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.

Tats

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.