July 12, 2007

Vous avez attaché votre chien au toit de votre voiture?

One criticism of Our Only President back when he was just One Candidate for the Republican Party’s Nomination was that he was ... intellectually incurious. On the other hand, he spoke fluent Spanish! Or, well, no, he didn’t really. Anyway, on the idea that a person must have some intellectual curiosity if he or she is willing to spend a few years learning a language (or, alternately, that the ability to speak more than one language may well spark intellectual curiosity), Your Humble Blogger brings to your attention the list according to Language Log of The Linguistic Abilities of the Presidential Candidates. Mr. Poser’s list of candidates is not identical to mine, but most of the likeliest candidates are there.

One could, probably, write something both witty and biting about American monolingualism, American exceptionalism and how frequently we wind up with a set of candidates who never picked up any other languages. But one is still living out of boxes, isn’t one?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

March 27, 2007

Scatter ye your links upon the waters

Clearly, Your Humble Blogger will never again have the opportunity to devote a period of sustained concentration to thinking, or for that matter to typing. I am just about able to bookmark the odd thing of interest, to indicate to myself the possibility of perhaps thinking about it, and then perhaps, if I thought any particularly thinky thoughts, writing about it. Sadly, this will not happen. So, just in case some Gentle Reader would like to think my thinky thoughts for me, here are some of the things I have considered thinking about recently...

  • Mark Schmitt had a long piece in Democracy called Mismatching Funds. Let’s be clear—I didn’t even finish reading this one.
  • Among the zillion potentially-interesting things brought to my attention by the Foreign Policy blog was this note on the demographics of the Middle East (and China), pointing out that a majority of men are still single by the time they reach 30. I think I would have had something to say about demographics and numbers, possibly in conjunction with the article I didn’t bookmark about how there were more unmarried women than married women in America, and how that was so clearly a totally different thing.
  • A note by Matthew Yglesias about Teams mentions that Senator Clinton has essentially retained the more interventionist elements of President Clinton’s foreign policy team, but Barack Obama has some of the “less militaristic ones”. This reminded me that I don’t think I have mentioned Your Massive Election Central Guide To 2008 Prez Campaign Staffs. They claim that they will be updating it regularly, but ... not so much, lately. Well, they’ve been busy. Anyway, the list is mostly baffling at this point, because I haven’t done the important step of finding out who the hell everybody is. But when I keep hocking about how important it is to know who the candidates advisors will be? These people probably won’t be in the inner circle of policy advisors, but they very likely have worked for the people who will be.
  • Just in case it comes up:
    Heut' kommt der Franz zu mir
    Freut sich die Lies.
    Ob er aber über Oberammergau
    Oder aber über Unterammergau
    Oder aber überhaupt nicht kommt
    Ist nicht gewiss
  • I came across The Wikipedia Game, and it sounds moderately entertaining, and besides, a useful introduction to the idea of hypertext. I may well be attempting to introduce a gentleman who is entirely unfamiliar with computers to the World Wide Web soon, and I am looking for tips and tricks. The problem will be (I think) the basic paradigm, which I learned so long ago I don’t remember not knowing it.
  • It is far too late to purchase things from the auction of Angels Star Collection of Film & TV Costumes, but I draw your attention to a truly unfortunate waistcoat. Nice sporran, though. On a philosophical note, discovering that many of the Doctor Who outfits were used for promotions only, rather than in the filming of episodes, radically decreased my interest in them. Why? I mean, the costumes were made by Angels, who made the used-in-filming costumes. They were made for the actors, and worn by them. They are real costumes, vaddevah dat means. But not real enough, somehow.
  • Those persons interested in the conversations recently about anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, and about Judaism and Zionism, and all that, may well be nearly as fascinated as I was by the Foreward and Introduction to a 2005 web publication of Steve Cohen’s 1985 booklet That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Anti-Semitic. The host and publisher, Engage, decided to republish the thing, and then found out that, to quote from Jane Ashworth’s introduction, “he turned out an Introduction with which I hardly agree on any point.” They published it anyway.
  • The Republicans are part of an Internationalist movement? Who knew? (answer: Wikipedia, of course, and Mark Liberman over at the Language Log)
  • No link, but the question was brought up at Purim time: To what extent is Mordechai a model for the Diaspora Jew? To what extent is Persia under Ahasueros a model for what the Diaspora should be? Should a good Jew have knelt to Haman, rather than setting off a genocidal rampage? Should a good Jew have avoided Haman, rather than confronting him at the gate with a refusal to kneel?
  • George Lardner Jr. writes in the New York Times about the presidential pardon in A High Price for Freedom. He makes some good points, and lays out some interesting parts of the history, but he concludes by saying “No matter what one thinks of the folks in the White House, it seems clear that they have been put in a bind by the Supreme Court’s bad precedents.” Er, no. They have been put in a bind by breaking the law. True, the Supreme Court isn’t all that helpful, here, but they did not put Our Only President in a bind. As unofficial communications advisor to the next Democratic Administration, may I suggest the following memo go out to all staff to be appointed?
    As has been seen in recent years, the POTUS can be embarrassed by requests for pardons, and the decision whether or not to pardon a staff member has no good outcome. Therefore, in order to facilitate the advancement of our agenda, to govern effectively, and to serve our President and our Country, the White House requests that all employees follow the fucking laws, you cocksuckers!

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 21, 2006

Hot dog! Getcher hot dog! Hot dogs heeyah!

Bill Poser over at the Language Log alerts me to the story about the Black Mountains Smokery at Crickhowell in Powys. It seems that the Powys County Council Trading Standards was required to inform the company that the packaging of one of their products violated the 1996 Food Labelling Act, in that the Welsh Dragon Sausage did not, in fact, contain any dragon meat whatsoever.

The obvious punchline: Their popular brand of [item], however, was approved for continued sale. But what’s the funniest thing to put into it? Do you continue with the mythical creature line and use Unicorn Patties? That’s funny. Something ever-so-slightly off color, like Spotted Dick? That’s funny, too. There’s the referential joke, Crunchy Frog. There’s the sudden leap into bad taste, using something like Kitten Links, or even Jelly Babies. There’s the non sequitur absurdity, along the lines of bicycle pump embuchado. So many paths.

Sadly, as happens so often, the actual story is less funny than the story I was told. It seems that the local council decided that in a product line of sausages that clearly indicated the meat, having one that clearly did not indicate meat might well be misleading. The BBC quotes a spokesman: “I don't think anyone would imagine that dragon meat was being used but we would not want vegetarians to buy the sausages believing they were meat free.” And, actually, that’s mildly persuasive. Unlike the sausage, which doesn’t appear mild at all.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

September 18, 2006

I like your socks

There’s a sort of misconception running around—there! Get it! Quick! Damn, it got—there it goes!


Many people seem to think that having one’s sympathies with the descriptivists rather than the prescriptivists means that you can’t make fun of people’s mistakes in writing and speaking. True, the descriptivist is less likely to mock people for using hopefully to describe the speaker of the sentence, rather than the verb. The descriptivist can’t manage to get worked up over split infinitives, sentence-ending prepositions and the oxford comma. When faced with a common pronunciation of, oh, the word nuclear that does not conform to phonics, the descriptivist might quietly grind her teeth, but she is aware that worse things happen in war, and after all meaning is not being compromised.

Fortunately for the snarky descriptivist (and isn’t that a name for a blog—much better than Language Log, doncha think?), people make actual errors all the time. Not made-up errors, but honest-to-Betsy, flies undone, can’t-believe-I-said-that errors. Sometimes this takes the form of using the wrong one of a pair of Words Easily Confused

For instance? Why, Gentle Reader, what makes you think I had any particular thing in mind? Well, all right, just as an example, then, and only because you asked so nicely, and it’s a pleasure doing things for such polite Readers, I’ll mention that at the end of Changes afoot for downtown businesses, Karen A. Chase (who is quite nice, actually) quotes Billy Morrison and Kenneth Ober (both of whom are also quite nice) about the Morrison Gallery moving next door to the Ober Gallery. “‘We will compliment each other,’ they both said.”

I’m sure they will. After all, they are both very nice. In fact, YHB has been complimented by both Mr. Morrison and Mr. Ober. Coincidentally, both fellows said very nice things about YHB’s keen eye for art, sophisticated judgment and discerning taste. Now that I think about it, just about any time YHB has been in a commercial gallery, somebody has said something nice about my keen eye, sophisticated judgment and discerning taste. You know, Gentle Reader, if you are even in dire need of a compliment, you cannot do better than to dress as if you are just a bit more affluent than you are, go to a gallery, and say “I like this one.” It will turn out—surprise!—that you have a keen eye, sophisticated judgment and discerning taste.

Well, assuming that you are gesturing at a work of art for sale. If you are talking about the staff, you’re on your own.

Anyway, I think it’s swell that Mssrs Morrison and Ober have galleries next to each other, and will be able to spend any spare time when the customers are away honing those skills on each other. Particularly since the two galleries specialize in such different works of art, which I think makes the collections seem to fill each other’s gaps. I wonder if they thought of that, or if they did, why they didn’t mention it to Ms. Chase?

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

September 3, 2006

Book Report: Any Old Iron

What YHB should probably do is knock out a half-dozen Book Reports, just because being so far behind makes the thing seem more like a chore and less like a treat. Particularly since my shallow reading habits force books to recede into dimness incredibly quickly, to the point where I am somewhat skeptical about having read the book at all. Like Our Only President’s “three Shakespeares”.

Digression: The odd thing is that the idiom doesn’t work. As Geoff Nunberg writes over at the Language Log, a museum can have three Picassos, a woman can own three Vera Wangs, and I can read three Bujolds, but you can’t read three Shakespeares. I’m not sure I agree that as a general rule you can do it with crap authors (three Clancys, three Paretskys, three Cornwells) but not with good authors (three Hemingways, three Hammetts, three Updikes). I don’t even think it’s playwrights (They did three Shaws last season, three Stoppards, three Ibsens). I think it’s perfectly reasonable for somebody to assume that you can do the same with the works of William. But you can’t. End Digression.

Anyway, what I remember most about Any Old Iron is the rhythm of the language. Every few chapters there would be some bit—maybe a short passage, maybe a five-page aria—that just begged to be read aloud. And even in between those high points, the language rolled around my mouth as I was reading it silently. It slows a fellow down, to read like that. Now, not all of it was good, you understand, just insistently rhythmic.

Mr. Burgess does love language, and he lets himself go. And in addition to his penchant for sesquipedalian obscurance and playful neologism, he doesn’t like to let a word have only two meanings. The title, f’r’ex, refers not only the street peddler’s cry but to the sword Excalibur, and to blood, and to irony, and is, besides, a dick joke. The three words can be given different meaning depending on context, and on how they are said. The junkman’s search for any old iron, anything and everything, works against the reference to Excalibur as being just any old iron, a bit of uselessness and rust. Is it good to be old, or bad? Both, of course, and more besides. Which will also slow down a reader. Even if, as also happens, the wordplay is just for its own sake, and without any particular point to it.

Digression: I will say that Mr. Burgess uses language with a sort of authority which would allow him to write “three Shakespeares” if he wanted to without sounding like a fool. People don’t talk like that? So what? They could. Perhaps they will, someday. Or perhaps they do in this book. They do if Mr. Burgess says they do. He’s after something more than imitation, and if he’s off-key, he’s got wicked timbre. Which makes it interesting that Our Only President doesn’t have that ability, nor (of course) does he have the ear that Our Previous President had for imitation. Winston Churchill had the first, which is even better, but the second can meet with success as well. Our Only President seems to get along well without either, though. End Digression.

As for the plot and characters, well, the plot is just one damned thing after another, and the characters are grotesqueries without sympathy. Mr. Burgess is half Charles Dickens and half James Joyce, and half H.L. Mencken, and probably another third something else altogether. And then in on top of all that, there’s Mr. Burgess himself. It’s too much. And not enough. Or something. I’m not sure what.

One thing that’s interesting about the book is that it’s clearly a book meant to be studied, rather than read, which is gratifying but annoying. Gratifying to be taken seriously and challenged and whatnot, but annoying to be made to work so hard, for an uncertain reward. It makes a nice break from reading my lovely space operas, and then makes my lovely space operas a nice break from reading it.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

February 19, 2006

fade to black

Via a Language Log entry, an attempt on Listable to list the Best Last Lines of English-Language novels.

Of course, the Best is “a far, far better thing” from A Tale of Two Cities. This suffers a bit from being taken out of context, but this is what happens with last lines (more than first lines, of course). You can read a list of a hundred or so first lines, and some of them will be really intriguing and make you want to read the book, and some will remind you of the feeling you had at the start of a book, when everything was new. Last lines, if you haven’t read the book, can’t be particularly evocative, so the only option is nostalgia, and the feeling evoked is the end-of-book feeling, which is often sad and occasionally disappointed, even when the last line is really good. And, of course, if you haven’t read the book, a really powerful last line may not mean anything at all, and even if you once read it, it’s possible you will have forgotten why that line in particular worked.

For instance, and I’m not sure I’m really nominating this for a Great Last Lines list, the last line of Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs is “I never knew who my father was.” It’s Tarzan speaking, and he is lying, of course, but he has decided not to claim his title, nor Jane’s heart, so he lies to Jane’s fiancé, Clayton, who with the heir dead holds the Greystoke title. It’s rather affecting, really. But would you, coming on a list of Great Last Lines and seeing

  • “I never knew who my father was.” -Tarzan of the Apes, Edgar Rice Burroughs
have any idea what it was doing there, or why that was a good Last Line? In fact, I think you could argue that a really good book with a really good ending will have a Last Line like that, where it is powerful when you read it at the end of the book, but has no power (or perhaps makes no sense) if you just pick it out and put it in a list. I mean, yes, the Last Line should have a kick to it, so such a list would make more sense than, say, a list of Lines-at-the-top-of-page-117, but not as much more as you might think.

That said, you knew, Gentle Reader, that YHB would not be able to resist. So here, for your enjoyment, are a handful of Last Lines, not the Best Ever, but lines I like from novels I like (for the most part) that I happened to have to hand.

  • No one will ever make a tragedy—and that is as well, for one could not bear it—whose grief is that the principals never met. -The Mask of Apollo, Mary Renault
  • It was not till they had examined the rings that they recognized who it was. -The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
  • Advertise, or go under -Murder Must Advertise, Dorothy L. Sayers
  • And they walked away together through the hole in the wall, back into the darkness, leaving nothing behind them; not even the doorway. -Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman
  • “Well, send her in.” -The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett
  • He was very hungry that season. -A Canticle for Liebowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  • He never left the forest again. -Magister Ludi, or The Bead Game, Herman Hesse
  • “My reason will still not understand why I pray, but I shall still pray, and my life, my whole life, independently of anything that may happen to me, is every moment of it no longer meaningless as it was before, but has an unquestionable meaning of goodness with which I have the power to invest it.” -Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy, Louise and Aylmer Maude, trans.
  • I should hope, then, that by the time of my employer’s return, I shall be in a position to pleasantly surprise him. -The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro
  • He gave me merry hell. -Red Harvest, Dashiell Hammett
  • But I know that my dearest little pets are very pretty, and that my darling is very beautiful, and that my husband is very handsome, and that my guardian has the brightest and most benevolent face that ever was seen; and that they can very well do without much beauty in me—even supposing— -Bleak House, Charles Dickens
  • ”Thank goodness!” said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco-jar. -The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien
  • To Nurse Edna, who was in love, and to Nurse Angela, who wasn’t (but who had in her wisdom named both Homer Wells and Fuzzy Stone), there was no fault to be found in the hearts of either Dr. Stone or Dr. Larch, who were—if there ever were—Princes of Maine, Kings of New England. -The Cider House Rules, John Irving
  • Men are only men. -The King Must Die, Mary Renault
  • The knife came down, missing him by inches, and he took off. -Catch-22, Joseph Heller
  • And all that cal. �A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
  • Which do you think it was? -Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, Lewis Carroll
  • He loved Big Brother. -1984, George Orwell
  • South-south-west, south, south-east, east ... -Brave New World, Aldous Huxley

Well, that’s enough for a while, yes?

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

January 11, 2006

A blogger's perogative?

Five Things I Have Been Persuaded to Change My Mind about Since College:

Note: These are not things that I have changed my mind about due to exposure (such as a newfound fondness for Early Music or the realization that there is a reason to drink decaffeinated tea). These are issues, mostly minor ones, where somebody expressed a view that I hadn’t held before, and I subsequently Changed My Mind based on that expression. I also include the presentation of new evidence as part of persuasion, if the evidence was (in my memory) arranged as a persuasive tactic, rather than being sort of independently uncovered. For instance, the revelation that the Ba’athists in Iraq did not, in fact, have a stockpile of chemical and biological weapons was not presented (to me) as part of an effort to persuade me that the invasion was misguided, although it would have been a useful part of such persuasion.

  • Batting Average is inferior to On Base Percentage and Slugging Percentage as either a measure of past performance or a measure of future performance. Although in my teens I did more or less adopt the idea that a .300 hitter might be a “soft” .300 hitter, I generally took HR and RBI as a sufficient way to complement BA. It wasn’t until I started reading Baseball Prospectus and Baseball Primer (now part of the Baseball Think Factory) that I really Changed My Mind about BA.
  • It’s OK to use literally as an intensifier, singular they, and hopefully to describe the speaker. By the end of my college days, I was becoming more of a descriptivist and less of a prescriptivist, understanding that much of prescriptivism was William Safire getting to decide who was in the Semi-colon Club. Still, there were some things that just bugged me. The boys over at Language Log have used a variety of means to persuade me to give some of those up, mostly historical examples. For instance, it’s clear that literally has been used as an intensifier at least as long as really, and that as they essentially mean the same thing, there is no reason to allow one and disallow the other. Words mean what people say they mean.
  • Even if personal property is a fiction, it is both a useful and a necessary fiction. Don’t be alarmed, I still call myself a socialist. But even though I still have been unable to persuade myself that personal property exists in any philosophically meaningful sense, I have been persuaded (by Gentle Readers, among others) that any social system with a reasonable chance at either justice or stability needs to include some version of property rights (albeit not necessarily placing them at a high priority or considering them sacrosanct). To some extent, I must admit that this change of view is related to the aging process and the accumulation of Stuff that has gone along with it, but mostly I think it has been actual suasion.
  • Damn, that’s only three. Hm. Steroids are bad for baseball. Mostly, I don’t much care, one way or another, but my previous feeling was that on the whole people wanted bigger, better athletes, and therefore it was in baseball’s interest to provide them. After the recent revelations, I think that a large amount of baseball’s fan base does, whether I agree with them or not, draw the line at performance-enhancing chemicals that are not widely available over-the-counter, and therefore baseball would risk alienating that fan base by encouraging or even allowing widespread use. And since baseball does, I think I perceive, rely more on its fan base than other major league American sports do, and less on casual ticket-buyers and television-watchers, they oughtn’t alienate their fan base. I’m not sure this really should count as persuasion rather than exposure, since mostly it was exposure (in conversation and on the Baseball Primer) to people who persuaded me that (a) they were fans, and (2) they did draw the line at steroids, and enjoyed the game less because of them. A combination, you understand.
  • There really was an organized attempt by people within the Republican Party, using the Republican Party resources and structure, to subvert the will of the people in the Ohio Presidential Election in 2004, resulting in an essentially fraudulent choice of electors, and therefore a misfire in who holds the office of President. This is not, by the way, the Black Box theory, that holds that the machines made by Diebold did not count votes correctly, although that may also have happened. This is about closed polling places and otherwise suppressed turnout in predominantly Democratic areas, in a deliberate attempt to deny people their franchise. I know some Gentle Readers thought that was obvious from the beginning, and others still think it’s crazy talk. My own initial reaction was that such accusations stemmed from the frustrations of the Democrats at losing another election that they felt they ought to have won, together with the sort of wildcat voter-suppression activities that have always been part of the system. Since then, though, I have been persuaded that there really was an organized effort to suppress the vote, and that the effort was effectively organized within and by a profoundly corrupt State Party.

That’s five. I’m not sure I could come up with very many more. It would be easy to come up with Five Things I’ve Changed My Mind About Since College, which would include things such as my willingness to change the Hebrew in the prayerbook for greater inclusiveness, or that I actually do want to raise at least one child, but the fact that this is much harder to do makes it more interesting. I don’t think it’s coincidence that four of the five don’t particularly require me to change my actions, and the other just requires that I refrain from some complaining that I used to do. The things that involve actually doing something (like changing my diet, say, or my reading habits, or my purchasing patterns, or exercising, or like that) are more likely to change only after prolonged exposure, rather than through conversation. That doesn’t mean that rhetoric, as one aspect of the exposure, didn’t play a large part in that exposure, but it wasn’t sufficient. Of course, that’s all going by my own interpretations of my memories; it’s likely that others would have perceived different causes and effects.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

October 24, 2005

It's the truth, it's factual

I am awfully fond of the boys over at the Language Log, despite my occasional complaints about them. One of the things that I like about them is their ability to maintain a posture of astonished outrage each time a news or pop culture item reveals the total ignorance of and indifference to academic linguistics prevalent in the world at large. Their dogged persistence in being entertainingly miffed by each instance of the Eskimos have 50 words for snow trope. Their constant alarm at journalistic incompetence in matters grammatical, syntactical and, um, somethin’ else. And their magnificent intolerance for falsehoods about language.

The latest instance that brought it to mind is Geoffrey K. Pullum’s note on Invariably followed by the phrase, in which he is shocked—shocked—that Nancy Franklin in the New Yorker could write that Hillary Clinton’s name “is invariably followed these days by the phrase "who may or may not run for president in 2008."” It turns out that the Senator’s name is never, or nearly never followed by that exact phrase, nor with any phrase particularly close to it. Mr. Pullum claims to be puzzled by “the practice of needlessly making true claims about nonlinguistic matters into false claims about linguistic material.”

That started me thinking—is the claim false? Mr. Pullum admits that the sense of the statement is simply that Hillary Clinton’s potential candidacy is widely and frequently discussed. For the moment, let’s take that to be true; my sense is that most people who are talking about Sen. Clinton these days touch on her potential candidacy, although many people who are talking about the presidential race are not talking about her. Still, the vaguer statement has the journalistic advantage of being false primarily in its vagueness, and is neither provable nor disprovable, and does not (I think) imply to the reader that any research has been done on the matter. But what claim does the invariably followed sentence make that is less true than the other? Surely, Ms. Franklin did not intend her readers to believe it to be true as stated. The idea is preposterous. The line was a joke, surely, and one intended to, by misdirection, bring the reader around to her point. Is the falsehood, the inaccuracy, of her statement any greater than the inaccuracy of something like ‘the autumn leaves have given up, demoralized by the rain and wind, happy to let go of the shivering branches, eager to be consumed in the heat of the bonfire.’ I mean, no, they weren’t. It's a figure of speech.

If the Eskimos have fifty words for snow, how many words are there in English for saying something that isn’t true? There are lies, of course, and falsehoods, and mistakes, and errors and inaccuracies and deceptions and delusions. There’s overstatement and understatement and misstatement. There are fictions, of course, and stories and myths and so on. There is auxesis and accismus, there’s metaphor and irony, there’s the fib and the fish story, the brag and the boast, the whopper and the white lie, hyperbole and litotes, euphemism and cacemphaton. There’s the mockumentary, the satire, the fictionalized bio-pic, the autobiographical novel, the composite figure. Each of these things is something a trifle different. Some untruths are deliberate, some are inadvertent, some are sloppy, some are pointed, some aren’t even false. I’m pretty sure there’s a word, and I could Google for it of course, for the statement that you think is false, but is true unbeknownst. If, as references to the Eskimo’s vocabulary are intended to state, a detailed and extensive vocabulary on a subject reveals a cultural obsession, then what does all this say about us? And is it true?

And how many words are there for snow in English, Gentle Reader?

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

July 28, 2005

This article is definitely, um, er, yes

Given only a small amount of time at the computer these days, YHB has spent way way too much of it enjoying the discussion of thee and thuh over at the Language Log. Since the conversation has become wide-ranging, David Beaver writes about The The, the The The, and The Who, and brings up an odd little notion that sticks in my mind concerning the capitalization of the article in band names. He points out that devotees of The The are unlikely to refer to them as the The. On the other hand, Dead-heads and unDead-heads alike would refer to the Grateful Dead, rather than The Grateful Dead. This is not so much because of the joke; one refers to The Who rather than the Who. Part of this is how strongly the the is part of the name of the band (unlike the Talking Heads, because the name of that band is Talking Heads). Try various bands in the sentence “I have four [band name] albums”:

I have four Grateful Dead albums
rather than
I have four The Grateful Dead albums

Clearly, though, a person would have four The The albums, and would never have four The albums. But where to other bands fall? One has four Beatles albums, or four Klezmatics albums, but four The Band albums, or (I think) four The Cars albums. Well, I wouldn’t say “four The Cars albums”, but it also would be awkward to say “four Cars albums”; I suppose I would have four albums by The Cars. OK, a couple of lists:

  • The Cranberries
  • The Clash
  • The Cramps
  • The Cure
  • The Ink Spots
  • The Kinks
  • The Mr. T Experience
  • The Police
  • The Proclaimers
  • The Specials


  • Beatles
  • B-52s
  • Go-Go’s
  • Magnetic Fields
  • Monkees
  • Pogues
  • Pretenders
  • Ramones
  • Rolling Stones
  • Smiths

Do I have those right? Is this something idiosyncratic, or is there general agreement about bands and the def article?

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

July 7, 2005

linkity, linkity, link link, laroo

As Your Humble Blogger has a moment, but not much more:

  • Arnold Zwicky at Language Log notes today's annoying bureaucratic noun-noun compound: Newsrack Ordinance Compliance Violation Warning and Impoundment Notice: Corrective Action Required. This is pretty impressive. Although really there are only five consecutive nouns, it gets compounded with a double-noun and then the writer appended a three word phrase where all the words are really verbs at heart. The thing is, is the thing headed by this phrase a warning and a notice? Or is it a warning notice? Is warning a separate noun (modified by violation, which is modified by compliance (well, it isn’t actually modified since there isn’t really anything a violation could be a violation of other than compliance, or at least should somebody violate non-compliance with the ordinance in question (the newsrack one), I doubt that it would require either a warning or a notice)) or is it just the kind of notice this is?
  • More seriously, Media Matters for America notes that while the country has moved to the right since Justice Bader Ginsberg was confirmed in office, at the time she was scarcely considered a lefty. Any comparison between the upcoming conversation about Our Only President’s nomination and the conversation in 1993 should really take that into account. It isn’t just that her name was suggested by Senator Hatch (R-UT), either. There was a (possibly apocryphal) story that when Justice Scalia was asked, in one of those jolly semi-public chats which the Justice thinks are good for the court and which I think are very bad for it indeed, which Justice he would most prefer to have with him on a desert island, he answered “Ruth Bader Ginsberg”. She was not on the Supreme Court at the time, of course, but had served with him on the Appellate Court, and they had got on famously. Anyway, I’m not saying that she isn’t to the left of the political mainstream at the moment, but she wasn’t (or at least wasn’t much) at the time. This has less to do with how much she has changed than with where the stream has flowed, but whichever, the idea that her relatively quiet process was due to Senatorial restraint is bosh. Oh, and while I’m at it, can we stop saying that modern confirmation battles started when the Democrats defeated Robert Bork’s nomination? The battles started when President Reagan nominated Mr. Bork. Again, it may be hard to remember this, but eighteen years ago, Mr. Bork’s views were not in the mainstream.
  • John McGowan, over at Michael Berubé’s blog, has another one of the long, provocative posts that I’ve come to expect from him. This one, on the rhetorics of violence, contains a variety of interesting takes on how violence and rhetoric interact. In particular, although violence can act as rhetoric (by “sending a message”), by privileging the rhetorical nature over the physical, we set up conditions for eliding violence and rhetoric, possibly to the point where we will commit violence to “send a message” without regard to the violence itself and our actual, rather than rhetorical, victims. Also, though he doesn’t make a point of it, it’s important to point out that the nature of rhetorical symbolism is such that the message we send is not necessarily the message they receive, and vice versa, so we should be particularly careful when using or interpreting actions as symbols for messages. Mr. McGowan, by the way, was a guest blogger for Mr. Berubé (to go back to a previous topic); he and his siblings have an interesting blog called Public Intelligence, which now appears to have fixed the vicious anti-Firefox problem, so I’ve added them to my read-this list.
  • It’s not a link to anything, but boy is airline travel annoying. I’m still, in general, against federal law to define some Passengers’ Bill O’Rights, but I am reconsidering my opposition to putting the executives of American, United, Delta, Continental, Southwest, Northwest, America West, Midwest, Skywest, and British West India all in one burlap sack with all their database architects, customer service trainers, operations managers and web designers, and deregulating that sack with a lead pipe until it squishes. You know, just to send a message.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

May 31, 2005

Fish, barrel, content

Stanley Fish’s a column in this morning’s New York Times is Devoid of Content. No, that’s the headline. Now, it’s like shooting, um, well, look, I’m trying really hard not to be too snarky, OK?

Prof. Fish doesn’t make it easy on me. He begins by stating calling “most [new college graduates] utterly unable to write a clear and coherent English sentence.” Here’s one: Fuck you, prof! Here’s another: Bite me! Now, it may be that Prof. Fish is simply engaging in hyperbole, rather than libel, and he simply means that, um, I don’t actually know. The percentage of college graduates who really cannot write the above clear English sentence has got to be below ten percent, even including non-traditional, distance, and incarcerated students. So most is not so much hyperbole as lying. It’s possible that he meant that most college graduates, in writing, often make errors of grammar and spelling, as well as showing a certain deficiency of style. The hyperbole then is in the description of their level of competence; since this also describes Your Humble Blogger, I’d be inclined to call that lying as well. That may just be me, but what he’s done so far is to annoy me and make me skeptical of his conclusions.

Those conclusions?

Most composition courses that American students take today emphasize content rather than form, on the theory that if you chew over big ideas long enough, the ability to write about them will (mysteriously) follow. The theory is wrong. Content is a lure and a delusion, and it should be banished from the classroom. Form is the way.

Now, I’m not convinced that most American students actually take composition courses, but I haven’t studied it. I’m certainly not convinced that most of the courses that students do take “emphasize content rather than form”, and of those that can be said to, I can’t imagine that anybody on the curriculum committee involved would agree that “if you chew over big ideas long enough, the ability to write about them will (mysteriously) follow.” That theory is nonsense. On the other hand, it is certainly possible that some composition courses are set up on the idea that writing should be about something, that an essay of whatever kind should have a point, and that point should be made out of some sort of knowledge. That doesn’t seem preposterous to me.

However, here we have an argument; teaching form, rather than content, leads to students who can write sentences. OK, I’m game, tell me about it. He does. Prof. Fish describes to me an introductory linguistics course, which teaches English grammar by inventing a new one, more or less on the old basis that it’s easier to learn grammar in a foreign language. I agree with that basis, having learned most of what I know about English grammar in introductory German, and the rest in paging through a Latin text. Geoffrey Pullum, over at Language Log, reports that real linguistics profs at Prof. Fish’s institution seem to think the class goes pretty well, and I for one think there’s a good argument to be made for requiring a certain amount of linguistics, at least for students of literature and languages.

In the course of this, er, course, the students seem to learn a lot about constructing a language, as well as how to make the prof happy. He describes two moments of particular pride, one when a student asks a process-oriented question revealing (I suppose) some understanding of the assignment, if not of the English language, and one when a student restricts the conversation in class to what Prof. Fish wants to hear. And, you know, I’m glad that Prof. Fish gets those happy moments; we all could use a happy moment now and then. On the other hand, Prof. Fish shows no evidence whatsoever that the students now, in their writing, regularly construct grammatically perfect and coherent English sentences. Certainly he shows no evidence that they can write good paragraphs, or essays, or descriptions, or narratives, or arguments, or anything like that, but he’s indicated he has no interest in that, so we’ll give him a pass on the thing that seem actually important to me. No, let’s concentrate on what he says is important: writing a coherent sentence.

In fact, the only evidence he gives about his students competence in writing coherent sentences is that at the beginning of the class, possibly on the very first day, although his writing is unclear on this point, each of his students is able to give him a sentence, “all perfectly coherent and all quite different.” Um, so he’s saying that first-year college students can, when asked, write a coherent English sentence, but most graduates are “utterly unable” to do so? And, by the way, that’s it. We get no evidence that the students improve at that, or any other aspect of composition. It may well be that learning the details of how English expresses manner, tense, and mood improve sentence-writing (I’m inclined to think it would), but Prof. Fish gives us no reason to believe it or not to. In fact, his essay is rather conspicuously devoid of content.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

May 30, 2005

which that which

I know that not every Gentle Reader gets all het up about grammar. Well, as with Jon Carroll’s cats, you have been warned.

Arnold Zwicky, over at language log, has been on a kick, lately, about the which/that rule. It began, more or less, with Don't do this at home, kiddies!, wherein he mocks William Safire for dispensing a Great Writer Exception allowing Saul Bellow to use which in a restrictive clause. Among the other problems, Mr. Zwicky points out that it is perfectly permissible to use which in a restrictive clause, and that the so-called ‘rule’ about it is simply the expressed preference of H.W. Fowler, who by preference wanted to reduce choices, or at least to increase the number of situations in which there is only one ‘correct’ word to be used. This makes it easier to tell the educated from the miseducated, although it doesn’t do much for language and literature.

OK, to go back. If you are putting in a nonrestrictive relative, that is, a clause that describes a thing you have already fully identified, you introduce the phrase with the word which, as in Confusion Corner, which is a sort of Y. That comes pretty naturally to people, and doesn’t seem to cause much confusion. We don’t use that for such clauses, as in Confusion Corner, that is a sort of Y. It sounds clunky, and although there was a time when you would come across that sort of thing, by my grandfathers’ time (and H.W. Fowler’s), it was Not Done.

If, however, the clause is intended to further define the thing, it is a restrictive relative, as in one of those corners which are sort of Ys. Such clauses are introduced either with which or that; it would be perfectly proper to say one of those corners that are sort of Ys. Either is fine. Both sorts are used in formal English. Grammar books allow either. True, Mr. Fowler felt that it seemed only fair for which, having forced that out of nonrestrictive clauses, to withdraw from restrictive ones, but he admitted that it did not in fact do so, nor has it done so in the last eighty years.

One reason that Mr. Fowler’s preference didn’t take may be that as a rule it is entirely unnecessary. Take a phrase I used recently: it wouldn’t shock me to see legislation introduced as part of the package that would expressly prevent the new money from interfering with corporate governance. If I had instead written ... as part of the package which would expressly prevent ..., would any Gentle Reader be misled? That is, is it at all likely that a person reading the which version would think “oh, well, he’s using which so my Humble Blogger must have simply meant that he would be surprised to see legislation introduced, the clause not being restrictive in nature.” No. even in a convoluted sentence like mine above, there is no real possibility for confusion on that matter. The confusion would be because the sentence itself meanders, and might better have been it wouldn’t shock me to see, as part of the package, legislation which/that would expressly prevent the new money from interfering with corporate governance, thus eliminating the possibility that the clause in question modifies the package next to it, rather than the legislation on the other side. But which or that is a stylistic choice. Replacing one with the other does not muddy the meaning.

True, there are circumstances where using which might, conceivably, lead a person to wonder if the sentence is mispunctuated. It’s easy enough to construct such circumstances. He played music which was inappropriate for the occasion might be an error for He played music, which was inappropriate for the occasion, whereas He played music that was inappropriate for the occasion mightn’t. I’ll add two points about that. First, such circumstances although easy to construct do not actually occur in the wild with any great frequency. Second, it seems silly to me to declare a general rule because on occasion its lack might lead somebody to wonder if a real mistake has been made. If we trust the author’s punctuation and proofreading, then we don’t have a problem with which. If we don’t trust the author’s punctuation and proofreading, then perhaps we oughtn’t trust their word choice, either.

Besides, YHB wouldn’t take issue with a rule expressed as something like ‘when using which to introduce a restrictive clause, check to see if the resulting sentence might lead a person to doubt your punctuation and therefore your meaning, and consider using that instead.’ We think of them more as guidelines, arrrr.

However, many style manuals and such not only strongly prefer that in all restrictives but state that which is an error. Therefore, O Gentle Reader, take into account that the person who reads your writing may well not only think that which is bad usage, but may think that you are an ignoramus for not knowing the (nonexistent) rule. In general, screw ’em, but on the other hand, if you happen to be writing a college application essay, a cover letter, or even a formal essay for publication, you may want to swallow your stylistic pride and choose that even where which is more euphonious. Or not. You pays your money, you takes your chances. Be aware.

But don’t, please don’t, be one of those people who thinks that which users are ignorant. Do not mock Franklin Roosevelt for saying, correctly, that December 7, 1941 was a day which would live in infamy; it would not have been clearer or more grammatical had he used that. And for fuck’s sake, people, when the court writes that “The Texas statute furthers no legitimate state interest which can justify its intrusions into the personal and private life of the individual”, the clause is restrictive, and if you don’t think so, then you have been, in the words of Mr. Zwicky, Smokin' too much Fowler.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

April 16, 2005

Lex Hartmania

On the first of February last, Your Humble Blogger sent an email to Mark Liberman, of Language Log, in which I referred to Hartman’s Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation. Prof. Liberman made mention of it in a post two months later, as noted in this Tohu Bohu. I failed to notice, thereafter, that the post had been updated, to make note of two others who claimed the law in 1999. Verbatim editor Erim McKean, in the Summer of 1999, wrote “Call it McKean's Law: Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling, or typographical error.” A trifle earlier, that is, on April 26, someone calling himself Perchprism wrote, in response to someone calling himself Skitt “You've entered my vocabulary: Skitt's Law, a corollary of Murphy's Law, variously expressed as "any post correcting an error in another post will contain at least one error itself" or "the likelihood of an error in a post is directly proportional to the embarrassment it will cause the poster."” Evidently, this is fairly well known in the alt.usage.english community; it’s made it into wikipedia.

Digression: I note that Perchprism, or somebody using the same name, is a poster on the Little Green Footballs site, where posted under that name are such charming sentiments as “I want to see Islam destroyed. I want to see Medina and Mecca nuked. Islam is not a religion--it is a political cult.” As Perchprism is, I think, a Gormenghast character, it is perfectly possible that the Perchprism of LGF is not the Perchprism of AUE, and besides his political and theological opinions would not invalidate the formation of the Law in question. End Digression.

Anyway, Jed’s formulation predates either of those, but I don’t suppose that Jed was the first to think of it, nor do I suppose that Jed supposes that. Jesse Taylor at Pandagon formulated it four and a half years later, and I don’t imagine that Mr. Taylor was copying, either intentionally or unintentionally. Nothing here smacks of plagiarism.

No, the question here is twofold: what should we call the Law, and how should it be formulated. I would have said that the canonical formulation was the one Jed used: any article or statement about correct grammar, punctuation, or spelling is bound to contain at least one eror. Angelo Mercado at Sauvage Noble, however, calls it Lex Hartmania McCeania Scittiaque de talione ex grammaticism and formulates it thusly:

Qui/ae de regulis grammaticorum vel interpunctionis vel scriptionis monet, ipse/a caveat ne simile eret.

Let him/her who warns about rules of grammar or punctuation or writing him/herself beware lest s/he similarly er.

This brings up an important point: translating the translation back into a style more identifiably Jedish, we begin “If ta warns about rules of grammar, punctuation or writing, ta is bound to er taself.” Taself? Is there a reflexive declension of ta? Anyway, as appealing as the latin formation is, I think it misses the point: it is not that the prescriptivist will eventually er, which all prescriptivists must admit, it is that the piece of writing itself will contain erors. Erata. Thus the wikipedia formulation of Skitt’s Law: “Spelling or grammar flames always contain spelling or grammar errors”. This is appealing, and yet ... it is not just the flames that Hartman’s Law invokes, but the learned and rambling essays, the helpful note, the cogent analysis.

As for what to call it, using Google to indicate the spread of a phrase might actually be useful here, since we are dealing with such small numbers. “Hartman’s Law” gets about 44 ghits, but spreading, as “Hartman’s Law confirmed” gets about 22, all of course in the last month. “Skitt’s Law” gets 98 ghits, handily beating my host, while “McKean’s Law” gets only nine. I suspect that searching the usenet rather than the web would verify that it is known as Skitt’s Law most widely. Should we, then accept that it is Skitt’s Law? Skitt himself, of course, denies having formulated it, but that’s neither here nor there. I myself would prefer my friend and host achieve immortality through the law, although I must admit the step in between “widespread use of and familiarity with Hartman’s Law under that name” and “valuable cash and prizes for Your Humble Blogger” seems a bit difficult. On the whole, I would accept that it be called Skitt’s Law, but that Jed’s formulation be canonical. I suppose the only way to really solve the matter would be for Jed, Skitt and Ms. McKean to be locked in a steel cage to battle until only one survived. And yet, where would we find a steel cage at this time of day?

All of which takes the place of adding pants to song lyrics, or for that matter, doing any of the things I ought to be doing.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

April 4, 2005


Mark Liberman was certain to catch my eye with a piece on the Language Log called Hartman’s Law Confirmed Again. However, other than the reference to Hartman’s Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation (which, bye the bye, comes up first on a Google search for “Hartman’s Law” this morning, so sucks to any so-called iterated logarithm for explosive Gaussian autoregressive processes!), the content was dealing with joke Latin. So, we’ll pass lightly over that.

The location of the joke Latin in question, however, is the April Fool’s site for the March to End “Beg the Question” Abuse by Paolo Ordoveza, which was then noted by the livejournalist comma in a note called literal misreading. Comma defends the use of the phrase beg the question to mean something like raises the question or provokes the question; I find that use grating, and prefer to reserve the use for the rhetorical trick (or error) of petitio principii, for which begging the question is a bad translation, but the one that has come into (moderately) common use. OK, not very common.

That, actually, is comma’s argument; the handful of people who use the phrase in its relation to a logical fallacy shouldn’t impose their jargon on the rest of the world, who, after all, are “are combining the meanings of the words in accordance with the normal compositional rules of English semantics.” With, as he admits, “a little coercion”. In my opinion, a lot of coercion.

We don’t say that bland food begs the salt. We don’t say that a panhandler begs the money. In fact, if you were to take a moment from Googling “Hartman’s Law” you might find that “begs the ” has about 673 kghits, where “begs the question” has 630 kghits. This would lead a person to believe that 94% of usages of “begs the ” are as part of the idiom. Of course, believing that would be silly; kghits are a lousy and inaccurate measuring device. F’r’instance, “begs the question” +“begs the question” gets about 1,690 kghits, thus showing that over 250% of sites which contain the phrase begs the question also contain the phrase begs the question. Or, in an other and far more accurate sense, shows that there’s no real point in attempting to judge relative frequencies of juxtapositions of words via ghits.

Anyway, I do think that it’s preposterous to suggest that the idiom that means provokes the question arose independently (not that comma does suggest that, but the preposterousness of the claim he does not make is important to the claim he does make). No, what clearly happened is that people were aware, vaguely, that there was a phrase begging the question and that it was an idiom for something, and they took a guess what it was. The guess was wrong. It’s not surprising; the idiom is derived from a bad translation in the first place. But it was wrong. It’s as if, knowing that educated persons with a pretension to culture occasionally use whom where once might expect who, a person were to guess that whom indicated relative importance, or the gender or age of the person referenced, or the case of the pronoun’s declension, instead of, as is correct, the added m merely being a signal that the speaker is a pretentious git.

But why get worked up over this, or over oxymoron? Well, for YHB, there’s the crankiness that comes from a pedant’s pet phrase being clumsily coopted by the bellowing yahoos circumjacent, but there’s also the matter of careful speech versus sloppy speech. We whom are interested in rhetoric are touchy on the matter of sloppy speech anyway; we may not be prescriptivists all, but we like our language change to be the result of something more than just slop. And begs the question seems to me unnecessary and unfelicitous in its casual use. I think Mr. Ordoveza puts it best:

Already, philosophical arguments are degrading, as more knowledgeable folk accuse their conversational partners of "begging the question," only to meet the reply, "What's the question I'm begging?" If we don't act now, who knows what depths we could sink to? Language as we know it will collapse! Words and phrases will be open to any gopher bookcase throwing limelight Pepsi yellow harving gadger sastunable turpadoop!

iterated logarithm for explosive Gaussian autoregressive processes,

March 9, 2005

Lolly, Lolly, Lolly

Your Humble Blogger enjoyed Geoffrey Pullum’s Language Log note called Box Spaghetti Straight, in which he notes that “Box is a noun, spaghetti is a noun, straight is an adjective. Together they form an adjective phrase.” I love noun modifiers, particularly strings of them: I try, whenever possible, to refer to the little screws that go into the wall to attach the brackets that hold the rod from which hangs the curtain that encircles the shower as the shower curtain rod bracket screws, although if I’m really trying I can usually comment on either the shower curtain rod bracket screw threads or the shower curtain rod bracket screw heads. But even without stretching, the brackets themselves are properly referred to with the three modifying nouns, which properly identify the things.

But the point, I’m afraid, is not about the shower curtains, or the bracket screws, but about the names for words, and more generally about technical language. You see, Mr. Pullum gets cranky about traditional grammars, which essentially define ‘adjective’ as ‘a word that modifies a noun’, and which therefore would demand that there is somehow a separate definition of ‘box’ as an adjective (meaning, in this case, something like, um, let’s see, it modifies spaghetti, so, um, ‘unprepared, as if still in a box’). Only, as he points out, as an adjective, ‘box’ is missing its proper adjectival forms, for instance, ‘boxer’ or ‘boxest’. This is scarcely dispositive, as perfectly good adjectives such as circular, premium, and plastic lack those forms. Still, he’s quite right that it is obvious that box is not an adjective. And, furthermore, he’s quite right that people who study this sort of thing need to have names for words that specify what the words are and how they are acting. So when Mr. Pullum says “The constituent that comes before a head in a phrase to qualify its meaning has the function modifier”, he’s providing a useful service of its kind. That doesn’t mean that my Gentle Readers need to use his terms, unless they happen to be studying or writing about language.

You see, I’m a big believer in the difference between technical language and non-technical language. There are good reasons to demand that, for instance, someone counting the percentage of words E.B. White uses that are adverbs should know what adverbs are and whether the word ‘spaghetti’ is an adverb in the case where it modifies the adjective ‘straight’. The recipient of that information should also, presumably, know what adverbs are or are not, at least for the purposes of that discussion. Each field should have good solid technical definitions; I’ve been trying to think of a good example, but sadly my rattled brain isn’t coming up with any. I suppose it’s like knowing which fruits are drupes; most of us don’t care, but most of us aren’t botanists. If a botanist refers to drupes, he’d better damn well be sure he knows whether an avocado is a drupe or not.

The problem, though, with those words as they apply to the particular study of grammarians, is that we all talk about language all the time. We can’t help it. And I don’t just mean Jon Stewart claiming that ‘terror’ isn’t a noun, or a journalist accidentally calling ‘humbug’ and ‘claptrap’ adjectives (he meant pejoratives, evidently, a slip of the whatsit), or even the same journalist claiming that ‘drivel’ isn’t a verb. Those are silly errors, common enough and annoying enough, but easily recognized as errors by the people who made them, made through speed and sloppiness. And, after all, how often do my Gentle Readers use the words ‘adverb’ and ‘adjective’ in a day? No, parents of Schoolhouse Rock addicts may be excused from answering; the question was rhetorical.

Where was I? Oh, yes, the deeper problem is that most of us have so little practice in reading critically, we lose the use of many of the tools for critical reading. In particular, it’s difficult to look at a piece of writing and understand why it works, or how it could work better, if we don’t have the vocabulary to talk about it with other people. We have, sadly, learned to avoid the passive voice; if we don’t beat our word processors into submission, they nag us about it. We may learn to recognize the passive voice, either with or without the assistance of Bill Gates. But we don’t learn how to break that rule effectively. That takes not only practice (which we don’t get) but analysis (for which we haven’t the vocabulary)(for). Attention must be paid to such a problem as this. Or must it?

It doesn’t actually matter if we don’t call anything an adverb; we can still modify verbs and adjectives, and indicate manner, place, time, condition, reason, comparison, and contrast, all absolutely free. The word ‘adverb’ is a tool that is useful only in that it helps us talk about the words that modify words (other than nouns, of course). Using that word carefully is certainly a good idea, but it presupposes that we already are using words carefully. The problem, then, is not that we use the word ‘adverb’ loosely and inaccurately; if we used that one term ever so nicely and all the actual adverbs all harum-scarum, nothing would be gained.

Thank you,

March 2, 2005

Around the horn

OK, Your Humble Blogger is taking another five-day (or so) break, which means that it’s time to give up on writing actual essays on any of these:

  1. Trapper John over at The Next Hurrah posts that The NLRB is taking the next obvious step extending the declaration that graduate students who teach aren’t employees. (via Nathan Newman, of course)
  2. Mark Schmitt over at The Decembrist is always worth reading, but in particular, his takes on Social Security and the Constitution in Exile and Taking The Right Too Seriously were on my list of things-to-blog.
  3. Mark Liberman over at the Language Log puts in his two cents about Agrammatic but numerate, which Your Humble Blogger had noted earlier.
  4. Andrew Cline over at Rhetorica has vastly interesting questions in a post about what the delegitimation of journalism means for the blogosphere and the community. Your Humble Blogger has no answers, but meant to write an essay with more questions.
  5. John Scalzi over at Whatever asks in Asimov and the Cleti for scientists or sf writers that could be used now to sell Dells or Macs or whatever. It’s more interesting than that, actually, and he has a fairly serious cultural point. I’m not sure I agree with it, but since I won’t be writing about it, I won’t be able to decide.
  6. Jed over at Lorem Ipsum wants some good news. Flood his inbox.
  7. Your Humble Blogger over at A Position of Ignorance is getting crushed.
  8. Thank you,

November 28, 2004

Around the Horn

I’ve seen a few things recently on-line that are interesting, but about which I don’t have enough to write an essay. So:

  • From the Language Log, Arnold Zwicky writes about Two and Threes, specifically about the figure of speech taken from the real estate joke that the three most important things are location, location and location. The thing I find interesting is that it translates well to other topics now (the three best things about I, Robot were the visuals, the visuals, and the visuals), but only as a referent to the original joke. That is, no-one would use the figure with two things, or with four; it would make just as much sense on its own, but it would be wrong.
  • According to a a New York Times article, not only is the great Henry Selick doing the sea monster for The Life Aquatic (with Steve Zissou) but he and TLA(wSZ) director Wes Anderson are co-directing an animated adaptation of The Fantastic Mr. Fox, by Roald Dahl. Now, I’m not a huge fan of Mr. Anderson; I’ve only seen Rushmore, which I liked, but not enough to seek out The Royal Tenenbaums. But I will seek out Mr. Selick’s stuff wherever it may be. James and the Giant Peach was beyond brilliant, and Monkeybone was brilliant, if not beyond. I vaguely remember enjoying The Nightmare before Christmas a lot, and I keep meaning to see it again. Oh, and I’ve never seen the short Slow Bob in the Lower Dimensions; does anybody have a copy? Are any of the MTV shorts on any of the Selick DVDs? Anyway, I’m guessing Fox will be after Mr. Selick’s next, something called Coraline.
  • Via supergee, a good take on Alexander and gay-ness. The point that calling somebody ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ can be useful but doesn’t encompass the whole realm of attraction is, I think, right on the money. I myself have developed a pash for two men and about a zillion women; I’m scarcely bisexual, but when I call myself straight, am I somehow denying those two crushes? This is all in addition to the point that in Alexander’s culture, a long-term exclusive male friendship that involved kissing, embracing, and sleeping together was considered normal and distinct from family duties such as marriage and procreation (much as in Victorian England, women were expected to have ‘sisterly’ relationships of great physical affection that weren’t considered in any competition with their conjugal duties).
  • In case I never get around to writing about States’ Rights and Federalism, the Chrononautic Log has a provocative take. The issue is complicated; in an email to one Gentle Reader I said, among other things, “Should we allow the states to become farther apart, legally, to have serious border issues, then that's bad for the country as a whole, and bad for blue states as well. It's not really a big deal when the highways have fireworks shops and tax-free liquor stores at the borders, but it's different if it's unlicensed handguns and whorehouses.” I’m still thinking the issue through; it’s always possible I’ll actually write a note on it later.
  • Does anybody have a good book on the Plymouth Pilgrims to recommend? There are a few references in God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible that intrigued me, and also made it clear how little I actually know about them. I’m primarily interested in their politics and theology (to the extent that those are different), rather than a struggles-in-the-new-world book. Why they left, what they believed, what the English and Dutch thought they believed that sort of thing.

    Thank you,

November 22, 2004

Liberals, arts, colleges

I happened to see a New York Times article about two recent studies of the Liberal Professoriate (working paper versions are available of the two, How Politically Diverse Are the Social Sciences and Humanities? Survey Evidence from Six Fields and How Many Democrats per Republican at UC-Berkeley and Stanford? Voter Registration Data Across 23 Academic Departments) shortly after seeing a Language Log piece called The "liberal professoriate"—not so fast. The Language Log article, by the way, is discussing different studies than the Times article; the criticisms of the one can only be applied to the other hypothetically. And I haven’t read the two articles, or examined the stats; it should be assumed, as always, that I’m talking through my hat.

Anyway, I think the whole question is interesting. I am convinced, more or less, that the professoriate (to the extent that it’s remotely appropriate to use such a word) is more ‘liberal’ than the population at large, and it seems from Prof. Klein’s work that faculties may be contain more Democrats by weight even than the surrounding area; even in Berkeley, I don’t think registration is 10 to one Dems over Republicans. I do think that a large portion of the situation is demographic. Colleges and Universities tend to be in urban centers; urban centers tend to be disproportionately liberal. People working as faculty tend to have advanced degrees; the group of people with advanced degrees is disproportionately liberal. Faculty members tend to think of themselves as working for non-profit organizations; such workers are disproportionately liberal. I suspect that many instructors feel that with their skills and talents they could be making more money if they chose to do something else, and that people who feel that way tend to be disproportionately liberal. I suspect that people who wind up in higher education view education as tremendously important; such people tend to be disproportionately liberal. So, profs as a group tend to be urban, post-baccalaureate, non-profit workers who have chosen to do something socially important rather than maximize income and who place a very high value on education; I suspect that any such group would be far more liberal than the general populace. Whether such a group would be eight or nine to one Democrats is certainly doubtful, but is a matter for speculation. At any rate, the mere existence of such a disproportion does not to me automatically imply bias in hiring and promotion. Such bias would be disturbing to me as interfering with the intellectual freedom of individuals, whereas a demographic explanation wouldn’t.

There’s another question, though, which is whether anybody should really be concerned. That is, whether the situation is organic or whether bias is involved, is it a bad situation when the range of political opinion amongst colleagues is so lopsided? Is that bad for collegiality, bad for students, bad for the workplace? Honestly, I don’t know. I do find it troubling, but I don’t know how much so.

As an example, I have a close friend who is a visiting assistant professor at a prestigious university. I don’t believe she has had many political conversations with the dozen or so faculty members in her department; I couldn’t say for sure how many voted Republican in the last election. I do assume that none of them did, which is bad socially, but that assumption is based more or less on the demographic explanation I outlined. More to the point, I don’t think anybody in the department would interfere with her career if it turned out she held views that were unpopular at the university but in the mainstream of the general culture (although I think someone who espoused eugenics or Red Brigade violence, say, would likely have a tough time getting recommendations). Further, although the content of her classes is necessarily affected by the same perceptions of the universe, habits of thought, and hierarchy of values that affect her political judgment, such content is constrained by academic habits. Thus, somebody who would be likely to teach with Queer Theory in mind is also likely to vote against Our Only President, but is also likely to teach about formalism, or New Criticism, or positivism, or whatnot, simply as a matter of academic integrity (which not everybody has, I know, but it seems to me pretty common). Would her department be better if it had more Republicans? Would it be better for students? For her?

My gut instinct is that it would be better, but not enough better to do anything about it. There are far worse things affecting collegiality, groupthink, deliberation, and other aspects of the far-from-ideal faculty; I think party politics is pretty far down the line. But I do understand the concern, and honestly if you ask me next year I may well have a different answer.

Oh, and I do think it’s important, in any story about higher education and party politics, to make it clear that for a generation the Republican party has wanted to decrease federal funding for higher education (and at least recently state funding as well) while the Democratic party has wanted to increase it. If the current conversation is what the Democrats are doing wrong in not persuading more people to vote for their candidate, then perhaps in discussing the political monoculture at universities, part of the conversation should be what the Republicans are doing so terribly wrong there.

Thank you,

October 10, 2004


Over at the Language Log, Geoffrey K. Pullum was quite reasonably ticked at the sign indicating that bike racks are “only on westbound Loop shuttles”; the loop is in fact a loop, and westbound buses go east as well before coming round again. Yes, clockwise and counter-clockwise are more accurate and easier to comprehend.

It’s also true that, as he noted in his follow-up, attempts to define ‘West’ and ‘East’ in a loop are not intuitive, nor is it at all clear which mapping would be meant by a sign describing ‘westbound Loop shuttles’.

However, in today’s note he is reminded of the fact that the clockwise loop is only clockwise from aboveground, while from the underground vantage it is counterclockwise. True, true, and it is, um, anthropocentric to ignore the gophers’ point of view. So. Well done, Geoffrey.

But there is no need to go crazy. Mr. Pullum states that “there is no general way to refer to the direction of travel in a directed loop that does not rely on knowing an orientation relative to the geography of the loop that can be agreed on by all observers.” Um, I think not. Now, I’m no topographer (I did have a sign that said I was, but I think Prof. Klotz took it away from me), so I won’t come up with any good mathematical sense. But surely, one of the shuttles runs on the inside of the loop and one on the outside; I hope they are driving on the right. Inside and outside do not depend on vantage, nor are they ambiguous. They also fit on a sign.

If you aren’t worried about the sign being legible, but are concerned that the lanes might not be consistent, there are other ways, depending on the vantage point of the driver rather than that of the viewer. The driver going in one direction (one would hope) keeps the ‘center’ to his left; the other driver keeps it on her right. If the center has a campanile or other prominent landmark, all the better, as you can call one the tower-on-the-driver’s-left shuttle, but we’re keeping it general, right? You could call one shuttle the left-turning shuttle and the other the right-turning shuttle; even the gophers should understand that the drivers are above ground and right-side-up, and when we talk about the shuttle turning left, we are talking about the driver’s left.

Oddly enough, I can easily imagine a situation where one version of the loop is intuitively called up-hill and the other down-hill, despite their obviously covering the same difference in elevation. If one covers the steepest slope uphill and the other covers it downhill, while meandering on the lower grades in the reverse, then the former one is clearly uphill. Mathematically nonsense, but practically sensible. I am guessing that’s the case in Mr. Pullum’s example, but I’ve never explored the terrain.

Of course a far more reasonable and historic solution is that adhered to by Boston and its environs. First of all, make everybody go to Park Street, even if they are going from Newton to Cambridge. Then, call all trains headed for Park Street ‘inbound’ and all headed away from Park Street ‘outbound’. Sure, everybody will waste lots of time, but we’ll all know where we are. And, as Francis Dahl observed more than fifty years ago, if any stranger on the train ever asks you a question of any kind, you can simply say ‘no, you have to go back to Park Street and change trains’.


October 2, 2004

What's the frequency

While Your Humble Blogger is ruminating about the debate, Gentle Readers may want to peruse this note by Mark Liberman over at the Language Log. He uses an interesting tool to look at the words that one speaker used more than another: oddly enough, Our Only President used the word hope, or hoping, or hopes, or hopeful, a total of 20 times, while Senator Kerry didn’t use the word at all in any of those forms. Does this reveal that the incumbent has a vision for the future whilst the challenger is mired in the past, or that the challenger has a plan for future action whilst the incumbent drifts, by guess and by Gd? You be the judge.


September 23, 2004

Theories and facts, and the French

YHB knows he keeps pointing Gentle Readers towards the same few sites, but this note in the Language Log is quite long and appears on first glance to be devoted to making fun of the French, so even the occasional reader of that fine site may well have missed the interesting point.

Which point is, in fact, lifted from Adam Gopnik. He contrasts facts and theories, comically invoking the famous New Yorker fact-checker to come up with the brilliant idea of a theory-checker: “Just someone to make sure that all your premises agree with your conclusions, that there aren't any obvious errors of logic in your argument, that all your allusions flow together in a coherent stream -- that kind of thing”. There is a response that in a particular academic field, journal referees are more likely to check theories than facts; from what I have seen, this is true of most academic fields. And it isn’t particularly funny, either.

The thing YHB found to chew on in all of that is the sense of disconnect between fact and theory; the idea that for a theoretician facts are only the occasionally nourishing, occasionally annoying bits of grit in the gruel, while for a um, American theories are meringue, and not very nice meringue at that.

Is part of the problem that whatever is described by the word theory is described by the word ‘theory’? I wonder if ‘model’ or ‘principle’ or even ‘framework’ might have led academia in a different path, and led the perception of academia in a different one yet. What Mr. Gopnik describes as the American viewpoint that “the theories they employ change, flexibly, and of necessity, from moment to moment in conversation” depends on thinking of a theory as, to borrow from the American Heritage Dictionary, “An assumption based on limited information or knowledge” or even “A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena”. But that is not what he seems to be saying the French think of when they use the word.

The thing is this: a theory is, I think, a way of stringing facts together to make sense of them. This is as true of semiotic theory as it is of quantum theory. A theory, once adopted, changes the whole universe I perceive—it defines the universe. My religious belief is a theory. My political beliefs are theories. I happen to like them, and furthermore, I think that some of my theories make sense, and not only make sense of the facts I perceive, but of those you do as well. I suspect you think the same of yours, whether they are like mine or not.

You know the old science-fiction exposition mainstay of describing seemingly solid objects as consisting mostly of empty space? The atoms are far apart; the molecules are far apart; the structure holds them in place and gives them the sense of solidity. Facts are the molecules of this analogy; theories the structure. If you hadn’t guessed.