted to reason from it to a prediction about what they would observe.  Conjectures that led to many diverse predictions matching what was actually observed were to be accepted as true, but only until somebody came up with “better” conjectures that yielded more accurate predictions by more elegant reasoning.  As one of the brasher “natural philosophers” said,

All knowledge is provisional,
never more than the best we have at the moment.

Flummoxed by such craziness, Plato had been hitting the wine harder than usual.  He had passed out just as another “natural philosopher” began replying to the brash one:

Well, that is a little over the top.  For example, …

All that was last night, when stars had carpeted an inky black sky.  Now the sky was light blue, the sun was shining, and Plato’s head was aching.  He winced when he remembered a new sophist’s remark that each star might be something much like the sun but almost inconceivably farther away.  That example of a loony conjecture had prompted a nightmare with Athens (and its circling sun) lost in a humongous whirling vortex of innumerable stars (rather than stationary near the center of the universe, as Athens so obviously was).

The cash bar at the symposium had been pricey, and Plato wondered if he still had enough money to buy some willow bark to ease his headache.  He put his coins on the nearest flat surface and counted them.  Five should be plenty.  Then he noticed that three coins had the side with the face of a leader facing upwards, while two coins had the side with the leader’s mansion facing upwards.  Suddenly, Plato felt much better.  He even felt ready for another encounter with that brash sophist.

Athens_724x505

Plato’s Challenge
|Three plus two was five
|before any mind could know.
|Where do numbers live?

haiku, humor, philosophy

Yin and Yang

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Carpe Diem #1229 Yin & Yang

The ancient insight that «seemingly opposite … forces may actually be complementary … and interdependent» has modern echoes in wave/particle duality and concerns about work/life balance.  The insight is profound but (like many insights) is sometimes pushed to absurd and pernicious extremes.  I refuse to shrug off falsehood as the yin that complements the yang of truth.

Maybe the yin of solemn generality needs a little more of the yang of irreverent specificity.

Harmonious Completion of Necessary Cycle
|Balanced yin and yang.
|Spinning world will not wobble.
|Cosmic clothes washer.

humor, language, philosophy, science

Writing Well – Part 4

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Why is English Spelling Such a Mess?

Here are links to all posts in this project of reviewing and supplementing the splendid book

The Lexicographer’s Dilemma by Jack Lynch.

  1. Introduction
    What does the rise of “proper” English have in common with a physics conundrum about gravity?
  2. Babies, Names, and Snobs
    We name words by wrapping them in square brackets to avoid overloading more common conventions.
  3. Descriptivism, Prescriptivism, and ????
    We add a new ISM to the familiar duo of attitudes toward English language usage: readabilism.
  4. Why is English Spelling Such a Mess?
    An insight into the difficulty of spelling reform has wide-ranging significance, far beyond spelling.
  5. Ambiguity Sucks!
    Ambiguity is almost always at least a little harmful to clear communication. It can be disastrous.
  6. What is the Point of Punctuation?
    Careful punctuation helps avoid unwanted ambiguity.
  7. Yogi Berra’s Paradox
    Sometimes bad English is good English that’s good because it’s bad.
  8. Blood & Gold End This Series
    Apart from a concern about the examples on 2 late pages in the book, I could applaud those pages until my hands bleed.

This post’s subtitle is a quote from the book’s Chapter 8, which considers 2 versions of the question.  How did English spelling become such a mess?  Why is it still such a mess, despite various reform efforts?  A major insight into why reform is extremely difficult is also applicable to a wide range of otherwise very different activities (digging in rocky soil; making software run faster; philosophizing; …), so I will devote this post to it.  That devotion will make this post a little off-topic for the project, but the general insight is worth the detour and the length.  If U trust me about the wide range, U can skim or skip some examples to make it a much shorter read.

There is a tweetable (but crude and cryptic) way to formulate the general insight:

The word [the] is the most misleading word in English.

Huh?  My tweetable formulation uses the word [the] twice, with a mention of it in between.  The first use (in “The word”) is OK.  The second use (in “the most misleading”) is extremely misleading because it presupposes that there is a single word more misleading than any of the other words.  Be alert for bullshit whenever U see [the] followed by a superlative.  Sadly, the same kind of bullshit lurks in many phrases that start with [the] but have no superlative to raise a red flag.  A lot of effort can be wasted on questions of the form [What is the … ?] that cannot be answered at all well w/o refuting an implicit uniqueness assumption smuggled in by [the].

In particular, consider the ultimate goal of spelling reform:

The way we spell a word should match the way we pronounce it.

Oops.  Aiming at “the” way we pronounce a word is aiming at multiple moving targets, as Lynch notes.  As the author of the play Pygmalion (and thus the godfather of the musical My Fair Lady), spelling reformer George Bernard Shaw was aware that various pronunciations were out there.  But he lived at a time when educated Brits like Henry Higgins could be proud of their own pronunciations, disparage those of uneducated Brits like Eliza Doolittle, and ignore those of educated Yanks.

Now that Brittania no longer rules the waves but English has become a global language that plays roles formerly played by Latin and then French, the multiplicity of pronunciations is a bigger obstacle than it was in Shaw’s time (and a much bigger obstacle than it seemed to him).

Isn’t it obvious that multiplicity of pronunciations is a major obstacle to spelling reform?  It is now that Lynch has made it item #2 in his list of 7 obstacles.  Unless U can rattle off most them w/o peeking at pages 180 to 184 (hardcover edition), please do not dismiss the insight as obvious.

While organized efforts at sweeping reform are unlikely to succeed, minor word-by-word improvements in spelling do happen spontaneously now and then.  Lynch notes a few that have already happened.  In the examples to follow, I will note a few more that may be happening now.  I will also give examples of the wide scope of the insight about the perils of [the].

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Example 4.1: Realizing That Superfluous Letters Can Be Dropped


Dropping the superfluous [u] in various words that formerly ended with [o][u][r] (like [color], [honor], [humor], and [valor]) has already happened on my side of The Pond.

There are other minor improvements that do not presuppose mastery of the International Phonetic Alphabet.  For example, words whose last 2 sounds are like [eyes] can be spelled somewhat more phonetically with [z] rather than [s], as in [realize] vs [realise].  It is no surprize that prigs will object in some cases, as in [surprize] vs [surprise].  I have stopped caring about which version of each such word is more common on which side of The Pond.  Some of the wavy red underlines from spell-checkers can be ignored w/o harming readability.

Example 4.2: Common Shortcuts


While many of the shortcuts used in texting and tweeting are puzzling to outsiders like me, others are self-explanatory, improve the fit with pronunciation, and saw some use before 140 became a magic number.  Wish I could be as confident that civilization will persist for another century as I am that (assuming it does persist) spelling changes like

[you] —> [U]    &    [through] —> [thru]    &    [though] —> [tho]

will spread to formal prose.  W/o making a big fuss about it, I do my part in promoting these changes.

Example 4.3: Digging in Rocky Soil


Suppose we need to dig a hole in rocky soil with hand tools.  A pick and a shovel are in the tool shed.  Which is “the” better tool for the job?  A few minutes of digging experience reveals that neither is much good w/o the other.  Using one creates an opportunity to use the other.  Tho often debased as a euphemism for layoffs in announcements of corporate mergers, [synergy] is an honorable word for the way a pick and shovel complement each other.  Similar synergies are important elsewhere, as the next example sketches.

Example 4.4: Making Software Run Faster


The instructions followed directly by a computer are mincing little steps for tiny little feet.  Writing out the long sequence of steps needed to do anything interesting is a tedious and error-prone job, so computer software is usually written in artificial “high-level” languages that are closer to how people would tell each other about an algorithm to compute whatever needs to be computed.  The computer programs that translate software from the relatively intelligible high-level languages down to the mincing little “low-level” steps are called “compilers” (despite the fact that compiling is not what they do).

Early compilers had a bigger problem than a misleading name.  They produced code (sequences of low-level instructions) that ran much slower than the code skilled people could eventually produce, after agonies of debugging.  How do we build compilers that can translate an algorithm written in a high-level language into correct code that runs roughly as fast as hand-crafted code for the same algorithm?  That was among the hot topics when I started my career in computer science.

Very broadly, the strategy for producing fast code was (and still is) to start with slow code that is presumed to be correct because it is a straightforward translation of a high-level algorithm to low-level code, w/o trying to be clever.  (Whether the algorithm itself is correct and whether there are better algorithms were also hot topics.  They still are.)  The slow code is tweaked here and there, so as to do whatever it has been doing but do it a little faster.  While no single tweak accomplishes much, there are many places to tweak.  A tweak here can reveal a previously hidden opportunity for another tweak there.  Synergy!

Alas, the opportunities for synergy struck me as so obvious that I never figured out how to persuade other compiler researchers.  There was a subculture working on one bag of tricks and a subculture working on another bag of tricks.  The debates over which bag was “the” one to use struck me as more like medieval theology than science, and I was explicit about the “Pick and Shovel Principle” in a few of the papers I wrote.  Did not help.  Cutting classes in the school of hard knocks is harder than ignoring sometimes tactless writing by the brash new guy, so the lesson was eventually learned the hard way.

Example 4.5: Philosophizing


Have U noticed a big omission in this post so far?  Not a word about writing well after the title.  Let’s fix that omission to end this post.  I promise to be more on-topic in the next part.

Some philosophers have shown that it is possible to write serious thoughts about deep stuff in a way that is also clear and good-humored.  Really.  (As other philosophers have shown, it does not just happen.)  To keep it short, I will point to just one well-written book (by D.C. Dennett):

Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking

Apart from the clunky title, Dennett’s book can be highly recommended, for both what it says and how it says it.  Indeed, some of the 77 chapters deserve to be required reading in any college curriculum.  Having been a young nerd who was hassled by his elders about getting a “well-rounded liberal education” supposedly obtainable before any serious study of STEM, I do not use the phrase [required reading] lightly.

Dennett’s chapter 43 is among those that deserve to be required.  It starts with a variant of a familiar infinite regress:

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

A careful look at what is flaky about trying to identify “the first mammal” leads to a thoughtful objection to the Socratic quest to nail down things like “the essence” of virtue.

While not so requirement-worthy as chapter 43, Dennett’s chapter 30 provides another good read about [the].  Pick any problem U like and consider the phrase [the solution].  Depending on which problem U pick, there are many possibilities.  Maybe there are no solutions at all.  Maybe there is a unique solution.  (Both provably-none and provably-just-one do happen in pure math.)  Maybe there is just one known solution and so many constraints that looking for another is a bad bet.  Maybe there are 2 or more known solutions and fretting about which is “the” real solution would be silly.  Dennett concocts an amusing quibble-proof example of this last possibility.  With a lot less trouble, the way English imports words from other languages provides a quibble-resistant example.

As a word in English, [concerto] has 2 plurals.  A minute with Google shows that both [concerti] and [concertos] are widely used by people who know what a concerto is.  Asking for “the” plural of [concerto] as a question about an Italian word makes sense; asking for “the” plural of [concerto] as a question about an English word imported from Italian does not.  Be wary of [the]!

education, grammar, history, humor, language, philosophy, politics

Writing Well – Part 2

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Babies, Names, and Snobs

Here are links to all posts in this project of reviewing and supplementing the splendid book

The Lexicographer’s Dilemma by Jack Lynch.

  1. Introduction
    What does the rise of “proper” English have in common with a physics conundrum about gravity?
  2. Babies, Names, and Snobs
    We name words by wrapping them in square brackets to avoid overloading more common conventions.
  3. Descriptivism, Prescriptivism, and ????
    We add a new ISM to the familiar duo of attitudes toward English language usage: readabilism.
  4. Why is English Spelling Such a Mess?
    An insight into the difficulty of spelling reform has wide-ranging significance, far beyond spelling.
  5. Ambiguity Sucks!
    Ambiguity is almost always at least a little harmful to clear communication. It can be disastrous.
  6. What is the Point of Punctuation?
    Careful punctuation helps avoid unwanted ambiguity.
  7. Yogi Berra’s Paradox
    Sometimes bad English is good English that’s good because it’s bad.
  8. Blood & Gold End This Series
    Apart from a concern about the examples on 2 late pages in the book, I could applaud those pages until my hands bleed.

Sorry, but we need a short digression on ways to name a word so we can talk about it.  Some details here will also contribute later to the overall project.

Failure to distinguish using a word from talking about it can lead to confusion, as in the following dialog:

Mother :         What did you learn in school today?
Small Child :  Teacher showed us how to make babies.
Mother :         What?  WHAT?
Small Child :  Drop the Y and add IES.

In casual speech, we can insert “the word” in a few places.  That is clunky in extended writing.  There are 2 common ways to do the job in writing: quote marks and italics.  Using quote marks works well in short documents, but it can be confusing in longer ones that also use quote marks for actual quotations and/or for sarcasm, as in

After an ad blitz from the National Rifle Association rescued his failing campaign, Senator Schmaltz “bravely” defended the right of crazy people to buy assault weapons.

Maybe we should follow Lynch and use the convention popular among those who are most fastidious about the difference between using a word and discussing it: those who often call it the “use/mention distinction” and put words being mentioned (rather than used) in italics.  I do not mind doing w/o italics for emphasis because I prefer bold anyway, but italics are also used for titles and for foreign words temporarily imported into English.  I want those uses, and I found that Lynch’s use of italics for multiple purposes in quick succession invited confusion.

There is a simple way to give any word or phrase a name that works well here and in many other contexts, tho not universally.  Wrap it in square brackets (or curly braces).  Choose the wrapper U never (well, hardly ever) use for some other purpose in the current document and run with it.  If both wrappers are OK, use square brackets and give the Shift key a rest.

Now I can avoid confusion, even if I want to be emphatic, be sarcastic, and mention words (marking some as foreign), all in the same sentence:

Some snobs flaunt their “education” by saying [Weltanshauung] when [worldview] is all they need.

While not so disgusting as Senator Schmaltz, the flaunting snobs are enemies of clarity.  An enemy of my friend is my enemy too, and clarity is both a very dear friend and a concept crucial to amicable resolution of some of the tensions that Lynch explores so ably.  So I want to be especially clear and hope U will forgive the digression into metametalanguage.  Will put a quick reminder of the square brackets convention early in each subsequent post.  The next one will get down to business.