history, politics

Rowing Against the Current

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I row against the current.  My oar bends.  Will it break?

« Current ~ Pic and a Word Challenge #97 »
Thru a haze of fatigue, my mind drifts to a far away place and long ago time.  To Salamis.  I remember the ancient Greek navy, the mostly Athenian “wooden wall” that defied long odds to save Western civilization.  Salvation is not permanent.

trireme
Greek Trireme (public domain)

I cannot draw to save a life, and it is hard to find a trireme to photograph on short notice.  I used an image I did not create because something about triremes really matters now.

The rowers in Greek triremes were citizens rowing to defend their communities, not galley slaves rowing to avoid the lash.  Tho they could not see the Persian ships they needed to ram, they could trust their leaders to see and steer.  Themistocles owed nothing to Xerxes.

Here and now, rowing as a citizen is more complicated.  The peril is a strong current (stealthy as metastasis) that surges around breakwaters.  What is there to ram?  Will the rowers be swept out to sea while squabbling over which cove to head for?  Are the leaders loyal and competent?  What does Trump owe to Putin?

I row against the current.  I am not alone.

Update [2017-07-30]

Here is a good example of rowing against the current that has gotten less publicity than it deserves.  Senator Mazie Hirono [Dem-HI] interrupted treatment for stage 4 kidney cancer to speak eloquently and vote against the latest pseudoconservative travesty of healthcare legislation.  U can read more details and hear the speech (under 5 minutes) by clicking here.  U can sign a petition to thank her by clicking here.

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humor, language, politics, science

Writing Well – Part 5

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Ambiguity Sucks!

Here are links to previous 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.

This post’s subtitle is slightly oversimplified.  Apart from deliberate and obvious ambiguity in language jokes, ambiguity is almost always unwanted and at least a little harmful to clear communication.  It can be disastrous.  Suppose I write something ambiguous that I interpret one way.  Suppose the reader interprets it differently w/o noticing the ambiguity.  (Verbal ambiguities tend to be much less obvious than visual ones.)  Maybe the reader just writes me off as a jerk.  Maybe the reader objects in a way that makes no sense to me because I also do not notice the ambiguity.  Maybe we eventually sort it all out after wasting time in an unpleasant exchange; maybe not.  Ambiguous language can act as if the artist in the famous duck/rabbit illusion sees only the duck while the viewer sees only the rabbit.

Duck-Rabbit_illusion_439x242

  • Jastrow, J. (1899). The mind’s eye. Popular Science Monthly, 54, 299-312.
  • The soft copy used here has been downloaded, resized, and cropped.

Don’t context and common sense make it obvious how to resolve ambiguities in real life?  Yes and no.  Speech among native speakers on familiar topics may be safe, especially if the conversation has many redundancies and/or few surprizes.  In a casual setting, a hearer who notices an ambiguity can request and get a clarification in real time.  Not all settings are casual.  Not all ambiguities are noticed.  After briefly considering a setting quite unlike casual speech, we will ponder how to cope with ambiguity in the vast middle ground between utterly casual speech and utterly formal prose.

That English has become the global language of science is convenient for anglophones like me.  A few centuries ago, I would have needed to read and write in Latin to communicate with colleagues who did not speak English when asking what’s for dinner.  Now I can write in English, but I must be mindful that readers may not be native speakers and may not understand slang and topical references (especially if I write something still worth reading some years from now).  Common sense will not help readers decide what I really mean if I garble something new and contrary to conventional wisdom.

Blog posts land in a wide swath of middle ground.  Some are close to casual speech; some are researched and/or crafted.  Some are for venting or sharing a self-explanatory image; some do try to say something new and contrary to conventional wisdom.  Much of the care taken by good science writers to avoid ambiguity is also appropriate to some blog posts.  Personally, I find it easier (as well as safer) to make being careful habitual rather than decide whether it really matters in each specific case.

This post’s examples deal with lexicographic ambiguity.  They are good for displaying how a readabilist perspective differs from a descriptivist or prescriptivist perspective.  They are also conveniently short, so I will devote a little space to historical remarks inspired by one of Lynch’s chapters on lexicography.

Chapter 10 begins with a humorous account of the absurdly apocalyptic reaction to the publication of a dictionary in 1961.  True, it was not just any dictionary.  It was Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (hereafter just “Webster’s 3-rd”), and it was more explicitly descriptive (rather than prescriptive) than its predecessor.  As Lynch explains in detail, good dictionaries had always been more descriptive than those who were shocked by Webster’s 3-rd noticed.  But Webster’s 3-rd took descriptivism past a tipping point.  Was it open to specific objections about how common (and/or harmless?) some mistakes must be, before they should be just be listed as alternative usages w/o being stigmatized in any way?  Yes.  Was it part of a vast left-wing conspiracy to repopulate the world with licentious ninnies?  No.  Many critics really were that wacky, as Lynch reminded me.

The furor led to the 1962 publication of a compilation by Sledd and Ebbitt of essays pro and con, with the title Dictionaries and That Dictionary. Reading and reacting to that compilation was the best part of the AP English class that capped my high school education.  I came down hard for descriptivism, w/o noticing many amusing ironies that Lynch points out.  Some of the alleged crimes of Webster’s 3-rd had already been committed by the revered Webster’s 2-nd, which had been marketed with authoritarian hype that came back to haunt the publisher in the furor over Webster’s 3-rd.

Lynch’s book came out in 2009, much closer on the calendar to 2017 than to 1961.  Calendar distance can be misleading.  In 2009, the USA was still one of many countries where authoritarian rants could be laughed off.  They did not come from the White House.

Example 5.1: Tummy Troubles

On pages 223 and 224 (hardcover), Lynch uses 3 words to illustrate how a rival dictionary that began as a knee-jerk prescriptivist alternative to Webster’s 3-rd evolved into a rational one.  The same words illustrate the kind of rule a readabilist can recommend.

Consider 3 things I might conceivably say about Donald Trump:

  1. He is nauseating.
  2. He is nauseated.
  3. He is nauseous.

Items #1 and #2 are clear.  But what if I said #3?  From a correct assumption about my politics (and an incorrect assumption about a fondness for older usages), U could infer that #3 from me means what #1 means.  But #3 from somebody else (who likes newer usages and was a dinner guest at the White House) could well mean what #2 means.  However loudly prescriptivists might claim that [nauseous] “really” means what [nauseating] means, the word [nauseous] is hopelessly ambiguous in the real world.  I cannot imagine any situation where this particular ambiguity would be wanted, so I offer a rule:

Never use the word [nauseous].
Use what clearly says whatever U want to say.

Please be assured that I am well aware of the wisdom in the old saying

Never say [never]!

and once was in a situation where I did want to write ambiguously.  But not about tummy troubles.

Example 5.2: Accidental Arson

People for whom English is a second language sometimes say things that native speakers never say.  I have a CD of Chinese music with a track list that displays a translation of each track’s title from Chinese into English.  One of the translations is [Blue Little Flower].  Before seeing that mistake, I had not noticed that native speakers of English put size before color (as in [Little Red Hen] or [big blue eyes]).  The mistaken translation is harmless in the CD track list; I only bring it up to show that nonnative speakers may blunder in ways that native speakers would not.

Suppose I tell the translator that toluene is “inflammable” w/o further explanation.  Suppose the translator is familiar with some pairs of adjectives like [accessible]/[inaccessible] and [voluntary]/[involuntary] (and many more between these).  Suppose the translator looks up [flammable] in an English/Chinese dictionary, extrapolates from the usual effect on meaning of prefixing [i][n] to an adjective, and thinks it safe to have a smoke in a room reeking of glue fumes.  Oops.

Likely?  No.  Possible?  Yes.  At best, to say or write [inflammable] wastes a syllable or 2 keystrokes.  A tiny downside is certain, a huge downside is possible, and there is no upside (unless U want to write weird poetry).

Never use the word [inflammable].
It may be ambiguous to nonnative speakers.

history, humor, politics, STEM

Make America AMERICAN again

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Wish I knew how.  Some of the ways being tried look promising to me; some look counterproductive.  In roughly descending order of promise, I will list 10 of them and add sad emojis for the 3 counterproductive items that end the list.  Pressed for time?  Read #1 and #2 (the most promising items); then skip ahead to #9 and #10 (the most counterproductive items).

First, let me say where I am coming from.  In ancient times (before the phrase liberal Republican became an oxymoron), progressives could be Republicans.  Tho imperfect, that option made sense for pragmatic progressives who disliked deficits, knew how the road to Hell is paved, and would not kowtow to “conservative Democrats” (white racists in what was then the “Solid South”) for the sake of party unity.  In ancient times, I was a Republican.  Now I am a Sanders/Warren Democrat who also donates to the Working Families Party.  That imperfect option is the best available for me today.

America has changed a lot more than I have.  Many changes for the better are in imminent danger of being undone.  Many changes for the worse accelerated when George W Bush became POTUS, were slowed but not stopped under Obama, and have accelerated drastically under Donald Trump.  Paranoia is not one of my faults; I hope I am mistaken in seeing a clear and present danger to liberal democracy itself (on top of 4+ years of monumentally bad governance) in the Age of Trumpery.

  1. Tea Party Tactics
    The all-too successful efforts of the Tea Party to obstruct Obama’s agenda included many tactics that could also be used by honorable people to obstruct Trump’s.  Some progressive former Congressional staffers have compiled the Indivisible Guide for badgering legislators.  In addition to many helpful refinements of what I already vaguely knew, the guide has an insight so jolting that I will discuss it separately, after this list.

  2. Voting Rights
    There are many ways to prevent elections from throwing the bums out.  Savvy modern tyrants need not be so crude as to refuse to hold elections or refuse to let any serious opponents campaign.  Republican state legislators have raised gerrymandering to a high art, passed voter ID laws carefully tailored to depress voting by “conservatives” much less than voting by other groups, and so on.  Election administrators can open fewer polling places in areas where the “wrong” kind of voters are common.

    One of the many ways that the ACLU defends civil liberties is by filing lawsuits against such shenanigans.  Please support the ACLU and anybody else who defends voting rights.  For more on subtle ways that voting rights can be hollowed out behind a facade of democracy, see While Democrats Chase Russians, Republicans Keep Rigging Elections by Richard Eskow.

  3. State & Local Elections
    Far too many progressives act as if voting for POTUS once every 4 years would suffice to make good things happen.  Government in the USA is not that simple. Pseudoconservatives also pay attention down-ballot and in off years.  It shows.  Our fragmented system makes it extremely difficult for POTUS alone to get much done that is worth doing.  Down-ballot results in one election can also have nasty consequences up-ballot in the next one.

  4. Boycotting Trump-branded Stuff
    Tho Trump’s claim to be a “successful businessman” is a wild exaggeration, he does care about money.  The website #GRABYOURWALLET lists many casinos, hotels, products, and retailers.  With careful reading of the website’s spreadsheet, U can separate the retailers who actively push Trump-branded products (or otherwise support Trump) from those who just sell them along with various competitive products.  Boycotting the retailers who just sell them is counterproductive.

  5. Protest Marches
    They seem to have mobilized and heartened opposition, but I cannot help wondering how many of those who march and shout now were perfectionists then, when many progressive purists refused to hold their noses and support the only alternative to Trump who could have won on 2016-11-08.  I hope nobody thinks that denouncing Trump in a raucous crowd is as good as thwarting him.

    My big worry is that protest marches will become old news and that some protestors will try to freshen them up by marching w/o permits, snarling traffic, provoking cops to overreact, and so on.  The resulting legal battles will divert resources from the defense of voting rights.

  6. Ridiculing Trump
    Intense and well-deserved ridicule did not keep Trump out of the White House.  It is hard to ridicule Trump w/o also ridiculing his supporters.  I must confess to having sometimes yielded to temptation on this point.  But anything that is perceived as ridicule will only delay the awakening of those Trump voters who are not bigots or plutocrats but who had good cause to feel abandoned by smug neoliberals and turned to Trump in desperation.

    On the other hand, years of relentless attacks on Hillary Clinton eventually built up an exaggerated and indelible image of dishonesty.  (Tho far from being a paragon of integrity, HRC is relatively honest, as pols go.  The last paragon at the presidential level was Abraham Lincoln, whose honesty did not preclude being calculating and shrewd.)  Maybe years of apt and varied ridicule can accomplish something beyond catharsis for snipers like me.

  7. Fact Checking
    Copious documentation of staggering mendacity did not keep Trump out of the White House.  That those who ridicule Trump are more likely to amuse each other than erode his support is sad but not shocking.  That much of the electorate does not give a rat’s ass for truth is another story.  As with ridicule, I see some small hope that years of hammering away may eventually break thru.

  8. Calls for Impeachment 😦
    The question is not whether Trump deserves to be impeached and convicted.  He does. So what?  Impeachment and conviction cannot happen unless both the House and the Senate are flipped.  Suppose that unlikely event happens in 2018.  Trump’s term would be served out by Mike Pence, whose agenda is just as vile.  By being less abrasive than Trump, Pence might be even more effective in pushing for bad laws and lulling people into accepting thinly veiled fascism.

  9. Centrism 😦 😦
    Obviously, the Democratic Party must somehow reach out to the Reagan Democrats who came back for Obama but did not stay back for Clinton.  How to do that is controversial.  Despite my own broadly centrist inclinations, I believe it would be a huge mistake now to take any more advice from Third Way or anybody else who thinks Dems can win by sounding at all like decaffeinated Republicans.  Dems need a coherent progressive alternative that seriously addresses Rust Belt concerns, not an echo of Republican quackery pasted onto support for LGBTQ/reproductive rights and sanity about guns.  While I do support those rights and that sanity, I am starting to understand why they have so little traction.

  10. Normalizing Trump 😦 😦 😦
    Exhortations to come together after a bitterly contested election are a venerable American tradition, dating back to Jefferson’s inaugural address in 1801.  Still in shock on 2016-11-09, I reblogged an eloquent one.  At the same time, I reblogged a very different reaction that was also eloquent.  It was a struggle to work out my own subtler response with a look back to 1814.

    Looking back not quite so far as 1814, I recall that paranoid slave owners violently rejected the results of the 1860 election.  That did not end well.  Looking just a little ways back, I recall my own anger at McConnell’s nauseating pledge to subordinate governing to making Obama a 1-term POTUS, after Obama won in 2008 w/o any help from vote suppression or Russian meddling.

    Putting this item last in the list was painful, but not as painful as seeing Trump confirm a truckload of grim expectations (bigotry; chaos; corruption; …) within a month of inauguration. A wait-and-see attitude did make sense on 2016-11-09.  It does not make sense today.  Will the sane and decent people in the USA wait until it is too late to avoid covert fascism behind a facade of democracy?

What is the jolting insight mentioned in list item #1?  When opposing a nasty Trump initiative that advances a subversive hidden agenda, do not (repeat—not!) try be constructive by offering a better way to deal with whatever problem the Trump initiative purports to address.  Keep the opposition to Trump broadly based and unified, focused on the vileness of the snake oil and not distracted by internal debates about what should be done instead of swallowing snake oil.

I come from the very collegial culture of STEM and can remember when American politics was less adversarial and more collegial than it is now, tho never as collegial as STEM.  (Yes, there are rivalries in STEM and maybe still a few chances to do some good by reaching across the aisle in politics.)  Tho jolting and saddening, the advice to oppose w/o trying to be constructive is wise.

Does my claim in list item #9 that “Dems need a coherent progressive alternative that seriously addresses Rust Belt concerns” contradict that advice?  No.  Context is crucial. Trying to prevent a particular criminal folly by those currently in office is one context.  Trying to elect officials who are much less likely to engage in criminal folly is another context.

Image published in the US before 1923 and public domain in the US

In some ways, the American Experiment is back in 1778: hanging by a thread (in what Thomas Paine rightly said were “times that try men’s souls”).  Many images of Valley Forge would be appropriate; I especially like the well-known painting by Edwin Austin Abbey of Baron von Steuben instructing George Washington’s pickup army in carefully selected European tactics/techniques that would help it win.

Washington’s eye for talent looked beyond billionaires who had donated lavishly.  Washington did not tweet jabs at “Krauts” while assuming that anybody who sounded like a Hessian was on the other side.  Washington saw that an immigrant from Prussia could kick ass for the cause.  The rest is history.

humor, politics

Boycott Blues

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Why am I glad that 2017 is the Year of the Rooster in the East Asian Lunar Calendar?  Because I quickly found an image of a smirking rooster for this post.  Thank U, Ariadna Ada Sysoeva/Shutterstock.com.  Why did I want such an image?  Read on, if U dare.arrogant-smirking-rooster

Despite not owning a gun, I sometimes shoot myself in the foot.  It is a common tendency among progressives.  Case in point: boycotting retailers like Walmart and Amazon that carry Trump-branded products w/o pushing them, not just boycotting the products themselves and those who push them.  We continue with appropriate made-up names.

Consider a retailer, say Walazon, that carries several lines of women’s fashions, including IvankyPanky and Togs-4-Progs.  The former is Trump-branded.  The latter makes good stuff in union shops and donates 5% of operating profits to worthy causes.

Furious at Donald Trump’s travesty of a presidency, progressives want to hit him and his where it hurts.  Some of us decide to boycott Walazon until they stop selling IvankyPanky clothes.  It is more likely that we will hit us and ours.

Here’s why.

Suppose progressive women stop buying from Walazon.  Kellyanne Conway and her ilk still buy IvankyPanky clothes (often from Walazon), while Walazon’s Togs-4-Progs sales dwindle.  The computers and people who do data analytics at Walazon are interested in sales (not politics), at least during working hours.  They notice that IvankyPanky is selling much better than Togs-4-Progs.  Guess which brand gets the ax when management decides that Walazon is spread too thin.

On the other hand, suppose progressive women who like Togs-4-Progs continue to shop at Walazon, despite its willingness to sell IvankyPanky clothes to those benighted enough to buy them.  Togs-4-Progs comes out with an edgy collection of T-shirts that display the words

TRUMP SUCKS
PUTIN’S

(in various fonts and trendy colors) over a picture of an arrogant smirking rooster.  The shirts sell like ice cream in July.  The computers and people who do data analytics at Walazon notice that Togs-4-Progs is selling much better than IvankyPanky, despite Kellyanne Conway blasting thru her credit limit.  Guess which brand gets the ax when management decides that Walazon is spread too thin.

Want to make capitalist economies work more humanely?  It might help to pay more attention to how they work, period.

humor, politics

Valentine for DT

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I hope that nobody will object to my poetry in the style of greeting card doggerel.  Trump does not deserve better anyway.

devil-heart

Valentine for DT

U will swindle the workers and sully the skies.
U will suck up to Putin and tweet vicious lies.
Some states are red and some states are blue.
For some years of Hell they are all stuck with U.
(reblog), humor, politics

Hit Him Where It Hurts

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Tho worthwhile, fact checking and well-deserved ridicule were not enough to keep Trump out of the White House.  I doubt that the current vogue for demonstrations and calls for impeachment will accomplish much either . While Trump does deserve to be impeached and convicted, it will not happen unless the 2018 elections flip Congress.  Pence as POTUS would push the same vile agenda anyway, and he might be even more effective by being less abrasive.  Hollering for impeachment is a distraction.

Boycotts might do some real good.  I thank Kurt, both for publicizing the boycott link and for introducing it so humorously.  The sane people will need their sense of humor to stay sane over the long and nasty years ahead.

KURT★BRINDLEY

Well, you can hit him there too if you have a good shot, but I’m talking about hitting Trump where it would hurt him the most — in his pocket book.

Are you aware of that wonderful anti-Trump movement called #GRABYOURWALLET that lists all the companies that either sell Trump products or support him or his brand in some way so we of sound minds and spirits can now find in one convenient location which places to boycott so we can discontinue giving him our hard-earned money to make him even more wealthy beyond our limitless imaginations?

Well, now you know.

Quite awesome, no?

I am surprised to see that Papa Johns isn’t on the list seeing how I thought the owner was a Trump supporter. If so, I hope the John of Pizza changes his evil ways because I have pretty much worn out my PJ’s phone app from…

View original post 20 more words

baseball, enlightenment, humor, philosophy, politics

Riff on a Yogi Berra Quote

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yogi-berra-1

Some of the many humorous quotes (mis)attributed to Yogi Berra are trenchant expressions of genuine wisdom, akin to Zen koans.  (In his Washington Post obituary, the subtitle “American philosopher” is well-chosen.)  One of his gems is so widely applicable and important that it deserves a special name.  It is also so widely quoted that 2 versions are common, as indicated by {|} below:

Yogi Berra’s Law
{The game|It} ain’t over til it’s over.

Yes, the original context was baseball.  With 2 outs in the bottom of the 9-th inning, the home team may be trailing.  Yogi rightly admonishes both the home team (to resist despair) and the visitors (to resist complacency).  A lot can still happen with 2 outs in the bottom of the 9-th inning.  I prefer the shorter version of the law because it is more explicit about the law’s generality.  “It” could be almost anyhthing.

My current context for heeding Yogi Berra’s Law is the imminent inauguration of Donald Trump as POTUS.  At best, this event marks the start of 4 long and nasty years in the US.  At worst, this event might combine with trends elsewhere (in China, Europe, and Russia) to start a new Dark Age.  Considering the worst case is prudent, not alarmist.

Mindless repetition of platitudes like

  • It can’t happen here.
  • Every cloud has a silver lining.
  • It is always darkest just before the dawn.

is no substitute for the eternal vigilance that Jefferson said is the price of liberty.  (There are other prices.)  I resist the complacency of those platitudes; I also resist despair and continue (in my own small way) to be a citizen rather than just a complainer.

In a late inning in the biggest game of my lifetime, the Enlightenment is trailing.  That sucks.  But 2+3 is still 5 and Yogi Berra’s Law is still true.