Wednesday, December 28, 2016

I Don't Know What to Say

I have come to terms with the fact that some people will always believe it is "I could care less", and even make up paper thin -- and usually nonsensical -- arguments to justify this mistake. I even manage to control myself and not mock those who write "rediculous"  - -though every so often I do ask if the "redicule" people, I just can't help it. I can even manage to ignore -- with great effort -- those who "mix and mash" or believe it "takes two to tangle". But now I am beginning to wonder if my efforts at reluctant tolerance don't just inspire even more idiocy.

Here are a few quotes I discovered while sampling at random from IMDB comments:

"has it down pack"
"fall by the waste side"
"lose her innocents"

Now, obviously, these are not characteristic of everyone who writes on the site, but sadly, they seem to be the rule rather than the exception. Nor can they be excused by youth, inexperience, or even foreigners learning cliches phonetically. No, these are grown, mature native speakers, who still manage to completely mangle the language.

And thus, I have decided to rescind my efforts at tolerance. I am, at heart, a spelling and grammar Nazi anyway (despite my frequent typos, and frequent sentence fragments -- at least I know it is wrong). And thus I am returning to my argument in "The Irony of Lax Internet Standards" and elsewhere. Rules exist for a reason, we need them to make sure our messages are communicated clearly. Just to take one example, if you "could care less", does it mean you do still care? Or that you mangled an old cliche? If you knew how the cliche was used, and used it properly, we would know which you meant As it is, I can't tell if you have unplumbed depths of apathy or simply sloppy writing habits.

Nor is it an excuse that it is "just the internet" and "an informal place". Precision is even more important with strangers. Friends know you well enough to guess at your meaning and intentions, strangers do not. And, on the internet, there are two other factors arguing for precision. First, without nonverbal cues, the words are all we have, and thus the meaning must be absolutely clear. Second, with users coming from all over the world, many with limited comprehension of English, it is vitally important to make our meaning clear. Writing "informally" and misusing words is more damaging on the internet, not less.

Thus, I am once again throwing down the gauntlet and refusing to allow such atrocities to pass unchallenged. It may make me a "Nazi", but at least I will be a Nazi who is easily understood.

POSTSCRIPT

We need to be careful in our arguments, however. I was once criticized for "not knowing" a cliche. I was arguing with someone who I believed was making absurdly inaccurate caricatures of my arguments, and I told him I would not longer "bother tilting at straw men". He informed me I was wrong, and it was "tilting at windmills". I explained I was well aware of the common cliche, and its origins, but I was simply applying it in a new context, invoking an image of a man jousting with figures of straw. His lack of reaction made it clear why he had criticized my words, he had no idea what "tilting" meant, and imagined its only use was in this single formula. So, it may be a good idea, before we criticize, if we are certain we understand what cliches mean, and where they originate. (If people understood the simple meaning of "I could not care less", for example, they would not try to justify the improper version gaining currency at such an alarming rate. This is also why we so often see "free rein" written as "free reign", as the writers fail to understand the equestrian origin of the cliche and imagine it has something to do with rulership.)

POSTSCRIPT II

I am trying to find a term for a particularly unusual mistake I found in one of these reviews. It is not precisely a mixed metaphor, as the terms actually relate quite well. The problem is, if we take the metaphorical terms literally, they make nonsense of the argument. In other words, the metaphor is getting in the way of the meaning. In this case, the phrase is "...keep the script from sinking due to its lack of depth." Now, on the surface, I suppose it is a fine sentence, but since "sinking" and "depth" are both metaphors (though we use "depth" so often in this sense we often forget it is metaphorical), and "sinking" implies an excess, not lack, of "depth", this metaphor actually seems to be arguing the complete opposite of what the sentence intends. Is there a proper term for this? It is not a mixed metaphor, but rather a metaphor getting in its own way, a metaphor stumbling over its own toes, something along those lines. But for the life of me I can't think of a proper term for it.


Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Sex and Gender

I know seeing this title, people are probably expecting some conservative rant against all the many sexual identities, but I plan to go against the grain and instead rant a little bit about language*.

Way back at the dawn of time -- actually, probably in the era before the second World War and maybe a bit after -- the word "sex" referred to the division of humans and other living things into male and female, while "gender" was used to describe the linguistic practice of dividing words into masculine, feminine and, sometimes, neuter. "Gender" did not apply to living things in any sense other than a linguistic one.

Along come the social sciences, and the academic tendency to coin copious jargon. The field of sociology, and related disciplines, need a way to describe the roles adopted by one sex or the other, even when those roles might be displayed by members of a sex not traditionally associated with them. (Eg. Men wearing clothing traditionally considered female, or women engaging in hunting or fighting, traditionally male roles.)  As is often the case, this new area of investigation was at first a bit chaotic, with some using the bland old terminology of "sex roles" and "sexual identity" and such, while others tried to coin new terms to describe these dull old concepts. At length, through whatever process decides such things, the profession -- and allied fields such as psychology -- settled on the use of the term "gender".

In this context, it is usually stated that "gender" is not simply a synonym for "sex", rather it is a specific and very precise term, describing those elements of sex -- or sexual identity -- unrelated to physical aspects of human sexuality. In short, it should be used to describe the societal, malleable aspects of one's sexual appearance and behavior. Sex organs, facial hair and those sort of things are still sexual aspects, not gender**, while clothing, affectations, profession choice and so on, those are aspects of gender.

Now, I am not a great fan of this terminology, as it is basically a needless neologism, or, rather needless redefinition of an existing word. We could do perfectly well discussion "societal aspects of sexuality" rather than "gender roles", but, much as I dislike it, it is not so bad as to be unacceptable. It is somewhat pointless, and a bit confusing since there is a bit of overlap with the linguistic use, but it is not one of those word choices that are so confusing I argue that they should be abandoned.

No, what bothers me about the term is, once it was adopted as this precise bit of jargon, the general public adopted it, but forgot the technical meaning. And so, now we have "gender" being used as a synonym for "sex", and we hear about "societal gender roles" or "non-physical aspects of gender", which are redundant at the very least, if we were to use the formal definition.

And that is my objection to gender, not that the new definition was pointless, but rather, that as a result, we are now saddled with the public tendency to use "gender" as nothing but another word for "sex", meaning we now have twice as many words, but still need to use special modifiers to make clear our meaning. In a way, it reminds me of the war against the word "actress" (cf "A Question About Language"), which led to the silliness of advertising for "female actors", where once one simple word would do. And we are in the same place now with "gender", having popularly made it mean nothing more than sex, we now have to use all those modifiers that "gender" was intended to replace.

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* Actually, for me it is hardly out of character, given my numerous spelling and grammar Nazi posts. See "The Most Unnecessary Neologism", "Biggest Spelling Nazi Laugh of the Day", "Quick Grammar Nazi Note", "Return of the Grammar Nazi: Faux Latin Plurals", "Always Something Worse", "Crimes Against Language and Logic", "Try and Listen to the Grammar Nazi", "A Brief Visit From the Grammar Nazi", "Beyond Grammar and Spelling", "The Grammar Nazi Versus George Lucas", "Ye Olde Grammar Nazi", "Grammar Nazi Comment on Greco-Latin Words", "Why Spelling Matters, One More Time", "The Irony of Lax Internet Standards", "Short Grammar Nazi Post" and "The Spelling Nazi Begs to Differ".

** Well, in a way, modern science has made this not quite true. Thanks to hormone treatments and surgery, we can now manipulate the physical aspects of sex, as well as societal. Thus sex is more fluid than it once was.

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POSTSCRIPT

There is one other aspect of "gender" that has made this term more trouble than it is worth. Since "gender" is taken to be a social construct, people feel content to invent many, many new "genders", adding asexual, transgender and more and more. It seems every minute shading of attitude toward sexual roles is now dignified with being declared an entirely new "gender". This is absurd. One can have a nonstandard attitude toward sexual roles without being a whole new sex or gender. Are we eventually going to get to the point where we each are a sui generis gender? "What gender are you?" "Tom." "Oh, I am Stacey gendered." I am happy people are willing to feel comfortable with their own perspectives, but that does not mean we have to elevate every minor shading of perspective into a "gender". (It reminds me of every minor ethnic group fighting to have its dialect declared a "language". At some point, trying to lend people "dignity" and "worth" can lead to absurd results)


Sunday, December 25, 2016

Heroes

In the past, I pointed out that most on the left joined, at least in past, out of a juvenile desire to be part of a "heroic struggle"*, that the left appeals especially to the young as it gives young people what they crave, the ability to be part of some melodramatic, "big", "important" struggle, to "make a difference" and so on. And, in general, those conservatives I know who read my arguments have agreed, seeing the immaturity in the need to be part of some titanic struggle, rather than simply being part of the "dull and boring" day to day life of productive work and family life.

The problem with this is that the right sometimes does the same. Where the left devalues everyday life by venerating those who struggle to overturn the way things are, the right has adopted a more "establishment", but every bit as melodramatic, view. For the right, the adoration is not for rebels, but rather for soldiers and police. In other words, they decided to reserve hero status for those who risk life and limb.

Now, I understand, in part this is a reaction to the left's tendency to denigrate both groups, and also because, these people really do risk life and limb, but still, if we look at it with objectivity, there is some of the same immaturity in the right's choice as the left's.

I am not trying to take away from the jobs done by soldiers and police (my father was a police officer, and most of my relatives have served in the military, some for their entire lives). They do important work. But there is something juvenile in holding forth as heroic and valuable only those who engage in life and death struggles, in praising only those who engage in an obvious struggle. In a way, it is simply the flip side of the left's veneration of the rebel**.

I would argue, those who deserve praise most of all are those who make our life possible, and as comfortable as it is. I mean by this, those who hold down a daily job, as well as those who found and run the businesses, who create the inventions and sell the products. In short, pretty much all those who do their part to keep things running. And yes, this includes police and soldiers, who play an important part, but not the only one.

This is not meant to denigrate soldiers or police, I believe both play an important role. Rather, I am trying to point out the role played by everyone else, a role the right tends to forget when praising only those engaged in some obvious and dramatic struggle. Yes, without police and soldiers, life would fall apart. But, I am willing to wager, if every store closed tomorrow, farms stopped growing and factories producing, society would collapse even more rapidly. Domestic criminals, and foreign aggressors, both can cause serious problems, but it would take time, much more time than would be required for the shut down of our economy to begin taking lives.

And thus, I think when we on the right are handing out laurels, it may be useful for us, at least sometimes, to stop praising exclusively the soldiers and police (and for a moment after 9/11, the "first responders"***), and maybe give a little praise to everyone else, all those engaged in running our massive, complex economy.

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* See "The Path of Least Resistance", "Juvenile Intellectuals", "Deadly Cynicism", "Self-Serving Cynicism and Our Cultural Immaturity", "O Tempora! O Mores!, or, The High Cost of Supposed Freedom", "An Immature Society", "Trophy Spouses", "Cranky Old Man?", "Pushing the Envelope", "Look Out It's the End Times!", "Life Is Not Fair - And Trying To Make It So Makes Things Worse", "Prelude to a Future Essay on Heroic Ethics and Romanticism", "The Threat of Perfection", "Utopianism and Disaster", "All Life in a Day, or, How Our Mistaken View of History Distorts Our Understanding of Events" and "Catastrophic Thinking, The Political, Economic and Social Impact of Seeing History in the Superlative".

** In a way, it is akin to the habit of the very young to think only of very visible figures who engage in obvious conflicts, soldiers, police, firemen and athletes. The very young cannot see anything interesting in the accountant or the physicist, and so he does not take an interest in them. Similarly, because there is no obvious struggle, or single dramatic achievement in accounting or on the assembly line, the right tends to forget the crucial role they play in our society.

*** Odd how this list so often sounds like a very young child's list of "what do you want to be when you grow up?"

Monday, December 19, 2016

In Defense of Democracy

Ever since Trump was elected, I have heard quite a few comments upon the shortcomings of democracy1. Not that it is anything new -- well, except that criticism is coming from both sides of the aisle -- whenever a new president is elected, the opposite side tends to portray the election as a "failure of democracy" or a sign of "the low level of public intelligence" and such. Oddly, even such staunch defenders of the electoral college and popular vote as the ardent conservative wing tends to come down on the anti-democracy side, at least in terms of rhetoric, when the public elects some very liberal candidate.

Then again, I suppose there is some unique elements to the recent comments, since the Trump election is not just criticized because it shows the public is foolishly committed to "the wrong side", but rather, both conservatives2 and liberals are taking the election to show that the people are prone to electing stupid representative, or perhaps that name recognition and fame matter more than competence. And on this basis, it seems even more people than usual are disillusioned with popular government. Not that they are suggesting we eliminate elections3, rather they seem to be at their wits' end, as they still believe democratic systems to be the best possible, but the outcomes are forcing them to question that belief.

I would argue that the Trump election, much as it disappoints me, is a sign the system works, as are the wins of all the past presidents. While I was not happy about Trump, nor about Obama, both definitely represent the will of a large voting block, a voting block which could have created considerable turmoil if it felt itself permanently disenfranchised. And that is the purpose, the sole purpose, of popular government. It is not guaranteed to select the best, despite claims to the contrary. (Cf "Misunderstanding Democracy") Even over time it can produce progressively worse results, there is no promise things will move from bad to better. All popular government does is promise those who live under that government that their voice will be heard, and if enough agree with a given position, at some point they may come into power. Thus, if there is a popular vote in favor of someone we think stupid, that simply means those who would riot in favor of a stupid ruler without popular government are now content, as their man has been placed in office.

There are three other simple facts we need to understand. First, democracy is imperfect. But that is not as important as some think, mainly because of the second fact, that being that there are no perfect systems, all possible forms of government are imperfect.  Which leads to the third fact, that, among the imperfect forms of government, popular election is probably the best possibility. I will grant, popular election is severely flawed, and limited. Most problems arise from the simple fact that the results depend on the public. if the public is strongly in favor of limited government, and understands the principles of economics and government, then results will be generally good. On the other hand, a foolish or impulsive public, ignorant of proper economics or following a number of misguided beliefs will produce disastrous results. On the other hand, other systems can produce bad outcomes every bit as poor, depending on who rules, and does not allow for the stability of democracy, or give the possibility of replacing a bad ruler with such ease. Thus, popular government, weak as it is, is still the best of all the flawed possibilities.

Which brings me to my final point. For all the talk of the flaws of popular government, the tendency to  elect bad rulers periodically, the tendency for ideology to swing like a pendulum from side to side over time, and so on, it is not the system itself which is to blame, but rather the people4. We do not need a new system, we do not need to "fix" or "adjust" popular government, manipulating the electoral college is not necessary, term limits are no benefit5, my suggestions to achieve federalism are not necessary (Cf "Minimal Reforms"), even my own proposal to modify the primaries -- though I think it might even out some of the worst excesses -- is not needed either (cf "Fixing the Primaries"). What we need to do is to educate citizens, to teach them the value of small government, of predictability, of limited power and the true principle of economics and politics. Until we do so, no system will save us, and once we do, the system will not matter very much. Our problem, in short, is not that we have a flawed system -- every system is flawed to some degree -- but that our fellow citizens are not aware of many important principles. That is where we should direct our efforts.

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1. I am aware many argue "the US is not a Democracy", arguing we are a republic, not a democracy. However, even the founders often used "democracy" to describe our state, distinguishing between "pure democracy" (what modern political science would call "direct democracy") and "democracy" in general, as a term for all popular government, including direct "pure" democracy, as well as indirect democratic systems, such as our republic. Thus, it is not incorrect to call our government a democracy, if used in the sense of "one of many forms of government where representatives are selected by popular vote." (Cf "No More!".)

2. Just to be clear for those who have not read my posts before, Trump is NOT a conservative. He is a populist, with some conservative and (usually more) liberal ideas, but he has no controlling principles, no theoretic understanding of government, nor even consistent principles, apparently driven by nothing but populist dedication to popular whim, combined with his belief that his ever whim or musing is utterly brilliant insight to be followed immediately. This does not make a conservative, but rather a position somewhere between populist demagogue and despot. (See "The Trump Plan", "The Problem With the Big Tent", "What Does Not Kill You...", "Not Sour Grapes, Rather a Matter of Principle","A Trump Analogy","Look Out It's the End Times!", "Misunderstanding Conservatives", "The Trouble With Tough Talk", "Odds and Ends Concerning Trump", "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" and "Trump, Obama, Cults and Authoritarianism".)

3. As usual, many, especially on the left, are critical of the electoral college, calling it -- as they seem to do every presidential election -- an "anachronism", and suggesting it be replaced with the popular vote. (See "Does Your Vote Count?".)

4. See "The Single Greatest Weakness", "Don't Blame the Politicians", "Common Sense,Philosopher Kings, Arbitrary Law and Dictatorship", "I Am Going to Say Something that Doesn't Make Sense", "Follow Up to "The Single Greatest Weakness"", "Antibiotics, Automobiles and the Free Market", "The Futility of Blame", "Misguided, Deceptive or Evil?", "Tyranny Without Tyrants", "Three Versions of Evil and the Confusion They Cause" and "Impractical Pragmatists".

5. See  "Why Term Limits Will Fail (And Should)", "The Double Edged Sword of Term Limits", "The Problem of Professional Politicians, or, The Impossibility of a True "Ousider" Candidate", "Critique of a Congressional Reform", "The Presumption of Dishonesty" and "Vote Them Out".


Wednesday, December 14, 2016

It Never Fails, or, P.T. Barnum Was Right

I should never underestimate how foolish people can be. In my essay "Backwards Thinking and the Number of the Beast", I wrote about the silly theory that the number of the best, 666 (or sometimes 661), was some sort of hidden message pointing to Nero as the Beast. I argued quite strongly that the theory made no sense, that it misused gematria and was just generally a foolish theory.

In the course of discussing this theory, I mentioned Anthony Burgess' book The Kingdom of the Wicked, where Burgess had Roman era Christians explaining the number of the beast, DCLXVI in Roman numerals, as an acrostic for the message "domitianus caesar legatos xti violenter interfecit", meaning "Domitian Caesar is violently slaying the legates of Christ". However, I made clear in my discussion that I was certain Burgess meant it as a jest, as it was, first of all, improbable Latin -- using the X for chi, rather than writing Christi -- and second, since the Revelation was written in Greek, not Latin, using Roman numerals seemed just plain ludicrous. Burgess was clever enough to know this, and thus I was sure he meant it in jest, not as a serious proposition.

But, never assume anything is too ludicrous for the internet. After all, we have people arguing for legionnaires playing hopscotch ("The Power of Myth on the Internet", "Roman Legions, Hopscotch, Killer Gays, 'Got AIDS Yet', WMDs and a 'Damn Piece of Paper'"), real ships of fools sailing through the seas of the middle ages ("Why People Don't Take Academics Seriously"), the beepocalypse than never was ("The Beepocalypse that Never Was - CCD, DDT, Alar, Saccharine, GMOs, Gamma Ray Bursts and other Catstrophes that Weren't or Won't Be"), towering Napoleons ("The Problem with Internet Revisionism") and the belief "gallic" has no relation to "Gaul" ("Grind Those Axes, Wiki Editors!") among other far fetched beliefs, so I should not be surprised to find that, as absurd as this explanation is, someone would reproduce it in all seriousness as a possible explanation of the number of the beast.

Now, it does appear this absurdity actually does have some "academic" backing, in the form of the support of Robert Graves*. However, even a little thought should show that it is quite improbable that a Greek author would take a Roman acrostic and then translate it into Greek numbers, thus losing all possibility of anyone figuring out its meaning. But common sense and the internet are often strangers, and so I found countless sites promoting this absurd claim.

As I say in the title, though I often thought the man far too cynical, the more I read on the internet, the more I come to realize, Barnum was onto something.

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* It is possible Burgess actually lifted this from Graves, as he did tend to draw on a wide range of sources, and Graves would hardly be unknown to him. Though even if he did, I have a feeling Burgess was not taking it all that seriously, even if it is not presented as an obvious joke. If you doubt his ability to write with tongue firmly in cheek, while appearing to be dead serious, read the introduction to End of the World News, supposedly written by the executor of his literary estate. (Needless to say, he was quite alive at the time of its writing.)