My country, your country

Things are more complicated than they used to be.

It used to be that conservatives would advocate for a return to some idyllic, unfettered free society, unburdened by excessive constraints of what they called a “nanny state.”  Liberals would then argue that there never was such a society, at least not in the US, and what was derided as the nanny state was simply a means of redress for the injustices suffered by less fortunate citizens.

Now, Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party has systematically destroyed any vestiges of conservative ideology among the party faithful in favor of the kind of personality cult we used to cluck at in other places.  There’s no longer even any serious attempt at lip service to these values.  What we get instead is a naked power grab, no holds barred.

Ironically, this finally allows us to resolve the classic debate between liberals and conservatives.  We now have to concede that the Republican party is indeed trying to restore the country to some previous state that the country was actually in.  They want to go back to the 1950s.

For those of you too young to remember that time, let me clarify things.  It was a time when African Americans were still occasionally being lynched with impunity, when police would routinely beat confessions out of the usual suspects whenever it was expedient, when anyone even suspected of communist sympathies was blacklisted from desirable jobs, when the term “domestic violence” didn’t exist and it was considered a man’s prerogative to beat his wife and children, when “no” was seriously thought to mean “yes,” and when it was everybody’s business to enforce conformity.  Women were expected to stay home and cook, and if they were allowed to work at all, it was at a fraction of the salaries of equivalent jobs for men.  LGBTQ? Forget it. It was open season on people like you.

And this wasn’t the worst of our history.  From the infamous Alien and Sedition Act to the Jim Crow laws, we have been a country of, at best, enablers, and at worst, criminals.

Trump’s ideals are no foreign intrusion, friends.  They are a dream of his youth, the good old days in the US.  You can see it through the clenched teeth of his supporters.  At least no one’s pretending any more; what you see is what you get.

Happy Fourth.

My dear young people

It seems we Boomers will most likely be the last generation to live out their lives in a relatively comfortable habitat.

Nothing personal. We did it all for greed and convenience. Mostly convenience; nothing galls us more than having to move when we’ve settled in. Truth to tell, we didn’t even think very much about the consequences, except now, toward the end, when it’s no doubt too late. Even now, we expend far more of our energy shifting the blame to someone else than trying to fix things.

But don’t give us all the credit; we didn’t pull this off on our own. To paraphrase Isaac Newton, if we have destroyed more than others, it was only because we were standing on the shoulders of past generations. Even the earliest farmers, whom we find so idyllic in our post-modern romanticism, advanced by slash-and-burn, with a good dash of never-look-back thrown in at the end. Where humanity is concerned, it seems a kind of fever descends upon us at the first glint of personal advantage. Nothing can stop us. Not empathy, not self-interest, not religion or science. We easily slip in and out of all those noble sentiments we build our castles on.

On second thought, that’s not fair. We do not cast aside our values. We twist them around until they are only recognizable to ourselves, until they not only do not stand in the way of our acquisitiveness, but outright demand it.

You are understandably upset. We’re like the bigger kids who stole your lunch, then ate it right in front of you while your stomach growled. I do see that. But what you don’t understand is that you would have done the same, because you are made of us, you are us, spit and image. In fact, in the coming crisis, you will do the same. It has already begun. Our current president, Donald Trump, is, I grudgingly confess, one of us, but look at those faces at his hate fests; people of all generations are there, yours included. Their faces reflect the whole range of emotions from greed to anger to fear and back again.  They’re like a mighty mirror, too bright to look at for long, too huge to ignore.

In the end, though, it comes down to this. We have made a proper hash of things, as blind as God himself to the consequences.

We are so sorry. But we have to go now. There’s money to be made of the carnage.

Plain English

Why can’t people just say things in plain English?

I’m glad you asked, because there are several good reasons, not the least of which is that no English sentence is equally plain to all native speakers of English.  This is because of the wide diversity of regional and cultural dialects in the language, and the equally diverse personal experiences that make up our knowledge of the world.  Throw in the typical ambiguity inherent in popular definitions and usages of English words, and you are already at a disadvantage before you even get started.

But even beyond the vagaries of the language itself, there are very good reasons to state things in ways which might leave the average person exasperated.  The most obvious example is legal language, which also happens to be the most often disparaged.  This is a context in which ambiguity can cause real and serious problems. The solution is carefully and laboriously defined terms which evolved through a long process of eliminating alternative meanings. Obviously, this sort of thing can be used to confuse as well as to enlighten, but it’s main goal is to forestall as many misinterpretations as possible.

There are plenty of examples of obfuscation without resort to fancy language, by the way.  I need only point to the President Who Shall Not Be Named.  As a matter of fact, it is exactly his kind on confusion that legal jargon attempts to avoid.

Or, put another way, jargon is nothing more than saying exactly what you want to say, and only exactly what you want to say.


Disclosure:  I have no tattoos.  Not one. Not even a discreet mumbling insect somewhere only cognoscenti would look.  I do have some varicose veins on my legs which, if you squint, can be mistaken for tattoos.  I also have a couple of holes in  one earlobe, but that’s it as far as bod-mod is concerned.  Only removable stuff, and not much of it.

So, naturally, I’m well qualified to write about tattoos.

I came up in a time when they were the sole prerogative of sailors, ex-marines, carnies, and other folk with a propensity to drunkenness in unusual places and a propensity to accept dares as solemn challenges.  And, now that I think of it, a place to go when paychecks and wild urges were completely spent, until next time around the block.  Themes were limited: Mom, Semper Fi, pierced hearts inscribed with ‘[your name here] Forever,’ and a handful of dragons and dripping daggers.  There were prison tats, of course, but those mostly looked like some middle schoolers’ cribbed notes for an upcoming exam.

They remained daring for years, until  — when, the 90s?  Now they’re so common it’s unusual to see bare skin younger than 60.  And I mean common: pets, cartoon characters, bible verses.  It’s like the middle schoolers replaced their crib sheets with the kind of doodles that used to be reserved for textbooks.

Now and then you see a kanji character, an inscription in Sanskrit, or some homage to Maori body art, makes no difference which, since the bearers seldom understand them, and the artists who ink them even less often.  You know those tech instructions in poorly translated, fractured English that everyone laughs at?  How many tattoos in exotic scripts evoke the same kind of reaction in people who can read them?

In any case, tat madness coupled with the current penchant for extremes has come to the point where it is sometimes hard to tell if someone is wearing a shirt.  We’ve come a long way since Ray Bradbury’s classic book of short stories, The Illustrated Man, in which tattoos covering the entire body were used as a device to connect the stories.  In 1951, when the book was published, everyone easily bought into the notion that the man was not only unusual, but possibly a dangerous freak.  He wouldn’t even be considered extreme now.

Are there “good” tattoos?  Of course there are, dear.  Only, it’s not easy to tell them from bad ones.  Some people will tell you all tattoos are good by default, but that argument would be … tatological.

Like all fashions, this one, too, will pass.  Eventually, it will once again be a trait of the very old or very bold.  One day, your kids will laugh at all the silly stuff you had permanently affixed to your body.

If they can see past the folds and creases.

Occam’s bludgeon

I’ve been reading a lot lately on the nature of time and space from the perspective of physics, and I cannot help thinking of the drunk looking for his car keys under a streetlamp. Asked by a passerby where he last saw them, he replies, “In that dark alley.”

“Really?” asks the bystander. “Then why are you looking here?”

“Because the light’s better!”

To a physicist, mathematics is the light. It is the hammer for which all problems resemble a nail. It is the hail and farewell of a journey not taken.

Don’t get me wrong, I am fully aware and appreciative of the power of mathematics.  Without it, I couldn’t be “writing” this post — tapping on plastic bumps, confident that not only will the resultant deviations of light on an entirely separate slab in front of me configure themselves to reflect my thoughts, but also send mysterious invisible waves into the night so that you can see those same squiggles on your slab.  But the formulas that describe these processes are not identical to the processes themselves, as phenomena in the real world.  They are models, or

… task-driven, purposeful simplification[s] and abstraction[s] of a perception of reality … [emphasis mine]

In other words, take out all the messy, inconvenient bits and see if you can’t come up with something useful.  There have been powerful models of reality throughout history that have enabled marvelous results, and that we have since decided are inaccurate.  I need only mention shamanism and acupuncture.  And even physicists, despite all their rhapsodizing about mathematics, still can’t make all their theories play well with each other without imaginative gymnastics.

Mathematical models are by far the most universal and fruitful of these, but are they real, in the sense that the universe works that way a priori?  Not according to Raymond Tallis:

The mathematics of light does not get anywhere near the experience of yellow, nor does the mathematical description of patterns of nerve impulses reach pain itself. This is sometimes seen as evidence that neither the colour nor the pain are really real – although it might be difficult to sell this claim to the man looking at a daffodil or a woman with toothache.

I have no quibble with the idea that models, mathematical or otherwise, are indispensable for our understanding of the real world, but physicists have been insisting that they are the real world.  They cite Occam’s Razor, the axiom that the simplest explanation is always not only the most likely to be true, but is actually true.

Ironically, William of Occam, the late medieval monk for whom this principle is named, did not believe in the existence of universal laws of nature.  Humans, he thought, had made them all up for convenience.

Go figure.


In defense of second place

His nickname was Beta, because he wasn’t the best at anything, but he was just under No. 1 in a lot of things ordinary people thought were unrelated.

He was born in 276 BCE in Cyrene in modern-day Libya and led a life of intellectual pursuit and contemplation, culminating in being named chief librarian at the famous Library of Alexandria in Egypt.

Before that, he was a widely read poet and historian.  His list of achievements while at Alexandria was impressive, to say the least.  Among them are:

  • Wrote  a three volume work in which he described in detail all of the known world, and in the process invented geography, which, not surprisingly, was the title of the work.
  • Calculated the circumference of the sun, and its distance from the earth.
  • Did the same for the moon.
  • Not to mention the circumference of the earth while he was at it, which, contrary to what you may hear on Columbus Day, he knew was roughly spherical.
  • Devised a method of finding prime numbers.

There are more achievements, but since we’re talking about second best, it seems inappropriate to continue.

The man whose very nickname was “second place” was Eratosthenes of Cyrene who lived from 276 bce to 195 bce.

By today’s ludicrous number-one-or-nothing standards, he was a miserable failure.

Online social media: Who we would like to think we are

Open Facebook these days, and what you see is a lot of urging to quit Facebook, due to recent revelations about its relationship with the Cambridge Analytical kerfuffle.  Apart from the irony (surely intended) of posting the call to arms on Facebook itself, I think it’s a dubious response to a very real dilemma: how to avoid being manipulated by social media.

A recent New York Times op-ed by Michael J. Socolow gives some sound practical advice on the subject, but his view of the real problem is a near miss:

… Cambridge Analytica is the symptom, not the disease. The larger problem is that unpleasant and frustrating information — no matter how accurate — is actively hidden from you to maximize your social media engagement.

We — humans, that is — have always had difficulty facing unpleasant and frustrating information, especially when it conflicts with our world view; that’s highly unlikely to change.  There are several recent studies that suggest that, in fact, being confronted with rational arguments against your world view can even strengthen your resolve.  It becomes a test of loyalty, not a rational decision.  So, what to do?

Get a room, as they say.  For better or worse, we are often much more flexible in our positions, even ones we hold dear, when no one is watching.  It’s the public gaze that stiffens our backs.  That’s why sensitive negotiations are better conducted in secret until at least a tentative agreement is reached.  It’s also why our outrage at secret government hearings is misplaced, especially in these bellicose times.  Transparency is good, by all means, but after the fact, not during.  I suspect this effect is a genetic response to the social nature of humans as a species; what we sacrifice in accuracy we gain in solidarity.  It’s a trade-off, of course.

The problem facing us now is that in social media, the boundaries between public and private are hazy, if not absent.  It feels private to post something on Facebook.  You are usually alone when you do it, sitting at your computer, in control.  No surprise that it comes as a shock when someone (out of nowhere, you think) strongly disagrees.  In front of that huge list of friends you’ve accumulated.

When you read something on Facebook, on the other hand, it feels public.  As such, it invites comment, even disagreeable comment.

Of course, anything you put online is public, no matter how it feels at the time.  Keeping that in mind is a big step toward curbing emotional responses, and therefore mitigating the natural tendency to accept what supports our existing beliefs, and reject everything else.  Post in public, react in private.

Having said all that, Socolow’s point about the internet’s tendency to ghettoize information is real.  You don’t even have to be on social media as such.

You can do a little experiment.  Find a friend, preferably someone you tend to disagree with a lot, and sit side by side, and google the same words, each on your own computer.  Then compare the results.

Quitting Facebook will make you feel virtuous, but not much else.  Better to stay and apply pressure to change the algorithm.