ethics, haiku, humor, language, music, oversimplify

Be Precise, But Keep It Real

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I am big on precise language.  Why am I so damn mellow about whether a poem is a haiku?  The answer hints at bigger things (like reconciling polished theory with rough-hewn reality), but there will also be a few jokes.

Yes, there are short poems that are not haiku.  Limericks are not haiku.  Googling «one word poem» yielded more hits than I expected (and infinitely more than I would like).  U can read about one that made national news here.  One word poems are not haiku.  (As candidates for a one word poem about one word poetry, words like [prank] and [scam] come to mind.)  On the other hand, trying to say exactly what is a haiku is a lot harder than it seems to many people.  It is also a lot less important, and we should be thankful for small blessings.

A list of several common characteristics of haiku is a good starting point as a tentative definition.  Such a list can be good for introducing people to haiku.  Whether it should be carved in stone is another question.

Here is a plausible list of things one might say about a short poem in English, such that the poem “should” only be called a haiku if they are all true.

  1. It does not rhyme.
  2. It has 3 lines, with a total of 17 syllables distributed 5-7-5.
  3. It includes some seasonal reference.
  4. It includes a poignant relationship between nature and humanity.

I got this particular list from a thoughtful comment by Sue Ranscht on a post with a 3-5-3 haiku.  Amicably and implicitly, the comment posed the question that starts this post.  It deserves an amicable (but explicit) reply.

§1: How Do I List Thee?

Let me count the ways.  Hmmm.  Do I have enough fingers?

There is a downside to defining the word [haiku] in a way that excludes much of what the best haiku poets actually write and much of what the Haiku Society of America considers to be a haiku.  What are we to call that stuff?

Jane Reichhold (1937-2016) was among the many eminent haiku poets who do not adhere to our 4-item list.  She was also an advocate (so am I) of haiku with a characteristic that is not in that list: juxtaposing 2 contrasting images (rensô in Japanese).  Rather than import yet another Japanese word into English, she wrote about “fragment and phrase” as parts of a haiku, in an insightful essay that was nicely formatted in a CDHK episode.  The juxtaposition may seem incongruous at first, and much of the fun comes from realizing how it does make sense.  Sometimes one part clarifies the other.  Sometimes the fragment (the shorter part) is the punch line of a joke set up by the phrase, as in the essay’s clever classic

roasting_veg_chkn_800x575

Haiku © Jane Reichold superimposed on
Photo © Vladlena Azima | ShutterStock

Another criterion not in our 4-item list is interchangeability of lines 1 and 3.  While Jane did not advocate interchangeability (neither do I), it matters to some people.  Should we have a 6-item list?  There is no need to consider here the whole multitude of criteria that are sometimes important to some people.  There is no need to try wriggling out of the contradictions between some of these criteria.  This section’s takeaway is simply that there is no single authoritative list.  Do U find that conclusion stressful?  Maybe a musical interlude will help.

§2: Musical Interlude

Back in 1800, Viennese concert-goers knew what a symphony was, with or w/o knowing much music theory.  A symphony was an orchestral composition with 4 movements.  Movement #1 might have a short slow introduction; otherwise, movements #1 and #4 were both at a brisk pace.  Movement #2 was slower; movement #3 was a minuet at an intermediate pace.  Performing the whole thing took a while, but well under an hour.  And so on.  That was before Beethoven began shredding the dictionary.

Did anybody abuse the new freedom by writing schlock that was long and loud?  Of course.  But some composers crafted some beautiful and enduring symphonies with great care and skill.  Works like Dvořák’s From the New World are classics, tho in various ways they are not classical.

Saying that something is “a symphony” no longer says much about its length or layout.  With no claim that they are all great symphonies, here are a few examples of the diversity.

  • We have symphonies with less than 4 movements (Hovhaness; Schubert).  More movements were apparently intended for Schubert’s “unfinished” symphony, but it is deservedly popular as is.
  • We have a short strings-only symphony that does have 4 movements, but the 2 (not 1!) based on dance forms are not minuets (Britten).
  • We have humongous symphonies with vocal parts (Beethoven; Mahler).

And so on.

Maybe it would be nice if the word [symphony] had a more specific meaning, but we get by.  When Prokofiev revisited the old layout from before 1800, he did not claim to be writing the first “real” symphony in decades.  He just wrote his Classical Symphony. The title’s meaning is clear enough.

§3: Back to Haiku

I wish those who advocate one of the narrower concepts of haiku would imitate Prokofiev.  Speak of “classical” haiku or (better still) “traditional” haiku.  Say which of the various traditions U have in mind.  Want to make a discussion of a single tradition flow more smoothly by temporarily restricting the word [haiku] to that tradition?  That might work, but it is hard to avoid any hint of permanently excluding other traditions in other discussions.  Want to claim that working within your favored tradition tends to help people write good haiku?  OK.  I may well agree, unless U go on to claim that all haiku (or all good ones) are necessarily in that one tradition.  Ain’t so.

Most of my own haiku (and many that I admire by others) do comply with at least 2 items in our 4-item list.  Full compliance is common but far from universal.  Want to be careful and focused when writing haiku?  Pay serious attention to a list like this.  But don’t let the tail wag the dog.

§4: Leery of Labels

The 6-item list briefly contemplated at the end of §1 is much like the 7-item list of rules that was actually used in a challenging CDHK episode.  The main difference between the lists is in whether rhymes or words referencing the poet (like [I] or [dunno]) are forbidden.  Neither is common in haiku; both do occur.

I responded to the challenge with a cheekily titled but fully compliant haiku (This Haiku Is Kosher), followed by one that breaks a few of the rules (Not Quite Kosher).  Which rules?  In the unlikely event that anybody cared, I could say.  As it happens, my Not Quite Kosher is a wry lament (about crediting an image illustrating This Haiku Is Kosher).  The title’s double meaning would be lost if it somehow specified which rules in the 7-item list were being broken.

zen-frog

Not Quite Kosher
|Zen frog bronze sculpture
|(credit lost, like casting wax).
|Dunno who to thank.

Suppose we want to discuss partial compliance with a list of rules in some detail.  Would it be helpful to have a noun as a 1-word label to pin on my partially compliant haiku, so as to indicate exactly which rules it obeys?  Not really.  With 4 rules we would need 16 nouns.  That would be burdensome.  With 6 (or more) rules, we would need an absurd 64 (or more) nouns.  Better to just say what happens with each rule, if there is any need to say it.

Maybe a single noun for obeying all the rules would still be helpful?  No, it is better to just plop a convenient adjective (like [classical] or [compliant] or [kosher] or [traditional]) in front of good old [haiku].  Remembering which rules are relevant at the moment is enough of a cognitive load.

A cluttered vocabulary is not the only downside of a profusion of special nouns, one for full compliance with each of several lists of rules.  People tend to confuse pinning a fancy label on something with understanding it.  They also tend to assume that labels are mutually exclusive.  When the recipients of labels are other people, the results can be nasty.

§5: Takeaway

Tho willing to break the 5-7-5 rule, I obey it more than might be expected of somebody who knows about its origin in a translation error.  I am especially respectful of 5-7-5 when I write an aphoristic haiku (as a zingy summary of some nerdy philosophizing) rather than a moment-in-nature haiku.  With a linebreak after the comma, this post’s title could be a 2-line aphoristic haiku.  (Yes, there are 2-line haiku.)  Maybe a 5-7-5 aphoristic haiku will reinforce the point.

Precision < Accuracy
|Speaking precisely
|is great, if we speak about
|what is really there.

 

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humor, language, politics, science

Writing Well – Part 5

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Ambiguity Sucks!

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 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.

grammar, humor, language, photography, politics

Writing Well – Part 3

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Descriptivism, Prescriptivism, and ????

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.

One trouble with categories is that so many of the interesting and important people and things in the real world do not fit neatly into them.  Tho wary of categories, I feel a need to introduce another one, alongside the descriptivism and prescriptivism (reviewed below) that are commonly used to categorize writings/writers that deal with the English language.

To oversimplify somewhat:

  • A descriptivist says how people actually use the language.
  • A prescriptivist says how people should use the language, according to various rules.

The captions on the following images for these attitudes link to notes and credits at the end of this post.

One of the strengths of Lynch’s book is that most of the time it is so fair to both.  Lynch is mostly in the descriptivist camp, but he sees merit in some prescriptivist ideas and explores the absurdities of trying to be 100% one or the other.

Perhaps some of the more thoughtful people on both sides are implicitly in another category, which I will call [readabilism] until somebody suggests a name I like better that is not already in use.

Still being simplistic to get started, here is what I mean by [readabilism].

  • A readabilist says how people should use the language, so as to communicate clearly.

Communicating clearly is not the same as abiding by rules.  Do U want to be clear?  Some of the prescriptivists’ rules are helpful, as is attention to the descriptivists’ findings.  Some of the prescriptivists’ rules are harmful, as is being lazy in ways that descriptivists find to be common.  As with geometry, there is no royal road to clarity.  Various examples will be in later posts.  A quick preliminary example appears later in this post.

I am a proud readabilist.  I try to write clearly.  I fail and try again.  Sometimes I succeed.  I try to recommend ways to write clearly.  I fail and try again.  I will recommend a prescriptivist’s rule that seems helpful and disrecommend one that seems harmful.  If something seems helpful in one context and harmful in another, I will try to sort things out rather than claim that one size fits all.

Any suggestions of alternative names for readabilism?  I was disappointed when Google told me that [lucidism] is already in use as the name of a religion, as is [claritism].  [Communicationism] is a pejorative term for the kind of reductionism that attributes conflicts to failures of communication.  I had better grab [readabilism] while I can.

Example 3.1: Split Infinitives


On page 19, Lynch scorches the extreme prescriptivists who make sweeping bogus claims about enhancing clarity for long lists of rules, including inanities like the rule against splitting an infinitive.  This rule was made up by prigs with too much free time who were enamored of Latin, a language with no blank space inside an infinitive where anything might be inserted.

Prescriptivists who claim devotion to clarity while peddling such drivel remind me of pseudoconservatives in US politics, who claim devotion to fiscal responsibility while peddling tax cuts for the same tiny fraction of the population that has been siphoning away wealth from everybody else for decades (while the national debt increases).

Tho the rhetoric of extreme prescriptivists may sound readabilist, the conduct is definitely not readabilist.  Fretting about where else to put an adverb that wants to follow [to] may not be directly harmful, but it siphons away time and energy from serious work on clarity.

Image Notes and Credits


An antenna from the array in a radio telescope is emblematic of the spirit of descriptivism.  Let’s see what is out there (and maybe try to explain it).

The clothes and facial expression of the man making the thumb-down gesture suggest that he is an arrogant jerk. This caricature of prescriptivism is appropriate at this admittedly simplistic stage in the discussion (and at any stage for some extreme prescriptivists).  Nuance will come later.

Back in 2013, I photographed a daylily flower in my yard because I wanted to show it to a flower lover in a nursing home.  I did not want to be at all arty.  I just wanted her to see the flower clearly and completely, w/o puzzling about what I had photographed or about the technologies that let me show her a long-gone flower on my laptop computer.  I wanted the wizardry to be transparent and therefore invisible to the casual eye.

The clear view (thru the photo to see the daylily) is emblematic of the spirit of readabilism.  While it is OK if the reader pauses briefly a few times to admire how well an idea has been conveyed, the reader should never need a shovel to unearth ideas buried by obscure writing.

haiku, humor, music, oversimplify

Phrases as Facades

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Composer Philip Glass prefers “music with repetitive structures” over “minimalist music” as a name for his style.  Descriptive names are indeed better than arbitrary ones, but only if we do not take them too seriously.  Descriptive short phrases can become oversimplified facades that obscure realities too complex to be described well (not just named) by the phrases.

In music, any mishmash with a beat or a scale has an at least slightly repetitive structure.  The sounds emanating from a beer garden or a rap concert are extremely repetitive.  The good stuff is in between.  While the musical lines in a piece by Glass have subtle variations, they are often too simple and repetitive to be interesting by themselves.  Happily, they are not by themselves.  Something special emerges when they are superimposed.

Neither Glass nor I can think of a good short descriptive phrase for his style, but I can offer a decent visual analogy that can be expressed concisely in a haiku.  I should be doing my chores rather than responding to

But how could I resist a chance to put a link inside a haiku and pun on both the composer’s name and the title of one of my favorites among the works by him that I have heard?

moire_2016-12-06

Seeing while Listening

Transparent layers,
etched to form Moiré patterns:
See the sounds of Glass.
history, humor, oversimplify, politics

Who Wrote That?

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The following 3 quotes all come from the same person.  Can U guess who? 

  1. The citizens … must effectively control the mighty commercial forces which they themselves have called into being.
  2. It is necessary that laws should be passed to prohibit the use of corporate funds directly or indirectly for political purposes; it is still more necessary that such laws should be thoroughly enforced.   Corporate expenditures for political purposes … have supplied one of the principal sources of corruption in our political affairs.
  3. Those who oppose all reform will do well to remember that ruin in its worst form is inevitable if our national life brings us nothing better than swollen fortunes for the few and the triumph in both politics and business of a sordid and selfish materialism.

The choices listed in the following poll have varying plausibility; they do include the actual author.   Please have a go before scrolling down to see the answer and why it matters.

 
Scroll down for the answer …

we-the-people-with-stars-stripes

The image of the US Constitution’s famous oversimplification “We the People” was downloaded and resized from http://mtviewmirror.com/wp-content/uploads/we-the-people-9.jpg.

All of the quotes are from a speech on The New Nationalism delivered 1910-08-31 by Theodore Roosevelt.  More than a century later, the work has still not been done.  More than a century later, pseudoconservatives still dump truckloads of ratcrap on anybody who opposes running the USA for the benefit of the biggest corporations and richest billionaires.

What to do in 2016?  Yes, I feel the pull toward a protest vote like writing in Bernie Sanders (or Theodore Roosevelt).  In what is not so obviously a mere gesture of protest, I could vote Green or Libertarian.  But I will not.  Unless U live in a cobalt blue or screaming red state, voting Green or Libertarian in 2016 is voting for Trump.  In the real world, all options suck.  Some suck worse than others.  Much worse.

Yes, one can hope that the combination of Trump in the White House with McConnell and Ryan dominating Congress will be so blatantly toxic that “the people” finally wake up, rise up, and wrest control from the plutocrats.  Alas, the 99% of us who are getting shafted includes bigots and nitwits.  It includes those who bought the Fox News claim to be fair and balanced.  It includes heavily armed crazies like Omar Mateen and Dylan Roof.

Popular uprisings do succeed now and then, as when the government of East Germany collapsed in 1989.  Hey, the good people on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall suffered only 44 years (*) of communist oppression before that.  More often, uprisings are either crushed (as in Hungary 1956) or seem successful for a while but descend into chaotic violence that spawns yet another tyranny (French Revolution; Russian Revolution; Arab Spring; …).

So I will trudge to the polls, hold my nose, and vote for Hillary.  I will also remember a more familiar quotation from TR, excerpted below with a few letters added in italics:

It is not the critic who counts; … The credit belongs to the woman who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; … ; who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; …

 
While Hillary is deeply flawed, she is not one of those “timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat” detested by TR.  For that matter, neither is Trump.  He has other issues.  While TR was far from being a pacifist, he could see the downside of putting an impulsive jerk in a position to start a war.  That jerk also thinks appeasing the NRA is more important than making it harder for crazies like Adam Lanza to murder school children and their teachers.

(*) The physical wall stood for less than 44 years, but the whole point of erecting it was to stop desperate dashes thru the political wall erected in 1945.
(reblog), Buddhism, haiku, humor, oversimplify, photography

Wine Making, then Buddhism

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The haiku by Dancing Echoes that is effectively reblogged below is one that I admire because it deals so well with big concerns.  While I do appreciate haiku about particular fleeting moments in nature, I also like to try summarizing a general discussion or attitude very briefly, with a haiku.

Vintage | Dancing Echoes

Blue in Green

Both art and science
Plus a little bit of luck
Makes a good vintage

View original post

I will complete my response to Carpe Diem Utabukuro #12 with my own new haiku shortly, but first I want to admit that a zingy summary may be a serious oversimplification if taken too literally.  With an understanding about wiggle room, a forthright oversimplification is sometimes better than an attempt to dot every i and cross every t.

My haiku is not quite so extremely oversimplified as it may seem.  I am considering Buddhism only as the attitude toward life that I take to underlie the organized religion.  Peel away the legends and rituals.  Peel away the historical adaptations to local circumstances.  What do I find after much peeling?  I find green tea, the sound of one hand clapping, and a haiku.

Buddhism in 6 Words
|Shit happens.
|Keep calm.
|Be compassionate.

economics, history, humor, oversimplify, politics

Twelah of Stonina

No, the title is not the name of a character in a dreary fantasy epic. It links 2 examples of something that can happen to oversimplifications as circumstances change: what is initially harmless (and perhaps mildly beneficial) can become pernicious. As in my earlier post arguing that oversimplification is unavoidable but can be done honestly, a whimsical example that is easily understood breaks trail for a serious example that is not.

1. Puzzles

Instructions for puzzles usually explain what the solution should look like, w/o constraining how to get there. The Jumble series of puzzles has been around for decades, originally just on printed pages but now online also. I sometimes solve the puzzle as printed in my daily newspaper. (Yes, I am that old.) Taken literally, the instructions for a Jumble do constrain the how, but in a way that strikes me as a harmless oversimplification in explaining the what. More precisely, it was harmless until the series went online.

The weird words in the title of this post are scrambled versions of the ordinary words wealth and nations. A typical Jumble puzzle invites the reader to unscramble several such scrambled words and then use the letters at some specified positions in the ordinary words to complete the caption of a cartoon. Printed and online versions of the puzzle for 2016-06-10 are displayed below. Both the layout and the use of “Now” in the printed instructions indicate that unscrambling comes before completing. Similarly for the online instructions revealed by the [HELP] button.

2016-06-10_E23_Jumble

While I sometimes proceed in the instructions’ order, I more often guess the completion before unscrambling all (or even any) of the words. So what? I can put my pen anywhere on the page at any time. The sequencing in the instructions is just a convenient way to explain what would be a solution to a Jumble puzzle. One could rewrite and reformat the instructions so as to explain that w/o extraneous sequencing (as in the instructions for Sudoku), but it is not obvious how to write sequence-free instructions for Jumble that are as clear as the oversimplified instructions with extraneous sequencing. Why bother?

Here’s why. Look at the online version. That bright green square is a place for typing, if U so choose. The interface does a good job of allowing U to drag letters rather than type. After unscrambling all the scrambled words, U will see the available letters appear above the caption and can type or drag to complete the caption, just as U typed or dragged when unscrambling.  While the interface displays several signs of  good software engineering, it takes the informal specs too literally and mandates the heuristic of unscrambling all the words before doing anything to complete the caption.  (Being a nerd myself, I can sympathize.)  What began as a harmless oversimplification became a killjoy.

As it happens, I started by guessing the caption for the 2016-06-10 Jumble, then verified that my unscramblings of 3 words were consistent with my guess, and then used the resulting tentative knowledge about letters to be contributed by the word still scrambled as a hint about how to unscramble it. (A tiny example of how science works.) No can do in the online version. There is a [HINT] button that doles out a single letter in a single word. My preference for making my own hint is not just a consequence of my being compulsively self-reliant. My own hint is discovered and might be misleading because I might have guessed wrong at the start. The online hint is an infallible gift from on high. No fun in that.

If U want to work on the online version of this particular Jumble, U can click on its image to visit a page with today’s puzzle and then use the page’s calendar widget to go back to 2016-06-10.

Now it is time for the serious example, which starts in the same century as the scene depicted in this example, but on the other side of The Pond.

2. Free Markets

The other momentous document published in 1776 was Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, with a then-harmless oversimplification that has become a now-pernicious dogma.

Smith’s readers were familiar with intrusive governments and quasigovernmental organizations like craft guilds. Mercantilist governments restricted who could sell what to whom. Guilds set the prices of what their members made. That was normal, as was censorship, state-sponsored religion, and commercial privileges granted by royal whim. Smith was aware that his readers might find his free-market ideas disturbingly anarchic, and he tried to reassure them with his famous fantasy about an invisible hand. He succeeded too well.

Smith remarked that, while he advocated much less intrusive government than his readers considered normal, there were still important government functions needed to make his free markets work. He mentioned some explicitly. Unsurprisingly, he did not mention those that would not be on anybody’s radar for over a century. Markets cannot work properly w/o transparency: potential buyers need to know what they would be getting and how much they would be paying. Apart from providing a trustworthy money supply, there was no obvious need for laws and regulations to make markets transparent. They seemed obviously transparent; nobody wearing a 3-cornered hat noticed that transparency was being assumed and might someday need to be enforced.

With the passage of time, Smith’s ideas took hold, the economies of his nation and ours grew richer and more complex, and economists eventually realized that markets cannot be perfectly transparent. What happens when they are seriously opaque? When getting pertinent info is costly? When some of the info floating around is false? When insiders have pertinent info that they act upon but keep to themselves? Long technical answers won Nobel Prizes for Kenneth Arrow and Joseph Stiglitz. The financial crisis of 2008-2009 and its precursors illustrate a somewhat oversimplified short answer that suffices for present purposes:

The shit hits the fan.

By the time the importance of transparency and the need for laws and regulations that enforce it had become common knowledge among thoughtful advocates of free markets, the invisible-hand fantasy had morphed into market fundamentalism. That dogma is a godsend for anybody who wants to act like a psychopath but suffers from the inconvenience of having a conscience. It is OK if I scramble to enrich myself and U scramble to enrich yourself, no matter how much we harm each other or anybody else.  If the stupid gummint stays away and just lets The Market work its magic, everything will come out as well as possible in the real world, where resources are scarce and buying anything precludes buying something else with the same money.

Like religious fundamentalism, market fundamentalism is rigid, simplistic, and oblivious to the suffering it causes. The real world is indeed harsh. It is also vastly more complex than fundamentalists concede, perhaps more complex than they can imagine. Enforcing fairness and transparency w/o stifling useful innovation is not easy. More generally, finding a good balance between public and private economic activity is not so easy as it seems to market fundamentalists (or to socialists, at the other extreme).

A much longer (but still readable) discussion of opacity and other market failures can be found in the book The Roaring Nineties by Joseph Stiglitz. Perverse incentives lead to perverse behavior. Is that really surprising?