history, music, politics

Battle Hymn of the Re…

Typing just [Enter] key into the Search box makes it easy to browse WordPress blogs like this one.  Here, the [Menu] button (atop the vertical black bar) reveals widgets like the Search box.

The song commonly known as Greensleaves has been given several other titles and sets of lyrics.  The melody is too good to be bound by any one version of the song’s words.  Likewise for the song commonly known as the Battle Hymn of the Republic, which got the familiar title and lyrics from the five stanzas published by Julia Ward Howe in 1862.  Details and diction bind her words to the Civil War era, but the melody and rhythm break free.

As a performance by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and another by the US Army Field Band illustrate, there is considerable variety in musical phrasing and how the singers are accompanied (as well as which 2 or 3 stanzas are sung).  I tried to write 3 stanzas appropriate for 2017 that really could be sung well by people who know how to sing.  The choir or the field band could give a rousing performance of my updated battle hymn.

A few of Howe’s phrases still resonate; I have used them (and a few other fragments of American societal hymnody) in my updated title and lyrics.  Will the future find my details from 2017 as dated as Howe’s details from 1862?  I hope so.

Battle Hymn of the Resistance

Our eyes have seen the glory
|of a land where freedom rings;
where fear and hate are cast aside;
|where no one bows to kings;
where clean air fills the spacious skies;
|where hope can spread its wings.
We fight to make it real.

|Glory, glory hallelujah!
|Glory, glory hallelujah!
|Glory, glory hallelujah!
|We fight to make it real.

When shills disguised as pundits
|stole the spotlights on the stage,
the centrists lost their bearings
|and misread the workers’ rage.
Dark money seized a chance to buy
|a second Gilded Age.
We fight the lies with truth.

|Glory, glory hallelujah!
|Glory, glory hallelujah!
|Glory, glory hallelujah!
|We fight the lies with truth.

We still can hear the trumpet
|that will never call retreat.
A white-haired warrior still steps forth
|to drum a steady beat.
Our voices shout rebuttal
|to each cryptofascist tweet,
and we will win this fight.

|Glory, glory hallelujah!
|Glory, glory hallelujah!
|Glory, glory hallelujah!
|Yes, we will win this fight.


Sprit_of_'76

Spirit of ’76


Writing cogent modern English in triplets is not easy.  Neither is saving the Republic from the Age of Trumpery.  At best, those who fight this fight will get tired and sweaty.  My update of Howe’s lyrics is something they can sing in the shower.  I tried that.  It helps.

Advertisements
haiku, history, humor, politics

What Luther Did Before Nailing

Typing just [Enter] key into the Search box makes it easy to browse WordPress blogs like this one.   Here, the [Menu] button (atop the vertical black bar) reveals widgets like the Search box.

Did U ever wonder how an outraged monk could be like a frightened squid while being quite unlike the squid in a closely related way?  Neither did I.  The answer hit me before the question, while I pondered an intriguing juxtaposition in

Haiku Poems: Grip (For Samantha) | Poet Rummager

that inspired me to write a haiku.

Squids and Scribblers
|Squids squirt ink to flee.
|Writers also (sometimes), but
|often to confront.

• Image from © Brad Scot Lark | ShutterStock
• Image cropped from © Michele Paccione | ShutterStock

Long after Martin Luther’s time, fundamental institutions have yet again strayed from their missions and been corrupted.  Of course, people write (and mesh their words with images) very differently now.  Writers depend on the media (rather than a trip to the hardware store) to nail things to doors.  But if U listen carefully, U can still hear hammering.

2017-09-22

NON SEQUITUR © 2017 Wiley Ink, Inc..
Dist. By ANDREWS MCMEEL SYNDICATION.
Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

politics

Semper Fi

Typing just [Enter] key into the Search box makes it easy to browse WordPress blogs like this one.   Here, the [Menu] button (atop the vertical black bar) reveals widgets like the Search box.

amy-mgrath-4-congress

Yes, the fighter jock on the left is also the married mom on the right.  This image is a screenshot from the Amy McGrath for Congress website, which is worth a visit from anybody who appreciates clear and communicative web design (whether or not they care about US politics).

After retiring from the Marine Corps (at the rank of Lt Colonel), Amy McGrath found a new challenge: running for Congress as a Democrat in Kentucky.  It’s not easy.  Neither was flying 89 combat missions.

Dunno whether McGrath is as progressive as I am, but I believe she has the confidence and smarts to avoid the Democrats’ common mistake running like decaffeinated Republicans in red states.  Some evidence is provided by the form (as well as the content) of the announcement video Told Me, which can be seen on the website and has made a splash on YouTube.  When was the last time U saw a campaign kickoff that was also a good short (2 minutes) film?  I like the calmly assertive no-nonsense tone thruout and the final image shown in the screenshot below.

amy-mcgrath-video

The party affiliation is stated clearly, w/o fuss.  The image background is a subtle rebuttal of the common misconception that Dems are intrinsically wimpy, if not downright unpatriotic.  The subtlety is important.  Those who explicitly mention a misconception (even while refuting it) risk strengthening it in the minds of those they are trying to enlighten.  Good logic may not be good rhetoric.  Dunno how many good rhetorical details of the video and the website are there because McGrath put them in herself and how many are there because McGrath chose and trusted well-qualified people.  Either way, seeing such competence is a hopeful glimmer in a dark time.

Please visit Amy McGrath for Congress and watch the video.  U can see some good stuff w/o spending much time.  Those willing and able to donate just might get the satisfaction of helping a Marine kick some Trumpublican ass.

history, politics

Rowing Against the Current

Typing just [Enter] key into the Search box makes it easy to browse WordPress blogs like this one.   Here, the [Menu] button (atop the vertical black bar) reveals widgets like the Search box.

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.

history, photography, politics

Poem, Book, and Flag

Typing just [Enter] key into the Search box makes it easy to browse WordPress blogs like this one.   Here, the [Menu] button (atop the vertical black bar) reveals widgets like the Search box.

HughesPoem
The image atop this post comes from a new reading of the classic Langston Hughes poem Let America Be America Again, published in 1936.  On one hand, it is discouraging that the poem is still so timely.  Indeed, a speech from 1910 by Theodore Roosevelt is still timely and sounds remarkably like what Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are saying today.  We have frittered away so much of the hard-won partial progress made since 1910 and 1936.  On the other hand, …

Slavomir Rawicz planned and led a small group’s escape from a prison camp in the Siberian Gulag in 1941.  About 9 months and 3000 miles later, the 4 survivors reached safety in India, having walked (with a little crudely improvised equipment and w/o maps) thru Siberian snow, the Gobi Desert, and high passes in the Himalayas.  Details are in his book The Long Walk.

There are many sane and decent people in the USA, and some of them may have the grit and ingenuity of Slavomir Rawicz and his companions.  In my own small way, I will try to help and will keep Yogi Berra’s Law in mind.

Having flown my flag inverted (as a protest) for a few days after the electoral disaster of 2016, I put it away.  The meaning of inversion would no longer be clear.  In the spring of 2017, I bought a new flag (larger and US-made) for occasions like July 4th, when flying the flag upright would not look so much like general approval of the way things are going.  Ceding patriotic symbols to bigots and plutocrats would be a tactical error.

Maybe I should be doing other things today, but I came across the new reading of the poem.  Despite not having burst mode on my camera, I then lucked into a good snapshot of my flag waving proudly.  As usual, I teared up when a radio station played The Battle Hymn of the Republic.  Tonight, I will both smile and yawn when neighborhood fireworks keep me up late.  Tomorrow, the sane and decent people can return to the work of redeeming the promise of this day.

flag_716x632

Happy July 4th!

humor, language, politics, science

Writing Well – Part 5

Typing just [Enter] key into the Search box makes it easy to browse WordPress blogs like this one.  Here, the [Menu] button (atop the vertical black bar) reveals widgets like the Search box.

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

Typing just [Enter] key into the Search box makes it easy to browse WordPress blogs like this one.  Here, the [Menu] button (atop the vertical black bar) reveals widgets like the Search box.

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.